How to Defeat Your Most Dangerous Writing Habit: 7 Ways to Lift 'The Curse of Knowledge'

How to Defeat Your Most Dangerous Writing Habit: 7 Ways to Lift 'The Curse of Knowledge'

This article was originally published on the HubSpot Marketing blog. 


When I was eight, I became stuck on a particularly tough Where’s Waldo scene. It was so difficult that I became convinced that Waldo -- the character I needed to find -- wasn’t in it at all. I began thinking the whole thing was a joke, full of red herrings.

And then I found him. And after that, I could never un-see him. And, strangely, whenever I saw a classmate struggling with that same difficult scene, I’d become frustrated, even angry.

“I can’t believe you’re not finding him,” I’d say. “It’s so easy!”

Little did I know, my unreasonable behavior was the product of a dangerous cognitive bias, one we’re all susceptible to: The Curse of Knowledge.

The Curse afflicts kids and teachers, content marketers and salespeople, corporate executives, cab drivers, and presidents.

Here’s how it could be hurting you ...

What is “The Curse of Knowledge?”

If you’re “Cursed,” then you are unable to imagine what it’s like not to know or understand something -- a topic, discipline, craft, what have you -- which, in turn, makes it hard to communicate that knowledge to less-informed people.

In their book, Made to Stick, the Heath Brothers provide a typical example:

Think of a lawyer who can’t give you a straight, comprehensible answer to a legal question. His vast knowledge and experience renders him unable to fathom how little you know. So when he talks to you, he talks in abstractions that you can’t follow. And we’re all like the lawyer in our own domain of expertise.”

That said, let’s set the anecdotal evidence aside and focus on the science:

The Stanford Tapping Experiment

In 1990, Elizabeth Newton, a Stanford graduate student in psychology, demonstrated the Curse of Knowledge using an exercise that asked one group of students to tap the rhythm of a popular song (e.g., Happy Birthday) on a table to another group of students who were listening. The listeners were then asked to guess the song.

Over the course of the experiment, more than 100 songs were tapped out. When the “tappers” we're asked to predict how many of their “listeners” would guess the song correctly, they landed on 50%. The actual percentage of listeners who could figure out which song the rhythm belonged to a mere 2.5%.

This huge discrepancy occurred because the tappers couldn’t un-hear (or un-know) the song’s actual melody, which played in their head as they tapped. This caused them to overestimate their ability. The listeners, of course, didn't hear a melody but, rather, a dull, monotonous knocking. This caused them to almost always misidentify the song.

In this experiment, the tappers’ knowledge grossly distorted the reality of the situation and, in effect, created a communication breakdown as well as a major expectations mismatch.

Can your writing be cursed?

The Curse of Knowledge is a documented cognitive bias. It affects us all, especially when we write. It’s particularly dangerous on paper because, unlike being face-to-face, readers (i.e., listeners) can’t ask questions and writers (i.e., tappers) can’t gauge reactions.

The Curse can sneak its way into an email, a landing page, a webpage, or a blog post, which is why anyone who writes should be perking up right now ...

Here’s everything you need to know to protect yourself:

7 Ways to Lift the Curse of Knowledge

Ironically, the more you know about the Curse of Knowledge, the less likely you are to fall victim to it.

Moving forward, try these best practices whenever you sit down to explain something in writing.

1) Know your audience’s base subject knowledge.

How well your audience understands your subject should shape the way you approach it.

So, do your research. If their base subject knowledge is high, feel free to skip the fundamentals. If their base knowledge is low, or nonexistent, start from the beginning -- start at thirty thousand feet and parachute down, slowly, gradually.

To figure out your audience’s base knowledge, try creating a detailed target persona. It’s not that hard and it’ll give you the background you need to write in a way people understand and appreciate.

2) Tone down your vocabulary.

Peppering your writing with idioms, jargon, and big, fancy words is like saying: If you don’t understand this, maybe you shouldn’t be reading it. Stop while you’re ahead. Thanks for playing.

That's a nasty vibe, if you ask me. Plus, if people can’t understand you, they’ll inevitably tune out and turn off. And then what will you do? For example, this is:

  • Bad: “Let’s open the Kimono, take a peek at the email CTR, and break down scalable successes.”
  • Better: “Let’s look at the data, evaluate the email clickthrough rate, and capitalize on what’s working.”
  • Best: “Let’s see how many people opened our emails and do more of what works.”

3) Tell a story.

Before writing existed, people used stories to keep history. For thousands of years, stories helped us spread information. Today, stories remain just as psychologically impactful as they did back then. As Jonathan Gottschall explains in his book, The Storytelling Animal, human beings are natural storytellers. Stories are a fundamental piece of our genome.

We love stories because they help us see the world through different lenses. We love stories so much, in fact, that we naturally inject ourselves into their narratives, hijacking characters’ circumstances, emotions, and learnings.

Of course, stories also maintain an order. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end, which makes it hard for the Curse to sneak its way in, leaving people out of context and confused.

4) Ditch the abstractions.

Leaders often speak in abstractions because their experience helps them visualize broad concepts. For example, we can all imagine a Chief Customer Officer saying something like:

Our mission is to provide callers with the best customer service they’ve ever experienced.”

That’s great and all, but what does it mean? And how does a statement like that differentiate you from the competition? It doesn't. These days, differentiating yourself in a crowded space means getting specific, like this:

Our mission is to answer every phone call to the customer service department within three rings and to resolve non-emergency calls within 6 minutes.”

Be concrete. It's comforting to people.

5) Provide examples.

Unlike abstractions, examples put concepts into perspective.

An example could take the form of a metaphor or a simile. As long as it paints a picture, it's doing its job. In any case, examples make sense of things, using information we already understand to forge connections.

For instance, when my grandma Sofia didn’t understand what a blog was, I explained it to her in terms I knew she’d be familiar with: “It’s like a journal or a magazine,” I said, “but you can only read the articles on the internet.”

6) Use visuals.

About 65% of people are visual learners, meaning they absorb information better and faster when images are used to explain it.

Hence: PowerPoint presentationsinfographics, and those quirky, mesmerizing whiteboard videos you’ve seen. These are all examples of compelling visual content being used to engage and educate people from the boardroom to the web page. Incorporating these and other visual components into your messaging is a potent way to appeal to nearly two-thirds of your audience.

7) Get an outside point-of-view.

You write. You edit. You reread, rearrange, reformat. You repeat.

That's writing -- and it can be an intense process, which, sometimes, leaves your message over-processed. In other words, it’s possible to overthink something, twisting it up until you’re the only person who gets it.

A good editor will alert you to this issue. Don’t know any editors? That’s okay. Ask a friend to give your writing a once over. They may not be your target audience but they can still serve as a barometer for comprehension.

You could also try this old copywriting trick.

Final thought.

The Curse of Knowledge is rooted in the fact that you were once in your reader’s shoes, void of the vast knowledge you now possess.

My advice: When you write about your area of expertise, try to channel that less-informed version of yourself. It will make you sympathetic to the challenges your readers are facing because, once upon a time, you were there, too.

Ultimately, if you want to be understood and help people grow, don't tap your song, sing it!Sing it loudly, so that everyone can hear the notes. The above techniques will help you do that.

How to Write a Job Ad That Excites Candidates

How to Write a Job Ad That Excites Candidates

This post was originally published on the HubSpot Marketing Blog.


As a direct response copywriter, I specialize in making readers take a specific action. I write a variety of copy, including articles, landing pages, sales emails, and job advertisements.

In fact, I've written hundreds of job ads over my career, as one of my first gigs was for a big employment website, where I created several ads a day. Ads that had one ultimate purpose: to compel readers to hit the “APPLY NOW” button.

My job was to make people want to press that button. My words were supposed to make them feel excited about the prospect of being in the role they were reading about. If I could do that, consistently, I was lightning in a bottle.

To get better, I read direct response copywriting books and hand-copied successful sales letters. And my job, naturally, provided me with plenty of practice. Then, one day, I opened an email from my boss: “Your visitor-to-application conversion rate is twice what it was this time last year,” read the note. “Nice work.”

This article is about how I achieved that conversion rate. Keep reading to learn the strategies and best practices I used to grip candidates, exciting them enough to take action.

How to Write a Job Ad

You want to write a job ad that consistently drives candidates to fill out an application. Of course, you also want qualified applicants, people that meet your requirements.

Here’s how to attract the right people to your open position:

1) Study your target candidate.

You might've heard that people buy on emotion first, and then rationalize their purchases using logic.

