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Looking for the right answer? Make sure you're asking the right question.

Or why too much detail is almost always a bad thing…

Many years ago, I said to a client, “send me anything you think might be useful in helping me build up a picture of the project”.

I was thinking perhaps a PowerPoint presentation or a PDF brochure. Some sample sales emails, or an internal document or two. Nothing major, just bit more information so that I could really get my head around the company, their offering and their target market.

You can tell what’s coming, can’t you?

A couple of emails duly arrived, but the emails weren’t the problem – it was the attachments. Endless PDFs with exhaustive detail. Interminable PowerPoint presentations with more slides than you’d think humanly possible.

I scanned through them, but gave up in the end. I was swimming in a sea of detail, unable to see the big picture. Just for fun (in these cases, one takes what one can get) I counted up the slides and PDF pages, and the total came to almost 600.

Be careful what you ask for, I said to myself.  Because really, I brought it on myself. And back then, I thought more was better, and you could never get enough detail.

But over the years, I’ve realised that less is always more. When I’m researching a topic, I have to resist the natural temptation to find out everything. A little voice inside my head says you might need all that detail.

But you know what? I never do. But it’s knowing where to draw the line that’s important.

I’m not saying you don’t need to do background research for your copywriting project or marketing campaign. It’s just that you shouldn’t let yourself overcomplicate what could potentially be a simple question.

And even if you have all the details, it’s often instructive to remove them and see what you’re left with. To strip the problem right back to its basics, and see what you’re really trying to do.

I was vividly reminded of this when I watched Dan Myers’ TED talk Math class needs a makeover. I almost didn’t watch it because I have an aversion to maths, but I forced myself in the end.

And you should too.

It’s only just over 11 minutes long, and it’ll get you thinking about how you solve problems in your business. Even if you’re not a mathematician (and let’s face it – most of us aren’t) you’ll learn something really interesting.

My takeaways were:

  • Make it real
  • Keep it practical
  • Step back from the problem
  • Ask the right questions
  • Use multimedia
  • Get your intuition working
  • Form the shortest question you can

And of all of those, the last is the most important in a marketing context (Who am I writing this for? What’s the one thing this campaign should achieve? How will I get people to take action?). 

Short questions are simple questions. And that’s how you’ll find the simple solutions.

Enjoy the talk.

[If you’re reading this in an email, click here to see the talk on TED.com]

Top 10 tips for a successful sales letter

Think sales letters are out of fashion in the digital age? Think again.

Top 10 tips for a successful sales letter | writing sales letters copywriting  | copywriter [Image courtesy of Bev Goodwin at Flickr Creative Commons]

“Do people still send sales letters?” asked a client recently. He’d had limited success with e-mailshots he’d been doing, and was wondering if there was still life in the old dog yet.

There is – and now more than ever. In a world where everything’s gone virtual, there’s still very much a place for the physical.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I read a ‘real’ book for the first time in about two years. What a joy. Turning the pages, feeling the heft and weight of the book, the physical contact, and the sense of making progress (pages on the left read, pages on the right still to come).

The book created a lasting impression, and not only because it was a good read. It was also a sensory experience, and one that will stay with me for quite a while.

A physical letter can do the same.

Remember that what makes you stand out in a crowded field is being different. If everybody else is sending out emails, why not send out an old-fashioned sales letter to a qualified list?

The mere fact that it’s physical in a virtual world increases the chances of it being noticed.  And since there’s less physical competition, those chances increase yet further.

And yes, the cost is higher, but if the hit rate is too, then it’s worth it.

So what makes a successful sales letter? Here are my Top 10 Tips for sales letters that sell:

  1.  Keep it short. ‘How long will it be?’ asked a client of a sales letter a while back. Wrong question. ‘How short can it be?’ is what you should be asking.
  2. Tell a story, with a beginning (problem), middle (solution) and end (call to action.)
  3. Show them you ‘get’ them, by immediately addressing a problem or a need they have.
  4. Don’t cross the line by sketching out a nightmare scenario. Scare tactics are a double-edged sword, and can quickly frighten people off.
  5. Make it readable and easy to scan: include headings, bullets, bolded text, call-out boxes, and anything else that leads the eye through the copy.
  6. Include figures, because nothing sells like numbers. Be specific and realistic, otherwise you might be setting yourself up for failure.
  7. Don’t use overblown language, because that’s the sales letter equivalent of the foot-in-the-door salesperson, who just won’t take no for an answer.
  8. Keep it simple, by having one goal in mind that you focus on relentlessly. Don’t hit them with too many details, or make too many offers.
  9. Don’t say everything – because you can’t.  In any case, too much detail may actually put readers off contacting you, as they think they know enough to decide it’s not for them. So intrigue, tease and create a desire to find out more.
  10. Include a P.S. – because you can, and because it works. Repetition may be an obvious ploy, but it’s no less effective for that.

