The “Common Sense” Mistake That Makes Your Writing Lifeless

image of a money booth

Have you ever been inside a money booth? People rent them for parties and events.

If not, let me describe it for you:

You’re in a clear glass booth and money is swirling in a breeze all around you. Bills are brushing your cheeks, your hair.

You want to get as much money as you can in the thirty seconds you’ve been given, so you grab for the fattest clumps.

But as you reach for them, they disperse. Twenty seconds left. You keep grabbing after new clumps and clusters, trying to make up for lost time. You lunge for a fat bundle with both hands … but it flutters away. Ten seconds. You grab again. Seven, six, five.

All too quickly your time runs out, leaving you empty-handed.

How can you beat the money booth? Go after individual bills. Methodically, systematically. One at a time. You’ll feel a stack amass in your hands, instead of ending up with a fistful of nothing.

Strangely enough, the same thing happens with writing.

Instead of painting a picture with individual details, we try to go for a “clump,” a generalization that can cover every reader, every scenario.

And we end up with nothing.

Chasing after a single bill or a single detail feels like forsaking the greater opportunity — like we’re settling for something smaller than we should. But actually, it’s the only way of coming out with a fistful of dollars.

Why details often feel like sacrifices

Drilling down on a detail entails sacrifice. It means you won’t get the chance to say everything good there is to say about your beloved product, service, brand, company, niche topic, etc. At least not on that ad, page, or post.

It feels like common sense not to exclude any potential readers or customers. It feels like common sense not to shut anyone out — particularly someone who would, in fact, be a great fit for your product or service.

So copywriters and content marketers refuse to make that sacrifice. They pull up to a 50,000-foot view so they can fit everyone in.

Their copy is filled with abstractions and generalizations, assuming readers will mentally fill in the specific from the general.

But the human brain doesn’t work that way

Imagination trumps logic

Tell me a Zappo’s-style story about an amazing support experience and I’ll conclude that you’ve made a commitment to superior service.

But tell me you have “great customer service” and I’ll conclude you’re full of it. You expect me to fill in the details about specific ways your service might manifest itself, but I won’t. I don’t have any details to “prove” your point to myself.

The specific can be imagined. It has dramatic power. Generalization just results in easily dismissed, flaccid copy, devoid of any emotional power or credibility.

Here’s another example of this same principle at work, as described by Jay Heinrichs (of Figaro Speech fame) in his book Thank You For Arguing:

Suppose you wanted me to be angry at my next door neighbor. You could tell me what a jerk she is — that she flirts in front of her husband and watches bad TV. None of this would make me angry at her. You described her personality, not her experience. To make me angry, give me a vivid description of a specific outrage.

You: She called the Boy Scouts a fascist organization.
Me: Well, she’s entitled to her –
You: On Halloween? When my little boy comes to her stoop wearing his older brother’s uniform?
Me: How do you –
You: I was there. When he started to cry, she said, “If you turn out to be gay, you’ll be glad you met me.” Then she looked straight at me and slammed the door.

That would make me angry at the neighbor. You re-created a dramatic scene, making me see it through your eyes. This works much better than name calling.

Tell us a story

See what I’m talking about? You have to be willing to tell one small sliver of your story powerfully, instead of trying to summarize the whole experience in the neutered grays of abstract generalizations.

This means you have to do two things:

  1. Find the specifics that can represent your larger points
  2. Figure out how to breathe life into those specifics through persuasive storytelling

For instance, I write radio ads for a builder of pole barns up in Ontario. His barns are markedly better built than his competitors because he refuses to cut corners and underbid jobs.

But any 30-second ad about generalized “build quality” in barns is likely to suck harder than a Dyson vacuum. I have to pick out one small detail about build quality and hammer it home through short-form drama.

For instance, I might dramatize how my client fired his old supplier of roof vents when they wouldn’t change their design to prevent leaks. My client then went out and had his own superior design manufactured for his exclusive use.

Of course, in telling this tale, I’d be as vivid as possible, making the mini-drama come to life inside the imaginations of my listeners.

I won’t ever have to say “committed to quality,” I’d get the listeners to make that conclusion for me.

And all because I put my faith in the vivid, dramatic power of specifics.

