When I was in law school, one of my professors—a no-nonsense New Yorker with a Harvard pedigree—liked to say that those of us who became trial attorneys would need to learn how to effectively communicate with a group of “shoe salesmen and janitors.”
That’s how he referred to juries.
Pretty brutal, I know. But his point was that despite all the high-level legal philosophy that was being jammed into our heads, we’d still have to learn to translate complex concepts into language an average person could understand.
As I entered the world of commercial litigation after law school, I saw this first hand. The actual issues, theories, and applicable law involved were so ridiculously complex that we mainly tried to make the jury like us and our client better than the other side.
And you don’t get a jury on your side by talking over their heads or about things they don’t care about. You’ve likely seen this in action yourself.
How was it that Johnnie Cochran overcame an avalanche of evidence that suggested O.J. Simpson was guilty of murder? After goading the prosecution into the biggest of many mistakes (letting Simpson try on the shrunken bloody glove), Cochran gave the jury an easy-to-understand opportunity to let Simpson off:
“If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
Now, the lawyer’s duty to provide the best possible representation to those who are guilty or wrong is one big reason why I quit practicing law. And maybe the benefits of your product or service are not as difficult to communicate as some nebulous legal theory.
But in an attention-starved world where everyone is constantly bombarded with competing information, your message must be designed to slip into the mind of your prospect as effortlessly as possible. In that regard, you might want to think like a trial attorney when “making your case” with your copy.
Here are five ways that smart copywriters are like smart trial lawyers:
1. Spot the Issues
The first year of law school is designed to change the way you think. It’s an exercise in training the mind to be able to spot the legal issues in any given fact pattern. Copywriters must do the same, but it’s called identifying compelling benefits and likely objections. The biggest way to fail with your copy is to fail to understand the issues that matter to the prospective buyer, so start spotting the issues first, just like an attorney approaches a new case.
2. Use Short Words
A smart trial attorney knows that a short word is always better than a longer word with the same meaning, and smart copywriters know the same. Short words are not only easy to understand, they also effortlessly pack more emotional power without giving the appearance that you’re “trying too hard” to persuade.
3. Use Common Expressions
Both attorneys and copywriters must understand who they are speaking to, and a big part of that understanding involves knowing and using the language the audience uses. Most people won’t be impressed with your unique vocabulary. They’ll be much more impressed that you’re “one of them.” Use the expressions, colloquialisms, and even slang that the people you’re trying to persuade use, and you’ll communicate more effectively.
4. Use Lyrical Language
You don’t have to resort to ridiculous rhymes like Johnnie Cochran, but language with rhythm and flow is pleasing and easy for the brain to digest. When choosing your words, be sensitive to opportunities for alliteration, repetition, and even subtle rhyming.
5. Paint the Right Picture
Great trial attorneys and copywriters understand that words are simply symbols that trigger mental imagery, and that’s why the right words make all the difference. Make sure you’re not inadvertently painting a negative picture in the prospect’s mind with your metaphors and word choice, or you’ll see your argument fall apart fast.
Drag Out Your Inner Attorney
So that’s a crash course in how thinking like a trial attorney can help you write better copy. And you didn’t even have to suffer through law school or lawyer jokes to do it.
What do you think? Do you see any benefit to dragging out your inner attorney to “win your case” with your copy?
About the Author: Brian Clark is founder of Copyblogger and CEO of Copyblogger Media. Get more from Brian on Twitter.
Reader Comments (61)
The Bad Blogger says
I think a lot of sales letter I read don’t really had number 3 in it, it seems most copywriters doesn’t seem to have common expression towards their prospect, especially online sales letter.
When writing, it also seems hard to write as if you are “one of them”, unless you know your product cold, or else is really very hard to imagine you were one of them.
Anyway, great points you have written, think this should become a checklist for me.
I agree with all points, but I’d also like to add that the inner attorney would be able to have creativity and vision to present material in a way that the average person wouldn’t normally look at something. Go in the back or side door instead of the front door. Make a connection through an unexpected source. If you are able surprise readers a bit with new insight into something old, then they will remember what you wrote. In this world of SEO obsessed “writers”, the art of writing is being lost to the science of writing.
Shane Arthur says
You may not be a lawyer anymore, but you’ve successfully (and to everyone’s benefit) rewritten the laws of online marketing. Thank you Judge Clark.
