Does selling ever make you feel gross? In today’s episode, you’ll learn how to market and write about your products without the sleaze and hype.
Nick Usborne has been working as a copywriter and coach for over 35 years. He joins the podcast to chat about conversational copy, and how to sell without compromising your reputation or the integrity of your personal brands.
Listen to this Episode:
- How to recognize hype and high-pressure trickery in online marketing
- Why conversational copy makes customers feel more comfortable
- How children can be more persuasive than the best advertisers in the world
- The simple test to determine if your sales copy is conversational or not
- Why most of us are terrible at having conversations with each other
- The secret to writing your first draft of copy (and getting past the blank page)
- How to balance everyday language and the structure of your sales message
- Why the little voice in your head will always give you the feedback you need
- 3 Steps to Write Copy That Converts with Joanna Wiebe
- Marketing Psychology: 5 Little Known Facts About Consumer Behavior in Advertising
- Conversational Intelligence by Judith E. Glaser
- Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss
- Unconscious Branding by Douglas Van Praet
Louis: Bonjour, bonjour! And welcome to another episode of EveryoneHatesMarketers.com. The marketing podcast for marketers, founders and tech people who are just sick of shady, aggressive marketing. I’m your host, Louis Grenier.
In today’s episode, you’ll learn how to market and write about your products without compromising your reputation or the integrity of your personal brands. My guest today is a professional copywriter who doesn’t like the hype and the high-pressure trickery you find in so much online marketing.
I think you’ll recognize someone else there. I think we have similar viewpoints. He has written copy for some of the world’s biggest brands including Citibank, Apple, Chrysler, MSN.com, and New York Times.
There’s too many to say right now. He attributes his success to what he calls conversational copywriting, and he’s here today to share this approach with us. Nick Osbourne, welcome aboard.
Nick: Thank you. I’m glad to be here. Looking forward to it.
Louis: When you mention hype and high-pressure trickery, I have this image in my head. Because I’ve been thinking about that for a long time and, as you know, this podcast is fighting against this bullshit.
But I’m curious without really giving too many details on my side, how do you define this hype and high-pressure trickery you see in online marketing these days?
Nick: Whoa! Let me fill in a little back story, Next year is my 40th anniversary as a professional copywriter. I’m old and still standing. The first 20 years, I was writing for traditional media before the web. Back then, I was in direct marketing, I was writing junk mail.
I started off in that whole direct marketing approach of selling at people at high volume, high pace, high volume, rush, hurry, buy now back when I was younger. And I was never really comfortable with that but I did it. It was a living, I was young.
Then along came the web. Man, that was like an epiphany for me because I read my first website back in 1995 and I suddenly realized, “Wait a minute. This is so different, this is not a broadcast medium. This is a multi-way medium.”
This is like a conversational, even back then, a social medium before the arrival of social media tools. Back in the ’90s, it was already a social medium and I thought, “Well, how cool is that?” Because now we can sell in a whole different way.
I can actually engage with people, talk with people, and talk with them in my natural enthusiastic conversational voice but without that old broadcast hype thing. It was nice to dream in 1995 that’s the way marketing online would be.
It hasn’t quite turned out that way. As you know, there’s still more than enough bullshit and hype out there to drown us all. But to me, that’s the kind of transition from old-school, one-way broadcast media to online two-way multi-way media where you can engage. You can use natural, conversational, persuasive language and you can do it without being a dick about it.
You can just be genuine and you can still sell at the same time. That was my epiphany in the late ’90s and I’ve been beating that drum ever since. I still enjoy it because people push back and disagree with me. It drives me nuts in one way.
But I don’t know, it keeps me interested in another way because like people insist still. In social media, it’s social media, right? You get a Facebook, there’s a comment stream and so many companies use Facebook as a broadcast medium. Here’s our sale, here’s our pitch. Price doubles at midnight tonight.
If somebody actually makes a comment, does the company come back and reply to that comment? Much of the time, no. It’s nuts. We’ve got this beautiful, amazing multi-way medium and most companies just can’t shut up long enough to realize the opportunity there, to engage with people in everyday language. I’m ranting now. Just interrupt me whenever you feel you want to.
Louis: No, I do enjoy ranting. That’s what I prefer. One way is actually companies talking at you in a medium that should be a two-way conversation and they didn’t answer back. That’s one of the things that you don’t necessarily enjoy. What else do you see online being done that is against your philosophy?
Nick: Now you’re really encouraging me. All right. There is a certain group of online marketers who like me, totally understand the power of the conversational approach. Because conversational marketing, conversational copywriting, when done in any way is disarming.
It removes barriers. People feel more comfortable. It’s the opposite of trying to hide from a used car salesman, and there are certain marketers who realize the power of conversational writing and then they utterly abuse it.
I get emails like this saying, “Yo Nick, or Nick buddy, I was walking back from the beach with my wife this morning and I suddenly thought about you.”
