The Importance of Fresh Perspective

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I sometimes recall a long-ago Sociology class where our professor had us all sit on the floor. The objective was to help us gain a fresh perspective about the world – to look at things differently, to shed our assumptions about good and bad entities and to replace that categorization with an understanding of the important dynamic created by both forces.

The same is true for writing. All too often, especially when working in a corporate capacity, we get “too close” to the product or service. We assume that others know what we’re discussing. We revert to industry lingo or technical terms that may not resonate with the end user. We rely on acronyms that hold no meaning for the outsider. We overlook unanswered questions that newcomers may have because, based on our own experiences, we have already found those answers.

The need for fresh perspective is an excellent argument for utilizing an external resource – a freelance writer, an editor, or a consultant. “Fresh eyes,” is what I sometimes call it. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is another phrase I use. To me, that’s the ability to say with brutal honesty, “It’s still not clear how to work with your company” or “I know what your product does but I still don’t understand how to use it.”

* TAKE A BREAK.

As an exercise, it’s wise for authors to step back or step away for a few days. Upon returning, we find ourselves more observant and critical. “I see what the character is doing, but what’s his motivation? Why did he choose to take that action at this particular time?” With direct response copy, a clear head can also catch important oversights: “I see what the monthly payments are, but nowhere does it say what the total cost will be. That seems deceptive.”

* LOOK FOR THE SECOND RIGHT ANSWER.

Gaining a fresh perspective can also help us avoid clichés. It’s easy to revert to catch phrases and familiar metaphors while telling a story. “She had a song in her heart.” Really? Let’s be cynical: “How did the song get there? What is it singing?” Perhaps we should explain more authentically: “After a week in the sunshine, her mood shifted from a sense of futility to a gradual joyfulness that caused her to hum as she puttered around the garden, pulling weeds and turning topsoil. The combination of warm earth and trilling birdsong lifted her spirits and opened her mind to new possibilities.”

* TURN THINGS INSIDE OUT AND UPSIDE DOWN.

As writers, we must force ourselves to see things others don’t. For example, we all see cars, trucks, and taxis as vehicles that pass us by on a busy city street, but what if we were in an airplane or skyscraper looking down? That’s an entirely different canvas made possible by a change of perspective. We become observers, empowered by our position. We see an interchange of moveable parts, we notice advertising on the tops of buses, we become aware of colors and patterns, might even be able to anticipate an impending accident or traffic jam. Fresh perspectives provides wisdom and scope.

I recently had the opportunity to watch a wonderful aquarium presentation staged around a kelp tank at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.  As we stood safe and dry on the outside of the enormous 70,000 gallon tank, we could look in and up to see the fish swim by. We watched moray eels emerge from the tangle of plants… observed an immense sea bass rise to the surface and descend for food. Two divers entertained us – one cleaning the tank, one feeding the fish. Just seeing the continual interaction of these graceful sea creatures and the light filtering through the water transported us to a place we didn’t know … a place where peacefulness and fluidity could translate into a descriptive paragraph or plot.

So let’s ask when writing: “What would this incident look like if I were one of the characters? What would I see, feel, taste, hear, or smell?” Alternately, let us imagine ourselves encountering the incident as an observer. “What would make me stop and pay attention?” Sure, there is the obvious — “there’s a sinkhole forming in the road” — but perhaps it’s the small detail that takes us there:  “A mouse scurried across the road only to stop at the edge of the cavern created by cracking concrete.”

In thinking about the kelp tank, I’m reminded that “blue” might be nice in describing something but perhaps teal, the color of peacock feathers, or turquoise, the color of an underwater garden, might be more compelling.

Cut It Out — How to Self Edit

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REPRINTED FROM MY POST ON LINKED IN PULSE

I’ve always liked the phrase that’s been attributed to Mark Twain: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter so I wrote a long one instead.” According to Quote Investigator, there are many great thinkers who value the concept of brevity and realize that being succinct isn’t easy.

Recently I embarked on a journey – writing a book that’s been in my head for ages. Now I understand why first-novel guidelines are around 80,000 words. That’s what it took to tell my story – but I also realize that writing 8 or 80 words can be challenging.

