Archive Monthly Archives: January 2008

The Goal Of Goals

Thursday, 8:37pm
Reno, NV
Coyotes in the distance, making sweet music to the snowfall…


How’re you doing with your 21-day habit change challenge?

I almost screwed up last night. Walked by the kitchen around midnight, and I swear the last box of crackers in there was calling my name.

Bastard carbohydrates.

First sign you’re gonna win is when you just shrug, acknowledge that giving in would be glorious and tasty and, you know, worth it in a way… and then don’t give in.

It’s not even a sign of strength, really. It’s just adult management of the ancient, murky, often self-destructive parts of your mind. The ape-brain wants, gimme, gimme, gimme. Ape-brain must have.

Ape-brain not happy when denied.

And yet the sky doesn’t cave in when you shoo the beast back into the shadows.

Day by day, your old habit goes from struggle, to weak impulse, to vanquished behavior pattern. It’s a grind… but results are incremental.

Heck, I’ve got to go through SuperBowl weekend without eating chips and dip.

You gotta feel for me, dude.

Still, the little victories mount quickly. Several years ago, in antipation of doing a full weekend seminar (where I would be on stage, on my feet, needing to be super-sharp and on the ball the entire time), I hired a trainer and started working out twice a week.

I loathe working out. I’d rather play tennis, or pick-up round-ball, or raquetball, or do anything other than schlump my ass back into the gym… but those sports, while exhausting, will not give you a thorough workout.

I knew I needed the whole shebang… and I knew from past experience that hiring a trainer was the best way to “trick” myself into following through.

See, you can join a gym, figure out a routine, and even schedule workouts for yourself, and not need a trainer. Read up on specific workout strategies, write out plans, do it all on your own.

But I knew I needed that extra condition — the very real tactic of having to pay the trainer for his time whether I showed up or not.

That works for me. Just knowing I’m screwing up, by not working out during my appointed hour… and knowing that someone else is also privy to my shame… is enough to kick my butt into gear.

I hate it.

But I go.

And I’ve been going for around four years now. Same trainer, too. I see him more than I see most of my friends, and it’s a relatively pleasant way to suffer twice a week.

It’s a habit. When I travel, and miss more than a couple of workouts, I get uncomfortable… and I like that. I’m more uncomfortable NOT working out, than going through the hassle of actually working out.

I’m in that groove where I crave the burn. Nice.

It’s a drag getting in shape, especially after a few years of slacking. It hurts, it’s annoying, and I don’t wanna have to do it. Been there, done that.

But once you’re there, it’s easy to see the benefits. Obvious health, energy and well-being advantages up the yin-yang, in fact.

Last time I was out-of-shape, I had chronic back pain, I strained muscles easily, and I had the energy level of a wounded slug.

Still, I have to gear up to attack each workout, week after week. I resent the time it takes to get to the gym, I resent having to change clothes, I resent gasping for air during aerobic training… I’m just a resentful pig all the way around.

But it’s a habit now. I don’t have to rearrange my day to workout — the scheduled workouts are already there, built-in, week after week. I plan biz stuff around them, and it’s EASY. Once you’re in the habit, and you make it a priority.

And that small victory — just showing up for my workouts regularly and grunting through them without thought of quitting — gives me a foundation to build other victories.

There’s an old standard goal I used to put on my weekly list I called “The Nasty Bit”. My task was — every time I sat at my desk to start my workday — to choose the ONE thing I really, really, really did NOT want to do… and then do that first.

Usually, it was a phone call fraught with dread. Or reading some long, dull report for a client. Or finalizing the death knell for a relationship.

Neurosis, basically, is the built-up mire of ignored tasks. If you have a problem in life, then you have a task: Face that problem, and resolve it (even if resolution simply means making your peace with it).

You do that, you get to move on. There will be new problems, new tasks, and more down the line when you plow through those. But you will be moving… and gaining strength as you roll.

If you don’t engage the task laid out for you… then the problem festers, and the lack of resolution creates an anchor around your soul.

You stop moving. Instead of engaging life’s new problems, you are stuck in neutral, unable to leave the rut that gets deeper each day you ignore your duty.

And it IS a duty. You have the option of crawling into a rut and going to sleep for the rest of your days, just like the zombie hordes that stumble around you. It’s a tempting decision, because it’s “easy” (if you can live with the self-loathing shame) (which an alarming number of people seem content to do).

So here’s the bottom line: Attaining happiness isn’t easy.

It’s a task, just like potty training. Do it, move on, engage life fully. Don’t do it, and… well, you get the picture.

What I’m saying is that the goal of goal setting… is to get good at attaining goals. Not just having them… but attaining them. Mastering difficult tasks, embracing the joy of victory… and then asking for more.

The small victory of attaining your goal — of either establishing a new, “good” habit, or ditching a “bad” one — is very much like that first step on a fresh path that leads to exciting places.

So… how’re you doing with your 21-challenge?

Stay frosty,

John Carlton

Story Mop-Up Duty… and Another Challenge

Sunday, 6:23pm
Reno, NV
The street’s become one big damn dirt-flavored slushie…


Hey — great job on the stories, guys (and gals).

I just grabbed a few, totally at random, for comment here:

Ian, one of the last to post, nailed it. As a dog lover, I laughed out loud about his short, vivid tale of the dog who didn’t know what to do with the squirrel — after a lifetime of chasing them, she’d never caught one before. And so it got away.

Weak segue into a product, but definitely the right idea. Nice work, Ian.

Karen, Dean, Jason — nice work. Especially Karen — vivid, funny, poignant finish.

Bill went long with his story about slacking his way into college while his poor brother struggled for good grades and failed… but it’s just damn good storytelling. Human interest, compelling narrative, an opening wide enough to begin a truly killer sales pitch. Kudos.

There were two very short posts, by Kris and Udo, that illustrate the lesson. I suggest everyone dig in and read them.

Kris relayed the old “3 men went out, only 2 came back” saw. I appreciate the thinking behind it, but it’s not a story. An opening line for a story, perhaps…but it’s totally unmoored, with no plot elements, no punch line, no action.

