The Voice









The Voice That Speaks from the Pages of Your Direct Mail Must Be Honed Specifically for the Audience at Hand

This is especially true in the letter.  The letter is always an I/me, you/yours voice that uses language, pacing, syntax, and vocabulary to identify you as an equal of the reader, never a superior or supplicant.  Even if you are sending a message to a large corporation, you still use the I/you voice.

Now it gets trickier.  Depending on the nature of the offer and the profiles of your mailing lists, you must create a "person" who speaks to the reader.  Write as one person to another.  The nature of this conversation can be extremely intimate, with slang, or perhaps a subdued voice with generally neutral references.

In seeking the right voice for your piece, avoid all temptations to get into the "aw shucks" level of folksiness.  Just relax and speak straight up.  Put in a few "buzzwords" to identify you as someone who understands them.

The I/You Message Should Carry on Throughout the Letter

The brochure, however, will change voices.  Normally, the only time you should refer to yourself is in the letter.  Though written with enthusiasm, the brochure must use a more objective, "neutral" voice, unless your package is from a well known spokesperson, in which case it is fine to carry the personal style over into the brochure.

In the Brochure, Make Personal Appeals

But don't do it by referring to yourself in the brochure.  Just tell them about the nature of the product, – the features, applications, and benefits – and tell them why it's good for them. Explain why it's important for them to order immediately. This same changed voice for the brochure will usually also be used on the reply device and return envelope.


When you feel you have your copy down to a sharp edge, take a reality check by reading it aloud.  What you thought was simple turns into stumbling silliness the first time you read it aloud.  Read it one paragraph at a time and listen to yourself.  What you hear is what the reader will hear as a human voice.

After you speak the first paragraph and hear what's needed, go back into your copy and rewrite it.  Then read it aloud again, change it again, and so forth.  When you are totally satisfied, go on to the second paragraph and start all over again.

Only when you have done this paragraph-by-paragraph rewrite should you start again at the top of the letter and read the whole thing aloud.  It might be a good idea to record your reading and listen to yourself, making sure the letter speaks aloud as one person talking to another. This will ensure you have a good start on a successful message.

Flipping Hemispheres

In a popular theory the left hemisphere of your brain controls logical thinking, linear thought, mathematics, spatial relationships, and other fact-related thinking.  The right hemisphere controls emotions, imagination, personal identification with others, and other intangibles sparking feelings.

If you and I were testing against each other in direct mail, I would gladly give you total control over what the reader thinks, if I can have total control over what the reader feels.  I would win every time.

Writing direct mail is not an either/or situation.  In fact, one of the most powerful copy techniques you can use is to flip back and forth between hemispheres.  In the letter you give only enough factual information to bolster your emotional claims. Here is an example –

Every time you use it, you have 100% dependable results. This means real pride in your work, and a nod of respect from your friends.

The first sentence makes a flat statement of fact. The second interprets the flat statement with an emotional payoff. The architecture is "this means that." You don't want to overuse this phrase because it is implied when you flip hemispheres left to right. Then follow up with another statement of fact and another emotional payoff. A well-planned letter includes purposeful hemisphere flipping. Train yourself to write this way for a big payoff in responses.

The Present Tense

You know the prospect has not bought your product and so does he. This makes you uncomfortable to make a point without using a future reference with "will."  While it is correct, it is a weak approach to copy. Always use the present tense – you have it, you take it to school, you feel better about things, and so on. Don't let this slow you down on first drafts. Later, when you proofread, look closely for accidental shifts to the future tense. This is in an easy thing to correct and makes a big difference in your results.

What You Say

There are two kinds of direct mail copywriters.

First is the how-you-say-it copywriter.  This is a person who has not yet discovered simplicity can never be overwhelmed by florid writing. They agonize over cuter and more precious ways to describe the benefits.

Second is the what-you-say writer who spends most of his time looking for new benefit angles to highlight the value of his product. I am of the second sort.  You pick.

Here are examples from two insurance packages:

You have the full right to bestow the honor of the benefits from your policy on any cherished person you wish.

Okay. It makes a point, but there's something soft and twittering about it that does nothing other than state the obvious.  It would make an English teacher proud. Whenever you write something that would make an English teacher proud, beware.  Few English teachers write effectively.

In writing a competing package, I covered the same point by saying:

You can name anyone you wish as the beneficiary – family member, friend, nonprofit organization, or perhaps even your church.

In a flat declarative sentence I introduced new concepts, and avoided expressions like, "full right," "bestow," "honor," and "cherished."

