Lesson 13: Making sure you give Sam enough information
All about clarity & candor (redux)
This week will focus on the meat of your sales page: the features of what you’re offering, and how they benefit Sam.
To start, we’re going to spend some time riffing on clarity and candor again. There’s still plenty to be said about using them to write effective features and benefits.
By now you’ve hopefully had some success with “writing by speaking” — using a recording to bypass some of the “malware” that got installed with your brain’s writing software as you went through school.
Which leads us to a simple rule of thumb...
If you wouldn’t say something to Sam in conversation, then don’t say it to him in writing.
But there’s a lot to add to this rule of thumb, too. You already know that you should write in the first person — because writing as a person to a person encourages you to express yourself, which makes reading you far more engaging and enjoyable.
This is not to say that there is never a time for writing in the third person. But generally, it sounds aloof, and encourages the kind of copy we want to avoid at all costs — marketese. Thinking of yourself as a corporate entity separates you from Sam, detaches you from feeling accountable for your manner of speech, and even encourages you to justify your “position of power” while obscuring your own role in the text. The upshot is the kind of pompous, bureaucratic-sounding prose you find in marketese:
HTG is first and foremost an IS professional services provider. As networking specialists, the staff at HTG is trained to advise on the design, delivery and support of solutions. Our Service Department and technology partners allow us to provide customised networked solutions covering all aspects of design, cabling, hardware, software, installation, maintenance, support and ongoing development.
I use this example because it’s a company I am intimately familiar with, having spent several years working for them. So I’m well positioned to tell you what they meant to say. Here it is, written with clarity and candor:
Our goal at HTG is to help you figure out what kinds of computers you need, get them connected up, and then keep them running for you afterward. We only use equipment with the best track records, like Cisco switches and HP printers, so you can be confident nothing will fail. And our technicians are certified to work on this equipment by the manufacturers themselves.
Whether you need...
an office network wired up
new servers installed
Microsoft Office upgraded
maybe even your network expanded to a new location...
...we have the expertise to do it — backed by the qualifications and experience you should expect.
You notice that my rewritten version is actually longer. Considerably. Yet it is also far more readable. Sam wants information. He wants all his uncertainty and doubt removed. So the aim is to simply engage him in “conversation” about the thing you’re offering...and keep the conversation going until he buys.
In direct-response parlance, the more you tell, the more you sell.
Virtually no one does this. Why do video camera manufacturers, for example, write a two-paragraph brochure-style blurb in a faux academic voice — which Sam knows is just ponce and puffery — for a high-end camera worth $4,000? Why do they place this paragraph beneath a 500×500 pixel thumbnail that you can’t click on for a larger image or multiple angles?
Why don’t they write as one videographer to another about what the camera is like to use? About professionals who have recommended it? About amateur movies that have been shot with it? About what conditions it is best suited to, and why?
Why don’t they allow customer reviews directly on the sales page? Why don’t they show high-resolution photos — or even better, actual footage shot with the camera? And allow customers to link to their own on YouTube?
Why don’t they talk about possible problems with the camera, or conditions where it won’t work well — thus immediately gaining Sam’s trust, since no one believes a camera is perfect for everyone?
And so on.
Examples can be found for any kind of product or service.
The answer is that marketers copy what they see other marketers doing. It is the blind leading the the blind into a pit of darkness, where sales are lost and there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Conversions plummet when Sam lacks information and engagement with the copy.
In other words, no clarity + no candor = no sale.
With that in mind, here are four practical steps you can take to ensure candor and clarity, as we move into writing your features & benefits copy this week:
1. Get a picture of Sam
Create a mental image of Sam so that you know who you are writing to. When you write, imagine that you are writing your copy directly to him, and purely for him. If it helps, you probably know someone very much like him, and can pretend that you’re writing to that person instead.
Part of this mental picture will include things like why Sam is reading your copy at all, and what he thinks he believes about his problem and your offering already. You need this kind of detail to write good features and benefits. Fortunately, figuring it out is really just an extension of the brainstorming you did in week 1, when you refined a clear offer. Knowing your offer will tell you a great deal about Sam.
