Hi! I’m Mattias, the Swedish copywriter, keynote speaker, and author of the new Copyboken (The Copy Book). In just a few months over 2 000 writers and designers have purchased this longed-for premium book on how to turn readers into buyers (that means more money). Since 2006 I’ve educated almost 50,000 people how to write copy that sells, through my books, my podcast, my online courses and talks.
This is the very first sign of the book in English. Please comment if you like it!
You are a grebe
A copywriter is like a grebe. You know, one of those birds that glides around in the water with a red eye and a feathered frill decorating it’s head.
A grebe doesn’t just dip its head a little below the surface. No, the grebe pushes away and swims, swims, swims downwards. It can swim all the way down to the bottom, down deep, only to then, like a freediver, swim back to the surface.
That’s how we copywriters like to work. We dive deep, we find out heaps, we collect, and we spend a lot of time doing research — before we write a single word.
So when you finally sit down to write, then you’ve found what’s worth telling from all the things you’ve heard, seen, read, and know (after that dive to the bottom and back).
As a copywriter, you are lucky enough to become an expert in a field or a product and service. You get to the bottom of a subject. But you can’t stay there on the bottom, you need to swim up to the surface and meet your reader where he or she is.
Not many know more than Donald Miller about building stories that build companies. In the books Business made simple and Building a brand story he shares his wisdom. One of these pieces of wisdom is about what you know and what you tell. This is what he means:
- You know a lot about your product. On a scale of 1–10, your knowledge is a 9 or 10.
- You understand that you need to explain and simplify for your customers to grasp what your product or service can do, so in your text you “lower” yourself to a 5 or 6. You think you’ve simplified the hell out of it.
- The problem? Your text needs to be a 1 or 2 for your customer to understand and buy.
So simplify. Properly. More than you think. Not because your reader is stupid, oh no, but because your reader is stressed, skeptical, and smart.
Or as newspaperman Sigge Ågren put it:
“Never underestimate the reader’s intelligence. Never overestimate their knowledge.”
And your reader isn’t overly interested in your bubble, your company and all the characteristics your product or service possesses.
Your reader is purely interested in what he or she can get out of the product. So work like a grebe, dive to the bottom and then back to the surface, so you’re able to simplify, explain, influence and get your reader to buy.
The first things you need to understand are:
- Who is my reader?
- How does my reader talk?
- What is important to him or her? (Hint: not your business or the thing that you’re selling.)
- What emotional buttons do I need to press to grab my reader’s interest?
- What does my reader want to avoid at all costs?
- What motivates and drives my reader to act on what I write?
- What or who influences my reader in the choice between “not rocking the boat” or “pulling their finger out”?
- What am I really selling to my reader? (Hint: not what you think you’re selling, like backup programs, sauna heaters, or ticket management.)
Before you have the answers to all these questions it’s pretty unwise to start writing the final draft. You still have no idea what you should write, how and to whom. Time to investigate!
Without investigation, it’s speculation
It’s no coincidence that the words understand and understood look alike. To be understood you need to understand. And for that you need to start from the right place. You need to properly prepare your writing. Proper preparation, baby!
Have you read the book 7 habits of highly effective people by Stephen Covey? That’s one darned astute book. The fifth habit is: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Understand first. Then make yourself understood. Find the balance talking, talking, talking, and sh… listening
If you want to be good at writing and selling, to begin with you need to practice, practice, practice listening and taking in, without being in a hurry.
Being in a hurry seems to be an epidemic, the desire to rush to a solution without having a proper grasp of the problem and the challenge.
In an article in the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet about the Ebola epidemic, Johan von Schreeb, a doctor and professor, said that “people are inclined to find simple solutions to complex problems.”
Without further comparisons, it also seems to apply to those of us that write and design adverts: The temptation is to serve up simple solutions to complex problems. Solutions that aren’t up to the job, because we haven’t understood the complexity. That’s not good enough. We’re better than that.
