Eight years after it was first published, Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art has sold significantly more copies this year than any year following its initial release.
In an industry where writers expect to lose money on their non-fiction books, and further expect their titles to languish, unsold and ignored after the initial publishing push, this books recent surge in sales and popularity represents an incredible success story – one accomplished without a traditional marketing push, or a plug by Oprah (though it darn well deserves it, if you happen to be reading, Ms. Winfrey), or even a re-release from the publisher.
How did Steve do it?
A few reasons come to mind, some more salient than others:
- The book has proved itself a modern classic for its intended audience of writers and regularly makes appearances in Top 10 lists of books for writers. There’s nothing like solid content and great user experience to drive customer evangelization.
- Steve has actively welcomed and encouraged a new audience for his book, one that eventually saw that the book was only superficially about writing or fine art, and was, at heart, a textbook for anyone looking to do valuable, creative, and remarkable work. Don’t underestimate this, not many authors would have bothered to notice the interest of an unanticipated audience, let alone actively welcomed and courted it.
- Steve has given away lots of new content written in the same spirit as the book. He has embraced the counterintuitive notion that giving away content expands your base of fans willing to pay for content.
- Steve has actively engaged with his fans and that increased engagement has resulted in increased sales. This goes beyond just opening his blog to comments and responding to them. In fact, Steve has actively given interviews, appeared in guest posts, been available on Twitter, and generously corresponded with even the lowliest of bloggers.
OK, so the list hardly surprises, right? It basically reads like an online marketer’s checklist of “What’s Working Now.” Who hasn’t been told to “be authentic,” or to “do great work,” or especially to engage in the “gift economy,” after all?
So rather than detailing the oft discussed items within the list, let’s look at the hidden forces and motivations behind the successful implementation of those items.
The Emotional Dynamic Underneath “Authenticity”
The most striking thing about Steve’s success is also the most striking thing about his writing and his “style” in general: his profound ability to relate insight into the human condition in a way that’s practical for those of us slogging through our own work-a-day worlds. If you’re interested in a “from the foxhole” perspective, shared from a generous intent to pass on what actually works down in the mud and the blood and the sweat and the tears, you won’t do better than Steve’s stuff.
But a recommendation to copy this particular virtue of Steve’s sounds suspiciously like yet another exhortation to “be authentic” dressed up in fancier language.
So how do you bridge the gap? How do you imbue your own online marketing efforts with some of the same magic that took a nearly 10-year-old non-fiction book on the psychology of writing and turned it into everyone’s favorite handbook for doing work that matters?
Territory vs. Hierarchy
As it turns out, Steve provides the answer both in his book and in his inaugural Writing Wednesday’s post. Here’s a quote from that post, talking about what separates successful pros at blogging from the also-rans:
“There are many excellent and extremely professional bloggers and their stuff is a pleasure to read. They are making contributions. They’re part of the solution. But I also see no few writers of blogs who are stuck in their own egos. You can tell it from the first sentence, even the first phrase. It’s in their tone of voice. The text reeks of jealousy, pettiness, competitiveness and bile. It’s like the tone academics take when they’re sticking knives in each other’s backs. It has nothing to do with solutions and everything to do with fear, ego and narcissism. They are writing as amateurs. Their aim, though they will deny it even after being waterboarded 283 times, is to advance (or simply preserve) their own egos. I know, because I’ve been in that place. When the happy breakthrough comes for those writers, their work will rise an entire level overnight, then keep rising for levels and levels beyond that.”
With this quote in mind, look at the list again. Now ask yourself how easy any of those things would be if your primary motivation was to climb to a higher place in the pecking order? How easy? How about next to impossible.
Acting out of ego engages a hierarchical mindset, and no one can look to maintain or improve their place in the hierarchy while giving away their best stuff to their audience and fans. You can’t be enamored of your position within the group while fearlessly inviting outsiders to join in. Neither can you comfortably venture outside your group, away from where you hold status, expertise, power, etc. Nor can you reject the urge to second-guess your audience if everything you write, say, and do is aimed at impressing or manipulating them.
In short, the more hierarchical your value system, the more difficult you’ll find “new marketing.”
