• David de Souza

The 80/20 Guide to Copywriting - 16 Mental Models

Updated: Oct 7

Don't fool yourself. Copywriting isn't just for advertising professionals. Writing effectively and persuasively is a multidisciplinary skill that impacts many areas of your life including your career, business, and relationships.

Copywriting is a skill that will stand the test of time. It has been used for over 5,000 years, since humans started writing on clay and it will continue to be useful until the day we stop writing.

There are thousands of books devoted to copywriting but you only need to read a few to learn the core principles. I've asked the best copywriters to recommend the most valuable books on the subject:

The Books:

  1. Scientific Advertising

  2. Baron Letters

  3. Ogilvy on Advertising

  4. Confessions of an Advertising Man

  5. Breakthrough Advertising - Part 1 - Persuasion

  6. Breakthrough Advertising - Part 2 - 7 Techniques of Breakthrough Advertising

  7. The Robert Collier Letter Book

  8. Persuasive Copywriting: Using Psychology to Influence, Engage and Sell

  9. Read Me

  10. How to Write Better Copy

  11. The Copy Book

  12. On Writing Well

I've studied these books and distilled the core principles from each. I've deleted any overlapping principles to produce the ultimate guide to the 80/20 of copywriting:

16Mental models for Copywriting:

1. 1 Big Idea

  • "Every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought". Decide on that one point you are trying to make.

  • Unless your campaign has a big idea, it will go unnoticed.

  • Big ideas come from your subconscious. Stuff your mind with knowledge and then walk/relax.

  • Readers can only process one idea at a time, in a linear passage. Therefore, each sentence should contain one thought.

2. First Conclusion Bias/Headlines

  • Headlines that offer a benefit are remembered by 4x more people.

  • The best headline would be one written about literally me! The more you can make the ad personally relevant the better.

  • The only job of your headline is to stop your customer and to compel her to read the second line.

  • Your st/age in the market determines your headline.

  • 35 times more people read the headline vs the copy

  • "Your prospect must identify with your headline before he can buy from it. It must be his headline, his problem, his state of mind at that particular moment".

3. Concreteness

  • Use "bricks she can handle". Words and mental images that are common and familiar.

4. Desires

  • Build a picture in the buyer's eye of what she will get from your product.

  • "People don't change: only the direction of their desires do."

  • The job of the copywriter is not to create desire but to channel and direct it by taking hopes, dreams, fears, desires.

  • 'You aren't selling the product you are selling the experience of ownership'

  • "Our job is not to make people think what a great ad, it's to make them think what a great product".

5. Ego

  • The most powerful short word is 'you'.

6. Emotions

  • Find your reader's pain point and you've found your way into their emotions.

  • We make a snap emotional decision to buy a product. We then look for information to rationalize our decisions.

  • Emotions cause buying vs information (that causes analysis). You want your reader to act.

6.1 - Curiosity

  • The reader's imagination is important - Spell it out and you ruin the spell.

6.2 - Fear

  • Don't build better mousetraps. Build larger mice (or the perception that they are big). Build a fear of mice in your customers.

  • Alternate between persuasion and fear for optimal results in getting people to buy.

6.3 - Flattery

  • Both flattery (and greed) are one of the most powerful motivators. Use them at the start of your copy.

6.4 - Surprise

  • Use surprise. One way to do this is to start a couple of sentences into your argument. This will create a jolt that will grab the reader's attention.

7. Incentives

  • Ads that offer no benefit do not sell.

  • Appeal to the reader's self-interest.

  • Curiosity is one of the strongest human incentives.

  • Forget about you and 'your proposition', 'your goods' and 'your interests'. What will the product do for the reader?

  • What made your experience different from everyone else's? The reader doesn't want to hear that the Grand Canyon was amazing They want to hear if someone fell off the Grand Canyon or something out of the ordinary.

8. Independence of Thought

  • Committees can criticize but don't allow them to dilute your vision.

  • Be a rebel with sufficient independence of mind to express your private opinion and not the party line.

8. Momentum

  • Verbs are the most important tool of a writer. They provide momentum.

9. Personality/Character/Ethos

  • Your ad can not be all things to all people. It can't be a male brand and a female brand. The result will be a brand without personality.

  • Create a sharply defined personality, you'll get more sales at a higher margin.

  • Your best writing will often relate less to the subject than with its significance. It's not about what you did in a situation but how that situation affected you and shaped who you became.

  • To be in high demand be hard-headed. Clients, won't admit it, but they are relieved with someone who takes a hardstand.

10. Prevention vs Cures

  • Prevention does not sell. People will spend a lot to cure troubles but not to prevent it.

11. Rationality/Counterintuitive Thinking

  • Break free from reason and unblock your imagination to be creative.

12. Resistance

  • Don't attempt to sell obviously, it makes you look desperate and creates resistance.

13. Second-order Thinking

  • You must always find a market first (and then the product).

14. Status

  • Make people feel like the prestigious group that owns the product.