Applying for a job, in that sense, is a lot like making a purchase. Pressing the “APPLY NOW” button is an emotionally charged decision.

When writing your job ad, tap into those emotions by learning everything you can about your target candidate (i.e., the person you want to be interviewing). What are his or her professional goals and aspirations? What makes him or her happy?

Create a target candidate persona, or a composite of your ideal employee. (Download these buyer persona templates to get started.) Use the information you acquire to make potent promises that 1) you know you can keep and 2) your target candidate wants to hear.

2) Mind your SEO.

Every day, the job hunt leads millions of people to search millions of keywords. So, yes, relevant keywords are still important, especially when writing job ads.

In your quest to be unique and desired, don’t make up a new, creative name for an established role. In other words, don’t call your open content marketing position an “Attention Ninja” or “Audience Crafter.”

Call it what it is: a “Content Marketing Specialist.” If you’re in the B2B space with clients all over the world, for instance, add a few more adjectives: “Global B2B Content Marketing Specialist."

Post the position under a recognizable, keyword-friendly title because that’s what candidates will be searching.

3) Follow a scannable, digestible format.

Before candidates settle into your ad, they’re first going to scan it. And if it’s not formatted using big, bold, clear, and concise subheads to make the scanning process effortless, they’ll move on.

The easier your ad is to scan, the more likely it is to garner attention. Attention that ultimately leads to action.

Open your ad with a “Company Summary” paragraph followed by these subheads, or sections, in this order:

  1. Overview
  2. Benefits
  3. Requirements
  4. Responsibilities

Here’s a breakdown of each section along with example paragraphs that, when combined, will form a “Content Marketing Specialist” job description for Security Software Co., a shamelessly made-up company:

a) Open with a benefits-rich overview.

Every ad must start with a concise description, or overview, of the role. It should be snappy and compelling -- and it's clear, quick explanation of the role should be complemented by the job’s big-picture benefits.

General Electric, for example, did a nice job with the latter in their branding campaign commercials.

People inherently want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Appeal to that desire by helping candidates envision the impact of their work. 

For example, if you’re hiring a software developer, explain the mark that software will leave on others. Will it help them beat traffic? Will it help them communicate better with their family? Will it help them get clean drinking water every day? Be specific. The more specific you are, the more compelling your message will be.

Example:

As the Content Marketing Specialist for Security Software Co., you’ll create articles, infographics, and eBooks that build an engaged audience. Your goal will be to drive thousands of people to subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on LinkedIn. Your success will expand Security Software’s global reach – helping millions of parents protect their children from online predators – while simultaneously developing your personal brand as a foremost expert in our space."

b) After the overview, lead with even more benefits.

Now that you have the candidate’s attention, draw him or her deeper into the ad with a section dedicated to your company’s benefits package, a topic employees care about. But know, there's a correct way and a wrong way to write a benefits bullet ...

Use examples to help candidates envision the benefit, not just read it. Like this:

  • The wrong way: “Heated parking garage.”
  • The right way: “Arrive and leave work comfortably, thanks to a heated garage.”

Example:

At Security Software, we ask a lot of our employees, which is why we give so much in return. In addition to your competitive salary, medical/dental/vision plan, and matching 401(k), we’ll shower you with perks, including:

  • Dress: Wear anything you like to the office – and be as comfortable at work as you are in your own living room.
  • Flexibility: Two days a week, feel free to skip the commute and hit your deadlines from home.
  • Food: Save hundreds of dollars on food each year thanks to our well-stocked, healthy kitchen.
  • Location: On the days you are in the office, get here quickly thanks to our highly accessible central location.
  • Wellness: Stretch away the stress every morning in our in-house yoga studio."

c) Keep your requirements clear and concise.

This section will be your ad’s most sterile, so don’t close with it. Stick it in the middle, sandwiched between two sections that highlight promise and opportunity.

Keep your list of requirements only as long as it needs to be. You don’t want to scare great candidates away with extraneous requisites. You also don’t want to engage and inspire unqualified people with a shortlist.

Example:

Not everyone can be a Content Marketing Specialist. To be seriously considered for the role, please have the following in regards to:

  • Experience: At least 3 years in a similar role with comparable goals and responsibilities (security and/or software background,preferred).
  • Education: Bachelor’s degree in English, Marketing, Communications, or a similar field, preferred.
  • Skills: You must be an excellent writer, someone who understands how to frame a message in a clear, concise, and compelling way. You must also understand the mechanics of an efficient, effective Marketing Automation campaign (HubSpot experience, preferred).
  • Characteristics: This is an autonomous position, so you should be self-sufficient and self-motivated. It’s also a creative role, so you must be able to gracefully receive criticism and feedback about your work.

d) Use strong verbs to describe responsibilities.

Responsibilities are the job. They’re the work, the paycheck. That said, responsibilities can also generate excitement and promise in a passionate candidate.

Begin each bullet with a unique, yet fitting, verb. For example, the role doesn’t “manage” people, it “shapes” them; the role doesn’t “oversee” projects, it “enables” their success. See the difference? One word can offer a fresh perspective, altering the reader’s frame of mind.

Example:

As Security Software’s sole Content Marketer, you’ll meet the initiative’s strategic needs on your own, experimenting, learning, and adjusting as you go. Throughout your journey to grow our brand’s audience and reach, you’ll be responsible for:

  • Sculpting informative, entertaining, digestible articles that audiences can’t stop reading.
  • Designing beautiful, rich infographics that are as engaging as they are shareable.
  • Publishing easy-to-skim, value-driven eBooks for download in exchange for business-email addresses.
  • Crafting persuasive, laser-focused landing pages that compel your target audience to take one valuable action.
  • Purchasing targeted ad spend on well-performing social media platforms.
  • Pulling prospects through each stage of our marketing funnel, gradually warming them up for a productive conversation with sales.

The Final Product

Here’s what our example job ad for Security Software Co. looks like when stitched together (plus a standard “Company Summary” paragraph plugged in at the beginning):

Content Marketing Specialist

[company summary]

OVERVIEW:

As the Content Marketing Specialist for Security Software Co., you’ll create articles, infographics, and eBooks that build an engaged audience. Your goal will be to drive thousands of people to subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on LinkedIn. Your success will expand Security Software’s global reach – helping millions of parents protect their children from online predators – while simultaneously developing your personal brand as a foremost expert in our space.

BENEFITS:

At Security Software, we ask a lot of our employees, which is why we give so much in return. In addition to your competitive salary, medical/dental/vision plan, and matching 401(k), we’ll shower you with perks, including:

  • Dress: Wear anything you like to the office – and be as comfortable at work as you are in your own living room.
  • Flexibility: Two days a week, feel free to skip the commute and hit your deadlines from home.
  • Food: Save hundreds of dollars on food each year thanks to our well-stocked, healthy kitchen.
  • Location: On the days you are in the office, get here quickly thanks to our highly accessible central location.
  • Wellness: Stretch away the stress every morning in our in-house yoga studio.

REQUIREMENTS:

Not everyone can be a Content Marketing Specialist. To be seriously considered for the role, please have the following in regards to:

  • Experience: At least 3 years in a similar role with comparable goals and responsibilities (security and/or software background, preferred).
  • Education: Bachelor’s degree in English, Marketing, Communications, or a similar field, preferred.
  • Skills: You must be an excellent writer, someone who understands how to frame a message in a clear, concise, and compelling way. You must also understand the mechanics of an efficient, effective Marketing Automation campaign (HubSpot experience, preferred).
  • Characteristics: This is an autonomous position, so you should be self-sufficient and self-motivated. It’s also a creative role, so you have to be able to graceful receive criticism and feedback about your work.

RESPONSIBILITIES:

As Security Software’s sole Content Marketer, you’ll meet the initiative’s strategic needs on your own, experimenting, learning, and adjusting as you go. Along your journey to grow our brand’s audience and reach, you’ll be responsible for:

  • Sculpting informative, entertaining, digestible articles that audiences can’t stop reading.
  • Designing beautiful, rich infographics that are as engaging as they are shareable.
  • Publishing easy-to-skim, value-driven eBooks for download in exchange for business-email addresses.
  • Crafting persuasive, laser-focused landing pages that compel your target audience to take one valuable action.
  • Purchasing targeted ad spend on well-performing social media platforms.
  • Pulling prospects through each stage of our marketing funnel, gradually warming them up for a productive conversation with sales.

