2010-06-24_1339Tru­ism #1: If peo­ple see it com­ing, the trans­for­ma­tional moment — the moment when a char­ac­ter moves past his pri­mary fears, block, wound, or lim­i­ta­tion — will fail to cre­ate max­i­mum emo­tion in the reader because it’ll get damp­ened or squashed by the audience’s psy­cho­log­i­cal defenses.

Tru­ism #2: If the trans­for­ma­tional moment isn’t prop­erly set up, and instead the writer just launches into high drama on the page, the scene won’t be believ­able and it will fall emo­tion­ally flat for the reader.

Here’s an exam­ple of this sec­ond tru­ism from the movie, Zom­bieland:

***Warn­ing — Movie Spoil­ers Ahead*****

Home Is a Pup Named Buck

zombieland_poster_2There’s emo­tion on the screen, duly por­trayed by Woody Har­rel­son, but it never really touches the audi­ence.  The flash­back, in fact, feels a bit off.  Who feeds their dog pan­cakes or lifts them up and bathes them like that?  But then again, Woody’s char­ac­ter is a bit “off,” so the viewer (or this viewer at least) let’s the dis­con­nects slide.

And that’s the genius of this scene.  Because as the movie goes on and the audi­ence gets tied up in the more excit­ing aspects of zom­bie bash­ing, they for­get all about that dis­con­nect until the writer springs this scene on them:

WorstThing

After watch­ing that scene, it dawned on me that the audi­ence wasn’t meant to feel emo­tion in the first scene: it was just the set-up for this sec­ond scene in a way that would keep the audi­ence from “brac­ing” against the emo­tion.  Hence the “nar­ra­tive mis­di­rec­tion” of the puppy flashback.

That unde­tected set-up makes all the dif­fer­ence because we, the audi­ence, were taken in along with the Greg Eisenberg’s char­ac­ter, “Colum­bus.”  So we felt Columbus’s insight and empa­thy as our own. It trans­fered right from the screen to our chests.

Bet­ter yet, while the audi­ence was caught up in the emo­tion of that scene, the writer set us up for this bit of dialogue:

WalletPics2

Bril­liant, huh? We see the nihilis­tic loner con­front his loss and then over­come his iso­la­tion.  And it feels real. In fact, the emo­tion and drama works quite well for an oth­er­wise silly comedy.

Copy­writ­ing Tech­niques to Take Away From All This

celebrity-pics-hyneman-savaFirst of all, the copy­writ­ing equiv­a­lents of these tech­niques prob­a­bly require a “don’t try this at home, kids” style warn­ing, because they are in direct con­tra­dic­tion to stan­dard: “hit ‘em as hard as you can with a WIIFM Appeal and UVP state­ment right off the bat”-style copy­writ­ing advice.  Advice which I nor­mally endorse as sound prac­tice, by the way.

But these tech­niques and exam­ples DO work when done right and are worth study­ing and think­ing about.  So with that caveat, here’s what I have seen used:

1) Some­times the indi­rect approach works bet­ter. As I wrote ear­lier, most copy­writ­ers want to go in with guns a’ blazin’, spew­ing high-voltage WIIFM and UVP state­ments along with emo­tional problem-agitation-focused copy.  But some­times a slower start works to your advan­tage by allow­ing you to set-up your dra­matic moments and power statements.

So long as your copy is inter­est­ing and is sub­tle in its set-ups, this indi­rect approach can mas­sively out­pull reg­u­lar “reason-why” style copy. For exam­ple, here’s how the famous Wall Street Jour­nal copy starts:

On a beau­ti­ful late spring after­noon, twenty-five years ago, two young men grad­u­ated from the same col­lege. They were very much alike, these two young men.

Both had been bet­ter than aver­age stu­dents, both were per­son­able and both – as young col­lege grad­u­ates are – were filled with ambi­tious dreams for the future.

Recently, these men returned to their col­lege for their 25th reunion.

They were still very much alike.

Both were hap­pily mar­ried. Both had three chil­dren. And both, it turned out, had gone to work for the same Mid­west­ern man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany after grad­u­a­tion, and were still there.

But there was a dif­fer­ence. One of the men was man­ager of a small depart­ment of that com­pany. The other was its president.”

With the tale even­tu­ally lead­ing up to this power statement:

“The dif­fer­ence lies in what each per­son knows and how he or she makes use of that knowledge.

And that is why I am writ­ing to you and to peo­ple like you about The Wall Street Jour­nal. For that is the whole pur­pose of The Jour­nal: To give its read­ers knowl­edge – knowl­edge that they can use in business.”

