Direct Response Copywriter on a Part of Writing Copy That's Rarely Discussed

As a direct response copywriter, how are you going to learn to write direct response copy?

You can read all the books about writing copy.

You can buy and study some manuals. The Clayton Makepeace manual is superb, if you can find it.

You can mentor under more experienced copywriters. You can get paid as an apprentice or you can pay for training. I recommend the former.

You can watch videos to learn to write copy. I have some here.

You can work for an agency or marketing department and learn from the other copywriters.

You can attend a copywriting training seminar just about every week of the year. There’s even one in Poland coming up. I could go. The whole trip would cost me a mere $5,000.

All good (except Poland).

I have used all of the above to learn to write copy and to improve my direct response copywriting skills.

But there’s one thing that’s seriously missing in all this training. LIFE.

I was at an event a few years ago and met an extremely accomplished yet totally non-famous copywriter. He actually mentored under Gary Bencivenga. How many copywriters can say that? Not many. How I wish …

We started talking in the area outside the large ballroom. What’s that area called, by the way? I have no idea. Mezzanine? Room with ugly carpet?

Anyway, the copywriter told me a couple of things that were especially interesting.

First, he sold encyclopedias door-to-door as a teenager IN ORDER TO SUPPORT HIS FAMILY. No pressure there.

Second, he would often just sit in a coffee shop, look at the people, and imagine what they’re going through.

I lived in London as a teenager. I didn’t have a car and so I rode the tube all the time. I would sometimes look around the carriage and start to imagine who I was looking at and what their lives were like.

I would make up names and every part of their life.

Right now, as I write, I’m in a coffee shop. I'm looking around.

There’s a big man sitting in the corner. He’s about 45 but looks older and needs to lose around 70 pounds. I imagine he manages the water system for the local government but he loves Chess and is playing a game with someone in Borneo on his laptop.

Next there’s a bald guy, fit and trim, looking at his tablet. How old is he? He’s around 40. I imagine he’s about to inherit around $250 million from his great uncle, who owns a chunk of a Fortune 500 company. To this point in his life, he’s been struggling to make ends meet as an electrician. Now he’s thinking about where he’s going to travel and the house(s) he’s going to build.

There’s a family of five at the next table with three children aged 10, 8, and 8 months. They’re hammering some donuts. What’s the father thinking about? I imagine he works for a big company in the accounting department. He works hard for his family but he just got by-passed for a promotion because they gave the job he wanted to a person with an MBA. He's happy when he's with his family but now he's wondering about his career.

In the next corner, there’s a young woman on her laptop. She’s on Facebook (wild guess, I know) and thinking about a trip to Australia and New Zealand. She’s also chatting with some friends who might make the trip. Or maybe she’s a medical student starting to figure out what she’s going to specialize in.

And what about the five employees working behind the counter?

I don’t know their names. I don’t really know anything about them, other than their place of employment. Why are they here? It’s hard work with strange hours. Almost all the punters are pleasant, I’m sure, but what about that 1% who are jerks? I'd tell the person who is ordering their coffee while on their cellphone to go to the back of the queue.

Are the baristas here for the pay? The health insurance? The tuition reimbursement program? The stock options? The free shift beverages?

I can only imagine.

I will NEVER be correct when I imagine what people are going through and what they’re thinking. How can I ever get this right? It’s an exercise.

But I know, with total certainty, all these people have the following …

Dreams, goals, and aspirations. Feelings. Skepticism. Days of confusion and days of clarity. The ability to love.

I would add A LOT OF TATTOOS but that’s probably going a bit far.

There are lots of copywriting courses and events making a lot of crazy promises … like … be a world-class copywriter in 6 months.

It’s not hugely difficult to learn the craft of direct response copywriting. The techniques and so on. Headlines … bullets … writing a guarantee. That’s not impossible for a decent writer.

But here’s the difference between the copywriter who generates $50,000 from a promotion and the one who generates $500,000 … THEY UNDERSTAND PEOPLE.

Claude Hopkins touched on this in his book My Life in Advertising. He said that young graduates from expensive universities rarely make good copywriters. But it’s the hustling, street-smart person who writes direct response copy that converts.

That was in the 1920s but it’s the same today.

I’m fortunate in that I was very well-educated but I was never part of the “ivory tower” club.

I’ve been writing copy for over 30 years now but I’ve had a wide variety of jobs before I wrote copy and concurrent with copywriting. Here are just a few …

Application screener in HR department. Quality control specialist in an ice cream factory in West London. Filing clerk. Publishing salesperson. Magazine publisher. Ski instructor. Waiter. PR hack. Reporter. Soccer coach. Published author.

The result?

I understand people and what motivates them.

People who are brand new to direct response copywriting? They don’t have this. They can write some clever branding ads but they can’t write direct response copy that generates results because they just don’t fully understand people like I do … like that copywriter I mentioned earlier.

There’s no training course for this part of being a direct response copywriter. It’s something that happens over time but it’s a skill, if that’s what it’s called, that can be fostered.

For example, use that exercise above.

Here’s something interesting. With all those jobs I’ve had and all the varied experiences, and especially all that selling, you might call me a hustler.

In fact, I was at a meeting of the mastermind group I was in and there was a famous copywriter there. He said, after hearing about my work, “oh … you’re a hustler.” I'm not sure precisely what he meant, derogatory or otherwise, but I’ll take it as a compliment.

I’m a hustler. So I understand how human beings work. It’s one reason I’m a successful direct response copywriter.


And by the way, I didn’t spend $5,000 to attend that seminar in Poland. Why? Two reasons. One … the copy was rubbish. Why should I attend a copywriting training seminar when the copy selling the event is F-grade twaddle? Two … the copy mentioned a speaker who speaks at just about every event I've seen advertised by saying “he rarely speaks so now is your chance.” Or something like that. Lies.

Plus think of the opportunity cost of $5,000 … that’s a lot of bananas.