MustReadClassicsBookshelfIt happens to the best of us.  As copywriters, marketers, and entrepreneurs we get waylaid by our own best intentions, by our efforts at learning more about our craft, keeping up with all the must-read posts, magazine articles, and business books, and so on.

The end result: a reading diet way too rich on mediocre prose and way too low on first-rate fiction and poetry. Think about the last 10 books you’ve read and tell me that’s not the case.

And, in general, as you read, so shall you write. Garbage In, Garbage Out. So here’s my vitamin-enhanced fiction-reading commitment for next year:

  • one short story, OR
  • one chapter from a novel, OR
  • At least one poem, OR
  • A chapter from the Bible, OR
  • One first-rate play or screenplay

I’ll read at least that much fiction each day, every day.

As far as New Year’s resolutions go, I think this one is probably one of the most pleasant I’ve ever made, and will very likely turn out to be one of the most effectively life-improving as well. I hereby recommend it to you.

Anyone else make a writing-specific resolution this New Year’s?

savethecat_bookcover_revised3-200x300I never would have guessed that a 30-second commercial could be structured on the same storytelling beats as a typical 90-minute movie.

And yet that’s exactly what the late Blake Snyder demonstrated in his last book, Save The Cat Strikes Back.

If you’re not familiar with the Save the Cat series of screenwriting books, let me explain.  Blake Snyder breaks the typical movie down into 15 dramatic “beats,” that also coincide with traditional 3-act story structures and Joseph Campbell’s monomyth/hero’s journey cycle.

If you’re interested in learning more, you can download all 15 beats on the “Blake Snyder Beat Sheet” along with a diagram of how the beats line up with a basic 3-Act Structure over at the official Save The Cat Website.

At any rate, it’s important to keep in mind that these are the structural beats for feature-length movies – that’s what makes it so cool and semi-mind-blowing that they also work for a 30 second commercial.

So here’s how Blake broke down the dramatic structure of a Pledge Commercial, using these same structural “beats” that he uses to teach scriptwriting:

“The Day I Discovered Pledge

Opening Image – A downcast housewife.  Home a mess.  Dust everywhere.  This “before” snapshot depicts the Set-Up, and even a Stasis = Death moment, for it looks like things won’t change.

Catalyst – Then our hero discovers….. Pledge!

Debate – “Should I use it?”

Break Into Two – Yes!

Fun and Games – With a spray can of her B-story ally, the delighted home maker flies through the house, dust vanishes like magic, tabletops glow.  And the “false victory” at Midpoint shows she can live like this all the time.  But there’s a problem….

Bad Guys Close In – To have the “new,” she must give up the “old.”  Can our hero face the truth of what she must sacrifice?

All Is Lost – What “death” has to occur?  What “old idea” must be gotten rid of?  What is the “All Is Lost” moment of our Pledge commercial?  Why it’s dropping Brand X in the trash!  It’s the furniture polish that our hero used to use that is now obsolete.

Break Into Three – Having dispensed with Brand X, the synthesized pair finish up the housework with delight and…

Final Image – Dressed in her tennis outfit, racket in hand, a newly together housewife walks out the door, leaving the primally named Pledge atop a very shiny table to guard her home.

The End”

So what’s the point of all this?  Three things:

1. To reinforce the importance of scripting your online videos.

That pledge commercial probably had very little dialogue, but the messaging was still scripted as intensely as a feature-length film.  And the same thing occurs with the vast majority of high-conversion product videos and viral videos.

More importantly, if you can and should script an interactive video, shouldn’t  you also “script” visitor interaction with your Website?  Surely you’ve given thought to what happens on this or that page, but have you considered the overall “persuasive arc” that would take place as the visitor moves through your site?

2. To reinforce the importance of Story in your online messaging

We may claim to be “just the facts” kind of guys and gals, but we’re not.  We wouldn’t be human if we were.  As a persuasive technique, Story rules, even in:

3. To recommend Blake Snyder’s books to you if you haven’t read them.

His Save the Cat series is well worth the read, regardless of whether or not you have any aspirations toward writing film scripts.  Just check out his Amazon reviews for his first and second books and you’ll see.

Welcome Back from the Holidays

Oh, and I also wanted to welcome everyone back from the holidays.  Hope all of you enjoyed some much-deserved time off.  Thanks for reading my stuff.  I’m resolute in my commitment to bring you as much great material as possible in the coming year.

P.S.  If you have any suggestions for topics or anything you’d like to see covered, feel free to e-mail me.

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):

2009-12-10_0122

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.

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