Here’s another example

Keep In Touch with the People You Love

I helped script that video, and, in doing so, I had to make two choices:

  1. Decide on a specific narrative I wanted to dramatize (as opposed to a general description of the product)
  2. Decide on a specific detail to act as a symbol of sharing life experiences

These seem like straightforward decisions, but both of them involve sacrifices, and so most writers never make them.

In order to dramatize a specific narrative, I had to exclude other uses. The CEIVA frame most certainly is not limited to use as gifts from grown children to their parents. A “common sense” copywriter (or her client) would be worried about excluding the many customers who don’t fit this profile.

But telling a story about “everyone” means you tell a story about no one.

Have faith in your viewers to conclude the general from the specific, rather than the other way around.

And then there’s the red bicycle. The general idea I wanted to get across was “grandparents get to see their grandkids’ life in real time, which helps them have more meaningful conversations with them.” But that general description lacks any sort of emotional power. So I had to pick a specific instance of this — the boy’s new red bicycle — in order to dramatize it.

In the moment, it can seem like a hard choice. Narrowing down to a specific feels like a loss. But it’s never a loss. Instead, dramatizing a specific always equates to a gain in credibility and emotional power.

What about you?

Moving this to the content marketing realm, instead of blogging about meta-topics or generalities, why not try doing a series of posts on highly specific aspects of your membership site, niche field, product, or service?

Instead of a white paper or special report that talks about general functionality, how about a set of three case studies that show what you do with specific detail?

Chances are, many of you have already tried this and gotten some great results. I’d love to hear about your experiences and tips in the comments …

About the Author: Jeff Sexton is a partner in the Wizard of Ads consulting firm, a well-known online copywriter and optimization expert, as well as a faculty member at Wizard Academy, where he co-teaches Writing for the Radio and the Internet. You can find him online at www.jeffsextonwrites.com.

Print Friendly

Smarter is Better Solutions for Smarter Content Marketing

Here’s what we’ve got for you:

  • 15 high-impact ebooks on content marketing, SEO, email marketing, landing pages, keyword research, and more.
  • A 20-part Internet marketing course that lays out a comprehensive path for your own online strategy.
  • An organized reference guide to the “best of the best” of Copyblogger.com, and how it all profitably fits together.
Free Registration

Take The Conversation Further ...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Meet us over on Google+ or Twitter to join the conversation right now!

Comments

  1. Hi Jeff,
    You had me at “hello” – I mean “Have you ever been inside a money booth?” LOL! But truthfully, creating an experience through vivid storytelling is probably one of the most overlooked writing techniques. You can turn any mundane topic into an engaging piece if you just take the time to use details that appeal to the five senses that submerge people into the post. It’s the best way to overcome the problem of creating original content. It’s the easiest way to stand out from the crowd, since no one else on earth shares your same exact mix of experiences, background and perspective.
    Now this was a wonderful entertaining, yet informative post. Love it!

  2. Jeff:

    I like your company name – The Wizard of Ads – especially since Copyblogger did a post around a Wizard of Oz character last week.

    The 30 second timer reminds me of listening to a Mission Impossible tape – it will self destruct within 60 seconds.

    But then you get into the story. This is a central message that you and other Copyblogger authors hit us with. But everyone should listen…it’s an important element…could make the difference between people paying attention within 30 seconds.

    Great tips. Thanks for sharing.

    Randy

  3. I thought the mistake was simply chasing cash as opposed to writing what you know.

    Good, entertaining article nonetheless.

    • IMO, the problem with “write what you know” is that it’s really common for people to not care even a little bit about what you know. I think the sweet spot is to consider things from both angles and find the middle ground — not neglecting passion/knowledge, but not neglecting marketability either.

      • Mark & Johnny,

        The article wasn’t so much about writing what you know vs. writing marketable stuff, as an examination of what keeps people from including drama in their writing/copywriting. And what keeps a lot of writers from doing that is a lack of faith in their audience. They think if a specific dramatization or example isn’t inclusive enough, they’ll lose their audience. As the article explains, that’s simply not the case: drama is interesting even apart from marketability, and people have a much easier time drawing a parallel between a dramatized moment and their situation than they do at applying a general principle to their situation.

