Copywriting Tips From Joe Valente

Freud on the Rebound

So I’m clearing out some space on my shelves to make a little room for hiding presents (or as my wife, Heather, likes to call it, “Thinning out the collection of crap”) when my mind starts to wander.

Now, this is not an unusual thing, because I’m a sentimentalist (a.k.a. “packrat”). So, as I sort through the boxes and bags, I drift, I remember the good times, I think about stuff, and I generally get a bit of a rosy haze going.

Ah, the good times we had…

I’m shaken from my bliss by the crash. It seems the box I had been balancing precariously on my knee while reaching for some sort of mounted singing rubber fish (where the heck did that come from? And can I regift it?) has forsaken its resistance to the gravitational pull of my floor, and has instead decided to meet the challenge head-on.

It was a noble idea, but the box loses.

Startled from my daydream, I look down to discover that finally, and bit disturbingly, some of my university text books have hit the top of the delete pile. Meaning, of course, that I need to find a reason to save them from this almost Stalinist purge. And fast.

I bend down and start picking them up, flipping through them as I do…

Here, a well-worn copy of Psychology Today (well, maybe not today, exactly, but it was au courant a scant 25 years ago)…

There a less-used copy of Today’s Isms (a political diatribe no less weighty — not to mention out of date — than its psychology contemporary)…

And finally an exceptionally well-preserved 3rd Edition Abnormal Psychology.

Ah, at last, a book that is completely relevant today. I mean, have you been to the malls? Man, if that’s not aberrant behavior, I just don’t know what is. I’d love to tell you about the nightmares I’ve been having lately in which the overhead speakers just keep droning “An associate to Aisle 3 please, associate to Aisle 3…”

Okay, Joe, shake it off…

Anyway, thumbing through these tomes, I come across a section on Freud’s Id, Ego, and Superego. And it occurs to me that a few issues back, I gave you the Pop Psychology 101 version of Freud’s theory.

Did you miss it? I’ll recap…

Freud said that the human being has but one steering wheel. Unfortunately, there are 3 crazed maniacs all clutching at each other to wrestle control of it for their very own. They are (in order of appearance):

  • The Id, who simply says “I want it,” when he sees something that gets him excited.
  • The Ego, who, being more practical, says “But you can’t get to it,” when the exciting thing is out of reach.
  • And then the Superego, who says “And besides, it wouldn’t be nice to just take it.”

Now, I realize I used a genderalization there, and that wasn’t intentional. But thinking about it, I always kind of thought the Id was the classic impulsive male, the Ego, his more level-headed girlfriend, and the Superego — well, the jury is still out on that one.

Although I can’t help but picture Sister Mary Louise from my kindergarten year. Don’t ask why. You know, my knuckles hurt even typing that name.

Again, don’t ask why.

And anyway, none of that is all that important. What is important is this: The Id, the Ego, and the Superego, they all have very specific motivations and hot buttons. And they all pretty much hate each other.

So it should come as no surprise that they also tend to be shocked or offended at what each of the others find attractive.

An interesting love triangle, no? Now there’s a made-for-TV movie!

Look, I’m not a Freudian by any stretch, and his vision of 3 separate heads fighting over the steering wheel just makes me think of the final scene in Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers (if you’ve read it, you know exactly what I mean; If you haven’t, go borrow it from the library, and never look at D-cell batteries the same way again!) But it’s interesting to me all the same.

I mean, think about it.

What gets the Id going? Shiny things! Get his heart pumping, and he reaches for his wallet. Get the adrenaline flowing and he’s reaching for the bonuses. Get the sweat pouring, and he’s buying the deluxe, 22-part, members-only, super-duper-never-to-be-repeated Diamond Package!

In other words, dear friends and faithful readers, for the Id, the hard sale sells!

What do the others think of that? Let’s ask, shall we?

  • Ego: “Well, that’s all well and good, but do we really need it? And what’ll it do for me? Will it even fit in my garage?”
  • Superego: “How crude and morally repugnant that you should speak to me that way. Now don’t ever call here again.”


Well, I did mention that they weren’t each other’s best friends, didn’t I?

