During a less-than-successful stint selling life insurance, we were trained to "assume the close." That meant we were supposed to say, "Now, while you two decide which of these three plans is best to you, I'll get started on the application. Fred, which state were you born in?"
At that point, my job was to be completely quiet, because, as they told us in training, "whoever speaks first loses."
Now, in my case, those long pauses were usually followed by "We're not interested," but I understand for the more successful agents, it was followed by a date of birth. I stopped selling life insurance a long, long time ago.
But this did open my eyes to a new concept. I had never considered what silence communicates. I mean, how can you communicate anything with the absence of content?
There are two important benefits of silence. First, it communicates your belief in your message. By incorporating segments of silence into your message (and by the way, this includes white space for you designers out there), you let the audience know that your message is compelling enough to be effective without having to communicate every possible message point in your arsenal. (Here's an example: go find a brochure or website for a middle-of-the-road hotel and there's a good chance you'll find a long list of amenities, usually in bullet format, and it will likely include a Color TV, something you find in every hotel room. This is the advertising equivalent of using every bullet you have. Now go see if you can find a Color TV listed as an amenity at a really nice hotel. You probably won't find it because they have confidence in their message. You are more likely to see that white space, though.)
A second benefit is that, in today's hectic, cluttered environment, silence actually helps your message stand out from the crowd. Recently NPR's The Kitchen Sisters were speaking before an audience, many of whom were typing away at their mobile devices. Then, The Kitchen Sisters simply stopped talking for about 30 seconds. Everyone in the audience stopped being distracted and started paying attention. Instead of getting everyone's attention by screaming, they simply shut up and let the silence speak loudly.
Next time you're crafting a communicative message, put some thought into how you can use moments of silence. Be strategic in what you don't say, not just in what you do say. You'll find what you communicate has more impact and is better understood by your audience.
As promised in the last post, I want to talk about how to understand the customer's motives. Some things are universal. I said in the previous post that customers want the best possible consumer experience for the least amount of money. I should have added, though, that a positive experience will win against low cost almost every time. (Care to delve into the psychology of that statement? Okay, here goes. If you think about it, money is only a piece of paper in your pocket or a number on a bank statement. The only positive experience to be gained simply by "having" money is a feeling of security. All other positive experiences occur when you "spend" your money. Whether you're satisfying a short-term craving or a life-long dream, it's a positive experience at the end of spending money. That's why people will happily spend money on a really good experience.)
So how does your product create a positive experience? You must know the answer to that question, and I cannot stress that enough, if you are going to persuade anyone to spend money on it. (And by the way, if your product simply doesn't provide a positive experience, no matter how you slice it, address that issue before you do anything else!) So, when crafting your message, resist the urge to go with the first thing that comes to you. The first thing will always be what you know, and what's important to you. And you may be very close to the product and how it was developed, how it is executed.
Here's an example. As recently as ten years ago, I worked for a resort company that pumped out a LOT of brochures and ads. In almost every single one of the pieces, one of the bullet points - in a message that was intended to communicate that our resort accommodations were "luxurious" - was "Color cable TV." And as many times as I tried to convince the marketers that this was unnecessary and only took up space. And that, further, there were $40 hotel rooms with "Color cable TV" up and down the highway, they insisted on keeping it. From their perspective, it made the list of amenities longer, and I couldn't convince them to look at it from the audience's perspective, to whom "Color cable TV" was practically on the same level of luxury as a working toilet.
Use your imagination. If you're writing web copy, pretend to be someone who knows nothing about your product and they've ended up on the website you're writing. Would you respond the way you want them to respond? As I write this, I'm pretending to be you, and you, and you, and you. You could be someone who's very accomplished as a communicator and simply likes to read other professionals' thoughts on the topic. Have I added anything new to your thinking? You may be a college student, or early in your career, trying to absorb everything you can? Can you communicate from a place other than your own perspective? You may be a business owner who is trying to understand marketing better. Are you at all persuaded?
These are the kinds of questions that will give meaning to your message. Dig deep, and when you get to what you were looking for, dig a little deeper just to make sure. Your customer wants to hear your message, but only if your message means something to them, not to you.
For most business clients, thoroughness is a virtue. It's part of the attention to detail that enabled them to become successful in the first place, a reflection of their dedication and discipline. Often, though, these instincts can bog down the client's marketing message. And it takes some artful persuading sometimes to get the client to buy in to the less-is-more concept.
Think about the process that takes place when you're working with the client. It starts with you coming to an understanding of the client's business needs. Once you've written your copy, you present it to the client for review. This is followed by revisions based on client feedback until finally you get an approval. And all this takes place solely between you and your client(s).
So, who is missing from this dynamic? How about the reader, the person we actually want a response from?
Most clients are excited about their work, and they are experts at what they do. And because they have egos, their natural impulse is to communicate the benefits of their business in a way that they would respond to, which is very thoroughly and in great detail. It's your job to keep the reader in mind at all times. It's your job as the writer to make sure that only the content that serves the purpose of meeting the client's business needs gets through. A big part of your role is to make sure that the reader is represented in the back-and-forth that takes place between you and your client.
One of my favorite examples of copy that is too thorough comes from the hospitality industry. Thankfully, this is becoming less and less common, but ten years ago, it was easy to find an ad or brochure for a hotel that would list among its amenities "Color cable TV," usually as one of a long list of bullets. The last time color cable TV was a considered a "nice" hotel amenity was some time in the 1980s but this bullet point persisted until recent years, even though the most vile, bedbug infested hotels in the worst neighborhoods had color cable TVs in each room. But every time I tried to take it out, the marketer always wanted to put it back in. And I challenge anyone to persuade me that a color cable TV resulted in even a single additional room booking after 1983.
It may take some skilled negotiating to convince your client that their instincts to be thorough and detail oriented is a disservice to their marketing message, but as the writer, you have to do your best to make your case.
If you're a business owner or marketer, you've probably been in the position of having to write copy for a web page, email blast, brochure, or display ad. And unless you are an experienced ad copywriter, it can be a daunting task. So where do you start?
Often, the first instinct is to start talking about the company or product you're promoting. It's a natural response to start that way because your point of view is focused on your role with the company and your relationship with the product. To you, this is the company that puts food on your table and pays the bills. And writing about whatyou know and feel, from your point of view, is the path of least resistance.
For the customer, though, it's just a product. It's a thing or service they might consider purchasing. Their point of view is focused on how the product you're promoting can make their lives better, not on how great you think the company is. After all, you work for them, so you're biased, right?
This tends to manifest itself in copy that emphasizes points like how long the company has been in business, or the story of how it was founded years earlier. Or, the copy may list all the awards the product has earned, awards the potential customer has probably never heard of.
So where do you start? With these questions:
1. How does the product make our customers' lives better?
2. How can we make the reader understand the improvement?
3. How do we want the reader to respond? Do we want them to purchase, call, click, etc.?
4. How can we motivate our customers to respond the way we want to the message once they understand it?
Answer these questions, then take a stab at that copy. But this time, start with the content that you think is most important to your potential customers (see question 1, above), and be sure to address what your goal is for the message (see question 4). I can guarantee that you'll be happy with the results.
Marta Kagan's "Bonafide Marketing Genius" Blog
Andre Sanders' "Running Without Condition" Blog
Jessica Sneeringer's "Mal-Diction" Blog