Steve Averill says
If I had to some up this post it would be “Brian Doin’ Work” cuz that is what good writing and copy is and thinking like an attorney and presenting in that manner means not winging it.
Paul B says
I got a lot out of this article. All the while I was thinking of my passion, how we proclaim the Gospel, and how so often get lost in deep theological minutia that we forget about the real needs of people. At first I was put-off by the title (a certain distasteful public figure sprang to mind), but the piece was extremely clear and centering.
I like his imagery for juries. Brutal, but true.
Sherice Jacob says
I really enjoyed this post. One more point that could be added would be to Summarize. No jury wants to sit through the details of the whole trial over again, so the lawyer takes the most important, impactful tidbits to make that crucial closing statement. You can’t deny that it strikes at the heart of the prospect when it’s done right!
Wholeheartedly agree with this article. Think people need to watch themselves on #2 and #3 though. I’ve seen too many supposedly ‘mighty and intelligent thinkers’ try waaaayy too hard to lower themselves down to the level of the masses. Most of the masses can tell when something is being done in a condescending manner and resent it. So. . . I believe the attitude behind following these steps is hugely important as well.
Done well, Brian’s method is brilliant (he’s living proof!)
Sonia Simone says
@Marja, good point. The right attitude and mindset are key.
I’m one of the few people I know who tends to really like lawyers. Sure, some of them go over to the dark side, but there are lots of good eggs out there. They’re usually bright and hyperverbal and (if they have any free time) they tend to read interesting books. They might look scary, but really they’re just history majors with money. 😉
just wanted to say that i am very protective of my reading time and i subscribe to blogs that only deliver the most value to my knowledge bank. copyblogger is like a block of gold in my bank safe. i enjoy reading and learning so much. aside from learning to write more effectively, i am learning to speak much better. you guys are like that tasty cough syrup that you know you love to taste when you’re sick and when you’re not!
As a past lawyer I can add one more thing to the list: Make sure the order of your arguments works for you . The strongest first and another strong up for the closing – the weaker ones towards the end and the weakest arguments has no room in your pleadings… (+ Never reply to your opponent in the order he laid down with his speech)
Charles Bohannan says
I once heard that a majority of lawyers were once English majors, which makes perfect sense. It’s all about appropriating ideas into clear and believable words that persuade and incite action.
I love using the most simple language to convey complex ideas–that’s the true challenge of writing. Or, as Hemingway says, “The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only 1/9th of it being above water.”
The moral issue surrounding lawyers (as both Brian and Sonia mention) is worth some consideration. While some can be downright scumbags, others can use their powers to help people–just like in blogging.
Mary Anne says
Don’t know why, but this one really tickled my funny bone. I can honestly say I never would have connected the dots between being a good trial attorney and a good copywriter. Cool.
As an attorney turned copywriter, I gues that’s your “job.” For me, the imagery you sparked was even more helpful than the 5 tips.
Finding the right attorney to envision and model is the tricky part.
“Drag Out Your Inner Attorney” ???
You’ve GOT to be kidding. 😉
Karl Foxley says
Very informative post. I like the link between the Attorney and the Copywriter, certainly got me thinking!
Thanks for sharing,
Paul Hassing says
Onya, Brian! As a Human Resources Manager, I once fell hard between two chairs trying to reach two audiences at a manufacturing plant.
I thought that, by rewriting the company policy manual in simple language everyone could understand, peace, joy and safety would reign.
Alas, the senior engineers accused me of talking down to them and not making full use of their MBAs.
This writing caper isn’t as easy as it looks. Thanks for your helpful post. P. 🙂
John Pohl says
Brian’s post was almost good enough to make me like lawyers. And it’s a case of someone wise enough to take his own advice.
I can’t resist making two new Cochrane-isms:
“Short and sweet makes the best tweet.”
“Don’t be a word hog when you write a blog.”
Simply Mike says
Consider this one stolen, as well.
I’m printing it and taking it to Tampa with me tomorrow, so when we’re designing a new B2B sales training course, we’ll do it the “copylawyer” way!
One of your best pieces of work, my friend.
Write a Writing says
When I chanced to land on your blog and later on subscribed to it (after hearing loads of praises about your brilliant writing skills ), I have been WAITING for something like this… Thanks for sharing …
and you really give blogging a different taste with quality..
