2011-03-22_2327So quiet you could hear a…

It’s so loud in here I can’t even hear…

Do those sentence even make sense? If it’s really, really quiet, shouldn’t there be an absence of noise? Why would you point out how quiet it is by raising the spectre of sound in the mind of the reader? And why would you indicate loudness by talking about what you can’t hear?

Surprisingly, this isn’t just my lame attempt at a Steven Wright style joke; there are legitimate answers to these questions, and the answers reveal something shockingly important for copywriters.

The answer? You can’t convey extreme absence or total immersion very well through a direct approach. You have to hint at it through implication or comparison. Or you have to convey the subjective experience of it. Or use both techniques.

Hearing a pin drop implies that there are no sounds louder than that present. In other words, your mind, once seeded with that single, delicate sound, surrounds the rest with a silence more blanketing and complete than any you could have described directly.

And no, this isn’t just because “hear a pin drop” is a colloqualism or cliche, this technique works even when dealing with the actual experience of sound, as described by the great movie sound effects editor Walter Murch:

Murch flips on his computer, clicks the mouse a few times and instantly pulls up a scene from Jarhead. Swofford’s character, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is in combat for the first time and there’s an artillery barrage. Everyone else ducks for cover, but he stands up. And the camera moves closer to him. Then, in the distance, there’s a muffled explosion followed by dead silence.

This fleeting silence is a golden moment for an editor — a chance to put the audience right there on the battlefield. Jarhead’s director, Sam Mendes, originally wanted that silence to stretch for several seconds. But Murch came up with a better idea.

Pieces of dust and sand from the explosion hit the actor’s face in slow motion. Then you hear the sound of the particles hitting his face. “My combat action has commenced,” the character says.

This fleeting silence is a golden moment for an editor — a chance to put the audience right there on the battlefield. Jarhead’s director, Sam Mendes, originally wanted that silence to stretch for several seconds. But Murch came up with a better idea.
Pieces of dust and sand from the explosion hit the actor’s face in slow motion. Then you hear the sound of the particles hitting his face. “My combat action has commenced,” the character saOne of the rules of the road is that if you want to create the sense of silence, it frequently has more pungency if you include the tiniest of sounds.”

Did you catch that?  The silence is lengthened and intensified by giving you both a small noise and an inner subjective experience of it. Murch even describes this as a rule of the road:

One of the rules of the road is that if you want to create the sense of silence, it frequently has more pungency if you include the tiniest of sounds

Similarly, describing the cacophony directly doesn’t get to the experience of it as well as describing the subjective mental disordering and disorientation that such ear-piercing noise causes; the internal mental confusion of ‘I can’t hear myself think‘ implies an external sonic chaos that your readers’ minds will recreate, thereby putting them “right there on the battlefield.”

So what are the advertising applications of all this?

In my last post I plugged the technique of discovering and using quality cues in your advertising. And that raises the obvious question: how can you find those cues?

One answer: find the pin drops.

What unique turn of phrase implies more than it says. How can you describe an internal state that implies an external event and vice versa?

Do you think that Mike Diamond’s plumbers really smell good? Or do you think that smelling good implies cleanliness, professionalism, and stand-up qualities?  Smell is just one sense, perhaps the most primitively emotional, but we’re all the more able to fill in all the rest ourselves based on that, aren’t we?

What about finger licking good? It’s a cliche now, but imagine when it first came out!

OK, now you try – what are your pin drops? What small detail seeds our mind to rain down the greater whole?

P.S. If this seems hard, it should. It’s the kind of thing ad professionals get paid the big bucks to come up with.

First, before we do anything else, watch this:

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Yup, “Presentation” is often THE critical difference between good businesses that grow to be great and good businesses that struggle to achieve the success they deserve.

And, yes, presentation, in the larger sense of the word, not only encompasses marketing and advertising, but is an essential element within marketing, a fact alluded to by Seth Godin in this short but brilliant post.

