Archive Monthly Archives: August 2005

Real Work

My father’s visiting, and I have essentially shut the office until next week.

He’s 84, but looks twenty years younger, and has more energy than I do. Dances twice a week, bowls in leagues, travels the world. (Last couple of trips: Australia, China, Alaska…)

Took him a while, back when I was struggling to find my place in the world, to understand what kind of son he was dealing with here. Pop worked hard his entire life — a foreman in a construction crew that put up most of the big buildings in and around Los Angeles from the 1940s through the early 1980s. He would grab a few hours sleep at night, leave before dawn, slam around hammers and machinery and materials for eight hours, and come home.

A true stud, but a dedicated father.

And then I came along — a kid who drew cartoons and logged hours writing stories. Hard physical labor just mortified me. I knew, as a small kid, that I did not want to work like that for a living. However, most of the jobs I had were exactly like that, until I busted into advertising as a color-blind commercial artist with minimal design skills.

Still, it was working at a desk, and taxing my brain. I enjoyed it.

Anyway, Pop always likes me to have a project for him and I to do when he visits. You know — reroof the house, dig out a basement, that sort of thing.

We’re futzing with the landscape irrigation, actually. And you know what? I love the physical part of the labor. I miss getting dirty, sometimes. (I do get dusty when I write, but that’s only because I never vacuum my office.)

I’ve purged a lot of anxiety these past two days, through sweat and real toil. Not working out in the gym, which is my usual method. But getting filthy in the yard, hauling pipe and finessing fittings.

Not sure what the lesson here is. I just feel… better for the work.

And there’s something pleasing in figuring out how to solve the problems — I was killing the grass because the watering system had broken down. Now, it’s fixed. I’m a proud homeowner again.

I’ll be back with something meatier next week.

In the meantime… go get dirty.

John Carlton


Tuesday, 9:20pm
Reno, NV
Yep, nothin’ gets by me, cuz I’m a real fart smeller… uh, I mean smart feller.” (Cousin Donald)


It took me an awful long time to figure out that — to get anywhere in life — I would have to buckle down and actually get good at something.

That was a painful realization. I was thirty-two at the time, no longer young, no longer having fun doing the things that had pleased me so thoroughly just a year or so earlier.

I was done with having potential.

Screw potential.

Potential can murder your life.

All through my formative years, I was given special attention because I could draw well (I had weekly cartoon stips in both my high school and college newspapers) (even won a Quill & Scroll award)… had some musical ability (my ragged bands played for friends’ parties and at school dances)… and evidenced a little precociousness with my fiction writing.

Relax. I sucked at fiction. I wrote complete stories, was all. On my own time. This amazed teachers, but it wasn’t anything all that great. Any early signs of authorship had absolutely no correlation to copywriting. In fact, it probably set me back a couple of years.

As I’ve often said, it’s easier to teach a near-illiterate salesman to write good copy, than it is to teach salesmanship to someone with a Ph.D in English literature.

But back then, I was just good enough at several creative skills to suffer the curse of potential.

You know what potential does? It gets you credit for not actually doing anything difficult. You get used to the easy accolades… and never develop good work habits, cuz it’s no big deal for you.

During my days hanging with the “D” list Hollywood crowd, I saw the ravages of potential up close and personal. Most of the folks who’d ever been praised for a small acting gig, or had a bad TV screenplay optioned, or had scored a “meeting with John Candy’s people”… coasted on that cloud for as long as possible.

For many, their brush with success became a standing joke. We’d make bets on how long they’d wait before bringing it up to someone new. (Average time: About three minutes.)

If I was in charge of the world, I’d take every kid with potential aside… and clap them all into a boot camp, where we’d wipe that smirk off their face. And make ’em earn some real kudos.

It’s the only way to save most of them.

The most vivid example of potential versus reality I ever saw was down in Miami Beach, after it’d become a hotbed of the fashion world. Every day, several buses would arrive, crammed with young women who were the best-looking creatures who’d ever graced the small town they’d just come from.

