The Slide and the Guinea Pig
What you can learn about copywriting from one of the greats (who was first and foremost a dedicated parent)
Imagine this. You’re teaching a seminar in person and each participant has paid $10,000 to attend. When you ask for volunteers to share their work on an exercise, your eight-year-old daughter—who typically sits quietly following along—starts waving her hand wildly.
You can’t fathom why. So you ignore her and take your first volunteer, then several others. But each time your daughter’s arm shoots up and starts flailing from side to side. And then it gets worse.
She ambushes you at the front of the room and whispers loud enough for everyone to hear, “Mom/Dad, let me read mine. It’s good. I followed your principles.” Now you’re officially mortified. But you have to keep your cool.
So you give your best attempt at a dignified parenting response and assure your daughter you’ll get to hers later but you’re teaching now and need her to sit down. Fortunately, she abides. So you crack a joke about her wanting to get her money’s worth and everyone has a nice chuckle as you recapture the room and move on to the next exercise. Phew.
This is a true story—minus the joke I added at the end. The actual wrap-up involved legendary copywriter Joseph Sugarman fending off his daughter with “Later, April. Can’t you see I’m trying to teach the class?” I also adjusted the price of the seminar given this story unfolded around 1979.
But like a fine wine, the book preserving this story has aged well. It’s called The Adweek Copywriting Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Powerful Advertising and Marketing Copy from One of America’s Top Copywriters.
I picked up this book on Friday and crushed all 315 pages by Monday morning. I scrawled notes throughout the margins and nearly filled a thirty-two-page notebook with ideas on how I could implement copywriting in my work. It’s that good.
Until I first leafed through this book, I had thought copywriting was boring. I assumed it was corporate-style writing lacking depth. But I was excited to learn that effective copywriting is “very much an emotional process.” And by studying great examples throughout the book, I realized great copywriters are extremely creative.
Here are my Top Three Takeaways from the Book on how to Write Great Copy:
1. Start Flat, Then add Dimension
Take creating a landing page for example. Most people make the mistake of focusing on colours, graphics, and other visual components before nailing down their copy. But great copy with simple formatting is more likely to convert sales than stellar imagery paired with bad copy (unless your product is related to imagery then you might skate on this one).
So start by nailing down your messaging—in terms of the concepts, thoughts, and emotions you need to evoke in readers to guide them toward a desired action. Then, “add dimension” by adding imagery, colours, and sensible formatting that enhance your copy.
2. Create a Slippery Slide
Until this weekend, I thought the goal of every element in an ad or landing page was to get prospective customers to hit the “buy” button. But according to Sugarman, the goal of each element is to get people to read the first sentence of your copy. Then, the goal of your first sentence is to get them to read your second sentence—and so on.
Sugarman calls this the art of creating a “slippery slide” in which prospective customers who read your first couple of paragraphs tend to find themselves gliding through your copy as if by gravity’s force. But getting people on the slide is tough. There’s a lot riding on those early paragraphs—which is why curiosity gaps are your friend.
Look at how I used this principle to “leave readers wanting more” at the start of this newsletter. Notice how the text highlighted in blue leaves you hanging at the end of each paragraph. So naturally, you’re more inclined to read the next one to find out what happened.
Examples of curiosity gaps I created in my first two paragraphs:
This is my way of creating Sugarman’s slippery slide. It became a fun challenge to convey the story in a way that’s interesting for you to read. Imagine if I’d started this newsletter by telling you “I read a book this weekend on copywriting and there was a great story about how the author’s kid interrupted one of his teaching seminars.” Boring, right? No boarding the slide for you. Think about this next time you’re writing.
While the goal of any sales page is to make sales, your best chance at making them is taking prospective buyers down a copywritten slide. You have to warm them up. And effective copy is like a shot of espresso adding a jolt of energy to their buying behaviour.
3. Reiterate the Offer and Make a Clear Ask
Imagine prospective customers whizzing down your slide. How do you help them “stick the landing” with gymnastic form?
Think about it. You could write electrifying copy that sends people sliding to the bottom of your landing page at warp speed. But if there’s no smooth place for them to land, you leave them in an awkward position where they’re not sure how to get off the slide.
That’s why you want to recap your offer at the end (like a TLDR at the end of a Twitter thread) and make a clear ask in the form of a call to action (ex. “I want this,” “join here,” etc.).
Your copy at the end of your landing page is equally as important as greasing the slide at the start—it’s just that you need to get people onto the slide in order for them to evaluate your offer properly (hence why your initial goal is to get them to read your first sentence).
Note: You also want to have additional landing pads—in the form of purchase buttons—throughout your landing page. Because even if your copy is great, some people will want to preview the “end” before they read the details. Others may wish to purchase your product without reading your copy in full. Either scenario should be planned for to increase your odds of making sales.
So there you have it. My top takeaways from The Adweek Copywriting Handbook by Joseph Sugarman. I have plenty of others that I’ll share in forthcoming newsletters. So stay tuned.
My Upcoming Sessions
I’m running three sessions in the next two weeks. Click the links below for details and sign-up information.
Project Management Basics workshop - Part 1 (Open to Concordia students & grads)
Project Management Basics workshop - Part 2 (Open to Concordia students & grads)
Hope to see you there.
Thanks for reading this week’s newsletter and have a wonder-full week,
P.S. Sugarman eventually reviewed the work his daughter so eagerly wanted to share with him—and his students. Turns out she (adorably) wrote an ad on guinea pigs titled “The Best Pet.” In it, she hit Sugarman’s principles like music notes, which he deemed a reminder that “good copy can be written at any age and by anybody.” So if you start doubting your copywriting abilities, be patient with yourself. Yes, there’s a learning curve. But remember the guinea pig.
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