Write Better Copy with Set-ups, Open Loops, and Emotional Payoffs

Write Better Copy with Set-ups, Open Loops, and Emotional Payoffs

Reader Comments (52)

  1. Jeff:
    This is very good stuff. It’s also very long, yet I don’t mind it. Kind of like reading long copy. Or for the literary mindset, War and Peace or Atlas Shrugged. If it engages the reader, you keep reading For the record, I once knew someone who spent 15 hours straight reading Atlas Shrugged

    I like how you cover in part 1 celebrities like Jackie. And you went on to give many examples of value added.

    Then you cover in part 2, one of my favorite topics – copywriting. And you keep the same handle intact – setup and payoff. Today’s post did pay off for me.


  2. I’ve been waiting for this second installment Jeff, and you did not disappoint! This really resonated with me today. I drafted a guestpost this week that literally made me cry as I was writing it- and I feel like that emotion really strengthened the words I choose and overall story I told. Of course if it resonates with readers the way it did with me, then it is a win win, but bringing the emotion into it lit up my writing in a really exciting way for me.

    I love that you used UP as your example to illustrate the emotional set-up. I thought that movie was extremely well-done, and that first 8 minutes was fun, but heartbreaking at the same time.

    Roy’s invitation/sales letter was fascinating. I mean, who didn’t play out that scene of being a knight and killing a dragon when you were a kid? (I love watching my kids do it now.) Through his words, he brought that feeling of being rowdy through the symbolism of the snapdragon. Imagination and belief is all that is needed.

    So without doing any rowdy, suddenly you ARE rowdy. And once you start thinking like that, then it’s a small jump to want to take that to the next level- taking Roy up on his invitation.

    Very cool stuff- thanks Jeff!

  3. Christy,

    Thanks for the comment. Made my day ; )

    One of my favorite Chesterton quotes goes like this:

    “Fairytales aren’t false for teaching us about dragons; they’re true for teaching us that dragons can be beaten.”

    I may not have gotten that exactly right, but you get the gist. Thought you’d enjoy it. Thanks again for the comment.

    – Jeff

  4. That invitation is not an invitation. It’s a piece of history. If they don’t bury it, they break history and any chance of being wild they ever had. Once they bury it, the company is all pearls.

  5. Really enjoyed the post! But it reminded me of something important…

    Back in university, i read a book called “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera. It was a life-changing book, and it talked about the same open-loop structure you mentioned here.

    In a nutshell, the book shows you how recurring symbols, and motifs of life, are an inherent part of the human experience. Of human beauty. They’re objectively meaningless, but we -have to- place meaning in things when we seek a happy, meaningful life.

    Thank you for reminding me. I’ll be reading my “Unbearable Lightness of Being” tonight.

    – Chris

  6. Believe it or not, I’ve never read that book – even as an English major! I’ll need to go seek it out, now. Thanks for the tip and the comment, Chris.

  7. Great post! Up! is one of my favorite movies and my grandkids tease me about it all the time. You are right about the loops and the payoffs.

    Thank you.

  8. Really enjoyed the post Jeff! I couldn’t believe there was so much packed into the story line of UP! But the opening makes me cry all the time. So it’s definitely working.

  9. Wow, this is good. Gives me butterflies in my stomach AND scares me to death at the same time. How is my (B2B) blog every going to be this good… I hardly dare to start writing. Thank you, Jeff, you’ve really inspired me.

  10. Great post, Jeff,

    It seems everyone posting here is so caught up with congratulatory emotions that they’ve forgotten to close the loop on the snapdragons for you. Your loop will be disconnected and lonely no more.

    Snapdragons and England. Roy linked them right away. It’s where snapdragons come from and grow wild. Then he made the connection to the children of England. This would be pretty meaningless without a contrast with their wild and rowdy neighbors in Italy and Spain. Oh, how they longed to be free and full of emotion! All they ate was dull fish and chips. All they saw was gray clouds and rain. He never says these things, but the brain knows it instinctively to be true when he says that “English kids were too young and timid…”

    Places, colors and shapes mentioned in writing always call to mind much more than the word. They bring up emotion.

    Now Roy does the real magic by imbuing those English children with imagination. If they couldn’t be wild, they would imagine themselves as dragon conquerors, going face to face with a malevolent foe. And to top it off, the historic significance of St. George killing the dragon makes it absolutely, beyond question truth. It’s historical fact that St. George killed the dragon. So children in England must have used snapdragons to be wild.

