You can fall back on demonstration. This ones a favorite of infomercials and it was the one quality that the late Billy Mays insisted on when selecting products to pitch.
Or you can use a Reality Hook, where you tap into the undeniable truths already resident within the minds of your audience. Here’s a pitch perfect example of that as recently covered by Influential Marketing Blog:
Remember the days of getting eight hours of sleep? Neither do we. Most of us these days are getting a scant six hours of sleep. The equalizer? The all-new Sealy Posturepedic.® Designed to eliminate the pressure points that cause tossing and turning.
How did we achieve such a miraculous feat? Well, the short version (there’s a more technical version below) is that it used to be, we either had push-back support or pressure relief. Never both. So, with some very smart guys called the Orthopedic Advisory Board, we made the push-back support/pressure relief dilemma history. And voilà, the new Sealy Posturepedic was born. Mattresses that make the six hours of sleep we do get, a better six.
A couple of points:
1) The reality hook should not be a “Master of the Obvious” statement. The hook, rather than being a cliche, should either uncover the falsity of a cliche, or be a fresh observation of a common, but mostly unvoiced, experience. Don’t try to get all NLP on your readers by pacing them with brain-dead observations in the hopes of “forming a chain of yeses.” Respect the intelligence of your readers, please.
2) The reality hook only gets your foot in the door. It get’s your audience predisposed to see you as on the level and to continue reading. And while these are very good (and crucial) things, you still have to weave in other credibility enhancing techniques and genuine substantiation. In this case, Sealy builds increasing credibility by admitting a former downside or limitation: back support and pressure relief are kind of mutually exclusive. Makes sense right? And they do this while also letting the reader know that they’ve got the science and proof to back up their claims of having transcended that dilemma through engineering.
3) The reality hook is usually an observation about a problem and annoyance, which means you better be able to talk about how you’ve overcome that annoyance in the life of the customer. In other words, you transition from the reality hook to the What’s In It For Me (WIIFM) principle as fast as you can. Again, Sealy does this by talking about their mattresses’ ability to make 6 hours feel like more sleep and to eliminate pressure points while also providing back support.
And really, I think that last point goes beyond copywriting to strategy. As my friend, Chuck McKay, will tell you, a sure-fire strategy for many small businesses is to find what pisses people off about your industry or market and then offer a product or service free of that annoyance. One-hour Heating and Air Conditioning is a perfect example of that, and you can listen to there very first radio ad (and reality hook) by clicking the link below:
No one has ever turned to the passenger in the next seat and said, “wow are we ever booking it through these clouds!” This despite the fact that the airliner is screeching through the air at 500 mph.
Yet flying 120 mph about 50 feet off the ground in a helicopter feels fast (butt-puckeringly fast, in fact, depending on how tall the trees are ;). And driving a Jet Ski at 35 mph directly on top of the water feels even faster.
Action alone doesn’t equal intensity.
Action seen through the right Perspective equals intensity.
In movies and comics, storytellers achieve perspective through staging. Here’s a brilliant example of the difference perspective can make (an example I stole from Mark Kennedy* over at Temple of the Seven Golden Camels):
Increasing A Sentence’s Intensity Through Perspective
Applying this principle to writing, we see that the action itself — that is, the verb — only creates real intensity when viewed through the right perspective. Watch how intensifying the verb alone doesn’t intensify the mental image all that much:
- “He hit me.”
- “He decked me.”
- “He Steven Seagal’d my ass.”
But once I change the perspective you get:
- “His fist freight-trained into my upper lip, snapping my head back into darkness.”
- or “My nose snapped underneath his knuckles, blackening my senses till I felt the cold floor tiles against my cheek.”
Verb-wise, “Steven Seagal’d” and “freight-trained” are about on par with one another, but the latter sentence creates a sharper mental image. Even more to the point, “snapped” isn’t nearly as vivid a verb as “Steven Seagal’d” but the intensity of that last sentence still trumps any of the first three.
Changing the Subject Changes the Perspective — and the Intensity
Despite the commonplace to ‘use strong verbs,’ a powerful verb tied to a week subject will only spin its wheels. Choosing the right subject foregrounds the action in the mind of the reader.
Here are a few more examples:
Ugly: “She walked languidly and suggestively down the stairs and greeted her guests.”
This sentence lamely attempts to convey the sexual overtones of the lady’s descent by slapping on an abundance of lame adverbs. Standard advice is, “replace adverbs with better verbs” — and that’s solid advice that yields something like this:
(Not so) Bad: “She cat-walked her way down the stairs, enchanting each of her male guests in turn.”
But changing the perspective, does what just improving the verbs alone can’t:
Pretty Good: “Her hips swayed with each step, beckoning her guests’ attention.”
