Category Archives: copywriting

The true secret of the Yes/No response

Big TickI received a marketing email today from an expert in direct marketing, in which he wrote about sorting out the dead ducks from those who are really interested.

He referred to the Reader’s Digest Yes and No reply envelopes.

He called it the Yes/No option, implied that it was how to sort out the ones who are not really interested, and went on to say that is does not work in face to face selling.

I agree with that, but I believe he got it slightly wrong about the Reader’s Digest envelopes. Their intention was not merely a Yes/No option to separate tyre kickers from real prospects.

In direct mail, your objective should be to encourage response. Even negative response.

The more Noes you attract, the more Yeses you’ll get as well.

Encourage people to reply, and you have a dialogue going. That develops the relationship. Along the way, you’ll tip some Undecideds into the Yes camp as well.

Test it. Run one stream with a straight Yes or No response, and another which allows everyone to respond, some with an order, some without one. That’s what a Prize Draw does. Everyone can enter, whether they order or not.

In face to face selling the same thinking applies. In my Five Key Questions for Sales people, the fifth question is: What’s the least you will settle for?

It’s about planning for a fall-back option if you do not get the sale. Something to keep the door open, to maintain a dialogue and develop the relationship.

That’s the real secret behind the so-called Yes/No option.

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Deliver what it says on your tin

I was looking for inspiration.  I have been running public speaking programmes for many years and wondered if I was missing a trick. Perhaps I could still learn from others in the business. So I turned to a book written by a highly-acclaimed ‘expert’, only to be disappointed.

My expectations were high, and I was ready to be impressed. But 100 pages into the book I still have not found a single insight worth adding to what I already know. Worse, the author (who is English) has done what I find more common among Americans – he talks ‘about’ the topic rather than the topic itself.

He talks about certain typical situations in which the communication fails, but he doesn’t explain the dynamics, and takes forever to provide the solution. Moreover, when the answer arrives, it’s pretty ordinary.

That’s the word! Ordinary. This famous expert’s flagship work is just plain ordinary.

I turned to another book, this one written by an American. The title was attractive, saying exactly what I was looking for. The author has won awards for speechwriting.

Then I came across this: “Try some Self-Depreciating Humour”.

It should, of course, have been “self-deprecating”, and it was not a typo. The fault lay with the author. It’s quite a common error among Americans.

I closed the book. And as I did so, I recalled the time I spoke at the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers, and told of the rivalry between two orators in ancient Greece: Demosthenes and Aeschines.

An American speaker approached me later and said he sometimes told that same story himself, but related it to Demosthenes and Cicero. I gently pointed out that they were born nearly 300 years apart, so they could hardly have been rivals. If I were ever in his audience, I would have a problem with his credibility.

If you are going to stick your head above the parapet, as author or speaker, you’ve got to get it right, you’ve got to check your facts, you’ve got to deliver what it says on your tin. How quickly we can lose a following, just by failing to meet expectations

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Who wrote that letter for you, then?

Standard letters. They undermine customer relationships, undo the best PR, lose customers, conflict with a company’s marketing efforts.

I have no objection to the use of standard letters, only to the letters themselves. Because they are seldom written by copywriters. In fact, they frequently read like the scribblings of backroom workers with no interpersonal skills.

Years ago I accepted a brief from Citicorp British National (now renamed) to re-write all their standard Prospecting Letters. It may have arisen because I criticised one or two of the letters I had received from them.

Subsequently, at Reader’s Digest, I was equally scathing about their credit control letters, pointing out the gulf between the tone used in recruiting new customers and that employed when addressing those same customers about their accounts.

I was told that no copywriter would accept the brief to write those letters, so I offered to do the job, and re-wrote the entire portfolio of credit control letters, filtering their messages through the respect we offered new customers.

The company was surprised that I would take on a brief that other copywriters considered deadly boring, but I put it to them that ALL our correspondence with customers formed part of our business relationship with them. It’s a connection we should view in the long term, I said, and always remember that customers will speak well or ill of you, according to the way you treat them.

Which brings me to my own recent experience. I ordered a pair of boots online. They sent the wrong size, because they incorrectly converted the EU size to the UK size. I sent them back, asking again for the correct EU size. They got it wrong again, for the same reason, and it dragged on for more than two weeks – not really good enough, for an online ordering service.

Then the company sent me a standard follow-up mailing inviting me to write a review. In my reply I detailed the unsatisfactory experience I had received, asking, “Do you really want me to write a review?”

