John Forde is a direct-response copywriter and co-author of the book, Great Leads and the person behind the long-running newsletter called the Copywriter’s Roundtable. John shared his process for getting started with research and copy and the lessons he’s learned from his 23-year copywriting career.
Here’s how the episode goes:
- John’s approach to research – how much do you really need to get started?
- What does it mean for your copy to be invisible?
- Do you need to invest in another copywriting formula?
- How often do you need to check in with your writing process and method?
- The difference between divergent and convergent thinking and how to use each in copywriting.
- Why the warm-up is essential to writing your best copy.
- The benefits of reverse engineering outlines in different copywriting assets.
- How speed can benefit your copy and emulate positive energy.
- John’s process for feeding his brain from morning to night.
- How fiction books can help you develop a better sense of empathy.
- The 6 leads John teaches in his book.
- What makes a great lead?
- Info product vs. a wise product – what makes one better than the other?
- The discipline that comes with writing a weekly newsletter for over 20 years.
- His view on the future of copywriting and the lifestyle of copywriters.
Hit that play button or check out the transcript below!
The people and stuff we mentioned on the show:The Copywriter Think Tank
The Copywriter Club Facebook Group
The Copywriter Underground
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Rob Marsh: If you’ve been listening to the Copywriter Club podcast for very long, you know that we love talking to copywriters, content creators, and marketers at all stages of business, from beginners to seasoned experts. Today’s guest fits very comfortably in the latter group. John Forde is the co-author of the book Great Leads, along with Michael Masterson, and the man behind the long-running weekly email called The Copywriter’s Roundtable. He’s also the author of dozens, maybe even hundreds, of high performing sales promotions in the financial newsletter industry. John shared his process for getting started with research and copy, how divergent and convergent thinking helps him come up with new ideas, the lessons that he learned as a copywriter, especially as he was just starting out, along with a lot more. Stick around, because this interview is a good one.
Kira Hug: But before we get to the interview, this podcast is sponsored by The Copywriter Think Tank. That is our mastermind for copywriters and other marketers who want to figure out the next thing in their businesses. That could be anything from creating a new product to launching a podcast or a video channel. Maybe it’s creating a product company or building an agency. Maybe you just want to be the best copywriter in your niche. Maybe you just want to hang out with us in real life at one of the upcoming retreats that we’re so excited about. Regardless, you can check out more information copywriterthinktank.com to find out more and to apply today.
Rob Marsh: Okay. Let’s kick our episode off with John. And as we do, just a quick note that John’s neighbor decided to mow his lawn about halfway through the interview. It’s not too bad, but we do apologize for any of the background noise that you might hear. Don’t let that stop you from listening though, because this is a really good interview packed with lots of ideas you can implement in your business.
John Forde: I guess, just like any story you ask a copywriter to tell, it can be long versions and short versions. So, I’ll try to come somewhere in the middle. When I was in school, I was studying… What I wanted to study was English lit. I was talked out of that by my mother who has a degree in English literature and a master’s degree in English literature and she worried about my employability.
Rob Marsh: Yeah.
John Forde: So I started taking marketing courses because they were there. To be honest, the teachers were great, but I learned nothing. I retained nothing from those marketing courses, at least not consciously. Maybe in the subconscious, I don’t know. But when I got out of school, I wanted to find some way to do writing that still involved making money, not starving. In the time that I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I went to a graduate program in Annapolis, St. John’s University. It’s really just a great books program. And not especially marketable, but I just felt like that would be very interesting to me, so I took that. Well, I ended up seeing a job posting there for an internship at Agora Publishing. At the time they were very, very small, maybe 25, 30 employees total across the company.
I went, I got the internship. I was being paid $15 a day to write editorial stuff. I met Bill Bonner and at one point he said, “Why don’t you come over and sit in my office?” We had big open offices. “Come over and sit where I am and I’ll teach you how to do writing or something.” He didn’t really have a plan and Agora didn’t really have copywriters then, except for Bill and one other person who did it part-time.
