The Case of the Disappearing Copywriter

“He who wishes to secure the good of others, has already secured his own.” – Confucius

I received an interesting letter last weekend.

The envelope was hand-addressed in blue ink. The letter itself was 12 pages long and printed on quality, cream-colored, individual sheets of paper. At the end of the letter was a signature, also in blue. I recognized it as the name of a copywriter I had once met at an AWAI seminar: Brice K.

So far, it looked like a personal letter. But, unlike a personal letter, it began with a headline, followed by a salutation that was both generic and plural: “Dear Friends.”

Normally, I would have dismissed this letter as an amateurish effort and tossed it. But the headline, though misplaced, did its job. It intrigued me:

The Amazing True Story of the Incredible Disappearing Copywriter… and How You Are Helping Him to Reappear

As a rule, I abhor commonplace intensifiers like “amazing” and “incredible.” But in this case, they worked. Perhaps it was the way they enhanced the sentiment of the headline’s promise – that I was about to hear an old-fashioned kind of story. (Everybody likes a good story.)

That certainly wasn’t the best headline ever written, but it was good – good enough to get me to read the first paragraph of the letter:

“My wife is ‘pist’ [sic] as we say in Dallas. You’ve probably been there. Ticked off your spouse or someone else close to you. Then wished you’d never done it.”

Now that was intriguing too. What an odd combination of technical sophistication and clumsiness! Brice was clever enough to begin his letter without a transitional sentence linking the headline to the story he was going to tell. (Something like, “Hi. My name is Brice, and I used to be visible.”) Instead, he puts the reader in the middle of an unexpected, emotionally charged situation. He forces the reader to relate to him (“You’ve probably been there. Ticked off your spouse…”) – and, therefore, care about how he was going to get out of the proverbial doghouse.

I continued to read.

“It started with her brother. I can’t stand the guy (and, yes, I’ve got good reasons; just about everyone does). But my wife is one of those ‘blood is thicker’ and ‘oh, he had a horrible childhood’ types.

“So she forgives him.

“I don’t. And today I lit into him, telling him to stay out of my life and away from me. I think I finished it off with ‘… and you’re a waste of space.’

“I did this in front of my wife and other relatives. As you might guess, the rest of the afternoon was a bit tense.”

I wondered whether Brice was aware of how this made him look. Did he realize that his behavior seemed selfish and rude and uncalled for? Did he understand that his reader was not sympathizing with him, but with his wife?

I wanted to find out, so I read on. But the anecdote that had pulled me in was quickly dropped and replaced with another one (a sophisticated copywriting trick). The second story concerned a copywriter that Brice had met back in 2003.

“Both [of us] were well educated. One held a Master’s and Doctorate in Education. The other had degrees in Finance and Marketing and a Juris Doctor in Law. Both were men who had tried other things in life. One, an ordained Rabbi, had taught school, served as a principal, and owned a successful weight loss center… the other, who had once considered the seminary, had worked in newspaper, radio, and TV advertising… [and] became a trial lawyer.”

This is a version of a classic Wall Street Journal lead. And the usual way this lead works is to have the hero of the story, the underdog, triumph over his stronger adversary. That’s what I expected. But that’s not how the story went:

“Each took a separate path. One became renowned and financially successful. The other, almost just a short blip on the radar. [I] flashed onto the scene and then, well, disappeared… I set out to become the next big thing in copywriting… But it didn’t happen for me…”

To my surprise, Brice – the hero of this story – turned out to be a modern, comic, Willy Loman type of fellow. Instead of discovering the secret of copywriting and achieving success, he flounders and eventually founders, while his colleague became “one of the copywriting masters of the universe.”

That’s a good twist. Brice had been both a successful journalist and a winning trial lawyer – and those are excellent professions for understanding the art of copywriting. Yet he somehow failed. How was it possible that a schoolteacher had surpassed him? He gives us some insight into the mistakes he made…

“I started missing deadlines. In one case, I just abandoned the work and stopped answering the client’s e-mail. In another, I took so long putting the sales letter together… I blew the window of opportunity… I began to fall apart… Depression, which I had battled in the past, swept over me like a dark wave in the black of night. I stopped working. I literally stopped.”

He had no idea why he couldn’t finish anything. Finally, he consulted a psychiatrist.

I read on to learn that the problem was “a monster” inside him, a psychological ogre that was eating up his soul and sabotaging his success. And that monster was bipolar disorder and ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder).

There is something disappointing about a monster that turns out to be as common as acne. Nevertheless, I kept reading.

“Then God threw me a rope… I knew what I was fighting… So I began a year long odyssey to find some mix of meds that would allow me to function normally… and I became the ‘disappearing copywriter’ as I went in search of a cure.”

Convention would call for a denouement at this point, the discovery of an elixir that would reverse his bad fortune and bring him back into the copywriting world. Once again, Brice surprised me.

After getting a few good jobs, he got into a car accident, cracked his head, broke his pelvis and seven ribs. He dropped all his jobs once again – and then, seven months later, announced that he was back to work.

“Only the recovery dragged on… And the work got further and further behind… and my ribs still hurt… and I began to slip into the old pattern of not getting things done…”

And then, just when I was about to give up on our ne’er-do-well hero and throw his letter in the trash basket, he announced, “Something is working!” A combination of drugs, omega-3 fish oil, and “some other natural supplements” kicked into gear and he is now, “for the first time in years, focused and working [his] tail off.”

