r-lee-ermey1You’re too f-ing polite, is what it boils down to.

I know because my copy drafts some­times suf­fer from the same problem.

As a reac­tion against the hard-sell, yellow-highlighter copy abhorred by most Web 2.0 types, we some­times adopt an “it’s either demon­stra­ble in no-big-deal lan­guage, or it’s not worth sell­ing” atti­tude.

And that’s fine if you’ve got a freemium pric­ing model and are sell­ing peo­ple on some­thing obvi­ously super-cool like Screenr. In that case, just demon­strat­ing the prod­uct in the video is enough.

But what hap­pens when demon­stra­tion isn’t so easy?  Does your aver­sion to hype keep you from writ­ing effec­tive “this is impor­tant, darn it” copy?

What hap­pens when the prod­uct is life chang­ing or exactly what the prospect needs and you have to moti­vate the prospect with the image of a future state of hap­pi­ness? Or through the men­tal image of where they’re cur­rently head­ing if they don’t take action?  Could the ghosts of Christ­mas Past, Present, and Future have per­suaded with a gen­teel approach, or did con­fronting Scrooge require more drama than that?

The Dif­fer­ence Between Hype and Gen­uinely Pas­sion­ate Copy

So am I advo­cat­ing hype?  No.  The dif­fer­ence between the sort of chest-thumping copy that you should avoid and the too-important-to-be-polite (TITBP) copy radi­ates from the emo­tions behind it.  What pas­sion pow­ers the copy and what’s the emo­tional stance toward the reader?

  • Pow­ered by pride and a we-we focus, chest-thumbing copy pre­sumes to win the girl prospect over through sheer self-confidence and smooth lines.
  • Pow­ered by love/concern/anger-at-the-stupidity-of others/raw pas­sion, the too-important-to-be-polite copy is on a mis­sion to burst into the restau­rant and say the scary truth no mat­ter what, even if it means los­ing the girl prospect (or at least the wrong prospect).

In other words, too-important-to-be-polite copy over­comes the author’s fear of mak­ing a scene. To quote Charles Bax­ter in The Art of Sub­text:

If good man­ners com­prise the code of behav­ior that ren­ders our behav­ior accept­able and thus almost invis­i­ble in  polite soci­ety, bad man­ners make us vis­i­ble, for good or ill. We become a spec­ta­cle. Bad man­ners put us on a stage, and a stage, as every writer knows, is what is required for dra­matic force.

…we cre­ate a scene when we forcibly illus­trate our need to be vis­i­ble to oth­ers, often in the ser­vice of a wish or demand we wish to impose. Cre­at­ing a scene is thus the stag­ing of a desire.”

If the desire you are stag­ing is sim­ple greed, then your bad behav­ior will not only be impo­lite, but gen­uinely unpleas­ant, in the worst of the yellow-highlighter tradition.

But if the desire you stage is to reach your real audi­ence and to improve their life with your prod­uct or ser­vice, or to keep them from mak­ing a stu­pid mis­take — well, the right audi­ence will respond to your pas­sion by pulling out their credit cards.

A Per­fect Exam­ple of Mak­ing A Scene

This week’s Mon­day Morn­ing Memo is a per­fect exam­ple of TITBP copy.  The memo retains the out­line of a low-key presentation:

  1. here’s the prob­lem the course is addressing,
  2. here’s who’ll come teach it and why you’ll want to hear what they have to say, and
  3. here’s why you’ll want to reg­is­ter early

But quite apart from the low-key tone of the rest of the Memo, the high­lighted para­graphs are pas­sion­ately and force­fully worded. The author clearly believes it’s in your best inter­est to attend and he’s not afraid to cre­ate a scene in order to con­vey that — even if the “scene” is hypo­thet­i­cal and staged only in your mind’s eye:

If you’re a mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sional who believes you’re far too savvy to be fooled by data, we beg you NOT to bring a client with you to this class. Our goal is to lift your under­stand­ing to a higher level. This will hap­pen. You will learn astound­ing new things. Valu­able new things. Rev­o­lu­tion­ary new things. We don’t want to cre­ate a sit­u­a­tion where you feel a need to defend your old ideas. If you bring a client, it’s going to be awk­ward when some of your old beliefs are disproven.

Roy’s also not afraid to plainly state the scarcity of rooms avail­able, either.  Again, it’s in the reader’s best inter­est to act now rather than later, so he says so, with conviction.

This, of course, applies to more than just pas­sion. It applies to draw­ing hard lines as well.

So, here’s the ques­tion: when the sit­u­a­tion demands it, are you will­ing to make a scene with your copy? Are you rec­og­niz­ing when the sit­u­a­tion demands it?