APPLY NOW

The Final Thought

This ad, for all intents and purposes, is a generic example. It’s designed to illustrate, at a high level, the techniques that make candidates feel something when they read a job ad. That said, it’s important to first use your knowledge of the role to create an accurate ad, one that reflects your company’s culture and specific needs. Then use the tips above to build excitement.

Good luck -- although something tells me you have this one in the bag.

The Art of Scannable Content: How to Write for Today's Online Readers

The Art of Scannable Content: How to Write for Today's Online Readers

This post was originally published on the HubSpot Marketing Blog.


Here's the truth: There's no guarantee that anyone will actually read your writing online. You have to compel them to do that. And one way to do so is to create writing that’s effortless to consume.

Not sure where to start? That’s okay. This article will teach you the fundamentals. You'll learn how to drive audiences to read every word you write. You’ll learn how digital copywriters -- you know, marketers who use words to convert people online -- get and keep the most valuable commodity on the internet: attention.

However, in order to command an online reader’s attention, you have to first understand how they read. 

The answer, of course, is that they’re not reading at all. On the internet, the majority of people are actually skimming. In fact, according to research performed by Jakob Nielsen, of the Nielsen Norman Group, only 16% of people online read word-by-word. Just about everyone else is a scanner, picking text apart for the bits that are valuable to them.

Knowing that, there are several ways you can write to make the process easier for people, ensuring that your message is entirely received.

Ready to learn a valuable skill?

How to Create Effortlessly Readable Web Writing

Jakob Nielsen holds a Ph.D. in human-computer interaction, which means he’s a foremost expert in web usability, as well as web writing. In other words, he knows how to engage internet users.

Nielsen says there are three best practices web writers should know, understand, and embrace. Here they are:

  • Be concise: say everything you need to say in as few words as possible.
  • Write for scanners: most people scan anyway, so why not make it easy for them?
  • Use objective language: online, readers trust facts, not hype.

Below, I’ll dive deeper into each of these best practices, breaking them down and explaining their value. I’ll also prove their impact using an experiment performed by Nielsen in which he used this paragraph as a control:

Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions that draw large crowds of people every year, without fail. In 1996, some of the most popular places were Fort Robinson State Park (355,000 visitors), Scotts Bluff National Monument (132,166), Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum (100,000), Carhenge (86,598), Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer (60,002), and Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park (28,446).

Let's start.

1) Be concise.

Many people, for whatever reason, have a tendency to bloat when they write. This bloating is the product of bad habits, which could include:

  • Providing too much detail. This often happens when writers underestimate their reader’s imagination, intelligence, or base subject knowledge. The best defense against this blunder is knowing (and respecting) your audience.
  • Repeating similar information in different words: There’s being verbose, and then there's being redundant. Both have no place in writing because they deliver little, if no, benefit. If you want to stave redundancy, try to keep your paragraphs to a single point or thought.
  • Overusing the passive voice. Active voice (e.g., “Harry picked up the phone.”) is direct, confident, and to-the-point. Passive voice (e.g., “The phone was picked up by Harry.”), on the other hand, is weak and annoying to read. Avoid passive voice by ensuring that the subject of your sentence is doing the action, rather than being actedupon.
  • Loading on the adverbs. Usually ending in -ly, adverbs modify verbs (e.g., “He spokeloudly.”). A light peppering of adverbs is fine. Overdoing it, however, could give writing the same anemic, feeble tone that passive voice conveys. Fight off adverbs by using stronger, more expressive verbs (e.g., “He clamored.”).

The issue with these actions is that they increase word count without necessarily upping the reader’s takeaway, or value. Not to mention it clutters the message, which makes text tedious and confusing to read.

Writing concisely means not using three words when two will do. It’s also as much aboutrecognizing wordy writing in the revision stage as it is about having the ability to avoid it in the first place. Essentially, writing concisely takes editing willpower. Willpower to cut extraneous words or keep unnecessary ones out to begin with. It’s not a natural skillset by any means, but with practice and persistence it can be developed, honed, and mastered.

Here’s our control paragraph rewritten to be concise:

In 1996, six of the best-attended attractions in Nebraska were Fort Robinson State Park, Scotts Bluff National Monument, Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum, Carhenge, Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, and Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park.

The Result: This version of the paragraph performed 58% better with readers than the control.

2) Write for scanners.

Nielsen’s research found that 79% of people scan web pages. That begs the question: If the majority of readers already prefer skimming, why wouldn’t you want to make it an easy, enjoyable, and efficient process for them?

Ultimately, if you want people to read your writing, you have to adjust to your audience. You have to be empathetic and courteous. It’s not about you, it’s about them. Don’t forget that.

Scannable web pages contain the following elements:

  • Highlighting. Bold, italicized, colored, or hyperlinked text stands outs, which makes it more noticeable. Just don’t overdo it or the highlighting will lose its novelty and, in turn, its effect.
  • Subheads. Clear, concise subheads will immediately tell scanners what they need to know -- and they’ll appreciate that. Cute, clever subheads, on the other hand, will only slow readers down.
  • Bullets. Nothing breaks up text (and information) as well as bullet points and numbered lists do. Perfect for scanners who love to pluck.
  • Whitespace. Blocks of text look daunting and intimidating to readers. Whitespace, like bullet points, organizes your text, giving it a more scannable and manageable appearance.
  • Single-point paragraphs. Online readers -- especially if they’re researching a product or service -- are looking for takeaways. Focused, single-point paragraphs will make it easy to pick out those takeaways (while also giving you the opportunity to incorporate whitespace).
  • Inverted Pyramid presentation. In academic writing, for example, students generally start with the foundation of their argument and gradually build on it until they reach the conclusion. Of course, in academia, professors are getting paid to read that stuff. No such luck with Internet audiences. That’s why web writers who start with their conclusion, and work backwards, usually have an easier time engaging impatient readers who just want to get to the point (i.e., benefits) already.

Each of these on-page elements give people something to hang their attention on, something to notice and gravitate to as they consume your content. Without them, your writing could appear too overwhelming to even begin, like the last pages of Ulysses.

Here’s our control paragraph rewritten to be scannable:

Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions that draw large crowds of people every year, without fail. In 1996, some of the most popular places were:

  • Fort Robinson State Park (355,000 visitors)
  • Scotts Bluff National Monument (132,166)
  • Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum (100,000)
  • Carhenge (86,598)
  • Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer (60,002)
  • Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park (28,446).

The Result: This version of the paragraph performed 47% better with readers than the control.

3) Use objective language.

Online consumers hate promotional writing, or “marketese,” as Nielsen calls it. Verbiage like “makes the perfect gift ...” or “best in the universe …” is almost universally regarded as empty. So if you want to avoid sounding like a snake oil salesman and actually earn some credibility online:

  • Don’t be subjective. When relaying information about a product or service, for example, be fair and balanced. Nothing is perfect. There’s always a drawback. Don’t be afraid to share it with your prospects. They’ll trust you for it.
  • Don’t boast without proof. It’s okay to brag ... as long as you support your claims using facts. Hyperlinking to reputable, third-party information, for example, is a solid way to earn online clout.
  • Don’t exaggerate. Your farm does not produce “The World’s Most Delicious” watermelons (and even if it did, you wouldn’t be able to prove it). It does, however, produce seedless, uber-juicy, ultra-sweet watermelons that won the Blue Ribbon at last year’s State Fair. As Farmer Hoggett once said, “That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.

As a web writer, you don’t want the audience to feel like your copy is clearly selling them. You want the effect to be much more subtle. Ideally, you want them to feel educated and excited after they finish reading. Give them a chance to sell themselves.

Staying objective will help you achieve that scenario.

Here’s our control paragraph rewritten to be objective:

Nebraska has several attractions. In 1996, some of the most-visited places were Fort Robinson State Park (355,000 visitors), Scotts Bluff National Monument (132,166), Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum (100,000), Carhenge (86,598), Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer (60,002), and Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park (28,446).

The Result: This version of the paragraph performed 27% better with readers than the control.

All together now …

Yes, using these best practices individually can improve the performance of your web copy. But you won’t see spectacular results until you use all three at once.

Here’s our control paragraph rewritten to be concise and scannable and objective:

In 1996, six of the most-visited places in Nebraska were:

  • Fort Robinson State Park
  • Scotts Bluff National Monument
  • Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum
  • Carhenge
  • Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer
  • Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park

The Result: According to Nielsen’s study, this version of the paragraph performed a whopping 124% better with readers than the control.

Those results translate to more attention, more engagement and, of course, many more conversions. And it’s all thanks to writing that doesn’t quite feel like work when you read it.