Well, I didn’t feel too confident about that as a durable solution to his problem, but I was happy for him and eager to know his reason for telling me this long story. He obliged:

“I plan to quit my day job by June 15, at the latest… but before then I have to line up a stream of work… And no, this letter isn’t about sending me work… Although I probably wouldn’t refuse it… It’s more about telling you how you have helped me recover from my disappearance… This letter is going to a select group of people who’ve affected my copywriting career… Thanks… and a bit more…”

Then, “in no particular order,” he listed 19 people in the direct-marketing industry who had helped him, and he mentioned what each had done to help.

He started with me:

“A few years ago I sent you a letter asking you to mentor me. You refused and chastised me for the lousy letter I wrote asking for your help. You were right to do that, and it was a kick in the butt that I now appreciate. (By the way, ETR remains must reading for me every day.)”

That did, indeed, sound familiar. I remembered that he had written to me shortly after meeting me at that AWAI seminar. He said he believed his career could be accelerated by having me help him. I couldn’t argue with that. But to persuade me to invest my time in him, he did not offer me anything in return.

This is the most common mistake made by those asking for help – any kind of help. Enveloped by their world of self-centered needs, they can’t focus on anything else.

Brice had made it clear, during our brief meeting at the seminar, that he intended to become a successful copywriter. So I took the time to answer his letter and try to explain to him why writing it about himself was a bad idea. I don’t remember the exact words I used, but my message to him was something like the following:

“I won’t be your mentor, but I will tell you the first and most important principle of persuasion.

“If you learn this well, you will have learned something very useful – not just in your chosen profession but in all aspects of your life. Understand this principle and you will understand half of human psychology. Master the skill that is associated with this principle and you will become a very persuasive person.

“It’s this: You will never be an effective copywriter, a successful businessperson, or an attractive and powerful human being if you continue to focus on yourself. The art of persuasion is ultimately the art of sympathy, not of self-pity.

“You can gain temporary favors by displaying your needs and asking for help, but when you do so you show yourself to be a beggar. The secret to happiness, power, and wealth lies in providing benefits to others, not in seeking them for yourself.

“Good salesmanship is not and never will be about you, your problems, your desires, or even about your products and/or services. If you want to have good, long-term relationships in your life (in business and personally), you have to focus on the other person and his wants, needs, and beliefs.”

When I wrote that letter, I knew it would sting. I don’t like to hurt anyone’s feelings, but sometimes you have to risk doing that to help them. In Brice’s case, I believed a bit of tough love could wake him up and turn him around. I believed that if he understood the simple truth of what I was telling him, he could eventually become what he wanted to be: a successful copywriter, a high income earner, and a smart and happy businessperson.

However Brice felt about my criticism when he got it, he seemed to have decided it was what he needed. That’s what I’d hoped for. And that’s what happened. At least partly.

His “Disappearing Copywriter” letter was 300 percent better than the first letter he wrote to me. He made some mistakes – like addressing it to “Dear Friends” and being unaware that he was coming across as a jerk in his first anecdote – but, it was technically sophisticated, emotionally engaging, well paced, and cleanly written. It marked him as a copywriter with first-rate potential.

It was especially good at achieving its main purpose: evoking sympathy. It was textbook “feel sorry for me” copy, but not at a whining, easy-to-dismiss level. There was such a tone of genuine ruefulness in the letter, such a willingness to admit mistakes, and such earnestness in his promise to reform that I couldn’t help but commiserate with him.

But the letter was still just a little too much about him. Not only that, but the only benefit he was offering me was the good feeling I might get from helping someone in trouble move on to a better life.

This was a problem. A serious problem.

To become a true master of persuasion, you have to do more than tell engaging stories that satisfy the other person’s emotional needs. You have to provide useful benefits that will satisfy his mind.

To come up with benefits that would work for me and the other people he sent his letter to, Brice would have had to think long and hard. He would have had to come up with an offer that would be tempting enough to overcome all the skepticism he has created by having flaked out so many times in the past.

If he’d done that, he could have written a very strong, persuasive letter. As it was, he wrote a compelling letter that didn’t close the deal.

Until now, Brice has exhibited a self-destructive pattern: demonstrating need, seeking sympathy, receiving help, and then screwing things up. His “Disappearing Copywriter” letter is a clear indication that he has recognized this pattern and intends to change it.

But there’s something else he has to do before he can do that – something we’ve been talking about for a long time in ETR: He has to learn how to get his mind outside of himself and focus on helping other people. If he can’t do that, he won’t be able to achieve his stated goals. If he can do it, I think he could accomplish great things.

I don’t mean to imply that Brice isn’t a good man or that he doesn’t help his friends and family. The only thing I know about him comes from a brief meeting that I have pretty much forgotten and his two letters.

Based on those letters, I have come to a conclusion: that he is using his considerable intellectual and emotional skills to persuade everyone around him to focus on what is good for him. If he can stop doing that and begin, instead, to focus on other people’s needs, several things will happen:

  • His copy will become even stronger than it already is.
  • He won’t have to worry about disappointing anyone anymore, because he will be spending all his working time being super-productive.
  • His psychological problems could disappear, which often happens when you stop thinking about yourself and pay attention to other people and their problems.

That would be a great outcome for him.

Even though Brice’s letter did nothing to convince me that helping him would, in some way, help me… I still want to help him. And I think the best way for me to do that is to do the same thing I did the first time he wrote a letter asking me for help: point out what’s wrong with his letter.

But this time, instead of replying to his letter with a letter of my own, I’m doing it in the form of this essay. I know he will see it, because, as he said in his letter, he reads ETR every day.

Brice has already started his personal transformation, and I hope it will continue… perhaps as a result of reading this.

[Ed Note: For more of Michael’s insights into becoming a persuasive writer, pick up a copy of AWAI’s Accelerated Program for Six-Figure Copywriting] [Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]