I just stop at that point and I think, “You fucker, you did not think of me. You’re lying.” Because I know they wrote that email six months ago. They stuck in this automated sales funnel.
They’re pretending to be conversational but they’re not. They’re just abusing it because they understand its power is that when you do engage with someone as if they were a real person, as opposed to a demographic. Or heaven forbid, a persona.
But if you actually address someone as a real person in a conversational style, then people are receptive to that. I hate the high-end automation of false conversation, that kind of false buddy thing. That really pisses me off.
We can see that a lot in the new technology like chatbots, in particular. I feel a bit uneasy with those sometimes because I do have the same sense. They’re trying to be too conversational while we very much know it’s fully automated.
I guess together now, how to do that the right way to make sure that you write copy that converts, that persuades people, but that doesn’t make you lose the reputation that you’ve been building.
Louis: I just wanna make a point though. To me, all the stuff you’ve said makes perfect sense. I agree with them. The one thing I would challenge you on is the word itself, the conversational marketing.
What I’m afraid of when we come up with those terms like involved marketing, direct response marketing, conversational marketing and all of that bullshit. In a sense, it’s all the same thing. It’s good marketing, right?
I appreciate the fact that you are naming it because this is what you wanna own. This is what you specialize in but would you agree — which is a very leading question — would you agree that conversational marketing is about just being a good marketer doing good marketing?
Nick: Yes, I would. I name it because I’m marketing it. I’ve had conversations. I had this friend in England, Drayton Bird. I’ve been doing this for 40 years, Drayton has been a professional copywriter for 62 years. He used to work in the same office as David Ogilvy.
Drayton has been around forever and we talk. I’ve interviewed him and I talk about conversational copywriting and he says, “Hey, all good copywriting has always been conversational.” He’s right.
Some of my favorite conversational copywriting actually predate the web. When I was starting out in the late 1970s, early 1980s, I had real favorites in terms of writers of press advertising in London. That’s where I started out as a copywriter.
I was such an enthusiastic beginner as a copywriter, I used to find these favorite ads. I’d read them out loud and when you read them out loud, it just truly sounded like a friend talking to you. It was amazing.
I think the best copywriting has always been conversational, before the web and after the web. I’d give it a name simply as a way to describe it and to try create some distinction between. And also to bring it closer to the whole nature of online marketing.
Because to me online marketing, if it’s not conversational or social then what are you doing? Why don’t you understand this place?
Louis: Right. I think we’ve been ranting enough for the last 10 minutes. Now, let’s go about a practical way for, if you’re listening to this podcast right now, on how you can write copy that persuades people and yet that doesn’t tarnish your reputation.
How do you start with conversational marketing, conversational copywriting from step one. What is the first step you need to take to do this?
Nick: I think it’s to take everything you’ve learned — if you have learned anything about marketing writing and copywriting — just try to put that aside a little bit at the back of your head. The tips, the tricks, the classic openings, the middle, the close. All that stuff. Just try to pull it aside a bit and imagine instead and this is a kind of hackneyed or a tried and true sort of analogy.
Imagine you’re sitting at your kitchen table with a coffee and I’m talking to you. Or I’m talking to a neighbor, I’m talking to my mother-in-law, and I’m selling you on a vacation or a movie we’re gonna go to and I wanna persuade you.
For sure, you should come with us to Cancun, mother-in-law. And I’ll be persuasive but I’ll do it in the way that we all are. I think we all have this natural ability to be persuasive through conversation.
I don’t know if you have kids but if you have kids, you know this already. The kid will say, “Hey Dad, I wanna stay up late. I want this iPhone. Can I go to this party?” If you don’t at least say yes, they will get into conversational, persuasive mode.
An 8 year old or an 18 year old can be more persuasive than the best advertiser on the planet. They don’t sound like marketers, they don’t sound like copywriters, they sound like enthusiastic kids who really want something and they want you to say yes.
We’re all selling all the time. We’re always selling. We’re selling to our spouses, to our friends, to our colleagues, to ourselves but we don’t sound like marketers most of the time outside of the marketing environment.
So one of the other things I say when companies come to me and say, “Well, we don’t even know whether our copy is conversational or not.” I say that’s easy.
Again, sit down at the table in front of someone who’s not a colleague or a neighbor or a friend you don’t work with. Go to the About page on your website, or a sales page, or an email. Read it out loud to them in front of them.
Look them in the eye and I said, if you saw a squirming and feeling embarrassed reading a sales copy to a friend then that’s not conversational. It’s just sneaky copywriting.
If you’re reading the About page on your website and you think, “Oh fuck. This is really boring,” as you read it out loud. Then yeah, it’s probably really boring, business speak nonsense you’ve got on your About page.
As a kind of diagnostic tool, I just said to people, “Read it out loud. Not to your close colleague. Read it out loud to someone who would read it. A prospective customer, a stranger, a neighbor, whatever. Read whatever you’ve written out loud.”
If you’re embarrassed because it sounds salesy, rewrite it. If it’s boring because it’s business-speak, rewrite it. We all have this natural ability to write persuasively and it’s kind of beaten out of us.