This is best illustrated by Udo’s submission about the 300 Trojans stopping 200,000 at Thermopylae (subject of the recent movie based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel), coupled with the modern idea of a single “Trojan” now stopping half a million. I’ll let you, the reader, fill in the details… but I “got” it immediately. Maybe a little too cute, but good — set up, plot elements, coy twist, punch line.

Two extremely sparse submissions, both trying for pithy delivery. One connected, the other fell into the trap of not completing the process of set-up/action/punch-line.

This is not a knock on you, Kris. Thousands of people read this blog, and you had the guts to sit down and give the task a whirl. You are already ahead of everyone else who didn’t lock into “think hard” mode… and your next effort (if you take the lesson to heart) will put you even further ahead.

This is how writers get good.

I’ve been studying writing since I was a kid (when I tried to figure out how Bradbury and Asimov were able to suck me into their novellas). And, as an adult, I’ve dug deep into the “art”, shelling out big bucks to attend fancy-ass writer’s workshops in various states (like the famous annual events in Swannee, TN, and Squaw Valley, CA).

And I discovered two very important things:

1) Writer’s write. It’s that simple.

Almost every accomplished writer I have ever met started out struggling…. and even after becoming successful, continued to drive to get even better.

Not a single one was “born” into it. Their early stories were garbled garbage… but they kept after it, learning the craft by making mistakes, and then absorbing the lesson.

2) Most of the people running around those workshops were not writers… nor did they ever intend to become one.

No. They shelled out the thousands and thousands of bucks required to attend these week-long workshops… because they wanted to have already written something, and enjoy the imagined self-respect and glory of “being” a writer.

The one thing they had in common: They seldom actually sat down and wrote.

They complained of “writer’s block” (which doesn’t exist), they knew how to talk a good game, they even set up meetings with publishers.

But since the only way to get a book written is to… um, excuse me if I shock you here… is to WRITE IT, these pathetic wannabe’s were just shit outa luck in their desire to be seen as writers.

They are the worst kind of poseur. (Unfortunately, the workshops can’t survive without them. The “real” writers — a definite, tiny minority — need the wannabe’s to fund the events.) (Though, after attending five or six, I’ve concluded they’re mostly a waste of time. If you want to become a writer, write. And find successful writers to study. Oh, and take advantage of free blogs like this one.)

I’m relaying this tale specifically because many people who posted their stories here did something that a HUGE part of the population simply cannot bring themselves to do: Face the blank screen, and then write.

For every marketer out there writing his own copy — and learning from his mistakes and testing and inter-acting with guys like me — there are a hundred more who are frozen just by the thought of putting their fingers on a keyboard and engaging their brains.

The invention of email — which wasn’t all that long ago — has been a godsend for many people… simply because it forces you to grab a coherent thought, wiggle it down through your body from brain to fingers, and type it out.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this same situation: My father (who, at 86, may be one of the oldest dudes alive who knows how to surf online), at first could barely peck out a single sentence in an email. He was so terse, it was hardly communication at all.

Quickly, however, by repetition, he got the hang of it. And now pens emails easily and unself-consciously.

He got better… by doing it.

Believe it or not… the essentials of killer storytelling require nothing more than the few specifics I handed out in the past few blog posts… combined with your continued effort to see the world around you, and translate it into a pithy, concise, well-told tale that meets the simple requirements of set-up/action/punch line.

If you’re doing it badly now, you soon won’t be. Just keep after it.


Here’s another challenge for y’all.

It ties in neatly with the idea of keeping after it.

Harken: Most folks know the “science” behind forming a habit.

I can’t quote you the research, but the standard anecdote is that it takes 21 days to create a habit… whether it’s a good habit, or a bad one.

You gotta get up every day, for three weeks in a row, uninterrupted… and do your thing in a proscribed way that eventually gets set into muscle memory and into your brain.

The bad habits are easy.

The good ones… not so much.

My trainer, Bryan, reminded of how important it is to focus on creating good habits last week. He’s forcing all his clients — he’s a sadist, the man is — to think about a good habit they want to cultivate… and he’s not shutting up about it once you make the committment.

This is great stuff.

Think how quickly your life could change if you had a slave standing behind you at your desk… and every time you did whatever it is you’re trying to change (like slouching in your chair, or obsessively checking email, or downloading porn) the slave would whack you upside the head until you stopped.

Well, what Bryan’s doing is pretty close. I see him three times a week for punishment (okay, for a workout)… and he is relentless about getting into my face about my goals.

Heck — I PAY him to do this to me.

I highly recommend it.

But even if you’re on your own right now… the whole 21-day challenge thing is worthwhile.

Just pick a single good habit you want to instill. And use the next 3 weeks as your “forge” to make it stick.

At the recent Altitude “check up” event, there were dozens of rich marketers who talked about this very thing — changing your life in increments, habit by habit. (The necessity for “being a good animal” ranks up there with “earn another million bucks” for the most successful guys in the game. Often enough, it ranks even higher.)

What could you accomplish in your life by, say… getting up an hour earlier every day?

Or forming a morning ritual that allows you to efficiently meet the day pumped full of good nutrients, clean, alert and already exercised?

Or setting up a single day each week to take the phone off the hook, and just write all day long without interruption?

Or, heck, even the old standby’s: Is it time to quit smoking? Time to get serious about mentoring your kids? Time to start reading a novel every month?

As humans, we are all woefully inept at creating our “movies” in any perfect way. I would never strive for perfection, anyway — sounds boring to me.

Still, there are ways I want to live that I cannot access until I create better habits. Incremental changes, made permanent, can quickly form the foundation for amazing transformation.

I’ll tell you what my little 21-day challenge is. I’m addicted to carbohydrates — bread, cereal, chips, all that good stuff. And so, despite being in excellent over-all shape and health (cuz, you know, I work out)… my cholesterol isn’t cooperating.