As a beginner in a field that, for you, is new, you know very little — even if you don’t realize it. Let’s slowly absorb this: You know very little.
It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Have you heard of it? The basis of the scientifically verified Dunning-Kruger effect is that people who actually know very little about a certain subject overestimate their ability. Of course, the beginner doesn’t think they know as much as an expert, but they do believe they know “quite a lot”, even though the truth is that he or she is “clearly ignorant”. So you don’t know how little you do know or how much you don’t know. The remedy? Ask yourself the question: Is there a possibility that this subject is more complicated than I realize? Do I really know enough to be able to enthusiastically announce “how hard can it be”?
There needs to be an end to ideas that pop up out of thin air, or during chitchat between colleagues in a third-floor office in Stockholm. Nothing should be allowed to “go out” that is based on zero interviews and zero field-tests with readers or potential customers.
More people should take pride working on real insights rather than working on assumptions. Those of us that design and write advertising would then become members of a proud profession that win customers for our clients and ensure they sell more products to more people.
In a column in the trade magazine Resumé, Björn Rietz, talented and award-winning copywriter, writes that he is embarrassed by the industry. He says he is “extremely disappointed by what the advertising industry has allowed itself to be tricked into. Delivering too much of what the client doesn’t need and too little of what makes a real difference. No wonder the industry hasn’t been able to increase its fees.”
When I interviewed Björn Schumacher, creative director and copywriter at SWE, he drew an interesting parallel. He said:
“For me, an advertisement agency is nothing but a bank. This is where the client walks in with a bundle of money and wants to leave with a bigger bundle. And I’m not saying that Swedish advertising agencies don’t take this very seriously, but, unfortunately, it’s not the commercial successes that we highlight and are proud of. As an industry, we can be much better at making known the difference we actually make.”
Björn Schumacher does, however, believe that right now there are more highly skilled advertisers than in the 1980s, and that the craftsmanship is greater, but that sometimes the craftsmanship is used as a veil to hide a lousy idea. And you can still hear the echo from his and Lars Forsberg’s pamphlet Swedish adverts are shit (1985):
“The advertising industry has, for some incomprehensible reason, succeeded in the feat of becoming something of a protected environment for creators. Here everything is fine, here nothing is questioned, and, above all, there is no room for criticism.”
We need to start properly laying the groundwork, step out of our secure offices and face reality, and we need to measure and give evidence of the value of what we do. We’re done with rushing to a solution, delivering what the client doesn’t need, and instead find real solutions to complex problems.
A lecturer at my former advertising school (Yrgo in Gothenburg) expressed concisely:
“Keep this in mind when working with advertising: Sweden is bigger than Stureplan in Stockholm and Inom Vallgraven in Gothenburg. There’s so much more to discover out there. And it’s often out there that the target group lives and breathes. To understand who you’re communicating with, discover that life.”
The point: you can’t guess or assume what you’re going to write. Or you can, but it doesn’t make sense when you can choose to look for what your reader finds much more relevant and interesting. And true.
So doing proper research before writing is not voluntary, not optional. It’s the foundation.
Ponder over that word: foundation. The point: it lays the foundation. How else are you supposed to (while keeping your credibility) know: 1) who you are actually writing to 2) what you can write best about 3) which messages or arguments will hit home, if you haven’t done your homework and research (pre-research!) properly? Before you sit down to write, you need to know more than most about what you are going to write about.
Sure, it takes time. But doing research is doing yourself a massive favor. And then when you finally sit down to write you know what you’ll write, how you will present it, and who you are writing to. You hit home. Without research it’ll be a drag. You grasp after something, assume, fabricate. Chances are you’ll also miss the mark because you don’t know who you’re writing to and what makes your reader feel familiarity. Research does not take time, it saves time.