It’s beaten out of us at school. We’re taught how to write so that we pass exams, and it gets worse when we get into university. And then if we get to a Ph.D., our writing becomes incomprehensible to everyone except our fellow students and professors.
Then we go to business school. God help us, and then we go to work in a company then we’re taught to write in and sometimes I’ll read… I’ve got an example here. Can I read you an example?
Louis: Of course.
Nick: Alright. This is a piece of copy on the website for an advertising agency. I can’t ever remember the name of the company, but here’s a sentence they wrote. “Apply design thinking and stimulate creativity through co-creation initiatives.”
I feel like an idiot reading that out loud because, to be honest, I’m not quite sure what that means. But I translated it once, and I think what they’re trying to say is have better ideas by working together.
The first version is just marketing nonsense. “Apply design thinking and stimulate creativity through co-creation initiatives.” So many companies and businesses write like that, and I’ve no idea where they learn.
I couldn’t write like that if I tried. Like I say, what they’re trying to say is have better ideas by working together. Why can’t people just say the latter version? Why do we have to dress stuff up so it’s salesy? Or it’s business like because it gets in the way of conversation.
If companies wanna grow or if you were talking to someone like a startup, and they’re gonna say to you, “Oh, yeah. We don’t have this huge budget. We’d love to get some word of mouth happening.” Of course, you would.
We’d all love some word of mouth. Well, how do you create word of mouth? Word of mouth needs to be stuff that people can talk about, they can share. And if you want word of mouth, you need to be conversational in your language, how you describe things, and how you talk about your business, your company, and your promises.
I’m not saying don’t sell. Just do it in natural language because you can’t generate word of mouth with weird business writing or pushy sales writing. You generate word of mouth by just simple communication. Every day language that people can share.
Louis: I’ve never thought of it this way. Genuinely I never did, but it makes perfect sense. Exactly, if you want people to share your stuff and they don’t understand it, if they’re not able to explain it in their own words, then you’re basically fucked.
The first step is to make sure that what you write can be shared by someone else in their own words and as close a copy can be to real world that people will use, the better.
To summarize your step one, which is a contrarian view on things, but I think Ogilvy — I’m not sure if it’s Ogilvy who shared that. Talk to one person, not the entire stadium when you write copy. Is it him?
Nick: I’m not sure who first said it.
Louis: Anyway, this concept helped me a lot when I wrote copy as well. Which is like I know why I used to write shitty copy is when you start to, first of all, think of this sea of people that you need to write to.
And then you start putting words because you expect this is what a company like us should be writing about. All those design thinking, all of those complicated words, but instead as you said if you switch your thinking to, “Okay, let me try to convince someone that I don’t really know but just across the table from me to try your service.”
You naturally start doing things like asking questions, right? You naturally start saying, “Do you feel a bit stressed right now? Do you feel like you need a break?” I guess so. Therefore, it might be a good idea to somewhere abroad, right?
And it might be a good idea to go to whatever place is sunny right now because it’s raining in Ireland instead of saying, best deal ever on holidays for 2018. If you don’t get it now, it’s gonna get lost etc.
I’m not trying to reword what you said because you said it was much better than I did. I’m just trying to summarize it for listeners because they seem to like that when I do it, so I’ll keep doing it.
Now that our thinking is about, let’s talk to one person like you would talk normally to one person, instead of using jargon and all of that. Let’s go into the practicality of writing. You mentioned an About page, or you mention re-writing a page.
What exact example would you like to use, so we can get very practical into it? Do you wanna start from scratch and teach people how to do that or maybe rewriting something? Do you have any preference?
Nick: I can certainly go through a process of how if a company comes to me with an About page and says, “Should we re-write this?” And I look at it and I say, “Yes, you probably should.” They say, “Well, how would you go about that?” I can get you that process if that would help.
Louis: Let’s do it.
Nick: Alright. As well as using the word conversational to describe copy, I’m a huge conversation geek. I think conversation is such a key part of our lives. Hey, your first date with your wife was a conversation.
Your job interview was a conversation, your relationship with your kids depends on the conversations you have with them. Conversations are at the heart of all of our relationships in life. And the weird thing about that is… Well, I’ll certainly speak for myself and I’ll probably speak for a lot of people.
I’m really, really bad at conversations because I tend not to listen enough and I tend to talk too much, And when the other person’s talking, sometimes I find myself waiting for them, it’s like hurry up and stop talking so I can carry on saying what I wanna say.
That, of course, is a crappy conversation, it’s not a good conversation. I think step one is to understand what a good conversation is. And the starting point of any good conversation — or any good conversational copy — is to shut up and listen.
It turns out that the web, as opposed to old school media, is an outstanding place to listen. Companies don’t do it — or they pay lip service to it — but it’s an amazing place to listen. If you’re selling aromatherapy oils on your website and you’re saying, “Nick, help me rewrite this in a conversational way.”