The 7-Step Formula for Writing Copy That Sells

The 7-Step Formula for Writing Copy That Sells

This post was originally published on the HubSpot Marketing Blog.


In Chicago, there’s a famous restaurant called Alinea. It’s one of only a handful of restaurants in America that have earned the coveted 3-star Michelin rating, making it one of the best restaurants in the world. But if you ask people who’ve dined there what makes it unique, most will tell you that, somehow, it’s not just the food.

Alinea is an experience. The food, artistic and delicious as it is, wouldn’t garner its full effect if each course (there are about 20 in all) didn’t arrive just in time, perfectly ordered, with each dish complementing the one before it and simultaneously enhancing the one scheduled to arrive next. There’s a natural flow to the meal -- a rhythm. Each course serves a purpose, like the individual instruments of an orchestra.

The end result is something enticing, captivating, and memorable -- and fun. Really fun. Most importantly, the end result sells people. It compels them to write glowing Yelp reviews. It makes Alinea the topic of conversation. The end result drives people back again and again.

As a marketer, if you want to sell people like a Michelin 3-star restaurant, you have to execute like one. In other words, you have to 1) produce something remarkable and 2) present it correctly, logically.

If you don’t know how to do that, here’s a proven copywriting formula that will guide you ...

Bob Stone's Gem: The 7-Step Formula for Writing Copy That Sells

Bob Stone was a giant figure in the advertising world. His colleagues called him “Mr. Direct Marketing” because he wrote countless successful direct mail pieces, selling everything from surgical dressings to business club memberships.

How did he do it? He had a trick: an adaptable formula made up of seven simple, logical steps he used to hook readers and keep their interest until the last line (at which point many readers did what he asked them to).

Stone’s formula -- referred to by marketers as “Bob Stone’s Gem” -- was originally used to write sales letters and other direct response advertisements. But in the decades since its invention, it’s been proven to work in virtually any type of promotion, from blog posts to landing pages to sales emails. Try it yourself and watch your response rates rise.

But first, let's break down each step. You'll notice that I've provided an example sentence (or two or three) under each to show how a copywriter might use Bob Stone’s Gem to create a blurb of copy (which, in this instance, is selling that beaut of a restaurant: Alinea).

1) Begin with your strongest benefit.

In the advertising world, features tell and benefits sell. That’s what makes Bob Stone’s Gem so compelling: it forces marketers to focus on and, therefore, highlight the benefits of their product, service, cause, program -- what have you. Of course, features should also be present in the promotion you create but, ultimately, they’re not closers. Only benefits are.

That’s why you have to sculpt your copy around a target persona, highlighting the benefits you know to be most important to her.

In this example, I’ll be writing to Foodie Francis, a married, middle-aged lawyer with two adult children. She loves cooking and is particularly fascinated by molecular gastronomy.

Let’s get started:

Dine at Alinea, and join the I’ve-Eaten-the-Best-Food-in-the-World club.”

2) Expand on the most important benefit.

Make your main benefit difficult to ignore by describing the actual positive impact it can make on your target persona’s life. Change your reader’s perspective. Plant a seed.

For example:

A club that will open your culinary head, forever changing the way you look at food and, perhaps, even the way you understand ingredients.”

3) Explain exactly (and in detail) what the prospect will get. 

You’ve planted the seed, now water it. This is where you can drop some features. You can do so by painting a picture, which will give your reader something to visualize and gestate. Just don’t over-do it. Leave room for your reader’s imagination. After all, it exists for a reason ...

For example:

At Alinea, dine on tempura-fried pheasant breast, while experiencing the delights of a Midwestern fall -- even if it’s January. At Alinea, eat an apple masquerading as a helium balloon.”

4) Back up your statement(s) with proof. 

By this point, your reader has given you her attention, time, and effort. But she’s not a sucker, you know. She’s a leery, 21st century consumer. And if she’s to be sold, she is going to need some proof.

This is your chance to flash some facts, statistics, testimonials, awards -- anything that’ll give credibility to your claims.

For example:

At Alinea, experience the weight of 3 Michelin stars: the bites, the service, the art of it all.”

5) Tell them what they’ll lose if they don’t act.

Bob Stone included this step because he knew that people are far more driven to avoid painthan they are to acquire pleasure. As a species, we’re constantly striving to prevent suffering and avoid discomfort. That’s why it’s important to incorporate some negativity into your copy.

For example:

But if you choose not to make a reservation, rest assured you'll go on living, laughing, and loving like you always have. Nothing will change. And wouldn’t that be unfortunate?”

6) Sum up the most important benefits. 

You just took your reader to the darkside, now bring them into the light again. Recap all those terrific benefits that captivated your reader in the first place, reminding her why she should pull the trigger.

This is your last opportunity to sum up the value your product or service will bring to the reader’s life. This is your chance to push the reader over the threshold, so make it personal and emotional for your target audience.

For example:

Because beautiful and delicious and exciting as the Alinea experience is, it's nothing compared to what could be. It's nothing when pitted against the future -- your future -- after your mind is awakened to the potential of ingredients and the possibilities of food.”

7) Present your call-to-action. 

If you don’t ask your reader to take a specific action at the end of your copy -- if you don’t tell her what to do next -- you might as well have never written it in the first place. I don’t care how compelling your words have been, if there isn’t a clear next-step, your copy is almost certainly going to fail.

So keep your call-to-action simple and direct. Don’t force your reader to think.

For example:

Be our guest. Reserve your table on our website,www.AlineaRestaurant.com, today.”

The Finished Product

When stitched together, Alinea’s promotional blurb is short and sweet. Depending on the circumstances, it could be expanded or even shortened. But for the purposes of this article, I think it reads just right:

Dine at Alinea, and join the I’ve-Eaten-the-Best-Food-in-the-World club.

A club that will open your culinary head, forever changing the way you look at food and, perhaps, even the way you understand ingredients. At Alinea, dine on tempura-fried pheasant breast, while experiencing the delights of a Midwestern fall -- even if it’s January. At Alinea, eat an apple masquerading as a helium balloon. At Alinea, experience the weight of 3 Michelin stars: the bites, the service, the art of it all.

But if you choose not to make a reservation, rest assured you'll go on living, laughing, and loving like you always have. Nothing will change. And wouldn’t that be unfortunate?

Because beautiful and delicious and exciting as the Alinea experience is, it's nothing compared to what could be. It's nothing when pitted against the future -- your future -- after your mind is awakened to the potential of ingredients and the possibilities of food.

Be our guest. Reserve your table on our website,www.AlineaRestaurant.com, today."

Is this copy going to sell everybody who reads it? Of course not. But then again, it wasn’t designed for everyone. It was designed for Foodie Francis, remember?

So, will it sell her? Perhaps. Nothing’s a sure thing. But thanks to Bob Stone’s Gem, I like my chances.

How to Train Your Brain to Write More Concisely: 6 Creative Exercises to Try

How to Train Your Brain to Write More Concisely: 6 Creative Exercises to Try

This post was originally published on the HubSpot Marketing Blog.


Every time I write, my goal is to write easy-to-read sentences.

I never want my audience to stumble or slow down or start a sentence over. That’s why, whenever possible, I use simple words instead of jargon, periods instead of semicolons, and active voice instead of passive voice. Most importantly, though, that’s why I strive to writeconcisely.

Framing your message concisely means saying everything you need to say in as few words as possible. It’s one of the most significant steps a writer can take towards clarity and comprehension -- two crucial building blocks when it comes to reader engagement.

But executing succinct writing (much less recognizing when a sentence could be tighter in the first place) doesn't come naturally to most people. Trimming the fat off your writing is a learned skill that requires effort.

The good news is you can start learning and honing that skill today by practicing the exercises below.

6 Exercises That’ll Train You to Write Concisely

By forcing you to either cut word count or stay within a word count, these exercises will help you do two things:

  1. Hone your writing skills, helping you to keep your sentences tight and powerful.
  2. Recognize when sentences are wordy in the first place, which is half the battle when it comes to writing concisely.

So come on. Let’s jump in …

1) Write a haiku a day.

A haiku is a Japanese poem. Traditional haikus must have seventeen syllables between three lines: five in the first line, seven in the second line, and five again in the third, like this one by Murakami Kijo:

First autumn morning:

the mirror I stare into

shows my father’s face."

But the 5-7-5 structure is not a hard-and-fast rule. In fact, most modern haikus are written in varying syllabic patterns, like this one by Yosa Buson, written in 5-3-5:

Over-ripe sushi,

The Master

Is full of regret."