The Arrogance of “Keeping it Real”

So if presentation is so important why do so many of us neglect, ignore, and otherwise screw it up?

Because we’re sold on the better mousetrap myth – this idea that a better mousetrap naturally leads to the world beating a path to our door, that the “real deal” doesn’t need to be dressed up.

More insidiously, we’ve also half-bought into the millenial notion that spending time and effort on presentation somehow equates to “posing” or fakery or thinking that one is “all that.” That presentation is, in a word, arrogant.

The truth, of course, is the very opposite: acknowledging the need to seduce, entertain, and wow an audience in order to earn their attention is a sign of humility, not arrogance.

Before a prospective customer can possibly notice your unannounced and unheralded quality advantage, they usually have to invest significant attention and interest, and expecting them to make that investment up front, with no promise or hint of a payoff, is not only arrogant but deranged. You are essentially expecting people to be as concerned with your industry and business — i.e., your life — as they are with their own.

What kind of lunatic expects that?

Your prospects don’t know the industry insider info you know, the kind of stuff necessary for them to recognize quality.

They have no clue how lower-priced providers cut corners, or what that means for them in the long run, because your industry isn’t part of their day to day world.

They don’t know that this or that thing or habit is a cue of sloppy work or great work or whatever. Nor are most of them willing to do the research to find out.

They just want to buy ____ and get back to their regularly scheduled lives.

Fixing Your Marketing Presentation Skills

If you’re willing to get off the crazy train and onto the gravy train, there are two rather unequal solutions to this, and you should employ them both:

1) Educate the Customer

This is the less effective but still necessary option.

Get past your own “curse of knowledge” to figure out what your prospective customers don’t know but need to know in order to recognize your superior quality.

Now boil it down to super direct, no BS messaging, and train your sales staff to deliver that same messaging to your prospects.  Also, extend your educational reach past your sales team and target those earlier stage buyers through great content marketing.

And make sure you have a content-rich Website, so your full explanation of, and case for, quality will be available to interested customers whenever they come looking for it.

All of this works and is worth doing.  But on its own, education never quite works as well as most business owners hope.

That’s because this educational approach reaquires customers to be motivated enough to do the research for themselves. And for a lot of markets and industries, the motivated researchers are a rather small slice of the customer base, meaning you lose more sales than you save.  As my partner, Roy Williams says:

“The challenge isn’t to make the customer understand.  The challenge is to learn to think like customers — it’s faster, cheeper, and more effective.”

A quote that leads me into the second strategy…

2) Tap into the customer’s natural quality and value cues

If people can’t tell that your HVAC guy is top notch just from watching him work, you can ensure that they’ll think of him in those terms by activating their quality cues for “professionals,” simply by having your worker:

  • show up in a professional van,
  • wear a clean, branded uniform,
  • put on booties to keep your home from getting dirty, and
  • talk through what he’s doing and why he’s doing it while he’s working.

2011-03-18_1031All of those things speak to presentation.

You are forcing your workers to focus on how they present themselves to customers in order to signal “this guy is an expert” in the language that the customer already understands.

When you bake these things into your operations, you’ll have really satisfied customers.  But when you bake them into your advertising as guarantees, you’ll have truckloads of NEW customers.

Better yet, when you ADVERTISE those kind of quality cues, people begin to expect them from everyone in your industry; in other words you shape customer expectations to your advantage and your competition’s disadvantage.

More importantly, the listener consciously and unconsciously associates these quality cues with your company and brand — i.e., they think of you as the benchmark for top quality service, expertise, etc.

After an ad campaign like that, when prospective customers need what you sell, they’ll think of you first and feel the best about you, making them seek you out rather than vice versa.

Some of those customers will go onto your Website and educate themselves in order to prove that you’re for real. But many more will buy based on nothing more than that advertising-fueled “gut feel.”

And regardless of whether they researched their decision or not, all of those customers will not only want to do business with you AND will be willing to pay premium for the privilege.

