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6 Commandments of Copy

A systematic way to analyze and write compelling copy that tells the story you want to tell.

Jarie Bolander
Jarie Bolander

One of the things we really like about the Story Grid is the frameworks and methods to objectively determine if your story is working. It’s one of the only methods we have found that puts forth a process to follow to create stories that work. For the systems and process focused folks like us (read degrees in science and engineering), it makes writing great stories accessible.

That’s why we decided to take the Story Grid concept of the 5 Commandments of Story, take a look at all the copywriting legends, and come up with our own to help craft some of the content for the Story Funnel that caters to our analytical minds.

The Legends of Copywriting

Like anything, there are always different ways to get the same job done. For copywriting, the goal is to get someone to do something -- preferably buy something from you.

In even simpler terms, your copy should move the prospect down a slippery slope of pathos, logos, and ethos so that the action you want them to take is that much easier to do. One of the most common (and we think oldest) such frameworks is the AIDA method.

Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action

AIDA is one of the most popular frameworks for writing copy. There is hardly a copywriter that has not heard of it or used it for a landing page or email. Both of us have used it frequently and it’s actually at the heart of the 6 commandments.

The reason we decided to expand beyond AIDA is that it does not tell the whole story. Most great brands need to tell a great story and while AIDA can do that, it’s not explicit in its formulation. Let us explain.

We wanted a story-driven approach to writing content to complement the Story Funnel concept. Since we’re all about storytelling, we wanted the flow of content to match a pathos-logos-ethos style like the Story Funnel itself.

This slippery slope of content approach (more on that later), needed a way to break concepts up into twos and threes. AIDA did not fit neatly into that framework although you will see lots and lots of AIDA wrapped into the 6 commandments.

Claude C. Hopkins

This is what David Ogilvy said about Claude C. Hopkin’s book, Scientific Advertising

Nobody should be allowed to have anything to do with advertising until he has read this book [Scientific Advertising] seven times. It changed the course of my life.

Between us, we might have read it three times already so we can’t say we’re experts at it but we will say that for being written in 1932, it has some timeless and everlasting advice on the power of copywriting and how detailed tracking of advertising is at the core of successful advertising.

While Claude is best known for Scientific Advertising, his equally inspiring autobiography, My Life in Advertising, is no less important and impactful. The main lesson (that Halbert will also confirm) is that knowing your product well and telling a story about it makes all the difference.

More importantly was Claude’s advice of “one does not need to sell a product twice”, which is especially true when dealers or 3rd parties are involved. His advice was to sell to the end customer -- the one that’s going to use your product. Bypass any convincing to a dealer since it’s the consumer demand that pulls the dealer along.

This insight is what prompted the idea of the Story Funnel Core Value, whereas your offering moves a prospect from the negative to positive emotional core value. This concept is instrumental to the Lede and Why+Pain of the Commandments since stories are about change.

David Ogilvy

If you have ever seen Mad Men, then you’ll understand a little bit about the environment that David Ogilvy came up in. This was the golden age of advertising where all you needed was a decent product and let the ad guys go sell it. Actually, we’re simplifying a little too much because there was an art and craft to the ads that Ogilvy wrote.

They told a story and that story came to life using excellent photographs with well placed words that allowed the reader to fill in the blanks -- guided by Ogilvy of course. His work was driven by research, results, and the Big Idea -- which we also think is a good way to go.

This is the part of the creative process that’s hard to reproduce unless you are deeply knowledgeable of the product or service you’re trying to sell. It’s understanding these wants and needs that was at the heart of his ads. That’s captured in the Commandments as Why+Pain and Uniqueness. We feel that Ogilvy always nailed the Uniqueness (and why people would care) of all the products he pitched because he did his research.

Joe Sugarman

Joe Sugarman’s The 10 elements of an advertisement and The Copy Sequence is the closest to the 6 commandments and a great framework as well. His book, The Adweek Copywriting Handbook is a must read for anyone who wants to write copy. We refer to it often and we even call some of our landing page options Sugarman’s. The beauty of a Sugarman ad is that it flows effortlessly. It’s this slippery slope that sucks you in from the beginning all the way to the end.

The best way to understand this is to read his ad for BluBlocker sunglasses. It’s masterful in how Sugarman anticipates the reader's next question and sucks you down the slippery slope to the buy. It’s also a masterclass in simple storytelling where he starts out with emotion and then backs it up with logic and the benefits of keeping Blue light away from your eyes -- something that has come back around due to computer screens.