So I’m simply jettisoning all the crap from my diet. (The beer stays, though. I’m not a monk.)

It’s not tough. I’ve done it before. In fact, last year I got into the habit of NOT eating so many carbs… but over the holidays, I dedicated myself to perversely destroying that habit.

Such is life. Constant vigilance is required.

However, without an actual deadline, it might take me years to even attempt to readjust my diet. (I swear, I bought a big damn bag of tortilla chips in a trance last week. I told myself “Don’t do it, man” as I watched my hand reach out and toss the bag into the grocery cart. Carbs are great zombie fuel.)

So here I am, a week into it. And already thinking twice every time I walk into the kitchen. And just waving hello to the Cheeto’s at the deli when I grab a sandwich, and not buying them.

Because I set a simple, very reachable goal: Just do it for 21 days, and see what happens.

It’s cheating, of course. I know full well that, after 21 days, I will have replaced the old habits with a new one: Eating healthy.


Wanna come along?

Pick a goal. For the next 21 days, engage in your chosen new behavior. Just 3 short weeks.

A cakewalk. (Unless it’s cake you’re trying to get away from.)

If you’ve done this before, then you know how powerful it is. If you’ve never done it, you’re in for a treat.

Start simple, if you like. Take a long walk every day. Start brushing your teeth more effectively. Meditate for twenty minutes in the afternoon. Be nice to your mate, no matter how aggravating they are to you.

Or… keep a journal, and every evening, write down a short story of what you observed during your day. Take ten minutes, and tell yourself a little tale.

Heck… post your new goal here in the comments section, if you like. It’ll be there for God and everybody to see… and that will help you breeze through the 3 weeks.

Twenty-one days is not an eternity (unless you’re quitting smoking, which is one of those big damn deal goals) (which you need to get to at some point).

It goes quick. (Think back to your New Year’s Even celebrating. That was FOUR weeks ago. A mere blink.)

And, at the end of your 21 days, you’ll have your new good habit.

C’mon, let us know what you’re eager to instill. We all need good ideas for the next challenge, you know. And I’ll remind you, each time I blog, about it. I’ll keep you aprised of my progress, and you can post yours.

This could be the year for you. The big breakthrough year, where it all comes together.

And it can start with just a little focus and dedication to change…

Don’t be a putz. Let’s change things around…

Stay frosty,

John Carlton

P.S. Speaking of turning things around, the Simple Writing System has changed the life of thousands of marketers, business owners and copywriters and has helped launch countless careers.

Could it do the same for you?

It wouldn’t hurt to check things out now, would it?

Bring Your Badass Story Home To Your Reader

Thursday, 5:34pm
Reno, NV
Okay, I’m tired of snow now…


Let’s take a deep dive into storytelling, what d’ya say?

And, if you’re still up for it, let’s do another exercise to get our chops honed to dangerous “street-wise salesmanship” levels.

If your final goal is to sell stuff, then you need to be able to bring your story home to a reader.

And before anyone starts huffing about how “crass” that sounds, let’s get straight on something right here:

Most of the stories in our modern culture are about selling.

Movies sell stars, and sell themselves.

Television stories are just attention place-holders for commercials. (You think actors get the big bucks because they’re “good”? No way. It’s because they connect with a paying audience. Bob Hope was one of the richest actors to hit the stage, and he never even tried to “really” act — he just goofed his way through a stunningly-lucrative career. But people identified with him, and he cashed in on that identity.)

If you think stories should be “pure”, then move away from society.

Even your weird Uncle Whazoo has an agenda with most of his stories.

He wants attention, he wants to shock and entertain, or maybe he just feels family gatherings would kill the young-un’s with boredom if he didn’t retell the adventure behind his filthy hula dancer tatoo.

So, just to refresh: If you offer something that your prospect needs or wants… then shame on you if you don’t use every tactic available to get your sales message across so the poor guy can justify buying it.

And stories are a killer way to set that situation up.



So… back to the lesson.

Limiting your stories to just 3 lines will help you become more concise.

Even the most rollicking tale can put people to sleep if it’s too long, and has too many tangents.

And most people are not natural storytellers… so they ramble off on quirky paths, repeating themselves, unable to clearly explain plots, and bombarding the listener with irrelevant bullshit.

Like this:

“Did I tell you about the UFO that attacked us? No? It was Tuesday last week… no, wait, it was Wednesday. Yeah, it must have been Wednesday, because I was headed to IHOP to meet Suzy for waffles — you know they have specials every Wednesday, don’t you…”

↑ That there is how people get strangled.↑

In my long experience trying to force people to tell better stories, the first task is nearly always trimming the excess verbiage and fluff.

The outline to follow is:

  • Set up (the tease of the payoff to come)
  • Plot elementsaction (the fulfillment of the tease)…
  • The moral. Which doesn’t have to actually be “moral” in any righteous sense — it’s just the punch line of the story.

You have a reason to tell your story. It could vary from pure entertainment, to pure desire to sell lots of stuff.

When you’re done, you want your listener or reader to FEEL something.

  • Happiness (aww, the puppy got rescued)…
  • Alarm (my God, I’m gonna keep a loaded gun by my bedside from here on out)…
  • Astonishment (my neighbors are doing what at night?)…
  • Or, yes, even greed (hey! I want that kind of deal, too!)

To be more biological about it… the process can also be described like this: Foreplay… climax… resolution.

Stories, like sex, benefit from a focus on the goal. The less extraneous interruption, the better.

In other words: It’s not about you at all, even if you’re the star of the story.

Rollicking stories are always about your reader.

Do you really want to master the ability to tell stories that sell? It’s way more fun than writing about features all day, and more profitable. That’s why I devoted an entire lesson to the topic in the Simple Writing System. Get all the details right here.

Ideally, your reader will “see” himself in your story. Or feel like he’s temporarily “in” the world you create with your words.

Have you ever read a story to a kid? Once they get the taste for it, just saying “Once upon a time…” will glaze their eyes over, as they eagerly prepare themselves to be transported to a world far different than their own.

