Secrets of a Direct Marketing Hall of Famer – An Interview with Herschell Gordon Lewis

Herschell Gordon Lewis

Herschell Gordon Lewis is internationally recognized as a major authority in advertising and direct marketing. In fact his accomplishments have earned him recognition by being honored in the Direct Marketing Associations Hall of Fame.

He is the author of over 31 books on the topic of direct marketing and copywriting.

Interestingly when he’s not writing copy, he’s filming horror movies and started an entire genre of slasher movies which earned him the title “The Godfather of Gore”

In this interview Herschell give some of best tips for writing outstanding copy.

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You can visit the Herschell Gordon Lewis official website here

Joseph Bushnell : Hi everyone welcome To The Online Marketing Show I’m your host Joey Bushnell, Today I’m speaking to Herschell Gordon Lewis who is one of the top copywriters in the world. You can find out more about Herschell over at Herschell thank you so much for being with me today.

Herschell Gordon Lewis : It’s a pleasure especially after that introduction.

Joseph Bushnell : Thank you, so Herschell how do you become a copywriter?

Herschell Gordon Lewis : I have become an absolute believer in serendipity and finding what you are not looking for. I started my career as a school teacher and I taught English literature of the Victorian era at a university. My specialty was poetry of the Victorian era, I build a magic straw with Browning, Tennyson and A.E. Housman the true greats of literature. That really cemented my interest in the use of words. Eventually I wound up in the advertising business. In the advertising business I found after a great many fits and starts that my talent, I guess you could call it, lay in the use of words to cause people to perform a positive act as a direct result of having been exposed to those words. Over a period of years I developed a reputation for being able to do that.

Joseph Bushnell : You also had a time as a film director I understand?

Herschell Gordon Lewis : Oh yes well I still do. I have made a great many films and until the world wide web exposed me the two worlds did not collide. I would be giving a speech on direct marketing and someone might come up and say “You know there’s this strange fellow who has the same name you do who use to make these goofy movies” and I say “Well imagine that!” But once I became available online, no one as any privacy anymore, that’s become quite a common it of knowledge. I just finished my new movie which is called “The Uh-Oh Show” One way I got in to that was in my earlier days writing copy people would send me their movies to do the campaigns. I literally became the master of campaigns for independent motion pictures. Looking at some of these movies I said, as people often say about mine, “I can do better than that” and that lead me to make my own.

Joseph Bushnell : Great, well we are going to be talking today about copywriting. You’ve written a great many books and so I’ve taken some of the things that you’ve written about and brought them in to this interview today. I’d love to go through those if that’s ok?

Herschell Gordon Lewis : Positively!

Joseph Bushnell : My first question is do you have any tips on opening a sales letter after the headline when we are addressing the reader? How do we address them?

Herschell Gordon Lewis : I have a very strong prejudice one is, in my opinion, that “Dear friend” is as obsolete as the Dodo bird and the passenger pigeon. People who still open direct response letters with “dear friend” are making a tragic mistake and going back in time to when those impact-less phrases still had some relevance. My opinion is you would open a letter in a dynamic way. For example “If you are like I am, (and put the individuals name in there), and the other question is do you refer to an individual in the greeting of a letter by the first name, by the gender and then both names or what? The answer to that is who you are supposedly and what position you have taken and assumed relative to that individual. Another way of starting a letter is simply “Hello” or if you want to be more convivial “Hi”. If you say that is too convivial i’ll contest that statement because what we are doing is trying to establish a relationship. Those communications which evade that marvelous word “rapport” ,the arm around the shoulder, are establishing distance rather than closing it. Another way of opening a letter is you start the letter for example “I’ve been wondering, (and then put the name in there and then an ellipsis)…” and then the next paragraph really begins the letter. But meanwhile that individual is in the letter. Another way of starting a letter “I guess I shouldn’t be telling you this” what’s the benefit of starting a letter that way? you’re being provocative. Anything that in today’s market place where people have a plethora of choices and a very great shortage of time because they are hooked up on facebook, twitter, youtube, myspace, pinterest and all these other social media that have come slamming in to our beloved universe. Taking up time that they might otherwise spend on opening todays mail. We have to be aware of that and we compete with that by being personal.

