Writing to Sell – An Interview with Andy Maslen

Andy Maslen
Writing to Sell – An Interview with Andy Maslen


Andy Maslen is the managing director at the highly acclaimed, copywriting agency “Sunfish” and CEO of The Copywriting Academy

He is the author of 4 books… Write to Sell: The Ultimate Guide to Great Copywriting, The Copywriting Sourcebook: How to write better copy, faster – for everything from ads to websites, Write Copy Make Money, 100 Great Copywriting Ideas: From Leading Companies Around the World (100 Great Ideas)

In this interview Andy reveals…

  • How we can use the 7 deadly sins to make our offers more appealing
  • The KFC formula which will get your reader to buy
  • The 3 main types of benefits to use in your copy
  • How to get your reader "into the zone" and imaging themselves using your product
  • Why you should use Anglo-Saxon words rather than Latin words in your marketing
  • The two-letter word that can ruin your copy (make sure you never use it)
  • And a whole lot more. You can listen to the interview or read the full transcript. Enjoy!

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Joey Bushnell: Hi everyone, this is Joey Bushnell, today I have with me a fantastic copywriter, his name is Andy Maslen. Andy, thank you very much for being with me today.

Andy Maslen: Thanks Joey, it’s great to be here with you.

Joey Bushnell: Thank you! Andy, how did you become a copywriter?

Andy Maslen: It was kind of by accident. A lot of people you will read on copywriters websites they had this dream of being a copywriter in the cradle. For me, I didn’t know what I wanted to do after University.

I got a marketing job in a marketing department doing a lot of direct mail and press. I found that I had to do everything to sell these market research reports and it was the copywriting aspect that I liked the best. Because we directly relied on copy to sell reports, I was pretty successful and I got promoted and promoted. In that classic thing I ended up at the level of my own incompetence which was, I was the marketing director there.

Apparently marketing directors aren’t supposed to sneak off and write copy. You are meant to delegate that and spend your time doing meetings and strategy. Eventually the owners of the business realized that I was a very over paid copywriter and a pretty unhappy marketing director. So I set up sunfish.co.uk on my own in 1996 which was my own copywriting agency and never looked back since.

Joey Bushnell: You also have a couple of books Andy…

Andy Maslen: That’s right, 4 in total. 3 of them are on copywriting itself. Write to Sell: The Ultimate Guide to Great Copywriting came out in 2007 and at that point it summed up everything I’d learned in the previous 20 odd years about copywriting.

I followed that up with a couple of others and then most recently a book about freelancing. Not how to write copy but how to make money out of it.

Joey Bushnell: Brilliant. “Write To Sell” which you mentioned at the beginning there, that was one of the first books which I read on copywriting, it’s a really great book. Most of the questions in today’s interview are based around things in that book. That is the direction I’d like to go Andy.

Andy Maslen: Yes, sure.

Joey Bushnell: My first question is, where do most people go wrong when it comes to copywriting?

Andy Maslen: That’s a good question, I guess for me the biggest thing I see, and I’ve coached and trained a lot of copywriters, freelancers and in-house people and marketers, is this big misconception that it’s all about words. Which might seem like a strange thing to say, surely it is about words? You see people say “Oh I love writing, ever since my degree in English, I’ve loved playing around with words.”

I think you have to be good with people. Copywriting is all about selling. The writing is the way you communicate these ideas to the people you are selling to but it’s having the ideas in the first placethat separates the sheep from the goats.

So where people go wrong is they start by thinking about language. Give them a brief or a product and the first thing they do is sit down at a keyboard. I think you have to sit there, lean back in your chair, close your eyes and start thinking “What is this persons problem?” The person that I’m selling to, they know they’ve got a problem but they don’t know you’ve got a product. So what concerns them or motivates them? It’s this itch they are trying to scratch or problem they are trying to solve.

One of the questions I always ask myself is… “what keeps this person awake at 3am?”. We’ve all done it you’re lying there wishing you were asleep. Something is bugging you, you’re feeling anxious and you’re awake worrying around this subject. If you can narrow your copywriting search down to that one question, that is where I think the selling starts.