I’m gonna say to you, “Okay, first take me to places where your customers hang out. Let’s go to some Amazon pages where there are product reviews for your staff and your competitor’s staff. I wanna read the language of your visitors. I wanna hear the phrases that they use. I don’t wanna hear the blah, blah, blah about the language that you wanna use. I wanna listen to what your customers and prospects, the language and terms and the phrases you use.”
At this point, I usually get into a big fight with their SEO expert or whatever.
Nick: I’m being slightly facetious but sometimes an SEO person will say, “Oh no. I’ve done the research and this is the phrase that has a fantastic supply-demand ratio. It has high sky keyword effectiveness index.”
I’m saying, “Well, that’s great. Who the fuck is gonna use that phrase? Because your customers are not using it. Your customers may use it for some competitor or something but they’re not gonna use it for this business.”
I just wanna listen first. I can go to social media streams and listen, I can go to other kinds of forums, other areas and listen. I’m looking for the language of the customer. I’m also looking for their emotional touch points. What excites them? What bores them? What makes them angry? What delights them? What makes them laugh? What makes them really interact?
Meanwhile, I’m watching the client’s lips move, but I’m not really listening because I wanna really, really listen to the customer. What their language, their priorities, their emotions. And then when I start to write that page, any page, or any email or anything, I’m gonna start mirroring the language of the customer.
Louis: Let me stop you there because that’s a perfect way to tease it out to step three. Step two is to actually listen. Now you mention a few spots where you actually listen to people in real life where actual people hang out, which is a crazy idea, isn’t it?
Amazon.com reviews, seem to be a good place. I know Joanna Wiebe on the podcast mentioned a similar place. Are there any other places where you’d recommend people to listen to their customers? Any good places you found to be quite effective to try and understand them?
Nick: Hey, anywhere in social media that has comments enabled though sometimes those comment streams can degrade very quickly. Other places is I’ve been involved with websites and have websites where I actively encourage the participation of the reader. I treat them as co-creators of content. I invite visitor-created content on the website.
Louis: How do you do that?
Nick: Mainly I say, “Ask me a question.” I actually have a hobby website all about coffee, and I invite people, ask me a question about gourmet coffee. People come in and ask me questions and what I do is I take their question and turn that into the headline of the post.
Louis: Give me an example.
Nick: I’ll give you a classic example. Where can I find an automatic coffee maker with no plastic parts? You see as a marketer and as a coffee guy, I’m a coffee geek as well as being a conversation geek. And it was a bit of a cross over there, but it would never occur to me to ask that question.
Where can I buy an automatic coffee maker without any plastic parts? Not a French press. I want an automatic coffee maker with no plastic parts because people are increasingly suspicious, for not bad reasons, but plastics and hot water.
I created that page. I used that question as the headline and then I invite them to expand on the question, which then becomes the first paragraph. In fact, the headline in the first paragraph of each of those Q&A pages is the words of a visitor.
Not me, not the marketer, not the owner. Then I simply answer the question, and I have found probably over 50% of the pages on that particular website are generated in this way. But they probably represent something like 75% of the traffic.
And probably 80% of my search engine traffic and again, it’s because as a marketer, as an SEO person, which I am, I’m stepping back. I’m saying, “No, allow my visitors, my prospects to speak. Let’s listen to their language. Let me listen to their interests and priorities.”
There’s weird like, is coffee fattening? I’ve had hundreds of thousands of people come to that page. I would never have created that page. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to create that page but somebody asked the question, the page was created.
There are hundreds of thousands of people out there who want to know whether coffee is fattening. The more active you are in your listening, I don’t just go out and look at what people are saying on the forums. If I control an environment of my own with my site about coffee, I invite readers to contribute and to be co-creators.
That way, I can really tap into the language they use, the priorities they have. Then when I create a page like, let’s say I’m now going to create a page about choosing coffee makers. I’m not gonna have a subheader, or a section in there about plastic street coffee makers.
Because I’m listening and when I’m listening, all of a sudden I don’t have to shout anymore. I don’t have to push so hard because I know what people want, I know what language they use, I know what excites them.
I’m not doing focus groups, I’m not getting together with a bunch of marketing experts, I’m not following some fancy process or template or automation sequence, all that stuff. And I’m not saying none of it has any place. I use all of those things with care, but first off, if I’m gonna be conversational, I got to be a better listener.
Don’t just listen as oh, okay. We just got to put in half-assed listening before we move to step three. Really make an effort to listen and be an active listener and do something that draws in the language. Because psychologists will tell you. You had that great interview a while ago with Richard Shotten. It was talking about cognitive bias, the psychology of selling, and stuff like that.
Louis: Let me go back to one thing because what you said is super interesting in two points. One, you can go to places and listen passively in a sense that things have been already said. You can just collect that and soak in the words they say on Amazon and whatnot.
The other thing that you say is more an active way to listen, which is you create conversations. You create content from people in a way that you can reuse that later.