And when you’ve finished, the advice is the same as with all copy.

Stop.

Then send. Happy selling.

Does plain English kill your creativity?

Why simple doesn’t mean bland. And why complicated might just lose you the sale.

Does plain English kill your creativity?  | writing language grammar  | copywriter [Image courtesy of Pete O’Shea at Flickr Creative Commons]

I recently had an interesting conversation with a fellow writer about whether plain English means bland English. He had very strong views on the matter, saying that plain meant boring – which killed creativity.

I was not entirely convinced. For maybe plain (with negative overtones) is just another word for clear (with positive ones). And when it comes to copywriting, clearer is always better.

The starting point for the debate was the Plain English Campaign, an organisation that’s been ‘campaigning for crystal-clear English since 1979’. They serve up brickbats and bouquets (if that’s not too clichéd a term) ever year to both state and private-sector organisations based on the quality of their written output.

Their website, as you can imagine, is a fascinating read. And if you’re a fan of telling it like it is, and a hater of the hackneyed, you’ll love it. It’s a grammar geek’s sweet shop, full of unexpected pleasures and new discoveries.

Their PDF guide has some common-sense tips that every writer should take on board:

  • Keep your sentences short
  • Prefer active verbs
  • Use ‘you’ and ‘we’
  • Use words that are appropriate for the reader
  • Don’t be afraid to give instructions
  • Avoid nominalisations
  • Use lists where appropriate

In fact, most of those things I’ve advocated over the years on this blog (well, all except the one about nominalisations: turning a verb such as complete into a noun – completion).

Their suggestions for alternative everyday words (change instead of adjustment, allowed instead of admissible, total instead of aggregate) seem to chime with the first law of copywriting: write how you speak.

They also say that plain English is not about ‘the cat sat on the mat’ school of writing, or about banning words.

Just as well.

Style and substance

So what is it about? Well at its simplest, it’s about writing copy that people will read. About connecting with your audience in a language that they can understand and relate to.

Which brings us back to the the discussion – or heated debate – I had about whether plain English cramps style and kills creativity. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a bit of a non-issue.

For creativity is not about using long words and convoluted expressions. It’s about a lightness of touch and a lack of self-importance. About doing more with less, and creating an impression rather than labouring every brush-stroke. It’s as much about the gaps between the words as the words themselves.

And it’s about originality, which doesn’t need polysyllables.

All you have to do is take some well-known taglines, throw away the Plain English Campaign guidelines and see what happens.

Every little helps (Tesco) becomes individual actions contribute to the overall good.

And you’re done (once used by Amazon) becomes you have accomplished what you set out to do.

And Yes you can (you know who) becomes It is possible for you to achieve your goals.

Bigger, better and more effective? No. Just plodding and pedestrian, and full of self importance.

So next time you’re writing and feel yourself coming over all serious, remember the simple advice of the Plain English Campaign. It won’t cramp your style, and it won’t kill your creativity.

And it might just win you a new client. And that, in the end, is all that matters.

Find out more:

The easy way to give your copy a makeover

First impressions count, and a little formatting can go a long way

The easy way to give your copy a makeover | writing marketing language copywriting  | copywriter [Image courtesy of Carlislehvac at Flickr Creative Commons]

Last weekend, I was prompted to reflect on what a difference presentation makes. And the starting point for this train of thought was a paintbrush.

But I wasn’t standing in front of an easel; instead, I was scraping, sanding and painting the window frames in my office.

In just a couple of hours, they went from dirty, cracked and unappealing to clean, smooth and pristine. And all because of a little elbow grease and a lick of paint.

To motivate myself when I do these little DIY jobs, I say to myself ‘What would a potential purchaser think?’ And in this case, they’d think ‘What great windows. I think I’ll pay the asking price for the house’.

And that’s all the motivation I need. My house isn’t for sale, but if a little work here and there can make it more saleable, and increase the value, then it’s time and effort well spent.

The same is true of copy. On this blog, I’m always saying things like cut it down, take it out and pare it back. But there is a limit to how much you can hack away. Sometimes, there’s no excess left to take out. So is the job done?

Not exactly. For copy, like windows, walls and gardens, can always do with a little primping to make it look more appealing. And more saleable.

Let’s take an example. Twice.

Now before you say ‘I’m not reading all that’, let me tell you that you don’t have to. In fact, it’s better that you don’t, as it’ll demonstrate my point more effectively.

