Every word has an emotion attached to it.
Every reader, regardless of profession or IQ, has an emotional reaction to your words. It is hardwired into the brain.
So when you are writing a blog post or other content for online marketing, your choice of words is important. Need convincing?
Legendary copywriter John Caples made a life study of persuasive writing. Once, he changed the word “repair” to “fix” in an ad and achieved a 20% increase in response. One word!
That illustrates an important rule of word choice for writers: When emotion meets intellect, emotion always wins. Analytical words activate the reader’s analytical brain instead of triggering an emotional response. Here is an example.
How would you respond to getting this email?
YOUR NAME HAS BEEN SELECTED BY COMPUTER TO PARTICIPATE IN A PRIZE-AWARD PROGRAM IN WHICH PRIZES ALREADY HAVE BEEN ALLOCATED. TO RECEIVE YOUR AWARD YOU ARE REQUIRED TO PHONE FOR AN APPOINTMENT BEFORE THE EXPIRATION DATE ABOVE.
It is loaded with intellectual words like “selected,” “allocated,” “receive,” and “required.” I think anybody with a pulse would be left cold by this message.
What if we replaced the intellectual words with emotional words? We might get something like this:
We have great news for you. You’re already a winner.
Here’s how you claim your award …
It is essentially the same information. But the words are far more likely to trigger a response.
Weeding the content garden
Like weeds in a garden, intellectual words can creep into your copy, choking its emotional impact. It is so unnecessary. When you are on the lookout for them, it is easy to shift word choice in favor of emotion. Here is a reference guide to get you started, courtesy of my copywriting hero Herschell Gordon Lewis.
Boring or persuasive? You choose
Every good piece of copy has an emotional outpouring of words. But there is a big difference between writing with emotion and dumbing down your message. It comes down to understanding people.
People make judgments about you, your ideas, or your brand based on emotion. Then they justify their response with logic. It happens in that order.
Your challenge as a blogger is to choose words that arouse their senses and lead them to their logical conclusion. Intellectual words don’t do that. They make you sound smarter. They also make you sound boring.
What would you add to the intellectual/emotional word list?
On the night of April 14, the ocean liner Californian has progressed to within fifteen hundred miles of her destination, Boston Harbor.
Second Officer Herbert Stone is due for watch on the bridge.
Reporting for duty, Stone finds his apprentice seaman glued to a pair of binoculars, staring toward the black horizon.
He, the apprentice, has sighted a steamer in the distance.
He can make out the ship’s masthead light, her red light, and a glare of white lights on her afterdeck.
Stone asks the apprentice to try for communication by means of the Californian’s Morse lamp.
A bright beacon signal is flashed.
No answer from the steamer.
“Will that be all, sir?”
Stone nods; the apprentice leaves to make record in the patent log.
Now Second Officer Stone is alone on the bridge.
Glancing idly over the water, a white flash catches his eye—a white flash of light in the direction of the distant steamer.
Stone scratches his head, picks up the binoculars. Four more white flashes, like skyrockets burst in the heavens.
Stone notifies the ship’s captain.
Over the voice pipe, the captain asks if the flashes appeared to be company signals.
Stone cannot say for sure.
The captain then requests further communication attempt through the Morse lamp.
By now Stone’s apprentice has returned to the bridge. The beacon signal is employed once more.
Still no answer from the steamer.
Lifting the binoculars to his eyes once more, Stone observes three more flashes in the continuing light show, but now his attention is drawn to the steamer’s cabin lights.
They seem to be disappearing, as though the steamer were sailing away.
At 1:40 a.m., Stone sees the eighth and last white flash in the night sky.
In one hour, all the steamer’s lights have vanished into the blackness.
It is not until 4:00 a.m. that anyone on board the liner Californian learns the rest of the story.
The curiosity hook
So begins The Light Show, one of hundreds of stories told by radio personality Paul Harvey. One of the hallmarks of his storytelling was the ability to build curiosity that made you pay attention until the last word.
Listeners would eagerly sit through the commercial break just to hear the rest of the story. Isn’t that the desire of every blogger and content marketer, to hold readers’ attention through to the last word of your content?