This is where I’m shortening the story. It involves getting business cards, not knowing what to put in the business card. I put a copywriter on there because I knew Bill was a copywriter and I thought, “Oh well.” And I just wanted to have business cards because I’d never had them before. And when they came, Bill saw the box of business cards and he said, “Business cards. What do you need these for?” And I said, “Bill, to be honest, I’d never had them before. I want to hand them out maybe at a happy hour or something like that.” And he said, “All right, well that’s respectable I guess. But what did you put on there for a job title?” And I said, “Copywriter.” And he said, “All right, I can teach you to do that.” And that’s how I started writing copy.
He would write a promotion and he would fill in the broad strokes and he’d hand it to me and he’d say, “Fill in the rest. Fill in these blanks.” Gradually got to do more and more of the writing, and there it went. And Agora famously expanded and Bill decided that they needed to have a copywriting training program. He and Mark Ford, who has a similar last name but we’re not related, came in and he and Bill put that together. I helped them run that and it just expanded. That became a core of the Agora copywriting training until people all spun off and started finding their own ways to train, which were also very effective. Then it became the foundation of the AWAI training program. That was that.
Rob Marsh: With those beginnings, you have probably… Well, between you and Bill and Mark, you probably have helped train more copywriters than anyone else in the world, I’ve got to believe.
John Forde: I’ve never counted, but I think a lot. Yeah. A lot.
Rob Marsh: You got to be in the top three maybe.
John Forde: We did copy training things every year and brought in people from all around the world really, because Agora’s trying to… has offices and affiliates and things like that in different countries. And I did that for maybe 15 years, 18 years. Yeah, I don’t think I could begin to count. But of course now Agora has multiple affiliates inside of it and each one has their own copy pod, copy training setup. So, they do it all on their own… They do all that training too. I mean, there are lots of people now who are in the Agora business that have been doing it for less time than I have and I read their stuff and learn from them all the time.
Rob Marsh: Yeah, it’s a training powerhouse. As you think back to what you were learning from Bill, as you were starting out, can you just share some of those… the first critical lessons that really got you started from… So many of us do the English thing, and who knows what we’re going to do when we grow up, but we have a pretty good writing foundation. But that’s a very different thing from writing promotional type stuff. So what are some of those first couple of skills that Bill was teaching you that you were able to put to use as you were growing your career?
John Forde: Well, Bill is a fascinating person. He’s very interested in ideas. He’s a history buff. He reads a lot and is a very good writer outside of writing copy as well as writing copy. But the writing that he does for himself is different from the writing that we do in copy, because we’re trying to get that instant response, instant effect. We have to keep it very lean and he does do the things where he gets more descriptive and writes longer and all those other things.
One of the things that I learned early on I guess was just that, that the kind of writing that people think of when they think of writing is not necessarily the same as when you write copy. Because writing for fine literature or something like that is something where you want to look at the writing and go, “Boy, that’s really good writing.” But when you’re looking at copy, you don’t want to be thinking about the writing style at all. That should be invisible. This is the famous Ogilvy where one side says, “That’s a really great ad,” and the other one says, “That’s a really great product.” And he says, “We write the second kind of ad.”
That’s one thing, is that you have to learn how to write in a way that is so good it disappears. Which is why I think a lot of people look at copy and they think, “Oh, I could do that.” Because it’s so lean and it looks so simple. But then when you get into it, you realize it’s very hard to find that path that goes through and resists doing all those tangents and things.
I think something else particularly with Bill is that the way he taught, until they started to put together a program, was very hands off. We used to joke that he would write “Dear Investor,” and then have a headline at the top and then he’d go, “Just fill in the rest after that.” And then he would come over and he’d read through the first five, six pages and then he’d say, “Okay,” and he’d cross out the first five or six pages and then he’d circle a sentence at the bottom of the sixth page and say, “Start here. This is where you want to start.”
I guess two lessons you could take out of that. One is, sometimes it’s best to just dive right in. All of us I think, once we’ve done this for a while, we want to help train people, show them how to do it. And we come up with a language about how to talk about things that work in headlines, how to talk about formulas that seem to work when you put together a promotion. And those things are valuable, it’s useful to do that, but sometimes you just have to go. You have to resist the urge to keep buying exercise books and exercise bikes and then never using them. You just have to get up and do something. So, there’s that.
