Some Sec­ond Thoughts on Luntz’s 11 Words for 2011
So I recently came across Frank Luntz’s 11 Words for 2011 on Huff­in­g­ton Post.  Not a bad read, really, but it struck me how bad some of those choices were for advertisers.
Maybe they’re ok for politi­cians (who mainly employ Luntz and for whom this post was likely writ­ten), but at least some of them are poi­son for adver­tis­ers.  So I thought I’d give you a phrase-by-phrase run down of all 11 of ‘em:
“Imag­ine” – Totally un-necessary at best, and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive at worst.  You engage an audience’s imag­i­na­tion by putting them on the scene of ongo­ing dra­matic action. Just start nar­rat­ing your story in as visualize-able a man­ner as pos­si­ble, and your lis­ten­ers will auto­mat­i­cally imag­ine the scene.
“You are stand­ing in the snow, five and one-half miles above sea level, gaz­ing at a hori­zon hun­dreds of miles away.  Life here is very sim­ple. You live, or you die. No com­pro­mises, no whin­ing, no sec­ond chances. This is a place con­stantly rav­aged by wind and storm, where every ragged breath is an accom­plish­ment. You stand on the upper­most pin­na­cle of the earth. This is the moun­tain they call Ever­est. Yes­ter­day it was con­sid­ered unbeat­able. But that was yesterday.”
That’s the begin­ning of one of Roy Williams’ most famous radio ads for Rolex. Notice how he didn’t bother ask­ing you to imag­ine. He had no need. And nei­ther do you.
“No excuses” + “I get it” +  “Uncom­pro­mis­ing integrity” – File all of these under, “han­dle with care” and under “bet­ter to demon­strate than claim” cat­e­gories.  As my part­ner Tim Miles likes to say, “Don’t tell her you’re polite; open her door.”  So don’t tell me you “get it” – say some­thing that only some­one who gets it would know to say.
Like­wise, don’t tell me you have uncom­pro­mis­ing integrity – show me!  This is very much like claim­ing extra­or­di­nary cus­tomer ser­vice.  Claim it and I think you’re lying.  Tell me a Nordstrom-style story of great cus­tomer ser­vice, and I’ll believe it.
“If you remem­ber only one thing…” This is one of the bet­ter phrases Luntz sug­gests, but I’d warn that if you have to instruct your audi­ence what that one thing is, it’s prob­a­bly a sign that you’re tyring to say too much; go back and sharpen your message.
There’s an apoc­ryphal story about copy­writer meet­ing with a board of direc­tors who wanted him to com­mu­ni­cate 12 points in a sales let­ter he was about to write.  The copy­writer, who knew the pur­pose of the meet­ing ahead of time, walked into the meet­ing car­ry­ing a hockey bag rather than a brief­case, and when dis­cus­sion of the 12 points came up, he sim­ply pulled a fry­ing pan and a board full of nails out of the pan.  The board was a sort of minia­ture bed of nails, and he laid it down onto the con­fer­ence room table.  He then slammed the bot­tom of the fry­ing pan down onto that board as hard as he could.  Then he lifted the merely dim­pled pan up to show his stunned audi­ence.  Fol­low­ing that he pulled out another board with a sin­gle spike of a nail ham­mered through it.  He put that board down on the table, slammed the pan onto it, and the spike punc­tured right through the pan.  He then looked at the exec­u­tives and said: “Tell me again how many points you want me to communicate”
And of course, there’s the “It’s the econ­omy, stu­pid” les­son of “If you say three things you’ve said nothing.”
So, yes, great to sim­plify to “only one thing,” but when it comes to ads, you need to do that before you write them, so that the one thing is shock­ingly clear all the way through, with­out forc­ing you to explic­itly tell your audi­ence on what that one thing is.
“The sim­ple truth” – this one is good, although there is a sense that the sim­ple truth can usu­ally be told straight out, with­out the adver­tiser need­ing to declare it as such.
“Believe in bet­ter” – Sounds a bit slogan-y, and I’d be very ner­vous about promis­ing cus­tomers an unde­fined “bet­ter.”  Avis told us that they tried harder, but they also told us exactly what that extra effort deliv­ered, so we weren’t left with vague and quite pos­si­bly unre­al­is­tic expec­ta­tions.  So don’t use this one unless you’ve given your prospec­tive cus­tomers some specifics on what con­sti­tutes “better.”
“Real-time” + You Deserve – Good, if you can back it up.
“You decide.” – Good.
10) “Let’s get to work” – Not so good if you’re an adver­tiser. Peo­ple expect you or your prod­ucts to do the work, not them.  So unless you’re home depot, leave the “let’s get to work” for the politicians.

090505_luntz_ap_297So I recently came across Frank Luntz’s 11 Words for 2011 on Huff­in­g­ton Post, and it struck me how bad some of those choices were for advertisers.

