14 Writing Tips from the Mind Behind Dilbert (Bonus: 6 humor hacks)

How does the man famous for Dilbert write so expertly? Bet you didn’t know he was a writer. His latest book is a great read for anyone in any profession: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.

Here are his tips from a video he recently published.

Focus on the right topic – one that somebody cares about. If you can make yourself or someone laugh, groan or get excited about a particular topic, you’re onto something. A physical change in the body will show that it’s worth writing and will help others. You also want to pick a familiar topic to write about, while avoiding strange topics. Audiences can’t change their outlook or orientation much during the short time they’re reading your work. Keep it familiar to them. Don’t write for yourself. Write for the audience. Adams also recommends using the “invisible friend” practice. Bounce your ideas and topics off of that imaginary friend. It could be a real person you know.

Evoke curiosity in the first sentence – This is your chance to make a first impression. Be provocative. Make them think, “Where is he going to go with this?”

Pace and lead the reader – Hypnosis instructs us to match the audience and be like them in important ways. Speak the way they speak. Talk about the things they care about. Show a type of emotion that connects with them. Act, dress, think like them. . . in words. Once they’ve identified with you, you can then lead. When you offer up a different or controversial idea, for example, they’re much more likely to follow. Tell them, “I know you’re thinking this now. .“ and show them the answer.

Write in direct sentences – Here’s the format: Subject does something. Example: “The boy hit the ball.” As opposed to, “The ball was hit by the boy.” It’s the same meaning, but your brain processes the first sentence faster, more economically. You don’t put a burden on the reader – especially over a long piece of copy. The same goes for passive voice.

Eliminate jargon, buzz words, adjectives, adverbs and cliches – This is especially important for nonfiction and business writing. Try this: Imagine that someone offers you $100 for any word you can take out of your writing, and the meaning stays the same. Example: “Tomorrow is going to be very hot.” “Tomorrow is going to be hot.” The reader can’t tell the difference when you eliminate the word very. They’ll remember the information at a later time. Simplicity.

Brevity = Brilliance – We’re wired in a way that we think brevity is equated with intelligence. Stanford University did a famous study on this. I wrote a post about it featuring the style of Earnest Hemingway. “When you simplify, you not only communicate better, you make your readers think you’re *smarter*.” Some people make the mistake of throwing in big words and jargon to show how smart they are. They will not register as being entirely smart. They may look knowledgeable, but they will look dumb in the way they presented information in a complicated way.

Make sentences musical – Make America Great Again vs. Stronger Together. Not the same musicality. The second one falls kind of flat and has a double “er.”

Avoid ugly words – like moist and talc. Choose the good word over the ugly word. There are lots of words in our vocabulary, and you can choose alternatives. Here are a few more ugly words: chafe, decrepit, disgust, leech, maladroit, unctuous. They are kinda fun, however, in their imagery/feeling.

Don’t make wrong associations – Here’s Adams’ example: “Two thingsI really like are babies and automatic weapons.” Even though they’re unrelated in the list, the reader gets an association that is difficult to stomach.

Use visual language – Google the McGurk effect. You’ll find a YouTube videw where a guy says, “bah, bah, bah.” They change the video to change his lips making a fah, fah, fah sound. Then they put the bah, bah sound over it. When you see the lips form that sound, you hear the fah sound. It’s freaky. That’s how visual persuasion works. Using visuals is also important to the imagery you use in writing. Donald Trump says – I’m going to build a wall vs. I’m going to increase security on our borders. That’s visual. Isis is chopping off heads, they’re drowning people, etc. They’re not just described as some academic threat. Gerry Spence’s book about convincing juries by putting them in the scene is the recommended read on this topic. You want your readers to perceive sights, smells, tastes and touch. But just go visual if you’re in a hurry.

Violate a norm – Make the reader a little uncomfortable in your writing. Presenting some element of danger works. You don’t want to endanger the reader, but by communicating a danger, you involve them in the story. Topics that elicit responses like, “This group is going to be mad at this author” make people engage with the content more. And they help you form a stronger bond with your audiences that agree with the violation.

End on a clever or provocative thought – A call back is one way to do this. You can refer back to it in your closing statement. Or be provocative about something that’s coming because of your earlier argument.

Write every day – It’s difficult to restart writing after you’ve abandoned it for days or weeks. You need to stay in writing shape by writing every day. Writing a blog is one way to practice. Blog for readers, but blog for yourself as practice.

