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How to Extract Doubt From Your Sales Copy

A few years ago, something happened that provided incontrovertible proof of an infallible rule in copywriting. I knew it all along but never saw it proven to me in such a personal and direct way.

The one element that can transform flimsy, “yeah-right” copy into a sales-inducing powerhouse, is proof. Other than poor targeting, lack of proof is probably the greatest reason copy fails.

People are more educated and skeptical than ever. Everything readers see is suspect right from the start. They never believe anything at first, so to convert them into buyers you must first convert them into believers.

Persuasion has much less to do with selling than it has to do with building believability. It's about trust. You need to prove your case — and not just tell it or, worse yet, sell it. You need to provide proof. As much proof as you can muster.

Any kind. Every kind.

For instance, criminal cases win in court because of a preponderance of proof, and not just a little. Conversely, they also lose if there's reasonable doubt. That's all that's needed, and often it's not that much.

If there's reasonable doubt with your marketing message, you're going to lose the sale. Even if it's just a little. Or at best, you will only get a tiny fraction of what's possible in terms of sales, if any.

Case in point: before she passed away, my late wife was chronicling her breast cancer battle on her blog. She discussed the many hospital visits and tests she had to undergo, from MRIs to biopsies.

Soon after she started her blog, my wife posted the pathology results on her breast tissue along with the complete cancer diagnosis. She posted some of the medical terms discussed in her report, and what they meant — in general as well as to her, personally.

She included medical terms like “Intraductal Carcinoma in Situ,” “Multicentric Central Carcinoma,” “Lymphatic/Vascular Invasion,” “Invasive Tumor Necrosis,” “Modified Scarff Bloom Richardson Grade,” and more. She explained what each of them meant.

But to show how big this cancerous lump had grown, she posted a graphic (a simple circle, about the size of a baseball) that represented the actual size of the tumor, based on the dimensions described in the report.

In her blog post, she provided not one but three types of proof.

First, she provided factual proof. That is, she included actual medical terms, data, and numbers taken straight out of the pathology report.

Then, she provided evidential proof. That is, she included laboratory test results proving not only that she did have cancer, but also how big and advanced it was, and the fact that it has metastasized to her lymph nodes.

Finally, she provided perceptual proof. Facts and data are powerful proof elements. But with every one of them, she translated what those terms meant. For example, creating a graphic that demonstrated the size of the tumor was a part of it.

More importantly, she related what the data meant to her. While the data provided proof, my wife's story increased the perceived quality of that proof. It made it more credible by making the terminology easier to understand and internalize. And it made her story more concrete and real.

OK, back to my point.

Once my wife provided proof, the response to her blog shot up dramatically. It compelled people to respond. This doesn't mean they didn't believe her in her previous posts. But it did reduce if not eradicate any reasonable doubt.

This reminded me about all the elements of proof that can add more credibility and believability to your copy.

So I came up with a formula. I call it “FORCEPS.” Think of a pair of forceps, which is commonly used by surgeons for extracting. In this case, think of it as a way to “surgically extract” as much doubt as possible from your copy!

FORCEPS is an acronym that stands for:

  • factual
  • optical
  • reversal
  • credential
  • evidential
  • perceptual
  • And social

Let's take a look at what each one means.

1. Factual Proof

Factual proof is self-explanatory. Provide facts, figures, data, statistics, factoids, numbers, test results, dimensions, and so on. Facts of any kind about either the problem (i.e., anything that makes the problem more real and urgent in the mind of the reader) or the solution are powerful proof elements.

The more concrete and specific the fact, the more believable it is. For example, don't say “1,000 times greater.” Say “1,042 times.” Don't say “Hundreds of dollars.” Say, “347 dollars.” Avoid using rounded numbers or vague facts. Be specific.

2. Optical Proof

Lawyers argue that the strongest evidence is an eyewitness account. Similarly, optical (or visual) proof is the most powerful. Anything that can visually represent the product, the quality, the claims, or more importantly, the benefits gives your copy a strong advantage.

eBay reported that auctions with pictures have 400% more bids than those without pictures. Add a picture of your product or show it in action. (That's why videos are better.) Use different angles and lights, even with its original wrapping.

Best of all, use videos and before-and-afters. The more vivid the proof is and the more senses they engage, the more believable the proof will be.

With cosmetic surgeons, the most effective form of proof was showing before-and-after pictures of patients. They show not only the results but also the extent of those results through the element of contrast.

A business sells lighting fixtures. What did he do? He took a picture of a someone's living room with normal lighting in it, and then took a picture of the room with his product. Both unretouched pictures were placed, side by side, on his sales copy.

The contrast was obvious. The proof, astounding. The sales, significant.

3. Reverse Proof

Comparisons are powerful. That's why competitive analyses work so well. But this can apply to indirect competitors, too. For example, an airline's direct competitor is another airline. But an indirect competitor can be the train, automobile rental, bus, ship, etc.