        Where “write what you know” comes into play is in having a well to draw details and dramatic moments from. But that doesn’t mean you can’t fictionalize things to increase their marketability. A great example of this comes from Stephen King, where he talks about an ex-plumber writing a Sci-Fi short story about plumbers in space. Copyblogger writers do this all the time when they apply a lesson from, say, persuading a 4-year old child to blogging and copywriting.

        – Jeff

      • That’s a solid point, Johnny.

        Especially if you’re looking at your site as a business (which I figure is a given but I’m constantly shocked at how many people don’t), you should always be concerned with the needs of others & how your message/ views impact them – and how you will monetize it. However, in our quest for the money you should never neglect or compromise your personality or original story.

        Maybe that’s me…

        In any case thanks for the feedback & hope all is well.

    • There’s a difference between writing what you know and knowing what you write.

  4. Story telling is what I do a lot..many people love to hear stories that they can relate to..

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

  5. I attribute this same concentrated detail process when I talk to undergradates about poetry. I’ve noticed that they do have a tendency to “be inclusive,” and to broaden the argument. But this post/article is dead-on: the more concrete the story and the imagery, the more visualization and empathetic response a writer can get. When we speak in abstracts we give away the power of our storytelling.

    Thanks so much for writing and sharing this. Well done.

    • Thanks for the comment, Aaron. Copywriters have TONS to learn from poets. In fact, my marketing and advertising mentor, Roy H. Williams recommends reading poetry every day to aspiring ad writers, like taking a multivitamin.

      • Dear Jeff: There is a quote that comes to mind from poet Yusef Komunyakaa:

        “Poetry is a kind of distilled insinuation. It’s a way of expanding and talking around an idea or a question. Sometimes, more actually gets said through such a technique than a full frontal assault.”

        I agree with him wholeheartedly, but what he didn’t mention in this passage is that it is the concrete imagery all around an idea or question give poetry that intense focus that works wonders when thoughtfully written. I like the idea of having different professionals having to do some outside-the-box reading. It sounds like Roy H. Williams is onto something.

  6. Good post and good point, there’s a lot of textbook stuff out there and frankly, it bores me to tears. I like reading about ideas, stories, things that expand the mind beyond the humdrum of your run-of-the-mill marketing topic churned out in a very generic way. I had to write about marketing promotion for this week. I did a little research online and everyone spins the same tips. Don’t get me wrong, great stuff out there, just overly general and done before.

  7. Outstanding. A wonderful reminder. Where I work, in Silicon Valley, generalization on the Web and in print is a plague – though it’s not quite so bad as it was during the dot-com era, with its endless three-letter acronyms. You’ve given me a valuable resource – I can point clients to your article when they balk at tightening focus to an emotionally charged story.

  8. Interesting analogy you’ve got here. Many try to cater to the whole world but that just wouldn’t work well nowadays. In a world full of competition, it’s just better to solve a problem encountered by a small group of people (niche) and solve it well. Once that’s done, move to the next problem and so on.

  9. Storytelling is the wind that blows the money. Specifics are $100s — generalities are $1s.

    Your blog is the money booth. Renting it is like having a blogger.com blog. Own it and sell your content.

    Smart SEO is see-through glass.

    (Somebody stop me) ;)

  10. Fantastic post!

    A case study PROVES to me that you have “been there and done that’.

    There is no more ultimate form of storytelling for profit.

    • You’re right, case studies are indeed a powerful form of storytelling. Unfortunately, most companies bury their case stories in deathly dry prose and then bury the case studies all on a single page. How about taking the crux of the story and telling it in an e-mail or a landing page or something and then linking to the case study for those looking to drill down on the hard numbers and stuff?

  11. Hi Jeff,

    Excellent post all around! People love details so it’s amazing that we, as people, forget this as often as we do. Whenever we’re listening to someone tell a story, we tend to ask questions to learn more when the teller is resorting to generalizing to save time.
    Great educational moments aplenty in this piece. Thank you!

    Peter

  12. Just today my group and I spoke about adding a more narrative voice to one of the blogs we maintain and I really think having those specifics will make all the difference going forward. Reading this only verifies the importance of our talk.

  13. After a review of corporate social media yesterday, this post is right on target today. We are feeling refreshed, refocused and motivated: we have to target more acutely.

  14. One of the major keys to writing a good story is knowing which part or slice of the story to tell – which offers the most dramatic evidence of the point you’re looking to emphasize. Sometimes you do it with words, sometimes with visuals.