Maybe those phrases are ok for politi­cians (Luntz’s pri­mary employ­ers and intended audi­ence for the post), but at least some of them are poi­son for adver­tis­ers, with many more falling into the “han­dle with care” vari­ety.  So I thought I’d give you a phrase-by-phrase run down of all 11 of ‘em:

Imag­ine

  • My Take: “Imag­ine” is totally un-necessary at best, and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive at worst.

You engage an audience’s imag­i­na­tion by putting them on the scene of ongo­ing dra­matic action, not by explic­itly ask­ing them to “imag­ine” some­thing, an act that merely telegraphs your intent and invites resis­tance.  Skip the “imag­ine” part and just start nar­rat­ing your story in as visualize-able a man­ner as pos­si­ble, and your lis­ten­ers will auto­mat­i­cally pic­ture (i.e., imag­ine) the scene in their minds.  For example:

You are stand­ing in the snow, five and one-half miles above sea level, gaz­ing at a hori­zon hun­dreds of miles away.  Life here is very sim­ple. You live, or you die. No com­pro­mises, no whin­ing, no sec­ond chances. This is a place con­stantly rav­aged by wind and storm, where every ragged breath is an accom­plish­ment. You stand on the upper­most pin­na­cle of the earth. This is the moun­tain they call Ever­est. Yes­ter­day it was con­sid­ered unbeat­able. But that was yesterday.”

That’s the begin­ning of one of Roy Williams’ well-known radio ads for Rolex. Notice how he didn’t bother ask­ing you to imag­ine; he had no need — and nei­ther do you.

No excuses + I get it + Uncom­pro­mis­ing integrity

  • My Take: File all of these under “han­dle with care” and “bet­ter to demon­strate than claim.”

As my part­ner Tim Miles likes to say, “Don’t tell her you’re polite; open her door.”  So don’t tell me you “get it.”  Instead, say some­thing that only some­one who gets it would know to say. Like­wise, don’t tell me you have uncom­pro­mis­ing integrity – show me!

Using these phrases is very much like claim­ing extra­or­di­nary cus­tomer ser­vice: claim it and I think you’re lying, but tell me a Nordstrom-style story of great cus­tomer ser­vice, and I’ll con­clude that you have “great cus­tomer ser­vice” all on my own.  How much more is that the case with “uncom­pro­mis­ing integrity”? In the land of adver­tis­ing these days, we’re all from Mis­souri: show us.

If you remem­ber only one thing…

  • My Take: This is one of the bet­ter phrases Luntz sug­gests, but I’d warn that if you have to instruct your audi­ence what to remem­ber, you’re prob­a­bly try­ing to say too much in the first place. Go back and sharpen your message.

There’s an apoc­ryphal story about copy­writer meet­ing with a board of direc­tors who wanted him to com­mu­ni­cate 12 points in a sales let­ter he had was asked to “pitch” for.  The copy­writer walked into the meet­ing car­ry­ing a hockey bag rather than a brief­case, and, to the aston­ish­ment of the exec­u­tives, began his “pitch” by pulling a fry­ing pan and a board full of nails out of the pan.  The board was a sort of minia­ture bed of nails, and he laid it down onto the con­fer­ence room table.  He slammed the bot­tom of the fry­ing pan down onto that board as hard as he could.  Then he lifted the merely dim­pled pan up to show his stunned audi­ence.  Fol­low­ing that he pulled out another board with a sin­gle spike of a nail ham­mered through it.  He put that board down on the table, slammed the pan onto it, and the spike punc­tured right through the pan.  He then looked at the exec­u­tives and said: “Tell me again how many points you want me to put in this letter.”

And of course, there’s James Carville’s “It’s the econ­omy, stu­pid” les­son of “If you say three things, you’ve said noth­ing.” So, yes, DO sim­plify to “only one thing,” but do your sim­pli­fy­ing before writ­ing the ads (or at least dur­ing edit­ing).  Don’t expect an added on phrase to make up for an unfo­cused message.

The sim­ple truth

  • My Take: Another good one, although there is a sense that the sim­ple truth, boldy stated, needs no labeling.

Keep in mind that just because something’s the truth doesn’t mean any­one will nec­es­sar­ily believe it — or even want to waste time con­sid­er­ing whether they should believe it. To per­suade with the truth, you have to cause peo­ple to real­ize the truth, rather than sim­ply telling it to them.  That makes this phrase OK for crys­tal­iz­ing a pre­vi­ously dra­ma­tized point, but not so good oth­er­wise.  So tell a great story that illus­trates your truth, and then slam ‘em with a “the sim­ple truth” statement.

Believe in better

  • My Take: Sounds a bit slogan-y, and I’d be very ner­vous about promis­ing cus­tomers an unde­fined “better.”

