Copywriting is often labelled as “wordsmithing.” A wordsmith is someone who uses words to sell a product, a service, or an idea.
But, is copy only about words?
Copywriting comes down to two fundamental tasks: knowing what to say and then how to say it. The first part is the most crucial. After all, the success of your copy hinges greatly on coming up with the right message — i.e., the right angle or story — that moves your readers and makes them move.
To do this, you need to choose the right words to communicate your message, express your story, and connect with your audience.
The second part is just as important. Choosing the best words to not only say what you mean but also add meaning to what you’re saying is a wordsmith’s most prized weapon in making copy significantly more potent.
Sometimes, the right message isn’t enough. It needs to jump out at the reader, grab them by the eyeballs, and shake them into action if not reading further.
So knowing how to say it is communicating the right message in the right way.
But what about formatting, visual aids, graphics, and cosmetics of the text? What about the “design of the copy”? Are words alone enough, especially in today’s visually driven world? Some copywriters claim they distract and take the reader’s focus away from the message. But I disagree.
Words are extremely important. The words you choose can make or break the sale. But don’t discount the cosmetics.
Copy cosmetics give your copy eye gravity. They help to direct the reader’s eyes into the story and throughout the page. They also help to drive important points home and may even influence how people perceive you.
But above all, they help to replace the cues, nuances, and nonverbal subtleties that occur in traditional, face-to-face sales encounters.
In my early career as a teacher of professional selling in college, I taught about the nonverbal aspect of communication that can dramatically affect sales.
There are four: Paralinguistics, Kinesics, Haptics, Proxemics, and Chronemics.
Chronemics is the science of timing, which is an important aspect of nonverbal communication. Things like speed of speech, pausing (in sales or professional speaking, it’s often called the “pregnant pause”), pacing, and punctuality.
All of these convey deeper meaning and may alter the meaning of the message. Think of comedians: timing is the single, most important aspect of their standup routine. As they say, “It’s all in the delivery.”
Poor timing can make any good joke fall flat. Even with theatrics, from tragedies to comedies, actors use timing skillfully to captivate their audiences.
Proxemics is the science of personal space. It’s the implied message communicated by the distance between individuals during, for example, a conversation, a meeting, or a shared activity.
This isn’t some “Feng Shui-ish” thing. I’m talking about our psychological (and often subconscious) reaction to the distance we maintain with other people.
When someone speaks so closely to you that their nose is almost touching yours, you feel uneasy, as if they’re invading your personal space. It’s also our tendency to avoid people by standing in the opposite corner of an elevator.
In sales, for instance, sitting across from someone at a desk may unconsciously convey that the other person is being confrontational. That’s why some sales training programs tell you to sit side by side with your prospect.
Haptics is the science of touching. Psychologists have studied the effects of touching during conversations and how it can influence others.
Like proxemics, too much can seem like an invasion of personal space, and certain parts of the body are obviously off-limits. But a little, done respectfully and appropriately, can add a whole new level of understanding to a message.
For example, they tested how people would react when they were told a certain statement. Here’s what research discovered.
A speaker would simply tell the listener a story. Then, they were told another story, but this time the speaker would touch the listener on the forearm lightly and for only a few seconds, particularly when saying something important.
According to the study, subjects in the second test felt the speaker was more believable. They had higher recall scores. Physiologically, they felt more relaxed and comfortable with the speaker. They felt a certain “connection.”
Kinesics is the science of body language. Nonverbal gestures, postures, and facial expressions that communicate nonverbally with others various physical, mental, or emotional states.
Uncrossing of the arms or legs. Raising of the brows. Rubbing of the chin. Leaning forward. All of these can indicate that you’re interested in your client — or if the client does it, it can tell you she’s interested in your offer.
Kinesics (all forms of nonverbal communication, for that matter) can support, emphasize, or contradict what is being conveyed.
Paralinguistics is the most important one. It’s how we convey urgency, subtext, intent, and emotion in and of a message. Things like intonation, volume, inflection, resonance, and pitch can affect and even alter the meaning of the message, sometimes quite dramatically.
In a face-to-face sales presentation, these verbal cues are often used to drive important points and emphasize key benefits, which go beyond words.
Here’s an example I use in my class.
Inflection is the musical quality of the voice — the verbal ups or downs a word, a syllable, or a series of words. In selling, vocal inflection is probably the most used form of nonverbal communication. Why? Because it can virtually change the entire meaning of a message, even when inflecting a single word.
Take, for example, the following sentence: “I didn’t say I love you.” It’s pretty straightforward, right? But if I stress one word each time I said it, like this:
Then it could change the meaning completely:
- Inflecting the word “you” could imply I love someone else.
- Emphasizing the word “love” might imply I simply like you.
- Stressing the word “say” could mean I said something else.
- Accenting the word “didn’t” might imply I never said it at all.
- Or focusing on the first word “I” could mean someone else said it.
It’s not what you say, but how you say it.
In copy, we’re limited, not by what we want to say but how we want to say it. That’s where cosmetics, formatting, and certain visual triggers can become enormously helpful.
Don’t add graphics willy-nilly to your copy. Be judicious and strategic.
If you can add a photograph of your product (or if you sell a service, a picture of you in action delivering that service or a client enjoying the benefits of your service), you will likely achieve greater results.
But graphics and pictures aside, the look of the copy is just as important as the words themselves. That’s why, when I write copy, I usually pay close attention to the cosmetics. I even call it “copy designing.”
Incorporate visual triggers, cosmetic “commands,” and response devices into your copy, usually with formatting, in order to boost readership and response.
Use it to emphasize certain keywords or keyphrases. I’m not talking about going crazy with different fonts and colors. Otherwise, it will do the opposite of what you intended. Emphasize everything and you emphasize nothing.
I’m talking about strategically placed bolds, italics, typestyles, font sizes, boxes, bullets, colors, white spaces, borders, and so on. (Take, for instance, the way I emphasized certain words in the inflection example earlier.)
As copywriter Martin Hayman noted: “Michael Fortin is right. The way the copy is set out on the page makes a massive difference to the way the reader responds. Typographic practitioners have known this for, oh, centuries.”
Here’s just one example.
Over 60 years ago, Frank H. Johnson, a direct mail copywriter, started a new technique to boost the readership and impact of his salesletters.
He would highlight the offer in a centered, rectangular box placed at the very top of the letter above the salutation. Why? Because he wanted to summarize his offer upfront in a way that saved his readers’ time and hassle.
Instead of forcing readers to wade through a mass of copy before making the offer, he gave them the essentials, right upfront. The results were astonishing.
Direct mail copywriter Ivan Levinson reports he has seen claims that adding a “Johnson Box” to a plain letter can shoot response rates up by 40%.
You can apply this technique to boxes placed within the heart of the copy in strategic locations, such as right before any call-to-action or when highlighting some of the most important points of your copy.
If your readers skim and scan your copy, J-boxes can often stop them in their tracks and force them to read their contents. They help to inculcate key points you want to drive home.
Consequently, these are perfect locations to put your bonuses, premiums, guarantees, testimonials, factoids, key points, stories, and sidenotes.
There’s little your prospects will remember from your copy. But if you use Johnson Boxes, the likelihood they will remember their contents more — and over any other point stated in the rest of the copy — will be stronger.
Nevertheless, the moral is this:
Copy is not just about what you say. It’s also about what you mean to say.