Somebody once said to me “It’s not about whether you can spell it’s about whether you can sell!” I think that’s a great mantra for copywriters.

If we drill down a bit and say within copywriting itself, what would be tactical mistakes, it’s such an obvious one, I cant believe I’m going to say this in 2013 but people are still preoccupied with features rather than benefits. I’m sure your other interviewers have said kind of the same thing.

I do a lot of work with people in the conferencing industry and the first thing they do is get hold of the agenda and you’ll find that 90% of the available real estate on the promotion is taken up with the agenda. Nobody goes to the conference for the agenda. People go because they are going to meet new people, they could get a new job, they are going to have a bit of a laugh and going to kick back a little bit. All of those things that means it’s worth spending time away from your family, your job and everything else. That for me is a big tactical thing still people are obsessed particularly in-house, less with freelancers, they are obsessed with features.

Joey Bushnell: How can we get to know our customer and know what they really want?

Andy Maslen: That’s a good question because we don’t always have an obvious way to do that. The first thing you can do, which I find more difficult now as an independent than working with an agency, is ideally you meet them and talk to them.

When I have an in-house marketing job which I did for 10 years, I spent a lot of time in clients offices, talking to them at events and exhibitions. You get an understanding of what they’re like, what their values are and what  their concerns are. If you ask the right questions they will basically write your copy for you. They will tell you why they are buying your product.

To give you an example, we used to say, these reports that we were selling, they helped you make more cost effective decisions, better strategy and all the rest of it. This was a £300 report that you would be selling to Procter and Gamble. I met someone from Procter and Gamble one dayat a show and she said “We’re not going to make a £50million pound investment decision based on one of your reports. What we do is take the brand share figures and cut and paste them into one of our presentations and it helps to convince the board to listen to us”. Then we thought “Oh ok.” We’ve just been making things up, basically. One conversation with the customer and all was revealed.

If you can’t do that, there’s always phone transcripts, call center emails and letters. I’m working on a promotion at the moment for a media brand, one of the things I did which you couldn’t do too long ago, was you look at the Twitter profiles of their followers. Those little 140 word biographies under the photos are incredibly revealing in terms of what people think about themselves and how they view the world.

The other technique you can use, and I started off this interview by saying it’s not all about language or words, is to think like a writer and think like a novelist, specifically. I would say once you’ve talked to the client and found out who their customers are. Close your eyes, lean back and just imagine what this person is like. We are all human beings, we all have very lively imaginations.

I did a website for a dating site once for upmarket singles. All they said to me was picture a farmers wife who has been bereaved or divorced, she is out in the sticks and doesn’t know what to do. I thought “Wow! I can really picture this woman, what she is like, what she is wearing, the dogs and everything.” I’ve never met her but talking to the client or product owner can be a great way of getting that one insight that unlocks the customers mindset and motivation.

Joey Bushnell: My next question was, how can we use the 7 deadly sins within our copywriting?

Andy Maslen: What is interesting about the 7 deadly sins, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a religious person or not, is when you look at them they are the basic drivers of a great deal of human behavior.

They are not necessarily the good things about us or the things that we wish were true or that we might care to reveal and say “I do things because of altruism and fellow feeling like the good samaritan.” Actually these are the things that make human beings human. Greed, anger, covetousness, lust and laziness.

What is a power lawn mower but an appeal to sloth? The people who wrote the bible they weren’t laying these things down, they didn’t just say we want people to stop being lustful and idolatrous. They were looking around them, like copywriters do, observing what people did that got them into trouble. All they really did was to codify those behaviors.

So sometimes on a project if you think this is all about seeing the “X” lust, gluttony, laziness or anger, whatever it might be, sometimes they can be almost like psychological triggers. You can exploit them rather than just say this is a benefit that appeals to such and such.