Well-written haikus have an elegance to them -- a rhythm. Each words holds weight -- and each syllable is important -- because that’s what the craft demands. And while it’s challenging to create an emotional image when you only have a dozen or so syllables to work with, doing so trains you to think deeply about your writing. It forces you to evaluate the opportunity cost of words.

Try writing a haiku every evening before going to bed. You can write about anything -- your day, your dog, the untouched Scotch tape in your drawer at work -- as long as you hold yourself to one of the predetermined syllabic structures above.

2) Tweet.

By restricting each tweet to 140 characters, Twitter forces you to relay an impactful or interesting or compelling or funny message quickly.

There. That last sentence was 140 characters, which came out to a mere 22 words with which to express why Twitter is an effective training tool for writers. Could I have composed more on the subject? Absolutely. But that’s not the point. The point is to get your point across in as few words as possible.

Tweeting often allows you to sharpen that skill.

3) Freewrite non-stop for 2 minutes, then halve the text.

When freewriting, you only have to follow one rule: don’t stop until the timer goes off.

Everything else is fair game: you can misspell words and forget commas and apostrophes. You can tell a story or give an opinion or paint a picture. As long as you don’t slow down, a freewrite is your opportunity to word vomit (which can actually be fun and cathartic). After two minutes of freewriting, you’ll likely have something verbose in front of you because you didn’t on-the-go edit. Do a quick CTRL-A (Mac users: Command-A) and check the word count. If you’re at 124 words, for instance, then your goal would be to relay the same message in only 62 words.

Run this exercise enough and you’ll start to recognize your negative writing tendencies. In other words, you’ll begin to see patterns in your writing, which will alert you to the bad habits you should watch out for when writing.

For example, are you using too many adverbs? Are your words too complex (“utilize” vs. “use”). Do you lean on the passive voice too much? All these habits will come to the surface when you force yourself to halve the text you just speedily wrote.

4) Simplify Wikipedia paragraphs. 

You might be thinking, but Wikipedia articles are already concise. And they are.

Wikipedia is definitely a no-fluff zone, which is why this exercise is so stellar. You see, by forcing yourself to summarize an already to-the-point paragraph into something even more succinct, you put your editing brain into overdrive.

It’s like sprinting the final 100 yards of a five-mile run, when your lungs are shot. Or pushing through one more squat at the gym, when your legs feel like Jell-O. That extra effort goes a long way in terms of developing you physically -- and it will do wonders for your writing, too.

For example, let’s take this 175-word paragraph from the “Corporate history” section ofHubSpot’s Wikipedia page:

HubSpot was founded by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2006. Shah invested $500,000, which was followed by angel investments from Edward B. Roberts, the chair of the Entrepreneurship Center at MIT and fellow MIT Sloan classmate and Entrepreneur Brian Shin. The company introduced the HubSpot software in beta in 2006 and officially launched it in December 2007. An additional $5 million in funding was raised in 2007, which was followed by $12 million in May 2008, and $16 million in late 2009. The company grew from $255,000 in revenues the first year the software was released to $15.6 million in 2010. Later that year HubSpot announced its acquisition of oneforty. Oneforty began as an app store for Twitter, but shifted into an online resource for social media marketing. The company also introduced new software for personalizing websites to each visitor. According to Forbes, HubSpot started out targeting companies of 1–10 employees, but "moved steadily upmarket to serve larger businesses of up to 1000 employees."

Now let’s condense it into a 52-word bullet:

Founded by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah at MIT in 2006, HubSpot received a series of multimillion dollar capital injections that helped it grow more than 60X in its fourth year of business. That same year, HubSpot announced its acquisition of oneforty, introduced new website-personalization software, and began targeting much bigger businesses."

The end-result is comparable to a CliffsNotes study guide. Or one of those recap snippets summarizing the last episode of your favorite show. In any case, it’s a snapshot -- a concise rundown -- and while it may be challenging to create, it’ll also make you a better writer.

5) Explain a foreign concept in 100 words or less.

Like most of these exercises, this one’s easy to grasp and hard to execute. It asks that you pick an unfamiliar concept or subject, and effectively explain it, in writing, in less than 100 words. That means you have to be concise without being vague. In other words, you should strive to break down the “what,” “why,” and “how” of the concept or subject.

For reference, check out HubSpot’s [In Under 100 Words] series, which makes quick work of some fairly complicated subjects, including Marketing AutomationSEO, and Smarketing.

And remember: by practicing this challenge, you’ll not only sharpen your writing, but you’ll also teach yourself something new. 

6) Read Hemingway, Bukowski, and Vonnegut.

In his memoir, On Writing, Stephen King wrote, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

You heard the master. Writers are readers, too. And if writers want to be concise, they must read other concise writers…

Like Ernest Hemingway, who is said to have written the world’s shortest novel. It’s six words long: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Like Charles Bukowski, who summed up the essence of his first novel, Post Office, in the book’s opening sentence, which reads, “It began as a mistake.”

Like Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote most of his novels, including his masterpiece, Cat’s Cradle, in a series of chapters that rarely exceeded two pages in length. This concise approach kept his storylines tight, punchy, and addicting. (Read this for more Vonnegut-inspired writing tips.)

The first five exercises in this article will help you to hone your sentences, to keep them succinct and ready to cut. But this last exercise will ensure that you’re reading some of the finest sentences ever written, a practice that will undoubtedly shape your understanding of the craft as a whole, giving you something to strive for and admire.

This is your inspiration. And now that you have it, let’s get to work. Let’s get better.

How to Write Compelling Copy: 7 Tips for Writing Content That Converts

How to Write Compelling Copy: 7 Tips for Writing Content That Converts

This post was originally published on the HubSpot Marketing Blog.


Copy is writing that sells, so by definition, it has to be compelling.

Does your copy also have to be concise? Yes. Does it have to be clear? Absolutely. Brevity and clarity will ensure that your message is digestible, which is important if you want your words to be read and understood with ease. That said, the clearest, most concise copy ever written is still a bust if it doesn’t compel its readers to act.

Compelling copy fascinates its target audience and drives them to pull the trigger on a CTA. It does this by capturing their attention, unearthing a pain they're desperate to assuage, and presenting a mutually valuable, solution-driven call-to-action.

If your goal is to write clear, concise copy, then you can train yourself to do that. Just follow a few guidelines and, of course, practice. But if you want to write compelling copy, then you have to do a lot of research and even more critical thinking.

Let’s break it down ...

How to Write Compelling Copy

Before you start that next sales email or landing page, try some of the tips below. Working through them will take some time and thought, but the effort will be worth it when you walk away knowing exactly how to frame your message to achieve the best response.

1) Get to know your target prospect.

The most effective fishermen vary their bait depending on the fish they aim to catch. They know that bass, for example, go after earthworms. Carp love corn. Crappie respond well to rubber lures. Fishermen also adjust their technique depending on the time of day, the water conditions, and the season. They soak up as much information as possible about the fish and it’s environment, ultimately using their learnings to attract and, hopefully, hook.

As it happens, marketers operate similarly, learning as much as they can about their target prospects before casting them their message. Doing so makes it easier to highlight irresistible benefits throughout their copy. Benefits that relieve ultra-specific pain points, making the offer all the more compelling to the right audience.

To accurately and efficiently isolate your target prospect's problems (which will illuminate the benefits most fascinating to them) start by answering a series of questions about their personal background, their company and the position they hold, and their challenges, goals, and shopping preferences. In other words, create a buyer persona. As a result, you’ll amass an abundance of invaluable information that you can then use to attract attention and inspire action.

2) Exploit the psychology of exclusivity.

If you want more buzz than you can handle, make your prospects feel special. Tell them they’ve been “hand-selected” or “randomly picked” to receive your offer. Isolate them ... but in a good way. Make them feel important. People love feeling important.

In fact, self-esteem, or how we view ourselves, is near the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. That’s how important feeling important is to people. It’s a need marketers have been exploiting for decades …

In an article for Fast Company, Robert Rosenthal points us to this U.S. Marines tagline: “The Few. The Proud.” And this American Express tagline: “Membership has its privileges.”

The folks at Google played the exclusivity card, too, creating a frenzy when they launched a soft beta of Google+ and invited only a select few users to create a profile. Google’s marketing team wasn't trying to be mean, they were trying to create desire (that compels) out of thin air. And they succeeded. Psychology’s good for that.

3) Make it emotional.