2. Imagine Sam there with you
When you write, always ask yourself whether Sam will believe what you are currently saying. Visualize him in the room with you. Indeed, if you can create your copy by speaking to a friend, have them butt in when you say something that isn’t clear, or needs justification to be believed. Remember FUD — if there’s any possibility of doubt, you must justify your claims with clear explanations.
This can be hard. We usually have a far better picture of things than Sam does. Because of our “privileged” perspective, many statements may seem obvious to us that are not obvious to Sam. Having someone else to read your copy helps here.
3. Be positive and active
As well as using concrete words rather than abstract ones, you want to speak of what is rather than what isn’t; and of people doing things rather than of things being done by people. Let me expand on these two points:
Because we think concretely, we imagine actual states of affairs. Imagining the negation of a state of affairs requires abstract reasoning. By phrasing your statements positively, you make your writing more interesting — and also more comprehensible. I don’t mean you should never use negations, since often that is necessary to emphasize a pain point. But I often see people use negations when they should use positive statements. “We will never send you spam” is a classic one. Why even put that idea in Sam’s head? And notice that Sam can’t actually imagine you never sending spam. It’s something that never happens, so what is there to picture in his mind? So why not rather say, “Our emails are always useful and interesting.”
A similar thing applies to the active voice versus the passive. Again, it’s not that you should fear and loathe the passive voice; sometimes you will need it. But if you consistently have the subjects of your sentences acted upon by their verbs, your writing will feel weak, uninteresting, and even incomprehensible. This is mostly because, again, you can’t easily picture someone doing something when the verb is passive. “Mistakes were made,” is a cliché for a reason. Rather than saying, “Our cakes are loved by our customers,” say, “Customers love our cakes.”
Here’s an example of a seemingly benign sentence that can be made much more concrete and engaging by replacing negations with positive language, and the passive voice with the active:
Not this: You often won’t get a clear idea of what steps to take from most consultations.
But this: Most consultants provide only a fuzzy view of the steps you should take.
4. Avoid fluff words
Don’t overstate, overqualify, over-explain, or over-present. Simply state the facts of the matter. There are three main kinds of fluff you should watch out for:
Qualifications: Often you’ll be tempted to either emphasize something with hyperbolic language, or to hedge your bets. There are times when qualifications are appropriate, but usually they make your writing seem weak rather than considered.
Over-explaining: Often you’ll write something that is really just a description of your own thought process in coming to grips with what you wanted to say — rather than the pared-down result of this process, which Sam wants to read.
Dead weight: This covers all the natural but pointless words even the best writers tend to insert into their copy — and then have to remove again. A surprising number of words in the average sentence don’t do much. Watch out particularly for clichés, figures of speech, and adjectives/adverbs (describing words) that fail to meaningfully change or amplify the nouns or verbs they’re attached to.
For example, in the following paragraph I’ve
struck out words that are unnecessary or clichéd; italicized places where the author is overexplaining; and bolded instances of under and overqualification. As you can see, many times a phrase can comprise more than one kind of fluff! The second paragraph shows my suggested revision.
times, the process of recovering lostdata is made muchmore complicated than it needs to be, because people don’t realize thatwhen information is deleted it isn’t immediatelyoverwritten, but instead just gets marked as free space. Soonly when new data is written to the drivedoes it overwrite the old“deleted” data. Many people, not knowing this, will ofteninstall freedata recovery programs to get their files back, the process ofwhich ironically tends to overwrite the data they’re trying to recover. It’s a typical catch-22, but as they say, you get what you pay for.
Often, people complicate the process of recovering lost data because they don’t realize that deleted information is only overwritten when new files are added to the disk. Assuming the data is already lost, they install data recovery programs — thus ensuring that it is!
As with most weeks, we are going to be brainstorming to prepare for upcoming lessons.
Using as many pages as you need, brainstorm everything Sam might want to know about your offering that you haven’t already talked about in your copy. Just throw everything at the wall; try to make as many leaps and wild connections as you can, without judging or discarding them.
If you have been selling for a while, look back through any correspondence you have with customers to identify questions, concerns, failed expectations, and any other lack of clarity they have had.
Write up a list of all these items. You will discover that many of them are related in various ways. Often you can arrange them into types or categories. Shuffle the list around until you have the items in as logical an order as possible.
Pare the list down by removing anything genuinely nutty, or too unlikely (in your judgment) to be a question that good prospects will ask.