Speedwriting 101

Back in The Day, copywriting was a leisurely business – almost a pastoral pursuit.

The client’s marketing folks got you on the phone, described the product, told you what they’d tried before and how it’d worked… what they’d been learning and thinking lately… and you brainstormed the themes you might use for a new promo.

A week or so later, a big brown truck would deliver a box crammed with the client’s product, past promos and premiums, his competitors’ promos, his testimonial file, and anything else the marketing people thought you might need to create a barn-burner for them.

Usually, the box would languish unopened for a week or more as you completed other projects. And when it was time to dive in, you might spend a week or more just reading, taking notes, and planning the assault.

Entire days were dedicated to thinking alone: Ruminating on the prospect’s mindset… his emotional state… what he’d seen and responded to (or not) in recent months… his prejudices in favor of or against the client and/or others like him… the sales objections that would need to be overcome (either explicitly or implicitly)… and most important, of course, the prospect’s resident fears, frustrations, wants, needs, and desires.

Copywriters had the luxury of staring out the window for hours, contemplating the competitive landscape, considering how to lift the client and his product head and shoulders above every other spokesperson and product in his niche. Or, better yet, to position the client in a way that would establish him as the leader of a new niche – a niche of his own.

Then, it was time to write. Actually, to spend a few days getting ready to prepare to begin to write: to list the engagement and credibility elements needed… to sort out the offer… to create the outline and organize notes. And, in doing these things, to allow the work to slowly, almost imperceptibly, seduce you into the actual writing.

Two, three, or more weeks later, a first draft would wing its way to the client for review and comments. Two, three, or four weeks later, the final copy would land on the designer’s desk for a couple of weeks of layout – and more copy nips, tucks, and enhancements. Then, after two more weeks at the printer and lettershop, the promo would be in the mail.

In all, the process took “as long as it takes to create a winner” – typically, anywhere from one month to three. Sometimes more. And that was perfectly fine with everybody concerned. Because just to field a small test of a new promo, the client would have to spend $100,000 or more. And if it bombed, they could lose a bundle.

So “getting it right” was far more important than “getting it fast.” Each promotion was as meticulously crafted as a Rodin bronze and as patiently aged as a cask of fine wine.

Then, something terrible happened… @#$^%@!!! Internet!

One morning I woke up and some darned fool had invented the World Wide Web – and the game had completely changed for not just one but four big reasons:

1. It suddenly cost businesses zero dollars to blast a sales message to prospects. So some clients assumed that, since they had no skin in the game, the response to each individual e-mail mattered less.

2. Clients could easily afford to e-mail their prospects not just once but several times each day. The quality of the copy became less important than getting something “good enough, fast enough.”

3. The speed of the Internet radically changed our prospects’ expectations. Where once, the most successful promotions addressed permanent (or at least longer-term) situations, fears, frustrations, and/or desires, many prospects came to expect sales messages to connect with the day’s – or even the hour’s – breaking news.

Then, as if to make things even more challenging, the world itself – especially the financial world – began changing faster.

4. Where a successful direct-mail, print, TV, or radio promo might be used for many months or even years, daily e-mail blasts served their purposes for a single day, and sales pages often became obsolete in a couple of weeks at most.

So while the copywriter caught in the act of crafting direct mail and other pay-as-you-go media messages approximated a Michelangelo extracting a David from a block of marble – a thoughtful exercise demanding every skill at the artist’s command applied over many months – cranking out online promos required speed: e-mails slammed out in an hour or two and sales pages as long as any magalog ever written cobbled together in a few days to a week.

And to make things even more difficult, the simple fact that a company is promoting on the free Internet – notoriously, the realm of fakes, frauds, and rip-off artists – has made establishing iron-clad credibility in sales messages critical even while the time to do so has shrunk immeasurably.

It’s not enough to be good. In this wired world, you must also be fast.

I’m hoping that some of the things I do to write strong copy in a fraction of the time will help you do it, too…

1. I cheat.

Every weekday morning, I spring out of bed in the wee hours, brew a pot of joe, plop down at my desk, and begin to fortify myself for the day ahead.