Here’s what this technique sounds like when used in an actual ad*:

01 MikeDiamond-LeftJabRightHook

Note that “smells good” is cue for ‘presents himself as a professional,’ which is only reinforced by the “shows up on time” line. Those are the quality cues, and the price guarantee is the direct offer. Put the two together and is it any wonder why this plumber dominates his markets?

Bottom line: presentation matters. Not just for sales pitches or a Keynote Speeches, but for your frontline marketing and advertising, too. Find the cues, codes, and signals, your customers already associate with first-rate quality and service, and then bake them into your operations while simultaneously weaving them into your marketing.

Don’t be just another business in your industry; focus on presentation and make yourself Super in the eyes of your customers.

* Ad written and produced by Roy H. Williams

You’re about to watch the video equivalent of two emotional gut-punches.

Both of them are political and at least one of the two will offend your sensibilities.  But if you can get past that, they’ll be instructive — and with any luck, you’ll find that I have a few insights to share as well.  So here goes:

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And then there’s this one:

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OK, so what do both of these videos have in common?

The emotional violence takes place entirely within your head

The rabbit is never harmed and the poor boy’s head is never shot, except for in your mind’s eye. And that makes both ads all the more emotionally powerful.

But the projection of such a graphic image in the mind of the viewer will invariably offend some viewers. Even though the violence literally took place “off scene” (as in the greek ob skene, which translates as “off-stage”) the ads will still strike many as unfair or obscene. Why?

Because real obscenity comes through the introduction, through any means, of an unnecessarily ugly, violent, or immodest mental image. Naturally, it’s the “unnecessarily” part that gets sticky, but I think most of us could agree that the mental images incited by the two videos are both ugly and violent. They affect us. They are, in fact, cringeworthy. We remember them long after watching. Or at least I do.

And wouldn’t you want the same to be said for your ads?

Obscenity vs. Obscenity

Now, I’m NOT suggesting that you should do or feature something ugly, violent, or immodest to grab attention. It may work for Go Daddy, but that’s really not the kind of obscenity you want.

The kind you want is the kind used in these two ads – the kind where the structure and artifice of your ads entice the audience’s minds to imagine the outcome. There are different names for this technique, ranging from:

but the features remain the same, regardless of what you call it:

1) Start with vivid images

Regardless of whether you are employing visual images (as in print or TV ads), or mental images (as in Radio and copywriting), your ad has to employ sharp, vivid imagery if you hope, at some point, to get the audience to bridge the gaps between, or extend the story beyond, the the images provided in the ad. So if your writing is filled with abstractions, jargon, and technical speak, you’ll need to re-write it in concrete, tangible, emotional, and imaginable language.  And best to start off with a strong hook (or First Mental Image), too.

Notice that the first ad began with a cute little baby bunny sitting on the medical table, next to scalpels and stuff — a shockingly incongruous and vivid image.  The second ad started with an egg on a golf tee; the golf tee intimating the coming violence / bullet.

2) Make sure you’ve got drama

Drama means staging, dramatic tension, and the need to know “what happens next.” Some of this was hinted at in #1 when I wrote of both first images as containing incongruity.  Here’s a great Jerome Bruner quote to explain that:

“Well-formed stories, [Kenneth] Burke proposed, are composed of a pentad of an Actor, an Action, a Goal, a Scene, and an Instrument—plus Trouble. Trouble consists of an imbalance between any of the five elements of the pentad: an Action toward a Goal is inappropriate in a particular Scene . . . an Actor does not fit the Scene . . . or there is a dual Scene . . . or a confusion of Goals.”

In other words, we only create stories or engage our narrative imagination when things don’t fit. If you high school son always comes home from practice at 5:00, you don’t wonder what happened when he pulls into the driveway at 5:00 pm, just as he always does. You start wondering what’s up – and spinning stories about possible causes — when there’s a deviation, either he’s home way too early or way too late.  So a rabbit on a green field doesn’t get our story-telling engines running. But a rabbit on an operating table clenches our gut and makes us wonder what the hell is going on.