Humor formula – Use at least two of the following 6 dimensions of humor (Trademark Scott Adams). Three or more are better. You need to use at least two to make a joke. There is a formula for humor – it works every time. Some people think it’s just surprise or a left turn. But no, use these:

  • Clever – Combine things that people didn’t think you’d combine. France was expecting to elect a Trump-like candidate (Le Pen), but instead they elected a rich white guy with business experience and not much government experience. Nice combo.
  • Naughty – Fit in naughty with a clever component. It’s very powerful.
  • Bizarre – Two things out of place are funny. Gary Larsen did this with talking animals in The Far Side. That’s bizarre. It’s automatically powerful in terms of humor. But you have to add another dimension of humor to make it work.
  • Cruel – Saying something unkind.
  • Cute – Kids and animals. Calvin and Hobbes is the prime cartoon example. Cute kid, cute animal. Watterson mixed in bizarre, and he had cute and bizarre covered (talking animal). Once he had the formula, it worked.
  • Recognizable – Something about the joke or experience has to be familiar. Dilbert’s success came when it stayed in the workplace. Readers connected with his workplace woes. Make it recognizable –  funny to me because it’s about me, my spouse, my friends, etc.

P.S. Adams’ fictional novel, God’s Debris, is also highly instructive (philosophically).

Ultimate FAQs Make Web Marketing Easier

This is part of a chapter from my book: The 7 Essential Steps to Successful eBay Marketing.” (McGraw-Hill, 2005)

It applies equally to any Web venture, and to retail dealings, as well. Just ignore the eBay context below, and think about how you can use FAQs to educate customers and close business..

Write FAQs to Improve Your Marketing

eBay item descriptions serve multiple purposes, one of which is to act as a retail sales person. In a traditional retail environment an effective salesperson takes the opportunity to present the product in the most favorable light possible. She calls attention to details, recommends uses for the object and answers questions. On eBay, a Frequently Asked Question section (FAQ) serves the same purpose.

* Dispel fears
* Overcome common objections
* Communicate benefits in the Q&A format
* Clear up nagging questions that don’t fit into selling copy
* Educate less experienced prospects
* Clear up technical concepts

Let’s say you sell those new mini-bikes, the tiny little motorcycles that you see buzzing around suburban neighborhoods.

Buyers have lots of questions about these bikes that need answering before they move forward with bids. Here are just a few:

* Do I need a motorcycle license to drive one of these?
* Are they safe?
* Are riders required to wear a helmet?
* Can a regular motorcycle mechanic work on them?
Imagine how long it would take to answer every question of every prospect via email. An FAQ solves the problem and gives you a new opportunity to stress benefits and reduce resistance. You also spare yourself the loss of a customer who goes to a competitor’s listing to find the answer to their question.
Hint: Only one out of 10 people with a question will take the time to actually email you. So, nine others had the same question but didn’t bother. If you don’t address details and FAQs up front, you’ll most likely lose those nine “invisible” customers.

Many sellers find that FAQs are much easier to write than prose-style text. The whole Q&A process really gets the creative juices flowing.

Once you’ve put together a compelling description for one of your products, you’ve got a boilerplate for other products. Click the “Sell Similar” button (Figure 1) to reuse that description wherever you need it and adjust as necessary.

Figure 1: Sell Similar allows you to easily re-use boilerplate description information
The whole process is not all that daunting – especially when you have so many ways to dive in and so many techniques at your disposal to get the process going. You can:

* Write FAQs
* Estimate value
* Use the bucket brigade
* Link features and benefits
* Zero in on positive factual information

We’ll have more tips and tricks in the Fine Tuning Your Descriptions section ahead, and Chapter 5 goes even deeper into the persuasive approaches that work best on eBay.

The 6 Most Dangerous Words in the Content Development World

“Can you explain that in English?”

Do you ever get that question? Or do you get blank stares after delivering your PowerPoint? Do you get dull responses after following up with prospects who’ve downloaded your white papers?

I’d like to help you eliminate those situations entirely.

I’m a marketing and advertising copywriter with loads (and batches, and gigabytes) of experience in high technology – more specifically, enterprise software, consumer electronics, networking, telecom, specialized hardware, and the inter-connected layers among them.

I translate complex technologies into clear, compelling business benefits. I help you develop content that is both persuasive and understandable.