I got a standard email in reply. It said, “I am sorry to hear you have not received our usual high standard of customer service.” There it is – “our usual high standard”. In an apology to me they have chosen to praise themselves. It’s wrong thinking.

Standard letters should be written by folks who know what they are doing. People who understand how to address customers. Relationship builders. In a word, Copywriters.

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The language of a speech or presentation

Every once in a while I come across a phrase that says exactly what I have in mind, with all the economy and beauty of poetry, and if it comes from someone else, I borrow it — but acknowledge the source.  For example Peggy Noonan, speechwriter to US Presidents, once said,

“You must be able to say the sentences you write.”

So simple, yet so profound.  If you remember that sentence every time you sit down to write a speech or presentation, you’ll make a big improvement.

My own aphorism on the subject goes like this: “The text that’s written to be said is different from the text that’s written to be read.”  So write for the ear.


The text for a speech should have these 7 characteristics, if it is to work as the vehicle for your thoughts and ideas:

1. It must be your own

2. It must be easy to speak

3. It must be easy to understand

4. It must make mental pictures

5. It must have energy

6. It must contain memorable phrases

7. It must have rhythm

I shall deal with the last item on another occasion, but let’s tackle each of the other points as they fall.

 1.  Make it your own

Your speech must be as close as possible to your normal conversational style, minus the verbal crutches, slang and swearing that might pepper your conversation with mates in the pub.  Otherwise it will sound unnatural, you will not be comfortable, and your audience will stop listening to you.

 2.  Make it easy to speak

Think about Peggy Noonan’s statement that you must be able to say the sentences you write.  Try saying this sentence out loud:

If you are faced with a potentially hostile audience, and if it is appropriate,   ask the person who invited you to indicate the audience’s opinion of  you and your topic, as well as the names of any especially troublesome   participants.

The individual words are not unusual, but the way they are grouped together makes the sentence unwieldy.  Also, the meaning is unclear.

3. Make it easy to understand

Remember, you will be speaking at 120-150 words a minute, or so, having thought out what you want to say.  Your audience will hear your words just once.  At 120-150 words a minute.  Every minute.  On and on.  Until you stop.  It’s hard work being an audience!  So why not meet them halfway and make it easy to understand what you are driving at?

4,  Make mental pictures

Avoid negative phrasing and abstract terms.  They do not make pictures in the minds of your listeners.

Consider the difference between these two:

He was always busy, persistently acquiring knowledge and modifying his behaviour according to the mores of each new discipline, and benefiting from them in the process.


Like a tireless bumble bee sipping nectar from flower after flower, he soaked up knowledge from every possible source, growing and      developing as he did so.

5.  Give it energy

Since the purpose of your speech must be to bring about change in the thinking, attitude or behaviour of your listeners, you must be persuasive, and that can only be achieved if you speak with energy.  Your choice of words must reflect that energy.  You cannot expect to achieve your purpose if your words imply, “Here it is.  Take it or leave it.”

6.   Deliver memorable phrases

We live in the age of the sound bite:  a 12-second statement that summarises or encapsulates a major statement.  The listening public expects pithy, memorable phrases that work almost like slogans.  Advertising copywriters have recognised this trend, and they create brand awareness through memorable (if sometimes meaningless) slogans.

  • A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play
  • Go to work on an egg
  • It’s good to talk
  • Beware of Jeep imitations

Politicians’ speechwriters are strong on memorable catchphrases such as:

  • The pound in your pocket
  • You’ve never had it so good
  • This lady’s not for turning

In summary, make your text easy to say and easy on the ear, with word pictures and some memorable phrases.


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Long copy or short copy?

 Depends on how you see it.

The debate in direct marketing circles is a long-standing and on-going one. Which works better – long letters or short ones? The answer may surprise you. It arises out of a significant shift in our reading habits.

I experienced it at first hand this week, when I found myself reading a number of blogs in a hurry.

I read them because they were discussions on topics that interested me, and had attracted quite a few comments from well-informed people. However, I struggled with them

The reason I found them hard going was this: the paragraphs were too long.

And there were too many paragraphs.

In some blogs, for example, the text is set in 10 point, with a line length of about 110 characters. That’s hard to skim read, and you have to move your head as you read each line. Too much work.

Easy on the eye

In contrast, some online sales letters from the USA run to many pages, but the paragraphs usually consist of a single sentence and are almost NEVER more than four lines long. The line length is short too.