So asking for questions, which is why forums that you own or communities that you own is a great place. Or just posting on Quora about like, what’s your biggest challenge as a coffee maker, as a coffee aficionado? What did you struggle with the most?
And actively seeking people to tell you what they think. Then what you said, which I love and this is what I’ve discovered a few years ago when I started to talk to smart people like you, I realized that copywriters don’t actually come up with copy that much anymore or that much at all.
The best copywriter seems to be the best listener and has the ability to turn what people tell them into copy — that really sounds like shit. I actually exactly the same thought in my head. How the fuck does he know or does she know?
I’m glad you’re mentioning that as a way to do that because it seems like all the smart copywriters out there are doing that kind of stuff. And then you started to talk about writing a bit in the same time. But it sounds like step two is listening.
Now, do you have a system in place to collect those bits of copy? I suspect after a while you need a place to store them, right? So where do you store them? How do you keep the system?
Nick: It’s something I think that I should do, but I often don’t. Like say, if I own the asset like on that site about coffee, I can get back in there at any time. If a company can have some kind of asset where they are actively asking questions that can come back.
There have been occasions where I’ve done something as simple as just open up an Excel spreadsheet. I have thrown in quotes and texts that I’ve heard from people, and I just copy and paste them into there so I could go back in.
One of the points you made about, I don’t need to write copy, I don’t need to write too much copy. If I’ve been listening well enough and carefully enough, I can simply reflect back.
So that people think, “Oh, my goodness, this guy gets me, this company gets me, this business gets me. That’s exactly what I want. This is exactly what we talked about in the meeting this morning. This is exactly what my wife asked for earlier today.”
Some other writer — and again I always forget who they were –but said the smartest way to sell is to enter into a conversation your prospect is already having.
And that’s perfect, right? And that is again, that is conversational. It is entering into a conversation that your prospect is already having because then you don’t have to work, you don’t have to push. You’re just there as someone who actually has an answer to a problem, or the solution to a problem, or just simply the product they want on that day, at that moment.
So, it means you’re going to be putting less push and less effort into selling if you can better understand where your audience is at. What they’re looking for and asking for. And very much you do that through language.
That’s why I was talking about psychology, that whole thing of mirroring the language of others. If you use a particular phrase to me and I mirror it back to you this way. If you go to therapy and you say, oh, I hate blah blah, blah. The therapist says, what I’m hearing you say is, and they repeat back your own phrase.
It’s kind of weird in that context, but the therapist does it because they know that as soon as I hear my own words being repeated back to me, I will feel, oh, okay, that person gets me and this is all of a sudden this is deeper level of engagement.
You can do the same not in a manipulative, sneaky way, but in a genuine way. If you genuinely listen and you pick out those phrases and concerns, and you just sort of reflect them back. Again, this is speaking to what you just said, one of the things I’ve found as a conversational copywriter is I have to let go my ego a lot.
When I started out as a print copywriter, it was all about writing ads that would win awards, right? We all wanted to get off on the stage and get awards, so we came up with these really, really clever headlines and this really, really clever copy.
We were writing as much to sort of the judge panel as we were to our end readers. I think online as a conversational copywriter, you have to kind of let go that kind of pride or that ego. And say, look, it’s not my job to come up with a clever piece of copy.
It’s my job to meet the prospect’s concerns head-on. The best way I can do that is by using the language that they use and they then gonna feel, oh wow, this company gets me.
Louis: In the example of the marketing agency where you read this sentence that sounded a lot like jargon. Let’s say we want to rewrite this About Us page to make it much more conversational, based on what you just said after listening.
What would be then the type of things you’d like to include in this about page? What type of things do you want to listen to and keep a record of, so you can reread this page to be much more conversational?
Nick: Usually, I’d like to challenge a company beyond just the language and what they’re saying. I’m saying, “Hey, if this is an About Us page, this is your about us, about the business, about the company, but you know the only person who can talk about that. Why don’t you have the about us page in the words of your customers?”
“Why don’t we go out on the street? Why don’t we go out with a microphone? Why don’t we go out to where your customers are? Why don’t we surprise them with a microphone and a camera? Why can’t we shoot this on video? Why don’t we have a conversation with your customers and ask them, you know, if you had to say a few words about us, for our About Us page, what would they be?”
And like you say with this podcast, don’t edit it or don’t overedit it. You see how different that is? It’s not just about the words, it’s about the mindset is get out of the mindset, that command and control. So much.
Like that language I read out to you about through co-creation initiatives. That’s a kind of command and control approach to language and communication, where we are going to use words and in that case, almost has a wool almost is a barrier ’cause it’s kind of so hard to understand.
In instead of the sense that we have to be the boss, we have to be in control of the language of the conversation of the dialogue. Let that all go and try, and like I say something About Us page, great.
Grab a microphone, get it even with your iPhone is for the video, whatever. Go out and talk to some customers. “Hey, we wanted to write our About Us page and we thought maybe you guys should do it instead, please continue and just play with it.”