(Side rant: I think it’s a friggin’ travesty that kids today are being shielded from the violence and chaotic messages of such wild tales as the Brothers Grimm laid out. I had zero idea what life was like in the Middle Ages, but I readily suspended all disbelief because I craved the story so badly. If everyone was wearing lederhosen and eating gruel — whatever that was — then fine. Just make sure the wicked witch or headless horseman scared the bejesus out of me.) (And I grew up fine. The real world, and all the people in it, is not some Kumbaya fantasy… and the often morbid lessons of classic children’s tales are damn good preparation for living amonst the deceit, the unfairness, the unpredictability, and the raw unbridled terror of reality. So there.)

This concept of “transporting” is critical, by the way.

You’re driving the story, and it’s your responsibility to keep it on the road. Your reader will abandon you at the first hint you don’t know where we’re going… and he’ll despise you for getting his hopes up for a good tale, if you then dash them with a feeble punch line.

That’s why striving for pithy, concise stories is so important for writers. Set up… action… punch line.

This 3-line classic is one of the best: 

“I’ve been poor. And I’ve been rich. Rich is better.”

No need for any other detail. In this example, the words “rich” and “poor” are Power Words.

They carry their own payload of emotional backstory with them, because in this context nearly everyone will have a feeling about the concept of being rich, and a feeling (probably very personal and visceral) about being poor.

No one needs a long-winded rant about HOW poor you were, or HOW rich you were.

Concise, memorable stories pack a punch.

Even better, there is a segue into the life of the reader in that 3-line beauty. “Rich is better” may seem like an obvious statement, but coupled with the set-up lines, it delivers a strong message that smacks of truth.

Now, the classical “rags to riches” sales pitch requires more detail, of course. But not so much that you lose the flow of a quick story, told with feeling, ripe with implications for the reader.

However, good ad copy doesn’t rest on implications.

It’s got to move quickly to specifics.

So here’s a simple tactic from my Bag of Tricks that has helped me bring many a story “home” to readers:

  1. First, you tell your story, and you aim for the kind of breathless prose that makes your prospect afraid to exhale, for fear of missing a delicious detail.
  2. Then, you tidy it up. Deliver the punch line, or the moral, or just the ending. Don’t try any clever transitions back into your sales pitch.

Instead, you merely say:

“And here’s what that means for YOU…”

When reading fables to kids, any such attempt to explain the moral would ruin the transcendant pleasure of listening to stories. Ideally, you’d want the end of the story to rattle around in their heads, while they mulled over the ethical implications and came up with their own (right) conclusion. (Kids hate it when adults wag fingers and try to force lessons on them.)

But when writing to adults, you can’t assume anything.

Adults are so numb to incoming data, they will suck up even a great story, absorb it, and move on to the next volley of arriving stimuli without coming to any conclusion whatsoever.

So, as the copywriter, it’s your job to complete the thought.

Not in any condescending way, of course. You just continue the thread, going deeper into your sales message.

“I’ve been poor. And I’ve been rich. Rich is better. And here’s what that means for you:”

You can continue on with your life believing that ‘money can’t buy happiness’ if that makes you feel better… but I’m here to tell you that having a pile of extra cash is actually a fabulous feeling… and your life will get better almost immediately. Plus, since I’ve already done the hard work of going from clean broke to filthy rich, I know all the shortcuts… and I’ll share them with you…

Et cetera.

Ready for your assignment?

Tell a short, 3-line story (using the concept of set up, plot, action and punch line)… and then write a one or two line segue bringing your story home to your reader.

You’re allowed to be non-sensical for this exercise. In other words, you don’t actually have to be selling anything. You can make it all up.

Just think — really, really hard — about how the moral or punch line of your story MIGHT lead to a sales message.

(Another side rant: If you read all the stories in the comments section of my previous posts, you probably noticed the frequency of “we met, we kissed, something went wrong” stories in the submission pile. That’s great — to get good at story telling, you first want to practice (a LOT) with telling tales that have emotional impact or meaning to you. Everyone remembers their first legitimate kiss. (Those sloppy pecks from Auntie Mame don’t count./End rant)

Most people’s stories tend to be pretty typical, but if they’re told right, they can still be funny, or shocking, or even corny in a way that gets the reader nodding in agreement.

And while it may not seem obvious that you could possibly sell anything, after sharing the humorous story of your first fumbling efforts at romance in junior high… just reflect on all the commercials and ads you’ve seen that blatantly couple sex and product.

Heck, they sell laundry detergent with sex.

And while Warren Buffett might put you to sleep with his theories on compound interest, a real entrepreneur would explain the exact same concept from the deck of his yacht, surrounded by bikini-clad beauties. And get more attention, too.

Be concise, and bring it home to the reader.

You cannot “fail” at this exercise, because you’re just warming up your chops.

And, as a number of commenters noted, these are MEGA-important exercises if you want to get good. You COULD have been honing your storytelling chops all along, every day of your life. But you didn’t, did you.

Because no one challenged you to do it.

So, here is an excuse to engage that scary brain of yours, and force it to work for you, for once.

You don’t learn to ride without hopping into the saddle. And it’s okay to fall off, as long as you climb back on.

Stay frosty…

John Carlton

P.S. Stories sell. It’s just that simple… That’s why honing your storytelling chops can change the game for anyone who is an entrepreneur or copywriter…

You’ll find a lot more about storytelling and other pro copywriting tactics here… 

Update on “You, The Movie”

Monday, 4:41pm
Reno, NV
Overcast, cold and yet oh, so toasty here in my office…


Just a quick note here about how the stories are going.

Mostly, I’m very impressed. Those of you who kept to the 3 lines really worked at it, and that’s the idea. You learn to be concise, to stay on target, and still deliver a good story.

For those who had to go over 3 lines: Some very nice stories… but they can all be trimmed to 3 lines. Trust me on this.