If you know that a competitors customers are getting really angry at their core customer service which is easy to find out these days because things like that can get going viral. So we have people who are getting angry which is one of the seven deadly sins. Don’t punish them for it but identify it and empathize with them. You know if you start to talk about, for that situation, your customer service how it’s different and better you know you are exploiting that angle they have built toward their current suppliers to your advantage.

Joey Bushnell: My next question is how can “KFC” help us with our copywriting?

Andy Maslen: Well, it’s an acronym I came up with myself and I’m quite pleased with it because, as you know, copywriters most of us are magpies and tend to look around and steal ideas, a lot of people saying “I’m standing on the shoulders of giants” and all the rest of it.

KFC was something I hope I came up with as a mnemonic for planning. It stands for what you want your reader to “Know, Feel and Commit”.

I’ve got a piece of paper in front of me right now with a 3 row grid with KFC down the left and writing on the right. At this point we are still very much thinking about our customer and I’m still not really thinking about the words I’m going to write down.

But what I am thinking is, let’s take the “K” for example, what to I want them to know? These are the facts about the product, I want them to know we care about them, I want them to know we have 24/7 customer service. I want them to know that if they subscribe with direct debit they are going to get the best price.

But knowledge doesn’t make the sale, as I’m sue you’re aware of. People buy on emotion, we are non-rational creatures who have enough self awareness to realize that and because we don’t like it, we then need to post rationalize purchase decisions. So all of that knowledge and information needs to be written down in my plan, I need to communicate one way or another all of the stuff they are going to use to say “Yes my decision is a good one, look at all of these things.”

It’s the F word, feelings and this is where you make the sale. This is what separates, in my experience as a trainer, the people who could really make something of themselves as a copywriter as a career, from people who think it’s just part of a job and it needs to be done.

I would try and write down the emotional state or what I want them to feel. Do I want them to feel reassured even though we are a brand new market entrant? We have a back out, we are reliable and we can help them out with this problem. You could put it the other way round, even though I’m a copywriter in my 50’s, I understand the way children think. We want people to feel reassured, perhaps we want them to feel confident.

You could want them to feel negative emotions. Perhaps you want them to feel worried if they don’t do this thing right now they will miss out forever. That classic restricted supply close would be a classic example of using the feeling of anxiety to our own ends.

But at any rate what I’m looking for ultimately is one dominant emotion that I’m going to write down, that if you like is the hook that I’m going to plant in their brain and soul that is going to say “Yes you need this product.” Now it does mean something, yes it is like having a friend come into my house every week, even though it’s a magazine, because from there they will start doing the selling formula. Once they’ve made that decision emotionally all I need to do is give him the information to justify.

Then the “C” is the commitment, it’s the call to action. We talked earlier about where most people go wrong with copywriting, a lot of copywriters don’t close. They are very bad at closing and tend to use an old school sales phrase or word.

So I always give them a very strong, definite and clear call to action not “Join our mailing list or download our white paper or call our sales department” because people just get paralyzed by choice. I want one thing so it might be sign up for this 5 day mini course or download a white paper or place an order or download a voucher. When you have one option, you get the highest possible response rate. There has been a ton of testing over the years in the direct response field that the more options you give people, the more you depress overall response.

So my KFC… Knowledge, Feeling and Commitment is a way of organizing my thoughts. It saves time as well because you don’t go off down blind alleys. By the time I get to the keyboard I’ve got a whole load of unruly scribbled bits of paper that tell me where I’m going to go, they don’t tell me how I’m going to get there but that amount of thinking just informs the way I write.

Joey Bushnell: Brilliant. In write to sell, you talk about the fact that we can sometimes think we are selling one thing but underneath it all we’re really selling something else. Do you have a formula for coming to understand what we are really selling?

Andy Maslen: I wish I did because it would make my life a lot simpler but I have an approach rather than a formula. Rather than looking at the product I look at the problem.

I start with customer. Some people call it the point of pain we mentioned, it’s what keeps people up at 3am. Starting with the problem has to be the way to go because you know yourself, we have all done it, if you have a problem the one thing you want more than anything is for that problem to go away. If someone comes to you and says “I can make that problem go away for you” you say “Oh wow, how can you do that?” So they are actually asking you to sell to them.

