Two Copywriters Walk Into A Bar…

Saturday, 7:58pm
Tampa, FL


Hey, a big “first” for this blog today: We have a guest writer filling in!

Let me introduce you to Kevin Rogers, an experienced, savvy, successful copywriter (who has earned a spot on my “Inside Team”) who brings a unique perspective on writing sales copy.

See, his first line of work was stand-up comedy.

I’ve been pushing him to dig into the lessons he learned as a stand-up… which I intuitively know also apply to writing copy… and share.

For over four years, I’ve been the sole person to post on this blog… and I’ve always wanted to bring in other ink-stained wretches to guest-post. Kevin won the lead-off job by having the best story to tell.

So I’m outa here, on a brief and rare day off. I’ll post again next week.

You, however, need to read Kevin’s take on writing copy, below. It’s excellent stuff.

Let’s have a warm round of applause for…

Kevin Rogers. Ladies and gentlemen, Kevin Rogers… (here ya go, Kevin… don’t blow it…)

Thanks, John.

Hello, everybody.

I’m honored to have scored this gig writing the first guest post on John’s “Big Damn Blog.”

As a kid I dreamed of filling in for Johnny Carson as guest host on “The Tonight Show”… and while I did spend a wild decade performing stand-up in comedy clubs and college bars all over the U.S., I never got near Johnny’s shoes.

However, for a copywriter… this is the equivalent.

Carlton is to the blogosphere what Carson was to late-night TV: the hip, gracious, straight-shooting host who always leaves you better off than before you tuned in.

I’ll do my best to fill up “Johnny’s desk” here the way a raw and relevant Jay Leno once did… and not just read from cue cards, like Ed McMahon.

You may have noticed a lot of copywriters are also recovering entertainers. It makes perfect sense actually, for a few reasons:

First, the work pattern is very similar.

You wake up whenever you want, perform at your optimum level for a few hours, and then avoid going crazy until it’s time to perform again.

Second, writers and comics are all twisted in the same way. Someone once asked W.C. Fields what makes a comedian laugh.

He said: If you want to make an audience laugh, you dress a guy up like an old lady and push him down a flight of stairs. If you want to make a comedian laugh… you have to use a real old lady.

I’d say that’s accurate. But it works even better if the old lady was Ruth Madoff.

(Bonus similarity between writers and comics: Neither can resist one-upping someone else’s tag line.)

Anyway, the parallels in psychology between writing killer sales copy and slaying an audience with stand-up are endless… mostly because copywriters and comics come from the same school…

…the one where class clowns get to outshine the class president.

Whether you’re after the sale — or the laugh — the same ass-saving strategy used by smart runts on the playground to keep bullies at bay will take you a long way toward closing the deal.

The kids with comic blood found safe ground as court jesters, while the kids with salesman’s blood kept their lunch money by playing the role of “trusted adviser.”

The approaches may differ slightly in detail, but underneath it’s all about persuasion.

So, here now, for your useful enjoyment, are 3 important copy lessons on persuasion I learned from the comedy stage:

1. You’ve Got About 6 Seconds To Win Your Audience.

People are stingier than ever with their attention these days. There’s no room for error in that critical first impression.

Performing in a comedy club gives you the slight advantage of facing an audience that actually wants you to succeed. They stood in line, they paid a cover, and they want their date in a good mood later.

Still, that opening is crucial.

The first joke must be 3 things: Relevant… pithy… and quick to establish your character. It also needs to be an applause line. For sales copy, as Carlton says, money is applause.

When your ad lands in front of a reader, he’s begging you to screw up, lose his interest and let him off the hook so he can jump off your greased slide and go do something else.

And you can triple that risk online, where every visitor enters your page with an index finger poised on a hair-trigger mouse click… just praying for any excuse to zap you into oblivion.

If your message fails to spark interest and resonate with your reader in those first few seconds, you’re dead.

So, the key to a powerful first impression is: Know your audience.

