The Awesome Power of the Aha Moment

I’m a big believer in what I call the “awesome power of the aha moment.” You know, like in a movie when the character you had pegged as the villain turns out to be the hero. Then you flash back to all the points along the way where… yep, sure enough… the signs were there. And you give a mental tip of the hat to the movie makers and think, “Well done, people.” Those moments stick with you.

In marketing, it’s that transformational instant when a prospect connects the dots on why your offering is unique or better, why you can be trusted to deliver on your promises, or how a relationship with your organization will benefit theirs. In my writing, I’m always looking for opportunities to create those kinds of moments. Thankfully it doesn’t take 90 minutes and a bucket of popcorn. In fact, sometimes it only requires a sentence or two. But that spark of recognition still leaves its mark.

Here’s an example. I wrote this for a marketing firm client of mine that wanted to make it clear that their goal is connecting with prospects, regardless of what medium is currently “cool” in agency circles:

From leading-edge digital to “old-school” print, we engage your audience in whatever ways the research dictates. Because when all eyes turn to you in the status meeting, nobody is asking how, they’re asking if.

If you’re like others I’ve asked to read this, it takes a split second for your brain to make the connection: they’re not asking how you got results, they’re asking if you got results. Aha.

I say on my About page that “the power of a persuasive text passage is the closest thing to true magic you’ll ever find.” If that’s correct, aha moments should be an essential element of all the spells we marketers cast.

Copywriting: To Beat the Block, riGht badlee

Writer’s block. If you write for a living, this condition can come out of nowhere and knock you off your game. On the other hand, if you write only when you absolutely have to, you may be more or less permanently afflicted.

There are many methods for beating the block - from taking an exercise break to chugging caffeine to changing locations, just to name a few. As a guy who has faced - and defeated - writer’s block many times in his writing career, my go-to strategy can be summed up in two words: Write badly.

One of the things that tends to put a choke hold on professional writers and non-writers alike is that our impatient brains try to fast-forward to a polished, finished piece. Rather than starting with a rough draft that is actually “rough”, we attempt to shortcut the process and produce our final draft first. As a result, nothing we write looks good enough and we lock up on phrasing and transitions and all the elements of good writing that the completed passage should have.

The answer? Rein in your opinionated brain! Give yourself permission to spend a good 30 minutes writing really, really poorly. Ignore every rule you’ve ever learned about punctuation, capitalization, spelling, etc. Jot down everything from individual words to half-baked ideas to stream-of-consciousness paragraphs that may or may not be on point. Thoughts, mental images, emotions, preferences… capture it all. Write with reckless abandon. The more uninhibited you can be and the faster you can type, the better. Scribbling on a piece of paper can be even more freeing. The goal is to cover that irritating white space with… stuff.

What is some of the “shorthand” that can help?

Word reminders, positive and negative

Yes: vibrant, sincere. No: genuine = overused!

Phrases that appeal

Use - she was powerful yet personable

Research reminders

Who’s the guy she started that company with? Look him up. Article?

Bracket placeholders

After the meeting, her [word kinda like “revelation” but better] had changed many opinions.


Hate the stupid ending in my head. WEAK! Finish with a quote

Once your brain dump is complete, you’ll find that the act of writing has become less like writing and more like assembling a puzzle. It may still be a challenge, but at least the pieces are there and you get closer to a finished product with each one you place.

Copywriting: The Power of... Poetry?

Business copywriting and poetry. People will tell you the only things the two have in common are paper and ink. They’ll say there’s no place for poetry in business communication. However, the same people will always gravitate to sentences more like the second below:

I write text that is unambiguous, to the point and capable of generating action.

I write text that is clear, concise and compelling.

Why do we prefer the second sentence? No, not simply because it’s shorter - although that helps. Option two appeals because the human brain is wired to identify and appreciate rhythm and repetition and alliteration. It is also attracted to assonance, consonance and a number of other features that we’re not consciously aware of. In short, it loves poetry.

Disagree? Poetry’s not your thing? Is there anyone you know who doesn’t like music of some kind? Rock, country, pop, rap? They’re all poetry set to music.

So, when you’re looking to capture, and keep, your readers’ attention, why would you not craft text passages that utilize at least some of the elements of poetry? Maybe that extra subconscious advantage isn’t important to you. Sure it is! You want any edge you can gain over your competition.

Action Item: As you write your next draft or review one written for you, first confirm that it’s accurate, complete and grammatically correct. Those attributes are critical. But then evaluate it using a higher standard.

Does it flow? Is it rhythmic? Are there ear-pleasing repetitions of certain subtle sounds or sentence structures? In short, does it leave you with the impression that it was crafted rather than just typed? If so, your message will have a much deeper, more long-lasting impact on your audience.