    So “do you want to be wild?” he asks. He makes you that shy, timid child of England when he says, “Those dragons belong to you.” and finally, “all the rowdy kids will be there.” He doesn’t say it, but it’s screaming, “Remember all those times when you were shy and timid?? Here’s a way to be wild!! You can do it!! It’s easy!! Throw these seeds in the ground as a reminder about the party!! You’ll be part of the rowdy kids!!”

    The incredibly powerful part is that all these things are underwater. He never says them. If he did, the spell would be broken. As they are, your right brain answers all these raised questions, and you make a decision unconsciously. It’s the secret of all great writers.

    Amazing illustration, Jeff. I hope your loop now has happiness,

    • Peter,

      Thanks so much for closing that loop for us. And your analysis was dead on. Awesome unpacking of Roy’s artful invitation.

      – Jeff

    • Kudos, Peter for the terrific analysis! Spot on.

      And thank you Jeff for a really insightful post on how to give your writing some emotional POW!

  11. You’ve really hit the proverbial nail on the head. Embedding copy with emotionally resonant passages situates that copy squarely in a place for readers that leaves them a little more open or vulnerable to whatever is coming next. Tactical approach to copy writing.

  12. I just subscribed to you today (having discovered you in Susan Getgood’s “Professional Blogging for Dummies” book), and already am receiving great advice and tutorship. I’m new at blogging (as you can see from my almost-ready blogsite) and writing is not within my comfort zone, although when I get on a roll, I’m really rollin’. I look forward to more insight, advice, and tools from you.

  13. I’ve never seen the movie UP, but after almost being reduced to tears by that opening scene, it is definitely on my to-watch list!

    That was a great example of tying in emotional payoffs and great imagery. They set it up beautifully and then let the story tell itself out without the need for dialogue.

    This is definitely something I’ll be considering in future ventures!

  14. Good post.

    But if I may… the proper way to spell booya is without the ‘h’.

    Booyah with the h just feels stuffy to me when this word is an urban gem.

    Ah, well… just the way I see it 🙂

    I guess it’s debatable.

  15. I cannot help but note the poetic similarities between Roy’s “weeks from now” paragraph near the end and Shakespeare’s immortal St. Crispin’s Day speech, which to me are so obvious I must also think that they were intentional. Given that the invitation is clearly intended for a British audience, Roy likely intended that they would get the oblique reference, and make the final logical conclusion for themselves: Weeks from now, they will hold their manhoods cheap who were not at this party.

    • Jason,

      Actually, the invitation was intended for a mid-West audience if memory serves, but your point is well taken. Literary allusions certainly fall into this category of writing technique, and the example from Shakespeare is especially telling because it extends the pay-off into the future as a goad to action, which is especially applicable to copywriting. Whether Roy intentionally echoed these things in the invitation I can’t say, but will be sure to ask him when I see him next week.

      – Jeff

  16. Wow Jeff.

    You know what I like?
    You reminded me about a old sketch pad and charcoal pencils my dad gave me on my 9th birthday. I still remember his challenge to me, “Show me what you got”. For years I kept that sketch pad filled with my scribbles. It finally found its way to a closet or forgotten shelf and I lost track of it during high school. Maybe I thought it was baby stuff and I was subconsciously moving on.

    Just last night, I was struggling with a blog post. I gave up on it twice. I completely rewrote it once. I was actually afraid to publish it. Right before I was going to hit delete, my son came to me with his juice-box stained sketch pad. He had drawn “another” daddy picture and wanted me to put it up on on the fridge. Right there I remembered my dad’s challenge. “Show ’em what you got”. I turned back to the post, took a breath, and hit publish.

    How did I do? 🙂

    The best part is that I wouldn’t have understood how to use these memories in a way that made sense until this post. Thank you.

  17. Stanford,

    Wow! That was awesome. I was misty eyed at the end (until you let me in on the fact that you were consciously manipulating these symbols – lol). You rock!

    – Jeff

  18. Jeff Sexton! Thanks for that Headlines Intensive Webinar. You and Brian did such a good job. I like this article too. It says a lot.

    Can I talk to the Senior Editor for a minute? I’ve caught a sentence that needs revising:

    “When you celebrate birthdays, you’re willing to pay money for food, presents, and outings than you would at other times even though that day is objectively no different than any other day of the year.”