And it took about an hour for them to realize that, as god-like as they were treated back home, here in the center of the model universe, they weren’t even on the map.

It isn’t fair.

But it’s the way it is.

So the person with a little “natural” talent at something may have a tiny advantage over the raw rookie who never heard the term “potential” tossed their way.

But that tiny advantage is irrelevant… unless it gets honed into a big advantage.

And guess what? It takes just about the same amount of hard work to hone a little talent, as it does to go from zero to hero.

Never let your perceived lack of natural ability stop you from trying something.

I’m thinking about this, after seeing Bela Fleck, Stanley Clarke and Jean Luc Ponte at the Hawkins outdoor amphitheater tonight. Stunning expertise there — on violin, gut bass, and jazz banjo.

They were dressed casually, they didn’t require any formal introductions, they joked and were at ease with each other and the crowd while they played.

And it was exquisite.

These guys are experts. And if you listen closely, you can catch pieces of Bach, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Coltrane and Weather Report licks thrown in, as teasing references.

Nice stuff. I’ve been following these musicians, separately, for thirty years. They were damn good back then. They are transcendental now.

Earlier today, I hung out in the kitchen while a new repairman took apart the built-in microwave, found hidden ice blocking the fan in the freezer, and showed me the right Allen wrench to use on the locked-up garbage disposal.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching him work. In another life, I could have happily been an odd-jobs artist… going deep into the mechanical flotsam of our lives.

He had a complaint — he’d hired, and fired, almost twenty different guys in the past year, trying to find someone who could handle some of the repair work for his thriving business.

The problem was best illustrated by the last guy — who wasted forty-five minutes trying to remove a plastic cover inside a broken dishwasher door… and finally brought the entire door back to the shop. He insisted it was permanently welded shut. The boss took it apart in twenty seconds.

“The thing is,” he told me, “that guy should have been humiliated. But he wasn’t. These rookie repairmen all want me to teach them the specifics of doing each job… but it ain’t like that.”

“It’s the process they need to learn,” I said.

“That’s right. Not the details of just that one job. They need to fall in love with figuring this stuff out.”

“It’s the same with advertising,” I said. “Great ads are the result of great sales detective work. And few want to put in the sweat.”

“Damn straight,” he said. And refused payment for fixing the fridge. Said it was his pleasure, because he enjoyed talking to me as he worked.

So… I’ve been thinking about expertise. What it is, what it takes to attain it. And what it means, after you have it.

And while I’m thinking… I get an email from someone that says: “Hey John. I want to be a world-class copywriter. What do I do to get started?”


And it dawns on me. Finally.

There’s a great quote I like: Learn your craft first. It won’t stop you from being a genius later.

The musicians tonight displayed genius, yes… but they expressed it through a master craftman’s skill level.

The repairman seemed to be working magic, listening to the freezer and finding the exact problem as if by divining the source. But really, he was just using the skills of his craft — figuring things out.

I’ve argued before that Picasso ruined painting. Not on purpose, of course. He went off on a totally bitchin’ tangent that riveted the world.

But everyone who learned painting after that, started with Picasso’s abstracts. They completely ignored the fact he was an accomplished realist, first. Knew his craft.

He broke the rules, only after showing he was a master of those rules.

The minions who followed, showed little consciousness of any rules at all. They want credit for being creative… “like Picasso.”

They want you to gaze at their crap, and fathom the potential there.

Because, you know, it’s abstract.

But they lack real craftmanship.

Pisses me off.

You can get away with it, of course, in “art”.

But not in marketing.

All the top guys are super-skilled craftsmen at their job. They learned to write well, and they learned the essentials of great marketing… sometimes painfully, taking however long it required.

Draft after draft after draft. Job by job. Client by client.

There are shortcuts to the gig… but you still have to patiently learn the craft first. This is the thing so many rookies can’t quite get a handle on. You don’t just become world-class because you really, really, really want it.