Vivian Love says
I always view lawyers as cold-blooded-short-sentenced-no-nonsense bunch of logical addicts. BUT, as I think about it, they need to be like that to be good at their profession. I have short memories and I like short answer that straight to the point. And this technique is perfect for the web. I felt asleep when reading articles that are too fancy and too long. It’s just how web readers are, I guess. Thus I employ short sentences into my blogging. It does work. Less is more.
Melissa Karnaze says
Ever since I read your bio when I first got pulled into Copyblogger, I knew that the whole past life as a lawyer thing was key to the construction of your verbal arsenal.
And to be honest, what I’ve wanted to read most about here is your life as a recovering attorney (and of course, how it relates to Copyblogger). That’s cool that you gave it a one-sentence mention. :p
The more time that I spend reading online and seeing what copy pulls my strings and what snips them before I can blink, the more the lines get blurred across all the professions that have their own copy. The art of persuasion is so… human, that we all rely on it to some degree to survive.
Each profession just has its own flavor. Thanks for sharing some of the lawyer’s perspective.
Jaky Astik says
Of course. You are right. But, I must say that persuasion is not the only thing to do. You have to have a plan to keep it going on continuously. Only then, you will reap it’s fruits.
Eric C says
I struggle with #2 and #3. I find I write using words like “lest”, “amongst” and writing for instead of because. And I’m not british.
I agree with Marja, you don’t want to go too far with it.
Anyways, great post.
Jenny Pilley says
Great analogy. I think all writers can benefit from reading this post to make their writing that little more persuasive. All of the points you make are right, especially using shorter words. I think naturally writers try and be descriptive and show their knowledge of language to impress, but actually they end up losing their point in a mountain of description.
Really great post thanks!
Point number 3 makes great sense. Being “one of them”, instead being “one of us”. There shouldn’t be any separation between you and your audience. Marketing and writing for an audience have changed, as more people become individuals. It’s easier speaking to a small number of people that grows, rather than going for a large number of people and losing your message.
Great post, and inspired me to write on this point.
Trace Mayer says
“Now, the lawyer’s duty to provide the best possible representation to those who are guilty or wrong is one big reason why I quit practicing law.”
Bah! Determining guilt is not your decision but for the trier of fact.
The rest was great. I organize almost all my articles using IRAC and signposts. Copybloggers may benefit from knowing those techniques along. Brian, let me know and I may craft a guest post.
So glad you agree! I love hearing the differing points of view expressed in the comments of posts like this, but it is always nice when someone agrees with me 🙂
I`m finding it quite interesting how some people’s opinions of the post hinge very strongly on their opinion of lawyers. Guess this shows how strongly associative thinking colours our viewpoints…
This applies to life in general, not just copy writing. Great advice, well written…thank you.
willie wentzell says
Great piece! I seem to have this inability sometimes to keep things simple and in perspective, often letting my mind wander off to some place it doesn’t belong. Perhaps, using these steps in sequence will keep me on track.
Love this post and definitely agree with it. I’ve dragged out my inner attorney. Unfortunately my outer attorney is still trying to pay her law school student loans! ; )
Wapello Warbler says
@Paul B–Remember what you learned about the things John wrote: Simple Greek, mind-bending ideas. Go thou and do likewise.
@Paul–Your point is important. Joe Sixpack doesn’t talk like a valley girl and they aren’t interested in the same things. So #3 is easiest for a single subculture.
@Brian–Do the pros acquire various subcultural hats or do they simply go for some sort of common denominator?
Eric C says
That’s a good point on people associating this article with lawyers, but from what I know about writing, all of these are just good tips.
Pat Bloomfield says
Great article Brian. It is a great reminder to write to our audience and avoid getting technical with things that may go over their heads or bore them to tears.
Listening to a CD on marketing photography the other day, it was pointed out that you’re not selling photography but selling emotions. That certainly seems to fit the “glove” here.
PatB Wedding Photography
Diwant Vaidya says
I really liked this entry. It makes a lot of sense to me since I have gone through a very similar epiphany the other day. We sell a project management tool, and in the industry lingo our benefits are mouthfuls like “focused collaboration”, “increased accountability through visuals”. After seeing more than a few eyes glaze over when answering “What do you sell?”, we not only changed our message to something the above jury would understand, we broke it apart so only one benefit is told per message. So far it is working out much better, though now we have three messages!
