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“There is no problem in the world that cannot be solved with a good sales letter.” (Gary Halbert)
Increasingly, I am teaching less about the technicalities of copywriting, and more about the subtle (and much ignored) art of salesmanship.
And this makes sense, given the nature of the Web. Copywriting is mostly a technical skill, something you can learn to do without actually understanding what it is, exactly, that you’re doing.
Sort of like learning to play songs on a guitar without having a clue how each chord relates to music theory — you just put your fingers like so on the fretboard, and strum.
One of the first things I did in the “Kick Ass Copywriting Secrets” course was to lay out a blueprint for a basic ad. It’s almost “paint by numbers” — write something about you here, something about the product here, list some benefits here, etc.
I also laid out a way to capture a good spoken pitch, and transcribe it into a working ad.
Your fundamental, nothin’ fancy, stripped-down pitch.
The very best copywriters are artists, and understand every nuance of writing. But for most projects, you don’t need to be a top copywriter — you just need to get the job done of presenting what you have, showing why it’s something your reader wants, and offering an easy way to get it.
As my pal Dan Kennedy likes to say: Good enough is good enough.
For many of the entrepreneurs and small biz owners I deal with, creating an ad that is “good enough” to get a basic sales job done is all they need to get over the hump of moving into profitable territory.
And with the Web increasingly offering so much free info, you really can get most of the way “there” without paying a cent for anything.
… and it’s a BIG “however”…
… you will never get above the level of mediocre sales until you go deeper with your understanding of both copywriting AND salesmanship. (Just like the guitarist who never bothers to learn music theory will forever be locked into playing only the most simple tunes, and will get lost easily when playing with other musicians. It’s the difference between “Kumbaya” and “Take Five”.)
This is why I wrote extensively about salesmanship in the “Kick Ass” course…
… and why I hid so many other advanced lessons on salesmanship in there, too.
True success in both business and life comes down to learning the psychology and real-world application of advanced salesmanship, not just the technical details of slamming out pitches or memorizing a few persuasion tricks.
Top copywriters are master salesmen, first. The “form” of writing copy follows the “function” of knowing how to sell.
That’s why my course — and my seminars, and my coaching clubs, and everything else I do — remains so fundamentally different than what other people teach.
Because what most people need is a good, stiff shot of masterful salesmanship. Not more technical skill at copywriting, not more graphics knowledge, and not more of anything else.
Every once in a while, I come across a “natural” salesman. They are rare. And they intuitively understand what I’m trying to teach about using copy to channel killer selling chops.
But for most folks, trying to convince someone to buy remains a big damn mystery. This is particularly frustrating when you get your basic copywriting chops down — so your ad reads well, and covers all the basics — and yet you don’t convert as many sales as you’d hoped for.
So here is the mystery, solved: It is actually EASY to get a prospect to say “Hey, that looks like a pretty nice product”, and even agree with you that he should probably buy it.
However, it is much more difficult to move to the next level… and get that same prospect to actually pull out his wallet and give you money.
This is where world-class salesmanship comes in. It’s not rocket science… but until you allow your stubborn little brain to digest the lessons, it will remain a mystery.
Even bad copywriters can coax a prospect to climb up and sit on the fence.
But it takes a deep knowledge of persuasion to knock him OFF that fence, and into your yard as a customer.
I used to have to hide the fact I was teaching so much classic salesmanship… because to many people, the whole concept seems fraught with scary implications of “mind control” and sleazy persuasion tricks.
Just get over it.
Everyone sells. Almost every single human interaction involves some level of salesmanship — kids try to sell unrestricted access to the cookie jar to Mom… teens try to sell themselves as good dating material… every essay you ever wrote was a sales job for a good grade… politicians sell themselves for your vote… and every friend you have had to be “sold” on liking you, first.
People who get good at selling live better lives. Most people suck at selling, because they never pay attention to the process.
You can get through life without understanding salesmanship. But that’s all you’ll do — “get through” it.
The magic doesn’t happen until you start learning the tough lessons.
