How To Be A Sap.

Wednesday, 10:36pm
Reno, NV
To the moon, Alice!” (Ralph Kramden)


I’m recycling one of my older posts, because it highlights a writing and marketing lesson that is getting lost these days in the midst of the A.I craze and all the other craziness that’s going on in the world.

Plus, this is a subject that can never be discussed too many times…

… especially when it’s so important that you establish a real, visceral connection with people to make your business work.

In fact, what I’m bring up here is much more critical to creating effective advertising than many of the obvious things people tend to focus on…

… like “long copy versus shot copy”, or how to test offers.

Listen: If you understand how to use the powerful tool explained below…

… you can screw up almost every other part of creating your ad (or video, or website, or email, or whatever you’re using to get your story across)…

… and still crush it with results.

So ignore the details in this dusty post (like references to “Six Feet Under”, that great HBO series now long-gone)…

and know that the insight revealed here will forever be one of the most influential you’ll ever use in marketing.

Speaking of creating wickedly effective marketing, have you tried the Pint of Beer Ad Challenge yet? If you haven’t, hustle over here and get this free training today.

In fact, it’s just becoming more and MORE important as social media and info-overwhelm continues to nudge everyone toward ADHD-Land, where attention spans are pathetic and fundamental human emotions like empathy wither.

Here’s the post (with a few edits and some added stuff):

Jeez Louise. Did you catch Sunday’s episode of “Six Feet Under”, with the jarring funeral scenes?

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… and it becomes evident when they lose the ability to get outside of themselves and see the world from other people’s viewpoint.  Movies require you to emotionally connect with the characters…

… and I recall uncles who fell asleep during the pea-soup-spewing scenes in “The Exorcist”…

… friends who laughed all through “Jaws”…

… and (in a real-world example) 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 while he didn’t seem to have a tough time watching the movie, 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. And they were executed by master craftsmen, using scripts written by writers who knew where the tender spots were in most audiences.

I always feel a little estranged from people who either are — or claim to be — removed from emotional reactions.

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

When you personally feel emotional trauma, it’s a shock-inducing trial by fire that consumes you.

However, 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 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 speaking at seminars, I’ve gone off on tangents about something I really cared about, and felt myself start to choke up. I had to back off, and take a long moment to settle down and re-gather my wits. I know other speakers — the good ones — have had similar experiences.

And I often — often — finish writing something and realize I’ve got tears streaming down my face, and I’m deep into a tub of emotional goo I’ve created as I type.

This extra dose of emotion is no accident.

You cannot be a good writer without empathy — without understanding, personally, 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 or woman (or leader or executive or parent or biz owner or anything else)… 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… and of a very, very, very effective writer.

No one gets out of here without a few tears.

Writing with emotion and empathy is the BEST way to make your ads sizzle. See loads of examples by getting your hands on my best ads right over here.

Be a sap. It will help you engage with life more fully, and write with real passion.

Step One: Examine your capacity for empathy right now.  Watch a TV show critically, and know that in most dramas there will be set times when the writers have inserted emotionally-rigged triggers for viewers — they are purposefully trying to tweak your heartstrings or your feelings of fear, sadness, or hope for the good guy to win.

Check yourself for responses.  I know that every episode of “House”, for example, will test me emotionally (usually 47.5 minutes into the show, when a moment of truth arrives for the patient).  (Just kidding — I haven’t timed it.  But I’ll bet I’m close.)  “SVU – Special Victims Unit” will present the same assault on your emotions.  Re-runs of “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Two And A Half Men” are rife with them.

You don’t need to burst into tears to know your empathy gears are working.  But you do need to know HOW you respond to both well-written and poorly-written attempts to tweak your heart and ability to care about others.

Step Two: Your life daily presents you with endless opportunities to embrace your full humanity….

… most of which we self-train ourselves to ignore, dismiss, or even fear.

Get over it.

We are, fundamentally, emotional beings… who have created cultures where open displays of emotion are frowned upon, regarded with horror, or at least saddled with restrictions.

It screws us up in spectacular ways.