Avis told us that they tried harder, but they also told us exactly what that extra effort deliv­ered, so read­ers weren’t left with vague and quite pos­si­bly unre­al­is­tic expec­ta­tions.  Fol­low their lead and don’t use “believe in bet­ter” unless you’ve given, or are about to give, your prospec­tive cus­tomers specifics on what con­sti­tutes “better.”

Real-time + You Deserve

  • My Take: These are both good, if you can back ‘em up.

These are great so long as you can deliver on the back end.  And just as for “Believe in bet­ter,” deliv­er­ing on the back end also means shap­ing audi­ence expec­ta­tions with your mes­sag­ing.  This being espe­cially impor­tant for “real-time,” as the imme­di­acy of social media has given rise to some fairly unre­al­is­tic cus­tomer expec­ta­tions for busi­ness response times. If you promise real-time inter­ac­tion, you’d bet­ter have as amped up an under­stand­ing of it as your customers.

You decide

  • My Take: An unre­served A+ on this one.

Let’s get to work

  • My Take: Prob­a­bly not so good if you’re an advertiser.

Peo­ple expect you or your prod­ucts to do the work, not them. So unless you’re home depot, leave the “let’s get to work” for the politi­cians. And even if you’re sell­ing soft­ware or busi­ness tools, bet­ter to empha­size how what you’re sell­ing will help them kick a** than to talk about “work.”

So there you have it.  Those are my caveats around Luntz’s 11 Words for 2011. Of course, if anyone’s expe­ri­ence runs counter to, or in sync with, my rec­om­men­da­tions, feel free to let me know in the comments.

OK, hav­ing watched the video you know now that the “ad guy” changes the old man’s sign from:
“Have com­pas­sion, I am blind”
to
“Today is a beau­ti­ful day, and I can not see it.”
So let’s talk about the ad guy’s copy trans­for­ma­tion.  In my mind he did 3 things perfectly:
1. He sur­prised read­ers with an unex­pected real­ity hook
It was indeed a beau­ti­ful day, but it was also an unex­pected obser­va­tion to read on a pan­han­dlers sign.  One nor­mally expects a request or offer like, “Will work for food” or “Please help a dis­abled vet” or some such.  “Today is a beau­ti­ful” day is sur­pris­ing, cap­tur­ing the reader’s atten­tion, caus­ing him to won­der where this is heading.
2) He used his real­ity hook to cre­ate an advan­ta­geous emo­tional response.
Whether they wanted to or not, passers-by took at least half a sec­ond to con­firm the truth of that state­ment – to men­tally assent that, yes, today was indeed beau­ti­ful.  Think about how dif­fer­ent that thought is from 99% of the pedes­trian con­cerns most of us walk down the street with; how lib­er­at­ing – even for a half-second – to stop wor­ry­ing about the next meet­ing or dead­line and look up to see what a beau­ti­ful day it really is.
This is a cru­cial step, too, because, as dis­cussed in the book Made to Stick, shift­ing peo­ple into an empathic or emo­tional state of mind is cru­cial to the suc­cess of char­i­ta­ble requests.  Psy­cho­log­i­cal research shows that if you prime peo­ple to think ana­lyt­i­cally, they’ll give far less than if you primed them to think emo­tion­ally.  The “Today is a beau­ti­ful day” open­ing primed peo­ple to think emotionally.
3) He forced reader par­tic­i­pa­tion by requir­ing them to con­nect the dots.
Nowhere did the new sign actu­ally say, “I’m blind.”   Read­ers had to draw that con­clu­sion for them­selves by read­ing “and I can’t see it” while con­nect­ing that with the con­text clues offered by the old man and his pan-handling.  This bit of reader engage­ment means that read­ers “see” the real­ity of the man’s blind­ness for them­selves, with­out the typ­i­cal inter­nal push-back or cyn­i­cism gen­er­ated when a mar­ket­ing claim is shoved at a per­son.  This is an incred­i­bly pow­er­ful writ­ing tech­nique explained by this Mon­day Morn­ing Memo from Roy Williams.
Also note that the new sign avoided a hard sell by imply­ing the request.  The ad man let the col­lec­tion plate, com­bined with the reader’s real­iza­tion of the man’s blind­ness, be the call to action.
Now, apply­ing this to the web, I’d say there are 2 more, extremely impor­tant points to make:
4) Elim­i­nat­ing con­ver­sion flaws and increas­ing usabil­ity can only take you so far.
The ad guy didn’t try to make the col­lec­tion plate big­ger or more promi­nent.  Nor did he set up a card-swiping machine so peo­ple could donate via debit card.  Usabil­ity wasn’t the issue; per­sua­sion was.  If your web­site opti­miza­tion strat­egy only addresses usabil­ity flaws or gen­eral best-practice issues, you’re never going to achieve break­through per­for­mance for your web­site.  You have to address per­sua­sive gaps as well.
5) It’s worth the money to pay a good copy­writer what he’s worth.
The dra­matic improve­ment in con­ver­sion caused by the new copy may have been fic­tional for the film, but it’s a recur­rent real­ity on the web – at least for those com­pa­nies who under­stand the value of per­sua­sive copy.
Unfor­tu­nately, too many com­pa­nies are will­ing to spend thou­sands to tens and hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars on a web­site redesign while balk­ing at pay­ing decent money for a top-notch copy­writer.  Don’t be one of those companies.
YouTube Preview Image