It is one of the great challenges in content marketing today, and cause for concern. Here is why.
Recently Slate magazine did an online readership study that quantifies the problem:
- 10% of readers don’t scroll through an article at all
- Most read only 60% of the article
- Most of the most-tweeted articles are not read completely
The antidote is to build curiosity into your copy to keep readers reading. I learned a copywriting trick that works wonders for this. I call it the curiosity hook. Never heard of it?
Let me explain.
A curiosity hook is a short sentence that signals something important or surprising is ahead. It is a transitional phrase that links two paragraphs either at the end of one, the beginning of the next, or as its own one-line paragraph.
There is a simple reason it works.
It introduces a question in the mind of the reader that can only be answered by reading on. Let me give you some examples:
- And that’s not all.
- There’s one more thing.
- Then I made a discovery.
- Let me explain.
- You won’t believe what happened next.
- Here’s why.
- That’s when things got weird.
- So read on.
- But there’s another reason.
- Now here comes the good part.
- Then it got interesting.
- The story doesn’t end there.
- Here’s the twist.
- It gets better.
- But I didn’t stop there.
- Then she came to a decision.
- I couldn’t stand it any longer.
- And then inspiration struck.
Each of these hooks creates curiosity by teasing the promise of new information. It pulls the reader into the next paragraph. The curiosity hook puts a question into their mind that needs closure: What? Why? How? Closure comes when they read on.
Done well, your reader can’t escape without reading to the end.
And now, the rest of the story
If you have read this far, you’re probably curious how the story ends. Here is what happened.
Neither the Captain nor the Second Officer aboard the Californian had interpreted the white skyrocket flashes as cause for alarm.
It was a matter of coincidence that they had been seen in the first place. For earlier that night – the night of April 14 – the Californian had reversed engines and parked as a precautionary measure, halted in her course by an immense field of oceanic ice.
That unscheduled stop in the middle of the sea had provided the Californian a ringside seat to an unimaginable drama.
The distant steamer had intended those rocket flares as distress signals, and the Californian – only nine miles away – might have rushed to her aid.
Except for one thing. The steamer was sending other distress calls by radio. And the Californian was well within range of those messages.
But her radio operator was asleep.
The Californian’s fledgling radio operator – fresh from training school – was fast asleep in his cabin. And that night the ship’s Second Officer, from his vantage point on the bridge, unwittingly watched the sinking … of the Titanic.
As Paul Harvey famously said, now you know the rest of the story.
Now that your curiosity is satisfied, will you help satisfy mine? Let me know if you think curiosity hooks will help you engage your blog readers. Or, if you have others you’d add to the list. I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
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For starters, don’t make it a discussion about your hourly rate.
In a tough economy, marketing agencies, consultants and freelancers face a daily battle against having their talent and intellectual capital commoditized. I saw this happen early in my career.
In the 1990s I worked for a B2B direct marketing agency that did very well. We had several long term accounts with Fortune 100 companies. We did many ongoing customer relationship programs for them that generated profitable sales over periods of 5-10 years.
We also had a few kinks in the business model that made me uncomfortable.
At that time it was still fairly common for an agency to land full-service business. We were fortunate enough to be one of them. Over time, we got too comfortable with the margins from printing, mailing and fulfillment services while selling creative and strategy services near cost.
Related: The triage marketing death trap
On top of that, the sales model for new business gave away strategy. We would present a complete marketing program, with all the research, analysis and creative rationale at the proposal stage. Many times I would walk away from those presentations thinking, “We’ve given them the whole strategy. They could take the plan, thank us, and then do it themselves.”
When economic hardship hit our biggest client, this came back to haunt us.
In response, they implemented a centralized procurement policy to cut costs. They unbundled all of the printing, mailing and fulfillment services from our programs, pulling them in-house. The body blows didn’t stop there.
Since we had been giving away the strategy work, it showed no value on their ledgers. Eventually we devolved from a full-service agency to a creative vendor. Party over.
