≡ Menu

Maybe it wasn’t Luke who rescued Darth Vader from the Dark Side but the guy from the canteen all along

One of comedian Eddie Izzard’s most famous routines is set in the canteen of the Death Star, where arch villain Darth Vader meets his nemesis in the shape of a hapless catering flunkie who only wants to help. He tells Vader that if he wants food, he must take a tray.

Vader’s all: “I don’t take orders from you, don’t you know who I am, I’m your boss, I’m Lord Vader, I can kill you with a single thought.”

“Well, you’ll still need a tray,” says Canteen Guy.

Vader is deep in the Dark Side and though he might take orders from his ‘Master’, he believes in the hierarchy and his own importance:

“I do not need a tray to kill you…”

And on it goes, with threats and bombast from Vader, until Canteen Guy points out:

“No, the food is hot, you’ll need a tray…”

Suddenly the lights go on for Vader and his journey of redemption back from the Dark Side has begun. Now he understands: he needs a tray not because it’s an order, not because it’s a mindless rule imposed by an all-powerful bureaucracy, but because without one he might burn himself on scalding Penne all’Arabiatta. (The fact that his entire body is encased in hi-tech armour which presumably is heat proof is a minor detail, probably a continuity error).

He understands the reason for a tray, and that the ‘order’ is in fact a piece of useful advice. It’s for his own good.

And, of course, the story illustrates a powerful technique of persuasion: don’t just tell people what to do, explain why. You can see this technique in action almost everywhere you encounter the magical word: “because”.

Of course, if there had been a sign in the canteen that said “please take a tray because the food is hot” then the misunderstanding could have been avoided. But then the world would have been deprived of one of its best-loved comedy sketches. If you’re never heard it before, or would like to sample it again through the medium of Lego, enjoy.

Some products and services, don’t have much to offer. The marketing efforts rely on salesmanship and showmanship to grab attention and persuade people to buy. 

But what if your clients and customers are not so easily fooled? What if they make careful buying decisions? The showmanship may make them wary. The salesmanship will turn them off entirely and you’ll lose their trust. 

So what is a smart marketer to do? 

If your product or service has genuine merit, delivers value and helps people then the trick is to show them that, in ways that convince them. Provide enough information for them to make a buying decision, along with assurances that they are not taking a wild risk with their money, and ideally ‘social proof’ from other other satisfied customers. 

The marketing messages need to be clear and concise, friendly, intelligent, entertaining where appropriate and not intrusive. Certainly not slimy. 

Tell them what they need to know – and sound (and be) honest while doing it. 

2006 called – it wants its keywords back

Search engine optimisation (SEO) is a hugely complex topic, and one that is subject to constant change. That is because Google is in a constant battle with ‘spammers’, who want their websites to rank highly, while Google wants to return the most relevant results for users.

(There are other search engines, of course, but we’ll still with ‘Google’ from now on, because it is the biggest player in town globally, and virtually the only player in the UK.)

The key here is to understand that Google wants its search engine to find the highest quality pages and present those to the person doing the search.

Now, you can put a lot of time, effort and money into black hat and grey hat SEO techniques in an effort to compete with, trick and fool Google. (Black hat SEO involves breaking the ‘rules’ which Google creates. Grey hat involves skirting around them, or playing fast and loose with them. White hat SEO involves sticking to the rules, and improving the user experience right across the site. ).

For any reputable business, however, one which takes a long term view on building a customer base, it makes far, far more sense not to fight Google (you won’t win), but to accept that Google does have the right to lay down certain rules around how its own search engine works. If you want long term success, play fair and deliver value.

There are many aspects to this, some of them technical, involving how a website is put together. I won’t be going into much of that during these series of articles on SEO, as I am a humble copywriter, not a web development ninja. I will, however, be looking at how businesses can improve their SEO by focusing on providing high quality content.

I believe one of the most important things you can do is to take a long, deep breath and before anything else, remind yourself of how to be successful in almost any endeavour:


In this case, this means thinking about how the knowledge in your business can be used to help potential customers, while also convincing them that your is an organisation that can help theirs. This is a win-win situation, because by giving Google what it wants – high quality content – you are also giving readers and potential customers what they want.

However, providing high quality content is not something you can do quickly, on the cheap and without much thought. You can’t cut too many corners. You’ll need to invest time, effort or money, and probably a bit of all three.

But you don’t need to create dozens of articles every week. You don’t need to master strange and esoteric subjects either, or dive deep into the murky depths of keyword research.

The key is to write about things you are familiar with and care about, things that are relevant to your business activities and which will interest and be of use to your potential customers.

