One-on-one, face-to-face communication is still the best way to communicate. But what if you can’t? What if you want to reach hundreds, thousands or even millions of individuals with your message at the same time? You write. Fortunately, the principles of persuasion that work for salesmen also work for those who can only “ask by letter.” Here are nine that can help you.
1) Do your homework.
Learn as much as possible about your product or service. Ask questions. There’s always a nugget waiting to be uncovered that can give you an information edge. As you listen, wheels will start to turn in your mind. Ideas will come.
Dick Orkin and Bert Berdis, renowned radio commercial writers of the ’70s and ’80s, tell a story about a new client that couldn’t sell its calculators. When the writers met with the client, they asked what was different about the calculator.
“Oh, not much,” answered one manager. “Our calculator is pretty much the same as every other calculator.”
Orkin and Berdis persisted, hoping to discover some extraordinary feature. Finally someone said, “There is something. It’s really not much, but our calculator has little rubber pads on the bottom.”
At last Orkin and Berdis had found their unique selling point. Soon a commercial was on the air about the calculator with “little rubber feet.” And the client needed a calculator to count the sales.
2) Know your customer.
Your communication may go to thousands, but when writing it you must focus on just one individual.
Imagine the person you’re writing to is sitting in a chair beside you. Try to picture this person. Who is it? A woman? What does she look like? How old is she? Where does she live? What are her interests? Once you have a clear picture of who you’re writing to, then you can begin to write to that person. Direct marketing copywriter Herschell Gordon Lewis says he likes to get in a prospect’s head the way an actor immerses himself in a character. “I’ve written many a package as a woman or a member of an ethnic, religious, political or philosophical group to which I don’t belong or subscribe.”
3) Respect your prospect.
Every word you write should say, “I like you, I need you, I have something terrific for you.” Peter Drucker says: “A great ad makes each reader feel, ‘This is for me and nobody else.'”
In The Ben Franklin Factor: Selling One to One, James C. Humes writes, “Customers know when they are being treated as objects—to be exploited for profit or pleasure. If you want to persuade, be personal.”
Think of your customer as a friend. Write to, not at. Be conversational. Take advice from newspaper columnist Ann Landers who says, “I was taught to write like I talk.”
4) Be honest and sincere.
Integrity builds credibility and, more often than not, a long-term relationship. It’s okay to admit that your product has an Achilles heel, as copywriter Hank Burnett did in his classic “Admiral Byrd” letter to well-heeled business executives in 1968. The letter began:
“As Chairman of the Admiral Richard E. Byrd Polar Center, it is my privilege to invite you to become a member of an expedition which is destined to make both news and history. It will cost you $10,000 and about 26 days of your time. Frankly, you will endure some discomfort and may even face some danger.”
Just a few words into this letter and there’s no question that you can trust the writer-salesman.
5) Get to the point.
Business strategist and market positioning expert Jack Trout reports that an average person in Sweden receives an average of 3,000 sales messages a day. He also says the human mind is limited, hates confusion and loses focus easily. Which means it’s more important than ever to make your point and make tracks. That’s the job of a great headline.
In Confessions of An Ad Man, David Ogilvy said: “On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. If you haven’t done some selling in your headline, you have wasted 80 percent of your client’s money.”
Direct marketing expert Bob Stone says, “Promise your most important benefit in the headline or first paragraph of copy, then immediately enlarge on the most important benefit.”
Legendary direct mail copywriter John Caples says, “Tell your prospect what’s in it for him, or at least hint at it.”
6) Sell the benefits.
It’s easy to talk about a product’s features (bricks and mortar); it’s harder to talk about the benefits (how the bricks and mortar will satisfy some need or self-interest).
One writer for a brand of binoculars could have focused on the product’s impressive magnification numbers, a feature few people would understand. Instead, the persuasive writer decided to talk about the binoculars in terms of a benefit that anyone could comprehend: “You can look the sparrow straight in the eye from 250 feet and you can see it blink.”
Benefits give readers solutions to problems. They are more YOU than ME. They’re facts—with feeling. They satisfy a need.
And, although benefits can stand on their own, you can fortify them with testimonials, study results and comparisons. (If you say your product is better, just make sure you say what it’s better than.)
7) Keep it simple.
In William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus, the Duke of Athens, said, “For never anything can be amiss/When simpleness and duty tender it.”
For whatever reason, most of us like to show off when we write. Here are some tips to keep it simple:
- Use words that people use. “Buy” is better than “purchase.” “Free” is better than “complimentary.” “Help” is better than “assist.”
- Use short sentences and paragraphs. If your sentences are longer than 20 words, get out the red pencil.
- Cut the cute. Robert W. Bly makes this point in The Copywriter’s Handbook: “When you make a purchase, do you want to be amused by the sales clerk? Or do you want to know that you’re getting quality merchandise at a reasonable price?”
- Edit. All good persuasive writer are good rewriters. When the Paris Review asked Ernest Hemingway how much rewriting he did, Hemingway answered: “It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.” The Paris Review then asked, “What was it that had stumped you?” “Getting the words right,” Hemingway answered.
- Break rules you learned in eighth grade English. It’s okay to end sentences with prepositions. Sentence fragments are okay too. So are one-sentence paragraphs. And go ahead, begin that next sentence with a conjunction. Anything that helps the reader slide smoothly through the material.
- Avoid technical jargon. These words may sound important, but people probably won’t know what you’re talking about.
- Use techniques to simplify and increase readability. These include numbering, bulleting, underlining, indenting paragraphs, boldfacing, italicizing, coloring type, writing notes in margins, boxing copy, using call outs and adding a P.S. to a letter’s end.
8) Write in living color.
Tom McElligott, one of advertising’s most celebrated creatives, said, “Selling is an art of passion. When you’re passionate about an idea, it shows.”
Get excited about your product. Nobody ever bored anyone into buying anything. Use words and phrases that appeal to the emotions, not the intellect. “Worried” is an emotional word; “concerned” is an intellectual word. “I’m sorry” is emotional; “I regret” is intellectual. “Free” is emotional; “complimentary” is intellectual.
A passionate and persuasive writer sells in living color, not in black and white. In Direct Mail Copy That Sells, Lewis cites one example of a writer for a company called On The Run who wrote this sentence for a scuba diver’s watch: “A push of the button sets into motion a fiercely talented stopwatch.”
9) Ask for the order.
A door-to-door salesman who doesn’t ask for the order will soon be taking orders from someone else.
Top direct marketing writers always end with a call to action. What do you want your prospect to do? Be specific. Say it clearly. You don’t want to get the reader to the end and lose the sale.
P.S. Now that you know the rules, practice them. And remember the words of Gene Fowler. He said, “Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at the blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.”