If you don’t have time to tackle new writing projects (or content development of any kind – we do video, too), or if your marketing team is currently overburdened, I can assist.

When signing up new clients, I focus on three areas:

I’m looking for marketing managers, directors, VPs and CMOs that are interested in producing remarkable, user-centric messages. Whether you’re an enterprise software developer or a consumer hardware manufacturer, someone has to use your product and I want to speak to them directly – where they live and breathe functionally, practically . . emotionally. I’m finished with the business of Gobbledygook. (We’ve done it for years, and it’s a whore’s business. You can see one of our corporate samples here. The writing’s OK, but the mission is often “play it safe,” so there’s not a lot of ‘remarkable’ in there.)

I’d like to get you thinking beyond immediate sales metrics. I’m interested in “moving the needle,” of course, and testing for the best results. But I really want to find out what’s unique and authentic about your products, your people and your customers. Then I’d like to move you into that zone beyond profit focus – the area where you’re accumulating evangelists first, laying the ground work for the money gusher that follows (something you can be proud of on multiple levels).

I don’t want to rush it, ‘phone it in,’ or make it sound like your competitor’s copy that you think is adequate. If you’re looking for a ‘cut and paste’ then paraphrase job, then I’m the wrong guy. There’s no value there, and there’s no way for me to shine and provide you with a real return on your money. It’s a dead end street.

In short, I’d like to help you make a difference in the world – Steve Jobs style – with simple, clear, compelling messages that resonate with users.

A short list of some of the pieces we produce follows (we also offer rapid design and layout services):

White papers

Case studies


Web content

Blog ghost writing

Landing pages





Direct mail

QualityWriter customers include tech industry leaders (NetApp, D-Link, CMP Media, HP, Computer Associates, Oracle, Oracle-Hyperion, Software AG, Sage Software – ACT!, Neudesic, Toshiba) and medium- to small-sized software companies. We understand software, hardware and the unique benefits that solution providers need to communicate to end users, CIO’s and executive decision makers.

Are you ready to start a content development project today? Let’s schedule a kick-off meeting to explore your situation.

How to Clean Up Passive Voice in Your Marketing and Sales Copy

These quick tips help you eliminate passive voice from your presentations, scripts, articles, white papers, case studies and other marketing collateral. . . 

Although I have a BA in history and an MA in journalism, I don’t edit like a tweed-wearing, ruler-cracking, cat-eye-glassed English professor.

That said, I do think it’s good to reduce the amount of passive voice used in marketing copy.

Here’s the definition of passive voice.

Sometimes using passive voice is acceptable (like right there), but usually it just adds another layer of code which the reader must decipher. Some examples:

– are always
– it was
– is becoming
– is acceptable 😉
– it’s
– generally: was, is, are, were, should be, can be + verb

Some might argue that the present forms, like “is coming,” “are appearing,” etc., are not technically passive. It’s best to weed these out, though. Use active verbs that stand alone.

Search for these words in your documents, do a little rewriting, and you’ll be fine.

REMEMBER: Clean, Active Writing Sells Product (Period) 

4 Tips for Epic Post Card Marketing – Direct Mail

I recently listened to a Truth About Marketing podcast with guest Terry Dean, who’s a marketing hall-of-famerInterestingly, Dean talked a lot about direct mail marketing and how it’s really good for beating the clutter of the email inbox.

So, I went back and dug up one of my posts on post card marketing.

Here are some of my tips for helping you get your post cards read.

1) If the recipients know you by face, name, or company name include that prominently on the card. People like to see people and know people and hear from people. Leverage that, especially if you’re sending cards to people who hear from you on a regular basis (as with email newsletters, regular business communications and so forth).

2) Write a headline for the card that speaks to or is about the recipient (not about you or your company or your product). Grab their attention, but make the recipient the focus. For example, “How Often Do You See Limited Edition Widgets for Less than $100?” speaks to the recipient. And, “The Top 10 Causes of Dry Skin” makes the recipient’s problem or need the focus.

3) Put news in the title: “New Orthopedic Neck Brace Helps You Sleep More Soundly”

4) Make an offer in the headline. “Summer Sale Starts This Friday — Free Shipping for Valued Customers Like You.”

There are plenty of other strategies. I’ll cover more of these in future posts. Remember, you can mix these up, too, and create layered messages. That includes mixing the photo concept with the headline.