15. Stories

  • 'The essence of drama is conflict' - if your story contains tension it will be more readable and memorable.

16. Trust/Belief

  • The more facts you provide the more you'll sell

  • The rule of Belief: "If you violate your prospect's established beliefs in the slightest degree nothing you promise him, no matter how appealing, can save your ad."

  • Build a bridge between what your reader currently believes and what you want them to believe. Build up using their kind of logic, not your own.

  • Their beliefs may be shallow or profound, valid or false, logical or wishful thinking. It is not your job to argue with them.

  • Platitudes such as "best in the world" make readers discount all other claims. Statements of fact are often believed and have their full weight and effect.

20 Tactics for Copywriting

1. Anti-Alloying

  • Avoid fine writing (and talking), it takes away from the product and makes it appear like you are selling

  • Express yourself (BCC): briefly, clearly and concisely.

  • Use short sentences and paragraphs.

1. Associations/Conditioning

  • Using the word "and+most important" as a joining phrase which implies the sentence after is similar to the one before.

  • After centuries of use and conditioning, these words, regardless of their truth carry weight and should be woven in the writing:

  1. It's as simple as

  2. Here's why...

  3. And, most important of all is the fact that

  4. Therefore...

  5. There is a basic underlying reason for this

  6. They discovered in case after case that....

  7. This has been proven in thousands of studies

2. Authority

  • Use "experts have discovered" which continues the acceptance momentum.

3. Desire

  • If your product stimulates the senses, then describe how.

  • Sharpen desire by allowing the reader to see it, feel it, touch it, sit in it, imagine their friends talking about it

5. Emotions

  • Find the primal motive that your product appeals to and direct your copy there "Appeal to emotion and follow up with a swift shift to intellect".

5.1 - Curiosity

  • Use juxtaposition. The reader must use their intelligence to reconcile and gets a 'smile in the mind'.

  • At the beginning, grab the reader using a provocative idea.

5.2 - Empathy

  • Use empathy to overcome resistance, build rapport and make your copy more engaging.

6. Ego

  • Make sure that "you" appears 3 times more than "I" or "we".

7. Fake “Because”

  • The most effective method is 'The 1,2,3,4': This [x] is probably not like anything you've ever tried because: 1/2/3/4 reasons.

8. Groups/Tribes

  • Use language that encourages readers to join the tribe by aligning themselves.

9. Headlines/First Impressions

  • Write every headline 100 possible ways, don't stop too soon.

  • Reveal a secret (or a lie) in headlines.

  • These Magic Words for headlines are most effective in making people buy: How to/Truth/Life/Love/At last/Now/Advice/Fact's you should know about…

  • Be abruptive: For example: New/Announcing/Now

  • Include the problem the reader has within the headline.

  • Write headlines that make you think: "Bloody Hell, that's interesting, tell me more.

  • The first paragraph must segway from the headline into the sales pitch.

10. Last Impressions

  • The last word of a sentence stays in the reader's ear and gives the sentence punch.

11. Momentum

  • Start with axioms that people can not question and then move on to more questionable ones.

  • Use common symptoms that allow for a stream of "yes" answers.

  • Use active verbs. "Joe saw him" is better than "He was seen by Joe".

  • Take a train or a plane. Movement will help you write better.

  • Transition words help your writing flow "And, of course, ...."

  • Keep the momentum going by asking a question at the end of a paragraph.

12. Order Matters

  • People read/view an ad in the following order (so put them in this order): (1) Illustration (2) caption under illustrations (3) Headline (4) Copy

12. Questions

  • Ask questions and answer them yourself in your writing

  • Will you do me a favor? Ask a prospect to try your product or give you their opinion.

13. Resistance

  • Suggest. Don't sell.

  • Don't say something was fascinating. Describe how it was fascinating.

14. Resonance

  • Find a concept that connects with people. For example: A childhood game

  • Consider only new customers, don't write for existing ones.

  • List words that suck you in and divide the list into 2: Positive words + Negative words eg. 'Crisis' instead of 'problem'. Read this list before writing.

  • Finding the most effective promise is the best use of research. Show people a number of promises and say they are for different products. Ask them to rate for importance and uniqueness.

  • Use Repetition, Alliteration, Rythme

15. Signal vs Noise

  • Use precise verbs. The president "resign/retire/fired" vs "stepped down".

  • Raw statistics are better than opinions e.g 68 MPG is better than "outstandingly economical"

16. Social Proof

  • Pay attention to what isn't free and is staying on top of: Amazon/The New York Times Non-Fiction List.

17. Stories

  • Use your life stories to bring your copy to alive. If something has moved you, chances are that it will move someone else.

  • If you can't find a story turn a description into an intriguing tale.

  • At the end, use a quote or bring the story full circle.

18. Tenses

  • Use different tenses for different effects:

  1. 1st person (I/we/us/our) = warmth / subjective opinions

  2. 3rd person (s/he, it, they, its, their) = formal / objective points

  3. 3rd person creates distance from the writer and reader