When it comes to converting a prospect, the features of your product or service will only get you so far. Why? Because features appeal to your prospect’s logical brain. And purchases aren’t driven by logic. They hinge on emotion, which explains why good commercials make us want to laugh or cry or pick up the phone to call home.

For example, Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign was so powerful and thought provoking that it went viral before such a thing even existed. The campaign has been active for over a decade, resonating with millions of women who were left feeling empowered by its message: you are not defined by your makeup.

Dove_Real_Beauty.png

Image Credit: Ad Fuel

That sentiment created countless emotional moments. Those emotions, then, were what drove Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign to its celebrated (and well-deserved) success.

(And when those moments weren’t compelling people to reach for Dove soap, they were driving a new social perspective, which is an entirely separate accomplishment.)

4) Draw analogies and metaphors.

A confusing or dull message is rarely compelling, mainly because people don’t pay much attention to what they don’t perceive to be valuable. If you think about it, most things in life boil down to value. It’s a potent human driver. Therefore, as a copywriter, your job is to first and foremost figure out the value in what you’re selling and then put it into clear, concise, and compelling words.

The latter is almost always harder to do. And if you’re new to copywriting, it could feel almost impossible, like trying to thread a needle while wearing hockey gloves. That’s where analogies and metaphors can lend a hand. They’re especially effective at putting concepts into perspective.

Here are a few examples of metaphorical taglines from The Houston Chronicle:

  • Tropicana: “Your Daily Ray of Sunshine.”
  • Werther’s Original Popcorn: “It’s What Comfort Tastes Like.”
  • Burger King: “Subservient Chicken.”

See how these brands combine two starkly different concepts to tell a story or create an image? You can do that in your copy, too. As long as your juxtaposition makes sense -- as long as it connects the dots and isn’t trite -- you’re likely doing your reader a favor by helping them experience your offer in a fresh, descriptive, and interesting way.

5) Avoid weasel words.

Weasel words are used by people who want their statements to maintain some plausible deniability. Politicians trying to avoid making any definitive comments, for instance, would use weasel words. Copywriters use them a lot, too, especially if their product’s promise is weak or loose. For example:

  • “Viva Hand Cream fights dryness.” (i.e., you might not win.)
  • Reduce hair loss with Thick & Lush!” (i.e., you won’t cure it.)
  • “Rent from as little as…” (i.e., you’re probably going to spend more.)

These words are named after weasels because of the way the little guys eat their eggs: puncturing a small hole and sucking out the contents, leaving the egg appearing intact but, nevertheless, very much empty. Ever held an empty egg? It’s fragile and delicate, right? Given the slightest bit of pressure, if feels like it would collapse.

Is that how you want your copy to come across? Weak and listless, like ants floating in a puddle? Of course not. So avoid the weasel words when you can. Your writing will be stronger, more authoritative, and more compelling for it.

6) Create urgency.

The more relaxed and comfortable we are physically, the less eager we are to move. Nobody plops down in their favorite La-Z-Boy, puts their feet up, cracks a beer, and thinks, I can’t wait to get up. No. People don’t like moving when they’re in a comfy position.

Same goes for people in a comfortable state of mind. Therefore, if your copy leaves readers with the impression that your offer will always be there, patiently waiting for them to pull the trigger, they may use that as a justification to not convert on your call-to-action. They’ll sleep on it, consider their options, and weigh the pros and cons. And after all that, they may very well do nothing at all because you gave them the chance to talk themselves out of it.

Next time, create some urgency. Set a deadline, using time-sensitive language like “This offer ends tomorrow,” or “Last chance,” or “These savings won’t last forever.” You can also play the scarcity card, reminding them that “There are only a few seats left” or that “Supplies are limited.”

The point is to make your prospects feel uneasy about waiting. Strange as it sounds, the more uncomfortable they are, the more likely it is they’ll be compelled to act.

7) Tailor your CTA.

When you want more brown rice at Chipotle, just ask.

When you want a five and five singles back instead of a ten, go ahead and ask.

When you look at them and everything turns to color and you want to spend your life with them, ask. Ask them to take that next step with you, and maybe they’ll smile and say “yes.” Hopefully, they do.

But you gotta ask. Whether you’re at Chipotle, in line at the grocery store, or in love, if you want something, typically, you have to ask for it. Why would copy be any different? That’s why a CTA, or a call-to-action, is one of the most compelling elements your copy can possess -- as long as it’s well-executed.

In other words, don’t settle for the standard “Click now” copy every time. Instead, strive to make your CTAs simple and potent; creative and forthright. Most importantly, make sure to play to your audience. For example:

  • If you’re going after an experimental SaaS audience, 
  • then give them a “Start your free trial now” CTA.
  • If you know your target persona to be curious and discovery-oriented,
  • then give them a “See how it works” CTA.

Click here to dive deeper into these and 14 other call-to-action formulas that make people want to click.

Now, are you going to compel everyone?

You won’t. Not even close. But don’t let that bother you. Copywriting, like any craft, is honed over time. So keep failing. Keep stubbing your toes on the hurdles. That’s natural.

What isn’t natural is writing effective copy that converts. That’s where these tips and techniques can help. Practice them and, over time, you’ll steadily compel more people to take action more often. Until one day, these techniques will become part of you, engrained in your skillset.

And then you’ll be dangerous on cue.

10 Simple Edits That'll Instantly Improve Any Piece of Writing

10 Simple Edits That'll Instantly Improve Any Piece of Writing

This post was originally published on the HubSpot Marketing Blog.


Editing copy boils down to two key things: recognizing weaknesses and knowing how to fix them. It’s a critical part of the writing process and yet, one that’s all too often overlooked. After all, if you don’t know that there’s an issue to begin with, how can you fix it?

That's why, if you struggle with editing, you’re going to love this article ...

Because by the end of it, you’ll be armed with 10 powerful, uber-specific editing actions that’ll make your copy more addictive, engaging, and compelling than it was before you got to work revising it. 

Whether you’re writing a landing page, a blog article, an email, or a web page, making the following changes will have a profound impact on your readers. Namely, these edits will make them more likely to do what you want them to do -- and that’s what great copy is all about.

10 Simple Edits That'll Instantly Improve Any Piece of Writing

A mesmerized reader, for all intents and purposes, is an engaged prospect -- and that’s exactly what marketers want. After all, engaged prospects are more likely to keep reading your copy, which makes them more likely to reach a call-to-action that’s irresistible.

Are you ready to edit your copy like a pro? Here’s what you gotta do ...

1) Open with questions that get the reader to say “yes.”

Inertia, be it mental or physical, is a powerful force. In other words, whether it’s a long-term relationship or a boulder rolling down a hill, the longer it’s in motion the harder inertia makes it to stop. That’s why writers love using it, especially in their introductions. 

The idea is that the longer you can get the reader to say “yes” to your honest, accurate statements, the more likely they are to keep saying “yes” and, ultimately, harmonize with your message. Why? Because they’ll feel like you understand them; like you know exactly what they’re going through.

Make them say “yes” enough and they’ll get the feeling that your product or service can help solve their problem. Hopefully, it can.

2) Double tap the “Enter” button every 1-3 sentences.

As you know, hitting “Enter” or “Return” twice leaves a space between paragraphs. But just because that space is void of words, does not mean it doesn’t serve a purpose.

Just as photographers and designers use negative space to create a focal point, writers can use white space to create emphasis and draw attention to something that’s important.

White space also makes copy appear less intimidating and more readable. It structures the message in a polished, elegant frame that invites readers to dive in.

3) Bold your key benefits.

Bolding the benefits will quickly point readers to the information you absolutely need them to know. In fact, in-text formatting of any kind -- italicizing, underlining, capitalizing, back-linking -- will help you capture and maintain a reader’s attention. That happens because our minds are hardwired to notice change.

Imagine watching a play go from a monologue to a dialogue in the same scene. Or a movie fade to a perfectly white screen. It gets your attention, right?

Something new, thinks your subconscious. Something that stands out. Let’s focus.

4) Isolate important information using bullet points.

As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “Pity the readers.” That means go easy on them when you write. Consider that they have to focus on and instantly make sense of every word and every little mark you put in front of them. And they have to do it all online, where attention is at a premium. So help them out.

Bullets and numbered lists will:

  • Organize your text, making it more scannable and digestible.
  • Highlight your key points and other important bits of information.
  • Draw the most attention after your headline and subheads, making them an ideal vessel for benefits.

(Click here to learn 8 quick tips for writing bullet points people actually want to read.)