So what makes the Ego reach for the Visa (or the Master Card when the Visa’s maxed out)? Just the facts, ma’am. Ego doesn’t want to hear hype and hyperbole. Ego wants to know the practical truth. Show ego a fundamentally important piece to her future plans and she gets interested. An excellent potential return with minimal risk, and she’ll buy you dinner. A good cost-benefit analysis, and you’ll be staying for breakfast.

And the others?

  • Id: “Screw that, where are the shiny things?”
  • Superego: “Getting warmer, but will it help me sleep at night?”

As an aside, is anyone else out there wondering just where the heck these ideas come from? If you figure it out, let me know…

And finally, how do you get after the Superego?

Dust off the halo, sprout some wings and sing like an angel. Helping the environment? Okay, here’s a quarter. Helping the poor and underprivileged? There’s an extra dollar. Saving mankind from himself (and that ghastly Id character) and… Well, will you take a check?

The others, of course, have a different take:

  • Id: “No! NO! NO! SHINY THINGS!!!”
  • Ego: “Yeah, yeah. But will it slice, dice, and julienne in just a fraction of the time?”

Yes, it’s a weird little world that I live in.

But I’m kind of heading into a point here, and that point is this:

You gotta know who you’re talking to if you want your copy to sell.

Seems simple, but we all too often completely miss it, because we are distracted by this other interesting fact: If you hit your target audience square in the chin, scoring a first-round knockout, at least one group who is not your target audience will despise you for it.

Or, more precisely, they will hate the way you’ve done your job.

Because no one really hates writers. We’re the good guys, right?

Anyway, in this article, Mike talks quite a bit about the target audience dynamic, and shows you why it’s not only good, but may actually be something to shoot for, to get hate mail about your copy.

Because chances are, if someone hates it enough to write a letter, there are a thousand others who love it enough to write a check.

Hey! Looks like maybe those books are going to survive another purge after all! Now I guess I’d better go through Heather’s stuff if I’m gonna find more room for presents…

The Importance of Doing It With “Val”

There’s an old saying: “Depending on the circumstances, any tool that comes to hand becomes a hammer.”

Now, let’s start with a basic premise: When you write copy, you build knowledge, trust, and sales, and language is your hammer. Some might take that a step further and say that the point of your writing is to “nail” your prospects, but I don’t think I want to go down that road today.

Instead, I want to talk a bit about your main tool of the trade, your proverbial hammer…

… Language.

As some of you know, I come from a corporate background, largely technical documentation and B2B marketing copy. In that world, writing is a very formal affair.

In my years as a corporate denizen, I’ve worked with several very talented people, professional writers who understood that they had to write differently for technical white papers than for tutorials, and that the way they spoke was vastly different from the way they wrote under almost all circumstances.

That’s why it always amazes me when I get phone calls like this…

I got a call the other day from someone I used to work with. Seems someone I know knows someone she knows, and as a result of that small-world phenomenon, she discovered what I was doing these days.

So, in response to either morbid curiosity or pure boredom, she came to read some of the copy I’ve written over the last little while.

And then my old colleague, a militant, self-styled keeper of the sacred trust of the English language, called me up out of the blue to — well, the phrase that comes to mind immediately is “rip me a new one.”

“How can you write like that? You’ve butchered and bastardized the language at every turn! You’ve dangled participles! You’ve used contractions! You’ve sliced and diced sentences! And the Harvard commas — WHERE ARE THE HARVARD COMMAS?!?!”

Now, don’t get me wrong, this is a very educated lady — she has an MA in English — and she generally knows what she’s talking about. But that didn’t stop me, because such things seldom do. I had been challenged, a gauntlet thrown down, my credibility called into question, and my reputation sullied.

My testosterone demanded — and formulated — a swift response. And for once, much to my surprise, it actually had the right answer:

“Maybe. And that copy sold 240-odd products at $60 a piece in less than 24 hours. How much did your last writing assignment sell?”

“It’s not the same thing!”

“My point.”

In fact, my point exactly.

You all know that there are dozens of ways to speak English — “dialects,” if you will — and each one serves a pretty specific purpose. This is what I like to call Venue Appropriate Language, “VAL” for short.

Val is your very best friend, not to mention one of the most important tools of our trade.

And if you don’t do it with Val, you’re just not doing it right.

Think about it.

When you write letters to people you don’t know, you are a lot stiffer, a lot more formal than when you write to friends. When you promote yourself for marketing jobs, you’re a lot more playful than when you promote yourself as a technical editor. And sales letters selling financial products are more language-conscious than letters written to sell information products.

