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Philip Theibert has published over ten books, many on business writing. His extensive writing experience includes stints as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor, advertising copywriter, executive speechwriter, public relations director, marketing director for a marketing company ...
They Laughed When I Sat Down to Write
Wall Street Journal Article
Want to write compelling letters and memos? Want to write persuasive copy? Study your direct mail.
"You cannot bore people into buying." The years I spent writing direct mail copy drilled that classic David Ogilvy line into my head. That's why I love junk mail! It provides the best writing course in the world. Every word is designed to produce results. The pros have five seconds to hook you. If you don't call that 800 number, they're fired.
So they know how to use word and phrase cues like no one else in business: "Cent" is masculine; "penny" is feminine. "Take the quiz inside" beats "take the test inside" (people love quizzes, hate tests). "Postage-free" beats "postage-paid." With upscale customers use "complimentary," not "free." "Do you make these mistakes in English?" beats "Are you afraid of making mistakes in English?" And always include a `P.S.'; 80% of all direct mail recipients read them.
You can use the same kind of psychology to make sure your own memos get read. Here are some corporate writing tips that can be found in your direct mail:
Emphasize control. "The Optima Card puts the right person in charge of your interest rate. You." People want to be in control of their lives. For a memo, "This seminar puts the right person in charge. You."
Tap into fear. A great headline: "I'll never lose my job. I'll never lose my job . . ." It tapped right into my sense of security (and fear of insecurity). In a memo, you could ask, "What is the one mistake that could ruin us?" Or simply begin by saying, "Protect yourself."
Promise to unlock a puzzle. "The Deaf Hear Whispers" compels you to read on. For a letter to your sales force: "How I doubled my client list in one evening."
Promise exclusivity. "Quite frankly, our credit card is not for everyone. And everyone who applies for membership is not approved." If it works for them, it can work for you. "I'm sending this to only a select few."
Tantalize. "Think how wonderful it would feel to walk without pain." This can be applied to most company problems. For a memo: "Think how wonderful it would be to reduce our inventory costs."
Show what's in it for me. "Save up to 60% on the books you order." For a letter: "Save up to 60% on our long-distance calls."
Use headline grabbers. "Golf pros banned from using new `hot' ball; flies too far." To announce a training program: "Learn to use a computer in less than an hour."
Paint a picture. "Listen to 500 dolphins shrieking in panic as they gasp for air." For a memo: "Listen to 500 angry customers screaming for refunds unless you . . ."
Stress convenience. "Never waste another evening returning videos. We pick them up." Tell your employees how you can make their lives easier. To promote your travel desk, write: "Never stand in line for another ticket."
Emphasize the negative. "Are you making these seven common mistakes in your golf game?" In your office, ask: "Are you making these seven common mistakes in your entries?"
Play on underdog appeal. Remember the brilliant ad, "They laughed when I sat down at the piano"? People love underdogs who succeed. Use, "They laughed when I ordered 100 new . . ." or "They thought I was nuts when . . ."
Ask provocative questions. "When an employee gets sick, how long does it take your company to recover?" For a memo: "Are our pumps costing more to operate than they should?"
Use the "barker" technique. "Call your friends . . . check your fuse box . . . and get ready to rock . . . because we're bringing the world's loudest, most awesome . . ." Those people are excited! Show passion and excitement in your letters. "This company is about to take off like never before!"
Appeal to curiosity/greed. "If you think you could never get a boat, a car and a trip for $22.50, think again." For a memo: "If you thought we can't earn $100,000 with this new product, think again."
Elicit guilt; stress urgency. "In the 10 seconds it took you to open and begin to read this letter, four children died from the effects of malnutrition or disease." Ow! Right to the heart. Perhaps you could use: "In one week our company will waste $10,000 unless you . . ."
Use bullets. People skip-read. Pros bullet important points. For example, when selling driving glasses they write:
-- Beat headlight glare.
-- Drive through blinding rain.
-- Increase vision and safety.
P.S.: Don't throw away that direct mail! It'll beat any writing course you ever took.