I write copywriting tips regularly.
Here are my favorite copywriting books for those who want to learn to sell more effectively.
Here are the copywriting courses that I’ve actually taken to improve my skills and increase my online income.
Thoughts on Mentoring
Many years ago, I obtained a battered copy of Gene Schwartz’ landmark book Breakthrough Advertising. The previous owner had clearly adored the book. Its highlights were lovingly even, its margin notes were crystal clear and written with both precision and excitement.
The spine was wrecked from constant use and pages would float to the ground at random page turns. But I adored that book. It was (for me) the equivalent of a Cal Ripken-signed baseball except that I could use it… and it felt like a relationship.
My path to acquiring the book will make a great blog post some day, but you should know that, at that time, I was not a copywriter. I was the Finance Director of a non-profit that competed to win health care contracts in many states and for the federal government.
We were using data science in the early days of managed care to see if health outcomes could be improved without increasing delivery cost, and vice versa. It was complex stuff.
We weren’t by any means the only competitor with amazing insight into the dynamics of health care delivery. In fact, we had one distinct disadvantage.
Our organization was started by forward thinkers who lived on the very rural Eastern Shore of Maryland. It was so difficult to convince highly technical folks to leave the big cities and come work for us in this big building surrounded (literally) by cornfields.
But we had really driven leadership. And they had the most innovative ideas about managed care in the country.
We had also developed a reputation for delivering on time and within budget. We began to grow nicely.
Here’s Where the Copywriting Comes In
Because of my finance background, I was assigned to almost all of our proposal teams. We’d organize a series of meetings to review contract opportunities from federal and state governments.
If we thought we could excel at one, we would begin planning the workflows involved. My job was to make sure that all of it was priced out accurately. We were still too small to survive the fallout of a misprinted contract, so I felt a heavy burden.
Most of the members on our proposal teams were either doctors, nurses or data professionals. They’d get particularly animated with some of these plans. Innovation stirred their blood.
But innovation, by definition, means completely new workflows. New workflows dreamed up in meetings by excited clinicians are very hard to price out accurately. I loved my job and it demanded accuracy.
So, I’d raise my hand (and the room would universally groan). I’d use some variant of “what steps does the nurse perform in that flow and what are the hours needed,” knowing full well that no one in that room wanted to back up and get granular about the details.
But here’s the cool part. Over time, they began to realize that macro planning of complex processes was wildly inaccurate.
If an epidemiologist and a nurse have to interact, they need to carefully plan the steps, the choke points, the contingencies. Add a physician to the workflow and your permutations increase exponentially.
To sum it up, we expanded the scope (and duration) of those planning meetings to make sure every workflow was dissected. As a result, we could price contracts with a stunning level of accuracy.
Our risk of death by underbidding went to nearly zero. Even better, our need to overbid for safety went away and that gave us a critical advantage against our competitors.
At this point, I knew our proposals were going out with very accurate pricing. But we weren’t really getting more than our fair share of wins. This was frustrating because we all knew that our performance was well above average.
In most industries, if you fail to win the sale, you can get pretty detailed feedback about your loss. That’s not the case in government contracting.
Contract officers serve as your focal point, and they generally have responsibility for monitoring a diverse series of contracts simultaneously. There’s A LOT on their plate.
The last thing they want to do is try to explain why your bid wasn’t picked… at least not in the kind of detail you could really use to improve your proposals. But we could gradually piece together a sense of it by digging softly over time .
The one constant thread we heard about our losses was that our proposals had so much detail that the review teams were bogging down in the details. Like all of us, they were strapped for time and our proposals required too much brainpower to process.
Around that time, I read a book by Jay Abraham, master motivator and a man who has connected with so many different businesses that his insight on execution is unrivaled. Within the pages of that book, it became clear to me that our proposals were feature-laden but we always assumed that the benefits were obvious.
Our failure was in counting on the time-starved government review team to study our exhaustive workflows (features) and determine the benefits on their own. Eureka!
I requested a meeting with the C-level officers of our organization. I was convinced that I had a solution, and needed their endorsement to bring change to the proposal process.
With sweaty plans and poor command of the marketing jargon involved, I drew the connections as clearly as I could. There was an awkward silence. Mercifully, our CEO spoke first and was supportive.
She cracked a joke that most of the requests for proposal (RFP) that we received were so unclear that we had to throw them in the trash. I was given the go ahead to investigate the opportunity to learn enough about copywriting (all of us were using the term marketing) to come back with ideas and examples for discussion.
I can’t recall exactly how I discovered that Gene Schwartz’ book was considered the best, but that’s why I went straight to it. Within days, I had mapped his lessons to the typical proposal.
Bear in mind, governments have firm expectations of a proposal’s format. The expected components are prescribed in the RFP. I’m certain that the tone of the average RFP, with its stern instructions and warnings about disqualification, is why we craft proposals with no flair.
Before returning to the next C-level session, I created a report for them that detailed where I believed we could insert stronger benefits (outcomes) language. I rewrote a couple of proposal summaries, splashed in sub heads and bullet points with messages that offered an image of what a successful contract would look like.
On top of that, I tossed in a “secret sauce” component for the discussion that sealed their endorsement. Within 15 minutes, I was given the green light to to teach these ideas to everyone who worked on our proposal teams.
That was where I discovered my passion for teaching. And teaching the methods of what I call practical copywriting was beyond exciting.
Look, most people are unwilling or unable to write copy. But they’re smart enough to hire me to handle it.
In fact, I went on to write most of the proposal summaries and section introductions for the contractor in the cornfield. But I’m just as comfortable training the willing to find the words that drive sales.
I left that company for bigger opportunities, but the hyper growth that my ideas ignited was still working for them when I checked in a few years letter. What had been a $2mm revenue rate was nearing $40mm and the cornfield had been replaced with offices spread around the United States.
How Do You Replicate This Success?
I’ve already told you the most critical “secret” to sales success. Far too many businesses are attempting to sell the features of their product or service.
If you think about it, features are comfortable to talk about or describe with the written word. A vehicle has a 3.6 liter engine. If you designed that engine, you could discuss its capabilities all day!
If you’re a government contractor, you are completely comfortable describing the expertise of your teams. You may even be articulate enough to detail the specs of your data storage hardware.
The problem is that your potential customer thinks beyond that. They have an objective that a 3.6L engine or a data warehouse might help meet, but you’ll never generate excitement by talking about those details.
Now, if you can point out that a powerful engine will make it easy for them to merge when coming off dozens of on-ramps every day, you’re getting closer. If you can remind them that their kids are often in that vehicle too, you’ll soon be lighting up emotional centers in their brain that completely alters the balance between cost and value for them.
Of course, it could be another objective they have, but you get my point. Stop dwelling on features and find a way to excite them about how your product or service will enrich their lives.
The Secret Sauce
I’ve given every reader a summary of the method I call practical copywriting. Believe me when I say it’s enough to revolutionize your success.
But I learned (and refined) a meaningful extension of this extension of this approach that will improve your impact tremendously. I call it the “secret sauce” because it allows me to contribute amazing training for free, but to retain a critical expertise beyond that to pay my own bills.
Contact me if your ambition is strong. You will not regret the opportunity to learn it.