That’s where most of us get into trouble. We have information to share, experiences to convey, products to sell, so we say a lot. TMI!

How to find the key selling point?


Early in my career I was pulled aside by a veteran sales director who had roots at an ad agency. He whipped out a notepad and wrote on it. “Fresh Fish For Sale Here Today.” Although he knew I had been a copywriter, he wanted to show me how to find the strongest selling word. He proceeded to cross out “Here” because we knew where we were standing, and then he X’d out “Today” because clearly, it was just that. We could see that the featured item was “Fish” so he removed that word. And certainly, we could deduct, the flounder was “for sale,” so away that went – which left us with “Fresh” – our strongest selling word.

Here are a few other tricks I use to self-edit:


1. Beware the ‘its’ and ‘theys.’ If these pronouns do not follow the precise entity, rephrase the wording. Wrong: “Hal approached Bob because he wanted an apple.” Who wanted the apple? Hal or Bob? Better: Hal was hungry and wanted an apple. Bob had one.” OR “Hal had a bag of apples and knew Bob wanted one. Walking over to Bob, Hal selected the biggest fruit.”

2. Beware convoluted phrasing. “This company doodad is for customers so they can prepare apples for cooking or serving, and because it is a bright red color, it goes nicely with the fruit.” Instead try: “This bright red doodad cores and slices apples.” Who needs the rest?

3. Too many voices. “We think, you want, they need…” Ouch. Explain without ‘person.’ Use a neutral voice. Second person (you) can appear condescending. So rather than, “We think our product is the best, and you should use it so you can figure out how to do thus and such.” Try: “Here’s a way to do thus-and-such with ease and efficiency.”

4. Tense and conditions. Shifting tenses make me tense. “This company built widgets in 1883. They learned their widgets can be better if they fix them, but that will make them cost more.” Did this company stop building widgets after 1883? Actually, these widgets could be made better but that would make them cost more. Try instead: “This company has been selling widgets since 1883. Ten years ago, a new team of engineers (‘companies’ don’t have hands) found a way to build better widgets. This product upgrade increased price but added value.” Yes, positive spinning is generally good.

5. Avoid adverb angst. This tendency was flagged as a rank amateur mistake in novel writing. I had never really thought about it: Skip post-verb description. Don’t have your character say anything ‘longingly,’ ‘impatiently,’ etc. Instead, convey the feeling using other words. “As his eyes lingered on her silhouette, he said, ‘I’ll meet you there.’ ” OR “ ‘I’m waiting,’ she snapped, letting her pencil tap out a rhythm on the desk.” Same meaning, more interesting.

6. Don’t reuse words in close proximity. There are plenty of words to go around, so pick different ones. “The frog sat on a lily pad in the quiet lake as a dragonfly sat on another lily pad, because there were a lot of lily pads in the lake, and every frog and dragonfly needs a lily pad of their own.” Painful. Consider, “The frog and dragonfly sat side by side in a sea of lily pads.” OR even: “The frog sat on a lily pad as the dragonfly landed on a nearby flower.” Ahh… much better.

The Pros & Cons of Choices in CTAs

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A few weeks ago, I had the wonderful experience of going to a small town ice cream shop – one of those corner dairies reminiscent of the 1950’s, a wholesome place where the entire family would go after the beach or at the end of a  hot summer’s day.

Instead of typical vanilla and chocolate soft serve flavors, this establishment had 200 varieties. The menu also offered 80 hard ice cream flavors plus a variety of sherbets and yogurts, cakes and pies. My head was spinning by time I settled on a small Expresso soft serve in a cup. (Yes, I could have also had it in several types of cones, dipped or not dipped, turned into a sundae or festooned as a banana split.)

This experience made me think about the guidelines for Calls To Action in direct response.

I have always liked providing several options on the premise that marketers should make it easy for the customer to do business: send back this coupon, order online, swing by our office, call this toll-free number. But after my ice cream quandary, I can certainly see the point of keeping it simple, especially if you’re trying to track response.