Now can every company in the world do that? Maybe not. Maybe it’d be super uncomfortable for some companies, but other companies, particularly a startup. I don’t know, it’s just such an opportunity to be different here and to be more transparent.
The opposite, an opportunity to be more opaque. Thank you, Nick. An opportunity to be more transparent, available to your prospects and customers. Make them smile, make them feel they can trust you, that they can engage with you. They want to engage with you and do business with you.
Louis: Do you know what’s funny? I feel that what you’re talking about is very relevant to the concept of interviewing people like we’re doing right now or like I am doing right now. But that’s what I always say. I never feel like I’m interviewing someone.
I mostly feel like we are having just a conversation and my role is to listen as much as I can so that when I spot something that’s you said that I found interesting, I’m gonna almost interrupt you and say, can you give me more detail?
Or I’m gonna jump to another topic that is relevant. What I feel sometimes on some interviews that I don’t really enjoy listening to, especially in the marketing podcast world, is mostly based on I have a series of questions that I want to put across and asked the guests. And I don’t really give a shit about what this person says because I want to move onto the next question anyway.
This is what I hated about marketing podcasts and this is also why I created my own because I didn’t feel like this was my thing. Anyway, I don’t want to talk too much about me because it’s all about you. But the thing I’m wondering right now — and I know listener knows so far from that because I do receive a lot of emails about it.
This kind of imposter syndrome feeling about the writing. You know, and I do suffer from it sometimes. I’m not a good copywriter. I’m not even a copywriter. How am I supposed to write stuff on their website to convince people? How do you convince people to actually realize that they can do that?
Nick: Well, in a way I think that’s everything we’ve been talking about. Hey, I was reading, I teach a lot of copywriters, and I received a kind of homework assignment from someone yesterday and she had written this email.
I’m not sure where she had kind of originally learned the craft of copywriting, but the body of the email was kind of classic. It had an opening, a middle, a close, and an end and it was all correctly done. And then she added a PS, and the PS, she’d somehow forgotten her copywriting training and it was like really written by her.
You could just feel it just so different. So different, so compelling. And it wasn’t a classic PS a rush, rush, hurry, hurry, call this number. It was how she put it. But suddenly the writer’s heart, a person like the real person was revealed in this simple sentence at the end, not just wrote back and said, just rewrite that whole thing in the same tone as the email.
In this sense, it’s easy for me to say because I’ve been doing this for so long and the copywriting I guess is like pretty much second nature to me, but I’m very aware that I have as much to forget as I do to learn.
And that the best copy that I write is actually the copy that comes out most simply, most unprocessed, or uneducated. Not uneducated in a bad way, but that really could be a 12 year old kid trying to persuade me to go spend some time playing in the baseball field or whatever.
That natural organic persuasive voice. I think good copywriting these days online, certainly conversational copywriting is as much about letting go what you’ve learned, as it is about learning anything new. And I’ve been playing around with an experiment of writing.
I’m a terrible typist, so I do quite a bit of audio stuff and I’ve started writing the first draft of stuff actually by dictating my copy. Just off the top of my head that I look at the transcript and I edit it and play around.
I try starting off with the spoken voice because we just have a different way of processing information and sharing information when we speak. When we are in conversation. It’s not all good. Carefully listening to this, you’ll realize that I’ve been repeating myself over and over.
I digress and stuff like that. So yes, you have to edit. But I think if people feel, oh, I’m not trained to do this. I’m not saying hold that up as a badge of honor, but don’t think of it as a huge impediment to writing good copy.
I’ve seen people start companies, and have a wonderful website and the writing is great because it’s not overly over trained. There’s this young couple, and again it’s coffee, they had this coffee club business subscription coffee club.
And this is kind of big bold line on the left of the screen and some smaller copy on the right. On the left hand side it says, we don’t want to marry you. You’re like, what? And it’s so interesting, so compelling. You have to read the small copy.
And it’s all about privacy and it’s all about how they’re going to treat to you. How they’re gonna engage with you and sell to you. It’s about the relationship. But I’ve spoken with these guys — it was a husband and wife team.
Neither has any marketing or copywriting background and the copy is so compelling on their website because it is kind of almost naive.
It’s totally natural. Very enthusiastic because they’re young, naturally enthusiastic about their business. They love their businesses. It’s a new business and that shines through. I think if they’d gone to some agency where that enthusiasm had been kind of processed through the marketing mill, the end result would have been far less compelling.
Now I’m not saying that’s always the way to better copy. Clearly, they seem to have some kind of talent there in terms of self expression. But it’s a balance.
It’s a balance I think between being a natural conversational everyday language and at the same time understanding that any sales message has some structure to it. I mean everything it does have a beginning, and middle of the end.
Louis: What structure would you then recommend people to use without going into those frameworks and the study in details? But as you said, it’s not because you’re just taking words that people say and just put them on the page that it’s gonna make any sense, right?
So what do you advise your students when you teach copywriting and how to structure something?