And then there’s also this idea where, when I talk about Bill crossing out the first five, six pages, is it’s hard to get that line that you circle and say, “Start here,” without doing the warmup. But then you have to be ready to kill the warmup. We used to have brainstorming meetings and we would go away for two, three days at some place and bring all the people who we thought would have all the good ideas. The first day would be painful to get the conversation started. Second day would be fun, because we’re joking around and telling stories but getting nothing done. And then about a third of the way into the last day, we panicked that we have no ideas and we’d come up with ideas.
Then we thought, why are we spending money to go away on these retreats? Why don’t we just do them in the office, just on the last day. Then we would do the last day and we would waste… the first third of the day would be painful, the second third would be full of stories and jokes, and then the last third would be like, “Oh my God, we have nothing.” So, we’d come up with ideas. And it didn’t matter how long those meetings were, that ratio always seemed to work out.
So, if I’d had a lesson to take from that, I think that you have to get used to the process, going through those emotional swings. There’s going to be a period where you feel overwhelmed. There’s going to be a period where you feel like you’ve done all the research that you need to do and you really need to start writing and you feel desperate for not having started. I’m describing how I feel when I write. And then there’s that period when you’re just on a tear and you’re writing. And that’s the best, because the momentum comes across in the writing. And then you go back and all the research and everything is done and you know that now you’re just working with the document and you’re editing the document. That’s the part I like the most, because then it all just starts to come together.
Kira Hug: What have you shifted about your writing process over the years? If that’s where you were starting, where it’s three pages, crossing it out, what have you improved?
John Forde: It’s interesting, because I was just looking on site before we talked and then I was looking at something. I think it was either on your site or maybe it was related to it, because everybody’s talking about AI and copywriting. When people talk about AI and what it’s going to do for copywriters… Lots of people are saying it’s going to replace copywriters. I don’t think any of us really think that it’s going to replace copywriters, but that at some point we’re all going to learn how to use these tools. We’re going to change our method.
What really came across for me from that was that that’s actually how it always is. You kind of have to reinvent your process every six months or a year just to stay fresh. Otherwise it becomes monotonous and you start losing the point of what you’re doing or why you did it.
So, I would say way back in the very beginning I needed to… and I still do this sometimes, I would take another copy and I would reverse engineer it. I’d try and figure out what the outline is, because I just wasn’t that familiar with the outline and the structure. Now I’m more familiar with it. But then when I see something that works really well, I’d do it again just to make sure that that structure is still there, or maybe they discovered something new to do.
I would say something else that changed, when I first started I would do something that I learned from a teacher in high school about outlining, well, for term papers and things like that. He would have us do this thing where we created an outline and then we would get index cards and then we would go through the research. And every time we came across something, you’d write down the piece of research and then you would assign it later to the outline and then you’d spread it all out and see what was redundant or what could be reorganized. In the beginning I did that a lot. Sometimes my first draft of a promotion would be a stack of index cards that’d be like this big. And I was reading something about Gene Schwartz and that’s kind of what he used to do for Rodell’s books. He would just go through and he’d get as many cool tips as he could and then he would arrange them afterward as the outline for the promotion.
That’s always made sense to me, because when you do research it doesn’t come to you in the right order. And then some of it, five different people might make the same point, but one of them makes it better than the other ones, or supports it better than the other ones, or is a source that legal is going to accept. So, I’ve always retained that, but I did get away from the index cards. Just because they’re not very good for a mobile lifestyle. You can’t spread your index cards out on an airplane and ask people to hand you the yellow one.
For a long time I was using a program, but I still use it sometimes. I was using a program called Scrivener, which I think has become very popular, which was designed for academics to write stuff and then people use it for screenplays and stories and promotions and stuff. I still do that when I have a lot of research to tame, but lately I’ve found if I do too much research in the beginning… I mean, I thoroughly believe in the idea that research is the way to get rolling and to get ideas and to be very authentic in whatever the message is. But I find now that if I do too much in the beginning, it’s stifling and it takes me longer. And people are there waiting for a draft and they don’t know how much research you’ve compiled. From outside appearances like, “Oh, he’s doing nothing.”