As a writer, it’s your job to transcend the shackles of repression that hobble others.  You need to give your emotions a daily work-out, strengthen them, know them as well as you know your favorite tastes, smells and visual pleasures…

… and, most of all, you need to respect them.

The world’s gone shallow on us.  That’s a HUGE opportunity for every writer who gets comfortable with emotion (and especially empathy), and knows how to use it to raise his messages above the puddles of feeling now dominating most folks’ lives.

So sap up.  The best writers are fully aware of EVERY part of being human, and this is the big part.

Stay frosty,


P.S. Hey — on a cool side note…

… if you love rock n’ roll (including alt, rockabilly, grunge, hair bands, etc) and enjoy insights to the seedier side of our culture (TV, Hefner’s mansion, gaudy and desperate grabs for attention)…

… I’ve got the perfect book for you:  “Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead“, by our pal Neil Strauss.  (Yeah, the guy who wrote “The Game”.)

Get it on Amazon here.

Neil sent me an advance copy, and I can’t put the damn thing down.  It’s all the juicy parts of his interviews with rock royalty (and the even more notorious rock gutter-dwellers) and cultural celebrities that the magazines refused to print (or just couldn’t).  And there are decades worth of jaw-dropping shit here.

Hide this from the kids.

This is a deep, dark, zany and revealing insider’s view of a vast part of our modern civilization.  Neil is a go-for-the-jugular interviewer (which is why a lot of this stuff couldn’t be released before)…

… and for anyone looking for an instant way to get hip to the appeal of “bad boys”, the insanity of celebrity worship, and the bizarre (yet disturbingly-effective) ways culture-movers think…

… this is must-read material.

As a writer, you need to see how this guy does interviews.  Read and learn.

As a marketer, you need to own this insider look at one of the driving forces in the biz world (music, celebrity, media, etc).

And, just as someone living in this wacky world, you need to be alerted (immediately!) to the way your fellow humans are acting, thinking, and plotting.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wish you were there with Neil during the interviews (and the shows, and the after-parties)…

… and you’ll want to go hug your loved ones and give thanks your life isn’t being lived in the spotlight.

Killer stuff.  Just grab the damn book, and dive in.

Get it here on Amazon.

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  • Dana Houser says:


    So it’s okay for a ‘man’ to cry? Just kidding. I find myself getting choked up more and more the older I get. Maybe it’s because I’ve lived more life and either relate to the situation or feel for the person experiencing it. I do know my kids are baffled by it, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. Is this younger generation just becoming more and more desensitized, are they just not old enough to understand or both. I tend to think they just aren’t old enough. In certain situations I just tell them ‘you won’t understand until you’re older.’

    Another thing this write up reminded me of is…you know when someone is trying to explain something to you, or you to them, but the message just isn’t getting across. After a few attempts at explaining yourself, you usually just say, ‘oh forget it, or you just don’t understand.’ That’s usually the end of the conversation, no matter how much and you beg and plead for ‘one more’ explanation.

    This is a great post, again, and it’s so true when you don’t or can’t relate to whoever it is you’re communicating with, it’s damn near impossible to get your message across clearly.

    Now I think I’ll go watch Gran Torino, the ending always makes me well up.

    Stay in motion,


    • John Carlton says:

      That’s a great flick. And it appeals cross-generational to folks — addressing both the need for young people to find mentors, and for old folks to rediscover the meaning of helping the kids grow up. Clint failed as a parent, but succeeded with the kid next door. The kid was hungry for direction — that scene where Clint gives him some insight to tools is one for the ages.

      It’s good stuff. Thanks for the post, Dana…

  • John says:

    Solid call John, having kids took me from a non emotional tough guy to a wuss almost overnight – movies mess with me – 60 minutes – the news – thanks for helping me feel ok about my newfound “wussdom”

  • Sharon A says:

    Thanks, John—I appreciate the post! I have often been accused of caring too much, and now I will know how to answer that.