Gary Halbert

The Boron Letters are probably the single most important book in all of copywriting. No disrespect to Joe or David or even Nevelle but The Boron Letters layout, in a casual, clear, concise, and caring tone the secrets of the legendary copywriter Gary Halbert directly to his son Bond. What makes the letters so powerful is that it mixes life lessons from a father to a son all within the context of Gary serving time in the minimum security Boron Federal Prison Camp ("Club Fed") in the Mojave Desert. Yup, you heard me right. One of the best books on copywriting (and life probably) was written while Gary was serving time in prison for Mail Fraud.

Gary’s method, laid out in the letters, is to intimately know the product and take the reader on a journey (tell a great story) about why they should buy it. He also stressed how important it is to test your message on the sample of your prospects and let the data guide you -- like Claude mentions as well.

Great Copy is Rooted in Great Storytelling

All of the great Copy we studied -- from Joe Sugarman’s BluBlockers to the George Foreman grill to Ogilvy’s The Man in the Hathaway Shirt, all tell a clear, concise, and compelling story. Honestly, they are fun to read (and watch) and you get sucked into the fantasy of seeing better, eating healthy, and how did he lose his eye all why getting a great deal.

Great storytelling is the hallmark of great sales and marketing communications. It’s been this way since the dawn of advertising when Claude Hopkins, Robert Collier, Gary Halbert, Joe Sugarman, and David Ogilvy would create print ads to sell all manner of things in newspapers, magazines, and direct mail. It may seem quaint and even old-fashioned but the great copywriters of ages past have written down the bones that we can use today to stop wasting our time on Copy that doesn't work and focus more on finding better ways to tell your brand’s story.

Why Create Commandments

The motivation to create copy commandments is simple -- we wanted to learn how to write better copy. It’s as simple as that and follows the same reason why Shawn Coyne wrote down the 5 commandments of a story -- to help writers get better by being able to analyze a story for why it works or does not.

One of the fundamental reasons why we started the Story Funnel was to be able to look at sales and marketing communications and figure out why they work (or don’t). The simple fact is that the best way to communicate better is to study those that do it the best (as well as worst) and apply those lessons to your own communications in a way where you can measure the results.

These six commandments came from taking the 5 Commandments of Story along with reading the great copywriters and their copy to come up with a way for anyone to break down a landing page, email, one-sheet, press release, FAQ page, social media post, or whatever form your communications take, to see how it works.

For us, the process of creating all of those types of communications is what needs to be mastered. If you trust the process, then the results will be much more consistent and successful. The goal of the 6 commandments is not to tell you what to write but rather to help you focus on the creative side of the process as opposed to the mechanical part. When you know what you need, via a framework or method, it’s much easier to be creative consistently.

Let’s take a look at the 6 commandments and see how they work with both the Brand Story Guide and the Story Funnel.

Lede

In journalism, the lede is the introductory portion of a news story, especially the first sentence. It’s also meant to grab the prospect’s attention so they want to read more. Many newspaper editors (and English teachers) would tell their writers to not bury the lead. For us folks that want to persuade people to read our offer, we want to quickly qualify our leads so we don’t waste each other's time. We do this with the lede.

Don’t bury what the piece is all about to try and build suspense. This is not a novel. Try and encapsulate the Big Idea of your brand in that first Header 2 or paragraph or hero image. Pick pictures or drawings that show what you’re talking about.

Remember that you have a couple of tenths of a second (Scan Stage type time) to capture someone’s attention so that they want to read or watch on. Try and make the answer to tell me more so easy that they read the next line.

Some of the best lede’s come from those supermarket magazines that are always right next to the assortment of candy and gum. Study those headlines! See how clear, concise, and compelling the words they use are. Those headlines are a wealth of information about how a well-crafted lede can hook a prospect in.

We know that they are the original click-bait but honestly, that stuff works. The frustration for prospects is when that click-bait lede does not payoff or tricks them into wasting their time. Never trick a prospect or viewer into a false pretense by a click-bait lede that does not align with what you can deliver. Sure, this might work for the National Inquirer’s Bat Boy meme at your local checkout or even The Onion’s almost true headlines but people expect that because they are entertainment.

Why+Pain

After a solid lede, the prospect needs to understand the why or pain that whatever you’re trying to sell them will solve. It’s this why and pain that is the emotional pull that will continue them down the slippery slide of the copy. We say why+pain because you might want to experiment between the two to understand which part of the emotional appeal resonates with folks.

The ideal lede should naturally hint at the why+pain so that a prospect can get confirmation that their time has not been wasted. At this point is where the negative of the core value of your offering gets clearly stated or the Why from your Big Idea.

Think of these first two of the 6 commandments as the hook since the primary factor in getting someone to read this far is the emotional appeal (pathos). Next up, we’ll apply some logic (logos) to outline the benefits of the offering, which hopefully will be primed for the prospect to be open and keep sliding down the slippery slope.

