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. Besides 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 a “preponderance of proof.” As much proof as you can muster.

Any kind. Every kind.

For instance, cases win in court, not because of a little or just enough evidence, but because of a preponderance of evidence. Even if there’s a good amount of evidence and not a preponderance of it, they can 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 for most people, it didn’t really convey the seriousness of her cancer. So to show how big this cancerous lump had grown, she posted a graphic (i.e., a baseball) that represented the actual size of the tumor, based on the dimensions described in the report.

In doing so, she provided 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 confirming not only that she did have cancer, but also how big and advanced it was, having metastasized to her lymph nodes.

Finally, she provided perceptual proof. Facts and data are powerful, but she translated them into what they meant. For example, the baseball picture helped the reader visualize the size of the tumor.

Another form of perceptual proof is when she related what the data meant to her personally. My wife’s story grew the perceived quality of the data. By making the terminology not only easier to understand but also by how it affected her, it made her story more real and personal.

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 that surgeons commonly use. In this case, it’s a way to “surgically extract” as much doubt as possible from your copy!

FORCEPS is an acronym that stands for:

  • Factual proof,
  • Optical proof,
  • Relational proof,
  • Credential proof,
  • Evidential proof,
  • Perceptual proof, and
  • Social proof.

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

Factual Proof (Attributes)

Facts are powerful proof elements. Provide data, figures, statistics, numbers, results, dimensions, measurements, ingredients, and so on. They can be facts about the problem (i.e., to make the problem more real and urgent in the reader’s mind) or about the solution.

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.

Optical Proof (Visuals)

Lawyers argue that the strongest evidence is an eyewitness account. Likewise, 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.

When eBay first started in 1995, many online auctions failed to provide any photos. Then they reported that auctions with pictures received 400% more bids than those without pictures. This changed not only how items were sold on eBay but also in ecommerce.

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. The more vivid the proof is and the more senses they engage, the more believable the proof will be.

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

A business I know sells lighting fixtures. What did they do? They took a picture of someone’s living room with normal lighting, and then took another of the same room, at the same angle, but with his product. Both unretouched pictures were placed, side by side.

The contrast was obvious. The resulting increase in sales after adding those photos was equally obvious.

Relational Proof (Comparisons)

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.

The best kind of comparison is the one that shows what can happen if people don’t buy. I also call it “reverse proof” because it shows proof in reverse by contrasting it with the potential downside if the person 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.

Credential Proof (Qualifications)

It’s proof that demonstrates the credentials of the product or service, or of the people (or organization) behind its development or delivery. They include qualifications, records, education, expertise, experience, training, certifications, associations, ratings, degrees, etc.

They can also include credentials based on volume, such as the number of clients served, number of years in business, number of awards won, number of mentions in the media, number of published articles in peer-reviewed publications, etc.

If you can namedrop someone who’s a recognized authority in their field or even a known celebrity who can endorse you or your product, and do it in an ethical and logical way, by all means, do so. Or better, ask them and let them do the talking for you if possible.

In court cases, the most commonly subpoenaed witnesses are “expert witnesses.” Similarly, while reviews from users are a form of social proof (more on that later), credential proof includes reviews and endorsements from experts and industry authorities.

For example, you’ve likely seen the famous “as seen in” or “as featured in” section of an ad or web page, followed by logos of publications or websites — or, better yet, followed by scanned magazine covers — in which articles by or about a product or business appeared.

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.”

Evidential Proof (Tests and Trials)

According to the dictionary, evidence is “information that compels the acceptance of an assertion as true.” It can also be “a convincing or persuasive demonstration, or the determination of the quality of something by testing or trial.”

Therefore, anything that can test and confirm 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.

Robert Allen, the author of Nothing Down, was challenged to prove his claim that his book can teach you to buy a property with no upfront money or collateral. So in a PR stunt, he was randomly dropped in the middle of nowhere with only $100 for food and water. Within 24 hours he bought not one but 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, product, results, claims, etc.

You can do “hard tests” or “soft tests.”

Hard tests are where you physically and directly test your product to measure its quality. Soft tests are tests or trials that do not directly validate the product but a certain attribute, such as to prove an important benefit and drive home a key point.

For instance, 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 completely seized. To fix the engine, one would have to invest in costly mechanical work and replace the engine altogether.

Then they added one small bottle of DuraLube and drained it once more, leaving only DuraLube’s residue and nothing more. 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, to prove that their vacuums had “hurricane-force” suction, they had the vacuum literally suck up a bowling ball. While this was a hard test, the soft test was when they placed the vacuum at one end of a large scale against the same bowling ball on the other. The bowling ball plummeted while the vacuum raised up in the air like a feather.

Perceptual Proof (Stories)

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, 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 of her cancer and explained what they meant. She told them in the form of a story and included a few metaphors to help her readers appreciate what it meant to her. It made the proof more real and concrete.

Social Proof (Behaviours)

People tend to assume an idea is valid 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.

The reason is, we tend to give more credence to an idea when we see the masses doing it or approving it. We make assumptions that there is wisdom in numbers, and therefore we deem that a common or popular behaviour is appropriate.

Forms of social proof include testimonials, endorsements, reviews, ratings, case studies, sales numbers, clientele size, fan base size, and so forth. The more authentic 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 is widely recognized and used as an effective form of social proof. If you have a post related to you, your product, or your business that’s been liked, shared, 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 back up 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.

Avatar of Michel Fortin

By Michel Fortin

Michel Fortin is a digital marketing advisor specializing in SEO, communications, and strategy. For over 30 years, he helped hundreds of thousands of clients increase their visibility and their revenue. He is also the VP of Digital Marketing at Musora, the company behind award-winning platforms Drumeo and Pianote. He is the author of the More Traffic Memo™ SEO email newsletter.