Incidentally, I think a lot of copywriters have a problem with the idea of selling at all. I read a lovely description once that marketing was selling done by graduates. It’s this slightly white glove occupation. I’ve done all kinds of face to face selling, I drove a van for a while and sold DIY products around London. It’s a great training for copywriters because you get to understand that people actually want stuff, we are being sold to all the time, what we don’t want is to be sold to badly or be sold irrelevant stuff. So finding out what the problem is, is a great way to make sure that we are not being irrelevant.

There is a great example but I can’t remember which guru said it “Builders don’t want quarter inch drill bits, they want quarter inch holes.” Maybe you could get a point 25 caliber bullet that you could shoot through a plank of wood if you had the right gun. There you go that’s what they wanted, they don’t care about the drill bit, it’s the hole that they are interested in.

One of the examples I use is the Harley Davidson motorbike. You get men, lets exclude hells angels for the moment, but a 40 year old accountant, he goes and blows £12,000 – £13,000 on a new Harley Davidson. As a form of two wheeled transport a Harley is ludicrously over priced and crap to be honest. You would never think this is the best way to get down to the shops, you’d by a moped for about £1,200. You’ve got this big heavy expensive thing, it grinds itself every time you go round the corner, if you drop it you’ll never be able to pick it up again.

So why do these guys buy it? They are saying to their wives and friends “obviously it’s great for commuting, it does all this to the gallon and I can get through the traffic.” The reason they are doing it is rekindling this male fantasy of the open road before it’s too late. It’s this idea of fading male potency. It’s either the Harley or the affair so I guess the Harley is probably cheaper.

So if I, as promoting something like Harley’s, I’d be immediately thinking of some sort of menopausal, 45 year old accountant because they are the type of people who have this sort of money. I’m thinking it’s all about freedom and freedom of responsibilities. I’m probably thinking about art direction as well, I won’t show the motorbike, I’m going to show route 66 with a bike in it. It’s what I call life with a product. That idea of going beyond the purchase decision and look at what it would be like if you did have this thing.

Joey Bushnell: You say that we should be spelling out the different consequences of buying, what different ways can we do this?

Andy Maslen: That’s one way, as a very tactical suggestion, use the present tense, a lot of copywriters will use the future tense. They will say “When you buy this you will find that you will have the life you’ve always dreamed of. People will look at you enviously on your Harley”. But the way you couch that piece of copy means it’s one of 2 possible outcomes. You may be doing that or you may not be, it’s all in the future.

But listen what happens when you put in in the present tense. “You take the day off, you open the garage. There she is waiting for you. You get to stride that hand stitched leather saddle and kick the engine into life. As the exhaust note blares out, you go down the road, nothing is on your mind but the journey ahead”. This guy is living that motorbike ride and in his mind he’s already bought it because if he hadn’t bought it, how could he be riding it?

This isn’t a particularly far fetched idea, cruise liners do it all the time. They describe your day on a ship in the present tense “as you come down the stairs to the ballroom, you see in front of you a fully stocked bar”. That way somebody is immediately in the zone. So that’s one nice technique for doing it.

Another way of spelling them out, is to use that very crude old fashioned idea of fear and greed. On the one hand what will they be missing out on if they don’t buy or on the other hand, what will they be getting if they do buy.

I’m sure you’ve come a cross this idea of social proof, where we say 1,000’s or 10,000’s of people just like you are already enjoying the benefits of this herbal cigarette or quit smoking plan. That is the fear kicking in, they think what I’m not part of the in crowd, I’m on the outside looking in. If all of these people have decided it’s a good idea and they are just like me, why aren’t I doing it? You could ramp up the pressure by adding a time limited offer or only available for the first 100 customers.