Some paragraphs are one-liners like this.

They also have subheads like the one above, to segment the subject matter and break up the grey text.

Why that works

We all suffer from Attention Deficit. It may not be a Disorder (yet!) but it gets in the way when we are at work.

Every day, we are all assailed by huge numbers of messages and calls for our attention: radio, TV, emails, newspapers, magazines, advertisements, posters, tannoy announcements, traffic, phone calls, conversations, meetings …

We cannot cope with more than one thing at a time, so we have developed the ability to switch off. In fact, it’s a reflex that kicks in very quickly.

So what’s the answer?

The answer is to deliver your information in small bites. Like this blog. Make it easy for the reader to take in each new idea or piece of information, and it will increase your chances of being read all the way down the page. Page after page.

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Condemned by something similar

On Radio 4 this morning, announcing a programme that was to follow, the announcer said, “People are reticent to spend …” I was moved to write this correction, not merely because she and others use the wrong word, but because it was a shibboleth.

First, the correction. She should have said “People are reluctant to spend …” Reticent means being reserved in speech, holding back from saying something, being inclined to silence, not wanting to speak.

In the context of her announcement, she clearly meant that people were unwilling to spend. Reluctance means being unwilling or disinclined. The words are slightly similar, but they mean very different things.

Confusing one with the other is quite common, in both senses of the term. It’s an error that many make, so it’s common in that sense. But it is also an indicator of a down-scale language pattern, suggesting poor education and/or social inferiority – being socially common. That’s why it’s a shibboleth, a social gaffe.

A shibboleth is a test word or principle that marks its user as an outsider. The term derives from the Biblical story of the battle between the Gileadites and Ephraimites, which the latter lost. Anyone trying to cross the Gileadite checkpoints was asked to say “Shibboleth”. The Ephraimites could only say “Sibboleth”, which identified them as the enemy, and they were slain.

Since then the term has been used to mean anything that marks a person as a (usually inferior) non-member. In the context of business, especially in the increasingly competitive job market, shibboleths can disqualify candidates from consideration, no matter how able they may otherwise be.

They could be condemned for saying something similar, but incorrect.

For my part, linguistic shibboleths such as the one on Radio 4 this morning make me set aside my reticence and even my reluctance to criticise.  Silence, after all, would be collusion.

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Get the words right

My Maths teacher at school, Mr Banerjee, one day asked us to define ‘parallel lines’.  My friend Bill piped up: “Lines that never meet.” Mr Banerjee drew two lines on the blackboard, angled to one another, like the sides of a cone, not meeting. “If extended,” clarified Bill. Mr Banerjee then extended the lines at the wider end. “In both directions,“ said Bill, realising he had been caught out.

That little exercise focused our minds on the need for precision in language, and has stayed with me these many years. Lack of precision in the use and choice of words can have two significant effects on the reader or listener. Both negative.

It can communicate something very different from your intention, and it can diminish you in the other person’s eyes. Today I’ll focus on the latter.

I’ve been reading a thriller on Kindle by someone who is described as a best-selling author, scriptwriter and former newspaper journalist. It’s not a bad read, especially as Kindle allows me to read very fast.

However, I keep stumbling over the mis-use of words and misspellings that interfere with the author’s credentials, as far as this reader is concerned.

She has one of her characters pouring over some maps, instead of poring over them. She describes someone else as a business magnet instead of magnate, and she has the main character focussing on something or other, instead of focusing on it.

The book seems to have been published by a mainstream publisher, albeit a small one. It wasn’t self-published. So how did it get past the editor or proof reader? But more importantly, how come a newspaper journalist doesn’t know the difference between words that sound the same but have greatly different meanings?

As I contemplated writing this, I realised that I will be called a nit picker or a pedant. So be it.

Among the attributes I admire in writers are erudition and education. Of course I will excuse those who have compelling tales to tell, such as harrowing personal experiences, but those are rare exceptions. Their stories will surmount the errors in their language.

In general, a writer must command the respect of the reader. That respect is lost when solecisms occur. Even The Times is guilty. Not long ago they ran a headline which included the word “span” instead of “spun” (as in “span out of control”).

A lifetime ago, a brilliant New Zealander called Eric Partridge wrote a book called “Usage and Abusage”. I recommend it to writers and editors. And to anyone else who writes about their business, in sales letters, brochures or on websites.

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