Be a craftsman. There’s some transcendental joy in knowing you’ve mastered something beyond the smirk of potential.

Stay frosty,

John Carlton

“The Tabloid Stuff Bumps The Numbers”

Listen up, people.

Homework assignment for all marketers here.

Here’s the story: For eons, almost every top copywriter willing to spill secrets about writing killer ads has revealed a common sordid fact — the headlines of the tabloids like the National Enquirer are among the best study materials around.

It’s a standard part of my speech at seminars. Check out the tabs. You’ll discover what America is really interested in.

Tabloids still outsell “real” newspapers and magazines by astronomical numbers. It’s not even a contest.

And the headline writers pay very close attention to what boosts sales. They are wired into the national psyche.

You’d have to be nuts to skip this mini-education on word-to-sales truth. So what if your spouse is embarrassed when you pick up the latest Weekly World News (the one with the “Cannibal fetus chews through Mom” headline).

No one ever said advertising was nice work. Sometimes you end up facing dark and disturbing insight into the mind of your fellow man.

Ah, the power of words.

Other verteran writers who cop to scouring the tabs: Gary Halbert, Gene Schwartz, Gary Bencivenga, Jeff Paul, Dan Kennedy, David Deutsch, Michel Fortin… the list goes on forever.

And yet… rookie writers remain skeptical.

Like we’re kidding them or something. “Ha, ha, ha, you top writers are all alike! So quit with the tabloid jokes already!”

All right. Don’t believe me.

Instead, believe the top television shows in existence.

There’s a killer article in the current New Yorker magazine (8/8-8/15) by Ken Auletta — “The Dawn Patrol”, all about the war of the morning network shows Today and Good Morning America. I won’t rehash the article here — it won’t kill you to go buy an actual magazine for once in your virtual life — but the candid truths revealed are just gold for savvy marketers.

The audience for these shows are 70% female… just like most general markets in the economy… and thus, there are “rules” that must be followed for success. These rules aren’t made up — they were realized, after fifty years of testing, and paying VERY close attention.

See, these morning shows earn hundreds of millions in ad revenue each year. They carry the water for the networks.

So the producers leave their egos and their “common sense” out of all decisions.

They do what they do because they see that it works. They count up the ratings, and test everything in painful detail.

So, what works? First — as I’ve been saying for years now — it’s all about personality. The weatherman Al Roker’s job has very little to do with the actual weather. He’s there to be a friendly, non-threatening guy who can talk nice to women about how great the day is gonna be. Regardless of the storm outside.

Second — and the reason I’m bothering you with all this — is a quote by a former co-anchor Harry Smith: The minute-by-minute viewer response monitors show that “the tabloid stuff bumps the numbers.”

Not hard news. Celebrity, slander, silliness and outrageous social behavior. The run-away bride, the lost kids, the latest blonde murder investigation, Michael Jackson’s trial… the stories closer to UFO landings than earnest Senate committee reports.

That’s what opens the profit pumps.

And yes, it works for male-dominated markets just as well. Even your staid old CEO perks up when a celebrity walks by (or self-destructs on the national stage).

Now, just as I warn seminar audiences… this doesn’t mean you need to start referring to Bat Boy or Sasquach in your next online posting.

What it means is that… again… the best written headlines are NOT boring, pedantic recitations of the facts.

Rather… the best are attention-jarring wake-up calls to your prospect’s brain.

There’s an old saw in marketing that goes like this: First, sell them what they want. You can sell them what they need later.

What that means is simple — it’s a much easier path to offer something your prospect is already predisposed to like. Trying to educate him on why he needs what you have is a losing proposition.

However, once you’ve established that you can deliver what he wants, he will begin to trust you. And you can THEN start the process of working him into the more complex relationship where you give him what you clearly know he needs.

It’s the same with headlines. You have a split second to get his attention, and you won’t do it by trying to educate him.