    I learned how to care because I was not cared for. My father hated me and did his best to erase me from his life. His actions included nearly killing me twice, selling me out for drug money, and vicious verbal abuse. Among many other things, I would have to stand there and tell him everything that was “wrong” with me. I also had to appologize for being alive.

    He tried very hard to destroy everything that was good in me; but his actions actually did the opposite. I became MORE caring, and I vowed I would never treat people the way I was treated. I have kept that promise my whole life, and I have no intention of changing it.

    I currently have a landscaping business with 19 clients, all word of mouth. (I have never had to advertise.)I treat them like family because there is no other way to treat them. Without them, I wouldn’t be in business, and I make sure they know it. I have gotten referrals and other “perks” because of this, but I value their friendship the most. They are all part of my extended “family”.

    I am a “sap” and very proud of it. Now I can claim this trait as a legitimate business asset. Thanks again for a great post! I enjoyed reading it. 🙂

    • John Carlton says:

      “Legitimate biz asset” — love it. It is, too. We all know that bad things sometimes happen to good people… and there is no special exemption in life for being a caring person. So you don’t do it for any reason other than it’s the right thing to do… and once you get into it, you realize it’s really the only way to live.

      Thanks for the post, Sharon. As I said before, sharing often helps others see that they aren’t alone, that life can be turned around, that alternatives and new paths exist and there are folks out there brave enough to admit they took them. I think your story here will resonate with folks.

    • Janet says:

      Sending hugs, Sharon – 13.5 years later. It’s hard to overcome that kind of constant assault and wonderful that you’ve succeeded so well. Thank you for sharing your story. <3

  • Great post, again (again). I remember when you posted this this first time around and how it immediately affected my work. I’m actually quite relieved to be able to look back and say squarely to myself, “…yep, I’ve been remembering to act on that,” (most of the time).

    🙂 Thank you for your continuing inspiration, Sir.

    • John Carlton says:

      And thank you, Palyn, for being a long-time reader. This is truly an ancient post, but when I stumbled on it the other day I knew I had to brush it off and put it back up.

      And don’t call me “sir”. I ain’t been knighted yet.

      Can Americans even BE knighted?

      • Palyn Peterson says:

        The pleasure’s all mine, believe me. 🙂 I remember it like it was yesterday. it was 2004 or 2005 (yesterday was 2010 or 2011, right?) and Frank Kern had just come on the scene and was doing a phone interview with Mandossian… Frank mentioned you and Mandossian agreed with him, so I looked you up and have been a satellite groupy ever since.

      • Can Americans even BE knighted?

        No. You can’t.

        So there.

        Nice post hombre.


        • Jerry G says:

          YES, they can.

          British Knight – probably not

          4th Degree Knights of Columbus – All nationalities.


          Great information as always. Why is it men are not allowed to cry, but it is acceptable to display all other emotions? A SAP, no – human, yes.

          S/K (Sir Knight)

          • John Carlton says:

            Screw it. I just knighted myself. Please refer to me from now on as “Sir Dude”.

            We’re Americans. We can pull shit like this off whenever we like. Just because.

            I will insist that Sir Richard Branson address me correctly next time we meet…

  • Ron Herman says:

    Great post, including the inclusion of the power word visceral. Makes me all fluttery in my viscera. 😉

  • Colin says:


    Great post. I’ve been a sucker for series novels, good drama and episodic TV shows as long as I can remember.

    Re: Six Feet Under and this post… there’s that one episode where Nate Fisher witnesses an Italian funeral and the family is just wailing publicly, screaming and mourning…

    And he just can’t get why American funerals are so quiet and “polite” and they take people who cry into a “secret room with a kleenex”.

    Great series.

    • John Carlton says:

      Hi Colin. That’s a great example of “watching a show critically” — meaning, you notice those moments of oddness and revelation, and make a note. The best part of being a writer is the absolute excuse to study human behavior closely for a lifetime. It never gets less than fascinating, when you finally get clued into the storyline around us everyday…

      Thanks for the note.

  • Amazing post and beautifully written Mr. C.

    Like most excellent writing it doesn’t matter one lick that you first penned it a while back. It’s completely relevant and resonates strongly, for me at least, today.