Or “Her suitors’ eyes tracked each hip-sway and leg unveiling as she made her grand entrance down the staircase”
It works for Emotional Perspective too
Which sentence best captures the emotional sense of this photo?
b) Trudging the pavement, the man’s downcast eyes were met by dark shadows and the grim sidewalk of mean streets.
c) Darkness piled over the man’s downcast head, limiting his sight to a narrow patch of grim sidewalk and desolate street.
How much of the differences between these sentences involves verbs, and how much involves perspective?
Bottom Line: writing with strong verbs is great advice, but those action words won’t have their full impact or intensity until you provide the right perspective/subject.
If you’ve ever had someone totally miss-read a blog post and walk away thinking the opposite of your intended message, chances are you forgot what an odd duck you are.
As a writer, chances are that you’re more at ease with the idea of creating meaning through interpretation of events, and of critically examining a narrative for multiple meanings, contradictions, open endings, shades of grey, nuances, etc. And you likely bring those same skills to bear on everything you read.
Most People Don’t Read The Same Way You Read
That level of analysis may be second nature for you, but it’s a lot of unpleasant work for most people, who generally don’t think to put that effort into 99% of what they read. When you forget that, you write something that’s bound to be misunderstood.
So here’s what to do about it…
The Straightforward Grammar of Business Stories
In order to tailor your writing to a general audience and to avoid miscommunication, you’ll want to intentionally structure your story the way most readers think about and remember stories. The message can be unexpected, but the narrative structure used to deliver it shouldn’t be.
And when it comes to business stories or parables, most non-writers think in terms of three nodes:
- Villain/Obstacle, and
- Turning Point/Triumph.
Complex, rich, satisfying stories may contain more moving parts, but business parables shouldn’t. If you’re telling an anecdote or fable to make a point, you’ll want to keep the narrative structure simple. Who’s the hero? What’s he want? And who the hell is getting in his way?
If your main point or general story structure doesn’t fit neatly within this structure, people will misremember or warp your story in order to fit the framework, often to the point of changing your intended meaning.
The Unwritten Expectations For Each Storytelling Node
In addition to simplifying your story to those three nodes, make sure you tell the story in such a way as to meet audience expectations for each of the nodes:
- Regardless of what writing instructors and English teachers may have taught you, in a business story the hero should always be the guy you talk about the most in the telling of the story. If you talk too much about someone other than the hero, you’ll likely confuse your audience.
- The villain should be, well, villainous, even if the villain is just an obstacle. Make sure your audience can see the dastardly pain and gnashing of teeth your villain/obstacle causes.
- Dramatize the turning point for the hero. Don’t be subtle about it; novelist can paper over a momentous decision or a-ha moment for literary effect, but a business parable can’t afford that kind of subtlety. And make sure the victory follows immediately after the decision point. Most importantly, whatever point you’re trying to convey had better be made and “proved” during the turning point and victory.
- Remember that everything in the story will either get lumped in with the hero or the villain – they (or it) will inevitably be remembered as either helping the hero achieve victory or working against the hero, with no room for neutral or conflicted parties, characters, or elements.
If you complicate the structure, or bury your point outside of that framework, or confuse people by talking too long about someone other than the hero, the reader will likely walk away thinking something totally different than your intended point.
Here’s a textbook example of what can go wrong:
What Happens When You Violate the Structure
Roy Williams used a Monday Morning Memo as a sort of character sketch, contrasting the difference between faith in, well, providence, in the largest sense of that word, and a blind slavery to “the sure thing.”
Specifically, he wrote about how Joe Weppner’s underdog bout against Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title inspired Stallone to write the script for Rocky. And, more importantly, he wrote about the incredible faith it took for Stallone to turn down a Studio’s offer of $400,000 for the script alone in favor of $25,000 and the chance to play the part of Rocky.
But Roy spent most of the Memo setting the stage by talking about Weppner and his singular chance at beating the odds. Not until the last few paragraphs does Roy introduce Sylvester Stallone and his gutsy move to turn down the “sure bet” of $400K for the chance to play the part of Rocky.
So when Roy closes his Memo by contrasting Weppner’s short-sighted slavery to “the sure thing” – about how Weppner took a $70,000 flat fee instead of a 1% cut of the movie’s gross that turned out to be worth $8 million – to Stallone’s faith, well, most readers missed the point of the memo.
How do I know? Because Roy’s MMM from two weeks after that opens with:
I recently wrote a Monday Morning Memo… about how Chuck Wepner’s fight against Muhammad Ali provided the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone to peck out the screenplay of Rocky, a low-budget film that, against all odds, won the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture in 1976. As expected, I was flooded with emails from people sharing stories of friends and family who “like Wepner” valiantly did their best in the face of insurmountable odds.
