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.

 

Conclusion

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.

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.

 

Conclusion

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?

craft, Writing improvement

AFWAAASN, or A Few Words About Acronyms, Abbreviations, and Short Names

So we’ve all seen it – that undefined acronym. UI/UX; SAAS; PCP. Your reader might ask, “Are you writing about illicit drugs or a primary care physician?”

Instead of adding clarity and readability to your text, an undefined acronym does the opposite. It distracts the reader, throws them out of the flow, and sends them on a web search more likely to result in an hour browsing Urban Dictionary than reading your copy.

The point of an acronym is to create a shorter way of saying something, without having to spell everything out each time. It’s shorthand, and, as such, should be a way for the reader to understand what you’re saying without getting bored.
It’s not the only way to do it – but it is catchy. The U.S. Government is great at acronymizing our laws. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is a good one. And I don’t think anyone has ever spoken the real name of the PATRIOT Act in public. Which, by the way, is the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001″. Imagine saying that five times fast.

Acronyms are good at conveying the same information in a shorter way. But there are misuses of acronyms, too.

It’s TTPs all the way down.

{source: Dilbert.com]

Below are a few mistakes I’ve seen regarding acronyms and shorter names.

1. It’s Undefined

The problem with writing for an industry publication is that many times certain acronyms are used so often it is presumed to be unnecessary because “everybody knows what that is.”

For example, UI/UX above stands for “User Interface / User Experience”. This is blindingly obvious to anyone who works in, for example, app development, software design, or social network programming. This is something they live and breathe sixty hours a week. Spelling it out is just a waste of time for those writers and readers.

However, for those of us who might be coming from a different part of the world, throwing something out without at least providing a link to a glossary is distracting. And likely to lower my perception of the writer; confuse me about the subject, and portray the industry as exclusionary, rather than inclusionary. For writers or groups hoping to expand their reach, this is a deal-breaker. Don’t do it. At a minimum, provide a link to a footnote or a glossary page (if online). Or provide a separate glossary as an appendix (if a written paper).

Even better, just write out the whole thing at the first instance within the text, then list what acronym you’ll use going forward. For example:

We recognize that the State Land Trust (SLT) is a vital resource for all residents. The SLT has been providing support for outdoor activities for over thirty years.


2. Unnecessary definition

An acronym is only necessary if there is going to be reference to it later in the text. If you’re writing a short blog post, about the State Land Trust for example, in which you only ever reference the Trust once, it’s not necessary to list the acronym. In this case, providing the acronym is a minor distraction. Yet it also conveys a sense that the writer doesn’t know what’s happening in the article, blog post, press release, or white paper.

Acronyms therefore are only necessary if there are multiple references within the same text. My rule of thumb is two or fewer, just write it out each time. Three or more uses and it’s worthwhile to introduce the acronym.

3. Unnecessary “.”s

Which is easier to read?

USA PATRIOT Act                     or

U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T Act        ?

Again, these “.”s are unnecessary. By the fact that you’ve defined the acronym after the initial phrase, we know each letter stands for something. Yet every “.” initiates a mental pause within the reader’s mind. Don’t interrupt the reader’s flow when you don’t have to. Just let it be and you’ll have greater connection with your audience.

4. Inappropriate use

This is when an acronym is used instead of a shorter name or nickname. For example, I recently completed a spec project for Catholic Charities of Tennessee. [The letter is here.] You might suppose that I would have done the following:

 

All of these are programs of Catholic Charities of Tennessee (CCT). Yet these are not the only ways we serve our community.

But I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t use an acronym at all. I did reference the charity multiple times. Each time, though, I used a shorter name, “Catholic Charities”. I did this for 2 reasons.

First, it’s shorter. I’m trying to save a few words for my readers. The less they have to read, the more likely they’ll follow through to the end. Plus if I economize on words in some areas, I have more space to give additional stories or data and make a more compelling push.

Second, it’s more authentic. I don’t imagine that anyone who works or volunteers with this group speaks of it as the CCT. Or CCTN. Or CCOT. When they talk about it, they speak of “Catholic Charities”. I would. Because, to them, the “of Tennessee” is irrelevant. They’re in Tennessee, so they don’t need to differentiate this from Catholic Charities of Minnesota or San Diego. Thus, speaking of “Catholic Charities” is what’s normal for this group.

What’s normal should be what’s written, no more, no less. It avoids confusion and matches the day-to-day experience.

Conclusion

When you’re trying to save space in your writing, acronyms and short names are a great way to economize. But make sure they’re defined, when necessary, and used appropriately. Your writing will look more professional and resonate better with your audience. Every time.

P.S. Closing the Loop

Remember how I said never to leave an acronym undefined? You might remember a reference to SAAS in the lead. It stands for Software As A Service. Now you know – and you’re not likely to forget.