Or you flip the coin over and talk about what they will be getting if they do buy this thing off you. Interestingly I noticed on your website Joey, you interviewed Joe Sugarman a while ago, I know that in his book he talks about the fact that he always found fear selling was more productive than greed selling but he didn’t always like it, and he’s the ultimate tester.

Sometimes you don’t have to do what the tests tell you. For example, fear is a more powerful motivator than greed. I’ve always said to people the moment you start doing things you don’t like then you are letting your ascetic preferences determine your commercial decisions.

Like type faces, there has been all types of things shown to work. If you don’t want to do it fine, but what you are really saying is I don’t want to maximize my income. As long as you are comfortable then fine you can go ahead and do it.

I’m digressing slightly but the other good technique for spelling out consequences is story telling. Here, rather than using the present tense you use the past tense. My partner here is writing a charity fundraising letter for a CT scanner. The opening is essentially setting the story up, what happened when I discovered so and so. “I went to hospital my consultant, I couldn’t find out what was wrong” and the reason this is such a powerful technique is because it taps into a very deep seated human desire to be told stories.

We get told stories as children of course but why do we tell our children stories? It’s because we always have done. Going back to the dawn of language, story telling has always been the way that humans have communicated quite important lessons about morals, behavior and safety. So there’s a grab bag of techniques for you, if you like.

Joey Bushnell: You mentioned earlier, benefits and how important they are and you mention in your book “NIB benefits”. What are “NIB benefits” and how do we use them?

Andy Maslen:That is another one of those slightly tortured acronyms that copywriters have bothered coming up with because obviously it’s linked with pens. I was at the time trying to sell magazine subscriptions and I was thinking about all the different benefits and listed them out and they seemed to me to be grouping themselves into 3 categories.

Noble benefits are the benefits we are quite prepared to admit to. “I bought this because of this” being a better person or helping the environment. If you think about all the products that claim to be environmentally friendly then that is a good example. So the noble benefit is “Yes I’m doing my bit for the environment. That’s why I spent £700 on a hybrid lawnmower.”

The immediate benefits are just those practical things that, almost come as offers with your premiums. But these are the things that you might as well say. “Comes with a free service, a free tank of petrol, save £100 if you order before the end of May”.

But where it all happens, and this goes back to the 7 deadly sins, is what I call the base benefits. In other words these are the benefits that appeal to peoples baser natures about greed, slothfulness, pride and lustfulness. In other words why are they really buying it?

I’m a real petrol head and I don’t think I have a lot of time for hybrids.Why would people buy an ugly, expensive hybrid that is probably going to cost them more to run than their old car? It’s because they feel smug about their environmentalism. Let’s put it this way it reinforces their self image. So that’s a fairly selfish thing to do. They’re not really saving the planet because they just got a brand new car which has got all sorts of heavy metals in it, if they were really serious they would have bought a bicycle. I would almost never come out in copy and refer to these base benefits. But in my planning I’m thinking about the customer and thinking this is what’s really going on.

So one way or another when it comes to choosing the words and arranging them on the screen I’m thinking, this is where the sale is going to happen. So subtly I’m going to have to find a way to help them or reinforce this idea that everyone is going to look at them and think “You are the ultimate environmentalist”.

So that’s it really… Noble, Immediate and Basic. It’s another one of those 3 column grids that I have scattered around the office. I don’t use it every time but why it’s useful is that Noble benefits are the things you know people will justify their purchase with. They’ll give themselves permission if you like to buy but they want that permission because of the base ones.

Joey Bushnell: Why should we use Anglo-Saxon words in our copywriting?

Andy Maslen: This is another take on that whole plain English debate.

Brief history lesson… 1065, everyone in Britain spoke Anglo-Saxon. 1066, we were invaded by the Normans and suddenly if you wanted to be anybody in Norman England, you had to speak French. Anglo-Saxon fell out of favor and French with it’s classical groups in Latin and Greek became this default language of the ruling class and the elite.

Ever since then we’ve had this hang up about Anglo-Saxon and it’s not really suitable for polite conversation. We will say lacerate rather than cut and terminate rather than end or significant rather than very.