P.S. If you’re look­ing for a great, technique-by-technique way to put more pas­sion and urgency into your copy, check out Dave Navarro’s trans­la­tion of yellow-highlighter copy into respectful-but-urgent mes­sag­ing.


  1. Shawn Christenson on 06.16.2010

    Great post man — I am indeed will­ing to make a scene. As for rec­og­niz­ing when it demands it — I dunno.

    Do you view ‘copy’ dif­fer­ent from writ­ing a blog post? Is it in every­thing you write or are you point­ing pri­mar­ily at the stuff that is used to ‘fill pages’ on web­sites and in emails.
    .-= Shawn Christenson´s last blog ..Become a Social Media Con­sul­tant – A 12 Step Guide =-.

  2. Mike Reeves-McMillan on 06.16.2010

    Thanks, Jeff, I always enjoy your insights. And this is one that’s been com­ing at me from a few direc­tions lately.

    Espe­cially since my next prod­uct is a course on emo­tions. And if you can’t be pas­sion­ate about a course on emo­tions, what can you be pas­sion­ate about?
    .-= Mike Reeves-McMillan´s last blog ..Why cake is never just cake =-.

  3. Jeff on 06.16.2010


    I think both Web copy and blog posts are places where pas­sion­ate copy is appro­pri­ate. Not every blog post and not every Web­site might demand it, but if you have a mes­sage that could save the reader from a lot of pain if it’s headed, than you need some pas­sion and con­vic­tion with your messaging.


    A course on emo­tions? C’mon, dude, you gotta give us more than that. Where can we read a bit more about this product?

    - Jeff

  4. Mike Reeves-McMillan on 06.16.2010

    Well, Jeff, since you ask…

    the Emo­tional Circuit-Breaker Toolkit is for those times when your emo­tional responses seem to be on a ham­ster wheel, going round and round but never get­ting any­where except back where they started. It’s stuffed with sim­ple tech­niques that work in every­day life to calm you down and get you back on track. And it con­nects the dots between emo­tions, pos­i­tive rela­tion­ships, suc­cess in life’s chal­lenges and good health.

    I’m cre­at­ing it because in my prac­tice as a hyp­nother­a­pist I’ve noticed that so many of the issues peo­ple come to me with are either caused or made worse by stress and by the way that peo­ple man­age, or don’t man­age, their anger, fear, guilt and sad­ness.
    .-= Mike Reeves-McMillan´s last blog ..How to Find Your Way in Less than 20 Years =-.

  5. Jeff on 06.16.2010

    Yup, I did ask ; )

    Thanks for the link, Mike. Looks like a great info prod­uct — love the title, by the way. Thanks for shar­ing the link.

    - Jeff

  6. Surprise Your Way to an Optimized Conversion Rate | Conversion Rate Optimization & Marketing Blog | FutureNow, Inc on 06.21.2010

    […] the Legal Depart­ment).  It’s bor­ing!  We tune it out.  Test sur­pris­ing your prospects with gutsy copy that is filled with pas­sion.  Write prod­uct descrip­tions that appeal to all the senses and help […]

  7. Matt on 07.15.2010

    Pow­er­ful post, I can see what you’re talk­ing about but I don’t think I’ve ever man­aged to achieve that pas­sion, and while I might be will­ing to make a scene I don’t think I’ve achieved much more than the chest bump­ing I’m the best in any of my copy. You wouldn’t hap­pen to have any exer­cises to prac­tice with…I know lame right? But I am inter­ested.
    .-= Matt´s last blog ..Blog on hia­tus =-.

  8. Jeff on 07.15.2010


    Take a prod­uct or ser­vice you are weirdly obsessed with. The kind you can’t help rav­ing about to your friends or, really, to any­one who will lis­ten. Maybe it’s a par­tic­u­lar brand of pen, or a book, or a favorite dish at a restaurant.

    Then write imag­i­nary ad copy or Web copy for that prod­uct. And give your­self per­mis­sion to let your mania show through. Fly that freak flag high, not nec­es­sar­ily with melo­drama, but with the inten­sity of your obser­va­tions and the impor­tance you place on the details of things. Get par­tic­u­lar and spe­cific. I’m not sure if it was GQ or Esquire, but they used to have 2 columns called “The Endorse­ment” and “The Inde­fen­si­ble Posi­tion” and those were good places to see pas­sion­ate copy that man­aged to con­vey that pas­sion with­out going over­board on hype.

    - Jeff
    .-= Jeff´s last blog ..Are You Mis­tak­ing Bribery for Loy­alty =-.

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