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The 4 Keys to Writing Persuasive Copy Without Hype, BS, or Other Icky Gimmicks

You should already know that clarity trumps persuasion for making sales. In fact, to borrow a metaphor from direct-response expert Dean Rieck, your copy should be like a shop window—completely invisible, affording a perfect view of the thing you’re selling.

But as with most important things in life, that’s easier said than done.

Fortunately—as with most things in life—much of the mystery can be removed by adopting a system that takes care of the basics. So let me introduce you to my Four Keys for writing clear, shiny copy that affords prospects the perfect view of whatever it is you’re selling.

Key #1: Conversational style

I’m sure you’ve heard it said that people don’t buy from websites—they buy from people.

And I’m sure you’ve also heard that people seldom buy from people they don’t like and trust.

Which is why hyped highlighter copy doesn’t tend to work. There’s no real personal connection, because it doesn’t read like anything a person would say—certainly not a person you’d be inclined to like or trust.

The same goes for verbose, puffed-up “corporatese”. No one talks like that—and if they did we’d assume there was something ludicrously wrong with them.

The solution is to write like you would talk.

Simple, right? So simple you probably reckon there’s no need to read the rest of this section—but you’d be wrong.

Because actually, writing like you talk is hard, and you’ll likely fail at it to start with. That’s because you have to make a shift in your thinking before it will click for you.

You have to get out of “Writing Mode”

The more self-conscious you are about communicating, the worse you tend to do it.

So you have to stop thinking about writing, and instead focus on just telling. You have to stop thinking about how your sentences look, and instead focus on how they sound. You have to get out of the mindset that you are performing a task which is difficult, technical, complex, or in any way different to the task you’d have if you simply sat down with your prospect and talked to him about what it is you’d like him to buy.

This is actually surprisingly hard.

From a very young age, talking comes completely naturally to us. It’s so basic that even thinking about teaching it in school seems absurd.

Yet from a very young age, writing is something we struggle with. We are conditioned to think of it as something hard—something requiring strict rules and methods if we’re ever to achieve some rudimentary level of ability. Even though we’re taught to write all the way through school, most adults are incapable of competently stringing two words together on paper.

Well, let me tell you a little secret: You started out a great writer. But as you went through school, and were conditioned to think of writing as writing rather than as simply communicating, you got progressively more self-conscious about it—and progressively worse at it.

The best writers—at least in terms of sales copy—are the ones who are able to completely ignore everything they’ve been taught about writing, and instead get on with the job of just telling.

How to write conversationally

Don’t write—tell. The best way to get started is not to write at all—but to speak.

Ideally, record yourself talking about your topic with a friend you know and trust. That way, you’ll avoid most of the self-consciousness that comes when you get out a voice recorder and try to record yourself talking to the air.

Then play back your recording and just listen to what you say. Take notes. How do your sentences sound? How often do you break the rules of formal grammar? I bet it’s all the time. So forget formal grammar. How often do you say something that in retrospect sounds totally gitty? Pretty often too, probably. So figure out what you wish you’d said, and use that instead. Write like you talk, but with the benefit of lots of time to choose your words. It’ll be a lot easier to read—because people read with an internal monologue. When you write conversationally, they can hear your words flow.

Key #2: Narrative Structure

The second key to clarity is to put your copy together in the way your prospect finds easiest to process and understand.

Let me give you a clue. How do you teach kids complex ideas?

The answer, of course, is stories. Indeed, as soon as we can talk, we want to hear and tell stories. And that is simply because our brains are wired to process information most easily in narrative form. We’re very, very good at processing specific actions that involved concrete things in a timed sequence.

We’re really, really bad at processing vague ideas, abstract concepts or relationships, and unordered sets of things.

We need stories to give things structure.

In fact, if you’ve studied any philosophy, you’ll know that it can be almost impossible to grasp some ideas without real-world examples of them. But as soon as we have such an example, we find it fairly easy to generalize it to other situations.

Because we most easily process information in a narrative structure, it only makes sense use that structure in your sales copy.

Now, this does not mean you have to tell stories. I highly recommend that you do tell stories—case studies are an obvious and very powerful example of why. And most of the best, most successful sales letters have used stories to get their point across (the “two young men” story for The Wall Street Journal, for example, or the chicken salad story penned by Lillian Eichler). Stories bypass the ol’ frontal lobe and get the limbic system champing at the bit. And the limbic system is what gets us to buy things.

But that’s another article—or three. Here, I’m simply talking about using a narrative structure for your copy. Like this: remember studying plots in school? Your 3-act, beginning-middle-end structure? A series of rising action leading to a climax? Well, here’s how that looks when applied to copy:

How copy can be placed into a narrative structure

How copy can be placed into a narrative structure (action peaks are suggestions, not hard rules)

The headline has to start the exposition strong, or the rest won’t get read.