    If you remember Schindler’s List, the entire film was shot in black/white, except for one little girl’s coat which was a dull red. The big story of the Shoah was told with the coat. Ironically, the Schindler story was in fact the smaller story. Speilberg was able to present two story slices simultaneously.

    • Very interesting point, Roberta. I love it. What I’d ad is that the Red Coat is a perfect example of using a (very poignant) detail for the purposes of dramatization.

  15. More and more these days, people are getting skeptical and negative about basically everything. There’s no trust anymore. So why are we still being so vague? This post brings about such great examples and topics that we really need to focus on more these days. We need to personalize, we need to be detailed, we need to PROVE to the person reading that we are THE place to be for whatever their needs are.

    Thank you so much for this great post!

  16. Speaking to a specific problem is one way that Eben Pagan CRUSHES IT in his newsletter content for his dating websites.

    I just finished taking a jillion hours worth of notes on his 12 Week Guru Blueprint course and one of the entire weeks was dedicated to this topic.

    He encourages guys/gals on his list to send him questions and then he answers those SPECIFIC questions for them, but instead of just emailing the answer back, he lets the prospects and customers help him build content that he shares with the list via his newsletter which helps him be trustworthy and likable to his audience because he’s freely demonstrating his expertise.

    For anyone who wants a world class education on how this is done, go to double your dating dot com or catch him and keep him dot com, get on his list, and you’ll see how Eben “Earns the right to sell” with the specific-solution-to-the-specific-problem content he delivers.

    Jeff, you da man for pointing out how powerful this is. I’m looking forward to seeing more of your wisdom on display here! :-)

  17. I think i would wear a puffy shirt in a cash box and just hold the bottom out. Genius move

  18. Note Taking Nerd #2,

    Thanks for the tip. I know that Sean D’Souza advocates a similar approach by pulling questions off of forums. And, if you think about it, Wider Funnel’s blog over at WhichTestWon.com is built almost entirely off of that same premise – take individual case studies and repurpose the “answers” to those optimization “questions” as new, valuable content that points the way towards larger principles and best practices.

    – Jeff

    • Love Sean D’ Souza!!! But I missed hearing the forum idea from him and remember hearing about it from Jason Fladlien… who I think heard it from Robert Plank who… probably heard it first from Sean. :-) Small, this marketing world is, ain’t it? Hehehe

      Now I’ve got a new site, whichtestwon.com, to go learn from! Thanks Jeff for turning me onto them!

    • Hi Jeff — Thanks so much for mentioning us! And for helping us get people to check out our site. I just want to clarify something you said. WhichTestWon.com is NOT WiderFunnel’s blog. We are an independent online publication about A/B and multivariate testing. We’re not an agency, consultants, or testing technology. We’re journalists.

      Thanks!

      Natalie Tomasso
      Senior Reporter
      http://whichtestwon.com

      • Hey, Natalie. You are indeed right; sorry for my mix-up. Thanks for setting me straight!

        And thanks for all the great content you guys publish over there at WhichTestWon.com

        – Jeff

  19. Ok, this is weird.

    After making my first comment above, I jumped to formatting my notes for Eben Pagan’s course and the part I’m at, pertains specifically to addressing specific concerns using a free email newsletter and I wanted to share this little piece of the notes because it explains the process he uses to haul in a cool $20 Mil a year using this newsletter secret as one of his major marketing muscles…

    He has three different types of newsletters

    Basic Newsletters were the first style he went with.

    1. Tips

    He called his first one “Dating Tips”. This can be 1 page to 10 pages long of you giving a tip on how to be successful.

    Next, he got his customers and prospects interacting with him by asking them for feedback on how his stuff worked or questions they wanted answered by him.

    This format allowed him to create 2 more newsletter formats.

    2. Q & A

    This is taking feedback that he got from his customers and placing it in the newsletter and following it up by giving an in-depth answer. All he’s really doing is placing a “Tip” and tailoring it to a question that was asked by his customer.

    This is cool because it creates a dialogue between two people. It’s also great because prospects and customers can see that other people are using the technique and getting results with it.

    3. Mailbag

    This is where he takes a bunch of questions and comments that have come in from customers and put them one after another, along with little abbreviated responses. What’s cool about this is that the customers are creating half of the content.

