Yes, Dorothy, headlines really are that important. Want to get the hell out of your own personal Kansas and over the rainbow of attention-grabbing success? Great headlines are the ticket to your next whirlwind success.
I’ll be speaking at the Conversion Conference East on October 4th on Headlines that Work. And while I won’t say that I’m an especially brilliant speaker, I can say that I’ve got content worth coming to the event for.
Unlike the vast majority of headline advice that is template-based, of the “Who else wants…” variety, my presentation actually shows attendees how to create compelling headlines from first principles. You’ll finally be able to understand what makes great headlines great and how to make yours a whole lot better.
I know this is sort of a last minute announcement, but if you’re within driving distance of the DC, Northern Virginia area, I’d be thrilled to see you there and happy to share my promo code with you:
The promo code CCE627 provides a $250-discount off of the current rate for all eligible passes.
If you plan on coming, feel free to drop me a line so we can meet up for coffee or something.
Planting an idea in another’s mind so that not just the idea but the emotion behind the idea take route natively, as if the idea was the product of the recipient’s own thought, as if they had conceived it themselves.
At least, that’s what Christopher Nolan might say if you asked him, as his latest film, Inception, is built around exactly that premise. The idea that a technology which allows one to enter into another’s dreams (or to pull another into one’s own dreams) might also allow a person to either steal information from the subconscious of another, or plant an idea into the subconscious of another.
If you haven’t yet seen the film, you’re probably best off bookmarking this post for later, as several plot spoilers await. But if you have seen the film, and if you’re a copywriter or business owners, the very idea of inception probably sent your mind spinning over the connections between inception and copywriting/persuasion.
At least that’s what happened to me, and here’s what I saw:
1) All influence is self-influence
Within the film, most everyone except our hero and his team believe that “inception” can’t be done. People can tell when a thought isn’t theirs, and the mind reacts to an outside thought with psychic defenses and resistance. As Arthur from the film says:
“… it’s not your idea because you know I gave it to you… [Even when the idea is implanted subconsciously]… The subject’s mind can always trace the genesis of the idea. True inspiration is impossible to fake.”
Unless you let the person draw the conclusion themselves, so that they “generate” and own the idea.
In the movie, the idea that Cobb and his team are hired to implant is: “Break up your fathers empire,” but rather than trying to plant that idea whole, they plant emotional impulses that (they hope) will lead the mark, Fischer, to draw that conclusion for himself. These impulses, planted at successively deeper levels of the unconscious (dream within a dream within a dream), are as follows:
- Level 1 — “I will not follow in my Father’s footsteps”
- Level 2 (aka, the dream within a dream) — “I will create something for myself”
- Level 3 (aka, the dream within a dream within a dream) - “My father doesn’t want me to be him”
They are leading Fischer to the conclusion that he should break up his Father’s empire, and they are moving towards more subtle, positive, and emotional seeds for that idea at each level.
More importantly, Cobb’s team takes this one step farther by having most of these impulses come from Fischer’s (aka, the mark’s) own sub-conscious. On level 1 they have one of their team members, Eames, play the role of Fischer’s mentor and surrogate father, Uncle Peter. Eames impersonates Uncle Peter in order to suggest the seed of the idea to Fischer in an emotionally resonant form. Cobb’s team then drops Fischer down another level by taking him to a dream within a dream, and at that deeper level, Fischer’s own subconscious creates the Uncle Peter character (Eames no longer has to impersonate him). At this deeper dream within a dream, Fischer’s own subconscious plays the role of Uncle Peter. This way Fischer feeds the idea to himself so that the idea seems self-generated.
This corresponds with the old writing adage: “show, don’t tell.” In other words, give your readers the information or context they need to draw the conclusion you want, and allow them to fill in the gaps. Tell me you have great customer service and I say, “yeah, sure”; tell me you guarantee to answer my calls within 7 rings and to resolve all my technical issues within an hour of calling, and I think “Wow, that’s great customer service!”
The whole thing works even better if the context you supply appeals to the reader’s already established truths, biases and prejudices. Remember how Cobb’s team delivered the seed idea to Fischer from his trusted and loved Uncle Peter? Do the same thing for your readers by clothing your suggested conclusions in the context of old familiar truths.