Here are two versions of the same copy, with a few tweaks on the second pass:

Password security

It’s just crept up on us. Over the last 15-20 years, we’ve had to create passwords for everything from Amazon to Google, from Apple to our PCs and mobile devices. The trouble with a password is that you have to remember it. So you need to make it memorable.

And that’s the problem. Because often, what’s memorable is what’s most obvious. So you choose your date of birth, or your partner’s name, or your house number. It’s easy for you to remember, and for hackers to guess.

It’s not just humans you’re up against. Password-cracking software can cycle through thousands of word and number combinations a second, making cracking obvious passwords child’s play.

So what do you do? Well firstly, don’t use the same password for everything. So much for what you shouldn’t do. But how about some positive advice?

Well one easy way is to use a ‘passphrase’, where you use the first letter of each word to create your password. Alternatively, you could use a password-generator to create a strong password for you, incorporating punctuation and symbols.

Or you could create a password document, where you store all your passwords; the thing is, if you forget the password document password, then you’re in trouble. Do also remember also to change your passwords frequently, for added security.

Password security may have just crept up on us, but that’s no reason to ignore the problem. In an age of increasing hacker sophistication, doing nothing is not an option. The time to take action is now.

And again:

Password security: Top Tips to keep you safe from prying eyes!

Passwords are everywhere. They’ve just crept up on us. Over the last 15-20 years, we’ve had to create passwords for everything from Amazon to Google, from Apple to our PCs and mobile devices. The trouble with a password is that you have to remember it. So you need to make it memorable.

Don’t make the hackers’ job easier. And that’s the problem. Because often, what’s memorable is what’s most obvious. So you choose your date of birth, or your partner’s name, or your house number. It’s easy for you to remember, and for hackers to guess.

It’s not just humans you’re up against. Password-cracking software can cycle through thousands of word and number combinations a second, making cracking obvious passwords child’s play.

Here are our Top 5 tips:

  • Don’t use the same password for everything, as you could lose everything in one go.
  • Use a ‘passphrase’, where you use the first letter of each word to create your password.
  • Use a password-generator to create a strong password for you, incorporating punctuation and symbols.
  • Create a password document, where you store all your passwords. But be careful: if you forget the password document password, then you’re in trouble.
  • Change your passwords frequently for added security.

Take action NOW

Password security may have just crept up on us, but that’s no reason to ignore the problem. In an age of increasing hacker sophistication, doing nothing is not an option. The time to take action is now.

Paint your copy better

You see what I mean? When it comes to copy, a little formatting goes a long way. I’ll bet you only read the headings and the bolded text in the second one. And you know what? You picked up the message just as well as if you’d read the bits in between.

Good copywriting encourages speed-reading. It helps the reader through the text, saving them time and effort.

Just like scraping, sanding and painting does for tired window frames, a little light decorating work will transform you copy. And it’ll make readers and potential purchasers think ‘I’ll buy that’.

And you’re done.

Get your marketing in shape with some smart moves

Lessons from the fitness frontline that we can all learn from

Get your marketing in shape with some smart moves | marketing  | copywriter [Image courtesy of jerryonlife at Flickr Creative Commons]

This is the tale of three gyms. Let’s call them A, B and C.

I’m a couple of weeks away from moving to C, which is actually a reincarnation, rising from the ashes of A. But before I lose you entirely, let me take a step back (crouching and feeling that stretch, naturally) and set the scene.

Gym A was just down the road from me. I joined it 10 years ago, when I left the madness of London for the relative calm of Cambridge. In fact, I joined the gym before it opened, signing up in the sales office to the sound of hammers, pneumatic drills and builders’ bawdy jokes in the background.

It was big, bright and well equipped. I got an off-peak membership, which suited me fine. Not for me the after-work crowds and endless queues. And for years and years, it was just what I needed.

Until it wasn’t.