But the best kind of comparison is the one that shows what can happen if people don't buy. I call it “reverse proof” because it shows the reverse effect, the potential downside in other words, if the prospect buys a competitor's product or fails to buy from you at all.

Some people call this comparing apples to oranges. You compare the price of your offer not against the price of a competitor's product (i.e., apples to apples) but against the ultimate cost of not buying yours.

For example, say you know someone who spent over $20,000 advertising a poorly written ad that had little to no response. If you sell a copywriting course for, say, $1,000, then you compare the price of your course to the cost of not knowing how to write copy.

In this case, you compare a small $1,000 investment to a potential $20,000 mistake.

4. Credentializing Proof

It's proof that demonstrate the credentials of the product, business, or person behind it. Education, expertise, certifications, associations, number of clients served, awards, mentions in the media, reviews, published articles or books, etc.

If you can namedrop someone who's a recognized authority in their field or even a known celebrity, and do it in an ethical and logical way, do so. Or better, ask them and let them do the talking for you.

In court cases, one of the most commonly subpoenaed witnesses are “expert witnesses.” Similarly, reviews from industry authorities, even endorsements from celebrities, though biased, also give your copy perceived objectivity.

For example, some of my clients have added to their copy scanned magazine covers in which articles by or about them appeared. Some even added the words “As Seen In…” before the logos of the publications.

Authoritative endorsements are powerful. A direct endorsement is one in which an authority directly endorses the product. But an indirect one is one in which there is perceived authority, or that the authority is implied, such as “9 out of 10 dentists agree.”

5. Evidential Proof

Evidential proof is evidence that compels us to accept an assertion as true. According to the dictionary, it's “a convincing or persuasive demonstration; or determination of the quality of something by testing or trial.”

Therefore, anything that can prove or test the validity of a claim, result, or promise, and anything that can justify, backup, or support a claim, in any way, is evidential proof. Like demonstrations, samples, trials, studies, tests, etc.

The author of Nothing Down, a book on how to buy property with no upfront money or collateral, Robert Allen was challenged to prove his claim. So he was randomly dropped him in the middle of nowhere with only $100 for food and water, and within 24 hours he bought several properties with nothing down.

Putting your claims to the test is evidential proof. This is similar to “controlled tests.” I'm not talking about the marketing kind. I mean tests that actually validate the process, the product, the results, the claims, etc.

You can do hard tests or soft tests. Hard tests are where you actually test your product to measure its quality. Soft tests are tests that do not directly validate the product but drive home a certain point about it or to prove an important benefit.

In the infomercial for a synthetic car oil called DuraLube, they had cars put up on cinder blocks, drained them completely of oil, and had the motor run until it seized. To fix the engine, one would have to invest in costly mechanical work.

Then they added one small bottle of DuraLube, drained it once more, and started the car, which was running on DuraLube's residue. Not only did the car start without any problems, but an elapsed timer showed the motor ran for hours without fail.

In the commercial for Oreck vacuum cleaners, they said their vacuums had unbelievable “hurricane force” suction. So they had the vacuum literally suck up a bowling ball. That's somewhat of a hard test.

The soft test was to show how lightweight it is (a benefit). So they placed the vacuum at one end of a large scale against the same bowling ball on the other. You saw the bowling ball plummet while the vacuum raised up in the air like a feather.

6. Perceptual Proof

Facts and figures can mean different things to different people. So perceptual proof helps to increase the perceived quality of the evidence, and strengthens how someone appreciates that evidence.

That's where anecdotes, stories, analogies, examples, metaphors, and personal accounts help to not only expand on and solidify the proof given, but also relate them to the reader and increase their level of appreciation.

My late wife didn't just list all the medical details and explained what they meant. She told them in the form of a story, and included a few metaphors to help her readers understand and appreciate what it meant to her. It made the proof more real and concrete.

7. Social Proof

We tend to give more credence to an idea or behavior when we see the masses approving or doing it. Social proof occurs when we make the assumption that others, especially by their numbers, possess more knowledge and therefore we deem their behavior as appropriate.

People tend to assume an idea is valid not by its objective evidence but by its popularity, following, or acceptance by others. The more people talk about it, endorse it, or buy it, the assumption is the more valid and relevant it must be.

Forms of social proof include testimonials, case studies, sales numbers, clientele size, number of endorsements, fan base size, and so forth. The more real you make them, the more believable they are (such as testimonials with audio, video, pictures, signatures, screenshots, graphs, etc).

Even the engagement level on blogs, forums, and social media are widely recognized and used as effective forms of social proof. If you have a post related to you, your product, or your business that's been liked and commented on by a large number of people, include it, too.

So, there you have it.

These are just some ideas. The bottom line is, the more proof you provide, and the more you backup your claims with proof of any kind, whether they are hard or soft, or objective or subjective, the more believable — and profitable — your copy will be.

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