5) Start sentences with “Imagine,” “Remember,” or “Picture this …”

These words are triggers. They let readers know you’re about to tell them a story, jog their memory, or paint them a picture (the way I do here). People love that stuff. Always have. According to producer Steven Moffat, “We’re all stories, in the end.”

So think of it this way: The word “Imagine” at the beginning of a sentence or paragraph serves the same purpose as the title sequence of your favorite Netflix show. It signals to you that you're about to experience something you enjoy. It yields an anticipatory sensation. It creates suspense. And that’ll keep you engaged in just about any situation, whether you’re watching TV or reading an email.

6) Incorporate the word “because” as often as possible.

“Because” is another trigger word. It lets people know they’re about to hear a justification -- a reason why -- which, according to renowned researcher and author, Dr. Robert Cialdini, is great at getting people to nod their heads:

"A well-known principle of human behavior says that when we ask someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do," writes Cialdini in his bestselling book, Influence.

Why? Because science proved it.

(Note: The word “because” has the same effect on paper as it does in-person.)

7) Convert sentences to active voice.

Nothing kills writing quite like the overuse of passive voice. A simple way to combat this? Convert sentences to active voice. 

Active voice means the subject of each sentence is doing the action rather than receiving it. The latter would be passive voice. For example:

  • Active: Usain Bolt broke the world record.
  • Passive: The world record was broken by Usain Bolt.

See how much stronger and more confident the active voice is? Its counterpart is comparatively weak and deflated. Passive voice is just, kinda … meh. It can make you sound like you’re playing a round of Clue. You can do better.

To passive-proof your text, start by doing a CTRL-F for the word “by.” That’ll quickly highlight sentences in which the subject may be receiving the action rather than doing it. Or you can let Hemingway Editor find them for you.

8) Rewrite everything in the second person.

Second person is the most engaging narrative mode because it’s the most personal. Pronouns like “you,” “your,” and “yours” will help the reader see themselves in your copy and, consequently, in the story your product or service is trying to tell.

Great writing speaks to readers on an intimate level. It connects with them, which is incredibly difficult to do. But writing in the second person makes it easier.

9) Count your adverbs and then cut that number in half.

Or, better yet, quarter it. In his memoir, On Writing, Stephen King wrote, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Why so harsh? Because adverbs are very, very good at weakening your writing. See?

If you want your writing to grab people by the collar, replace that mediocre adverb-verb combo with a single punchy, potent verb. For example, instead of writing “she’s very mad” you could write “she’s irate.” Or instead of writing “adverbs are very, very good at weakening your writing” you can write “adverbs sabotage compelling sentences.”

10) Amend your call-to-action to be a call-to-value.

Before you publish that landing page or send out that email, you should double-check your call-to-action (you know, the essential end-piece that tells your reader what to do next). Make sure it’s clear and concise, bold and visible, urgent and compelling. Most importantly, make sure it communicates benefits (i.e., the value that awaits those who do what you’re asking).

For example, if you’re a travel agent, don’t let your copy read “Call now for a free quote” or something equally typical and uninspiring. Instead, drive them to take action with a sneak peak: “Call now and let the anticipation begin” or “Click today and be gone tomorrow.”

Let your prospects see themselves in the action and they’ll be more likely to take it.

Feeling Prepared?

Editing isn’t easy. It takes guts and character to amend creative work. But remember, you’re doing it for a reason: to make your writing stronger and clearer. In the end, making these edits will take time and effort, but they’ll yield more email opens, more shares, and more conversions.

And believe me, it’ll be worth it.

The Art of Turning Off: 7 Ways To Do Your Best Work (By Forgetting About Work)

The Art of Turning Off: 7 Ways To Do Your Best Work (By Forgetting About Work)

This post was originally published on the HubSpot Marketing Blog.


Creative work takes a tremendous amount of energy. 

So much energy, in fact, that “turning off,” or forgetting about work for a period of time can feel counterproductive to a marketer who is set on creating something engaging and effective – especially if they’re under a deadline. That’s when it’s hardest to get past the guilt of tuning out and turning off. 

Why? Because it seems like you’re wasting time. But are you really?

Are you doing yourself a disservice every time you step away -- whether it’s for a short break or long retreat? Or are you investing in your work, and ensuring that it will be as fresh, creative, and persuasive as your potential allows? 

Science says it’s the latter ...

The Benefits of Turning Off

Basically, “turning off” means taking a break from work -- and not thinking about it while you’re away. Of course, all breaks are not created equal.

How long you turn off for, where you go, and who you’re with during your time away are just a few variables that make every break unique. But regardless of the circumstances, studies continue to prove that you’ll return a better, stronger, and more aware version of yourself.

Specifically, a couple beneficial things will happen:

You’ll improve your performance.

According to a study conducted at The University of Illinois, brief diversions from a task can trigger a dramatic improvement in one's ability to remain focused on that task for a prolonged period of time. 

In the study, 84 participants were divided into four groups and asked to focus on a repetitive computerized task. The control group worked on the task for 50 minutes with no breaks. The "switch" and "no switch" groups had to memorize four digits before taking on the task, and had to respond if they saw one of those digits. However, the "switch" group was presented with the digits twice. Finally, the "digit ignored" group was also shown four digits, but were asked to ignore them. 

The group that saw no drop in performance? The switch group, as they were given two brief breaks to respond to the digits which allowed them to stay focused.

So if you're feeling guilty about taking a break, keep in mind that intermittently leaving your work will refocus you, and can actually give you clarity. When it comes to writing, clarity is the mother of desire and action.

You’ll be better prepared to come up with creative solutions.

While it's easy to assume that day dreaming or taking a break is a waste of time, a study conducted at The University of British Columbia revealed that our brains are actually highly active when we daydream -- more so than we previously thought.

When we relax and take a break from challenging thinking, we allow our thoughts and ideas to incubate in our minds. And this ultimately sets us up to generate new, creative solutions.

For example, a study from the University of California, Santa Barbara revealed the benefits of daydreaming by tasking 145 undergraduate students to come up with uses for mundane objects such as toothpicks, bricks, etc. The students were assigned to one of four conditions. While one group received no breaks, three groups were given a 12-minute break to a) rest, b) perform a short-term memory task, and c) do something boring that would allow them to daydream. 

As it turns out, the group of students left to daydream came up with 41% more possibilities than other students. 

(Click here to read more about the hidden benefits of daydreaming.)

You'll avoid burnout.

When you keep pushing through work without taking a break ... it shows. Your energy levels slip. Your smile fades. And your overall demeanor takes a turn for the worst. Not to mention, it can lead to larger issues such as exhaustion or chronic stress. 

While the fear of being seen as replaceable or not having the time to take time off will often keep you from taking the plunge, you won't be doing anyone any favors when you're burnt out. 

According to an infographic from CityPass, almost nine out of ten American workers feel like time off increases their happiness, and 91% of business leaders admit that employees who take time off typically return feeling recharged and ready to work more effectively. 

Moral of the story? Book that trip. Your work will be there when you get back. 

How to Take More Breaks and Forget About Work

Experiencing these benefits, of course, means you must turn off. And that’s not something we’re all good at.

To make it easier, check out these seven tips designed to help you take a break from the grind and recollect your thoughts. You'll notice there are a variety of suggestions -- from quick time management breaks to full-fledged sabbaticals -- so you're sure to find something that makes sense for you. 

1) Follow the 20-20-20 Rule. 

Known for being the go-to strategy to avoid straining your eyes and developing a repetitive stress injury (RSI), the 20-20-20 Rule also doubles as a nice, frequent break for people who sit in front of a computer all day.

Here’s what you do: Set a timer to go off every 20 minutes you’re at your desk. As soon as you get the alert, look away from your monitor and stare at something 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. 

This is a good opportunity to zone out and enter your “diffused” mode -- where who knows what’ll happen next.

2) Use the Pomodoro Technique.

In the late 80s, a man named Francesco Cirillo invented an easy productivity method that people still use and love. (And he named it after that kitschy timer your mom used to let you twist.)

Here’s what you do: Set a 25-minute timer and start working. When it goes off, stop working for five minutes. Use your five minutes any way you like, and then promptly get back to work as soon as they’re up. Do that four times in a row, and then take a 30-minute break before starting your fifth session.

By locking you into a timeframe, the Pomodoro Technique incites urgency, which may inspire you to make quicker decisions and waste less time.

3) Capitalize on your Ultradian Rhythm. 