John McMillen says
As a former lawyer myself, I can identify with this post. I would add one thing, “tell a story.” People can most identify and will listen to a good story. Boring them with details is not the way to win over mainstream readers.
Clovis Real Estate
Great points, I wish there were someone offering affordable copywriting lessons for me and my bloggers, but this article did just great for me.
Dave aka EditorDave says
Excellent post! After being taught all the “high-falutin'” vocabulary and ill-informed “grammar” in public school and college, all “writers” should learn how to write in the manner you’ve just described. Strunk and White’s classic book “Elements of Style” and Rudolf Flesch’s book “The Art of Readable Writing” also support your views (maybe not from a “lawyer” viewpoint, but with the points you made). I’m bookmarking this post and will be recommending it to many of the writers I mentor. Thanks for a good read!
Janet Hansen says
Interestingly enough, one of the most widely-read and well-respected books ever written covered this topic just as Brian Clark has described here. “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel written in mostly three-syllable words. It covered a massive legal issue facing our nation as well as a social system that needed a microscope. Due to her simplicity, Harper Lee was amazingly successful.
As a 25-year veteran in the music industry as a publicist and promoter, I couldn’t agree more with what Brian is saying.
First you have to identify who is reading what you write. Make it simple. Make it accurate. Make it relevant and timely. Vulgarity really has no place in this forum, so avoid it if possible. There is a time and a place for such expression. Yet, using vulgar language in a public forum does not make friends or influence people.
The intent in writing a blog is to create an impression others can believe in. You want to be a leader. Show your strengths, avoid your weaknesses. If you want to build an audience or customer base, speak to that audience. Too many often make the mistake of talking to their industry or the gatekeepers. The gatekeepers are watching, so don’t worry about that.
None of us is able to be the judge and the jury. So convince one or the other to be on your side. There is power in numbers, so speaking to the jury makes sense. Influencing numbers of people in short well-conceived ideas is a winning combination.
Diwant Vaidya says
Now I have a counter point to this post and most of these comments:
Simplifying your message goes the opposite way of niche targeting. If I am selling to people whose job deals with ‘sprockets’ every day and I don’t use the word ‘sprockets’ in my copy because it is jargon, suddenly I lose the chance to talk more closely to my niche.
Our juries are not all of the same and they don’t use the same words (Thank God! Can you imagine that SEM competition?). We should definitely speak to them in their language, but don’t hesitate to use technical terms if your jury is comfortable with those.
Zafar Majid says
Reading each of your points was like reading a list of what makes a good speach.
Identify what’s in it for the audience.
Use short Anglo saxon words not long Latin words.
Use word pictures, similes and metaphors.
The only one that you didn’t mention was… deliver your message with a little humour.
Thanks for the post.
Unemployed Chris says
Nice, compelling way to get this copy lesson across. I enjoyed it, and there were few big words!
Mike Wasylik says
As a currently-active lawyer myself – despite the occasional day I wish I was digging ditches instead – I can say that Brian has hit this right on the money. Many lawyers don’t even know these secrets – and they’re lousy lawyers because of it.
Weaving these tips (and Avital’s, too, about leading with your best stuff first) into your writing should be a top priority for every blogger.
Diwant, there’s a difference between using unique terms for a niche product (in fact, all trademarks are ultimately made-up words) and using “jargon.” You can use a unique or special term to describe what you’re selling but make sure to use common language for everything else you say.
James Hua says
Brian – I always look forward to your posts. I totally agree with what you said. Warren Buffet is so talented because he’s able to make complex things understandable and simple. Terms such as “financial weapons of mass destruction”, “Mr. Market”, etc allows people to “get it”.
Weight Loss Addict says
This is the reason that outsourcing content writing can be scary. Sure it can be quick and cheap, but does it effectively deliver the intended message?
People read fast nowadays. They want to be told exactly what something is in as few words as possible. They don’t need the 10 word product names that companies are coming up with these days.
1800 Postcards says
I feel that I can use these tactics in my everyday life. I will be unstoppable in arguments!
Brent Abel says
Clearly Brian, and let me say this about that, this is a great post…
Rui Nunes says
Great way to present your case, counsellor Brian Clark. Indeed I’m trying to apply these tips which have several similarities with the web-seminar from Third Tribe Sean de Sousa speaker. It’s like when several people claim the same results and these people have already established a credibility wall then, this must be right. 😉
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