I remembered that lesson years later when I became an independent consultant. I resolved to never give away the strategy or creative ideas in a marketing proposal. Instead, I use a proposal format that sells the plan and value I bring. It’s much more than a one-page cost estimate, though. Check out this slide deck to see what I mean.
7 steps to proving your value to prospective clients
Including these seven components in your marketing proposal helps to steer the discussion to how you will help solve a business problem rather than how much you cost. It follows a logical flow that more often than not gets the client to say, “Yes, let’s work together.”
Here’s how it flows:
1. THE OVERVIEW
The overview is a high level summary that tells the client (I’m using the assumptive close, here) you understand their business challenges. And it states the problem you will be solving together.
2. THE OBJECTIVES
Sometimes I refer to these as “starter objectives” to get the conversation started. The goal is to get written agreement on specific outcomes and how they will be measured. For more on writing smart objectives see this post. Everything that follows is based on the objectives, so getting agreement on them is most critical.
Related: When execution beats strategy
3. SCOPE OF WORK
This part details the specific work you will be doing, and when appropriate, what is not included.
4. WORK PROCESS
Here is where you explain the steps you will take to complete the work and identify all the parties and responsibilities required to make them happen.
5. COST ESTIMATES
Now it makes sense to show the estimated costs. They are based on work process, which is based on the scope of work, which is based on the objectives. This gives a value basis and strategic rationale to the costs. Discussions about the budget can be focused on scope rather than your hourly rate.
6. WORKING AGREEMENT
The purpose of the working agreement is to establish the legal aspects of working together before they become an issue midway into the project. It covers cost estimates, ownership of work, confidentiality, payment for services and other elements of doing business together. Addressing this up front shows you are a professional.
7. BIO/ABOUT US
This is the place to end on a positive note. Don’t make it fluffy boilerplate propaganda. Direct your narrative to the skills, knowledge and experience you have specific to the industry and the assignment.
Getting to ‘YES’
The important thing to remember is the proposal is not the marketing plan. It is a discussion tool to set and manage the expectations for the project. And it is a tool to help you establish the value of the strategy and work you bring. It is your best bet for getting to ‘yes.’
Tell me what you think.
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A guy asks his tailor, “Does this suit make me look fat?”
“No sir,” replies the tailor. “That would be your enormous gut.”
Like the guy in this story, you can’t dress up a piece of writing that is bulging with an excess of words. Wordiness is to writing as potato chips are to your waistline. One chip seems harmless enough, but one leads to another and in time you are bursting at the seams. The same is true for writing. One needless word here, one extra phrase there and soon your prose is bursting with overabundant verbiage. Like a fat guy in a little coat.
Why concern yourself over a few extra words? Because being concise is essential to effective writing for the Web. Readers scan. Every unnecessary word slows them down, discouraging them from reading on. Wordiness also gets in the way of your message. To be viewed as a thought leader you need to write lean.
In his book Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity & Grace, Joseph Williams says, “To write clearly, we have to know not only how to manage the flow of our ideas but also how to prune and compress them.” This is accomplished by following two principles:
- Compress what you mean into the fewest words
- Don’t state what the reader can easily infer
In this post, third in a series on effective blogging, we focus on the first point. This infographic examines common culprits of wordiness.
Trimming the fat
Words are the most important tool a writer has. However, more is not better – especially when writing for the Web. Here are some considerations for trimming the fat from your writing:
1. Don’t mistake leanness for anorexia. You want to get rid of fat, not muscle.
2. Keep your writing tight enough so it fits the reader’s skimming without forcing a comprehension stop.
3. Use redundancies only when you want the reader to know you’ve repeated or doubled words to show emphasis.
4. Don’t hang on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful or clever.
5. Note the distance between subject and verb. The greater the distance, the higher is the propensity for wordiness. Bracket the adjectives, qualifiers and adverbs that modify a verb within the sentence and make sure each one serves a function.
William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well offers this final thought on brevity: “The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure where you are leading them – these are what weaken the sentence.”
[Related articles from this series: Do you make these critical thinking mistakes in your blog writing? and How good blogging is like ‘follow the leader.’]