If you’re in business, and you ignore salesmanship, you’re toast. You can create a fabulous product, or present a fabulous service… and you can even get lots of prospects to eagerly tell you how great your product or service is, and how you should get filthy rich because it’s so great.
But that’s just piling prospects up on the fence, where they will sit forever if you don’t learn how to knock ’em off that fence.
Success is not about getting good PR or lots of pats on the back.
It’s about closing the deal.
Almost everything I write has a lesson in salesmanship hidden in it. It’s a little like teaching a kid about economics by giving him a dollar toward something he wants that costs two dollars — he’s got options and choices to make, and will have to learn to handle frustration and manage his dreams. He may not realize he’s learning basic capitalism, but he is.
And he learns absolutely nothing by you giving him the two bucks right off the bat.
And don’t get offended by the “child psychology” reference here. I had to learn most of my own lessons the hard way, and my mentors used the most cruel and insultingly-basic teaching methods possible.
Remember the car-washing exercises in “Karate Kid”?
Learning is painful. We’re all basically lazy beasts, resistant to new stuff. And the deep arts of classic salesmanship often run against the grain of “common sense”, or seem to come from left field.
But then, everything worth having takes some effort.
Every single lesson you learn nudges you a little further ahead than the other guy.
The big lesson here: Most mainstream advertising, at best, gets people up on the fence.
Just knowing that massive success requires learning how to knock them OFF that fence, puts you in a position to obliterate your competition.
If you lust after an extraordinary life, you need to master the tools of getting what you want.
And it’s all about salesmanship.
It seems to be human nature to not want to admit error or cop to mistakes.
And that probably makes sense, in an evolutionary way. Those ancestors who leaped up to take the blame too eagerly were likely punished in severely unpleasant ways… and could have also been seen as too wimpy for mating with.
Those folks who clammed up tight and denied everything stood a better chance of surviving the wrath of the community. It’s certainly the way politics still works.
And, as I recall from my bachelor days, truth was a scarce resource in the dating world.
But this is no reason to adopt denial and lies as “standard operating procedure” in your business. In fact, it’s probably hurting your bottom line much more than you think.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. We’re doing business with a joint that is very good at talking the talk of “quality control”… and the way they tout their customer service, you’d think they had discovered super-human powers.
But it’s all talk. In our short business relationship, we now have experienced dozens of situations with these guys where quality control was a delusion, and customer service failed utterly and completely.
And they will not accept this as reality. It doesn’t jive with their internal world-view… and thus must be wrong. There are no problems. Everything’s fine. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain…
It’s irritating, far beyond the inconvenience of not getting what you paid for. Denial is stubborness that gives the finger to reality. When people dig in behind a lie, reason is the first casualty.
In life, and in business, you can avoid compounding many problems simply by copping to the truth of the situation. If you screwed up, you screwed up. Lying about it, or trying to cover it up, may work some of the time… but when you get caught doing that, well, pretty soon the fan can’t handle the volume of shit that hits it.
In politics, it’s a well-worn (and well-ignored) cliche that it’s not the crime that does you in… it’s the cover-up. People will tolerate exaggeration and bloviation, but get very, very nasty when lied to.
Couple of examples: We just logged a much-needed five-day vacation over on the Northern California coast. We’ve gone to this one gorgeous old town, on a bluff overlooking the ocean, for years. Mostly, we resign ourselves to not having good cell phone service, and zero high-speed Internet connections.
But this time, we were intrigued by a bed-n-breakfast that advertised both excellent cell phone reception AND DSL as part of the package. Killer views, privacy, pets allowed… it seemed like a great deal. Both Michele and I had small bits of work we had to do, and we wouldn’t have gone to the coast this time if we couldn’t connect to the Web.
I was suspicious, because in multiple previous trips, the town seemed to exist in a high-tech-free bubble.
But the ad featured these new services. We called, and they insisted it was all true.
So we booked the joint.
And while you could use your cell phone in certain parts of the house — standing in specific positions — the DSL hook-up could not be coaxed into working at all.
