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).

17 Quick Tips for Proofing your Content Development after the Writing’s Finished [not for SEO hacks]

Content development takes time and effort. You need to come up with ideas, shape them into quality articles, and actually write them out. But there’s more to it.  You also have to maintain practices that help you ensure quality writing standards. Here are 17 quick content development tips for the stage that comes after your ideas have been captured and most of the heavy lifting is finished.

Go through these after every article is written, and you’ll improve your writing quality immensely.

  1. Set the thing aside and let it sit for least an hour.
  2. Read it again out loud and flag stumbling spots.
  3. Break up paragraphs to increase pace (variety is the spice of life). Go with short graphs first, then vary the amount of lines from 3-5. Sprinkle in some one line paragraphs, if possible.
  4. Break long sentences into two simple, shorter ones.
  5. Eliminate extra words.
  6. Eliminate “thats.”
  7. Eliminate words with “tion” “sion” “ance” “ate” “able” “ment.”
  8. Eliminate excessive adjectives.
  9. Eliminate passive voice (this includes “is” “are” “can” etc.).
  10. Eliminate cliches.
  11. Make cannot and is not into contractions for conversational tone.
  12. Pay particular attention to commas (start a new sentence if you’re layering too many ideas into one sentence).
  13. Make sure bullet lists start with either a “How to” phrase or a number or a powerful verb or something equally compelling.
  14. Write rhetorical questions into your copy that can be answered in the affirmative (YES!).
  15. Make sure you have some numbers for impact (specific numbers are better than generalized ones). Keep the % and the numbers themselves. Don’t spell out.
  16. Proof read on paper and mark it up
  17. Read it aloud before you post.

One last note about SEO. While your articles should be checked for optimization (Is your keyword phrase in the title? H1? The URL? In the body copy at least once or twice? In the meta description?), I would advise against obsessing over it. Intense focus on SEO tends to make articles unreadable by humans, and if you start producing content from this perspective, you risk developing content that penalizes your site via Google updates like Panda and Penguin.

A more sane approach is to create content that’s useful to humans then share it consistently on social networks. This approach is much more useful than trying to game Google and hoping for that elusive, magical SEO bump.

Ogilvy Advertising Fast Facts: Who Reads What When It Comes to Web Copy?

Web copy tips from Ogilvy On Advertising, one of the ad world’s most famous texts.

  • Roughly six times as many people read the average article as the average advertisement.
  • Four times as many people read captions as read body copy…So, caption every photo if you want the opportunity to communicate and persuade.
  • Headlines get five times the readership of body copy.
  • Body copy is seldom read by more than 10 percent of the readers of a publication (ad, brochure, data sheet, web copy). Those 10 percent are the serious prospects you’re looking for.

How to Write Simply – Mike Elgan and Phil Dunn Think Hemingway is the Key

I wrote a post earlier this year about how writing like Ernest Hemingway helps you communicate more effectively.

Mike Elgan – the technology journalist and tech philosopher – recently wrote about how Hemingway would deal with the complex tools we use for writing. His take is that Hemingway would have liked writing with an iPad. The reason? Simplicity and clarity of interface.

iPads, says Elgan, clean up our view of content. He thinks they’re the perfect tool for focusing on writing.

What do you think? Is the iPad a useful content creation device? Or do you think it’s simply a consumption tool? What would Hemingway really think?

Good Article on Writing for Drama

Sean D-Souza has a great article on writing for PowerPoints. And it applies equally well to marketing copywriting. Here’s the author’s site: http://www.psychotactics.com/artpowerpoint.htm

Some highlights.. “Step 1: Kaboom Them Into Waking Up!

Ever noticed how most presentations start with, “Welcome to this presentation…blah, blah, blah.” You don’t see too many TV ads do that. They slam into you at a zillion miles an hour and make sure you’re paying attention.

So How Do YOU Do That When You Don’t Have A Moving Picture?

The trick is to start with something that’s totally disconnected with the presentation. For instance, you could be selling cars yet you could start with, “One day in heaven…” That’s a good wake up call for an audience that’s half asleep.”

Step 2: Always Tell A Story

Step 3: Use Suspense, Not Mystery

Step 4: Don’t Bore Them with Your Solutions. Bring Up the Problem!

Paint a gory picture. You might want to read my article: Is your solution your biggest problem? Only after you have made them feel the pain, should you bring out the solution. The best TV commercials always make you feel the pain.”

There are 8 steps total.. enjoy.

The Most Important Marketing Doc Ever? The RFP.

I just got off a juicy conference call with a client and a partner. An interesting discussion came up.

The client was describing a bunch of projects they have lined up. A batch of case studies, a white paper, a data sheet for an upcoming trade show. . the typical round-up of persuasion projects.

They riffed for a bit on how the brochure/data sheet needs to be brief, because no one has time to read these days and it’s really difficult to compete for attention.

Then they said something really interesting. “We need to work on custom intros for the RFPs we’re working on. This is the one document that really has to sell – they have to read it, so the lead-in has to be really compelling. It directly impacts the sale.”

