craft, Writing improvement

Prove Yourself Without Saying A Word

The following quote is a fantastic guide for anyone in sales, persuasion, or attempting to change another’s mind. It comes from one of the most successful books of all time, about one of the most important topics we all encounter daily.

“If you are going to prove anything, don’t let anybody know it. Do it so subtly, so adroitly, that no one will feel that you are doing it.”

Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

And I have nothing more to say. I’m just going to let that one sit. Far be it from me to expand on an idea that’s much older than I am, one that has helped a countless number of people to be more successful on their journey through life. Just do what Mr. Carnegie says, and you’ll be well rewarded.

So, then, why do I choose to write about it? As soon as I read it I wanted examples of this principle in action. When I browsed through the library of my mind, I found two that illustrate this quite well. And they’re entertaining too. Allow me to share so that you might learn and be inspired to apply this idea in your own life.


Example 1

First, let’s consider a segment of text. This is from L. Ron Hubbard’s story The Devil’s Rescue:

The main cabin was ornate with carved blackwood furniture, glowing silks and oriental carpets. Along the bulkheads to either side were rows of chests, camphor and ivory and teak, from which drooled the luster of pearls or gaped a little over a load of dull gold coins. The ports were twenty feet athwartship and full seven feet tall, all of cunningly set glass to make compasses and tritons and sea horses; through this, trailing far behind them, glowed their frothing wake, leading off into the gray dark and the shrieking wind.

The Devil’s Rescue, reprinted in Writers of the Future, vol 33

In this example, you can feel the knowledge that Hubbard has about life aboard a ship. He’s been there, he’s studied, he has the intimacy necessary to make you believe that you are aboard the The Flying Dutchman. But why is this important?

Because the author must establish the credibility of the narrator, in order for him to be believable enough that the reader enjoys reading and participates fully in the experience. If, for example, an amateur [such as yours truly] who had done the barest amount of research [or, more likely, none at all, attempting to fudge it with whatever is already in his head] about the internal decorations and workings of a pirate ship, were to write that same paragraph, it might come across like this:

The main cabin held elegant furniture, darkly-colored and well-formed. Rugs covered the floor, dulling the sound as the men walked. He dragged his hand across the sculpted walls, feeling under his fingers the rough differences between the carved wood of storage boxes, sculpted brass of drawer handles, or formed glass of the lamps lighting their way. Behind them, he could glance out the portholes, just at the height of his eyes, to the trailing wake, glowing in the dim moonlight.

Now, which of those sounds more believable? Which author has convinced you of his authority? Which one has proven that he knows enough about a sailor’s life to make it worth your while to read further? Hands down, it’s Hubbard. He has taken the Carnegie principle to the extreme: he has shown his competence, rather than blatantly beating you over the head with facts about how many books he’s read or how many interviews he’s conducted. And therefore you, as a reader, are more likely to believe him, accept him, and actually finish the story.

Nowhere in the story does Hubbard tell of his expertise. Nowhere does he come out and say, “this man knows such and such because of years aboard a ship”. He doesn’t have to. He’s shown that, subtly and adroitly, by his extremely competent narrative.


Example 2

The following is a humorous scene from Tommy Boy, in which main character Tommy Callahan finally succeeds in making his first sale. How? By demonstrating that his company is an authority, not because of the physical qualities of the parts they make, but by proving, quietly, that Callahan Auto actually meets his client’s unspoken needs:

And what are his needs? Not more brake pads. Not more inventory on a shelf. Not more stock to track and invoices to pay and deliveries to coordinate. The client already has plenty of those. That warehouse is full of stuff. No, what his customer needs is peace of mind. And Tommy tried that. In a sense, he said, “Well, sure, you’ll have peace of mind if you buy from us. I guarantee it!” Does that make the sale? Doubtful. It’s too direct and turns your customer off. The client completely rejected this approach in the first minute of the scene.

Notice what happens when Tommy switches tactics from the hard sell. Instead of pressing the point, he pivots to a more subtle method, and his client softens. His fear of “being sold” dissipates, and he opens up to the possibility of buying from Callahan Auto. When he does, he can see that his needs can actually be met, and he is no longer afraid of losing. Instead, he’s winning! He’s getting the emotional connection, the security and peace of mind he’s searching for. Tommy was able to make this point by, ironically, not making explicit statements to that effect. On the contrary, he spoke in a friendly manner, and allowed his expertise to come through in less obvious ways.



The next time you’re struggling to prove yourself as an expert, take a step back. Instead of becoming more belligerent and overbearing with facts of your qualification, consider a softer approach. Demonstrate your competence by producing quality work, rather than just talking about how you will produce quality work.