Nick: Well, there are a few different things I talk about. One is that before you put pen to paper, always be absolutely 100% clear about the purpose of that page, or the purpose of that email, or the purpose of a section on a page.
Without purpose, it’s almost always going to end up is nonsense so confusing. Absolutely, it sounds like a stupidly simple thing, but it’s not. It is so fundamental the good and bad communication. If you haven’t established clearly in your mind the purpose of something, then you rambled the message is confused.
I was reading an email like this morning. Honestly, I just could not. This is from an established company that should know better and I just could not figure out with all my professional skills. I could not figure out what on earth they thought the purpose of that email was.
It was purposeless. That’s really, really important. The next thing I will teach anyone writing any copy is never try to get it right in the first draft. I don’t. I’m a multi- draft copywriter. I always have been. Like I said, I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I never even try to get it right in the first draft. Particularly not headlines.
Every time I write a headline or a subject line, I throw in a place holder. I know it’s crap. It’s okay. All I’m doing is I’m getting past the blank page. Then I start writing and I start rewriting. As I start writing, like in common with most writers, I think as I write I’ll get into line 10.
I suddenly realize, oh wow, here’s the seed of a much better headline. So I rewrite the headline and then I go back and I change this and change that.
I think people get a little stressed out by, oh my goodness, my first draft has to be perfect or close to really good. It doesn’t, it can be crap. I just keep rolling back. I take one step forward and two steps forward, one step back.
I’m continually doing this. Rolling a revision, and then sometimes I’ll completely rewrite. I never try to get things right from the first thing. So one is purpose, secondly is take the pressure off by feeling okay about writing a not very good first draft.
And secondly, and I do this is I will much to the embarrassment of my family. I’ll come down to the dining room or wherever. I’ll sit down and I will read it out loud. I will read out loud to fresh air, but I’m actually thinking of that one person. This person is who have been writing to all along and he or she whatever age or sex she is sitting in front of me and I read it out loud.
Does it trip off the tongue naturally? Do I sound like an idiot? Do I sound like a used car salesman? Do I actually get confused by my own sentences? So my sentences too long.
Do they sound natural? Do they sound honest? If there really was someone in front of me, would I be engaging?
Then we’ll putting them to sleep. I’m brutal with myself at that point. Like I really, really tough on myself. Here’s the next point in my non-process, process. There’s the ego in the front of my brain and at the back of my brain, I had this very, very quiet voice.
It probably took me about a decade to even hear it. This is the little voice when I’m reading something — usually when I’m reading it out loud — there’s this tiny voice that says that was crap, you should go back and rewrite that.
For years, I never took any notice of it. And it’s usually because this is about the killing your darlings thing. Sometimes a piece in your copy, that you’re really proud of, that you think is great and there’s this little voice in the back of your mind saying it’s not great. It’s crap. It’s just this pure vanity.
You just love it because you think it makes you look smart, but it’s not good communication. And so that’s my final tip is when you hear that little voice in the back of your mind telling you something’s crap, always listen to that little voice because it’s always right.
It’s always right, even if it means cutting out the favorite part of your copy and rewriting it. Go back, actually read it out loud, and if your family can overhear so much the better because if you feel embarrassed while they’re listening there’s probably is something wrong there.
Nick: Let’s repeat what you just said there, which is gold by the way. And that gives me energy right now. I want to write copy again. I’m genuinely honest with you right here. I genuinely want to, because it’s from the way you explained it sounds like a very worthwhile activity.
But you mentioned one, make sure that there is one purpose for any page you write. You mentioned two, to just write a shitty first draft and just write it, get it done. So there is no white page anymore. Blank page anymore.
Three, read it out loud. Whether it’s to someone or just to yourself because it’s gonna sound different when you read it out loud. And four, listen to the little voice in your head that always gives you the feedback you need, but you might not listen to it all the time. I think I’m showing that I’m listening to this, to what you said, right? Because I didn’t take any notes, so that’s all from mind.
Nick: Okay. Can I give you one more overarching tip?
Louis: Of course.
Nick: Love your audience. Like love and respect to your audience. I know copywriters who look down at the audience with disdain, they look upon them as just basically ciphers with wallets, with credit cards. And their job is to manipulate them and get them to take out the credit card.
There’s no love for that audience, there’s no respect for that audience. I understand how people make money doing that. It’s not something I like to do. I have absolutely written my best copy when I have deliberately felt respect.
And maybe love is too strong a word, but you gotta like who you’re writing to. I know my best copy has been for products that I believe in, for companies that I like, and for audiences that I love.
Now, outside of that, I’ve done competent professional work because it’s been my job. It’s been my career, but my best copy always I’ve loved the audience. A reader would never say, oh look, there’s Nick showing that he loves the audience.
It’s not that obvious. It’s kind of this undertone as it were, but it’s there, and I know it’s super powerful. I think that is why I like the conversational approach because when I listen and when I write to an individual it means I see that person.
