2009-12-23_0111Con­ver­sion Opti­miza­tion con­sul­tants, more than a few copy­writ­ers, and most SEO experts used to look down on Flash-based sites.

Flash sites weren’t well indexed by search engines and had a bad habit of turn­ing a pull medium into a not-so-interactive video.  Oh, and their con­tent was often more gra­tu­itous than per­sua­sive in a flash-animated splash page sort of way.

Most all of that has changed, and we’re really start­ing to see inter­ac­tive video come into its own, as is the case with Eloqua’s new promotional/lead gen­er­a­tion video.  If you haven’t seen it yet, you really should take a few min­utes out of your day to take a look.  And maybe spend a few more min­utes to poke around dif­fer­ent path­ways and responses.

Another great exam­ple is Boone Oakley’s “YouTube Web­site,” as demon­strated by their home page that I’ve embed­ded below:

YouTube Preview Image

But make sure to look past the tech­nol­ogy to see the copywriting.

Yes, you read that right: I said copy­writ­ing. That video — includ­ing each and every one of it’s forked paths — was planned out, scripted, and sto­ry­boarded. The video is cool; the mes­sag­ing is brilliant.

Viewed through that lens, you’ll notice that most of the core per­sua­sive points remain the same regard­less of whether you click on “Mar­ket­ing” or “Sales” or “Exec­u­tive.”  What changes is the focus on this or that fea­ture set, the videos order­ing of tak­ing points, and the per­spec­tive in which some of the mate­r­ial is cov­ered.  Bril­liant.  And a tech­nique that Bryan and Jef­frey Eisen­berg pio­neered with text-and-hyperlink-based sites.

So while I love the video and I think it rep­re­sents new oppor­tu­ni­ties to inject per­son­al­ity and charisma into inter­ac­tive “con­ver­sa­tions,” keep in mind that tech­nol­ogy has to sup­port mes­sag­ing, and the core inter­ac­tiv­ity involved is no dif­fer­ent than that of reg­u­lar old embed­ded hyper­links.  Proper per­sua­sive plan­ning is still required.

trust2If peo­ple are sus­pi­cious of facts and fig­ures, and they won’t believe unsub­stan­ti­ated claims, what the hell can a copy­writer fall back on?

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:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (ver­sion 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Down­load the lat­est ver­sion here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Plane IntensityFly­ing wicked fast through the sky doesn’t feel fast at 36,000 feet.

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.

The Les­son:

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:

  1. He hit me.”
  2. He decked me.”
  3. 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?

Dark Streeta) As he trudged along the pave­ment, the man’s down­cast eyes saw only the mean streets and dark pavement.

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.

* Appar­ently, Mark Kennedy got the mouse draw­ings from the Dis­ney book, The Illu­sion of Life.  Also, my thanks to Shane Arthur for ask­ing a ques­tion about strong verbs that prompted this post.

2009-11-30_1352Never for­get: you prac­tice a queer trade, mak­ing you an odd duck by default.

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:

  1. Hero,
  2. Villain/Obstacle, and
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Tom & BookTom Wanek, author of the Mar­ket­ing Beyond Adver­tis­ing blog and for­mer e-commerce entre­pre­neur has just pub­lished his lat­est book: Cur­ren­cies That Buy Credibility

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.

PlumberI hate fix­ing house­hold plumb­ing problems.

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?

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