Joseph Bushnell : On that note Herschell I was going to ask do you have any other methods for dealing with modern societies very short attention span?

Herschell Gordon Lewis : Well yes we cater to the short attention span and that is a basic rule of what I call forced communication. Which is quite simple, fire your biggest gun first. We no longer have the luxury of slowly getting in to gear and getting to the point in the 4th and 5th paragraph. If we are online it’s even more important than that we spill our guts immediately or we’ve lost that individual, click we’re out of there.

Joseph Bushnell : How do we stop people from being confused after they’ve read our message?

Herschell Gordon Lewis : What a wonderful question that is! We stop them from being confused by being certain that the very first things we say to them is loaded by what they will gain by doing business with us and what they will loose if they don’t. You may also say that may confuse some, it doesn’t. What the confusion may result from is out failure to specify benefit. If we specify benefit benefit overcomes fact in every instance. That’s why effective catalogue copy, for example, will start with text and then move down to bullet copy with a list of features. Benefits out pull features. What it will do for you will certainly bring more response in how it works. I’ve written a lot of copy for computer software and I don’t know what i’m talking about. Nor do I care. I care from the viewpoint of user not developer. That is true whether I’m selling computer software, or plastic pipe, or women’s shoes the principle remains constant.

Joseph Bushnell : So in the software example, Herschell, you’ll be speaking more about how it is going to save them time and money rather than the quirks and functions of it.

Herschell Gordon Lewis : Precisely

Joseph Bushnell : OK, you talk about 5 great motivators that get the readers to respond to our message. Would you mind telling us a little bit about that please?

Herschell Gordon Lewis : In todays market place, I’m talking about the 2012/2013, we recognize 5 great motivators and maybe 2 or 3 ancillary motivators. The 5 great motivators of the current temperature of marketing are fear, exclusivity, greed, guilt, need or approval. Those are the 5 and you build your sales argument around one of those 5. Chances are you will do more business than if you simply exposed people to fact. By the way of the 5 exclusivity is absolutely the easiest. Fear and guilt are very hard to generate today because people don’t fear much unless they are accosted by a highway man on the street and they don’t feel guilty about anything. That is something else the web has purged us of. In addition to that we have 2 soft motivators; convenience and pleasure. They do help any of the other 5 but they are not primary. I might also add that for extremist groups we have another motivator but it’s got to be handled as if you have a load of dynamite in your hands and that is anger. Anger aimed at the wrong targets can result in a lot of hate mail coming your way.

Joseph Bushnell : I’ve never really thought of using anger in copy before can you give me an example of that?

Herschell Gordon Lewis : OK here’s anger. I’m a scuba diver and let’s suppose I am sending a message to fellow scuba divers. Here’s the way I would start that message, “They’re doing it again. They’re dumping used tyres and batteries on our precious reefs. Their boats are ploughing through them.” Start building up this head of steam. If it’s political it’s quite easy where anger would come in to play. 3 words that are an easy way to start a message built on anger are “Can you believe…” whatever you say after that will tie in to an angry note.

Joseph Bushnell : Fantastic. How do we pick the strongest word possible in any given situation? Is it a case of getting a thesaurus out? how do we know which word will be stronger?