About  year ago, I decided I wanted a change. And the process has been an exercise in marketing basics – which is a workout that we all need to have once in a while. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Don’t look for a reason where there isn’t one. I left Gym A because I was bored and wanted something different. Did they do anything wrong? Not really. No more than other gyms, who take members for granted once they’ve signed up. My departure wasn’t sparked by any one thing, but by a slow burn of minor reasons, ignited by a flash of desire for something new. When there’s no logic, you just need to accept that these things happen and move on.
  • Novelty is attractive, but it doesn’t last. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be called novelty. When I moved to Gym B, everything was new and different.  From the machines to the showers, from the pool to the classes. But it soon became the new normal, and after a year it’s almost as familiar as the old gym. And the lesson here? Keep innovating and changing, and never get complacent. If Gym A had been a bit more innovative, they might not have lost me.
  • Price always matters. Gym A was closer but more expensive than Gym B. And for a long time, I thought close beat cheap. But then one day I cycled the route to B, and realised that although it took twice as long (both ways, of course) I could compensate by cutting down on aerobic exercise once I was actually there. Now, cheap became the overriding factor, combined with novelty (see above).
  • You need to make existing clients feel loved. For years, Gym A had special offers plastered outside the entrance (which is next to the foyer of a multiplex cinema) with great rates for new members. And they were almost always better than the deals that existing members were on. Not once did they offer to reduce my membership fees, or add extras. And changing-room chatter often revolved around the perennial question: How much are you paying?
  • Pricing should be transparent, and with Gym A it wasn’t. The website was vague and evasive (‘contact a member of our sales team’). This added to the above chatter, and had the faint whiff of dishonest practices. Gym B had prices on its site for all to see, and a simple signup facility. And sign up I did.
  • Nothing is forever, as Gym B has now discovered. The competitive landscape is constantly changing, and what was good enough yesterday doesn’t always cut the mustard today. Earlier this year, the Gym A chain got into financial difficulties and was forced to downsize. They sold off some of their gyms, including my local one. Enter the newest player: Gym C, a chain that’s shaking up the market with cut-price offers and 24×7 opening (yes, yes, I know – who on earth works out at 3am?).
  • Limited offers work best. Scarcity sells – always. You can either restrict the supply of products (but not too much) or the duration of offers. If people feel they could miss out, they take action. In my case, the clincher was that Gym C has an unbeatable pre-opening deal that will be available up to two weeks before they’re up and running. Once they are, it reverts to the full price with the full joining fee. That rock-bottom deal then runs for the first year of membership. What’s not to like? Needless to say, it was enough to make me reach for my mouse and click Join.
  • You don’t need to wait until you’re ready. Don’t throw open the doors (virtual or otherwise) and then start looking for clients. Hype it up beforehand, and create a buzz. Pre-opening offers means you hit the ground running from day 1 with an established client base. Pre-ordered tablets and phones (Google’s favourite ploy) means you can gauge demand weeks before you have to supply. That vital lead time gives you some breathing space, and ensures you’re not overwhelmed.
  • Make sure you deliver. Whether it’s footfall on your gym floor, or products falling into customers’ hands, you need to make sure you hit your target date. Nothing spoils a shiny new purchase like an unexpected delay. Gym C had better open in two weeks, or there’ll be a lot of disappointed gym bunnies out there. The sexy Nexus 9 (I’m considering its charms, and am feeling more than a little in love) had better be available in early November. A promise broken is worse than a promise never made at all, so make sure it’s doable before you commit.
  • Be a graceful loser, and set your clients fee. I cancelled my membership at Gym B, giving them the required calendar month’s notice. I then waited for the last payment to go out, and cancelled my direct debit (automatic payment). Job done – or so I thought. For just a few days later, my access card failed to open the turnstile. When I explained to the woman at the desk that it might be linked to my imminent departure, there was a sharp intake of breath: “Oooh – they don’t like it when you cancel.” And she was right: the system had put a lock on my account, claiming that I still owed another month’s membership. It took the intervention of the manager to override the system and correct the mistake.
  • Always try to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. When I announced to Gym B that I was leaving, they made no attempt to make me reconsider. They simply asked me to fill out a form, then clicked, tapped and confirmed – and it was done. Not once did they ask me if there was anything they could do to make me stay. And yet the cost of finding a replacement for me will far outweigh what they could have offered me as an inducement. But they just let me go without a second thought.

And Gym C? Well, I’ll report back in a while. We’re still at the early stages of in our relationship, and I’m hoping for great things. I’m crossing my fingers that its opening will be synchronised with the end of my membership at B. Which it should do if they keep their marketing promise.

I’m sure there will be teething problems – there always are. They’ve already blotted their copybook just a bit, by replying to an email I sent about the opening date, and whether there was a way to set up an alert:

I am afraid there isn’t you should receive an email saying where were open for viewings tours and when our actual opening date is. The class timetable will be put on at the end of next week but not too book you won’t be able to do that until were officially open.

So two sentences instead of four, a blind spot when it comes to where/when and we’re/were, and an errant s in viewings tours.

But that’s OK. I know that where gyms are concerned, the important thing is brawn, not brain. As long as they’re open in two weeks’ time, I’ll forgive the odd spelling and grammar mistake.

But they’d better shape up, or I’ll be on the lookout again. One false move, and I could just be heading for Gym D.