I’m going to be looking in greater depth at how and why to create this kind of content across a series of articles. For now, here are some core guidelines to get us started:

Everything you (and your SEO experts) know about SEO might be wrong / out-of-date

Search engine optimisation has changed. You don’t need thousands of short, spammy articles stuffed with keywords. I’m not sure that strategy ever worked well. It certainly won’t cut it today. In fact, that approach is likely to get your content flagged as low quality or even spammy. What you actually need is long-form, high quality content that is useful to the site visitor. Creating that kind of content requires a thoughtful approach, good writing, knowledge and experience of the subject matter, something to say. You might need outsourced help with it. You might not. What you can’t do is simply outsource it to the cheapest, most convenient content agency and forget about it.

What you’ll get is crap. Cheap crap churned out by people who know little about your business and haven’t talked to your people and are following SEO techniques laid down in prehistory.

If you have a limited content budget, stop aiming for quantity and focus instead on quality. One terrific article with genuinely useful information is better than a thousand chunks of spam.

Don’t assume journalists and copywriters can mimic deep insight and knowledge

As a journalist and copywriter, I’m often asked to create in-depth ‘thought leadership’ articles for clients. But those clients often don’t know what they want to say, and don’t provide any ‘thought leadership’ to work with. They don’t put forward their experts to guide and structure the content. Their attitude seems to be that they are paying me, and I should do the research.
Well, yes. But the research begins by interviewing experts. Yes, I can go to the web and do research, find other people’s articles and use that information. But then, I’m not producing ‘thought leadership’ on your behalf, I’m rehashing someone else’s stuff. That’s a shortcut, but it’s also a compromise.

(Rule of thumb: any shortcut is likely to be a compromise on quality).

Google wants hight quality, in-depth content. To provide that, you should invest your time and money in great articles. Your journalist / copywriter can help by using their skills to interview your people and work with your content, while doing relevant research from elsewhere and bringing it all together. But if you simply outsource it all and let some ‘content agency’ get on with it, then you won’t get high quality content. And here, in 2017, all those keyword dense, snappy little articles you paid for are hurting your SEO, not helping it.

Stop putting all your best content on other people’s websites

I’ve known clients who have high-level subject matter experts who are posting in-depth articles on subjects of direct importance to their customers – and sticking them onto a LinkedIn blog or a Facebook page, but not including them on the company website. This is madness.
If your people create great content, put it on your website first and foremost. Have the long articles, the in-depth analysis on your site, and put teasers and links and intros onto the social media sites. Send people back to your site for the main course. Otherwise, your content creators are effectively working as digital sharecroppers for the social media behemoths.

The quality of the writing matters

If your website contains content that is poorly written, not properly edited, contains spelling mistakes and is hard to understand, then that counts as a poor user experience.You’ll be marked down for it.

Keywords don’t matter as much as they used to

Stuffing keywords onto webpages was never a good idea for giving visitors a quality experience. These days, it also potentially damages your SEO.

Google wants to send visitors to high quality pages that give a good user experience. It will rank authoritative content that serves as a comprehensive introduction to a subject more highly than a webpage that merely hits the jackpot in terms of matching a search phrase.

Trying to trick Google can backfire badly

The one thing you really need to know, above all others, is that Google has upped its game when it comes to spotting people and businesses that are cutting corners in an attempt to rank more highly. If you have material on your site which has been churned out by software, stuffed with keywords or written in bulk by people charging a few dollars per page, then it is much more likely to damage your rank rather than improve it. Unnatural backlinks are also likely to damage your site.

The old techniques of hurling keywords at the page and linking to your site from content farms is long dead. And a good thing too, because the web was becoming overrun with dross. There’s still plenty of dross out there, for sure, but it’s now far less likely to rise high in the search engine results pages.

If you’re looking to build a sustainable business, and want Google to send you relevant traffic, to answer today is pretty much the same as it has always been – only more so: provide genuinely relevant and useful content.

On the subject of which… I hope you found this article useful. There will be more to come.

4208076125_93248afc6b_zName one of the three musketeers. I bet you said d’Artagnan.

Bear with me on this one….

He’s not one of the three – they are Athos, Porthos and Aramis. D’Artagnan is the fourth member who joins them, the one people remember most, the hero of the story.

But hold that thought for a moment, while we back up on the history of persuasive writing.

Persuasive writing – the old thinking

In classical thought three were styles of persuasive writing, as defined by the likes of Aristotle:

  • Ethos appeals to credibility
  • Logos appeals to logic
  • Pathos appeals to emotions.

So far, so sound. But there is, of course, a fourth way, one that includes but transcends the other three. And the technique is both obvious and simple: combine all three, so that you appeal to the widest possible audience and present a balanced and compelling argument.