In an ideal situation where on an online form (more info, register for webinar, request a demo) integrates with a database for lead capture, the last thing you want to do is send your prospect down the primrose path. You want to funnel them, nurture them and keep an eye on them whether you do it manually or through marketing automation.

If speed is important, then offering a “Click Through” button is a smart way to go. Click to register, click to learn more, click to vote.

But not everything is black and white when it comes to triggering response because psychology and emotions come into play. Here are some effective variations:

* In an email from the CEO or Sales Director, it’s nice to say, “I’d welcome a chance to personally answer your questions/discuss this opportunity. Feel free to contact me directly at XYZ email address.” If providing an individual address is risky, set up an alias – but do monitor and respond. Benefits: person appears interested and accessible; prospect feels important; response mechanism cuts through red tape and encourages spontaneity.

* For phone room sales or telemarketing, I’ve seen success in consolidating response time, i.e. create a “window” for response to suggest urgency. “Call between 7 and 9 to receive this special subscription offer.” That also maximizes manpower and does not tie up phone lines.

* Mobile offers/text messaging can brilliantly play to timeliness and geography. “Come to the pub at the corner of Main and Maple for a free beer tonight between 9 and 11.” (You already know your prospect is in the vicinity.)

* When you want a more engaged response – say, someone who is willing to pursue subsequent action –offer dual options: the first one, in response to the immediate offer/question and then a second option to allow for follow-up. For example: “Yes. Please contact me with future promotions.” “Yes. I would be interested in participating in a market study.”

* Let your call-to-action work double-duty with a ‘get a gift, give a gift’ tactic, especially where a free offer is involved. Provide additional lines to refer a friend or simply, a link (to email or social channels) to easily share the deal.

Regardless of technique, there are several ‘musts’ that a direct response writer should follow:

1. Include an offer or strong incentive with an expiration date
2. Secure a clean, quality list or targeting source
3. Be clear and transparent – no ambiguity about pricing, terms, delivery, or availability
4. Use disclaimers to avoid future problems (“while supplies last;” “rain checks available”)
5. “Satisfaction guaranteed” or “extended warranty” are phrases that add value and comfort
6. Repeat powerful words in a PS or on the mechanism itself: new, free,  exclusive
7. Code your response mechanism for tracking (mouse type for print or custom URL for web)
8. Provide language to those who handle responses; script multiple scenarios
9. Capture valuable information but be honest: “your personal data will” or “will not be shared with third parties”
10. Test response mechanisms by varying language for features, benefits, pricing, and restrictions

That means, try a bunch of Very Berry flavors as well as plain vanilla.

Whatever Happened to the Inverted Pyramid?

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(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON LINKEDIN PULSE)

Anyone who has gone to J School or taken a journalism course is most likely acquainted with the concept of the Inverted Pyramid – a style of writing that places the most important information up top and less important information at the bottom. More bluntly said: Start with the relevant stuff, end with the fluff.

That’s the way to accommodate busy editors and short form readers.

However, with the advent of storytelling, particularly in advertising, there’s a whole lot of waiting going on. I understand the value of making an emotional connection and the terms of engagement … entice, hook, nurture, and then slam home the brand… but sometimes as a consumer, I don’t want to watch a melodrama only to discover it’s brought to me by a box of crackers.

Don’t get me wrong: I love TV ads that are sequential – where characters are interesting enough to foster a following. And I often like the softer side of sales which is more about the experience than the product or features.

But sometimes when I’m busy, cranky, or impatient, I just want “the facts, ma’am.” What it is; how much it costs; and where I can buy it. I don’t want to trip down memory lane or prance along the primrose path.

When I see a press release that starts with a quote, history or promotional statement, I cringe and crave the old Inverted Pyramid: who, what, where, when, why and how. When that is missing, I assume the author is either inexperienced or not aware that there are different writing styles for different purposes. Once I had a supervisor who thought it would be creative to begin our PR with a comment. I had to track down an editor to convince this person that, “No one reads those quotes. In fact, we assume they’re made up.”