How a Comma Costs You Thousands of Dollars

In a previous post, I picked some nits. I said that there are little things that stand out to me as errors, and, while not everyone might agree that what I pointed out was important, at least you could have agreed that those things were wrong.

But so what? Why does it matter if your blog post, or your campaign landing page, or your direct mail letter is perfect? What does it matter if you misuse “their” for “there”, or have the wrong “it’s” when you really needed “its”? Who cares, besides grammarians? Who bothers to count the 7 bullet points you’ve listed, to see if that matches the 8 you promised in your headline?


Everyone cares about it. It’s inherent. It’s inside. It’s deep within our subconscious. It goes to trust, it goes to authority, it goes to whether or not I should even keep listening to you.

Because when you make a mistake, and I notice it, even if I don’t notice it notice it, it affects me. It sets off a little counter in my brain. And when my counter reaches my limit, I’m done.

I stop believing you. And what’s worse, I stop reading. I stop listening. I step out of the universe of potential clients (or donors) and join the 98% who don’t give. And I’m not alone. Everyone does it.

Everyone has their own limit on how many errors they’ll accept before completely rejecting you. And that boundary may be different for each piece. But it exists. And it’s costing you. Because when your audience reaches their limit, they check out. They’re done. They’re not going to give, they’re not going to volunteer, they’re not going to tell their neighbor.

It costs you authority … time … sales … donations.

Again, you might think I’m being picky. Perhaps I am. But even the scientists at NASA recognize a need to reduce errors. Their post, How Many Decimals of Pi Do We Really Need? illustrates this very well. They have determined that 15 decimal points of pi (3.141592653589793) is enough. This gets them the precision they need for virtually everything they do. They’re not losing spacecraft around Venus or Pluto with that kind of perfection.

NASA recognizes the need to eliminate errors. That’s why they use a more precise value of pi than the 3.14 virtually all the rest of us will be able to get by with. Because they don’t want to make any mistakes along the way and destroy their mission. If they did, if they allowed imprecision to flow through their work, they wouldn’t be working very long.

So what happens when you allow it?

Let me bring this back to copywriting. To nonprofit donations. To your audience and how they perceive you.

Let’s say your e-mail contains just 3 little errors. You spelled “performance” as “preformance”, you had an extra “,” at one point, and you used the word “reigns” instead of “reins”. Suppose 5% are turned off by the very first one. And 20% are turned off by the next, and the last 25% by the third.

These three errors might be completely missed by 50% of your audience. Okay. Only then do they have a chance to be influenced by your offer. Only then do they get a chance to take action. This is your effective audience.

Had you fixed only one error, your effective audience would go from 50% to 75%. Fixing 2 is 75% to 95%. Fixing all three means that everyone gets a chance to hear your whole message.

Suppose your 3-error mailing has a response rate of 2%. That 2% of the total is, in effect, 4% of the effective audience. That means, had you fixed even one error, you’d expand the effective audience, and your overall response rate would be at 3%. Fix all 3, and it’s up to 4%. Now you’re talking.

Put some numbers to it.

Let’s make-believe for a minute. Imagine an acquisition campaign that costs $50,000, with a 2% response rate, garners $65,000 in donations. Not bad! A $15,000 positive campaign. Suppose you went through your letter with an additional copy review, and caught all 3 of those errors. Let’s say you invest $1,000 in this. What’s the total cost now? $51,000. And the return? $130,000, because your effective audience doubled. A $79,000 positive campaign.

What’s the ROI of that copy review? Pay $1,000, get $65,000. Pretty amazing.

Okay, maybe these numbers are a little facetious. But might it be worth it to spend a little more time critiquing your copy in order to get a lot more return? How much would you have to invest to see a positive ROI on that review? Just $1 more than the cost. It wouldn’t be hard to get $1,001 in additional responses. That 2% has to improve only to 2.04% in order to get there. Is that reasonable? Absolutely.

And if it improves to 2.4%, that’s a $76,000 campaign, and a $10,000 ROI on that copy review. Pretty easy to see how small improvements can be very valuable.


Grammatical errors, far from being something that your audience just ignores, build up over the course of your communication. They break down trust, and they reduce your effective audience. Ultimately, this reduces donor confidence, degrades your reputation, and erodes donations. It’s in the best interest of your nonprofit for everything you do to be as clean as possible.

craft, Writing improvement

Think the “Experts” are Perfect? Think Again

While reading and studying some famous direct mail samples, I found some things that stood out to me as errors. I admit, I might be picking nits here. Yet I think it’s important, and I’ll leave the explanation of why to another post.