Instead, go in through the already-open door in his brain — the door that is ALWAYS open to anything fun, or gossipy, or titillating. Or that makes him do the “whaaaaaaa?” double-take.

It’s the fastest way to bump the numbers.

John Carlton

How To Be A Sap

Jeez Louise. Did you catch Sunday’s episode of Six Feet Under?

It was… shattering.

I was jarred back to every funeral I’d ever attended, and had emotions wrung out of me I’d long forgotten about.

Screw reality TV. The truly well-written fictional shows (most of them on HBO) can still rattle your cage like classic literature.

That episode was quality emotional-wringing.

Got me thinking, too. About empathy. And writing.

I’ve known people who seem to have shut down their empathy gears. I recall uncles who fell asleep during the pea-soup-spewing scenes in the Exorcist… friends who laughed all through Jaws… and even an acquaintance who wondered what the big deal was when a colleague freaked out over a cherished cat’s sudden demise.

I also first saw Saving Private Ryan with a friend who was still a little shaky over his years in Vietnam during the war. He’d asked me to see it with him for moral support… and he didn’t seem to have a tough time watching the movie. But I kept an eye on him anyway, not sure what sort of poison might be brewing back up.

Those three films — and my experience with pets and people dying and careers ending and relationships imploding — were all emotionally jarring on various levels. Executed by master craftsmen, using scripts written by writers who knew where the tender spots were in most audiences.

I always felt a little estranged from people who either were — or claimed to be — removed from emotional reactions.

In real life, we experience things from inside our heads. It’s a claustrophobic point-of-view even the best Hollywood-quality cameras can’t yet mimic. Everything happens just outside (or just within) our personal space, minute by minute, with no editing and no replay button.

When you personally feel emotional trauma, it’s a second-by-second trial by fire.

Watching a TV show or a movie is a removed experience — pure voyeurism. You’re not there. It’s not happening to you. It shouldn’t have the same power as real life.

And yet… sometimes all the emotion of the real experience IS there, bubbling up from deep inside.

All of the good writers I know are drenched with emotional self-knowledge and empathy for the emotional experiences of others. We aren’t walking around sobbing hysterically… but we are easily overcome with the feeling of a situation.

Sometimes too easily. Several times, while giving a talk at a seminar, I got off on a tangent about something I really cared about, and felt myself start to choke up. I had to back off, and gather my wits. I know other speakers — the good ones — have had similar experiences.

This extra dose of emotion is no accident. You cannot be a good writer without empathy — without understanding, viscerally, what it’s like to feel everything humans are capable of feeling.

At full strength, too. The industrial-quality stuff.

The intensity of your ability to feel infuses your writing with power, and a connection to the most complex tragedies, comedies and dramas of human interaction.

In short… feeling strong emotions is a good thing.

If your emotions are in lock-down… from a bad childhood, or from a misguided sense of what it takes to be a man… you will never be able to get into another person’s head. And you’ll never find that sweet spot of need and connection that makes great literature great… and great sales copy a license to print money.

You don’t have to become a Drama Queen.

But you do need to stop pretending that emotions are some foreign intrusion on your coolness. Embrace your ability to know joy, sadness and yes, even pain. These are the building blocks of a well-lived life.

No one gets out of here without a few tears.

Be a sap. It will help your writing.

John Carlton

Profitable Doldrums

It’s hot.

It’s damn hot.

It’s August, it’s damn hot, and any self-repecting mammal is laying low in a shady spot catching extra zzz’s.

This includes many right-thinking humans. Europe practically shuts down for the month, and the cities empty as everyone goes on a month-long vacation.

Here in the States, our Puritan genes recoil at such frivolousness. And many business flog away at their markets pretending there’s nothing different going on.

My advice: Calm down. Take a deep breath.

Go have a nice cold drink.

There are, and always have been, “dead spots” in most markets during the year. You don’t want to mail into a major holiday like Christmas or Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July. You don’t want to schedule seminars in June or September if your target audience has school-age kids — or you’ll get caught up in the going-back-to-school and graduation exodus.