Can that work? Can it be so simple? Well, there’s a large school of direct selling copywriters who expend a lot of time and effort testing everything. And they agree with this approach.

The Trifecta Neuro-Affective Principle – bonkers name, clever idea

A few years ago one of the masters of the long-form sales letter, Maria Velosa, wrote a book called Web Copy That Sells: The Revolutionary Formula for Creating Killer Copy That Grabs Their Attention and Compels Them to Buy.

In it, she outlines many of the techniques used by professional direct sales copywriters. However, she also acknowledges that as the internet has developed along with, social media and the rest, the sales letter is becoming increasingly marginalised.

She recommends the use of a much shorter technique of persuasive writing, which goes under the snappy title of the Trifecta Neuro-Affective Principle. She writes:

One extremely powerful method of changing someone’s mind is by presenting multiple versions of the same concept. In my experience, as well as in most cases that I’ve observed, the optimum number of versions that has the highest likelihood of making an impact is three.

She says to persuade someone of something – to get them to change their mind about something – the best way, the shortcut way, is to use:

three sales arguments presented in one digestible bite.

There’s a lot to the principle, but to boil it down, it involves creating a compelling sales message that appeals to three different elements of human intelligence: narrative, quantitative, and logic. Or, in other words –

  • An emotional (narrative) reason
  • A credible (quantitative) reason
  • And a logical reason.

So, to persuade someone of something (or indeed, to sell them something), you should employ the three traditional persuasive writing techniques combined and rolled together into one compelling sales message.

All for one and one for all

How do you do this, in web sales copy, or a blog? In a letter, an essay, a report? Well, you need to do it quickly. Get to the point, get it into a few hundred words or less if you can.

In fact, I would suggest you do it in as little as two or four sentences and three bullet points:

You set up with a sentence that summarises the core message you’re trying to get across, then cut to your bullets:

  • Appeal to their emotions: how will it make them feel?
  • Establish credibility by using figures and statistics to back up your case.
  • Present the logical reason for agreeing with the argument or buying the product.

Then you can round it all off with another sentence or two. For a sales pitch, this might address any remaining resistance they may have.

There you have it – persuasive writing in a nutshell. How to sell stuff on the Internet. How to persuade people and win arguments in the world of social media. Persuasive writing, the fourth way.

Or as I’m calling it, the “d’Artagnan manoeuvre”.


Pic: Persuasion by reihayashi on Flickr. 


There are many ways to approach the writing of blog posts and this is only one of them. But if you always cover off these 12 essential steps, you should reach blogging heaven in short order.

1. Have an idea

This is the tricky part, I admit. What you really need is a clear and focused idea. Blog posts can be about many things, of course. A popular theme, however, is solving problems for your readers. Get clear in your mind exactly what the problem is. This is your subject.

2. Find your keywords

If your reader were trying to solve that problem by searching on the internet, what search terms would she use? That, essentially, gives you your keywords. You could do a lot of work with sophisticated SEO tools – but if time is pressing, try using common sense. It will probably get you 80% of the way there.

3. Create a hook

A hook is a creative idea, usually in the headline and possibly backed up by a photo. It serves to give some personality to the post. Here, I’ve used the idea of ’12 easy steps’ to illustrate the post. [continue reading…]

If you’re briefing a copywriter, there is one thing they need to know above all else:  who is your audience? [continue reading…]

If there’s one question nearly all new clients will ask me it’s the simple, yet fundamental one: how much does it cost to have such-and-such written?

copywriting costs

Even copywriters need to pay the mortgage. (Image courtesy of TaxRebate.org.uk, released under a creative commons licence, found on Flickr.)

You need a ballpark figure at least before you commit to using the services of any professional provider. Many business people who contact me haven’t used a copywriter before, and so aren’t familiar with how it all works. They need a rough idea of costs, at a minimum so they can decide not only which copywriter to use, but also whether they can afford one at all. If the cost is too high, they are likely to consider doing it themselves.

Of course, asking how much copywriting costs is the classic ‘how long is a piece of string’ question. [continue reading…]

wordcloudIt has been well documented that people tend to scan text on the internet rather than reading it. Research and statistics back this up, and most of us know it to be true from our own experience. The question is: how do you write scannable web copy?

1. Write powerful headlines

Make sure your headlines are:

  • Short
  • Informative – give a summary of the whole article
  • Structured (ideally with the important keyword at the start – if SEO is important to you)
  • Clear and easy to understand even out of context
  • Honest – don’t promise something you can’t or don’t deliver

2. Use subheads

Create scannable web copy by breaking up the copy with subheads that mean something and guide the eye, giving an idea of the progression of the content.