Funny thing is, that wasn’t the point of the memo…
Roy’s Story Structure Violated the Grammar of Business Parables
Weppner was the main character in the story, and yet Weppner was neither the hero nor the villain. Sylvester/Rocky was the hero. Daunting odds and the temptation of the “sure thing” was the obstacle.
So where does that leave Weppner? That leaves Weppner to either be confused with or associated with the Hero, or to be lumped in with the Obstacle/villain. Business parables leave no room for a complicated and conflicted third character.
So even though Weppner was both the inspiration for Rocky AND the guy who gave into the temptation of the sure thing, his image as the real-life inspiration for Rocky was what people took away from the Memo — even though that was the opposite of the intended point.
Fix Your Stories by Sticking to The 3-Node Structure
Do this by ensuring that:
- The Hero is clearly the hero. Make sure he gets the most description and “time in front of the camera.” If Roy had set-up with the image of Stallone refusing to sell-out his dream rather than presenting the image of Weppner as a gutsy and dogged fighter, they’d likely have been a lot less confusion.
- The Villain or Obstacle is presented “onscreen.” If your villain isn’t tangible, the reader will likely substitute a tangible villain for the one you intended. In Roy’s MMM the villain/obstacle was the temptation to sell-out to the sure thing. But selling out isn’t easily visualized and there was no Mephistophelean villain to embody selling out. So most reader’s likely substituted “the system” as the villain, with the system acting as the embodiment of conventional wisdom and “the odds.” The system may not be visual, but everyone’s been beaten down by it at one point or another, and everyone knows what it’s like to long for a magical moment of beating the odds. So readers paired Wepner the boxer and Stallone the actor in their battles to beat the system/odds.
- Turning Point & Victory: While the victory for Stallone immediately followed on his turning down the $400K, there really isn’t as much of an emotional turning point for Weppner. He lost out on $8 Million, but we have no idea how badly he did or didn’t need the money. Or how much he did or did not like being a liquor wholesaler in Bayonne, LA.
I’m not suggesting that you “talk down” to your audience or that you only tell simplistic stories. I am suggesting that you become aware of this framework so that the business or copywriting stories you tell end up making the point you hope them to make.
As a fellow Wizard of Ads partner, I had the good fortune of seeing him develop the material for this book over the last few years and of strong-arming him into an interview on his incredibly original approach to Signaling Theory and marketing.
The transcribed Question and Answers are below:
Q: First, let me say how much I love the 6 Currencies framework for thinking about credibility builders. And in thinking about your framework, it occurred to me that the indispensable element in all the currencies – the common thread – is the idea of vulnerability. You’re credibility is directly tied to how vulnerable you make yourself by your willingness to place one or more of those 6 currencies on the line.
Have I gone off on the deep end here, or is vulnerability really the key element behind the currencies – the idea that you have to make yourself vulnerable before a cynical audience will take you seriously?
TOM: [Laughs] No, you haven’t skipped off the deep end just yet.
Vulnerability is certainly another way to look at it. In the book, I discuss resources that you can risk or spend to purchase credibility. And obviously vulnerability is an inherent part of risk.
Jeff, you’ll also appreciate that my inspiration for the six currencies comes from Signaling Theory – which observes how animals communicate using bizarre behaviors and physical traits. Biologists commonly refer to the “cost” of sending a particular signal. And in many cases, this requires that animals place themselves in vulnerable situations.
Q: Would you draw a parallel between this and a post by Michele Miller on Marketing to Women? Michele said that although women WANT connection, the way to allow connection to develop is to PROVIDE women with control. In other words, give her control by making yourself VULNERABLE to her, and then she’ll form a CONNECTION. Do you see that message as being parallel to Currencies that Buy Credibility?
TOM: Yes, Michele is recommending that business owners invest the currency of Power and Control. And her recommendation is spot on.
It seems that most business owners want to control the customer relationship. But this controlling behavior breeds the habitual corporate-speak of hype and chest-thumping clichés that consumers have come to loathe and reject.
In the book, I provide two case studies that demonstrate how companies boost their credibility and authenticity by investing Power and Control into their customer relationships.
Q: Although everything in marketing is astonishingly context dependent, if I admit that going into this, can I ask you a non-contextual question? What currencies seem to work better than others? When it comes down to brass tacks and you’re employing these strategies on behalf of your clients, are there some techniques or currencies that are your “go to” stuff? Or do you use them all about the same?
TOM: Generally speaking, the more you risk, the more believable your message becomes.
But as you know, consumers do not make decisions in isolation. Rather, they compare the differences between their available options.