A seasoned comic can take one look at a crowd and know the best joke to open with, how often to curse, and how to close the show.

As marketers, we do our peeking from behind the curtain by stalking available data on potential buyers.

That means: Engage your niche in forums… survey existing customers… attend seminars… and do everything else you can to mind-meld with your target audience. People love to tell you what they want to buy and why they want to buy it.

Listen close enough and the copy practically writes itself.

2. Create A Penetrating Hook And “Pay It Off” Big.

In both stand-up and copywriting, ensuring your audience will hang with you requires a strong hook.

Like John teaches, it’s all about shaking your audience out their zombie state and getting them to lean in closer, wide awake and receptive.

And the best hooks will buy you undivided attention. (No one is going anywhere until they find out how a “one-legged golfer” drives the ball further than they do.)

But never forget the golden rule: You must pay off your hooks!

I’m amazed at how many marketers miss this. They craft a compelling hook, announce it in the headline, then fail to ever mention it again in the letter.

What the hell is that all about?

Some even do it on purpose under the false assumption it will create curiosity.

It does not.

It creates frustration and destroys trust.

(I don’t have space for tips on creating hooks here, but the best lesson I’ve ever seen is in the “Simple Writing System.” If John ever releases it again — and begging can’t hurt — that section on hooks alone is worth whatever price he decides to charge for it.)

3. Use Segues To Switch Topics Smoothly.

A typical comedy audience is not quite as demographically targeted as a typical direct marketing list.

In the club, you’ve got about equal parts dude and chick… and then a wide range of age, interest, intelligence, and alcohol consumption to deal with.

So, comics tend to write material with general themes that anyone can relate to, like dating and pop culture. The goal is to cover a variety of subjects so everyone feels involved in the show.

However, getting the audience to follow you from a joke about “your awkward first kiss” to one about those whacky “ShamWow” commercials can be tricky.

So comics use clever segues that quickly tie the subjects together and smooth any bumps in transition.

For instance, in the example above you might transition the topics by saying something like…

“That first kiss is a sloppy affair, too… drool everywhere. You need a ShamWow bib just to keep your shirt dry.

(… beat…)

You’ve seen those commercials for ShamWow, haven’t you…”

See. Nothing special, just enough to take their minds where you need them to go.

In sales letters you can use the “bucket brigade” list of short phrases that make the page flow smoothly through transitions and keep a reader’s attention.

For instance…

Right there where I said, “for instance…” is a bucket brigade term.

And not only that, but…

There are hundreds of these phrases, and you can easily go back and drop them in after you’ve written your copy.

But first, a word of caution:

Using too many bucket brigade terms together like this can backfire by giving your reader “Eyeball Whiplash”. Moderation, and timing, are key.

So, there you have it.

Next time you’re stuck on a piece of copy, flip on Comedy Central for a few minutes. You might find the answer you’re looking for, and if not, at least you can laugh about it.

Thanks for having me. You’ve been great…

Try the veal!


P.S. For more inspired musings and off-color anecdotes, please visit my blog Or follow me on Twitter:

P.P.S. You weren’t going to let me get away with not paying off the title of this post, were you?

Let’s have some fun: The title is, “Two Copywriters Walk Into A Bar…”

Let’s finish the joke. I’ll go first…

Two copywriters walk into a bar… a rookie and an A-Lister.

The rookie copywriter says, “I’ll have a Scotch… whatever you have in the well is fine.”

The A-List copywriter says, “I’ll have Scotch, too, but make mine the 25 year old Macallan.”

The bartender hands them their drinks.

The rookie takes a sip of his cheap Scotch and winces, “Aacchhh…” he says. “That tastes horrible!”

After a short pause, he grabs the A-list copywriter’s glass of Macallan and takes a giant swig.

The A-lister says, “Hey… what the hell are you doing!?”

The rookie says, “Split testing.”


OK, now give me your punch lines in the comment section. It doesn’t have to be brilliant (as I‘ve skillfully demonstrated), just have fun. It’s good brain exercise.