Don’t read any more until you’ve watched the video!

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Hey, quit peek­ing down here; watch the video first ;)

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OK, hav­ing watched the video you know now that the “ad guy” changes the old man’s sign from:

Have com­pas­sion, I am blind”

to

Today is a beau­ti­ful day, and I can not see it.”

So let’s talk about the ad guy’s copy trans­for­ma­tion.  In my mind he did 3 things perfectly:

1. He sur­prised read­ers with an unex­pected intro

It was indeed a beau­ti­ful day, but it was also an unex­pected obser­va­tion to read on a pan­han­dlers sign.  One nor­mally expects a request or offer like, “Will work for food” or “Please help a dis­abled vet” or some such.  “Today is a beau­ti­ful” day is sur­pris­ing, cap­tur­ing the reader’s attention.

2) He used a real­ity hook to cre­ate an advan­ta­geous emo­tional response.

2011-03-01_1007Whether they wanted to or not, passers-by took at least half a sec­ond to con­firm the truth of that state­ment – to men­tally assent that, yes, today was indeed beau­ti­ful.  Think about how dif­fer­ent that thought is from 99% of the pedes­trian con­cerns most of us walk down the street with; how lib­er­at­ing – even for a half-second – to stop wor­ry­ing about the next meet­ing or dead­line and look up to see what a beau­ti­ful day it really is.

This is a cru­cial step, too, because, as dis­cussed in the book Made to Stick, shift­ing peo­ple into an empathic or emo­tional state of mind is cru­cial to the suc­cess of char­i­ta­ble requests.  Psy­cho­log­i­cal research shows that if you prime peo­ple to think ana­lyt­i­cally, they’ll give far less than if you primed them to think emo­tion­ally.  The “Today is a beau­ti­ful day” open­ing primed peo­ple to think emotionally.

3) He forced reader par­tic­i­pa­tion by requir­ing them to con­nect the dots.

Nowhere did the new sign actu­ally say, “I’m blind.”   Read­ers had to draw that con­clu­sion for them­selves by read­ing “and I can’t see it” while con­nect­ing that with the con­text clues offered by the old man and his pan-handling.  This bit of reader engage­ment means that read­ers “see” the real­ity of the man’s blind­ness for them­selves, with­out the typ­i­cal inter­nal push-back or cyn­i­cism gen­er­ated when a mar­ket­ing claim is shoved at a per­son.  This fill-in-the-gaps inter­ac­tiv­ity is an incred­i­bly pow­er­ful writ­ing tech­nique.

Also note that the new sign avoided a hard sell by imply­ing the request.  The ad man let the col­lec­tion plate, com­bined with the reader’s real­iza­tion of the man’s blind­ness, act as the call to action.

Now, apply­ing this to the web, I’d say there are 2 more, extremely impor­tant points to make:

4) Elim­i­nat­ing con­ver­sion flaws and increas­ing usabil­ity can only take you so far.

The ad guy didn’t try to make the col­lec­tion plate big­ger or more promi­nent.  Nor did he set up a card-swiping machine so peo­ple could donate via debit card.  Usabil­ity wasn’t the issue; per­sua­sion was.  If your web­site opti­miza­tion strat­egy only addresses usabil­ity flaws or gen­eral best-practice issues, you’re never going to achieve break­through per­for­mance for your web­site.  You have to address per­sua­sive gaps as well.

5) It’s worth the money to pay a good copy­writer what he’s worth

The dra­matic improve­ment in con­ver­sion caused by the film’s ad guy may have been fic­tional, but it’s a recur­rent real­ity on the web – at least for those com­pa­nies who under­stand the value of per­sua­sive copy.

Unfor­tu­nately, too many com­pa­nies are will­ing to spend thou­sands to tens and hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars on a web­site redesign while balk­ing at pay­ing decent money for a top-notch copy­writer.  Don’t be one of those companies.

And if you’re adver­tis­ing via mass media, such as radio, think about how fool­ish it is to pay thou­sands for air space only to fill it with mediocre, station-supplied copy for your ads. Do you really want to be that company?