    ***You’ll notice that when you have people write in to ask you questions, the questions will all be around the hot button issues your prospect wants answers too. So, most of the questions you get, will be around 5-7 topics and THIS is where you serialize your content from.

    And what’s great about this is that people will ask questions in slightly different ways. It’s also good because it keeps reminding you over and over and over again that you have new people coming into your funnel, that they have similar questions and concerns and it keeps you on track so that you don’t get too fancy and creative and start talking about a bunch of stuff that people aren’t interested in. It keeps your finger on the pulse of the market.

  20. As an early-career marketer, it’s great to get reminders that emotion is a key aspect of winning over a prospect. Actually getting solid pointers (and examples) of how to achieve emotional pull and drama is rare, but far more helpful. Thanks for the inspiring post!

  21. What’s surprising is this isn’t anything new.

    Aesop’s Fables are a perfect example of how stories and details can be used to paint a general picture. These were written as early as 620BC! And they work so well that even children can relate to the underlying moral message, often without needing much explanation. (Moral: that’s how deeply rooted our interest in story is.)

    So much for “common sense.” Thanks for the great article!

  22. Focusing on the details and letting the specifics guide you is excellent advice. Yesterday I participated in a 80 floor/1243-step indoor stairclimb in Chicago and I have to say it was a great experience.

    I learned a lot about writing during the event because as I started to get a bit overwhelmed with the massive trek upwards ahead of me, and when my legs started to burn at about the 40th floor, I told myself just to focus on one step at time and not focus just on reaching the top.

    I’ve used this approach in my writing too and it really helps to not only make the writing/editing process more managable, but like you point out Jeff, it makes the writing better because you are laser-focused on the goal and idea you want your readers to GET and UNDERSTAND.

    And any time I started to think too general or think about what was ahead of me during the race, I started to get tired and lose focus. Same goes with writing :)

    Thanks for the great post and helpful tips!

  23. Thanks for the comments, Chris – and congratulations on climbing 1243 stairs! Wow, talk about a specific number – lol.

    – Jeff

  24. You are so right, and what a great analogy with the money booth thing. I blog about design trends and home decorating. Over the last few months I am realizing that the more specific I am about a topic, the better response I get to my post. Last week I wanted to post an instructional article about how to best hang curtain panels. I started out with general guidelines and soon realized how BORING it was. So instead I used a specific example of how I hung one client’s curtains and why I did it the way that I did, complete with before and after photos from the project. Here’s the link, if you are interested:

    http://thedecorologist.com/wp/are-your-windows-wearing-ballgowns

    Thanks for pushing me towards constant improvement!

  25. Storytelling really does make a difference in my writing. I’m working on getting down to the details, and even try letting the story/dialog do the talking. This week I published a post that you can read as a case study of my work as a counselor/coach, or you could gain steps in managing emotions with your thinking power.

  26. I’ve always been a huge believer in story telling. It gets past people’s conscious filters and prejudices and has the ability to affect their subconscious directly. Great post.

  27. Stories. I have watched my son education being built on stories (Waldorf Education). The children lean in, listen, wait, become involved and motivated in a manner that a text book could never produce.

    My mother was recently taken advantage of by a local diner; I blogged about it-did my best to tell the story about a mother that was wronged (Little Diner, Don’t Mess with my Mama or her Friend!) It was not as good as the Boy Scout example, I still have a lot to learn but it did involve my readers in a new way.

    Thanks for the tips!

  28. This is the most useful article I have read on how to arrange my brain to think of what to write.

  29. Wow, thanks for that, David. Glad you got so much out of the post. And thanks for sharing your stories, Khristie, Marcie, and Katybeth!

    – Jeff

  30. Great job Jeff.

    I’ve made this mistake big time. It’s especially hard when you just start blogging, because you don’t have an audience, and getting specific is difficult. You’re writing for a niche that doesn’t even exist yet. In my case with Artists Discuss, I had to get a couple dozen subscribers before I began to know what my audience wanted.

    But since then, I can say from limited experience that being specific and telling stories is paramount and essential to running a good blog.

    And it’s just unbelievable how niche-specific you can get and keep a large audience captivated.

    Thanks!