I had an idea of how to help: Check out “haiku” on Wikipedia. It’s the Japanese poetry form that is strictly limited to 3 lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables each. No more, no less. Forced to adhere to such limititations, the resulting Zen poetry is crushingly beautiful. In the West, we tend to go more for story lines (rather than koan-type mysticism)… but it’s still the 5/7/5 form.

The marketing equivalent: Adwords. You have strict character limits for each line (though you can do less, but never more). We’ve taken to calling it “Adwords haiku” because of that.

Few Westerners have been forced to “write inside the lines” like this before, and we tend to struggle with limits. But I’m telling you, it’s worth doing.

As you listen to great storytellers, notice how economical they are with words. They find just the exact right word, or short phrase, to nail the mood, direction and plot. This is “power words” in action.

You may scratch your head, at first, looking at haiku. But notice how long the entry is in Wikipedia… and know that it’s long because people care. And it’s good stuff.

You’re about to be enlightened in ways you won’t understand for a long time yet.

Side note #1: Kudo’s to Moffatt for his insight on the exercise. People who collect and tell stories lead better lives… and when they sell, they almost always do a better job of it. Stories are about the human experience, and at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about — broadening and enjoying the experience you’re having, as a human.

Side note #2: Karen, is that YOU? In Kiwi land? (Of course, I know it is. No one else knows the piano disaster story.)

How are you? I tried to find you in the phone book during a short lay-over in NZ last year, but you weren’t listed. Damn. I’d love to catch up. The boys have my private email — just shoot Kevin a note. Hope all is well.

Great story, too. Hard to believe we survived the chaos of those times…

Side note #3: I hope everyone is reading all the stories. When you hang out with writers, you don’t really need Hollywood at all, you know. Even a relatively uneventful evening at the hotel bar with a snaggle of wordsmiths will put the entire acadamy awards to shame…

Side note #4: Dean, I recognized your KKK story. Made me laugh out loud. And would somebody translate Javier’s comment for me? I just wanna make sure it’s not dirty or anything…

Side note #5: Weird things happen when you collect stories, too. “John” in the comments told a nice one about some train tracks in his home town that disappeared… a nearly identical experience to one I had. I grew up ninety feet from a Sierra Pacific line, and the house rattled twice a day for fifty years. I both love and am comforted by the sounds of trains… but one day I went home to visit Pop and the tracks were gone. Just gone. Big weedy path where they once proudly laid, like a scar running through my old stomping grounds. Whew. So much of the world that surrounded me as I grew up is now alive only in memory and photos, always at risk to wash away like tears in rain…

Stay frosty,


You, The Movie Version

Sunday, 6:35pm
Reno, NV
Crispy clear evening, with a canopy of stars twinkling like lighters during a Neil Young encore…


I’m gonna ask you to write a little mini-script here in a minute. For your “inner” home movie.

You did know your life is a movie, right?

Okay, maybe you’re no DiCaprio or Clooney or Scarlett… or even Giametti… but you’re the star of your own show just the same.

There’s a script, which you have enormous sway with. You don’t like the way things are going, do a rewrite.

There’s direction, and even lighting. You want something flashy or big to happen… well, you can arrange it. Whatever you want, as long as you’ve got the cojones to get after it. (No, you’re not guaranteed to get what you want… but if that’s how you want your movie to go, you can at least call for it in your script. Run for prez, dude, if that floats your boat. Heck, if the current crop thinks they’re worthy, then most of the rest of us are, too.)

Lighting, by the way, plays a bigger role in your life than you might realize. Most of us live under ridiculously harsh wattage, both at work and at home… and it’s like blasting angry music into your head all the time. It can change the way you see yourself, and act in the world. Heck — bright lights are used as “extreme interrogation” methods by the CIA. So is Barry Manilow music, as well as thrash metal. Because relentless use of it hurts.

As a side note: Experiment with the subtle elements of your life. Get some indirect lighting for your office, use non-white bulbs or even candles… you don’t have to go for any kind of gaudy bordello-style mood, but just try lighting your stage differently for a little while. See how it affects the way you do things.

Same with music — get out of your rut, for sure, but also stretch a bit. My iPod is crammed with rock and roll, but also lots of classical and acid jazz and country and folk and alternative stuff. And I carefully plan out hour-long playlists that create a mood, and keep it going.

When you live like you’re a star, you pay attention to these kinds of details.

The benefits: Time slows down… routines become exercises in pleasurable rites rather than zombie habits… and your awareness level kicks up a notch.

All are excellent tools for living well… and being a better marketer.

Especially the “awareness” part.

Have you ever wondered where the knack for finding stories and hooks — the main ingredient of any great copywriter’s bag of tricks — comes from?

It’s a direct result of being hyper-aware. Of living life like the greatest movie ever filmed.

Think about your life.

No, seriously. Think about it.

Most people have trouble “seeing” themselves in the world at all. Without a mirror, they’re not even sure they exist. Their daily experiences are like watching a “monkey cam” — the filmed result of attaching a camera to the back of a chimp and letting him wander off.

It’s not a smooth, thought-out, coherent narrative. Instead, it’s jerky, chaotic, and (unless there are “happy accidents”) mostly boring.

There. I’ve said it.

Most people lead boring lives.

And do you know why?

It’s because they refuse to believe they have any control over the script, plot, or action of their life. And, if you don’t believe you do, then you don’t. That’s the way it works, most of the time.

I’m not talking about adopting a selfish attitude of “it’s all about me”. No way. Most of the really savvy people you know — the ones who have their personal and biz lives put together well — are not selfish weasels. And yet, they live like they’re the center of the action, because they are.

Doesn’t have to be a “movie” metaphor, either. Think of yourself as the protaganist in a great novel, or the hero of the best video game ever created. (Don’t be that guy who dresses like a Wookie, though. When you finally kick your life into high gear, it will be part action, part comedy, part drama, part tragedy, and yes, part fantasy… but try to think in well-rounded terms. It’s a mistake to get hung up on any one thing, because it’s so limiting. Expand. Live large.)