We complained, they sent out a “technician” who insisted it was all fine, and we were told (in irritating superior tones) that different computers had different requirements for accessing DSL, and we were probably just doing something wrong.
In other words, it was our fault. Not their problem.
Obvious bullshit. We easily discovered a message board on their Website that was filled with complaints from other folks who’d been flummoxed trying to use the DSL. It wasn’t just us — their Internet connection was certifiably screwed up, and had been for some time. (Michele had to hang out at the local coffee shop to get online, using their free wireless.)
When we pointed out that their own Website had proof they were lying to us, they offered a partial refund. Reluctantly. Exasperated at our childish insistence that their version of reality might be wrong.
And we had to put our work plans on hold. We’ll recover, but we feel cheated.
This was just insane. They lied, and pissed us off, and it was all completely avoidable.
Compare this experience to another: Yesterday, I had to book a room in another hotel, in another city. I called one cool place I’d stayed in before, and asked about their high-speed services (because, again, I’ll have to work on the trip). The lady on the phone admitted they really wanted to get their DSL working, but it wasn’t. There was a single, cramped hot spot in the hotel lobby where you could get wireless, but it wasn’t all that reliable.
She was being totally honest with me.
And I didn’t book a room with them. But neither did I cross them off my list of future hotels I might stay at… cuz when they do get DSL in their rooms, I feel fairly confident they won’t lie about the quality of the service. And I still like the hotel — I’ll probably go out of my way to visit their cool house cafe (which overlooks a gorgeous lake) while I’m in town.
So, yeah, they “lost” a sale. But if they had lied or weasel-worded the situation, they would have had a very pissed-off customer on their hands, demanding a refund and telling everyone I know about the fiasco. (Just as I’m doing about the bed-n-breakfast on the coast.)
Way too many businesses believe their own hype. They get caught up in the enthusiasm of an aggressive “mission statement”, gulp their own Kool-Aid, and insist that all evidence to the contrary is either not really a problem, or just a temporary glitch.
I’ve had several experiences lately where — after phoning in to complain — I was hit up with a sales pitch for more services or products from the very company I was mad at. They have a severe myopia about their shortcomings… and, since I’ve worked on the other side of this situation (fielding complaints, back when I worked for The Man), I know that customers who gripe are actually considered the “real” problem.
It’s the CUSTOMER’S fault the gizmo’s screwed up. Somehow. Some way. Sure, it LOOKS like it’s our fault, but who are you gonna believe — our hype, or your own lying eyes?
Just tell the friggin’ truth.
In life, and in biz. Lying about snafu’s just pushes the problem a short way into the future, at best. It will gain size and power as it thrives in the shadows of denial, and can bite you on the butt in ways that far exceed the damages you would have experienced had you just copped to the screw-up in the first place.
The really sad thing is, this isn’t something new that just popped up in business or human nature. It’s always been the case, and always will be the case.
However, this makes it an opportunity to stand out from the pack. Both as an individual, and as a business, being honest with people puts you in a rare category.
You don’t even need to go overboard, and become a Tourette-style truth-teller who can’t shut up, and hurts people’s feelings and reveals company secrets. Respecting truth doesn’t mean it’s suddenly your job to point out everyone else’s faults, or to share inappropriately.
It’s okay to be circumspect, thoughtful, and to keep your secrets.
It is NOT okay to blatantly lie about something in order to get what you want.
It is, in fact, dumb.
So let your competition be dumb. Take the higher road when you have a choice… even if it means losing a sale. Business cycles are relentless, and very cruel to charlatans and crooks. There will be multiple chances to win that sale back later.
Trust me on this. You’ll sleep better when your waking hours aren’t built on a web of lies and deceit.
I just flew in from Chicago, and boy, are my arms tired.
I’ve also been drowning my immune system with every kind of natural booster I can legally find… because, like a window shopper passively watching a store display mannequin fall over and break into pieces, I’ve been watching my health take hit after hit during the past few weeks of heavy stress and unpleasant surprises.
