Back to business basics: bad text, good text


Have we overlooked how to
write good marketing text?

In our never-ending quest for bigger and better altruistic, non-salesy blog posts, it’s easy to forget that marketing writing is still an important part of the business portfolio.

It’s a little alarming, therefore, to see that many smaller businesses, in particular, may be blogging away quite cheerfully but still produce marketing and sales copy on their websites and in their printed promotional material, that’s positively incestuous in its “we-wee” focus and makes the customer-to-be feel about as welcome as a t*rd in a swimming pool. [Read more…]

How the Evil Bald Genius gets away with written murder – that sells

The Evil Bald Genius, a.k.a. Jon McCulloch

Some time ago I happened upon this extraordinary creature by the name of Jon McCulloch. He purports to be a professional business writer, as am I, but transcends those barriers into the realms of overall business sense combined with the ultimate in no-sh*t hilarity.

For example (a brief excerpt from one of his daily emails)

Wanna get laid.. or get shafted?  

Hi Suzan …

…The Nice Guy is the fellow who tries too hard. Y’now he’s just… nice. No rough edges, no sharp corners, and very little in the way of spine. Girls LIKE him… but as a friend. He works hard to please them, but they can’t see him as anything more than their New Best Friend With A Penis.  He doesn’t get laid… but frequently gets emotionally shafted, albeit unintentionally.

But here now, is what Jon wants to share with us…

Confessions of a Grumpy Email Marketer

“My name’s Jon… and I’m… I’m… I’m a writer!”.

A great opening at parties, but, alas, it quickly goes downhill when I’m inevitably asked, “So… what do you write?”.

Because once they start asking questions and getting answers, their eyes glaze over and they clearly wish they were somewhere else (or at least talking to someone else).

Let me explain.

I’m a marketing guy you see. And since my industry is a very grubby one at best, those who know about it immediately tar me with the same brush; and those who are ignorant of the whole seething underground of pustulent “success peddlers” are simply mystified.

Nevertheless, I’m a writer!

That’s what I do, and for whatever reasons, enough business owners like it enough to pay me handsomely for it.

I’m often asked “how do you write like you do?”, and I suspect what they’re hoping for is some list of seven “killer” sound-bites they can absorb by osmosis and become better writers overnight.

Alas, this ain’t gonna happen, and for at least two reasons.

First, there’s no mystery, because the most important thing is to write like you speak. Yeah, I’m sure there are times when you probably can’t get away with this quite so much, say if you’re a lawyer writing up a brief, but for the vast majority of business owners and other writers it’s the quickest, easiest, and most powerful thing you can do.

Or, as I often say, “if you can chat up the barmaid or have a sensible conversation with the lad behind the counter in HMV, you can write engaging, entertaining and profitable sales copy”.

And secondly, the only way to get good at writing is to be bad at writing and to get better with practice. I get thoroughly pissed off with the idiots who glibly inform me my writing ability, such as it may be, “must be the way you were wired up”.

That may be true in part, but while Mumsie is no longer around for us to ask, I am pretty certain the midwife didn’t hand me to her with the comment, “where did he get that pencil?”.


If I’m a good writer it’s because I was once a bad one and wrote myself into being a better one.

But it isn’t just about writing like you speak. I mean, that’ll make you a better writer, but it won’t necessarily make you a better business writer (and I always define “good business writing” as “writing wot makes me money”. ‘Cuz ya can’t eat accolades.

The second part of the secret (if secret there be) is to throw in the most important ingredient of all… and that’s yourself.

Here’s a true story for you.

When I first hung out the old shingle as a writer-for-hire I did all the usual crap everyone says you’re “supposed” to do.

I networked, I joined BNI and the local Chamber and I acted in ways totally alien to my true nature. I was sociable, empathetic and tolerant of idiots, morons and fools. I was even nice to people. I break into a cold sweat at the very thought.

And a fat lot of good that did me.


Because I was like every other bloody copywriter out there. In fact, I was like every other business out there: trying to be all things to all men and women and succeeding only in being nothing of much to anyone. It was, to use a technical marketing term a load of old donkey-snot.

I rapidly gave up on that, and decided I’d do it all differently. I’d make sure at least one person was happy with my style: me.