The same thing happens with the egg on a gold tee. It’s unusual and we wonder if the egg will get smashed by a driver or what. When it’s shot by a bullet, we wonder what else we’ll get to see in slow motion as the bullet rips through it…

So if you want to compel your audience to imagine what happens next, or to fill in the gaps, you have to set-up a “troubled” or incongruous scene. Pull the bow back to create tension, then let your audience’s imagination fly.

3) Set the stakes high

Something emotionally compelling has to be at stake. We naturally don’t want anything bad to happen to the bunny. We just don’t. So there’s no small amount of audience tension when the rabbit is picked up and carried to the blender. Ack! And then we see a human baby on the operating table next…

Similarly, who doesn’t cringe when the next “target” to pop up (immediately following the rather symbolic melon) is a boy’s head? And how much anxiety do you feel when the bullet enters from the left side of the screen? Again, a human life (and, symbolically, far more than just one life) is palpably at stake.

Got it? You need high stakes. So even if you don’t think of your product or service as one that invites strong emotion, you’ll need to find the inherent drama of the product, or develop a drama-filled use-scenario or need-scenario centered around your product. Although this AT&T ad doesn’t make use of closure, it certainly injects some drama into one of their network’s most notable (positive) features:

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4) Think Symbolically and/or Shift From Literal to Symbolic Imagery

If you’ve seen Pixar’s UP, you’ve been witness to the power of this. I wish I could show you the scene where Carl first realizes he’s in love with Ellie as he sighs a “wow” and leans onto his balloon, only to have it pop, and then to have that sound matched by the “pop” of their wedding photographer’s flash — for it’s amazing what’s intimated and covered in the space of those two pops — but sadly this YouTube video clip starts with the flash photography.

Yet this clip itself is a miniature masterpiece of visual storytelling. Just watch how much your mind fills in as the images on the screen take on increasing symbolic importance with every repetition. Ask yourself: what do I know is going on here, and how do I know it, and you’ll get an entire lesson on the fine art of closure. And should it then surprise you how emotionally powerful this montage turns out to be? I haven’t yet met the person who won’t tear up when watching it:

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And for an incredibly cruder, commercial example of this technique, there’s always this guffaw-inducing Levitra Commercial:

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Or, on a similar note, Hitchcock’s lovely train tunnel ending to North by Northwest:

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5) Force the most important “beats” to take place between (or after) the images

As I implied with the balloon popping, Carl and Ellie fell in love, grew up together, and got engaged between those two pops. In the ads I featured at the beginning of this post, the (imagined) bunny blending took place after the screen went dark.  And the bullet continued towards the boy’s head only in our minds, for it was transmuted into a Call to Action on the screen.

I’d go into this further, but I think John Barber has already done an admirable job of this in an old Form is Function column on Comixpedia.

Or, you could check out the famous shower scene from Psycho, which, like the bunny ad, makes great use of sound to guide your mind in creating the images not shown to your eyes:

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Bonus Tip: Have Confidence in the Impact of Closure

I almost wrote, “have faith in your readers,” and that’s good advice too, but the technique itself can often be more confidence inspiring and directly observable than reader reactions.  And as a rather striking example of the power of closure, I’ll introduce you to the very recent phenomenon of “bubbling.”

gestaltPic2So, a classic example of closure is this picture of a non-triangle:

Even though we can’t help but see the triangle, it’s not really there.  There are only three pacman-looking black circles. It’s our mind that completes the form of the triangle and forces the image onto our imagination.

And here’s the modern version of that known as Bubbling:

celebrity-blog-bubbling-olivia-wildeAccording to the internet, bubbling was created by a young Mormon man who wanted to follow his religion’s prohibitions against pornography while still, um, aiding his imagination.