Whatever works for you, works. It may take you a little time to get clear on what kind of script you really want — most novice goal-seekers screw it up the first few times (like thinking they really, really, really want something… and then being disappointed when they get it).

But you’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly, if you just realize this gift of consciousness you’ve been given. The natural tendency of any human being who has attained some measure of creature comfort, is to sleep-walk through the rest of his days.

And that’s not living. That’s zombie city.

Living your life like a movie means that you are constantly aware of the ROLE you play. It can change, or mutate, or solidify… but all of that can be your choice. Part of the plot twist, if you want.

You can never control EVERYTHING, of course. No one’s ever said you can. Every second of your existence is fraught with unpredictable events, from earthquakes and heart attacks to stalkers and food poisoning. Or an unexpected call from the ex. Or a hacker discovering your bank password.

Nevertheless, there remains a HUGE portion of your moment-to-moment life that you CAN control. If you choose.

And getting into the swing of writing your own script as much as you can, will redirect your life in ways that please you. You become the captain of your ship.

The OTHER advantage of living this way… is that the STORIES of your life become more vivid.

And the best copywriters and marketers and salesmen in the universe… are all great storytellers. Without exception.

Again, think about your life.

Consider how it has progressed in actual chapters, or acts. Maybe it’s as straightforward as childhood, adulthood, starting a biz, getting married. Or maybe it’s more nuanced, in peculiar ways that make sense to you but may sound fuzzy to outsiders. (I know guys who have sectioned thier past under the heading of whichever female was in their life at the time: Jo (junior high), Nancy (freshman year), Roberta (summer he got his license), Yolanda (first part-time job),etc. They will fry your ear with great stories, too.)

The more precise you can be, the better your stories will become. And the better your OWN parcel of stories are, the better you can spot — and use — stories from the world around you when you’re writing to influence and persuade.

I was really lucky to grow up in a family of storytellers. And since I was the youngest by 8 years, I learned quickly to be pithy and interesting… or to lose the floor (because few people have the patience for meandering stories with no punch line, especially from kids).

My auto-biography is already written, you know. In my head. It’s been a work in progress since the day I first realized I was alive… and I remember vivid, interesting stories from every minor period of my life.

Stories aid memory, and retention, you know. Every ancient culture on earth was based on stories until writing came along. They HAD to be short, fascinating and memorable, too… because any story not retained, was lost forever.

Even if this “consider the movie of your life” concept is new to you… you should be able to look back and see how certain periods of your life evolved. You don’t have to get it all organized right away… take your time. Focus on some pleasant period, and re-gather the stories from that period into a mental file cabinet.

I also urge you to write these stories down. In short, well-thought-out vinettes that pass the “won’t bore your buddies” test.

In other words… leave out the dull parts. You can write up the longer version — the “director’s cut” that only you will truly appreciate — for personal indulgence… but while you’re honing your storytelling chops for the outside world, focus on short, crisp, rollicking tales that get to the point quickly.

The best stories are concise little mini-movies. With a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or, like a good joke, with a premise, a set-up, and a punch line.

They can be serious, or funny, or rueful, or just “hmmm” inducing.

But they must be complete stories. Remember Suzy, your first real relationship? Sure, it went on for a long time, and any day-to-day explanation would put even someone tweaked on speed to sleep.

So start editing, with an audience in mind. For example, to strut your credentials for understanding young love: “Suzy, the first love of my life. Teenagers, convinced we would live forever, and no one had ever felt a love so strong before. We spent most of our time in the back seat, or in secluded spots, fumbling with biological imperatives and hormone dumps. Torrid affair. Shocking heartache when her biology shifted away from me. Sad, sad boy, convinced no one had ever felt such pain before…”

Or, something more mundane: “Interviewed for my first real job right out of college. Cinched up my tie, answered every jack-ass question seriously, shook hands like a candidate. Got the job. Hated every second of my life for six months, never quite caught my breath, and then got fired. Joy, again.”

Or, here’s a tidbit from my own biography: “We were vandals as kids, mostly ineffective and innocent, but occasionally stunning models of terrorism. Asked an engineer how many railroad ties his cow-catcher could handle… and the next day, put all those plus one on the tracks. Derailed the train, and our genuine horror of success was deepened by the realization we better watch our asses if we were gonna engage with the adult world like that.”

Three sentences. Yeah, long ones, but three coherent, correct sentences. A complete story, with entry point, action, and quasi-moral ending.

Consider how looooooooooooong I could have dragged that tale out, and been absolutely justified in doing so. Because, hey, the thing took place over a couple of days, and there are details of our gang and the neighborhood and the derailment that are fascinating.

Just friggin’ fascinating.

But longer stories should only be told if you’re invited to tell them. As in, writing your thousand-page biography, and selling it. Anyone buys, it’s a tacit agreement to put up with every long-winded tale you’ve got up your sleeve.

Watch a bad movie tonight. Not a good one, or even a cult sleazoid one, appreciated for being bad.

No, watch a dull, plodding, no-thumbs-up disaster. You’ll discover that it has nothing to do the stars in the cast, the money in the budget, the director, the studio, or even the script. (People have screwed up Shakespeare, you know.)

Watch it critically. Consider WHY it’s boring you. And think of ways it could speed up the pace, nudge your attention, be better. The culprit will almost always be the storytelling.

Now, it’s your turn.

Leave a 3-sentence story from your life in the comments section. Don’t be shy — we’re all trying new stuff this year (or should be). Trashing old limitations, stretching new boundaries, waking up and engaging the world on new terms.

I promise to read every one. I’ll even toss in a few comments myself, when warranted.

This is a SAFE forum, you know. We’re all friends, or at least cohorts in the quest for better living and finer biz results.

Honing your storytelling chops requires releasing your shy restrictions, and just doing it. Get comfy with the concept, and get better with the details each time you try again.

I won’t mock anyone, and I’ll read every submission. Some of you are already damn good, others can use a lot of work… but we ALL need a kick in the butt once in a while to continue getting better at storytelling.

