A 5-Minute Guide to More Persuasive Copywriting

image of screaming crowd

Copywriters love to tell clients they can create compelling copy.

Few of them ever mention whom they think they’re compelling.

That’s because too few of them have ever given it the thought it deserves.

One of the first rules of copywriting is to know your audience, and many copywriters are fairly skilled at creating copy designed to appeal to, say, a 60-year-old female retiree who’s confused about her insurance options.

The problem is that that’s not how Dorothea in Florida thinks of herself.

If Dorothea doesn’t identify with that picture, what makes you think you’re actually writing to her?

Who does Dorothea say she is?

Dorothea in Florida thinks of herself as a mother to two children, and widow to a husband who recently passed away from a heart attack.

Dorothea used to be a saleswoman and retired when she was fifty, because every company she applied for wanted someone younger.

Dorothea is a poker player and a mystery-novel lover. Dorothea is a damn good cook. Dorothea is a busybody and a know-it-all.

Dorothea has never once in her life thought of herself as a 60-year-old female retiree who is confused about her insurance options.

So copy that was written for that theoretical person doesn’t appeal to Dorothea. It doesn’t appeal to her three closest friends either –- you know, the ones she plays poker with on Thursdays.

And when her eldest son reads the copy, it doesn’t sound like his mother. In fact, even though he thinks she could use the service, he doesn’t send it to her because he doesn’t want her to think that’s his image of her.

She’d be hurt. Or insulted.

Same goes for her doctor, her neighbors, and her book club. No one thinks that copy sounds like Dorothea — because it doesn’t.

It sounds like it would appeal to someone who doesn’t exist.

You need to write for Dorothea

The next time you’re writing, don’t write for a demographic.

Those people don’t exist. The real readers — the ones you want to persuade — won’t recognize themselves in a collection of demographic traits.

Instead, write for Dorothea.

Or write for a teenager named Harper who thinks her parents are ridiculous because they need her help with the computer and they don’t understand anything about Twilight.

Write for Mike, who’s just out of college and has about $10,000 in credit card debt that he hasn’t told his parents about (and hopes he’ll never have to tell them).

Write for Arnold, who’s just getting used to an empty nest after his kids left for college and is wondering what he should do with his hobby business, now that he has all this extra time on his hands.

Give yourself a real person to write for.

Appeal directly to that person. Know all their foibles, their worries, their problems – and explain how this product or service fixes one of them.

The person you’ve imagined in your head doesn’t exist either, of course. But writing for a human being instead of a demographic lets you think and write in new ways.

What this way of writing gets you

With that person’s image in your mind, you’ll be warmer and less robotic.

You’ll be less generic, more personal.

You’ll draw the reader in on a personal level.

You’ll be compelling because you know who your reader really is, what that person is worried about, and why this matters to them. You’ll be compelling because you’ll be focused on how you can help a person, not focused on how you can sell a product. And your reader will sense it.

You’ll be compelling because getting this right will genuinely benefit this human being in front of you.

If you think your readers can’t tell the difference, you’re dead wrong.

Just ask Dorothea.

About the Author: For more compelling writing tips, get on the Damn Fine Words mailing list at http://www.damnfinewords.com. Owned and operated by James Chartrand of Men with Pens, you’ll get weekly tips on writing, content creation and getting results from your words.

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Reader Comments (50)

  1. says

    Really great advise! I was also taught this in speech class in college. But like all good wisdom, it helps to be reminded of this from time to time.

    Next time I write a blog post I will think of somebody specific I can write to. I will also try this when I teach lessons outside of the blogging world.

    Thanks, and have a great Christmas!

    • says

      Writing for a specific person is exactly what I do, Mel. And that specific person is my best friend.

      She is NOT in my target market, but she’s perfect as the person I imagine writing to. Why? Precisely because she’s not my target. Meaning she doesn’t know the lingo of the trade. Meaning I have to use layman’s terms. Meaning I have to make my posts easy to understand and interesting enough so she won’t tell me to shut up and move on.

      An example: I just looooove this radio talk show called “Car Talk” on NPR. Now I am not a mechanic and I don’t care about cars, but brothers Tom and Ray make their show so enjoyable that someone like me who is totally not their target audience tune in every week to laugh along, feel like a part of a special community, and learn a little something new about car repair. They make talking about car repair fun. Imagine that!

      Now that’s what I call persuasive. Radio may be a different medium, but the principle is the same. Captivate and connect with your audience on a personal level, and you won’t have to think so hard about who your “ideal” reader is. Personally, I don’t think there is such a thing as an “ideal” reader. And if you only write for your “ideal” reader, you might miss out on a much wider audience.

    • says

      Hi Mel – I hadn’t thought about the connection to speaking. I heard the great pianist Artur Rubinstein always picked out someone in the audience as he walked onstage for a concert. Then he played that concert for that one person. It was personal, and he was the only one who knew it. Yet he was renowned in the classical music world for giving amazing live performances.