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It’s so easy to set up a blog today that anybody with a computer can become a publisher. A blog is an ideal platform for sharing your knowledge and establishing yourself as a thought leader.
However, there is more to blogging than jotting down your points-of-view, controversial opinions or innovative ideas and waiting for your brilliance to be acknowledged. In reality, it takes more than knowledge and intelligence to make a valid argument in writing. If your argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, it hurts your credibility.
How do smart people draw fuzzy or erroneous conclusions when they write, making them look less than thought leader-like? It’s usually from a lack of applied critical thinking.
What is critical thinking?
Critical thinking is not determined by intelligence or deep knowledge. Rather, it is a thought process that filters out natural emotional-psychological-sociological biases that get in the way of reaching rational conclusions.
If you’re like me, it has been a while since studying this in philosophy and logic class. But in the interest of more cogent writing and improving your stature as a thought leader, it is worth reviewing some of the key principles. You do want to be more awesome, don’t you?
There are two fundamental ways to evaluate an argument. (By argument, I mean the reasons or premises used to support your conclusion). You can look at the structure of the argument, and you can look at the content to determine its validity.
The classic structure of an argument in the critical thinking process calls for presenting two or more valid premises in support of a conclusion. The following example helps to show how faulty structure can lead to a false conclusion:
- All humans are mammals (true premise)
- All dogs are mammals (true premise)
- All humans are dogs (false conclusion)
When the content or facts of a premise are misleading or in the wrong context, an argument with valid structure can appear to reach a reasonable but faulty conclusion:
- Geological events produce rock (true premise)
- Rock is a type of music (true premise)
- Geological events produce music (false conclusion)
Intentional or not, using invalid arguments in the content you write can lead you to false conclusions that tarnish your thought leadership credibility.
Types of faulty content
Language or meaning is the most fundamental component of your argument. How you use factual information, direct statements, indirect metaphors or emotion-laden words will affect the validity of your argument. There are a number of ways your content can lead to weak or invalid conclusions in your writing, including:
- Grammatical context. Wording in your argument that is grammatically close to valid premises, but distracts the reader into thinking an erroneous conclusion is valid.
- Ambiguity. Using ambiguous language in either the premise or conclusion.
- Relevance. Using premises that are logically irrelevant to your conclusion.
- Presumption. Stating a premise that already assumes your conclusion to be true.
- Weakness. The logical connection between your premise and conclusion is weak.
This infographic illustrates some of the most common types of flawed arguments found in persuasive writing.
How to avoid critical thinking mistakes in your writing
Here are 12 tips for identifying weak links in your reasoning and turning them into stronger arguments:
- Use solid premises that are true and relevant.
- Keep your focus on using only premises that support your conclusion.
- Learn to recognize distinctions between correlation and cause.
- Look for faulty assumptions behind false analogies.
- Identify fixed versus variable probabilities behind events.
- Make sure your comparisons are apples-to-apples.
- Evaluate the logic behind your asserted chains of events.
- Think independently from conventional wisdom of the crowd or popular opinion.
- Distinguish appeals to authority from logic and fact.
- Look for potential bias from your sources.
- Examine either/or assumptions.
- Be aware of your own beliefs and emotional attachments to your viewpoint.
Applied critical thinking is an important process for effectively writing about your area of expertise. It will give you greater confidence in presenting your ideas with the authority and credibility of a thought leader. There is much more that can be said on this subject than I can cover in one post. I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments below.
I’d like to leave you with this funny clip from a favorite movie of mine, Office Space: the scene where Tom explains how he used his mind to come up with an idea about jumping to conclusions.
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Veteran copywriters might consider creative SEO writing an oxymoron. I’ve heard this rant before.
As business has evolved, copywriters have been forced to adapt in many ways since the time of Mad Men-style creative work.
They’ve had to accept creative limitations imposed by corporate brand guidelines, structured banner ads and email marketing along with other intrusions on their creative sensibilities. This has often been met with much weeping and gnashing of teeth. Add to this the requirements of copywriting for SEO (search engine optimization) and you might start hearing declarations about the death of creativity.