The lede has to bring an immediate peak of action to keep your prospect interested.

But don’t make the mistake of starting off so strong that there’s nowhere to go but down. You can’t sustain climax-level action for long—and you can’t keep getting more extreme indefinitely.

To give a concrete example: people often complain that the final raptors-versus-T-Rex scene in Jurassic Park feels flat. And it does—because after the shocking T-Rex-eating-a-car scene, and the nerve-wracking raptors-in-the-kitchen scene, the final climax doesn’t add enough extra danger. Even if it did, we’re burned out on danger by the time it arrives.

In sales copy, “flat” means your prospect loses his sense of excitement. Keep him strung too high for too long and he’ll get burned out and lose interest. So start gentle and raise the action gradually. Screaming headlines and hyped ledes might pull people in, but they won’t keep them to the end.

To use a bike racing analogy, it’s better to enter the corner slow and come out fast, than to enter fast and not come out at all.

Key #3: Benefits, then features

Copy that seems clear as glass to you can be muddied in a very simple way for your prospect. Here’s what happens:

You write a conversational narrative that goes through all the benefits of your product. But you don’t give any reasons for these benefits.

Or you write a conversational narrative that goes through all the features of your product. But you don’t give any reasons for those features.

To you, with your knowledge of the product, the how of the benefits or the why of the features are entirely obvious. But to your prospect they are opaque. There’s a murkiness about your product that prevents him from buying.

Here’s an example: Imagine you’re talking about how your home study course will teach your prospect to hack his neighbor’s wireless network in 2 hours. For example! The reason this is possible is that the course just teaches some simple principles for operating a bundled automated software utility. This does the actual grunt work of breaking into the network.

Simply talking about how your prospect will be wirelessly checking Facebook in 2 hours won’t give him the kind of clarity he needs. Even though he wants this benefit, and even though you may furnish plenty of proof—testimonials or case studies or whatever—it’s not clear how it’s possible.

Alternatively, just talking about the automated utility in detail, relating each feature back to a corresponding element of wireless network security, will show him that hacking is possible—but it won’t help him understand how it is possible for him, since he doesn’t understand it.

To achieve clarity, both the benefit and the feature must be explained—and then their relationship.

Talk about benefits first

It’s easy to talk about features before drawing out the benefits. If you know your product better than your prospect, which you probably do, then that’s the natural order to take.

But your prospect is only interested in the features inasmuch as they create benefits for him. Which means you should talk about the benefits first, then clarify them with reference to features.

Obviously there are exceptions to this rule. A lot of technical B2B prospects know exactly what features they’re looking for, and want to see them tabulated nicely. But that’s because they already know the benefits. So you must know your prospect to know how much you need to explain for him.

When in doubt, here’s a simple rule: use bullets to describe both features and benefits succinctly. For example (benefits are in bold):

  • Peace of mind that your data won’t disappear if your connection drops, thanks to the persistent asynchronous database connection
  • Better color reproduction for print work because of the advanced In-Plane Switching technology—the crystal molecules in the display move parallel to the panel plane instead of perpendicular, reducing the amount of light scattering in the matrix
  • They’ll fight over it when you’re dead—with 4–5 oz Full Grain leather, tanned with high-grade oils and preservatives to keep it from being destroyed by dryness or moisture, and bound with polyester industrial thread, you can be sure your bag will outlive you

Key #4: Scannable Elements

79% of people on the web don’t read—they scan.

Which means that if your text doesn’t contain plenty of “hooks” for your prospect’s eye to grab onto, it’ll just slide right off the page.

What do I mean by hooks?

  • Meaningful subheads which summarize major points or tease your prospect into the copy (like mini-headlines)
  • Bullet lists which itemize important pieces of information such as features or benefits
  • Boldface to highlight keywords, important benefits, etc
  • Short paragraphs with only one idea each (otherwise a prospect scanning the first few words will miss the second idea)
  • Images that convey value more forcibly than copy could, such as charts, graphs, or high-quality product photos
  • Captions—these get read by 50% more prospects than body copy, and often have a nearly 100% recall rate

There should always be at least one scannable element visible on the page at any given time. Test this on the kind of screen and at the kind of resolution your prospect is likely to be using—not just your own.

Use scannable elements to sell

You have to make the bits that stand out, that catch the eye, count. If you don’t convey value with the scannable elements they aren’t going to achieve anything. So spend time distilling the most value into the least space for each of your hooks. It could very well be the difference between keeping your prospect on the page and having him slide off into the ether.