C’mon. Three lines. That forces you to be concise, to consider every single word carefully, and to crunch large chaotic experiences into tidy little narratives with a point.

I’m not looking for funny. Not looking for tears. Not looking for anything profound.

Just a story.

For some writers, this will be a true test, because you aren’t used to pushing yourself like this. However, the best already do.

Stay frosty,

John Carlton

What To Do, Redux

Tuesday, 10:27 pm
Reno, NV


That was a great, healthy, raucous sharing of ideas to the question I posted Sunday. Essentially: What to do, when the act of creating a formal ad is too daunting, but you need to do something to create sales.

The Usual Suspects posted really good comments, and it was cool to see a bunch of new folks putting on their Thinking Caps to tackle the problem.

As I said — I hate questions like this, myself. Cuz it hurts to confront puzzles, mysteries, dilemnas, and problems.

Yet, it’s been the best way to learn for around 3,000 years. It’s the Socratic method — essentially Q&A, but the answers are expected to be well-thought-out. (For a great example of this method in action, see the 1973 flick “The Paper Chase”, on the hot action inside a freshman year at Harvard Law School.) (I still get shudders watching it today.)

So, for my entire career, I’ve been practicing it whenever possible. John Caples, in “Tested Advertising Methods”, offers up hundreds of little mini-tests… asking the reader to choose which headline or USP worked the best. I was stunned to learn that most of my colleagues who had bothered to pick up that amazing book had also NOT considered each question carefully, chose definitively, and only then look at the answer.

Nope. Most glanced at the question, then quickly went to find the answer. “Oh, yeah,” they’d say. “I probably would’ve chosen correctly, if I’d had to.”

Bullshit. That’s cheating.

Your brain is a muscle. It craves good workouts, even though puzzles can make the old cranium cranky. The ONLY way to retain knowledge is to cement it into your noggin. Passive, lazy glances at the important stuff doesn’t cut it.

So kudo’s to everyone who ventured an answer.

It was gratifying to see so many writers come so close to the answer, too. (In truth, many would have technically passed the test, even though their answer wasn’t quite as complete as what I was getting at.)

Before I reveal my own answer, let’s address a few of the suggestions offered.

First, swiping is not gonna cut it. All writers swipe to one degree or another (though some of the new breed do it to excess, and rob themselves of finding their own “voice” and style).

However, even if you find an ad to swipe that is in your market, close to your USP, and even selling something similar… you’re still gonna have to slog through the very necessary tasks of re-molding the headline, all subheads, and especially bullets to your own situation.

This can work… but remember that part of the question was “…and you find the formal process of creating an ad daunting…”. For a veteran professinal copywriter, this particular problem won’t come up much. But for an entrepreneur or small biz owner selling your own crap, this is THE most common problem you face.

What’s more — as I posted among the comments last night — while using the “Lazy Businessman’s 3-Step Shortcut To Creating A World-Class Ad” (the record-yourself-at-fever-pitch-and-transcribe technique pushed by Halbert and me for decades) will actually get you to a good point in creating a killer sales message… in all the years I’ve taught it to people, few have ever actually done it.

Still, the process you would go through to get your head ready for such a recording… IS a big part of the answer to this problem.

Here is my solution:

First, and foremost… keep it all very simple.

What you want to do is create a sleek, greased slide leading straight to a single action.

No tangents. No long stories that require cognitive effort by the reader.

The key is that single action you will request: What, with a gun your head and wolves at the door, is the ONE action you would love to see your reader take? Could be a full-on sale… could be just to get into the sales funnel… could be a phone call. Or a hundred other actions.

Choose the one that you need him to do. Concentrate your salesmanship on getting him to that point — quickly, efficiently and without fuss.

Second: Get clear on WHO your reader is.

Remember — even jaded, long-time marketers have little clue who actually populates their list. Many entrpreneurs get an idea in their head of who they THINK they’re writing to… but are often wildly wrong.

So calm down (yes, even with that snarling and scratching at the door), and use whatever resources you have to nail your prime target. This could include asking your staff for input, calling up some actual customers to see who they are, or even doing a little “Google Stalking” to see if any of your intended readers show up in a search for demographic info.

If you’re writing to a cold list… you’ve still got to create that “avatar” character you’re writing to. If you gotta guess, you gotta guess. But you still have to make a final decision.

A sales pitch written to no one in particular will die a gruesome death.

Third: As so many posters commented… the next step is to create a super-condensed list of your reader’s needs and wants. You want to get as close to a psychological profile as you can. At this point — desperate and under urgent circumstances — you are in no position to offer him what you think he needs or should have.

Nope. You want to discern what he wants… and give it to him. This is not the time for long discourses on new ideas, or education on what-if situations.

Try, as much as you can with the resources you have, to figure out what parade your reader is marching in… and then hop out in front of it. Where’s he’s going, hey, that’s where YOU’RE going.

What a coincidence.

Fourth: As many of you guessed… you’re going to write a personal letter.

However — and this is critical — you are not going to write AT him… but TO him.

As much as your dire situation feels personal… this ain’t about YOU.

It’s about HIM. All you are is the conduit of good tidings — the bearer of great news, the gateway to something wonderful, the dude writing the one thing he’s gonna read today that really gets his blood moving. (Though, if your situation really does lend itself to a fire-sale offer, then by all means USE that tactic.)

You write — in a conversational voice — a very personal letter from you to him, getting right to the point, and outlining what you have for him in the following manner:

Here’s who I am…

Here’s what I have for you…

Here’s why you’ll like it…

And here’s what you need to do right now.

Yes, you need to write your opening line (or subject line, if you’re using email) in a compelling way… because it’s doing the job of a headline. And yes, you need to think in bullet form (even if you don’t use the formal, indented bullet set up). And yes, your close needs to cover all the essentials of classic salesmanship.

However, if you know who you’re writing to… and you’re dead honest about what you have, and how it fits into his life… then all this should come naturally.

Many of you know the story behind the big damn Stompernet launch. Frank Kern graciously has told this tale many times, and I’ll repeat it here: With just days left before the launch, the guys doing the writing were nowhere near having a final “buy now” sales pitch ready.