Why? Because whether you’re trying to win the hearts or minds of your audience, you need the right language to drive your message home. Because what you say is about informing and persuading, but how you say it is about painting a picture that the client’s buying motivator can recognize.

We sometimes use formal language to paint a picture of button- down logic. Sometimes we use warmer, less direct language to help the heart feel joy or need. And sometimes we write in a familiar, friendly way to help the reader feel comfort or hope.

Michel Fortin’s latest article deals with the concept of using effective (as opposed to correct) language, and represents another little refresher that ties into last month’s back-to-basics theme. Reacquaint yourself with Val, who is your supreme ruler.

If you don’t make it with Val, you just might not make it at all.

So I guess the two things I’d like you to take away from this are these:

  1. Be very conscious of who you’re writing to — the heart or the mind, the family or the individual, and so on — and make sure you use the right dialect, and …
  2. Before you follow in the steps of some of my old colleagues and jump all over the way someone has written, put yourself in their prospect’s shoes and ask yourself: What do I feel when I read this? And what do I see?

Remember that it’s more important to have the right language in your copy than it is to have the correct English. Because, while anything that comes to hand can be a hammer, there still is nothing like the right tool for the job.

Tool belts, everyone.

The Benefits Of A Good Chair

Spring is in the air again. I can tell by the way my grass is turning yellow with dandelions, and my hayfever is acting up.

Coincidence? You decide …

As the air warms in my backyard and the birds begin to once squabble at my wife’s bird feeder over the remnants of last year’s seeds, I’m at once overcome with the excitement of a brand new year — because spring always feels more like the beginning of a new year than New Years day, doesn’t it — and at the same time struck by an odd sense of deja-vu.

Spring is the great conundrum, ladies and gentlemen. It’s the time when we try new things, while still relying on the things we know work. It’s when we hedge our bets by incorporating what we do successfully with what we’re willing to try.

And it’s a time when our comfort in the things we know gives us the courage to try the things we don’t.

And it’s perfectly natural. Take my dog for instance. Amber will be 15 years old this fall, and she has relied on an old tattered Bombay chair for daytime rest for as far back as I can remember. It’s in that chair that she’s acquired the nickname, “Roadkill,” but that’s another story.

Anyway, that old tattered Bombay is her anchor, the center to her universe, and the home base she needs to have the confidence to explore the rest of her world.

No matter where she goes or what she gets into, that old Bombay is always there for her when she returns. It’s her safety net, it’s what she knows, and it’s what works for her.

I once removed that old chair, and the poor old girl wandered restlessly through the house for a full 48 hours without sleep before I relented, and decided that the ratty old thing — the chair, not the dog — was really not all that ugly after all.

So the Bombay returned to the family room, and the dog returned to normal. But here’s the thing: with spring has come a whole new sense of discovery in the old mutt.

Just yesterday, I saw her venture for the first time onto the ledge of our bay window to catch a snooze in the sun. She’s never done that before. And after an hour or so of snoring blissfully in a position best described as “awkward,” she woke up, got back into her familiar chair, and promptly returned to doing her impression of a well-oiled chainsaw.

The point here is that everyone feels a little more daring in the spring. Everyone feels more willing — if not flat-out compelled — to try new things.

But you’re most comfortable responding to this newfound curiosity and courage when you have the unshakeable knowledge that you can always fall back on what has always worked.

And that knowledge is your safety net.

Your own personal Bombay chair.

This month, in honor of this odd dichotomy of spring, my suggestion to you is to get a refresher on what makes great copy — and maybe just as importantly, what doesn’t.

Scroll through some of Michel’s articles lingering in the archive. We’re sure you’ve probably heard a lot of the ideas in them before.

But if you’re planning any new campaigns — and you should be, shouldn’t you? — then now is the ideal time to review your websites, your marketing, your sales copy, and your general strategies to make sure you’ve got the basics covered.

It’s also a perfect time to review some of the tenets of good copy, so that you apply those tried and true ideas to your new explorations. Think of it as a spring cleaning for your own personal Bombay chair.

You may now join Amber in the sun on window sill.