Four Keys for Clear Copy

These keys all take practice to master. But they are simple enough that you can get started today and see notable improvements immediately. Read your copy aloud—is it conversational, or stilted? Examine its structure—does it build up to the call to action, or is it haphazard? Test its benefits against its features—is their relationship clear? And stand back and squint—can you pick out the major items of interest when the body copy is blurry?

With these four simple techniques, you are guaranteed to produce copy far better than nearly anything you’ll find on the web.

About the Author: Bnonn is the author of a free video course on the secrets of creating websites that capture readers and turn them into customers. Known in the boroughs as the Information Highwayman, he helps small businesses sell more online by improving their marketing copy, design, and strategies. When he’s not knee-deep in the guts of someone’s homepage, he is teaching his kids about steampunk, Nathan Fillion, and how to grapple a zombie without getting bit. (Also you can follow him on Twitter.)

  1. I encourage clients to read their writing out loud. It will help them with the naturalness (weird and stilted turns of phrase will jump out), it will tell them where the pauses (commas) should be, and it will uncover run-on sentences.

  2. Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan Oct 01, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    Excellent details on how to produce excellent writing. I often imagine I’m writing for my children, as you mentioned, who have no background knowledge on anything. It helps me start at the beginning and not forget any details. I also use stories a lot to illustrate my points, and I find it’s the most comfortable way for me to write. Great post!

  3. Writing conversationally sounds like something that would be easy to do but you are right it is hard.
    This is going to be useful for a sales page I am currently writing.

  4. This is one of the reasons why Neil Patel has such a large following on :)

  5. Wow, I don’t usually comment, but this article felt like I got a Master’s degree in creative writing. I will certainly use these simple, but effective tips. I especially like the point about conversation rather than “writing.” Thanks!

  6. Scannable elements and bulletpoints have always been my best friend in writing sales letters.

  7. These are great tips. I agree that writing in a conversational tone is best for connection. It’s easier for people to read, too. I also like your tip about having scannable elements. I know that I scan a lot of things I read…

  8. I flunked out of the English department in College. I went on to be very successful in writing Radio Commercials because i wrote like I talked and how i thought in my head. I didn’t need grammar or punctuation. Later i hired writers and editors for my magazine thinking “if they only knew I flunked English!” Now write website copy for my internet clients because i can’t find writers who can do it. I didn’t know why i was successful in all this until I read your article. Thanks.

  9. Great article! It’s true that we are storytelling creatures from way back-in-the-cave days.Your article made me think about how I feel very free to write “conversationally” on our facebook business page, but freeze up when it comes to writing on our website…and, guess what…we have a rich and interactive community on our fb page! Thank you, Rachel

  10. Hope that I can repay you in some way some day for sharing such expert insight! Great, great, great reminders of what I appreciate in my own reading of certain authors. Just wrote a post for my new website that is in development based on the elements that you suggest above.

  11. Nothing really new here but a good read.

    FYI…it’s ‘lead’ not ‘lede.’

    I would disagree with your lead: “You should already know that clarity trumps persuasion for making sales.”

    Persuasion is the only thing that matters. Yes–you have to be clear but there’s a LOT more to direct response copywriting than clarity. Persuasion is what it’s all about. You persuade…or you don’t.

  12. Great tips in this article.

    @Scott Martin. Lede is actually correct. It’s a journalism term.

  13. Prior to this I read an article about the importance of semantic keyword research and was in complete disagreement with its effectiveness. I even wrote a piece on my site denouncing it and stressing creative writing. Reading this I feel vindicated which I know sounds corny. But awesome stuff!!

  14. Fantastic compilation of writing tips combined w/ the proper motivation to write differently. I use to argue incessantly w/ a colleague that writing for our target should be at an 8th grade level. Therefore, doesn’t require us to follow AP guidelines. I love writing as we speak, but even more I love reading writing that does the same thing.

  15. Awesome Piece of Advice. I can’t agree with your point more that “one should not start off so strong that there’s nowhere to go but down”. One thing i think should be added here is the format of your copy: The size and color of content might not seems very important to many but it actually one of the important factors which decide if user will stay on the page or not.

  16. Some good tips. The first quote about copy being a store window was said by Joseph Sugerman first. Copywriters are lousy at citing their sources.

  17. Bnonn, this is absolutely one of the better articles I have read on how to compose engaging content that is sure to be shared. I feel a lot goes into the psychology of how we as humans read and take action across the internet. You have nailed it here in a concise and “no fluff” manner. Excellent articulation ! I’ll be linking to this article in a future post!


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