I know I’ll have a conference call with my financial client at 6:00 a.m. I also know I’ll have at least two e-mails to write for him and that they must be final and to the Web guys as early as possible. I can be fairly sure that Jill, my production scheduler, has lined up an afternoon full of meetings with other clients, and that my staff has plenty of copy for me to write, review, critique, or finalize. And I know that a single new promotional idea or a breaking news event could blow my entire schedule to smithereens without a moment’s notice.

So I start by thinking: “What could I do with the hours between now and that 6:00 a.m. conference call that will give me a running head start on my day?”

Because much of my financial client’s messaging is driven by the news, I jump on the Web to sort out what’s happening in the global economy and to look for themes I could use to drive the day’s e-mails.

The idea here is to anticipate the work as much as I can before the assignment gets handed to me. I spend time thinking about the research I’ll need… the engagement and credibility devices I might use… and anything else I can do in advance to speed the writing process once the project is assigned.

2. I start with my prospect.

As I begin to write, I think about my prospect. What has been his recent experience with my client’s company? What have I done with him in the last few days that might provide clues as to how this e-mail or sales page should begin?

What are my prospect’s expectations as he opens my e-mail or jumps over to my sales page? How can I make this communication a seamless continuation of a conversation the two of us are already having? Are there recent developments or news events that he’s already thinking about and that I should address? What touchstones can I use to get the conversation off to a fast start?

3.I tell them what I’m about to tell them… I tell it to them… I tell them what I just told them.

Getting an e-mail that kind of begins out of the blue is disorienting to a prospect. Instead, I give them a clear, easy-to-follow roadmap that lets them know what to expect from this communication.

In addition to making my e-mails easy to read and providing structure that makes them easier to write fast, this subtle cycle of promising, delivering, and reminding prospects that you delivered what you promised is a powerful way of programming them to believe future promises you make.

4. I establish my client’s credibility early in my copy.

Maybe I do it with a collection of accurate forecasts he’s made… or big profits he’s helped his subscribers achieve… or new testimonials from the media.

For a non-financial client, it could be with the reminder of a discount coupon or free bonding gift we’ve sent the reader recently… or something about our 24-hour shipping policy. Anything that demonstrates that my client brings value to the prospect’s life and that he always does what he promises is of great help in moving them to taking the action prescribed later in the copy.

5. I use bobble-head copy.

The sooner I can get my prospect’s head nodding – agreeing with my premise – the better. So I look for an idea he can agree with to get the conversation going.

Something like: “If Wall Street was a fair place, mutual funds would only make money when they made you money.” Or, for a health product, it could be something like, “If everyone ate right and exercised, almost nobody would have heart disease” – or any other statement that puts my prospect and my spokesperson instantly on the same page.

“Hell, YES!” says the prospect! “This guy and I are alike! We believe the same things! He has my values. He can be trusted.”

6. I guide my reader to the action I want him to take.

Beginning with my mutually agreed-upon head-nodder, I then baby-step my reader to the inevitable conclusion: that NOT taking the action I want him to take would be self-defeating. In other words, I help him connect the dots between the proposition we both agree upon and the action I want him to take.

If each one of these steps is already agreed upon, all the better. If not, I’ll need to provide a proof element – ideally, a fact sworn to by an independent third-party source – that proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that the next link in my chain of logic is undeniably true:

“If everyone ate right and exercised, almost nobody would have heart disease.”

“But in real life, it’s not always possible to eat right. And Lord knows, there’s not always time to exercise.”

“That’s why Xnutrient is so crucial. Harvard says it…”

If I’ve done a good job with these steps, I’ve made my case. All that’s left is to tell my prospect precisely what I want him to do. After all, he’s already agreed that NOT coming along with me would be self-defeating.

[Ed. Note: Master copywriter Clayton Makepeace publishes the highly acclaimed e-zine The Total Package to help business owners and copywriters accelerate their sales and profits. Claim your 4 free moneymaking e-books – bursting with tips, tricks, and tactics that’ll skyrocket your response – at MakepeaceTotalPackage.com.]

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