    Being an emotional basketcase, from a long line of emotional basketcases, I couldn’t imagine a life lived without empathy. Personally, I wouldn’t know how to exist any other way. Sure, I put my “game face” on as much as anyone else, but the older I get, I’m comforted by the fact that I don’t find myself attempting to avoid these types of experiences as I did when I was a younger… Whippersnapper I guess you could call it….


    The fact of the matter is that when we feel genuine empathy and strong emotions, it’s revelatory. These experiences change us as human beings on a fundamental level. They make us care more and and strengthen our ability to feel more. And although sometimes quite painful, personally, when I feel one coming on, I almost start to get a sense of hunger, for the deep and rich experience I know will emanate from it.

    For other things in nature, like a beautiful peach for example, we call this ripening. Wine is most often best when “aged”. Wood and copper obtain a “patina” over time. As people, when it’s really profound, we call this growth, maturity and wisdom.

    BTW, those first two seasons of 6’ Under were masterful, weren’t they? Alan Ball, was the producer/head writer, and he’s the same guy who won the Oscar for writing “American Beauty”.

    Talk about an amazing piece of work and demonstration of empathy in writing…

    Thanks again for a great post.

    LJ (aka: RichKid)

    • John Carlton says:

      I forgot that Ball wrote “American Beauty”. Very original storytelling there… almost the bastard son of Hitchcock and Waters, with just a pinch of Scorsese…

  • As usual John, you’re bang on the money. We buy with emotion and justify with logic don’t we? From a copywriter’s point of view, you tap into that through storytelling and linking features and benefits etc..

    Certainly can’t afford to forget it.Ever. Btw, I’m using ‘you’ in the general sense, just in case anyone reading this thinks I’m trying to impart pearls of marketing (or any other)wisdom to John, lol 🙂

    The fact that you have just dusted this one off John and rehashed it a little maybe, just proves that the ‘fundamentals’ in life always apply because basic human psychology hasn’t changed and never will.

    Get the fundamentals right, add some belief and confidence and you can get pretty much everything you want in life.

    OK, more coffee please…

    • John Carlton says:

      I’ve been out of front of the “fundamentals” parade since I began my career. In some circles, this causes self-described wiser heads to shake in pity… in other circles, it just gets baffled, clueless stares.

      As believers in real direct response, we’ll always be a minority in the advertising and marketing world, because we scare the bejesus out of Madison Avenue type “slogan makers” who wouldn’t know how to influence a sale to save their life…

      Thanks for the post, Andrew.

  • Robert Gibson says:

    Hi John,
    You can’t lead a prospect where you yourself are not willing to go.
    If you can’t feel emotions when you’re writing,
    don’t expect the prospect to feel them either.
    It comes from not just empathy, but respect for another human being. There may be a short supply of it in places, but that’s what makes great copywriters like you stand out.
    Robert Gibson

  • Dan Axelrod says:

    Really, interesting post John.

    I’m curious if you meant that it’s a good sign if even “poorly written” movies/tv-shows get you teary eyed.

    It can be tough to balance the steadfastness needed for business while maintaining the emotional openess, so this is a good post to seep in.


    • John Carlton says:

      Hi Dan. My point is that emotion trumps even poorly-written stuff. That doesn’t mean that soap-opera styled ads will be effective sales-generators…

      … but they can be effective messengers of your message. Which means you should be extra careful when using emotion — it connects with people, but if you use it wildly and without forethought, you can’t judge the consequences.

      I use it judiciously, and know exactly when it’s called for. And I never use it as a cheap stunt. Instead, I respect my own heart, and just allow it freedom to wander into my writing when it feels right.

      Make sense?

  • Kevin Rogers says:

    I’m dead inside. Have been for years. Except, this morning I saw an older gentleman in the building headed for the break room with a Swanson frozen dinner under his arm. Choked me up. Couldn’t figure out why.

    Is it because he’s got no one to make his lunch? Because he’s going to eat alone? Because the sodium count on those fk’n things might kill him before quitting time today?