  31. Fantastic piece, and I couldn’t agree more! A story is always the most compelling marketing vehicle. A good story sucks people in, and breaks down their barriers. They don’t realize they’re being “sold,” yet at the same time the information is being imprinted upon their psyche. It’s genius!

    But here’s the rub, and something I’ve grappled with for years in real estate marketing; clients don’t want the story, they want the generic, “top quality,” feature drive rap they’re use to. I guess it feel safe and familiar.

    If a property has been constructed with a 1001 fine materials, by god all of those materials should be highlighted!

    “What do you mean leave something out!?! We want it all!”

    Or another favorite, “this is too creative… It won’t work on the general public.”

    Well, I guess I’m still writing…

  32. I love reading blogs like this that completely validate my writing style. I write a blog on personal accountability and responsibility, using my own life experiences as a platform to speak about the law of attraction and being our best selves… in order for people to get into it and “buy” what I’m trying to sell, I have to be open and honest and VERY detailed about the challenges and successes that come up in my life.

    Being real only works when details are authentic and sincere. Otherwise, it just sounds like I’m trying to tell people what to do and it turns them off. Being on the ride with me is what keeps my readers engaged.

    Kudos – I heart Copyblogger. Such great reads all the time…

  33. Tina,

    Nice point. From my own experience, I’d say that no where is this dynamic more true and more powerful than in the realm of personal stories and individual values. Glad you already discovered that on your own and glad the article validated that for you.

    – Jeff

  34. I love telling stories because I know that other people will be able to relate to the stories that I tell.

  35. Jeff,

    Great information you are sharing here. I have never looked at writing this way.

    Thanks for the great tips!

    Karen

  36. Thanks for the article!

    I really like the analogy and the statement that “Imagination Trumps Logic”.

  37. I read a quote from Glen Allsopp at ViperChill that sums this up nicely: “You can do anything in this world, but you can’t do everything.”

    Sums this post up nicely I feel :-)

  38. This is especially key to the goal of fundraising. Trying and raise money for an animal shelter and you’ll do okay. Try and raise more for a specific dog that was run over and left on the side of the road for dead and you’ll get more money coming in than you know what to do with.

    Let go of the fear of losing readers in all your writing and you’ll gain more every time.

  39. Great comparison with the money booth thing. The same thing often happens with marketing – you end up chasing after 10 goals at once and never reaching any of them. Definitely something to keep in mind!

    Larry

  40. Hey jeff, I’ve heard this before in many different ways, but never so clearly. The idea of being specific really resonated with me here. I’m definitely going to give your suggestion a try and make some ultra specific, detailed posts.

  41. Great article! And great Cieva video, although my condolences go out to you given that they inserted Comic Sans into the video that you scripted :)
    http://www.mcsweeneys.net/links/monologues/15comicsans.html

    Subscribing, by the way

    • Thanks, Patrick, I appreciate the comment and subscription.

      I’m also going to open myself up to a bit of ridicule by actually, um, engaging in apologetics on behalf of comic sans. While dreadfully overused and abused, given the right context, it still represents a decent design choice (and no, I’m not the one who chose to use it – LOL – though I do think it works well in the video). I mean, it was used within an animated comic, right? Seems natural enough. In fact, until you mentioned it, I was unaware of the font selection…

      That said, the monologue you linked to kicked some freakin’ butt!

      – Jeff

  42. Works just the same with fiction: the more individual you make your character (and therefore less like each of your readers), the more readers can empathise with a ‘real person’ and they do the abstraction to their own situations themselves. Basically, doing the work for you, which is never a bad thing.
    And your analogies are excellent.

  43. Thanks, Lunar Hine. It does indeed work for fiction – and not just for characters either. Back when Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick came out, the talked about how Urban Legends where typically made more believable by having local specifics added into the storyline. So the road on which things took place wouldn’t be some back road, but out on old route 303, and so on.

    And the Made to Stick connection brings us back to their SUCCES principle of Concrete, which is what this post is all about.

    – Jeff

  44. Such a great and relevant post. I’ve read a number of self-help and inspirational books, and my favorite parts of those reads are always the real life stories. Those case studies demonstrate that the principal in question really does work, and the details help the reader to become more engaged and interested. Indeed the human mind finds it hard to resist details and examples.