How to Write Business Copy that Sells – A quick checklist

1. Establish the audience right away and keep focused on them
2. Forgo ‘style copy’ and use ‘selling copy’
3. Break complex sentences into shorter, clearer sentences
4. Arouse the curiosity of the reader (rather than satisfy it)
5. Provide readers smooth transitions so they don’t look up and get distracted from the piece
6. Write compelling benefits into heads and subheads
7. Support ideas with vivid examples
8. Use real facts and numbers (i.e. ’57 satisfied customers’ vs. ‘dozens of satisfied customers’)
9. Go back and weed out excessive adjectives
10. Provide a compelling call to action at the end of every piece (or prominently in an ad)

New Interview: MediaShower Asked Me a Few Questions About Content Marketing for Technology Companies and IT Solutions Providers

Here’s the main article: How Can Quality Content Affect Tech and IT? Phil Dunn of Synapse Services Co. Explains

Some highlights are below. .

The content I create is a mix of persuasion and entertainment. That’s what I’m passionate about: moving people and moving markets.”

“The age of the generalist journalist is over. The Internet, of course, is the big catalyst. Data, testing, and social signals have changed the way content success is measured – often in startling ways.”

“People are afraid to utilize video. Most of us don’t want to get on camera and explain ourselves, our companies, our philosophies, our techniques, and our aspirations for our customers. Interview-format video is the best and fastest way to capture this info and put a face to the brand. Plus, you can repurpose transcribed video into all kinds of blog posts, articles, bios, and tip sheets. People need to start thinking about starting their marketing efforts with video.”

“Case studies are great because they let your existing customers expound upon how and why they chose you to solve a specific problem of theirs. A case study is basically a challenge-solution-result format for capturing a customer experience via interview.”

“Quality web content is the bedrock of quality marketing. It’s always going to be critical for technology companies (and everybody else for that matter). We’re all reading, listening, and viewing from our phones, tablets, laptops, and desktops these days. More stuff will come along, like VR and in-glasses screens, but good content will always be the differentiator no matter what the medium.”

There’s lots more in the interview here. Check it out!

Marketing Writing Tips: Selling – Writing – Speaking

  • The message is about the reader and his interests, needs, and desires, not you and your wants.
  • It should contain some significant promise of benefits (again to the reader), implicit or stated.
  • The benefits should be concrete — easy for your reader to imagine.
  • Any claims you make should be supported by facts.
  • Difficult concepts should be included only if you can clearly illustrate them with examples and analogies.
  • Simple is better. One overriding idea presented repeatedly in different ways and with building evidence is much stronger than a string of related but distinct ideas.

Post Card Marketing: Part 2

Joy Gendusa, founder of PostCardMania, knows the how and why of sending post cards — repeatedly. She is dead on when she recommends repeating, rinsing, repeating.. and so on.

The following are some actual post card writing suggestions that add to that article. They’ll help you get better response rates on promotions, drive more traffic to your business, and generally keep you in the minds of your target audience for longer periods of time.

Make offers on the front of the card. Give them a reason to buy or flip the card over. Free reports, discounts, and premiums can all go into titles on the front of the card.

Include “news” in titles and subheads. Nobody wants to hear something they’ve heard before. If you’ve got a new story to tell, make it POP.

Keep the word count low, and make every word count. You can do this by sticking to one subject or offer per card. Don’t confuse the reader by broaching several topics or creating complex offers.

Develop urgency in the text. Your writing style can be urgent, but it’s even more effective to create actual offer urgency. “Limited time only,” “limited supply,” “buy now and save 10% off,” “free shipping in June with orders over $25” — these all create offer urgency.

Finish with a call to action. Tell the prospect what you want them to do next — call you, email you, go to your store, or send you money “right now!”

There’s more info and links on this topic in Part 1.

Ogilvy Fast Facts

  • Ads that are designed to look like editorial pages gather far more readers than those that don’t.
  • Never put large amounts of white type on a black background (reverse). Some say never do it, period. Study after study has proven that it’s difficult to read.
  • Write to the self-interest of the reader rather than treating your audience as a large company or group of people.
  • Companies sometimes change ad agencies because one agency can purchase circulation at a slightly lower cost than another. They don’t realize that a copywriter who knows his craft (the experience and skill that induce people to read copy) can reach many times more readers than a copywriter who doesn’t.