If your writing style leans toward words like "verdant," "thrilling," "zesty," and "amazing," go to work on yourself and cut it out. Rely more on a simple declaration of points, well-chosen and part of the architecture of seduction. Your copy should be chock-full of simple, well-thought-out declarations, firing off like a string of firecrackers. This is a major challenge for some. It requires you to retrain yourself.

The Bard of the Mississippi, Mark Twain, once told writers to, "Murder your darlings." When you find something especially sweet and precious in your writing you have found a darling. After the murder, you may see there's nothing special there.  Ah … that's when you need to go to work to replace it with new information or a new perspective, stated clearly and flatly.

I love to test against how-you-say-it writers. I know it's going to be like taking candy from a baby.


Don't ever be funny. Don't ever be cute. Don't ever approach your sales task with giggles. It is unfortunate good direct mail is a generally humorless undertaking. I have never seen, in my decades as a freelance, a major winning package based on humor.

When you start to write and you suddenly want to say "let's make it funny," control yourself. What makes you want to be funny is your anxiety over the challenge of a major direct mail package. The urge to use humor hits you and makes humor seem like the answer to your problems. Advertising uses a lot of humor because it generally does not sell anything on the spot. It is aimed at brand recognition. With humor in mind your anxiety evaporates. The work will be easy, but…

… remember …

… direct mail is not advertising. It is a way to sell things to prospects just like a door-to-door salesman does.

It is unfortunate direct mail is humorless because I, personally, adore humor. Early in my business career I also did standup comedy at the famous Comedy Store in West Hollywood. There came a time when I had to choose between becoming a comedic actor, or a freelance copywriter. I now know I made the right choice. I am one of the most entertaining dinner guests you could hope to have. But when I put on my Response Hat, it's strictly serious business.

A Reward for Reading

There is a neat trick I use to pull people through the copy.  I motivate them to keep reading by promising them a reward for reading on.  Here is an example.

You get exactly what you want when it's time.  (More on that in a moment.)

The first part of the trick is to make a point of interest, and then promise details in a moment.  This gives the reader a motive to hang in with all the copy he is faced with.  Use this sparingly, no more than twice in a letter.  But it is effective.

Your Architecture of Seduction

By architecture I mean what you say, when you say it, and how much emphasis each point gets. This begins by looking at the biggest selling point the product or service has.

That's what you open with. But you have a lot of decisions to make. Do you spring the trap on the envelope? In the letter headline? Or maybe the first paragraph of the letter. I once wrote an extremely successful insurance package by starting the letter with –

Dear Mr. Smith

Let's get the money part out of the way up front.

The cost is $25.95 a year. That's for everything.

Now relax for a moment and read all of this letter to learn your entitlements.

It had the impact of a freight train. Bam! But in many packages I would never dare open with this approach. In going over the description of benefits for the insurance and its price structure I decided it should be a totally price oriented pitch. So I opened with it to great success.

The first thing you want to do is learn about the product or service you sell. Then puzzle through the main benefits, features, and applications to find the one big thing you want to focus on. All other points will be subordinate, though well covered in your letter and brochure.

Keep hammering on the main point as you make other points. Before you start to write, assemble a list of data you want to present in descending order from the most important to the least.

-ING and That

Words ending in -ing are generally called the "passive voice." This is a weak copy approach. After you finish your first draft use your computer's universal search capacity to track down -ing instances. Rewrite those you can into the "active voice." Here's an example of the difference –

The church bells were ringing, men were running, and frightened women were falling to their knees, holding their children.

Okay, fair enough, but not good copy. Here it is again, in the active voice –

Church bells rang. Men ran. Frightened women fell to their knees and held their children.

See the difference? Do you FEEL the difference? Of course you do, and so will your reader.

The most powerful device in literature is the simple declarative sentence.

I strongly recommend doing a universal search for the word "that." The temptation to use it is a need for over-specificity. It is a weak copy approach. Whenever possible simply delete the word that --

    but do not replace it with “which."

You will be amazed by how easy it is to get along without most thats, and how hard it is to do a first draft without them. Don't let this slow you down in your first draft, but in your proofreading do a universal search and see if you can possibly get along without it. There are some cases where you have no choice, but they will be amazingly few. Here's an example of excess thatting --

The man that wore that red coat found that he couldn’t park his car in that lot.

Simple enough, but “that” causes attention to meander. Let’s try it again --

The man who wore the red coat couldn’t park his car in the lot.