For these principles to truly work, your credibility investment must reinforce your message. And you won’t be able to purchase credibility unless you stay true to yourself. In other words, if your business can’t support what you’re signaling, then don’t send that particular signal. Redirect your resources.
Q: Are there some currencies that are over-used? Are there some that are under-used? If so, might there be an advantage to “cornering” the market on their use?
TOM: No, I believe all currencies are underused.
That said, we do see material wealth invested most frequently in the form of warranties and guarantees, but this does not mean the other currencies are any less effective. Again, context is everything.
Thanks so much, Tom. I can’t wait to get my hands on the book.
It’s not that plumbing is hard or even all that unpleasant, really. And that’s the infuriating part: the fact that plumbing would be — should be!?! — downright easy if you just didn’t have to:
- negotiate way-too-tight spaces,
- avoid smacking your hand against hot-enough-to-burn-you stuff,
- overcome rusted bolts,
- make yet another trip to the store to get a needed part, tool, etc.
- deal with the worry of making a costly mistake
Honestly, what kind of shade tree mechanic or home fixer-guy hasn’t bitched about one of these things? It’s the luxury of being a shade-tree mechanic or home-fixer guy.
But real professionals don’t have that luxury.
True pros know conditions are never ideal. And they know their reputations and paychecks rest on results achieved in far-from-ideal conditions.
Real plumbers expect to fix plumbing problems while on their backs, staring up at the underside of a cabinet, and working with rusted bolts. That’s how it is in the real world, and so they train for it. Because no one pays you to be an imaginary plumber in a make believe world where the pipes are all out in plain site.
I half-wanted to draw out the analogy between this and copywriting, advertising, and marketing, but I won’t insult your intelligence. Just let me ask you:
Are you a real professional at your chosen vocation?
Do you train yourself to handle far-from-ideal conditions and situations?
Or are you too busy dreaming of the perfect client/product/competitive market and bitching about the marketing equivalents of rusted bolts and tight spaces?
Want to have those same visitors actively searching for just enough substantiation to hang their hats on before rushing off to your shopping cart/checkout process?
Of course you would. Once your reader wants what you say to be true, once she hopes you’re “for real,” she’ll be routing for you the whole time she’s reading your substantiating copy/proof. And that’s the kind of audience you want.
So even before you think about how to prove your claims, establish credibility, or anything else, you’ll want to focus on establishing your readers’ emotional desire. Here’s how to do that…
A Seductive First Mental Image
“The core of a successful trick is an interesting and beautiful idea that taps into something that you would like to have happen. One of the things we do in our live show is I squeeze handfuls of water and they turn into cascades of money. That’s an interesting and beautiful idea.
The deception is really secondary. The idea is first, because the idea needs to capture your imagination.”
- Teller (of Penn & Teller fame) describing the neuroscience of magic
While all copy shares the challenge of capturing readers attention, the best headlines and openers move past gimmicks and shouting in order to intrigue and seduce readers with a mental image that the reader hopes to be true. Or wishes to make true.
Infomercials mastered this technique decades ago. They always open with a striking image or clip functioning as a seductive “proof of concept”:
- The Ginsu knife that cut through the tin can and could still finely slice the tomato
- The OxyClean that magically evaporate stains out of a white carpet
- The ShamWow leaving not a trace of water on the counter and soaking up 20 times its weight in water, every last drop in the tray
Only after the image captures the viewer’s imagination does the pitchman reveal the “secret” of how the product works.
Similarly, Lifelock.com first captures visitor’s imagination with the CEO brazenly publishing his SSN on the homepage. It’s only on the second or third page that visitors learn HOW LifeLock works to keep your identity safe.
And for many Web 2.0 sites, the opening page has become home to the quick 1–3 minute video showing you how easily you too can kick butt with their software/product. This screenr homepage video is a perfect example of that.
Why it Works
As it turns out, we’re really good at bending logic to suport out desires, because, really, does anyone really read Playboy “for the articles?” Our minds also suffer from anchoring bias and the effects of emotional priming.
Basically, an emotional image affects how we “see” or interpret the rest of the copy. Here’s an example: when test subjects were shown a video of a car accident, half of the test subjects were asked how fast the two cars were going when the “crashed” into each other, and half were asked how fast the cars were going when they “made contact.” On average, the “crashed into” group’s estimated speed was 10 mph faster than the “made contact” group. That simple phrase colored the entire memory of the film clip.
In a similar manner, your readers’ desire for a product can color their perception of your substantiating content. In other words, if you present a striking and seductive enough image, your readers will actually look to convince themselves with whatever logical proof you provide.
And isn’t that the way you want it?