Copywriting: You Should Pay More for Less

“Excuse me,” you’re saying, “Did I read that right?  Pay more for less?”  Yes, you did.

When you hire a copywriter, you expect to get a lot for your money, right?  Who can blame you?  Regardless of what I'm purchasing, the more I receive in return for my hard-earned cash, the better I feel.  With good writing, however, be sure you understand what “more” is.

Long paragraphs stuffed with unnecessary adjectives and jargon definitely have more words.  But do they convey more meaning?  In most cases, the answer is no.  In fact, the opposite is often true.  For time-strapped readers who may only have a few moments to skim a passage, bloated prose is irritating at best and alienating at worst.

When it comes to copywriting, the “more” you’re looking for is more engagement.  This, in turn, leads to more business.

My advice:

  • Tell your copywriter that you prefer work that is interesting and brief; be unwilling to sacrifice on either measure  
  • Words like “lean” and “tight” will get your writer’s attention; use them liberally when discussing your project
  • In reviewing drafts, don’t hesitate to scratch words that read well but are unnecessary
  • Remember: SEO (search engine optimization) is about keyword density not keyword quantity
  • When reconciling a completed project and the invoice, know that keeping words out of a passage is more difficult than putting them in

What are some of the benefits of lean, tight writing?

  • Increased comprehension (studies show long sentences/paragraphs are hard to understand)
  • Decreased printing/production costs
  • Increased social sharing
  • Faster revisions/updates

What you want from a copywriter is text that communicates your message effectively.  When verbiage is both compelling and concise, you'll know you've hit the jackpot.   

Blindfolded at the Archery Range

Blindfolded at the archery range. It’s a visual that’s either amusing or alarming, depending on whether the archer is facing you. If you’re a “creative,” you know the feeling. Either because we don't ask the necessary questions or the client doesn't fully share their opinions, perspectives, and expectations for a project, we are notching, drawing, and releasing in the general (VERY general) direction of the target. And unless we get really lucky, we’re just as apt to hit the bull in the neighboring pasture as the bullseye.

Been there. Done that. (Missed the target, that is. Have never hit a bull, to my knowledge.)

In some cases, we realize we are blindfolded only after we’ve delivered a first draft and the client comes back with a laundry list of changes. Then, with our vision restored, we’re able to see, to our great embarrassment, that the target is behind us.

So how can this scenario be avoided? On the creative side, I think sometimes we’re too quick to say, “Got it,” when in fact we definitely don’t got it. (Guilty!) Sure, if there are aspects of the project that our own research will clarify for us, that’s great and it will save the client some time. But I've learned there’s no shame in asking a few questions. In fact, there’s no shame in asking a whole slew of questions if doing so helps us deliver excellent work.

On the client side, it seems that there are two primary reasons for a lack of clarity on project direction: either they are too distracted or are being too deferential to provide the necessary input. And I can say that with confidence because for many years I was a consumer of creative services rather than a provider. Clients who are busy juggling multiple projects sometimes don't give adequate direction. And those who feel that they should defer to the creative’s “vision” without first sharing their own are often short on details as well.

So… In our shared goal to get to a great finished product as efficiently as possible, we should all speak up. That bullseye is much easier to hit when we’re facing downrange with an unobstructed view. ;^)

Is Your Content in the Goldilocks Zone?

The Goldilocks zone… that interstellar sweet spot where a planet is neither too close to nor too far from the star that it orbits, and can therefore support liquid water and possibly life. Astrophysicists are hard at work as I type scouring the skies for heavenly bodies that are not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

If you are a marketer, you should be looking to position your marketing content in that same kind of place. Too often, content is cold and lifeless. It may be safe —  meaning that it resembles all the other content that is flooding the internet, so it won’t get you fired —  but it’s also unlikely to get you remarkable results.

On the flipside, some companies decide to break free of the content crowd and in doing so, produce something that is — to continue the space metaphor — really out there. Their content is so “hot” that the target audience can’t grasp it. Nor can anyone else, for that matter. The marketers take great pride in their groundbreaking piece, but it doesn’t deliver great results.

What you want (and need) is to have your content in the “habitable zone” that is somewhere in between the two (and too) extremes. Clever without being too cute. Eye-catching without being obnoxious. Unique without being obscure. It’s not an easy place to find, but it exists for every type of content on every topic in every market.  

To locate it, you just need to loosen your grip a bit without taking your hands off the wheel entirely, and start exploring. You’ll know you’ve arrived when instead of getting bored, blank stares or confused, furrowed brows from your prospects you start seeing grins and subtle nods. Welcome home, Goldilocks.