We sleep in cycles, alternating between two forms of sleep: REM (deep, dreamy, restful sleep) and non-REM (less deep, more superficial sleep). And while one may be more intense than the other, both forms must alternate in intervals of 90 minutes to achieve a truly restful night of sleep. It’s called the Ultradian Rhythm, and it just so happens that it’s present in our waking lives, too.

Here’s what you do: Set a timer for 90 minutes and begin working. Silence your phone. Block Facebook. Don’t even stop to edit your work. Just work. When your timer goes off, stop working and take a break for 15 minutes. While taking a break seems unproductive, the act will actually help you balance your energy and avoid burnout. When you're done, try it again by focusing on a different project for 90 minutes.

By keeping with the ebb and flow of your body, you’ll maximize your productivity and creativity. Skeptical? Here’s the groundbreaking study that proves it’s true. 

4) Actually allow yourself the weekend.

Hopefully, employing some of the more micro time-management methods above will help you clear your workload throughout the week, leaving you completely free over the weekend -- which is what you want, right?

Here’s what you do: If years of workaholism have made “turning off” a difficult and unnatural task for you, divide your weekend into activity chunks (the way you would a work day). Doing so may help you become more comfortable with the idea of doing nothing. 

Leaving your work computer switched “off” for two days in a row may feel weird at first -- like a strange emptiness -- but it’s a healthy mental exercise and it’ll help you write your best copy

5) Take random days off.

The U.S. Travel Association commissioned a study that found that American workers are using only 77% of their paid time off. That adds up to 169 million forfeited days, which amounts to a whopping $52.4 billion in benefits that were simply given up. 

Don’t do this. It’s your time. And it’s there to help you make the most of your work.

Here’s what you do: If you have some spare days in the bank, give yourself a three-day weekend. Or schedule a Wednesday off and break up the week. Then use that time to do something other than work.

Go ahead. Use your time however you want. (Or look into one of these hobbies that are proven to make you smarter.) And if you’re not at peace with the idea of turning off for an entire day, find solace in the fact that employees who use more vacation days end up with better performance reviews (and higher salaries). 

6) Leave the country.

In 1997, Dan Pink left his job as Chief Speechwriter for then-VP, Al Gore, and began writing books about business, work, and human behavior. He’s since authored several best sellers, including To Sell Is Human, in which he references the concept of the “jolt,” which, I think, is particularly advantageous.

Pink writes:  

Try a jolt of the unfamiliar. Clarity, we’ve learned, depends on comparison. But many times we become so rutted in our own ways that we scarcely notice what we’re doing or why we’re doing it -- which can impair our ability to bring clarity to others. Sometimes, as Tufts University psychologist Sam Sommers says, “it takes a jolt of the unfamiliar to remind you just how blind you are to your regular surroundings.”

Here’s what you do: Take Dan’s advice. Give yourself one of the following "jolts."

  • Mini Jolt. Sit on the opposite end of the conference table at your next meeting. Travel home from work using a different route from normal. Instead of ordering what you usually do at your favorite restaurant, choose the eleventh item on the menu. 
  • Half Jolt. Spend a day immersed in an environment not typically your own. If you’re a teacher, hang out at a friend’s law office. If you’re an accountant, take an afternoon and spend it with a lifeguard or park ranger.
  • Full Jolt. Travel to another country, with a culture different from your own. You’ll likely return jolted -- and clarified. 

Remember: Clarity is the mother of desire and action. It’s the ultimate fuel for a marketer. And a Full Jolt is one way to clear your mind and renew your perspective.

7) Escape on sabbatical.

If leaving the country is a Full Jolt, then taking a sabbatical would be a concussion -- a derailing, crippling concussion for your career, that is. At least that’s how some people see it. But depending on your professional circumstances, that's not always the case.

If you’re employed by a progressive company that appreciates the benefits of a sabbatical, then you'll know that a leave like this has the potential to do wonders for your productivity. 

Here’s what you do: If you get the opportunity to take a sabbatical, do it. It might just change the way you think, act, and create for the better. And at the end of the day, that’s the whole point.

The Kurt Vonnegut Guide to Great Copywriting: 8 Rules That Apply to Anyone

The Kurt Vonnegut Guide to Great Copywriting: 8 Rules That Apply to Anyone

This post was originally published on the HubSpot Marketing Blog.


While he was known best for his novels, Kurt Vonnegut also knew a thing or two about copywriting. 

That's what dawned on me after reading "How to Write with Style," an essay Vonnegut published in the 1985 anthology, How to Use the Power of the Printed Word. In it he outlines the eight rules for great writing -- rules that can be applied to any type of writing, including copywriting.

How's this possible? How can a novelist and a copywriter base their work off of the same standard principles?

Because every writer is working with the human condition. That’s why you’re gonna want to read this.

To prove it, let's take a closer look at Vonnegut's rules. You'll notice that I've outlined a takeaway under each to highlight how copywriters can use it to command attention and influence action.

The Kurt Vonnegut Guide to Great Copywriting

1) "Find a subject you care about."

Vonnegut writes:

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others care about. It is genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.”

Takeaway: Whether you're composing a sales letter, writing a blog article, or sculpting a landing page, if you're not passionate about the product or service you're selling, it will come through in your copy. 

How can a copywriter force himself or herself to care about teakettles if they hate tea? Or cat food if they love dogs? Or boat propellers if they're plagued by seasickness? Here's what I recommend:

  • Be selective about the projects you take on. If you don't like guns, writing web copy for a hunting site might not be a good fit for you. That's a personal call -- and it’ll require your brutally honest evaluation.
  • Research like crazy. If you do choose to tackle an unfamiliar topic, get your hands dirty. Dive into your new product, service, or industry headfirst. The more you know, the more you'll care.

2) "Do not ramble, though."

Vonnegut writes:

I won't ramble on about that…”

Takeaway: Good copy is concise. Don't use three words when one will do.

3) "Keep it simple."

Vonnegut writes: 

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred.”

Takeaway: Good copy is also clear. Don't make the reader think. Your message should be easy to understand. If it's not, you run the risk of losing your prospect. So, how can copywriters keep their message simple?

  • Use clean, short, understandable words. Be incredibly clear. Don't write "utilize" when you can say "use," or don't write "tenebrous" when you can say "dark."
  • Use clean, short, understandable sentences. Don't fear periods, go easy on the adverbs, and avoid the passive voice. Here’s a great site that can help you do this.

Keeping it simple isn't easy, but it's the right thing to do for your reader.

4) "Have the guts to cut."

Vonnegut writes:

If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”

Takeaway: It doesn't matter how beautiful your sentence is, if it doesn't speak to your target audience and make the reader crave the next sentence, it's probably best to delete it. A copywriter's end goal is to fluidly move prospects down the page until they reach a call-to-action, which, then, asks them to move on to the next step of the buying process. Fluff will only serve to disrupt that process. And that negates the whole purpose of copy. So go ahead, cut.

5) "Sound like yourself."

Vonnegut writes:

I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am.”

Takeaway: Write naturally. Pick a persona to target and write as if you're speaking to that one individual and no one else. Sound like yourself and the copy will take on a unique, one-of-a-kind tone.

6) "Say what you mean to say."

Vonnegut writes:

“I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable -- and therefore understood.

And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of Jazz Idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledy-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.”

Takeaway: Good copy is, first and foremost, understood. That's why good, conversion-driven copywriters won't be caught dead distracting readers with fluff. Respect your readers’ time. Minimize their cognitive expenditure.

7) "Pity the readers."

Vonnegut writes: 

“Readers have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don't really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school -- twelve long years.

So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify, whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.” 

Takeaway: You may be a wordsmith and an artist. Your prose may sing. And that's great … but it doesn't make it okay to write wordy copy. Successful copywriters know that long-winded copy won't get the job done. It’s all about being clear and concise because catering to the reader will be rewarded with trust, credibility, and action. So do your readers -- and yourself -- a favor: Show mercy.

8) "For really detailed advice."

Vonnegut writes: 

“For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, a more technical sense, I commend to your attention The Elements of Style, by Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. E.B. White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced.

You should realize, too, that no one would care how well or badly Mr. White expressed himself if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say.”

Takeaway: Always provide readers with value. Fail to do so and all the other rules on this list become obsolete. Value is born when your copy solves a specific problem for your reader. Or when it assuages a fear. Or when it meets a desire.  

Informative content is valuable. So is entertaining content. Ultimately, providing value is fundamental to the success of any piece of copy because in its absence, what’s there to care about?

So next time you sit down to write your next blog article or sales letter or landing page, ask yourself: Who’s this for? What do they want or need? And, perhaps, what would Kurt do?