Herschell Gordon Lewis : Well that’s a matter of individual knowledge and knowledge of who it is looking at your message. But I would say on a universal level some words we ought to avoid, and I would recommend that anyone who is exposed to what I’m saying right now take this as my opinion that I would propose be extant for the rest of your life plus 6 months. 1. Do not use the word “available”. I know it’s a perfectly good angelo saxon word but what it means is there’s something else out there but I don’t have it. Do not use the word “among” when you can say one of. For example, “You’ll be among the first” It means you’re one of the mob. Don’t have people think they’re one of he mob have people think they are chosen. Another word I don’t like “Learn” or for that matter “Earn”. If i’m going to show you how to learn something it says I am superior to you. That’s why another word I would like to see eliminated from communication is “submit” which is the last word on a lot of email offers. Everybody understands what that words really means and there may be just a momentary reaction to it. Why give them that opportunity when you can say “Send”. So there are some words we simply don’t want to use. If I gave you the opportunity to “reply” you feel less committed than if I gave you the opportunity to “respond” somehow. It seems like less of a commitment and you are more likely to “reply” than to “respond”. Here is a mailing form a major credit card that says “You are invited to apply”. No! I don’t want to apply. That suggests once again that I am a secondary citizen to start with. Just as you can change the word on a apply claim form to an acceptance form and all the other words remain the same. But the individual doesn’t feel that you are treating him or her as though he or she is a secondary person. Also, in word use, stay out of the passive voice. Examples like “A reply from you would be appreciated”, “Your portfolio will be evaluated” by whom? that is the reaction that you generate. Get back in the active voice. Incidentally, I know it’s not the question that you asked, but I would point out to you that when we are dealing in the first person “I” is superior to “We”. So the individual one to one, even though both are first person, is stronger than the individual multiples of myself to one.

Joseph Bushnell : That’s another example of being thrown in with the mob like you said.

Herschell Gordon Lewis : Precisely, well you see that mob can help you. You might think that because the word you is the core of everything we do everything has to be you, you, you! That really isn’t true. You will find “Others pay more” is a stronger message than “You pay less”, the kind if psychological anecdote that we should be analyzing and using. Just as many people who regard themselves as professional in our profession don’t know the difference between “Can you” and “Will you” and that’s tragic. Visualize a fundraising communication, “Can you help us?”, oh no sorry I can’t. “Will you help us?” then there is guilt generated and that’s one of the 5 great motivators. So to answer your question in 10,000 words or more, many opportunities exist for us to choose a word and we don’t have to go to the thesaurus for some exotic terminology. What we have to do is be both convivial and yet authoritative. That combination is why we can call ourselves professionals. Just as many people in our business don’t like being called sales people. We are sales people and to take that mantle off our shoulders is costing us money.

Joseph Bushnell : What is a lift-note and how can that help in copywriting?

Herschell Gordon Lewis : A lift-note is a second communication in a direct mail communication. For example let’s say I’m selling subscriptions. The basic letter would come from either the editor or the circulation manager let’s say. Then along with that is a 2nd communication, in my opinion it should be on a smaller piece of paper and should be in a different font. It could be the same font slightly smaller for example, if the basic font is Gouldi old style the lift note might be in gouldi which does look different. This may sound more chauvinistic than I mean it but I like a type face called American typewriter. It’s not really American, it looks like a typewriter but unlike the plastic typewriter faces it’s current. That is the lower case i takes up a lot less space than the upper case w. The point is that the lift-note which then might come from the publisher reinforces the basic selling argument made in the note. What it really seems to be, even though it isn’t, is a 3rd person endorsement. Now in that regard it could be a 3rd person endorsement. For example it could be a satisfied customer writing a shorter note saying “I’m really pleased to tell you what good luck I have had dealing with this organization. They keep their word, their merchandise is really better than it is described and they ship on time. That I can tell you my friend is rare in the world of commerce today.” That comes from another person and the fact that it comes from another person gives a lift to what otherwise is simply an out and out pitch for business.

Joseph Bushnell : You also talk about marginal notes, how can they help us in copy writing.

Herschell Gordon Lewis : Marginal notes are usually in the left margin. They are hand written and they should say to the person getting the communication “I was looking at what I wrote to you and it occurred to me I really want to emphasize this point” A marginal note should be as I said hand written and If you can do it in blue when the letter is written in black that is even better because that looks more like a ball point ink. If you don’t have handwriting use a handwriting font and please no more than 4 or 5 words in a marginal note. Also please no more than 1 or 2 on a page of any letter. It doesn’t have to be explicit it’s supposed to be emphatic. For example “Please read this twice” that’s a good marginal note.