When you see a person in here, you feel you are in conversation with the person and you’re not just treating them like a statistic or a number. Then it changes your view of that person. It changes the way you write to them. When you’re writing to a real person in front of you.
Louis: I would summarize that by you have to give a shit, right? And I think, I said I felt good marketing as well. I always challenge people to say, I’m looking for a new role in marketing, which companies do you think as you go for?
I always say go for a company that you admire, a product that you love using yourself because your marketing will be much better. I think gonna exhibit with what you said there. Nick, thanks so much for going through all of that step by step with me.
All of those tips are genuinely very powerful. I hope that if you’re listening to this podcast right now, you got a lot of takeaways from that and you’re willing to start writing copy again.
I want to finish with questions that are quick that I always ask my guests. The first one being, what do you think marketers should learn today that will help them in the next 10 years, 20 years or 50 years?
Nick: I think they should spend less time on the tools and more time on understanding people.
Louis: Amen. What are the top three resources you’d recommend our listeners? Could be anything from book podcast, conferences, anything?
Nick: I don’t often go to conferences. I should go more because I have found that actually meeting real people, as opposed to video people or email, is enormously valuable and pleasurable. Whether I’m seeing other experts or students.
It’s not just going to a conference, maybe it’s having lunch with a colleague or lunches and stuff like that. But I find my business, my work is so tied into the digital world, that I forget sometimes the pleasure and value of actually sitting down with people.
I am a total reading junkie. I buy more books than I can read. Everything around my house. I’ve got books piled up in almost every room. I think I’ve only ever read one book on copywriting, which I read back in the late 1970s.
I’m always reading around the edges of what I do. It might be a book about psychology. It might be, I’m just looking at my desk here. Okay, I’ve got a wonderful book here. Can I share a book title with it?
Louis: Yes, please.
Nick: Conversational Intelligence by Judith E. Glaser. She’s not a writer. It’s not about conversational writing, but she goes into companies. Because she is also recognized within companies, managers, and the teams and bosses and the boards. Basically, every company is full of terrible, terrible conversations, and that is hugely damaging to companies and their cultures and their performance.
Nothing to do with copywriting. But that’s the kind of book I like to read because I just love that stuff. I find that fascinating. Another one off to the side after the edges, Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss.
He’s a former hostage negotiator for the FBI. I guess I love this because it overlaps so much with what I believe, in that he was saying that he was responsible for the shift in the FBI from command and control negotiating with hostage takers to basically getting into conversation. Being empathetic, not agreeing with hostage takers, but be empathetic getting into compensation.
He transformed negotiation with terrorists and bank robbers by listening and talking. He’s a negotiator. I don’t know what Judith Glaser is, but other than the fact that she’s a really smart writer on what conversation is all about.
So yeah, I just love to read around the edges of my core competencies. And I suck all that stuff in. And like I said, I’m just surrounded by dozens of books and I haven’t even got to half of them yet.
Louis: Right. Give me another book. The third one, your favorite one. The one that you prefer, the one that you would give to anyone listening?
Nick: All right, so this is getting a little closer to the center of what I do. Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing by Douglas Van Praet. Fascinating, fascinating book.
The neural science of hardcore push sales as opposed to conversational sales. There’s this huge, like this chemical changes in your hair depending on how you being sold at or sold to. That’s a fascinating book too.
Louis: Where can listeners connect with you? And before you answer that, Nick, I want to thank you for your time for going through this exercise with me. You’ve been very insightful, and I personally want to thank you for that. So yes, where can listeners connect with you and learn more from you?
Okay. I have a website at conversationalcopywriting.com. Your listeners are always welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And I’ve also put together a page at conversationalcopywriting.com/everyone as in everyone hates marketers, but just /everyone.
And there’s a download, there’s access to some videos but I’m going to ask for your first name and email address so you see it hot. I am a marketer. Which we have to be, we just don’t have to be dicks about it. Hopefully, if you sign up, what you’ll discover is that when I write to you, I’ll write to you in a conversational and respectful way. You can try me out and see if I’m good for my word.
Louis: Nice. By the way, being a marketer, you have to be a marketer without being a dick about it headline as well. I’m gonna steal that.
Nick: Or it could be my new book.
Louis: It could be your new book.
Nick: How to be a marketer but not being a dick about it.
Louis: Nick once again, thank you very much for your time.
Nick: Thank you very much.
How to stand out: 9 bullshit-free lessons from world-class tech marketers
Insights from Seth Godin, Rand Fishkin, David Darmanin and 6 other world-class tech marketers.
I’m a no-fluff marketer living in Dublin, Ireland (but yeah, I’m French).
I believe you can treat people the way you’d like to be treated and still generate results without using sleazy, aggressive, hack-y marketing. This is why I’ve started Everyone Hates Marketers – a no-fluff, actionable marketing podcast – as a side project in April 2017.
I’m also the Content Lead at Hotjar – a powerful way to analyse people’s behaviour on your website or app and understand how you can improve their experience.