    I think there needs to be a “more” in there somewhere.

  19. Jeff,

    Your use of Disney/Pixar’s UP to show how to get your audience invested in the emotional payoff of your writing was brilliant! For that alone I am going to be retweeting/facebooking this post. Nicely done sir.

  20. I recall being in a branch of Habitat, the design store and seeing a red dustpan and brush. It looked more or less the same as a dustpan and brush from Woolworths, but it was invested with Habitat’s spirit.

    When someone buys a Habitat dustpan and brush, they see and feel ‘Habitat’ with each stroke of the bristles across the floor.

    If they have powerful personalities, they can buy a Woolworths dustpan and brush and breathe Habitat perfume into the brush with each stroke of the bristles across that same floor.

    The only set-ups we should fall for are the ones we respect. Love, caring, loyalty – those are the things that Carl and Ellie display. A cheap necklace on the other hand, is still a cheap necklace.

    • Actually, David,

      There was an experiment a while back wherein the researchers bought a bunch of yard sale items and then assigned storytellers to craft stories around those items. Then they put them up for sale on eBay with the stories as descriptors. Except that they flat out TOLD people that the stories were fictional.

      Didn’t matter.

      The bids for the items were still out all proportion to the actual worth of the item and/or what was actually paid to acquire them. There are tons of little insights like that that show us how our minds and emotions REALLY work, instead of how they SHOULD work.

      As an individual, yes, please DO raise yourself to the level of should as much as possible. But as a marketer and copywriter, you need to deal with the reality of the way people actually ARE. You’re job is to give the truth the persuasive ring of truth when simply telling the truth isn’t enough. And you can’t do that by insisting that your prospective customers behave the way you think they ought to.

      – Jeff

  21. A few points that became even clearer to me in this post:

    1) I’m more and more convinced that its the emotions that matter. As much as we may think logically making our point is important, it’s really not. I want those damn Snapdragons! I gotta remember I’m writing and presenting to emotions, not brains.

    2) Peter brought up how Roy doesn’t specifically ask for what he’s wanting. He spins this yarn so you near the end asking yourself “How do I get this? How do I get wild?” All he has to do is hint at the answer and we’ll eagerly follow.

    3) Can’t forget the seemingly irrelevant detail. We’ve all seen those movies where we can even pick up on a detail that we know, somehow, is gonna play a big role down the road. Sometimes this awareness actually motivates us to keep watching, keep reading. Like the guy in “The Lady in the Water” who only works out one arm, and it’s so much bigger than his other one. Seems stupid and useless, but it ends up saving the day (sorry for the spoiler).


  22. Great post! I think that sometimes we get so comfortable in our fields, we forget the what we are writing is still new information to a lot of people. We have to approach our writing as if we didn’t have all the answers and are hearing about it for the first time. When you are excited about what you’re writing/talking about, it comes across to the reader and they are excited right there with you.

  23. I was nodding all the way through till you quoted the bit about English kids not being rowdy or outgoing. As an English person, that simply doesn’t match my own experience and I stopped nodding and got annoyed. (To me that piece clearly was intended for an audience who believe the stereotype and accept it as largely true: it would jarr as much with other English people as it does with me.) So be careful how you use and abuse stereotypes.

    Great, thought provoking and imaginative article though – I really enjoyed it despite that.

    • Kriss,

      Thanks for the comment; I’m glad you liked the post.

      As for the stereotype of English kids, realize that in rhetoric a commonplace doesn’t have to be objectively true – it only has to be accepted and perceived as true by the audience. So a stereotype that’s accepted by your audience is both fair game and a useful jumping off point, rhetorically speaking. This may sound machiavellian but it’s how language works. So, yeah, the letter wouldn’t go over very well in the UK, but it worked great over here in the US of A, even for readers who, intellectually at least, knew that they were and are plenty of rowdy Britts to go round.

      – Jeff

  24. Jeff, this is an excellent post! I really think this will change the way I write from now on. Indeed, giving your audience an emotional set-up they’ll surely not forget is something splendid! It will transform not just your readers but also the writer within you. This also reminded me of an excellent blogger I knew who’s very much gifted with the skill of awakening her readers’ emotions through her posts. Thanks for the inspiration!

  25. Rajae,

    Thanks so much for the comments. I’m thrilled you found this useful and inspiring. Best of luck applying the techniques.

    – Jeff

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