Gradually what happens, and you see it with kids, I have two young children and they are being taught to use long words because they need to develop their vocabulary. The problem I think, is when you move away from Anglo-Saxon words, two things happen…

One is, you move away from fast comprehension. In other words Anglo-Saxon words are usually much easier to understand and decode.

Secondly, Anglo-Saxon words have a much more visceral punch to them. That’s a good example, Visceral is clearly not an Anglo-Saxon word but punch is. If we said impact you might think that’s a good powerful word but its not as powerful as punch. Punch has a kind of pop to it and it has a visual quality to it, it’s an action.

If we were to say “we are significantly reducing our marketing budget” well, significantly reducing, is definitely upscale, classical derived language. If you said “we are going to slash the marketing budget” suddenly people start worrying which presumably we want them to do if we are using that type of language.

So there are two reasons to use Anglo-Saxon words, one is, it’s easier and faster to understand which means your meaning is clearer and secondly, they carry a lot more emotional weight.

Joey Bushnell: Are you just very good at English Andy? And you know the differences and origins of certain words or do you have any reference books that you use at all?

Andy Maslen: Well, I am good at English, it’s something in my brain. I come from a long line of people who are good with words, not necessarily in a scholarly or academic way. My Grandfather was a butcher but he was a life long autodidact and he taught himself and he loved language and wrote poetry. My dad has also written a ton of poetry. It happens to just run in the blood and I see it in my children.

I don’t think that’s why I’m a good copywriter but it does help. But I’ve got shelves full of reference books on sales, advertising, marketing and English. I wouldn’t want people to think what you need is a good grasp of English. You almost need a poor grasp of English.

I reckon if you gave an English university lecturer and a hair dresser, I could get the hair dresser to be a far better copywriter than the lecturer. Hair dressers understand people and they don’t always have a massive intellectual, wellspring knowledge about English. But that’s a good thing because I’m constantly saying to university educated copywriters, keep it simple. Don’t say visceral if you just mean to do with your gut, use the simpler word.

But then people say “aren’t I dumbing down?” and no you’re not dumbing down, you are making it more engaging to more people. Bare in mind, what we are writing, most people think of as junk mail, spam or marketing fluff, whatever disparaging word you want to use abut copywriting. Apart from copywriters everyone thinks copywriting is junk. So why make junk hard to understand?

That seems to me to be completely counter productive. I want my junk mail to be so easy to understand, all they are focusing on is life with the product. The moment they come across a word they have never heard before they don’t reach for a dictionary, they just skip over it, throw it in the bin or feel alienated. I get on my soap box a bit about it but that is why I think Anglo-Saxon is so important.

Joey Bushnell: My final question is what mistakes will ruin a piece of copy?

Andy Maslen: Failure to sell. Let’s keep it simple. The worst culprits are the people who profess to love writing.

Here’s an example, let’s say the big answer is failure to sell. There is a little 2-lettered English word, I think ruins copy and I see it all the time, right at the end you get the call to action and it says “If you would like to place an order…” IF. I think what is this if? This says you the writer and salesperson consider that there are two possibilities here. I will buy it or I won’t. You give your reader and customer a get out. You never say “If” in the call to action. It’s “Place your order now, click here to place your order, book now.” So we use the “imperative mood”, to use that fancy linguistic phrase. You give people a command.

Joey Bushnell: Great. Andy, thank you so much for the time you’ve spent with me today, its very much appreciated. Where can we get more from you in terms of information and training and also where can we find your books?

Andy Maslen: Thanks for giving me the opportunity, to give me the gentle plug into my copywriting academy which is what we call online learning for copywriters. There is a ton of free downloads, there is the blog there with 160 articles. We have some courses thereand that is found at Copywritingacademy.co.uk and good old amazon has all 4 books.

Joey Bushnell: Brilliant Andy, thank you. I strongly suggest to everyone to go to the link and check that out, once again thank you so much it was a fantastic interview.

Andy Maslen: My pleasure, thanks Joey.