How Great Copy is Like Good Home Brew

My brother-in-law is a brewing master. He crafts the kind of beer that you actually ask for when you visit him, not the swill that your buddy makes and that you politely choke down out of respect for his new (poisonous) passion. The guy knows his stuff. Recently, as we sat at a microbrewery enjoying a cold one, he tried to explain to me the brewing process.

At the end of a fairly complex lesson that involved everything from botany to chemistry to physics, he paused, looked me in the eye and asked, “But do you know what the most important ingredient is?” “Wwwwhat?” I asked, eager to be let in on what was clearly a craft secret. He took a long, dramatic pull on his IPA, gazed off into the distance, and said, “Time.” Ignoring my slightly dejected look, he explained, “It’s time. You’re just itchin’ to crack open that vessel and get a taste of your creation, but ya gotta be patient, dude. You can’t rush things.”

It occurred to me then that patience and “not rushing things” is important in copywriting, too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve completed a writing project and declared it perfect, only to come back to it a day or two later to discover that perfection IT IS NOT. Of course, I then make the necessary edits to achieve actual perfection (!), but I’m still stunned at how differently a piece reads just 24 hours after I’ve finished it.

Psychologists would, no doubt, tell us that there are lots of reasons why we have such a high opinion of our work at the moment of completion. For me, I think it has to do with the euphoria you feel when you get to check a box on your To Do list. Those endorphins probably cloud my vision a bit. So, no matter how tight a deadline I’m under, I always find time to step away from a draft before coming back to it with a fresh perspective, making edits, and calling it complete. Ideally, that cooling off period is 24 hours or more. But even 24 minutes is better than nothing.

So, whatever it is you’re writing, if it’s important that it be clear, concise and error-free (and when isn’t that important?), be sure to follow my brother-in-law’s advice and, “Be patient, dude.” You’ll find your work is much better when it’s fully fermented.


Don't Fear the Reaper... errrrr... Editor

Editors might be right up there with IRS agents, dentists and proctologists on the list of people you’d rather not see… ever. They have a reputation (not entirely undeserved, let’s be honest) for being ill-tempered perfectionists whose only joy in life is making writers feel inadequate. However, if your goal is to produce clear, concise, compelling copy, the editor can very well be your most valuable ally.

“I’m not sure,” you say, “Valuable ally? I get more of an archenemy vibe.” Yes, sometimes the writer/editor relationship can start to feel that way. And it’s hard to know where the train left the tracks. The writer produces subpar work… the editor delivers a harsh critique… the writer expects a flood of red ink on the next project and consequently puts minimal effort into the draft… the editor is even more frustrated. And so it goes, ad infinitum.

But, fear not, wilting wordsmith! There are ways to get this important relationship back on the rails.

  • Seek input early. Most editors are happy to provide feedback even before your first draft is complete. Showing that you are open to input will earn you some points. And a wise editor will reciprocate by inviting more commentary on their edits.
  • Go for good. Writers who know their work will be reviewed by an editor often spend too much time trying to craft the perfect prose. Be sure that you deliver a draft that articulates your key points, flows well and is free of typos and grammatical errors, but don’t don’t stress out over every syllable. No matter how well you write a piece, an editor is likely to suggest changes. It’s what they do. Accepting that fact will lower your stress level and depressurize the relationship in general.
  • Share your thought process. While editors have a way with words, they aren’t always experts on the material they are reviewing. Giving them some background on why you wrote your piece the way you did can help ensure you are on the same page.
  • Give, and then take. You are entitled to push back a bit on an editor’s changes to your work, if only to help you understand why they were made. But in the end, it’s best to trust the editor’s judgement - partly because of their skill and experience, and partly because, well, cleaning up your writing is something they’ve been authorized to do.

So, with a little effort, your interaction with an editor can be more collaboration than confrontation. When you go into a project with that attitude, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the outcome.


Content Marketing: Show 'Em Your Stuff

One of the most powerful pieces of marketing content I ever helped produce was a simple spreadsheet. Truth be told, its empty cells far outnumbered those with data. Yet people requested it… a lot. The reason this fairly barren document was so coveted by the company's website visitors was as much about what it represented as what it provided.

First, it displayed the company’s confidence in its products. And second, it showed their desire to collaborate with prospects and help them with their research. So, what was in it? The spreadsheet contained a list of product features on the vertical axis, and the names of the company's products on the horizontal. Xs denoted which systems had which features.