Joseph Bushnell : Why should we assume that the reader is enthusiastic?

Herschell Gordon Lewis : We have to assume the reader is enthusiastic because if the reader is cynical. If the reader remains skeptical after we have unleashed our mighty work on that person it’s a waste for both parties. We generate the enthusiasm. The reader may not be enthusiastic to start with but our assumption can be contagious. That’s what we do, we spread the contagion of enthusiasm. Sometimes I’ll see a letter that starts with “You don’t” and I’ll see space ads especially that say “Don’t read this unless…” I think that’s a tactical error too. Enthusiasm is obviously the core of somebody buying something. People don’t go to a store and say “I don’t want this but I’m going to buy it anyway”. That by the way is the difference between a sales person and a clerk. If I go in to a store and I say “Where are the men’s shirts?” “Um over there.” that’s the clerks response. The sales person says “Are you lucky you came in today because we have a special and I’ve got a box of them in your size and you are going to look great when you walk out of here.” That is salesmanship and that’s all we do. We cause the enthusiasm either to multiply or to appear in the first place.

Joseph Bushnell : What does verisimilitude mean and why does that matter?

Herschell Gordon Lewis : Verisimilitude is the appearance of truth. It comes from the latin word Veritas which means truth. But the entire truth can bite us and hurt us. Verisimilitude, the appearance of truth appears to be a factual underpinning of whatever we’re saying. What we are saying to somebody, but not in these words, is “You can’t believe what I’m saying because..” and whatever we say after that adds verisimilitude, the appearance of truth, to our message.

Joseph Bushnell : Do you have any tips to avoid people disappearing at our checkout, assuming they are buying online?

Herschell Gordon Lewis : Yes I have 2 tips. One I have already said which is avoid the word “Submit”. But I’ll tell you what else happens we will ask people for more information tan we need. In my opinion we should ask only for the information that we absolutely positively have to have. Every fill in adds to the percentage of people dropping out. But what we also want to do is add a dire warning to the checkout saying “If you miss this now you may never again have this opportunity so don’t disappear.” We can tell them that. Everybody is aware that we know they are about to leave us if we don’t grab them and shake them right then. Tell them that if you leave us now you’ll be the worst for it.

Joseph Bushnell : Well Herschell thank you so much for doing this interview with me today you’ve been absolutely brilliant. Where can the listeners get more of your information do you have a website? and also where can they buy your books?

Herschell Gordon Lewis : I love both questions! My website is and I am I also have a personal address if they want to get one on one closer than that which is . I am reachable on both levels. My current best selling book is the 4th edition of a book titled “On the art of writing copy”. The reasons there s a 4th edition is the 3rd edition didn’t have much in there about social media because it didn’t exist when the 3rd edition came out. So now we have a 4th edition On the art of writing copy. Almost any book store will have it, certainly amazon has it and it’s very much available. I also have a number of other books out there I have written 32 books or I should say 31 and 1 half books because I wrote reports for the direct marketing association called “Internet tips tricks and tactics”. To my embarrassment it was published in book form and it’s got to be one of the worlds shortest books only about 96 pages. But I guess it semi qualifies as a book.

Joseph Bushnell : Herschell I should have mentioned this at the beginning when I introduced you but you are a hall of famer of the direct marketing association is that true?

Herschell Gordon Lewis : Yes I am in the Direct Marketing Association hall of fame it may be an indication as to how low their standards have become. But this goes back 9-10 years that I’ve been in that hall of fame and I am always a speaker at their annual conference. This year it’s in October and they have it in Las Vegas which is not my favorite destination. I have a 2 day pre conference workshop and then I have a 1 hour standard that’s called “The creative masterclass” so I’m on again this year.

Joseph Bushnell : Well Herschell I can see why they want you back every year and why they made you in to a hall of famer. Thank you so much for doing this with me today it’s been a real pleasure to talk to you and I highly recommend that those who have go and buy your books straight away.

Herschell Gordon Lewis : That’s very kind of you Joey, Thank you so much for the call.