    All I know is the stuff I should be affected by (child’s scraped knee, death of an old friend) typically pings off like rubber bullets from a toy gun and random non-events send me down a hole.

    First sign of a mid-life crisis?

    Wait… this is the 4:00 meeting, right?

    • John Carlton says:

      Yes, this is where inappropriate sharing is scheduled for 4 each Tuesday. Sorry that the urn of coffee is not very hot, but there’ve been budget scale-backs.

      Now, cry, dammit!

  • David Simon says:

    John – To me, great copywriting does two equally important things: It must engage the reader intellectually about a future outcome that is good for them; and then get them emotionally committed to take action to achieve that result.
    Lots of copywriters can do the first part, but getting people emotionally committed to take action is where the talent (and the money) lies. Studying you, Kennedy, Halbert, and others has made me a lot more money than my fancy university degree, and I thank you for that!

    • John Carlton says:

      Thanks for the note, David. The old adage is “Pitch on logic, sell on emotion”…

      … but that doesn’t tell you HOW to do it. I’ve spent a lot of time helping people figure this “how” part out.

      Quick plug: The Simple Writing System covers it all. If you’ve been putting off your fundamental writing education, now’s the time to get hip:

      Just do it, already. Jeez, we’re getting tired of waiting for you to make up your mind on this…

      (Not you, David. The other folks out there dithering…)

  • Vince says:

    Right brained in a left brained world… I often thought about writing a book called “A World Without Empathy And Compassion” I thought I was the only one? Glad to know it’s not just me. Very few people have the guts to let you see them for who they really are. Thanks John!

    • John Carlton says:

      It’s not just you, Vince.

      But neither should you expect to be congratulated on sharing your innermost feelings. It’s still a hard, cruel, cold world out there. To a good marketer in touch with his feelings, however, that’s just a huge advantage…

  • Venus Brown says:

    I don’t know if Americans can Be Knighted or not, but lord knows I’ve met many a poor, benighted American soul. In fact, quite often the face looking back at me from the mirror is quite benighted.

    About story. There is no story without human emotion. And by that I mean feeling, really feeling emotion.

    Me, I’m a wuss, too. My family knows it. And most of my friends, too.

    But if it weren’t for all of the emotions I’ve felt in my life (the so-called good ones and the so-called bad ones) I wouldn’t be on my path to becoming fully human.

    Some folks figure me for a sucker because I like to take people at face value… accepting what they say as the truth. But, of course, by now I know it’s not saying something that makes it so.

    It’s all in the doing.

    Because of all of the emotions I’ve experienced myself, I’ve learned not to judge others for how they feel.

    I just judge them for their actions.

    In NLP there is a saying: “You go first.” You can’t even begin to write an effective sales letter if you don’t lead the way by experiencing the emotion(s) yourself.

    Then, you will know how to tell the story so others can follow.

    But never forget. Never, ever, ever forget that there are lots of folks out there who are willing to teach you. Everyday boddhisatvas is how I like to think of them.

    So, to you, John, and all the other boddhisatvas out there, I say thank you.

    Now, I’ve gotta sign off… because I’m starting to feel that teardrop in my eye.


    • John Carlton says:

      I didn’t use the “benighted” thing, cuz I didn’t think anyone would get it. So thanks for having the courage to do it, Venus. Ah, language irony… love it…

  • Donald Brown says:

    I can’t agree more. If you can really cause people’s emotions to activate in such a way that causes them to act, then you’re a great writer. For example, if you can put enough emotion into your sales copy, and cause someone to take a particular action, then you’re successful and so is your sales copy.

    The ability to directly tie into people’s heads and their emotions is the holy grail because if you can do that, then you have complete and full control. Why do you think that some people cry when they read certain parts of a novel, or feel like punching somebody’s lights out when they watch a particular scene in a movie? It is all due to the fact that the writers have included true human emotion into their writing and the people who filmed the script were able to capture the monent at the right time to cause you to express your emotions and feelings.