I’m running as fast as I can, just a few steps ahead of an immune system red-alert crisis.
Good to be home for a break in the action. Where I can sleep in, hide from the world, and regroup. I think I’m gonna be fine.
I just wanted to share an interesting thing that’s been happening — whenever I’m around marketing people (as I was at the Chicago seminar) I get asked about what I “got” from hanging out with Gary Halbert all those years.
Of course, the real answer will be book-length.
But in the interim, I find that each time I answer that question… I answer it differently.
This is a small tribute, all in itself, to the quality of the man. He shared so much with me, and I took away so many good lessons… that I can just rattle on about the first thing that pops into my head, and it’s always a worthwhile topic.
And one I can go on and on about for an hour, if no one shuts me up.
That book I write is gonna be a barn-burner.
Right now, for example, recovering from one trip and getting ready to fly down to LA for Gary’s memorial service, I find all kinds of things in the current news that Gary and I would have spent hours talking about on the phone. We both embraced the essential silliness of trying to life with any kind of real dignity… given the fact that nothing EVER went according to plan.
And we both loved to explore the weird basic nature of people in general. As salesmen, we jumped on every shred of consumer psychology we could find… but we augmented that knowledge with tidbits other marketers usually ignored. (My Google home page on Explorer even includes a “Weird News of the World” add-on, so I’m always hip to the latest whackiness.)
Why care about the strangeness of people? Because — as P.T. Barnum once said — you can never go broke underestimating the greed and foolishness of your fellow humans.
So, in honor of Gary, here is just one recent tidbit that would have had both of us shaking our heads in amused shock: According to the AP wire service (April 30), villagers in Guyana, South America, lynched an old woman they accused of being a vampire.
As a modern guy, you can look back on the stories about witches from Europe (more or less documented in tales by the Brothers Grimm) and the Salem executions of same in America as a quaint example of how ignorant people “used” to be.
However, anyone who studies human nature — and all advertisers and marketers should be doing this, in depth — knows that no evil or stupid tendency EVER goes away in our species.
To truly understand people, you must look at their dark sides. Many “civilized” folks suffer from an insulated existence, where all their friends and colleagues exhibit mostly rational behavior. And so it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing “that can’t happen here”.
Thus, when tragedies like the Virginia Tech shootings occur, the nation recoils in horror and engages in group therapy to find the “cause”. Someone, or some thing, needs to be held accountable.
You know… so we can “stop” it from ever happening again.
Savvy people-watchers know better. It has ever been thus — in spite of all the whiz-bang technology, in spite of science and medical advances and space travel… we are still not that far from the jungle.
Scratch a high-functioning, rich, good-looking and respected CEO… and you’ll find, just under the veneer, a 3rd grader at recess. With all the immaturity, selfishness and social cluelessness that implies.
People operate on mostly-unconscious, emotional, hormone-fueled motivations. We like to pretend we’re rational, super-effective and centered beings… but an honest reality check shows that isn’t the case.
Gary and I never despaired over the constant reminders that our fellow citizens were unpredictable, semi-crazed, half-asleep zombies capable of acting with outrageous greed and ugly aggression.
Instead, we just continued to look at life and other people as realistically as possible… and to incorporate our observations into as rational a world-view as we could manage.
It’s always going to be a long, strange trip. You cannot avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune… but you can learn to enjoy the ride anyway.
It’s easy to say you love people, when you’re in deep denial about how grotesque things can turn out.
It’s a challenge to actually continue to love people as much as you can, when the dark side keeps elbowing out the nice stuff for center stage.
Nevertheless, we both truly loved the human race, and thoroughly enjoyed the often-painful discovery process of facing up to reality every day.
And that’s just one small thing I owe to Gary — because he shared my views on this, and we got to indulge in the horror-filled astonishment of examining the follies of the world. We always tried to find some useful lesson. We always tried to better understand what it was like to walk in the other guy’s shoes.
I will dearly miss those grisly, laugh-at-death discussions for the rest of my days.
And, to the best of my ability, I will carry on, and enjoy the trip anyway.