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The Most Valuable “How to” Lesson of My Copywriting Career

It’s 1986, 25 years ago. Grab your Wayfarers. Toss on those screaming neon yellow parachute pants you’ll never give to Goodwill, and time travel with me for a few minutes as the soothing sounds of Lionel Richie ooze from our speakers.

We’ve arrived. We’re in a conference room in an ad agency with brass and glass all around. In class with me are 12 folks who want to be advertising copywriters when they grow up,. We’re glad to have you along. (What? You were expecting Top Gun?)

The teacher is a creative director, a smart, charismatic guy. For the life of me, I can’t remember his name. However, I’ll never forget the lesson he gave.

Madison Avenue, here we come.

We’re going to make a portfolio crammed with Belding-quality ideas that advertisers like Nike and Rolling Stone wish they thought of. But be patient class, first we have to learn how it’s done.

Some of the students sell shoes. One drives a catering truck (and always will). A small minority will discover their true muse is writing fiction. However, two or three of us may prove to have what it takes to become professional copywriters in the exciting world of advertising.

Let’s get in the proper mind frame now.

It’ll be several years to come before America Online will deliver some new electric form of mail. The Google guys are probably Little Leaguers. Translate: there is no Internet to speak of. A fortunate few of us have computers and of course, floppy disks on which to archive our creative works of art.

In this day and age, advertising hadn’t yet become a bad word. In fact, advertising pros were role models, often, the occupation de jour of really cool television and movie characters. Tom Hank’s romantic portrayal of a kooky creative director in “Nothing in Common” sealed the deal for me.

Now, if you’ll excuse the interruption to our flashback, I want to inject a little mid-article, middle-aged editorial. Contrary to the opinions of marketing thought leaders today, “advertising” is actually not a bad word. It might be a bad idea to place all your chips on mass media advertising campaigns, but content has always been king and offering someone the solution to their problem never is—and never will be—an engagement breaker.

And now back to class.

It’s time for the first lesson.

The teacher says we have to grasp a concept called the “unique selling proposition,” or USP. He claims every product must have one. He warns us arriving at the USP isn’t always easy. But not to fear, he also promises his formula is a piece of cake. He grabs a big black dry erase marker and writes:

How to ________________________________ .

However, we’re not allowed to take a stab at filling in the blank just yet. Before anyone gets up to go to the pencil sharpener, we have some learning to do. He proceeds to talk us through the difference between a feature and a benefit and colors the lesson with real-world stuff anyone can understand. It goes something like this:

  • Feature: McDonald’s has drive-up windows.
  • Benefit: You can grab a quick breakfast on the way to work without getting out of your car.
  • Feature: CERTS breath mints have Retsyn (scientific sounding ingredients were all the rage then).
  • Benefit: People will enjoy kissing you.

Any product in any market can be an example, but you get the idea and you see where this headed. We’re all going to learn…

How to write a great headline.

You know what? “How to write a great headline” is not a great headline. Sorry. The words I chose there, “great headline,” merely describe a feature. A great headline reveals a benefit. So here we go, a second stab. How to get people to read your ad. Ding. We have a winner.

You try it now. Don’t be shy. Whip out that product or service of yours. Notice its features. It might be shiny. It might be powerful, scalable, reliable, easy to use, made of the finest materials, 100% organic, red, white, a beautiful shade of blue made in the U.S.A., or imported from a remote tropical forest in Africa. It might be cheap to buy or even free to try. All these things might be unique, but they’re not selling propositions. They’re features.

Features are boring. As a copywriter, or sales person, you’ll have your chance to tell me about the soft supple leather the shoes you sell are made of, but I’m not going to buy them unless they feel good on my feet.

So, here we go again. Go for it.

How to ________________________________ .

Today’s copywriting class is almost over.

Before we go, I want to thank you again for trekking back in time with me. Now, let’s make these last few minutes count. Here’s the lesson I learned on that day in 1986 and share with you here in the final month of 2011. Fill in the blank that follows “how to” and you have your unique selling proposition.

And it gets even better. You might also have your headline. Think of how many headlines begin with those two words. As humans, the desire to learn is at our very core. Are you with me? Why are you reading this article? Why do you read any article? You want to expand your knowledge, get some answers, get better at something. When I launch into my story with “how to,” you expect to be rewarded with a tip or two.

So, now for a tip or two.

My teacher said this exercise is absolutely essential. In honoring his simple wisdom, I require it of all my clients. I might not go about it quite as deliberately, but I ask, “What’s our USP?” An amazing majority of the time they’re at a loss for words. You know what I do? Yep. I lay those two little magic words on them and help them fill in the blank because we’re not ready to get the creative part of the project until we have a good “how to” statement.

I want to let you in on an interesting little headline writing secret I’ve discovered along the way. If the time-tested “how to” feels worn out and cliché to you, I offer an easy alternative. When you’ve filled in the blank with an effective benefit, you can go back and strike the words “how” and “to.” Check it out…

How to finish your blog post with a memorable last line.

How to finish your blog post with a memorable last line.


Finish your blog post with a memorable last line.

Works every time.

[Tell me, how do you go about establishing an effective USP?]

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