How to Avoid Tattle-Tale Copywriting

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When she stepped on the scale a warning message popped out which read, “One at a time please!”

So goes a local community joke from my childhood days. And it definitely beats those, “Your mama is so fat …” jokes. At least, in my book.

Why? Because the statement is “showing” and not “telling”.

You get the ‘fat’ joke because I didn’t just tell you that she was fat, but show you instead. And those “your mama is so fat” jokes give away the punch line at the beginning anyway.

But this idea of “showing and not telling” is not just about joke telling–or joke showing–it’s one of the fundamental ‘rules’ of fiction writing that you should also apply to your copywriting.

Copywriting is always more emotionally powerful and engaging when you give specific details about the emotions that you felt, rather than listing those emotions. Whenever you give the details you allow the reader to build their own mental pictures which are more interesting than you can ever tell.

Since we are talking about showing, then some examples should help here:

Telling: I felt mentally and physically drained.

Showing: My legs could barely hold up my body as I crawled unto the sofa. I tried to cry myself to sleep but the tears came without the sleep.

In the telling example, you have a mental understanding of my situation but you cannot share in my feelings. In the showing case, you are made a part of the scene because you are invited to feel what I feel. You are drawn into the action making the writing more engaging and compelling.

Showing involves using action, speech and thoughts to dramatize or illustrate what you are feeling or doing. This involves more than using all kinds of adjectives and describing every detail whether these details are useful or not. You don’t want to overwhelm your readers with mountains of details but select only those specifics that matter.

Consider the following example:

Case 1: I’ll never forget the way I felt when I made my first online sale. I was elated!

Here I’m simply telling you how I felt without creating in you the same feeling that I felt. This results in the narrative falling flat on its face.

Case 2: If I were to outlive Methuselah, I’ll never forget how totally elated I was after making my first online sale. I was so overjoyed that I thought my heart would burst. I told my wife, friends and anyone who came within earshot of me.

I’ve added some extra details that have just expanded the telling without giving you any reason to feel my joy and elation. You learn nothing new and I took you through a longer passage which is punishment to the reader.

Case 3: It was 2:30 a.m. and a strange time to be checking my email. But there it was–the notification for my first online sale. I ran all way upstairs and awoke my wife. “I did it! I did it!” She warned me that if I didn’t calm down the noise would awake the kids in the next room. But as far as I was concerned, no one in the family should be sleeping at a time like this. I was now an official internet marketer.

This time I don’t have to tell you that I was elated about making my first online sale because the specific details I’ve shared show the depth of my emotion.

By the way, here is how I started that sales letter from which I made this first sale …

Dear Friend,

I think that I stopped breathing for a moment! I felt a rush of adrenaline. You’ll guess much like striking gold.

I looked at my web stats page for about 5 minutes.  Just couldn’t believe what they revealed. There had to be some mistake.  But no … this turned out to be one of the best kept traffic secrets on the Internet.  I was getting FREE traffic by doing absolutely nothing!

Yes, my stats were not fooling me at all!

(And that letter did a whopping 15% conversion.  I analyzed the letter here.)

Another way in which you may tell too much is by using adverbs after “he said”, “he replied” such as: “she said bitterly”; “he replied angrily”. You should let the dialogue itself show the speaker’s manner or condition. Also be careful of overloading your conversations with explanatory verbs: “he corrected”, “she congratulated.”

It’s often said that rules are made to be broken and in no other discipline is this truer than copywriting. Copywriters hate any writing rules, and if they know any they’ll deliberately break them just to anger grammarians.

Ahh! I just told you something that I should have shown.

But this illustrates a point-there are exceptions to the “show, don’t tell rule”. The whole point is that it helps your scene to become more dramatic and if you continually do this then nothing will stand out. It would be like highlighting every word in a letter.

Telling can be used as a short cut to the real meaty part of the story. Also if you have already given the details previously you don’t want to repeat the same “showing” all over again when retelling the scene.

Also, showing requires more words and can make your sales letter unnecessarily long. So the less important elements of your story can be told and the more important elements shown. In essence, don’t overdo the showing.

Sometimes telling is the best way to go.

Consider: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”. -The Bible

I couldn’t think of a more powerful way to open the most popular non-fiction book in the world.

Whenever I read the sales letters of the old master of copywriting I can immediately see how they used the rule of “show, don’t tell.”

You should too.

3 Responses to “How to Avoid Tattle-Tale Copywriting”

  1. […] of fiction writing that should be applied to copywriting, especially in story-telling. Copywriting Tips And Tricks

  2. Ray

    Great article! It’s a subtle but powerful strategy that I know I’ve violated repeatedly… I’ll be concentrating on this lesson the next time I write promo email.

    Thanks for the tip.

    Paul Jenkins

  3. Ray, what a terrific post. I struggle with this at times, but I can put this information to good use right away. Thanks, Ray!

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