    Then there’s the other part where you are actually drawn into the scene and you actually feel like you’re a part of it. That’s all due to the way that the writer painted the scene for you and caused your brain to begin to imagine you in that situation. If a writer can actually get you to feel like you’re a part of the situation, then he or she is an excellent writer.

    Let me give you an example of a book that I read called Dinner With A Perfect Stranger. The book was about a man who was invited to dinner by none other than Jesus Christ himself.

    The entire book takes place inside an Italian restaurant in Chicago, and the way that the book was written caused me to actually imagine that I was there with the two of them listening to the actual conversation taking place.

    I could smell the food, hear dishes clanking, silverware clanking on plates, wate staff taking orders and restaurant customers having their own conversations in the background. Yes, the author of that book was that good. He allowed for my mind to create the scene and allow for me to actually be there to experience everything that was going on.

    If a writer can pull that off, then he or she really knows how to reach you, and cause you to really use your imagination to build the scenes from the book. Maybe that’s why people love to read books because they can use their minds to make the movie.

    Remember the movie Poltergist? That’s the movie where the little girl was scared to death while she was glying through the air. Well that little girl was really scared, and she actually showed real emotion in that particular scene. It was not acting. she was really scared out of her wits!

    Being tied to harnesses and flung through the air is something that a whole lot of people would be afraid to do and that little girl was no different. However, the scene was recorded and it was very successful in the Poltergist film. Sadly to say, that little girl died not too longer after the film was released.

    The film crew caught something that the writer really didn’t put in the script because the real emotion was actually captured on celluloid, and that particular kind of thing can’t be expressed in written form. It has to be seen and heard.

    If you can get into the person’s head, and activate their emotions and cause them to act, then you are a perfect writer and you can do just about anything that you want. You can make people cry, fell angered, cause them to whip out their credit cards and much much more.

  • Susan says:

    In today’s business environment, the word “professionalism” is code for the absence of emotion. Reading copy with genuine emotion that connects with the heart instead of the head is almost provocative. That’s why it is so effective. John, thanks for reminding us to keep it real.

    On a separate note, as a young person, my parents would say “youth is wasted on the young,” and I never knew what they were talking about. It was “old people” speak. Now that I am wiser, I have come to understand the meaning of those words, wishing in vain that I knew then what I know now. Don’t we all!

    I only saw one episode of “6 Feet Under.” In it there was a scene in which a person who had already passed, was talking with someone who was still alive. He said, “You know, life is wasted on the living.”

    Dynamite line! Forever changed the way I live my life.

    Thanks again, John.

    Just keeping it real,


  • Sarah says:

    Hey, I just subscribed to your blog. Wise words…

    To show emotions is taboo in a lot (if not all) modern societies. Growing up, kids are forced to push aside their emotions, just to survive and fit in the “molds” they are expected to. It killes their creativity and they learn to depend on the outside world for accknowledgement and acceptence. Witch is very unfortunate… A man who has lost touch with his emotional being is more dead than a man that´s not breathing… He will never learn there is more to life than what first hits the eye… He is forever lost, unable to look at things and “problems” for what they really are… He is confused, unable to separete the real from the unreal. He lives and dies… And misses the journey in between.

    Thanks for the space.

  • Amanda says:

    Great writers are paid for that piece of their soul they leave on the page. The more soul, the more money. It’s a Faustian pact we all enter. Excellent post, John and I doubt you would want to be a knight anyway…

  • Steve says:


    An outstanding blog!

    I find myself forcing back emotions as a result of childhood conditioning by my father. The only time I ever saw him cry was when he was in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s. I took his lead throughout my life by holding in my emotions out of a misguided sense that doing so was the correct way to behave. I mean, what the hell, if my Dad did it, it had to be the right thing to do. Unfortunately, it’s stuck with me all my life.

    When he was at the point where he was no longer able to put up a “strong front,” I was too conditioned to be able to change. I still feel a strong need to cover up my emotions as I have an internal embarrassment in showing them publicly. I wish I could break this habit as I have bottled up years of emotions that, if I let them go, I’d feel a ton better.