And yet, we’re practically programmed to think hierarchically in school, at our jobs, and socially. There are the alpha dogs and the under dogs. The queen bees and the wanna-bees. Thinking hierarchically is the default position for most of us, and it’s what our lizard brain/yetzer hara/Resistance steers us towards.
So there’s no jettisoning hierarchical thinking without replacing it with some other mindset; self-identity has to come from somewhere. The other option, as Steven describes it in The War of Art, is to replace hierarchy with territory: claiming a territory of practice/service and drawing your identity through that practice rather than your place in the pecking order. As Steven writes:
“We humans have territories too. Ours are psychological. Stevie Wonder’s territory is the paino. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s is the gym. When Bill Gates pulls into the parking lot at Microsoft, he’s on his territory. When I sit down to write, I’m on mine.
What are the qualities of a territory?
1. A territory provides sustenance. Runners know what a territory is. So do rock climbers and kayakers and yogis. Artists and entrepreneurs know what a territory is. The swimmer who towels off after swimming her laps feels a hell of a lot better than the tired, cranky person who dove into the pool 30 minutes earlier.
2. A territory sustains us without external input. A territory is a closed feedback loop. Our role is to put in effort and love; the territory absorbs this and gives it back to us in the form of wellbeing.
When experts tell us that exercise (or any other effort-requiring activity) banishes depression, this is what they mean.
3. A territory can only be claimed alone. You can team with a partner, you can work out with a friend, but you only need yourself to soak up your territory’s juice.
4. A territory can only be claimed by work. When Arnold Schwarzenegger hits the gym, he’s on his own turf. But what made it his own are the hours and years of sweat he put in to claim it. A territory doesn’t give, it gives back.
5. A territory returns exactly what you put in. Territories are fair. Every erg of energy you put in goes infallibly into your account. A territory never devalues. A territory never crashes. What you deposited, you get back, dollar for dollar”
Beyond that, a territory is where we can go in humility, to serve our higher calling, not as a bid for attention but as a gift to our tribe, specifically, and to the world in general.
As my mentor and partner, Roy Williams says,
“Any goal that begins with the words, ‘My goal is to have…’ is certain to bring unhappiness. Goals that scratch your life-itch are the ones that begin, ‘I will serve people by.…’
…So who are your people and how do you plan to serve them?”
Yet even though it would seem your tribe would come first, and your method of service would come afterwords, in relation to the tribe, this doesn’t often work in a modern and (in an anthropological sense) post-tribal world. You find your territory first, and your tribe will be drawn by what your work has produced.
You identify your territory by knowing what you’d do if you were the last person on earth. What would still be worth doing if there was no one to impress and no way to move up in the pecking order?
And you claim that territory through putting in the work, selflessly, as a professional. When that happens you’re no longer afraid to share your best stuff, because you’re always getting better, always coming up with new stuff. Welcoming new members becomes second nature, as does engaging in open conversation with people regardless of their status in the pecking order.
Territory-based identity, as Steven defines it, makes Web 2.0-style marketing workable. Without it, you’ll be fighting your own instincts and, ultimately, sabotaging your efforts.
And yet, even though following this path makes life easier, Resistance – Resistance in the form of procrastination, rationalization, and ego — gets in the way, making it feel like the harder option. Focusing on claiming your territory through the work helps steel you for those battles against resistance.
Sound like something worth pursuing? Well, realize that this potentially life altering stuff on Territory vs. Hierarchy is compressed into only a few pages of a 165-page book – and the rest of the books is every bit as good, if not better!
Most of the The War of Art is about overcoming resistance, the necessary first step to doing the honest work needed to claim a territory, making it pretty much THE book for creative entrepreneurs who struggle with procrastination.
If that sounds like a must-read book to you, YOU’RE RIGHT! Go buy a copy.
Better yet, buy the new, digital copy for your favorite e-reader for 1/5th the price of the paperback. The sooner you start reading this stuff, the faster you can begin moving past resistance, to claim your territory, and achieve the real work you were meant for.
This guy is awesome. He also has a much longer performance that he put on for TED…
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?