Can you imag­ine the fall off in response if the copy­writer had skipped the set-up and just launched into the power state­ment?  Can you imag­ine the U.S. School of Music cor­re­spon­dence course decid­ing a straight offer would work bet­ter than the immor­tal open­ing of “They laughed when I sat down at the piano but when I started to play!-

And then there’s this bit of direct mail mas­ter­piece that con­tin­ues to work so well a recent copy just arrived in my inbox today:

You look out your win­dow, past your gar­dener, who is busily prun­ing the lemon, cherry, and fig trees…amidst the splen­dor of gar­de­nias, hibis­cus, and hollyhocks.
The sky is clear blue. The sea is a deeper blue, sparkling with sunlight.
A gen­tle breeze comes drift­ing in from the ocean, clean and refresh­ing, as your maid brings you break­fast in bed.
For a moment, you think you have died and gone to heaven.
But this par­adise is real. And afford­able. In fact, it costs only half as much to live this dream lifestyle…as it would to stay in your own home!
Dear ETR Reader,
I’d like to send you a FREE copy of a unique–and invaluable–report.
It’s called How to Retire in Par­adise on $30 a Day. And it tells you about the best places in the world for retire­ment living.

You look out your win­dow, past your gar­dener, who is busily prun­ing the lemon, cherry, and fig trees…amidst the splen­dor of gar­de­nias, hibis­cus, and hollyhocks.

The sky is clear blue. The sea is a deeper blue, sparkling with sunlight.

A gen­tle breeze comes drift­ing in from the ocean, clean and refresh­ing, as your maid brings you break­fast in bed.

For a moment, you think you have died and gone to heaven.

But this par­adise is real. And afford­able. In fact, it costs only half as much to live this dream lifestyle…as it would to stay in your own home!

Dear ETR Reader,

I’d like to send you a FREE copy of a unique–and invaluable–report.  It’s called How to Retire in Par­adise on $30 a Day. And it tells you about the best places in the world for retire­ment living.

Again, imag­ine how much less effec­tive the straight offer of “Retire in Par­adise on $30 a Day” would have been. No set-up, no emo­tional punch.

And while I’ll be the first to admit that read­ers are more sus­pi­cious of set-ups and more time sen­si­tive than ever before, the con­tin­ued use of this e-mail proves it still pulls.  Trust me, if the direct mail super­stars of Early to Rise had tested some­thing bet­ter, they’d be using it.

2) Ref­er­ence your prospect’s “photo in a wal­let” sym­bol­ism to lever­age oth­er­wise unavail­able emo­tions. Woody Harrelson’s char­ac­ter, Tal­la­has­see, wasn’t plan­ning on help­ing res­cue the two girls. He needed to be con­vinced. But rather than launch into a ratio­nal argu­ment, or a straight­for­ward WIIFM-style appeal, the “Colum­bus” char­ac­ter clothed his appeal in the tal­is­manic image of Tallahassee’s only keep­sake from his lost son.  And it worked.

I guar­an­tee you that your prospect’s likely have a “wal­let pic­ture” type of men­tal image, some sym­bol, keep­sake, or event that pow­er­fully embod­ies and evokes their emo­tional stakes.  If you wish to give your copy greater emo­tional impact, find out what that talisman-like sym­bol is, and cre­ate men­tal images that take advan­tage of that sym­bol­ism.  Exam­ples of this abound, but per­haps the most famous is Michelin’s tagline:

michelin

Before this Miche­lin ad, no one really cared about small qual­ity dif­fer­ences between tire brands. The “wal­let pic­ture” imagery Miche­lin employed changed all that.

So while these tech­niques prob­a­bly aren’t for begin­ning copy­writ­ers, they are worth think­ing about. They’re worth prac­tic­ing.  And — if and when you nail it — they’re worth using.

Comments

  1. Jaime-Ann on 07.01.2010

    What an amaz­ing arti­cle. You did an incred­i­ble job of cov­er­ing every­thing — Not to men­tion tying in Zom­bieland to copy­write! LOL
    .-= Jaime-Ann´s last blog ..Make More Money With Your Vir­tual Assis­tant Busi­ness =-.

  2. John Hyde on 07.22.2010

    Thanks for this, Jeff.

    When I read the WSJ ad about the 2 men, I thought “that would be great on radio — but not on the web”.

    But on reflec­tion it could work online. Because we can use more than words: maybe some then-and-now pho­tos of the 2 men. Or a time­line.
    .-= John Hyde´s last blog ..LinkedIn Land­ing Pages =-.

  3. What Zombieland Can Teach You About Emotional Copy | Beagle Bugle on 08.23.2010

    […] by Jeff Sexton […]

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