Your mind needs to be kept open to everything that flies your way during this part of the process. If you’re unquestioning, it’s as if you’re closing door after door, and your room for thoughts and ideas gets smaller. Instead, open up to “it could be like this”, “you could look at it this way”, and “this is a perfect place to dig deeper”. Thorough research helps take you in the right direction and find insights that give birth to creativity once you take on board the assignment to sell with words.
In the advertising industry, we talk about planning. At large agencies you’ll find one or more planners who, using a deep understanding of people and the outside world, find insights that can be converted to something valuable and impactful. An insight is something that is true, but that you or the reader did not understand before. The insight becomes an “Aha!”. It should be an eye-opener, not obvious. That sweets are tasty is obvious. But that we humans often choose sweets as a way to escape reality is an insight.
Planning gives direction and inspiration based on insights and ensures that brands do and say things that people actually care about. A planner solves his client’s problems by digging up the thing that really solves the customers’ problems. Investigation gives insights. To reach them, you need to be curious — and let yourself be amazed. You don’t know everything yet.
”Creativity without research is blind.”
Björn Engström in Copypodden (The Copy Podcast)
Arouse your amazement — you don’t know everything
You don’t know everything. You may find this easy to admit, you may find it hard. Consider the Dunning-Kruger effect: the less you know, the more you think you know about a subject (despite this not being the case).
The Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (with the glasses) has no problem admitting that she doesn’t know everything. When she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, she said in her speech:
“Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know’.”
Let that sink in.
“Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know’.”
She admits that “I don’t know” is in itself a well-worn expression, but she adds that it “flies on mighty wings”. Szymborska believes that knowledge must raise new questions in order to continue living. It needs to retain the fiery glow necessary so as not to die out. And the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know. The French composer Michel Legrand says it best: “The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize, the less I know.”
We never know everything, says Jonna Bornemark, philosopher and author of the book Horisonten finns alltid kvar (The horizon always remains). She explains:
“Far on the horizon is an island, and I can go to, and get a lot of knowledge about, that island, but the horizon always remains. And that means there may be a new island, and then I can row there and gain knowledge of that island, but the horizon always remains. Not-knowing never goes away. Living as a human is being within the horizon of not-knowing.”
Realizing and admitting your ignorance gives you power. And it gives birth to amazement.
All knowledge begins with amazement. Something the ancient Greeks have already said. Or to be more precise that ancient Greek, the philosopher, Aristoteles. Amazement begins with curiosity, where you willingly admit that you don’t already know, and where you are open to being fascinated by the way things are. Knowledge raises new questions. Let it! That’s how your knowledge grows.
Amazement, the dictionary tells us, is the child of Wonder and Surprise. Amazement is the polar opposite of “I already know that, and so I’m not curious about it”. We become amazed when we choose to see the greatness in the things that surround us.
“Oh, shit to the power of a thousand.”
That’s amazement according to Bodil Malmsten 👆
Whether big or small, amazement is a tad overwhelming. It expands your mind, makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger, and that in turn makes you look outwards instead of inwards. Research also shows that amazement can reduce stress, suppress inflammation, and make you think in new, more creative ways. Amazement is, said the poet Bodil Malmsten: “Oh, shit to the power of a thousand.”
Amazement is free and requires nothing more than that you decide to be open to be amazed. As a copywriter, you can approach your assignment with curiosity. You will hopefully or most likely be amazed. Talk to the founder of the company, visit the factory, follow the salesperson on customer visits, talk to (and really listen to) 3 of the customers, feel and squeeze the product, read articles, reviews, watch videos and look at artwork related (or not related) to the product. Take in knowledge with all your senses. Be amazed and awed. Be awestruck. Because awe is, as the author Göran Rosenberg so wisely said, “one of the few things you are happy to be struck by”. Or as story coach Katrin Sandberg, author of the book Förundranseffekten (The Amazement Effect), captures it:
“Never underestimate the power of goosebumps.”
So let’s begin by getting acquainted with the most important human being in your work: your reader.
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Wanna see more from inside The Copy Book? 👇
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