For now, I’ll point out a few errors that I noticed, and give a little insight to why they stuck out to me.

These materials are all part of AWAI’s Accelerated Program for Six-Figure Copywriting. Included within the program is the AWAI Hall of Fame: 50* best-performing sales letters (and space ads) from the past half-century. Winning promotions for The Wall Street Journal, American Express, The Nature Conservancy, and more are collected here for study and edification. I am grateful for the chance to learn from the best, and see how my skill matches up. And yet, even within this list of “best of the best”, I still found errors. Hopefully at the end of this post you’ll see what I see.

First up: Wall Street Underground.


Wall Street Underground

This was a promotional letter for Nick Guarino’s newsletter Wall Street Underground. I’ll point out 2 errors here:

#1)         The commentary from AWAI starts like this:

This is one of their best offerings. You’d be hard-pressed to find another pitch like it. Especially worth noting — the writer locks his sites on a “Common Enemy” message.

Did you see it? It’s in the last sentence. “the writer locks his sites” [emphasis added]

This throws me off a little as I’m reading. Wait a minute, I think. You can’t lock “sites”. Shouldn’t it be “locks his sights”? Locking “sights” is something hunters would do, to ensure that they are fixed on their target. You can’t lock a “site”, because that is a location. It’s meaningless in the context of aiming at a “Common Enemy”. So when I read that, I’m tossed out of the flow just a bit, and it takes a moment for me to get back into it.

#2)         About halfway through, I find this sentence:

If the truth about skyrocketing inflation were to appear on the front page of the Barron’s or Wall Street Journal, it could trigger another crash – all by itself!

Now, maybe this is just a little bit of esoteric knowledge, and maybe it’s not. But the publications mentioned there are Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal. Check their websites if you don’t believe me. You’ll see that Barron’s is not modified with “the”, and The Wall Street Journal clearly has “The” as the start of its name. What’s wrong is a misuse of little “the”, yet it caused two twitches in my mind as I’m reading. Instead, it should have been written like this:

If the truth about skyrocketing inflation were to appear on the front page of Barron’s or The Wall Street Journal, it could trigger another crash – all by itself!

There are more, but I’d like to move on.


The Oxford Club

This letter invites potential members to join an exclusive investment advice club called “The Supper Club.” Again, I’ll point out 2 errors:

#1)         One statement about a stock of a gold mining company reads like this:

Consider these facts … It’s selling more than three times cheaper than Placer Dome ($90 per ounce to Placer’s $290 per ounce).

The problem here is that to say something is “three times cheaper” means there must be two comparisons – one that demonstrates the “cheaper”, and another to be “three times cheaper” than that first comparison. So, suppose that Masterworks is selling at $230 per ounce. This would be “$60 cheaper than Placer Dome”. Now, once that is established, the target can be described as “a $200 discount, more than 3 times cheaper than the Masterworks discount!”

To be a more clear, more effective statement, it should probably have been written like this:

Consider these facts … It’s now selling at less than a third of the price of Placer Dome ($90 per ounce to Placer’s $290 per ounce).

You just can’t have a multiplier on “cheaper” without having multiple comparisons, one to be the baseline and another to be the reference. With only one comparison, it needs to be something like “a third of the price” or “a 60% discount”.

#2)         A headline reads as follows:

A Full Compliment of Wealth-Building Benefits

And right away, Microsoft Word is on the task! It’s underlined “Compliment” for me. It must have noticed the same thing I did, that the spelling with an “i” means a nice thing to say about another. The word necessary here is “Complement”, with an “e”, meaning an element which “completes”, or adds on to, a primary element. So if you’re looking to describe these benefits as completing a wealth-building arsenal, so to speak, you’d want this headline:

A Full Complement of Wealth-Building Benefits

Again, you may find this nit-picky. Sure, it is. But it’s also important. A fuller explanation is forthcoming.



These are just a few examples of how even the best may make mistakes at times. Yet, despite some small errors, these were included in the Hall of Fame. Perhaps everything else was overwhelming enough to counteract these little deficiencies, or perhaps they really are small enough that they didn’t make a difference.

For me, I’ll strive to eliminate any such errors in anything I write, and I hope that this post demonstrates not just what, but how as well.


* P.S.: I can pick nits with modern businesses, too. Though the Hall of Fame says it includes 50 direct mail classics, there are only 49 samples included. Worth is #8, while Rogue Trader is #10. What happened to #9?