This is a technique as old as Aristotle, who called Enthymemes the soul of persuasion. Why? Because they take the form of logical reasoning while assuming a central element of the argument. This assumption forces the audience to fill in the missing gap, making them active participants in the chain of reasoning. An enthymeme makes the conclusion feel self-generated for those who share the assumed piece of the argument.
Here’s an example or two:
“Does this place look like I’m … married? The toilet seat’s up, man!“
(The Dude in The Big Lebowski, 1998)
Notice how YOU had to supply the missing premise of “Married men are trained to put the toilet seat back down.” By participating in he chain of reasoning, the conclusion seems almost self-drawn, doesn’t it?
Here’s another one from Dannon:
“One of the Soviet Georgia’s senior citizens thought Dannon was an excellent yogurt. She ought to know. She’s been eating yogurt for 137 years.“
(1970s television advertisement for Dannon Yogurt)*
And this Geico ad does an excellent job of poking fun at its own assumed premise:
2) Nested storytelling = the dream within a dream
The dream state provides access to the subconscious. But a dream within a dream takes you that much deeper into the subconscious, which is why Cobb is notorious for using the technique, and why his team elects to take it to a maximum for their attempt at inception. By going to a dream within a dream, Cobb’s team can suggest things to Fischer that his conscious mind would likely reject.
For copywriters, the dream within a dream is a nested story (aka, a story within a story). In writing copy you inevitably create – at a minimum – one frame of reference: the one between your authorial voice and the reader. So introducing a story into your conversation with the audience instantly “nests” that story within the larger “narrative” of your copy, one frame of reference within the larger frame in which you’re “speaking” to the prospect.
The beauty of this technique is that the reader will unconsciously identify with protagonist of the story, so that emotions created within the nested story don’t stay inside the story — they follow the readers across to the frame story. This is important because a copywriter can get away with suggesting things within the context of “just a story” that he could not credibly write as explicit claims or statements.
Take the beginning of this, perhaps the most famous direct mail piece of all time, in which Martin Conroy starts telling his story, opening with the phrase “on a beautiful late spring afternoon.” And with that one phrase Conroy establishes both his authorial voice, speaking to you, while also creating the inner frame of his nested story – that of the business parable.
“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 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, 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.
What Made The Difference
Have you ever wondered, as I have, what makes this kind of difference in people’s lives? It isn’t always a native intelligence or talent or dedication. It isn’t that one person wants success and the other doesn’t.
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…”
Notice how the nested story emotionally primes the reader within the safe confines of “just a story”, while simultaneously positioning that emotional charge to jump across to the rest of the copy. This causes many readers to interpret Conroy’s offer that The Wall Street Journal will provide “knowledge that they can use in business” as ‘the WSJ will help me get the promotions I deserve’ — a statement the writer could never have gotten away with had he attempted to baldly and explicitly assert it into the copy directly.
If this connection between dreams and stories seems stretched, realize that more than one movie critic has, while reviewing Inception, noted the connection between entering into a shared dream and the act of watching a movie; for what is a movie if not a shared dream? And what is a story if not a movie in the mind of the reader?
Speaking of dreams within dreams and stories within stories, here’s a great ad the sort of combines the two to great emotional effect. Watch how the emotion of the nested story leaps across to the frame, and by extension, to you, the viewer:
3) It’s the emotion behind the idea that counts
Let me just quote from the movie script on this one:
Now the subconscious motivates through emotion, not reason, so we have to translate the idea into an emotional concept.
HOw do you translate a business strategy into an emotion?
That’s what we have to figure out. Robert and his father have a tense relationship. Worse, even, than the gossip columns have suggested…
Do you play on that? Suggest breaking up his father’s company as a ‘screw you’ to the old man?
No. Positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time. We yearn for people to be reconciled, for catharsis. We need positive emotional logic
And there you have it. Emotion trumps (or drives) logic, and positive emotion trumps negative emotion. This goes way beyond features and benefits to the deep emotional drivers behind intent. How often does your copy address these deeper emotional motivations?
If I were to ask you right now what the deep, positive, emotional motivators are for your key customers, could you even tell me? Does your copy come anywhere near addressing them?
More importantly, amidst all the “Problem-Agitation-Solution” copy formulas out there, are you making sure that your positive mental images of future benefit outweigh the negative images you create of the problems you claim to solve?