So I just started writing like me, warts and all. I didn’t just write like I spoke, but I started “speaking” in the way I spoke, too, rather than trying to speak like someone I was “supposed” to be as a professional. I’m sometimes vulgar, often profane, always edgy and consistently eye-wateringly Non-PC.

And bugger me if things didn’t improve.

The quality of my clients shot through the roof, and my fees skyrocketed.

But why did this happen?

Well, here’s my take on it. I could be wrong, but my reasoning is sound and it’s based on well-researched psychology.

We tend to like people who are like ourselves. This is deeply ingrained in the way we’ve evolved. The “out group” is to be shunned (if not actually killed and eaten) and the “in-group”, our tribe, comprises people more or less like us.

And we share similar views, beliefs, traditions and so on. So it comes as no surprise to discover even in the distributed world of the Internet we tend to be drawn to people like we are.

Where has it all got me in the long run?

Well, I’m a strong proponent of relationship marketing.

People find me by whatever means – in the SERPs, through an article or a blog-post like this one, or even by referral and they join my list.

Almost immediately they are warned off because I tell them upfront my style and personality are not for the fainthearted.

Some go, but most stay. And through my daily emails they come to know me and appreciate what I share with them, even if they don’t always like the way I do it. The point is enough of them like it to provide me with a handsome living.

My “numbers” are several multiples of the average in my aforementioned grubby industry.

Moreover, my wife has adopted a similar style with her own Blog (a fetish site – don’t ask, because you’d only go blind if you saw it) and her ebook launches convert routinely at 16%, 37% and most recently 47%.

This isn’t because the sales letters I write for her are sprinkled with magic fairy-dust: it’s because she adopts the same strategy I do. She throws her personality into her daily emails, she writes with little regard for wanting approval or validation. Anyone who doesn’t like it is free to unsubscribe.

Some do, but most don’t.

And so the sales letters need be only a few hundred words long, little more than a call to action.


Because the audience is already sold, that’s why.

In other words, you want your audience to buy into you so then they’ll buy from you.

If you’re in any kind of business adopting this kind of positioning is, in my experience, vital for attracting the best-quality clients who are willing and able to pay premium prices. Not only that but you like them a lot more.

And they like you.

It all begins with letting it all hang out and cutting dead any tendency to pretend to be someone else. You’re not fooling anyone except yourself.

As Tolstoy wrote “A writer is dear and necessary for us only in the measure in which he reveals to us the inner workings of his soul”.

Couldn’t have put it better myself.

Bio Jon McCulloch is perhaps the leading direct response copywriter and marketer in the British Isles, but he’s also made a name for himself over the other side of the Pond. Fortunately for the world, he freely shares his knowledge with others in his own unique way, which is definitely not for the squeamish, faint hearted or easily offended. You can find out more about Jon and download a free Internet and email marketing primer MP3 here.

Now, it’s your  turn to get away with written murder:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

“English to English: the A to Z of British-American translations”…more than 2,000 business and social terms from the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

Has the internet killed off clever ad copy?

Back in the dark ages when copywriters got paid huge whacks for coming up with clever-clever advertising concepts, we (copywriters) had a wonderful time thinking up ideas that dug out people’s emotions and imaginations to appeal to their innermost desires for sex, rock ‘n’ roll, business supremacy, fashion accolades and quite a few more.

Ah, but we only had the slow media then

Let’s face it; print, TV, radio and other media in pre-online days were useful in as much as their messages, along with your messages about your brand, stayed around for a while – so consumers had the chance to absorb, digest and ultimately appreciate any subtleties that the ad campaigns put forward.

And many ad campaigns in those days where you could use the “slowness” of the media of the day to build up intrigue, suspense, curiosity and ultimately fiendish interest, worked – superbly. But would that approach still work today?

The internet: no time for creative subtlety

Much as I love the online environment and everything it stands for, I must say I do have a few regrets when I consider how its vibrant immediacy has pushed away the chance to tempt and inveigle consumers with subtle branding and clever advertising come-ons, over a period of time, cloaked in nuances and hints.

Online communications have made such earlier, printed approaches look stupid and vapid, and quite rightly. But how does that leave the online copywriter in terms of terminology and phrasing that zings with pre-internet sales oomph, when the online consumer public is saying “never mind the advertising b*llshi*t, just tell us the facts?”

KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid

Much as we copywriters (well, I’m a “former” copywriter but still get asked to write ads) would love to let our creative fantasies loose as we did in the past, in our current environment where no-one has time for amusing metaphors any more we need, in many cases, to forget being clever-clever and work with “doing what it says on the tin.

Is this wrong? I don’t think so. In fact I think it’s quite a good thing, much as it pains me to say goodbye to the time and space the older media allowed us to use. In my view, the “cut the crap and get to the point” culture is a lot more honest in many ways.

It means that brands have to make their statements by doing rather than talking about it, because there’s no time for the long, slow build-up branding that was possible with the print and even TV campaigns of the past. Advertisers might regard the immediacy of the “click” as a powerful response device and so it is – but it only takes one more, similarly fast click to disappear your message, too. You really do have to get it right, first time, and there’s no time for frills or fanciness.

What do you think? I really would be interested to know.

Don’t let the internet kill off your clever copy:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

How to write catalog copy that really sells

Catalog copy should just describe the goods, right? Wrong! Well written text can boost your sales right up. Here’s how…

Many people fail to realize that catalogs should be “written” at all. Often their objective in creating a catalog is to cram in as many products as they can with descriptive copy kept to a few mis-spelled words in tiny type squashed into a corner.  These people are the on-paper equivalent of the “stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap” species you encounter in retailing.

However in a retail environment, customers can usually pick up the products, have a good look at them, read the on-pack copy and find out all they need to know. So the fact that they’re in a no-frills environment doesn’t matter too much.  When a product is pictured in the small, two-dimensional environment of the printed page (or web page, for that matter) it’s not only no-frills but also very lonely, unless the product has the support of some well-chosen words to inform readers and encourage them to buy it.

Do you realize how important your catalog is to your business?

Considering that for many businesses and other organizations their catalog is their only shop window – or at least represents, potentially, a very significant revenue stream – you would think that everyone’s attention and skill would be focused on its written content as much as its other elements.  But no.  All too often catalog look as though the copy has been written by a spotty hooligan who has a promising future as a street sweeper.

Yes, of course some products that get sold via a catalog do not need a lot of description and the only words you need to include are choice of colors/sizes/quantities etc.  But what about the “how to order” messages?  I don’t know about you, but if I’m thinking of buying something from a catalog there’s nothing that puts me off faster than having to spend a lot of time figuring out how to fill out the form, how to pay and where to mail it, etc., in the days when that was the only way to buy. Even today when I can go online to buy stuff I’ve seen in a printed catalog, often it’s still very hard to find the URL and chances are when I get to the website the products are different, or not available at all.

It’s not rocket science: take it in steps

It’s not difficult to get the process right.  Simply work out the steps you want customers to take, write them down simply, rough out the order form itself, and then try it out on your mother, your brother, your neighbor, the milkman, or anyone else – provided they are not involved with your organization.  That’s a cheap and fast way of discovering any flaws in the system, especially small goofs that can get overlooked so easily if you’re too familiar with the whole thing.

And here’s another one.  How many times have you looked at a catalog only to find that crucial information customers should keep (like contact details for ordering, delivery information etc) is placed either on the order form itself or on the back of the page the order form is on?  The result is when you mail off your completed order form you’re obliged to mail that important information away with it.

Your catalog = your brand

There is no mystery about creating good catalogs – only common sense.  It’s perfectly okay in my view to keep your writing crisp and concise because it helps to use the space more efficiently.  But whatever you do, never lose sight of the fact that the way a catalog is written and designed says a lot more about your organization than you think.  If it is cluttered, unclear and illogical, customers will think your company is too. So remember:

  • No matter how short your text is, always include (or imply) a benefit to the customer
  • Always write to “you,” not to a third party
  • Work with the designer to make the catalog user friendly, and test it to make sure it is
  • When you’re double checking prices and sizes, etc., don’t forget to proof read the words, too

Retailers spend fortunes on the design, layout and flow of their instore displays. Supermarkets can increase or decrease their turnover by thousands, simply by moving the fresh produce from the back wall to the side wall or by putting the bakery beyond the delicatessen or by increasing the aisle width by a few centimetres.  Think of your catalog as a paper-based store or supermarket, and you’ll find it easier to give it the consideration and respect it deserves.  And just watch those sales perk up!

Power up your writing for catalogs and much more:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English