    I’m working on it, but I’m looking at 62 years of conditioning that needs will take some time to change. I hope I have that much time left.

    Thanks again!


  • Hayden says:

    I knew there was as reason that you are my secret mentor, it is because you are always amazing with your insight, wisdom and straight forward information. Thanks.

  • Dan Axelrod says:

    I gotta say, the most consistent source of tear-jerkers is Grey’s Anatomy – Season 2. So many times when things look dark, and then you see a glimmer of humanity from the unlikeliest source, giving you a sudden burst of tears out of new hope for humankind.

  • Andrew Dickson says:

    Good post John – thanks! Sometimes showing our true emotions is wimping out but at other times not showing them is. All depends on the context and is part of finding your own ‘balance’.
    I remember persuading my family to let my youngest nieces and nephews attend their great-grandmas funeral because I believe it’s healthy that they see us mourn with feeling over the loss of someone we love. Yeah they can’t understand the loss that much but at least they get to see us supporting each other when we cry etc. They learn that you can share suffering and tough feelings with those you love instead of feeling awkward about it.
    Thankfully they relented and yes the kids did get upset at seeing us upset (as they should) but they were easily comforted when they witnessed us comforting each other. That’s what family and friends are for isn’t it?
    But I’ve always been a sap despite being raised a farm boy able to hunt or slaughter stuff to feed my family.
    I’ve lived in some tough places and survived a divorce I didn’t want but it’s only taught me that being vulnerable at the appropriate time (cf. many who think ‘never’ is that time) is an important attribute to own.
    Yep, I can be found choking up at some point in most movies – how can I not if I let myself get into the story? So many people are afraid to give themselves the permission to get into an emotional moment whether it’s a screen or real life one. Forever observers – now that IS sad.

  • Rich Muir says:

    Yep have been known to get a laugh from my kids as we watch any number of kids movies whilst Dad’s eyes well up over a small moment of glory, the dog has dissapeared, the small cartoon creature from outer space is reunited with family, or lassie once again saves the day!

    Love it, heck otherwise if we can’t succumb / enjoy the emotions in novels, movies or dam life whats the point in participating I say!

    I think the saying goes something like: Play full out.



    Thanks for the heads up on the book, will go an grab a copy right now

  • JG says:

    Hi John,

    I’ve been writing an ’emotional’ piece for a few hours now.. I wasn’t ‘feeling’ it so thought I’d take a break, — and bam — here you are in my inbox!

    You know, this is the second time you’ve delivered a divine intervention:)

    Thank you sincerely,

    From the Nuremberg Trials:
    “the root of all evil is the lack of empathy.”

  • Morten Hake says:

    I love the post. Thank you John

  • Man, just the other day I had tears well up watching HBO’s documentary on Larry Bird and Magic Johnson’s rivalry turned friendship.

    And the part I got all teary eyed over was when they went from hating each other to liking each other. It got even worse when (holy shit, I’m bringing water to my eyes just remembering this) the stoic Larry Bird hears about his buddy Magic being diagnosed with AIDS.

    I go to place easily when I’m watching shows like this but never think to put myself here when I’m connecting with the people I’m trying to solve problems for.

    Thank you John for pointing this out to me! As you mentioned at the start of the post, you can’t be reminded of this enough because in the end, all we’re really selling is emotion.

    • John Carlton says:

      I sobbed through that documentary, too! I’m not even sure they “like” each other… Bird just reflexively defended Magic when he got attacked, with no thought to his own reputation or the blowback he’d receive. It’s more like a profound respect, which transcends “like”. A powerful bond, forged through combat-like conditions. I know that bond — I’ve hopped on a plane and flown across the country to heed a call for help, without thought to my own safety or health or comfort. You’re kinda stunned when you’re doing it, but you never even consider NOT doing it. We’re odd animals, humans. Emotions both complicate shit, and make it more understandable. Thanks for the post, Lewis…

      • Bird is one solid muthafucker.

        He just oozes congruency. When he speaks, you never doubt he feels what he’s saying to his core. I believe this is the foundation of his relaxed demeanor.

        You strike me as this kinda guy too.