But information on product functionality was readily available in other forms in many places on their website, whereas this document had to be requested. Why did people go to the trouble? They took the extra step because this fully-editable spreadsheet had additional columns they could use to check the boxes for any other products they were investigating. Many people even assigned numeric values to software features and used the sheet’s summing capability to add a “metrics” element to their evaluation. While not all of them ended up going with the company's solutions, many of them did.

The point is, people appreciate - and trust - a company that’s eager to give them the unvarnished truth about its products and encourages comparison to the competition. So, don’t hold back. Show ‘em your stuff! If you have a strong product or service, you’ll be rewarded. And if you don’t, you’ll be better informed and better able to make the changes needed to win more business.

Content Marketing: The Power of One

Content marketing...  Using valuable, relevant content that you create (or curate) to engage prospects, educate or inform them, and ultimately convert them to customers.  Most experts agree, no marketing plan is complete without content marketing as a key - if not primary - component.  If you’re not yet using this strategy, it can sound intimidating.  What is “content”?  How will I create it?  How much content do I need?

For someone new to the concept, the most important of these questions may be the last. The surprising answer to “How much content do I need?” is: One piece.  

One piece?  Yes, your content marketing strategy can start with one white paper, one case study or even a simple checklist.  Although I’m in the business of crafting compelling documents, I’ll be honest and tell you that you don’t need a vast library of content or a fast flowing stream of the stuff.  One quality item is all you need to get rolling.  And with that fact in your back pocket, the whole idea seems a lot less daunting.

Your company has significant expertise in a particular field - writing software, providing a service, manufacturing widgets.  It must, or you wouldn’t be in business.  When you bring a new customer onboard, you share that expertise with them, often verbally and informally.  Now imagine that you work with a writer to get that information down on paper.  It becomes a set of best practices for preparing to implement your type of product, for example.  And instead of holding it in reserve for clients, you post it prominently on your website or let visitors request it through a contact form.  

This information is useful to the reader whether they go with you or someone else.  By making it freely available, you begin to establish a reputation as an authority in your field.  And just as importantly, you show website visitors that you’re generous, selfless (as selfless as a business can be, anyway) and eager to help them succeed.  All this from ONE piece of content.  

Will more material down the road lead to more engagement?  Absolutely.  But the point is you don’t need to wait until you have the time/energy/capital to implement a full-blown content generation schedule.  You can get started with a single piece - easily, right now.

Word Choice and The Butterfly Effect

Maybe you’ve heard of the butterfly effect?  To scientists who study chaos theory it means that a small change in the “initial conditions of a system” can have a big impact on the end result.  

One of my favorite examples is a commercial I once saw for a watch manufacturer (Timex, maybe?).  Two strangers, a man and woman, are approaching a street corner from different directions and are fated to meet.  They will start a relationship when they (literally) run into each other.  The narrator describes a loving marriage, happy kids, thriving careers, etc.  The problem is, Bob's inferior watch has him running... one... second... late.  A near miss and an entirely different future.

I'm not a scientist, but I’m a firm believer in the butterfly effect in a different context: written communication.  More specifically, word choice.  As an experienced copywriter and editor, I've seen countless examples of how the selection of one word over another can affect an outcome.  Using the wrong word gives the ones that immediately follow it a slightly different meaning.  That meaning colors subsequent sentences, and so on.  Ultimately, like a trip to Mars that starts two degrees off course, the reader’s skewed trajectory takes her somewhere entirely unintended.  

OK, so how do you pin that butterfly down?  How do you ensure that the marketing brochure, email blast, web page text or press release that you are writing (or that a copywriter is producing for you) delivers readers directly to the desired destination?

Shred Your Thesaurus.  If you have to pull a word out of a thesaurus or other reference book, odds are you aren’t completely comfortable with how to use that word.  There may be shades of meaning that just don’t occur to you.  Stick to words you’re familiar with when working on an important project - and leave the experimenting for other, less critical stuff.

Proofread.  Proofread.  And Then Proofread.  I’ll share a list of my favorite proofreading tips in another post, but two that I’ll mention here involve time and location.  There’s nothing like getting away from a project for a few days (at the very least, a few hours) to give you a fresh perspective.  Do that more than once, if you can.  And, while it sounds strange, proofreading in a different location can make it feel like you’re reading something new, and open your eyes to questionable word choices.

Get an Uninformed Opinion.  Although you're writing for Audience A, some of your best feedback may come from Audience B.  If you can, have someone completely unfamiliar with the subject give it a read.  Because this is new territory to them, they're much more likely to come back with very specific questions about meaning.  Like, “When you say, ‘We provide online training,’ do you mean you sell that service or give it away for free?”

So, when you’re looking to communicate with absolute clarity, and move the reader reliably from awareness to action, be sure to capture your butterflies!