It should be noted that some folks might want to take action after reading these first two commandments. Depending on what you’re writing (email, landing page, etc.), add something after this so that they can take action if they want to. Like a mini call to action. Say a big Red Button!

Uniqueness

If your prospect has been hooked in by the first two commandments, chances are they have an interest in the problem that your offering solves or rather the job it gets down. The prospect will be skeptical since they have seen plenty of similar offers. This where the uniqueness comes in.

At the heart of uniqueness is how your offering stands out among all the other ones that can do the same thing. This might seem odd but in order to be remembered, one must be unique in the sense that you must pick one thing that allows you to stand out in the crowd.

It’s important that it’s one thing (at most two things) because we want the prospect to literally say out loud (if possible) “that’s interesting.” Why?

Unique and novel ways to solve problems get remembered. This is especially true for offerings that have cheaper alternatives or are more commodities (e.g. common goods or services like corn or the internet or short shorts).

The Offer

There will be some debate as to where the offer for your offering should reside. Since this part of the commandments relates to logic, it’s best that it follows the uniqueness since if you can convince a prospect of your uniqueness then they’ll want to know what the full offer is. That’s where this comes in.

An offer is simply what the prospect will get if they take action. Usually, that action is to buy whatever you are selling. The offer can be as simple as a list of features and functions or a picture of the physical product. Usually, the offer also includes any terms and conditions for the offer along with any options that the prospect might choose.

Care and effort should be taken to ensure that the offer is as clear, concise, and compelling as possible without being too pushy. The offer should simply state what the deal is and what the prospect gets.

Like after the first two commandments, some prospects will want to take action after reading the offer. Make it easy for the prospect to do so by adding a mini call to action. You can think of all this as easy entry and exit points into and out of your copy. What we want to do is build up the prospect’s knowledge so that they have all the information they need to take action. Next up, we want to pay off the emotions and knowledge we build up.

Proof of Promise

The next two commandments deal with proof that your offering delivers. We want to pay off the emotions we build up around the pain and the logical way we solve that pain. This is done by proving to the prospect that we can deliver the goods so to speak.

The most powerful proof is 3rd parties (customers, experts, reviews, etc.) showing and telling how great the offer is. It’s as simple as that and it’s these bonafide’s (ethos) that make a prospect want to take action. Put another way, the testimonials from customers similar to the prospects or known by them, will be the most powerful proof that the offering is worth a shot.

That’s the reason so many celebrities pitch products. If the George Foreman grill was pitched by Ravi, chances are it would not be as successful. Why?

We all know that George Foreman loves to eat and we also know that he is a champion boxer. Put those two together and we get a credible pitch from a credible person that gives us proof of the promise that we can eat healthy with a George Foreman grill.

Call to Action

The simplest yet sometimes overlooked aspect of these commandments is the call to action. What this means is that there is literally one simple question to answer -- do you want to buy the offering?

This may seem like a no-brainer but lots of people get this wrong because they throw too many questions or actions at the prospect. If we designed our content slide correctly, our prospect is primed to take action if they have not already done so. The simple call to action allows them to make a yes/no decision without much thought.

In the George Foreman grill example, the simple call to action is to be like George and buy a grill. It’s a compelling offer because George is excellent at convincing people that his grill will solve their problem of a simple way to eating healthy when you have little time.

Using the 6 Commandments

The main use of the 6 Commandments is to analyze copy so that you can write better copy. It can be your own or copywriting you are fond of. The goal is to be able to figure out what’s working and what’s not in a quantifiable way. This objective view will allow you to focus on learning and fixing as opposed to hunting around for what to do or struggling to come up with ideas.

This is especially important when testing various different types of Copy (which we highly recommend). Testing different headlines, pictures, paragraphs, etc. are the hallmark of a good copywriter. It’s this testing and refining that allows you to narrow in on the words and phrases that reflect your ideal prospects’ wants and needs. Sure, there are conventions and requirements for all of this but each brand is going to have a unique set of words and images that will capture a prospect.

Give the 6 Commandments of Copy a try. Compare it to other methods and frameworks. Shoot holes in it. See if it works. As we have said before, it’s not the be-all-end-all by any means but it is rooted in the fundamentals of storytelling and our analytical minds. The whole goal is to write the best copy you can to tell your brand's story since the brand that tells the best story wins.

Story FunnelToolsCopywriting

Jarie Bolander

Jarie is an engineer by training and an entrepreneur by nature with over 25 years of startup experience. He has also written 6 books about business and entrepreneurship.