Unless, of course, you’re selling stuff related to those events.

And, for many of us, August is just a black hole for sales messages.

Understanding your market on a deep level requires a little focus and effort, to track the buying patterns of your flock. You cannot rely on “common sense” all the time. For example: The best time to send out golf-related pitches is not in the Spring, when everyone is dragging their clubs out of the closet.

Rather, it’s in the shivering months of January and February… when everyone is dreaming of that first warm round. When the pleasing picture of future benefit already has a toe-hold in their mind.

Markets differ in their patterns, and it’s one of your main jobs to find both the bad times to reach your prospects, and the best times.

For many markets, August just sucks.

So don’t panic if your response just took a dive, and you can’t find any good reason for it. Just stick your head outside.

It’s too damn hot to pay attention to anyone’s sales pitch right now.

But that doesn’t mean you need to turn off the lights and go into hibernation.

Instead, use this down month to spend some quality time with your house list. If you haven’t sent them something recently that didn’t include a plea for money… you probably need to. Every once in a while, it pays off huge to just contact your best customers… and GIVE them something.

For free.

No strings attached.

It’s part of the long-term bonding process. All year long, you’re tortuing them with message after message about something they want or need. If you’re writing good copy, then you’re teasing them mercilessly about it, too.

Now, it may be that they are comfortable with being hit on all the time by you.

Still, like any relationship, you stand to gain if — once in a while — you bestow a generous, unexpected gift on them. For no reason at all, other than the fact you are happy they’re part of your life.

And you’re not the greedy bastard they thought you were, never contacting them without wanting something.

They may react suspiciously to this gift, so you really need to make it clear you’re not using it as a ruse to get into their wallet later on.

No strings.

No obigation.

No need to even do anything. You’ve included the free gift in the package you just sent. It’s theirs, to dispose of or use as they please.

You can make it a free report that offers huge value. But that’s kind of cheesy, if you’ve been slamming their bank account for any significant amounts. Much better is a published book — not your own latest best-seller, either. Something you’ve read and profited from.

A real gift.

You’ll be amazed at the good will you can generate with something that costs you a few bucks to send out.

And what do you do to make your nut for the month?

Easy. First, I’m not suggesting you never actually try to sell anything during down times.

Just know that you’re up against huge distractions — like the damn heat… and the fact your prospect may be on vacation a thousand miles away — and structure your offer to reflect that fact.

This is why so many smart marketers plan for “fire sales” during August. Or “we’re cleaning out our warehouse” sales. Or “damaged goods” sales.

Your prospect base may have been cut in half, or worse, for the month. So don’t do any huge rollout. Instead, offer a one-time opportunity, to your best customers, and use the fact it’s a down month as your excuse.

Reason-why copy works because it gives your prospect, literally, a reason why he should buy right now. Just the fact you’re having a sale isn’t a full reason.

But a more fleshed-out reason… like your need to generate some action during a heat-stroked down period… makes perfect sense.

And perfect sense often results in a decision to buy.

Personally, I’ve used August to let my assistant go off on an extended vacation… so I could shut off the phones and devote myself to writing.

Nearly all the courses and books I’ve written were completed during a sultry August break. I plan for the projects in the months prior… but I get the concentrated writing done in an air-conditioned orgy while the world bakes.

Shutting up shop completely can make good sense, too. Give yourself time to regroup, stop obsessing on the biz for a few weeks, let some whacky ideas simmer.

Read some good fiction, to really get your mind off things.

If you’ve been performing Operation MoneySuck all year long, you SHOULD be able to slip away for most of August, and not lose a beat when you return for a refreshed, cleared-brain Fall assault on your market.

Heck, if you have any special ways you’ve been spending August profitably, let’s hear about it in the comments section.

I kinda doubt there are too many of you out there reading this, though.

It’s too damn hot to log on, even.

Keep cool, y’all.

John Carlton