4) Self identity and relationships are the key to emotion that counts
When it came to reaching Fischer emotionally — when it came to framing the message in a way that would reach his innermost heart — the only way to do that was through relationship and self identity. How does my Dad see me, and how do I see myself?
I’ve blogged about this before, so I won’t go into huge detail about his now, but let me just say that absent personas and scenarios, there’s really no systematic way to address self-identity in copywriting. The best copywriters do it intuitively, but every pro knows it helps to have a system to fall back on.
What’s your system?
Best comment gets a free copy of the movie’s shooting script from Amazon.
* Hat tip to Richard Nordquist for the enthymeme examples
How often has your initial satisfaction with a purchase faded over time, leaving you with the bitter aftertaste of buyer’s remorse?
It’s an all-too common experience that makes us all wary with our hard won paychecks. Not that we necessarily expect first-rate champagne for second-rate beer prices, but we do hope, at least, that we’ll look back on a considered purchase and think, “That was money well spent.”
We may spend money to “take a chance” on something — say a book, a course, or even some wonder vitamin — but only with the hope that our future selves will look back and thank us for the decision to buy, deeming it “money well spent…”
Copywriting magic begins when you understand this backwards look and bake it into your copy by bringing the prospect, in their mind’s eye, into that promised, happy future, where they can look back on the present purchase with gratitude at the purchase that brought them so much satisfaction and happiness. Use this mental time travel to invest the present purchase with the full weight of fate and fortune, and to replace your reader’s tentative hopes with the certainty of experience — imagined experience, yes, but experience none the less.
So what does this have to do with Merlin? Well, you don’t think it was an accident that Merlin travelled through time backwards do you? How else do you think he worked his magic?
Want to see this in action? Click the link, watch the video, and see a masterful use of this persuasive time travel. Oh yeah, and it’s a great movie clip as well — you’ll be smiling all day thinking about it
Despite the cultural vogue of “memes” and “going viral,” the virus metaphor fails us — especially us marketers who would like to make a message go viral.
The virus analogy simply doesn’t hold up. A video or news story or urban legend can’t spread itself; they do not “self replicate.” Only human beings* spread ideas, videos, blog posts, etc — and we spread them for our own purposes.
So designing messaging to be spread by your fellow humans means designing messaging that will serve them. You must craft stories worth spreading, from the point of view of the prospective “spreader.”
I hinted at this in my earlier post on The Dry Erase Girl Hoax, when I said it was a story that we wanted to be true, a desire which short-circuited my (and apparently most other’s) normal fact-checking routines. So I was pleased when Jeff Eisenberg e-mailed me this interview of the hoax’s authors reinforcing this exact same point:
“There’s no reason that somebody’s bullshit detector shouldn’t have gone off when we launched this one. People want to believe it. I think (pulling off a hoax) takes time but it’s not as big a hurdle as you think.” [Emphasis mine]
Then John Resig, The hoax’s co-founder, went on to explain his own “formula” for a successful hoax — a formula he’s proven successful through the launch of 3 block-buster hoaxes in the last 2 years.
“Number one, the story has to be uplifting. This type of thing doesn’t have to be full of malice. Anyone can say something bad about something else. I’m looking for more of an entertainment value out of it.
Number two, I’m looking for a good story. If you look at the ‘Dry Erase’ hoax, it tells a story in three acts, beginning, middle and end. It must be a story well-told.”
So I’d elaborate the first point by saying that the story should be one we want to be true because it makes us feel better, either about our own situation, or about the world in general, or about how our long-held beliefs turned out to be true.
Learning that some girl accidentally texted her dad about losing her virginity on the beach isn’t necessarily uplifting, but it says something about the dangers of colliding social networks and our constantly-on, distracted from distraction by distraction society. Something we all felt in our guts. And it says it through a humorous, and, yes, well-told story.
This makes us feel good by spreading a smile and a chuckle to our friends, but also by confirming our suspicions, which is a point worth emphasizing. Although Resig didn’t include it in his list, it helps if the hoax/story/video communicates an idea or truth or insight that we couldn’t communicate as well on our own. When a story encapsulates an idea people wish to communicate, it stops mattering whether or not the story is true, the need to communicate the idea will ensure the story spreads far and wide.