But let’s not be hasty. SEO writing does not have to inhibit your Web content creativity.
What is SEO copywriting?
Let’s start with a definition from Wikipedia: “SEO copywriting is textual composition for web page marketing that emphasizes skillful manipulation of the page’s wording to place it among the first results of a user’s search list, while still producing readable and persuasive content.”
As a copywriter you should be relieved by the use of words like skillful wording, readable and persuasive. As a right-brainiac creative thinker you will need to exercise your left brain a little more as you work through the new rules of writing SEO content for the Web. But once you become familiar with them you will start to see opportunities to write creative, compelling and persuasive online copy that is also search optimized.
Those pesky SEO writing rules
SEO is critical to content marketing success. There is ample research to show that after email, search is the most common online activity. So yes, there are SEO rules you must follow in order for your content to be found.
Many creative people rebel at the idea of rules. A lot of breakthrough ideas come from bucking convention and breaking the rules, so creatives are naturally inclined to bristle at following them. Here is a short list of SEO copywriting rules they might find most constricting to the flow of creative juices:
Keyword density. Telling a writer which words to use is a little like telling Babe Ruth which baseball bat to take to the plate. Telling a writer how many times to place a word or phrase into content is like telling Babe Ruth how many swings to take.
Headlines. “Here is the key phrase you need in the headline. Keep it under 65 characters. Oh, and make it punchy.”
Subheads and heading tags. Similar to headline challenges, subheads also need to synchronize with keywords in the title tag. For SEO best practices there should be an H1 and an H2 heading on each page.
Linking. Incorporating links to other Web pages with keywords in the anchor text is one more SEO writing rule to tax the copywriter’s creativity.
This is not a comprehensive list, but you get the idea. There are numerous words and elements already established before the first word is written. Writing around these requirements can make for a challenging assignment. The good news for cranky copywriters is you can still produce search-optimized content that is creative. Really.
How to make SEO copy more creative
First, it’s important to remember that copywriting formulas are not new. There have been direct marketing best practices formulas used in advertising and sales letters for decades. There has always been room for creativity within them. The same holds true in copywriting for SEO. You just need to get comfortable with the context and the rules.
Within the context of SEO writing rules you can apply some of the time-honored creative approaches that will work in any platform – print or digital. Answer the applicable 5-Ws:
- Who you are writing to? Who is your website visitor? Who are the decision makers?
- What are they searching for? What question are they trying to answer? What must they know to make a decision?
- When do they need an answer? When are they going to reach a decision?
- Where are they? Where do they need to be to reach a decision? Where are you?
- Why should they choose you over other options?
Another classic formula you can build into your SEO copy is the AIDA marketing model:
- Attention: attract attention and create awareness in your web visitor
- Interest: build interest by focusing on advantages and benefits
- Desire: convince your web visitor they want you to satisfy their need
- Action: tell them what to do with an effective call-to-action
5 Tips to jumpstart your SEO copywriting creative
- Write the headline first. Your headline is the set-up for the entire page. It makes a promise and offers a preview for what the reader is expecting. Nail that down and the rest will flow much easier.
- Write the subheads next. They provide an outline of idea chunks that flow from your headline. You’ve also cleared the hurdle of embedding major keywords, which will free you to think creatively about the rest of the content.
- Brainstorm keyword variations. Think about different combinations of key phrases, and plural and past tenses that will lend variety to readability while still optimizing your Web content.
- Group ideas into chunks. Readers and search engines scan online information in chunks, so use bullet and numbered lists and other formatting to enhance creative and search optimization.
- Don’t let the rules distract you from applying the fundamentals of persuasive writing. Don’t forget what works.
Confession: I am one of those old school copywriter/marketers. I’ve always had tremendous appreciation for great creative work that accomplishes business objectives. The challenge today is to create compelling content that motivates action AND is found by online searchers. SEO writing rules are table stakes for getting into the game. I’m having fun learning the new rules and finding creative ways to apply them.
What about you? What are some ways you have found to make SEO copywriting more creative?