3. Use bullets and lists:

  1. People like lists
  2. You don’t even need a proper list
  3. Put sentences into a list form
  4. And it makes for scannable web copy

4. Keep paragraphs short
Short paragraphs are easier on the eye and the brain. Stick to one idea per sentence.

5. Highlight important words
Don’t be shy about using bold and italics to highlight important words. That way, if they scan through your copy, at least they’ll pick out the important bits – the bits you want them to see. But don’t use underlines: people will expect that to be a link.

6. Get to the point

Create a logical structure for your content – put the important information first. Don’t waffle. Tell them what’s in it for them.

7. Use text boxes

Put material such as testimonials, quotes or a summary of benefits into text boxes so that they really stand out.

8. Use design elements

big, bold, brash and colourful.

If there’s something you really want to emphasise, you could turn it into a design element – big, bold, brash and colourful.

9. Use short, familiar words
This is good writing advice whatever you’re writing, online or off. But if you’re using lots of long and complex words, your copy starts to look dull. People will start to scan even faster, and perhaps give up all together. Short, everyday words are ideal for scannable web copy.

10. Use hypertext
Break up longer content using hyperlinks. For example, you could put background information onto a secondary page. You can use the hypertext as a way of showing the reader, once they’ve finished your article, where they should go next.

Imagine, for a moment, that you’ve just met an incredibly attractive person, someone you’d really like to get to know much, much better.

Would you rush up to them, blurt out all your strengths and qualities, give them your entire life history, and invite them back to your place?

Or would you try to be more subtle than that?

I hope, for the sake of both your love life and your sanity, that you would use the subtle approach. Perhaps you would try to intrigue the other person, engage with them, but leave plenty of mystery – things for them to find out about you in the future.

Well, social media is much the same. It’s a bit like a blind date at times. You don’t want to go rushing up to people on Twitter or Facebook and start inviting them back to your place (blog, website, whatever), on the first encounter. At least take the time to introduce yourself. Make conversation. It works wonders. And don’t forget to listen when they talk….

You need to establish a relationship, with plenty of trust, before you try to close the deal, and get them onto your sales page, or reading your blog posts, or subscribing to your RSS feed.

Entice people to come and find out more, create an irresistible urge to click through and explore your hidden depths.

You have to be open and honest, for sure, but don’t lay it all out on the table, leaving nothing left to discover.

Treat writing as a game of seduction: after all, it makes the chores of marketing much more fun.

The power of story: photo by Jill Cardy

The power of story: photo by Jill Cardy

One of the secrets to great copywriting is storytelling. People are interested in stories. Stories get their attention. And it’s much easier to convince someone through a story than it is by banging them on the head with a raw sales pitch.

Which is where case studies come in. Case studies are superb marketing tools for two key reasons:

• They provide social proof

• They tell stories.

A good case study starts out with a hero – our satisfied customer. Like every good hero, he wants something – he has a story goal. He may want to find the perfect ice cream; or buy the car of his dreams; or learn to play the piano; or he might be looking for a world-class data centre where he can host the corporate databases and applications for which he holds prime responsibility.

There is conflict however: he doesn’t know how to reach this goal.

This conflict is resolved when he discovers product X or service Y. We see how he is able to reach his goal, and come to a satisfying happy-ending when product X delivers a huge range of benefits.

So, to write an effective case study, you need to remember you are telling a story about a person or a company that wanted to achieve something, what they did about that, and how it all worked out in the end. It gives a proven, rock-solid structure that works every time:

1) The problem – the status quo, the situation at the start of the story, where we see our hero/customer struggling to achieve his story goal.

2) The solution – we show how our hero found product X, and how he used it to achieve his goal.

3) The benefits – we show how using product X has enriched our hero’s life and made him happy-ever-after.

This formula should work for any case study you need to write, be it for a big company, or just a testimonial for online marketing. The story can be a few sentences long, or many thousands of words. The structure can remain the same – only the level of detail needs to change.

Remember, however, to give your story a touch of life. Every good story needs a believable character, so include details of the person/company and ideally a quote which lets us hear the proof in their own words.

Finally, make sure the quotes don’t read like corporate committee speak. Many a case-study has been ruined by the inclusion of so-called ‘quotes’ that don’t sound true to life. If the customer can only supply that kind of material, then change it so it sounds like a real quote, or write something for them. In either case, go back and get their approval.

If you’re not sure how to make up a quote for someone, just ask any journalist to help. They’re usually have strong  experience in fabricating quotes…. 🙂