      It seems like James is saying something very similar — or even exactly the same — but applied to a different “art form”. Happy holidays!

  2. says

    It is always easier and more effective to be focused in your copy. For sure, the spectre of the generic customer type won’t help you cut through. However, the danger many writers fall into is to create a customer persona on too little information (or worse, simple wish-fulfilment).

    Dorothea might exist. She may be an entirely accurate picture of the target market. But then again, she may be the exception. It’s important to be accurate about your chosen persona (and not just create an interesting character you’d like to write for). Otherwise you might write a utterly compelling piece of copy for someone who, frankly, is not important to your business’s success.

    • says

      Well, hopefully the writer’s done his or her research and made sure the piece is written to the rule, not the exception!

      Good point on the self-fulfillment, by the way. I see many, MANY people write to themselves… and not to their actual target market.

    • says

      That’s definitely a danger, but I also think that writing with a human being in mind always produces clearer, more conversational copy. Even when the avatar isn’t a great match for the actual buyer, the reader picks up on a more personal tone and the writing works better.

      But obviously, keeping someone in mind who’s actually going to buy will work better. :)

  3. says

    I love the advice to pick a person and write to them. I started doing that recently in my blog and it is amazing how much simpler it was to write that way. And the posts read better and are much more to the point. I write about manging the financial side of a business so not everyone is ready for that. Once I started seeing that one specific person I was writing to (who was very interested in that part of their business), everything became so much easier for me. It made a huge difference.

    Thanks for a great post.

  4. says

    Great column — very readable, interesting, pulls you in. The problem when writing for most direct mail campaigns is that you’re writing for Dorothea and Joe and Juan and Portia and, and, and, and … There is no specific persona because you’re hitting a broad market of 500,000+. We’ve been trying lots of different techniques lately. Personally, I think traditional direct mail campaigns have seen their day, but I haven’t convinced anyone of that yet at my company. So, we write for the mindless masses — who don’t even open the envelopes.

    • says

      I disagree – there’s *always* a specific persona you can write to, and if you’re writing for Dorothea, Joe, Juan and Portia, it just becomes dilution, which gets far less results.

      I know it seems hard to write to ONE person when you’re sending your piece out to 500,000+ people, but believe me, it works!

      • says

        Think I agree with James on this one. Write for 500,000+ people and 100 open their males because they have an idea what’s inside. Bloggers building an audience should write for one person from day one, day 1000, and always. Your market is built one person at a time. Chances are that when their number of subscribers hits the 500,000 mark, 400,000 will not only still be opening those mails. They’ll actually be reading them… to the last word!

        • Julie says

          I guess I was talking about direct mail, not writing for my blog: Two totally different things. I have no problem writing to my “so-glad-you-stopped-in” readers on my blog. I shouldn’t have talked about direct mail here. The broad market (specifically, life insurance) is just that — broad.

          • says

            This is actually an old technique from direct mail copywriting, but if your company/agency isn’t acquiring highly targeted lists & adjusting the copy accordingly, it’s definitely hard to put into practice. Even so, I think you can infuse some life and humanity into copy by visualizing a human when you write … you’re still writing for people, not collections of demographic traits. :) Your reader doesn’t have to know precisely what the picture looks like in your head.

  5. says

    I’m thinking that this is the kind of advice that is as old as writing copy. Yet at the same time it is changing the way how brands have to think about their markets.

    The internet and use of social networks have become revolutionary media at the political level in the Middle East. Content marketing with the use of blogs is doing the same in the free world for consumer markets.

    Every major corporation has to pay attention to grass-roots groups and informal clubs that are being formed daily. As bloggers, we know them as “followers” and “email lists.”

    We DO have to know the demographics of our readers. Its a start that helps frame our writing and focuses our content. But its the kind of advice in this post that REALLY helps to build those relationships and makes raving fans out of a mere list of subscribers. I want to be a mover and shaker because I think I have a lot to offer that large numbers of people desperately NEED. This is why I started to write and blog. Nothing less will do. James, THANK YOU for a key piece of the puzzle I need to get it done. You totally rock!

    • says

      Old advice or new advice… it’s good advice! And one worth stressing because so many people are just starting their business. Every day, new people throw up a website or become self-employed, and all these folk wonder where they should start.

      I think with Dorothea. She’s a good place to start from :)

  6. says

    Well done. And I’d guess imagining a conversation with Dorothea as you write your copy would help too.

    P.S. I heard Dorothea wears men’s underpants. Just sayin’! 😉

  7. says

    Great post! I think it’s easy for bloggers to get caught up in the actual writing and forget who they’re writing for (at least on the level that you’re talking about here).

    Knowing your target audience is one of the most basic and critical parts of business, but it’s a task that is ignored by soooo many marketing managers and writers (especially within small businesses).

    Thanks again for a great post!

