It’s rarely a good idea to begin at the beginning

Words or design

If you’ve ever started a big project (learning a language, getting fit, programming) you’ll know that it’s easy to get discouraged after the initial burst of enthusiasm. The mountain seems so high you can’t even see the snow-capped peak, so you’re not sure you have the staying power for the climb. 

But if you’ve ever read a self-help book or blog, or spoken to a life coach (is it just me, or is there one everywhere you turn nowadays?) you’ll also know that one of the best ways of achieving your goal is to visualise yourself when you’ve achieved it. 

What will it feel like when you’re sleek and toned? When you can rap with the natives in the lingo? Or when you can casually drop into the conversation that you’re a back-end developer? 

It feels pretty good, doesn’t it?

The time traveller’s life

Imagining yourself at the end point often gives you the force to go on, lifting those weights, conjugating those verbs and churning out that code.

Some gurus recommend committing yourself to that vision by broadcasting it loud and far. I’m learning Italian, should say at every possible opportunity. I’m going to be in great shape by summer. The mere fact of putting it out there means that you’re more invested in actually achieving the goal. 

There is a little cognitive trap that we need to be aware of though: it’s often very seductive to bask in the praise that flows your way following such a public declaration (Italian! How wonderful! or I wish I had your willpower and could drag myself to the gym).

Because once we have the praise, it feels as if we’ve already accomplished our goal – which ironically makes us less likely to persist, since we’ve already reaped the reward of unabashed praise (and a little envy). 

So it’s important to remember that the praise isn’t the prime target. What really counts is how you’ll feel when you get there, and what benefits reaching your goals will bring you. 

The sense of an ending

When you’re writing copy, it’s always a good idea to start at the end and work backwards. 

Let’s say you’re launching a brand-new online productivity tool, and you need to create an email or landing page to get people to sign up for a 30-day trial. 

It’s tempting to rush headlong in and start writing copy. But wait a moment – let’s start at the end and ask some questions as we work towards the beginning.

  • What are you hoping to get out of this promotion? More sales, or at least more leads. And for that, you need people to sign up for the free trial. (Could you not also include a ‘join our mailing list’ call to action so you get two bites of the cherry?)
  • Why would they not sign up? Maybe they’re not convinced (find out why), they don’t see the value in the product (there is value, right?) or they already have something that does the job (so convince them that this is better). 
  • What appeals to the target audience? This could be tricky, as you’re potentially looking at two audiences: those who already know and use a productivity tool (cut to the chase and highlight the differences) and those who are new to the area (they need a bit more explanation of the why, before you get to the what). It may be that you need a branch-off for newbies/the more experienced, or maybe you’re actually looking at two emails or landing pages (so perhaps you should take a step back and segment your target audience). 
  • How much detail do you need? This is directly related to the previous question, as detail depends on how familiar they are with the area in question. One thing is absolutely certain though: however much detail you think you need, you don’t. When you’re writing, there’s a huge temptation to get it all down, as if somehow readers will pick out the important stuff. Don’t kid yourself – they won’t. You need to do the heavy lifting for them.
  • What are the three most important things you want to get across? When you’ve identified them, narrow them down to just one. What is the single most important thing that you want people take away? Don’t underestimate how difficult this is, and what a wrench it is to pull back from the detail and see the big picture. But that’s the only view that counts. And we’re not talking here about what’s important to you, but to them. What is the one thing that will make them sit up and take notice? What’s the wow factor?

One step back, two steps forward

Working backwards will help you identify the ‘hook’, frame the story, and maybe even give you your headline. So make sure you spend enough time on it, as it informs the rest of the journey, and determine whether you (and your prospects) will arrive at the destination. 

Starting at the end takes practice, as the natural inclination is to go in the other direction. But writing is no different to fitness, a language or technical know-how.

Once you see the benefits (more sales, the ability to hold a decent conversation next time you’re in Florence, a well-paid job) and realise why you’re doing it, you’ll be able to stay the course and keep the target in mind. 

Which brings us nicely to the beginning – I mean the end. 

You know what I mean.