        In all the hours I’ve spent watching you work without a net in your Copy Sweat Shop and big damn hot seat workshops, the presentation you did for Lorrie’s group, and Simple Writing System… you’ve always come across to me as a guy who’s a straight shooter who says what he feels.

        And your friends are lucky to have a guy like you in their life. Especially the male ones who thrive on being challenged.

        The reason I say this is because we’ll never see our own eye. We can see a reflection of it in the mirror but our eye will never see itself. But everyone else sees it.

        And for us to evolve, we must be able to stand in the fire that is the constructive criticism of someone further along the path than us. Someone who has our best interest in mind instead of their need to look smart, who’s not afraid to point out both when we’re fucking up, AND when we’re on the right path.

        I’ve always felt your passion for helping the small business owner in all of your writing and your products but for some reason when I took the notes on the interview you did with Seth, it hit home even harder… harder than when I watched you being interviewed by Tony Robbins… that this is where your heart is at.

        Thank you for sharing the gift of your passion and caring and wisdom with the world John. You’re one solid muthafucker in my eyes.

        • John Carlton says:

          Thanks, Lewis. Very kind words, indeed, and I appreciate ’em.

          Good point, too, about the claustrophobic blinders we all have to our own selves. Part of living a self-actualized existence requires input from others, whether you like or not (and you should get comfy with it). We all on this leaky, sinking ship together…

  • Maria says:

    What a great article, John! I am a highly sensitive person (HSP) and have been told I’m the most caring, conscientious, and empathetic person my best friend’s ever met. I get teary eyed in the Hallmark store over good copy. This is excellent advice about refusing to censor myself when I write. I will most definitely remember to sap it up!

  • John,

    Great, great, great post.
    I’m still crying over the email I sent you last week, asking for some help, that you haven’t responded to.

    I’d write more now, but I’m getting tears on my keyboard. 😉


  • Stan Scott says:

    Many are the times when I’ve felt self-conscious, being the big man with reddened eyes, leaving with a crowd after a show or sitting in a public venue reading a book. It takes little to press my emotional buttons. I have always been this way, but it has gotten worse as I’ve aged.

    It’s comforting to know the great John Carlton has similar issues.

    Thank you for the great post, Sir Dude.

  • ken ca|houn says:

    Interesting points. Getting inside the inner voice of the prospect and then amplifying the fears, frustrations as well as feelings of success and triumph, using power words, “insider lingo” and tapping into inner demons and angels works great, as you teach.

    Tip: Curiously enough, as a musician and music-lover, I find I write my best copy the day after staying up late listening to a lot of great live concert dvds (I use sony mdr-7506 headphones, great cans, to listen with). So I listen to Kylie Minogue or Beyonce or Madonna or Sting or P!ink or AC/DC or Rush or Pink Floyd at night, then the next day I stalk my keyboard (your early analogy was great, like a tiger stalking to write copy).

    Having the memory of the Emotion that the great high-energy concerts invokes, gives me a great NLP matching/mirroring/pacing/leading state to write copy from. The music gets my emotional energy going, so having that ‘juice’ lets me then tap into dominant prospect emotions much better when writing copy, the next day.

    doesnt work so well when hung over tho lol. so concert dvds and no hooch, that’s the ticket.


  • Golf Market says:

    As usual John, awesome blog post. It always seems that you can break down these thought provoking ideas into small understandable pieces. Love it.

  • […] be a good writer without empathy. While certainly not directed to the nonprofit professional, How to be a sap is an entertaining post that will give your thought processes a step in the right […]

  • Rob says:


    I almost started to shead a tear or two just pushing my way through your post…as your well crafted studded words evoked all sorts of emotions from the plethora of movies, books and life experiences that `tweak` constantly at me heart strings.

    Thanks for the tears…


  • Janet says:

    Thanks for keeping us real – and honest, and kind. I’m trying to brutally prune my email list, but even now that I’m not a copywriter (although I do need to write my own copy still), I’m never gonna unsubscribe from your emails. This is the marketing we all need to learn.

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