Stephen King and The Long Copy Debate

Life’s too hectic. Go on, tell me I’m wrong. Well, maybe that’s not so for you, but for me, there’s just so much going on, such as:

Writing and editing web sites, technical manuals, tutorials… Car repairs, some done in my driveway, and some done by others, but always under my watchful eye (remind me one day to tell you about my Talon and the plans I have to get back into Autocross with it)… Household maintenance (thankfully the lawnmower died, buying me an extra hour!)… Hockey season (I coach and referee)… And of course, the band in which I’m the bass player and lead singer.

So it was quite a surprise when…

… For the first time in quite a while, I found the time not only to read a book for pleasure, but to actually finish it.

The book was Wizard and Glass, by Stephen King, the fourth novel in the Dark Tower Trilogy (yeah, yeah, I know…) and perhaps the weakest of the bunch in my humble opinion.

For those of you who aren’t following this particular series of books, I’ll give you the short version: A gunslinger sets out to find the Dark Tower, a sort of hub that binds several parallel universes together. It seems the Tower is in major need of repair — plumbing, I suspect, although that’s not entirely clear — and the parallel worlds are beginning to feel the effects.

Anyway, the gunslinger meets and adventures with several characters along the way. By the second book, his posse (which you knew he would eventually have to have) is formed, and together, they carry on, following The Beam, a hidden structure that ties the worlds together through the Dark Tower.

So with that background in mind, I bring you into my living room just last night. The lamp above my favorite reading chair is lit, and my dog Amber is curled up between my knees on the ottoman.

The ottoman, as an aside, is the only piece of furniture on which she is allowed other than her own chair, and then, only by my own graces — Heather, my wife, scowls at me when she sees her curled up in my knees like that, but I’m an old softie and Amber keeps my knees warm.

I had just finished the fourth book, and felt oddly unsettled. I couldn’t quite figure out what was wrong, but I had the distinct feeling I’d somehow been robbed. But my wallet and watch were still intact, so…

And then it hit me.

It was the book. I had waited years for this installment of the Dark Tower (there were five years between Book 3 and Book 4, and I hadn’t seen Book 4 until this summer) and I had read it with a voracious appetite for the trail of The Beam first started way back in Book 1. But when all was said and done, I felt like I got nothing to feed my cravings.

Here’s the deal: The book is largely a retrospective. It starts out in the gunslinger’s “Today,” and then reaches back — way back — into his past, before returning to his “Today.” About 100 pages of current events on either end of the book sandwiching close to 500 pages of the gunslinger in his youth playing with characters that, so far, don’t figure into his travels on The Beam.

I hate it when authors do that, I really do.

But the issue wasn’t so much the 500 pages — it was a very well-told story with an interesting plot — but the fact that those 500 pages contributed very little to the gunslinger’s current situation. It was a great story, but had little bearing on the adventure.

Those 500 pages were, in a word, irrelevant.

What the King of Horror had done, basically, was the old bait and switch. I wanted more of the adventure that I had been following, and instead, I got another adventure sandwiched between snippets of what I considered important to that book.

And I felt a little cheated.

“So what,” you may ask, “has that got to do with writing copy?”

Well, judging by that ageless debate going on in the world of copywriting, just about everything.

There’s a thread in my forum in which the battle rages over long copy versus short copy. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the different approaches taken by different people to copywriting:

On one side the argument is that only bad products require long copy, so long copy is a scam (badly oversimplified, that synopsis, but it serves well-enough).

On the other side of the argument is the idea that well-written long copy sells better than well-written short copy (again, oversimplified, but you get the idea).

In Michel’s article, found here, Mike explores the two sides to the debate, and weighs in with his thoughts on the matter. We think you’ll find the article more than just informative: We hope it’ll prompt you to really consider the value of the words you’re putting on that screen before you decide: Is more really more or is less actually more?

Or something like that.

Because long copy is often appropriate, and does sell better — when done right. But short copy is also sometimes the right tool for the job.

As for me, as your intrepid editor, it’s not for me to cast my runes into the ring and tell you what I think, because you’re the writers, and no one knows better than you what the current project really requires.

But I will tell you this: While reading that middle 500 pages of the latest Dark Tower novel, I seriously considered not finishing the book. Several times. Because the information felt irrelevant to the story. If that were a long copy ad and I had no reason to trust the author, that would have been a sale lost.

Just something to think about.

And now, Mr. King, let us return to The Beam, shall we?

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.