Lemmings simply don’t follow the herd off the cliff and into the doom of a frost-cold sea. But humans do. And we NEED that mental image of lemmings to describe this all-too-human behavior. So the term, and the false story behind the term, remains part of our culture. People continue to spread the myth.
The flip side of this dynamic occurs when the story or video shatters a misconception that we desperately want shattered, like when The Girl Effect video hits us all in the gut with hope for Africa and other poverty-stricken countries. If you haven’t seen it, yet, watch it below; it says something important, it’ll make you smile, and it’s a story well told
* Yeah, I’m aware that killer whales and dolphins and maybe even some primates spread “ideas,” but none of them seem to consume much media, or subscribe to blogs, or even to fall prey to hoaxes, so I’ve chosen to exclude them from our discussion, OK?
Well, for the real answer, you can always read the highly recommended Made to Stick, which was based on the Heath Bros study of this very question. But apart from their SUCCES model, there’s one factor that I think the book doesn’t discuss quite directly enough:
Oftentimes, the urban legend is something we want to be true.
Now, in a world of legends about kidney thefts, that might sound a tad gruesome, and I’d be willing to admit this factor isn’t always at play, but more often than not, I think you’ll find even the scary urban legends contain some element of Schadenfreude — some way of making the world more interesting or poetically just, even if that requires raising the spectre of the bogey man to do so.
Case in point, this wonderful fable about a girl quitting her job via dry erase board pics e-mailed to her entire office.If you haven’t seen it, I practically guarantee it’ll brighten your day.
So while I usually check these things out on Snopes or Google, I didn’t do that for this one. I wanted it to be true. Even after I was e-mailed the news the story was false, it still felt like it ought to be true.
And isn’t that a lesson in copywriting?
- Provide powerful visual imagery of positive outcomes
- Include a sense of poetic justice in your story lines
- Don’t shy away from the subtle call to social status or use of schadenfreude
Start off with an image or story that the reader wants to be true — and really IS true — and you’ll find the rest of the persuasion process easy.
If you agree with those sentiments, as many do, you’re falling prey to what’s become known as the “third-person effect.”
As it turns out, advertising is effective on all of us, even you and me. We’re just notoriously bad at figuring out our own motives, especially when it comes to sensing the subconscious, half-conscious, and unconscious desires and impulses that drive much of our behavior. But we’re much better at the cool observation of others, so we can see that advertising works on “the masses” and even on our friends and neighbors. Hence the third person effect: “advertising doesn’t work on me, but it sure seems to affect others.”
Want to know how to turn this to your advantage?
First, realize that the third-person effect is stronger when the message isn’t directly relevant to the listener/viewer/reader. As PSYBLOG explains it:
In other words people are likely to be influenced more than they think on subjects that are currently of little or no interest to them. An everyday example would be seeing an advert for a car, when you’re not in the market for a new car. We’d probably guess it has little or no influence on us, but this research suggests we’d be wrong.
Now, I’m extrapolating a bit here, but this rather precisely matches what my and my colleagues experience with radio advertising: despite the innate desire to reach people who are already in the market right now, the best time to influence your prospect is BEFORE they need what you’re selling, so that they enter the market with an already established predisposition to favor you and your brand.
When I don’t have a strong opinion and have little vested interest, it doesn’t take much to sway my preference. And frankly, this describes exactly how most people think about a great many markets.
Do you really have a strong opinion on which carpet cleaner to call? Or which Small Engine Repair shop is the best? Or who has the best pressure washing service for your deck or fence, and so on?
Most of us don’t — until we need that service or product — then we’d rather not make a blind decision. And that’s where advertising’s influence makes all the difference.
With the right ad campaign, your audience will think of your company first and feel the best about you. Good enough, at least, to pick you instead of the competition, because you’ll no longer be a “blind choice.”
Pre-internet, this kind of branding campaign meant the prospect would flip open the Yellow Pages and purposefully look for your ad, rather than scanning the page in hopes that one of the ads might catch her eye.
Now, in the age of Google, it means the prospect searches on your companyname or even your Website’s URL rather than typic in more generic search terms for your market. And that pretty much screws your competitions’ fancy schmancy SEO and PPC work, delivering the prospect straight to your Website and then your door.
Just don’t be surprised when your newly thronged store and constantly ringing phone are populated by customers claiming to have heard about you from a friend, rather than your radio ads — ’cause everyone knows they’re not influenced by advertising