Perhaps that’s harsh, but point is, in this age where “everyone’s a writer,” prioritizing information warrants discussion.

After talking with someone yesterday (talented in his own rights as a videographer), it dawned on me that many people are just not familiar with news-driven information organization. For those schooled in narrative thinking, it’s more logical to set the stage, play out the plot line, then slowly lead up to the clincher. Unfortunately, this isn’t always effective — particularly for direct response — where buying decisions can be impulsive and made in a split-second.

So are we clouding the urgency of our message by weaving it into a fable? Are we diminishing results by not being direct? Should we invert content more often in order to get to the point and ask for the order?

Apparently the Sphinx and I aren’t the only ones pondering this enigma. Here’s an intelligent article from the Poynter Institute that discusses Inverted Pyramids as used in print with a link to Jakob Nielsen who discusses their use on the web.

For me, “Once Upon A Time” can be nice, but there’s much to be said for not scrolling until the princess is kissed.

Amazing cure-all wonder drug: Direct Mail as Magic Elixir for Sender

Let me start by saying that I’m a strong believer in direct mail. When done right, it’s a powerful sales and marketing tool. When done wrong, it’s a huge waste of time and money.

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I was reminded of this the other night in talking with someone who specializes in direct response writing. I have tremendous respect for people who can drive action with just a few words. We chuckled over the requirements that go unnoticed by those not in the field — understanding emotional triggers, getting quickly to the point, having a clean list and strong offer, timing, tracking, and of course, easy response mechanisms.

Ironically, a few days later, I encountered an associate who was Hell-bent on sending out a postcard to reinforce an email. Now, there’s an immediate disconnect. Email is timely, postal mail is not, so either the postal mail should have be timed to dovetail with the email, (perhaps via overnight delivery) or the postal mail should contain enough information to trigger an independent response. It did not.

Aside from serious graphic violations,  this well-intentioned card did not identify the company that sent it, other than to display a logo new to the brand i.e. little recognition. The copy did not name the product or show it in use. There was no phone number, e-mail address, location, or URL. There was no incentive, price, or offer. The announcement was actually wrong – it implied that this service was new when in fact, only the product was new. (Yes, accuracy counts). To their credit, there was a conscious attempt at cleverness.

Unfortunately, the universe was so small, that with a typical return of 1 – 2%, only 3 to 6 people would be engaged.

I asked gingerly why they were doing this and was told they thought it would be “nice” to send out a postcard. Now, “nice” is a lovely word for puppies, sweaters and pies, but “nice” is not justification for doing a direct mail campaign. Descriptors like “strategic,” “timely,” or “tactical” would be more fitting.

The misconception that it would cost “only $300” further exacerbated the crime. How easy it is to forget the cost of talent, list prep, sorting, labeling and of course,  postal expense, which would be surcharged here because the concept ignored postal ratio.

And yet, this person felt so good about sending it out, I hated to dash his spirit. That made me want to figure out what makes direct mail such a wonder drug for senders? Maybe it’s because direct mail is tangible, empowering, and provides a sense of reach — regardless of the fact that unless it is done right, senders are talking to the bottom of a trash can. I did venture to suggest that the logo be placed on both sides of the card because one can’t predict how a piece of mail will land, and not everyone will bother to turn it over.

Interestingly, I once worked for a doctor who recognized the phenomenon of sender gratification.  He published a health letter for employees that made employers feel good.  OSHA violators were particularly receptive because distributing the newsletter allowed them to claim they were doing something to remedy the situation whether it was true or not.

So back to the postcard… It will no doubt deploy in a couple weeks. Without a code or link, there will be no way to track response. A designer (hopefully called in) will make a few dollars. That’s good. The printer will kill a few trees. That’s bad. The Post Office will collect a penalty fee. Unfortunate, but they need the money.

I’d be embarrassed if somebody thought I produced the card, but maybe there’s something to this cavalier, magic elixir attitude after all. Enjoy the direct mail high! Who cares if it works? It’s a small investment compared to a Ferrari. Besides, if you don’t seed the list, no one you know will even see it!