The added covering from the bubbles makes swimsuit pictures that much more provokative. And indeed that’s exactly the right word for it, because the bubbles “provoke” your mind to fill in the gaps in a way that the actually more revealing bathing suit doesn’t.

In fact, I chose this picture from FabFunny.com because it was slightly less scandalous than the rest (and also because it featured both the before and after versions and was of a known celebrity, Olivia Wilde)

So in a world of “Show, Don’t Tell” advice, sometimes it’s better if you leave the drama off-stage and allow the real showing to take place in your readers’ imaginations. When you do that, you might end up with an ad that’s seen as “unfair” by your competition, and that’s no bad thing.

P.S. My apologies for the predominance of “sex and violence” examples. They were the easiest to find and most demonstrably obvious examples of the phenomenon available; though I hope the Pixar montage shows off a more elevated use of this technique

A few weeks ago I held a quick and dirty Website Optimization contest for one page of Crutchfield’s check-out process. And great things came from that, as Crutchfield kicked in a $75 dollar gift certificate to the winner, and Jeffrey and Bryan Eisenberg also donated some signed copies of their books.

But even better than all of that, I had some really sharp readers suggest great changes and even produce a few mock-ups of those changes/alternative page designs. Best of all, I left sorting through those suggestions up to Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg, who volunteered to act as judges for the contest.  So here’s their judgement:

The overall design winner is Alex Fisken of UX Associates.

Here’s the design Alex came up with (w/ analysis of good and bad aspects to follow):

2011-03-07_1033

So the good parts of this design are all up at the top of the page:

  1. It’s clear that the user has entered into part of the check-out process, because the various checkout stages are clearly labeled at the top of the page and the current stage — that of selecting accessories — is appropriately highlighted
  2. It’s perfectly, explicitly clear that the item has been added to cart.
  3. The two buttons for continue to cart and keep shopping are easily distinguished based on color, size, and shape
  4. The arrow pointing down to “Choose recommended accessories makes it abundantly clear that the user is being offered a chance to select accessories for his already-added-to-cart TV

And now for the not so good parts:

  • The “continue” of “continue onto shopping cart” might be easily confused as a “continue shopping” since that is very common wording for a lot of checkout processes. Might be better to weak that to “proceed to shopping cart” (or to at least test it).
  • The wording on “Choose recommended accessories” is liable to damage the very point of the page — to sell more accessories. Seeing that phrase causes readers to ask, “On what basis are these accessories being recommended?  And why are you pushing these cross-sells on me?” Might be better to weak or test this wording to something more appropriate

Kevin McCaffrey’s Awesome Accessory Section

And that last point brings us to our Runner Up, Kevin McCaffrey of Conversion Rate Services, who recommended much better wording for this section of the page, as seen in his mock-up:

2011-03-07_1034

First, the “Do you need” formatting of the question is both more direct and more appropriate as it is framed from the buyers point of view (“I need to make sure I have everything I need” vs. “Don’t you want to buy something else from us?”) and designed to solicit a response. We’re all hardwired to answer questions, so this phrasing is harder to ignore than “Chose recommended accessories.”

I also like the option to click “no thanks,” as well as the button to “see more wall mount brackets.” Great stuff.

Now, some might be wondering, but doesn’t the offer have to be generic to all kinds of accessories, rather than specific to Flat Screen TVs?

Answer: No. Not anymore and not if you are a big boy e-commerce player like Crutchfield. They can easily use a service like Monetate to customize that call-out to the product, and, frankly, if they’re not doing that, they should be.

My Franken-page Mock-up

And knowing that the top half of Alex’s design needed the bottom half of Kevin’s design, I couldn’t help but frankenstein them together to come up with this:

2011-03-07_1540

And that there is the conclusion of the contest. Congratulations both to Alex and Kevin and a hearty thank you to all who participated. The winners may collect their prizes by e-mailing me their addresses and contact info.

P.S. A special thanks to both Jeffrey and Bryan Eisenberg and Crutchfield for helping out with this.

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?

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