Um, yeah. This makes a lot of sense to me. People are bombarded with email newsletters, tantalizing links to content in Twitter and Facebook, magazines on their tables, and countless other “media interruptions.”

But.. they have to read closely when it counts – in an RFP. Their job depends on it, so companies throw a lot of resources and thought at RFP writing – especially on the front-end executive summary and positioning copy.

I’ve done this type of work before. I worked on a 100+pp RFP for Pitney Bowes a few years ago. They were bidding for the big law firm Latham & Watkins’ business. It was exactly this type of drill. They wanted a marketing writer to help write several sections and edit the entire document for persuasiveness, attention to detail, and consistency.

What do you think? Have you been seeing more of this kind of work? Please share your thoughts below.

9 Wise Quotes from the Advertising World

Mark Twain image quotes copywriting advertising marketing

These gems from Jack Forde’s Copywriter’s roundtable newsletter. The most anticipated email in my inbox. http://copywritersroundtable.com

“Many a small thing has been made large by the
right kind of advertising.” – Mark Twain

“Words calculated to catch everyone may catch no
one.” – Adlai Stevenson

“Yes, I sell people things they don’t need. I
can’t, however, sell them something they don’t
want.” – John O’Toole

“Everyone is in sales… whatever area you work
in, you DO have clients and you DO need to sell.” –
Jay Abraham

“Advertising people who ignore research are as
dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy
signals.” – David Ogilvy

“I once used the word ‘obsolete’ in a headline,
only to discover that 43% of housewives had no idea
what it meant. In another headline I used the word
‘ineffable,’ only to discover that I didn’t know
what it meant myself.” – David Ogilvy

“Never write an advertisement which you wouldn’t
want your family to read. You wouldn’t tell lies to
your own wife. Don’t tell them to mine.” – David
Ogilvy

“Committees can criticize advertisements, but they
should never be allowed to create them.” David
Ogilvy

“For a business not to advertise
is like winking at a girl in the dark. You know what
you are doing but no one else does.” – Stuart Britt

 

How Is Shipping Marketing?

Business people don’t always directly relate shipping to marketing, but the indirect ties are undeniable. This applies to all kinds of businesses, not just eBay.

Let’s start with customer satisfaction:

* Customers who love your service come back
* Satisfied customers tell two friends.. and so on
* Your product becomes more valuable when it’s shipped quickly
* Items that are packaged right arrive intact and unblemished
* Efficient shipping operations support all of the above

Next, marketing efforts:

* An item that arrives unscathed delivers on your promises and guarantees
* Promotions and flyers in the packaging generate repeat business
* Clean, professionally packaged goods reflect positively on your company and brand
* Customers that rave about your efficient, professional operations will post good feedback and tell their friends about your store/listings

If you ship, pay attention to your practices. It’s marketing in disguise.

Do it NOW – Value your customer’s success!

Girls toyota jumping marketing article success story case study

I’m a fan of Seth Godin’s books. I don’t get paid anything to promote them, but I just end up doing that because I read them and always find a few gems of wisdom within.

The marketing/advertising/good-business books are light, airy and fast paced. They’re not chock full of compelling research or detailed justification, but that’s part of the reason they’re good. They don’t weigh you down, and, for some reason, they come across as authoritative anyway.

They’re also very entertaining – in the way a light, sophisticated comedy film or a smart sitcom is. Godin’s books may be a part of a new book genre – business books that instruct yet seem like entertainment. Curious stuff.

The one I’m reviewing right now is called The Big Moo. Here’s a takeaway that I stumbled across (It’s nothing new, but he puts it aptly and it’s a good reminder for all of us in marketing):

“Customers sometimes love the simple stuff, having a human answer the phone on the first ring, receiving work ahead of time… and getting a special thank you reminding them that you value more than their business… you value their success.” [my emphasis added]

I’m going to take this advice today and reach out to some of my business customers with this very message. I do value their success, and every brochure and white paper I write for them is an attempt to win them more business.

By the way, I value your success, too. This blog is designed for that express purpose. And if you bought the eBay Marketing book, I appreciate your business. If you’ve read it, you’ll see that it’s designed to help you sell more and bring in more profits. Your success is my success. It’s written for all kinds of online and offline sellers, so don’t let the eBay title fool you. There are lots of gems in there.

If you’ve found the book valuable, please spread the word. And comment to this blog or email me (dunn@qualitywriter.com) if you have some examples of how you’ve put some of the strategies to work.

Enjoy the weekend!

 

 

How to Eliminate Honesty from Your Copy and Gain Trust

Don’t you love it when people sprinkle the words “honestly” and “frankly” into their conversation? It sounds like rookie car salesman banter.

When written in marketing copy, the effect is even more disturbing. It often shows up in these forms: “in truth,” “truthfully,” “to be completely frank,” and “quite frankly.” It’s supposed to sound conversational, but ends up arousing suspicion.

On further examination, these words often point to areas in the text where confidence is lacking. Go back and purge them from your copy and try to figure out what’s bothering you about the promises you’re making.

Cut the conversational salesman speak and just make claims that you know your products and services will back up. It’s easier that way. If you follow my advice, your writing will connect with readers a bit more. If you don’t, well, frankly I don’t give a damn.