It was panic time. They were trying to hire me — at ridiculous rates — but I didn’t have the time (or, honestly, the inclination — I’ve had my share of emergency jobs, and they’re never any fun).

So, during a break at the seminar in San Diego we were all attending, I sat down with Frank and Mike and promised to do what I could to help them get back on track.

The copy they had was, to my mind, hopelessly overwritten and a muddle.

And completely unnecessary, I told them.

At this point, they knew WHO they were writing to… and even had a fair idea of their prospect’s state of mind. (Teased to a froth, from an extended launch process.)

So, I said, here’s all you need…

And I quoted to them pretty much what I just laid out here in this post.

For Frank, it was an epiphany. And he was able to blast out the letter that sealed the deal in record time. (It was a beauty, too. I am NOT taking any credit for what Frank wrote at all. I’m just pleased to have helped part the fog, and point out the yellow-brick road.)

The thing to do when your body is telling you to PANIC… is to settle down, get your breathing deep and relaxed… and set to work mapping out a simple, direct, no-frills path for your very real reader to arrive at a simple request for action.

Movement will save you. And movement in a definite direction, knowing that you only have to create a very simple pitch with a simple request for action, can bring stunning results.

All great ads are, at heart, just killer letters that touch your reader’s heart. Or greed gland. Or desire for vengance, or whatever it is that he wants enough to open his wallet to attain.

It’s fair to ask: If this is such a good tactic, why not write ALL ads like this?

And the professional answer is: Because, once you have the core of your pitch nailed in this format… you can increase readership, desire, and response by fleshing more of the classic “formal” parts. Big headline, bold and centered subheads, ranks of tidy indented bullets, some graphics, audio, video and all that other cool stuff.

Nevertheless… cornered by a crisis, without the time or resources to “perfect” your ad… a very simple sales letter, aimed at the tender emotional sweet spot of need in your reader, leading to a single action… can save your life.

That was fun, wasn’t it?

You guys are scary-good, and I feel better about the state of the copywriter field after seeing the sense, the will to think hard, and the skill set so many of you offer.

Stay frosty…

John Carlton

What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do

Sunday, 6:09pm
Reno, NV


Here’s a question for you.

It’s something that — once you know the answer — you sorta want to smack yourself upside your head, cuz it’s so obvious.

However, it’s NOT so obvious until someone with experience reveals the answer to you. It’s simple, but most folks never “stumble” upon it on their own.

I hate these kinds of questions, myself. Except for, like, situations where I’m the one holding the big damn secret, and I get to do all the teasing and torturing. It’s fun being the one in control. All humans have at least a small sociopathic sadist hiding deep inside, you know…

But never mind about that.

What’s interesting here — and very, very important to marketers looking to earn the Big Bucks — is that despite the “obviousness” of the answer (which you’re very close to discovering)… fewer than one professional copywriter in a hundred has a clue to the solution.

And that’s the pro’s — the guys making a living at this.

For rookie entrepreneurs and flustered small biz owners… it’s like the Holy Grail of advertising. They’ve maybe heard rumors about it, but harbor little hope of ever finding the answer without some serious help.

Still, it’s worth wracking your brain about, because (as top marketers know) all the really good wealth-producing secrets are hidden from most people.

This is the advanced stuff, folks.

So here’s the question… and I want you to really try to answer it for yourself before you peek at the answer:


“What can a marketer do… when he desperately needs a money-making ad fast… and yet finds the ‘formal’ process of writing a ‘real’ sales pitch (or getting one written by others) too daunting to complete?”

In other words, you need to post, print or mail something (with wolves at the door)… and no way is a ‘real’ looking ad gonna get completed in time. So what do you do?

I’ll give you a hint: The answer is NOT “do nothing.” Or “crawl back into bed and curl into a sobbing fetal position.” (A very common response, by the way, to this very common problem. It’s why so many new businesses wither and die every year, too.)

The key words in this question are “desperately”… “money-making”… “fast”… and “real”.

Consider those words as you try to figure out the answer.

The need for results-getting ads is never-ending for all business owners… and most never adequately solve the problem of getting “real” ads created (either by using agencies or freelancers)… even when deadlines are loose and money’s no object.

Worse, though, is that neither entrepreneurs nor small biz owners ever come close to solving the problem of giving birth to “emergency” ads that need to get posted or published or mailed right friggin’ NOW… especially when there’s no agency or freelancer available to help, or no money to hire them.

So what do you think the answer is?

Wracked with anxiety, under a cash crunch, with the hammer coming down… and no time or resources available to pay someone else to do it… or to create a “real” ad, with superscript, headline, subhead, bullets, guarantees, graphics, etc, yourself… what do you DO?

I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments section. I promise not to make fun of anyone… especially rookies who just want to give a stab at the answer.

Again, the question (re-phrased): “What do you do, when you’re under the gun to create a money-making sales piece… and you simply don’t know how to create (or are overwhelmed by the requirements of) a ‘formal’ type ad with all the bells and whistles?”

I’ll post the veteran’s short, elegant solution Tuesday evening.

Stay frosty,

John Carlton

P.S. C’mon. Give it a go — leave a suggestion in the comments section here…

How Professional Writers Procrastinate

Thursday, 10:54pm
Reno, NV


I was gonna write this post last week, but I put it off and forgot about it.

Okay, that’s a bad joke.

But it could have been the truth. Humans have a lot of belligerent, wicked-clever demons lurking inside… and procrastination is one of the nastiest.

Often, during one of my ridiculously expensive consultations, I’ll hear all kinds of excuses from the client concering why he can’t “get” anywhere in business.

Disorganization and time management get the blame a lot… but really, I know it’s nearly always just a virulent case of procrastination.

Oh, it’s bad stuff. People have all kind of different names for it — writer’s block, stress-induced catatonia, frozen nerves, lack of inspiration…

But it all really just comes down to being a lazy S.O.B.

We choose to