The enemy here is the over-specificity English teachers love and readers hate. Get rid of as many “thats” as you can, even if you have to break up your statement into several sentences. It is an oddity of English getting rid of a that often requires you to change a nearby word into the -ing form. Work it out.

Disarming the Reader

A real door-to-door salesman has an advantage we don't. He can say "Yes, but…" to overcome the prospect's objections. This means we have to think about what would be the top two or three objections our prospect would have. Then we address those objections, subtly, in our letter, brochure, reply device, and perhaps even the envelope. Don't identify them as objections in your copy but just cover them.

We have a standard device called a "lift letter." The best and highest use of a lift letter is to address probable objections and overcome them. If you choose to use a lift letter make sure you use it for the best purpose, not just as a rerun of what you already said in the letter.

How Do You Sell Something?

Selling something is the easiest thing in the world when you know the secret. Here it is –


That's it. That's all it takes.

Look at the statement again and ask yourself which word is most important.

It is the word "worth."

Is this a dollars and cents worth? To some extent it probably will be. But the real important worth is emotional worth. How does your product or service make the reader feel better? Here's where the right hemisphere comes into play. Even while you talk about the dollar savings, pound on the emotional benefits. Do it again and again, because it's where the extra sales come from.

The News Release Trap

Some writers create, and some clients insist on, copy about the company, and the company, and the company. "We're the best in the business. People turn to us for advice. There is no more respected company in our industry. Founded in 1897, we have led our business to the forefront of American commerce. From on high we bring you this generous offer, forged by our experts, and guaranteed to be blah … blah … blah."

That is the news release trap. You are not writing a sales pitch. You are making an announcement. You talk about how great you are, and incidentally mention how much you love the reader, then tell him to buy something. Do this and you will fall flat on your face. What you sent out was a news release, not a direct mail pitch.

Good direct mail focuses on an offer. Always make a strong offer, no matter what. And make only passing references to the greatness of the company offering it.

Seizing Control

I always listen to everything my clients have to tell me. And then I ignore them. I'm a much better direct mail copywriter than they are, so what do I do? I seize control of the message without asking their permission. I write it the way it's supposed to be, up to, and including, sometimes changing the offer without their permission. Yes, true.

Luckily, I come on stage with a great reputation so they are more likely to listen to me and not go nonlinear. If you are a tyro, show your professional maturity and do what I do, even though you are quaking in your boots. Do it right and they will respect you and give you more latitude in the future.

I rely on only one thing when I seize control. I rely on the power of the copy I hand them for the first draft. I let them read it and see for themselves how much better it is my way than what they had in mind. This is true even with very large companies that are highly regulated. They quickly see what I'm up to, why it makes more sense, and why it is time for them to readjust their thinking.

An example of seizing control was when I wrote a package for a company in the RVing business. They sold annual directories of campsites and things to see. I wrote their package for them, and changed the offer.

Instead of selling one directory, I gave the reader an option to buy a second directory at a discount. Why? Because the thing was as large as a big-city phone directory and lugging it back and forth from home or office to the RV was a chore. So why not buy two? Keep one on the RV and one where you do your trip planning.

I got a lot of pushback from the client who insisted it was not something we could sell two of. But I persisted. They tested it and the increase in net response was huge. My package pulled more buyers overall, but more importantly, over 10% of my buyers bought two directories.

This shot their profitability into the stratosphere and suddenly I was a hero. But I wasn't a hero. I was just somebody who knew what he was doing and made them look at it. Never be afraid to seize control of an offer for your clients' benefit.

Weaving Your Sales Pitch

How you go about presenting your architecture of seduction is up to you. Personally, I prefer brief, punchy copy that pounds on the emotional benefits. Some writers like to use what I call the "short story" style that starts out something like this –

Joe climbed the ladder to clean leaves out of the rain gutter. He leaned over too far and fell off the ladder breaking his clavicle. His wife screamed and ran to dial 911. Joe lay on the ground in terrible pain. Then he thought about the Hospital Income Plan Policy he has just bought from us. He knew, no matter what, his time in a hospital bed would be well compensated for and he probably would not have to pay a penny in copayments.

I've written a number of these short story pieces, at the client's insistence, and they were quite successful. But the truth is, it is not my natural writing style.

Give some thought to the framework you want for your sales pitch. Do you want a short punchy style like mine? Would you like to try a short story intro? Do you want lots of bullets in your copy? Or even factual bullets followed by a brief interpretation from the right hemisphere?

That's all up to you. Pick what feels right for you and follow the basics I've shown you here today and you won't be wide of the mark.

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©2011 John Nicksic Copy
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