  8. says

    Nice reminder about writing directly to your niche. I have been taught to even take a step further. I make an avatar of the “person” that I am writing for. I look around google images and find a photo of someone that would fit the bill. Then when I write I look at the picture to help me connect. Thanks for the great post.

    • says

      That’s a brilliant idea, Mike. I like to try to think of an actual person I know, but very often, there’s no one in my extra-small circle, so I visualize an actual image of a target reader in my mind. A picture would be even better!

  9. says

    Mmmmh, am thinking of writing what keeps Dorothea up at night. It’s almost Christmas and she doesn’t have a coin to spare to buy her kids presents…maybe!

    Lovely post James.

  10. says

    Simple, actionable advice. Love it. I do think it’s important that the individual you imagine fits within your target demographic. When I’m writing copy for a sales performance management software product, I wouldn’t want to be writing for Wolfie, my father’s lawn bowls partner who needs a little bit of extra help getting in and out of the car and refuses to wear his hearing aid unless he’s bribed. Wouldn’t work….

    It’s probably implicit in your post…but just thought I’d add.

  11. says

    Love the examples! I sometimes have a hard time making my writing personal, so I will take your tips! @Ruth–Thanks for the great advice on writing to particular person that fits your demographic.

  12. says

    I can get behind every word of this post from experience. I started a company a few years ago with a partner in the commercial cleaning business who had the steam cleaner gear to help people get rid of bed bugs. I knew how people felt because I had to deal with it myself (Gross). So I wrote the entire site to speak to that person in that exact state of mind.

    And it was crazy, it came back that almost 100% of the customers went out of their way to mention “by the way your website is the only one that actually spoke TO us, most of the other companies are just trying to scare us into spending a lot of money, and that just didn’t appeal to us” Or some variation of that.

    It was really awesome – that was my first offline commercial site (bedbudquarantine dot com) and I remember being so excited about copywriting, because it seemed so easy – that all we have to do is speak directly TO people, honestly, respecting their intelligence – and it seemed like that was some sort of secret.

      • says

        Thanks, although I’ve often said it’s knowledge of a subject that I really wish I didn’t ever to fill my brain space with. Gf just shook her head and said “only YOU would start a business out of this”. 😉 I figured it was the best way to recoup the time, money and mental energy I’d spent getting rid of the little blood suckers.

  13. says

    Excellent post. Readers like conversation and if you speak to them with your written word, they feel a bond before deciding to pick up the phone and call. There are several traits to readers, two being the ‘party’ people and the ‘power’ players–you can write to both with your conversation piece and include a photo for the party people and a statistical chart for the power players as well. (I need to focus more on that myself too!)

  14. says

    Very good post which made me realise that I tend to assume that I know what my readers – generically, that is – want, while the truth is that I know what very few of them want. I will keep the latter in mind for my next copy.

  15. says

    Its funny, I was just doing some research on my competition in a new market & wow. There was no CONNECTION at all.

    Read this. Read on. Do that. Gimme your email.

    Do some site owners forget that there are ACTUAL REAL PEOPLE coming to there website with all sorts of emotions…..fear, pain, urgency, regret.

    Good copy is the act of empathizing with your audience by UNDERSTANDING them (this takes work) then delivering a useful solution in a way that is harmonious and leaves both parties feeling better for it.


    Great post.

  16. says

    Great advice! I learned this at a branding agency early in my career and it has been a key to every campaign I’ve worked on since. It helps me stay focused and it keeps me from being distracted by the new, shiny toys that my target audience does not care about.

    Plus, it’s easier to connect with a person versus a demographic.

  17. says

    Great article James. I’ve used this technique for as long as I’ve been writing copy and I totally agree with you. Went to your site and signed up for the mailing list, only to learn it’s just a waiting list. A little bummed about that, but looking forward to when it opens up. Thanks for the great post.

  18. says

    When I teach this, students and clients push back. They are terrified that everyone except Dorothea will feel excluded. I use two examples to help them understand why this isn’t so.

    1. We–or at least some of us–read books of letters from someone we admire to people we don’t know. Why? Because we respond viscerally to that which is written to a specific human being.

    2. Great speakers know to make and sustain for a few seconds eye contact with individuals in the audience. B doing this, they make everyone–including the hundreds with whom they can’t make direct eye contact–feel like they are being spoken to directly.

  19. says

    We market to real people, so it goes naturally that we gotta think and write like real people. You gotta think and decide who you are writing to. Personal, personal, personal! Very good post.

  20. Mark says

    I’ll bet you most people (guilty myself) often guide their writing based on who is talking in their head, instead of who they are talking to. It’s a poor guide since everyone will replace that talking voice with a voice of their own, which may be a completely wrong fit for what you wrote. I’m going to work on this.

  21. says

    This post fits my learning perfectly. I’m just reading Peter Guber’s Tell to Win, and his entire premise is that the power of telling a compelling story helps you connect with people’s emotions and desires.

    Telling a story requires you to talk to a real person.

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