So, what I try to do now is I get just enough research to get started and then I start writing in one document and I see how far it can go before I just run out of steam. And then I do some research to keep me going and I do it again. I will try to do that until I get to the end. Then I go back and there are all these places that I put in brackets that say, “Fill in examples here, three trading examples, or three testimonials here,” or something like that. And when I start to fill them in, I start seeing the places where I need to redirect and maybe change what I said. Most of the time I have a sense of what the examples are going to show, or a sense of what the research is going to do and I’m just finding stuff that would support it.
But that’s been working out for me a lot lately, because I think the more we get used to video sales, the more that we’re used to stuff online and skimming and clicking and jumping around, there has to be a sense of speed in what you do. I think that, just getting started and writing it really fast and then going back and fleshing it out, helps improve that speed feeling that’s between the lines.
Kira Hug: You mean the speed for you as the writer, or speed on the delivery? Both?
John Forde: I think it’s both. It’s a little bit like they tell customer service people. If you’re talking on the phone, try to smile while you’re talking, because the people can almost hear the smile. I think if you can write fast, it will read fast. If you’re full of energy while you’re doing it, somebody who’s going to read it is going to pick that up.
Rob Marsh: Yeah, I like that meaning. It kind of reminds me of the way that James Patterson writes. I mean, he’s cranking out a novel every month and his books are so fast-paced, you can’t put them down. So yeah, that feels like good advice.
I have two questions related to your process and your structure, John. Number one, when you say I do just enough research to get started, what is just enough? Is it two pages of notes? Is it 30 pages of notes? Is it three days, three weeks? What does that look like from a practical standpoint? I guess my second question really is around the structure of your writing. What is that outline that you’re writing to in your head? What are those different points?
John Forde: Well, let’s say the outline first, because I think the outlines are more or less, I think, the ones we all know. That we’re trying to grab somebody in the beginning with an arresting image or promise, kind of tell them what you’re going to tell them. And then you have that immediate feeling when you realize they’re hooked enough and you know that you need to say, “Let me backup and explain,” or, “Let me introduce myself,” or whatever. Then you know that you’re going to start laying out proof. That’s most of the promotion. At some point you know that the proof is so well established that if they wanted to go and tell somebody what they heard about that supports the belief that they already had when they picked up the promotion, that you’ve done that. Now you’ve got to start shifting into the product and talking about and connecting that feeling with the product, and then a sales close.
So, I mean, it’s pretty simple. And I think that that’s something that people who’ve been writing for a while realize. That most of the time a nice simple outline is going to be better for you than a complicated one. A complicated one lets you go off on all kinds of tangents, but it’s the simple one that serves you best. And that’s what… If you’re writing anything, if you’re writing fiction and things like that, you know that that’s the same kind of thing.
So, I think it really depends on the project. If I’m working on something… Most of what I do is financial copy and that means that there’s a guru involved, and I’ll always want to start out with talking to that guru to find out what they believe and what message they want to send. Because I think it has to be authentic to the product and the person behind it. In that same conversation I’ll usually have at least one person who’s a real champion for that product. I might end up having a conversation with that person and in that conversation they say something that’s already kind of got an aha moment and that can be enough to get me started. Or I might read something that they’ve written about, or I might read an outside article that references something that they talk about, and that might be enough to get me started. In that case, very short. A day of research, maybe an article, maybe something that I just think of and try writing it out on paper to see what will happen.
I had one case where I was writing. I had an idea for a promotion. I had a legal pad and a pen and I was on a plane. I’d just sketch out this headline idea that I have, then I’ll put that away and I’ll watch a movie or something on the flight. It was a seven-hour flight. We were touching down and I was still writing and I had about 30… I think I had 37 pages that I then went and typed up the next day and handed in. Say, “Hey, I wrote a promo for you.” I added some research after that. So I said, “Here’s a first draft,” and I went back and put some stuff in.
But other times that might mean tons and tons of notes. I might get 30, 40 pages of notes. And when you’re researching stuff online, in an hour you can open 50, 60 tabs on and then you feel like you have to go through them all, because there was something that interested you about each one.
So, I don’t know. I think really it’s more of a feeling, when you can’t resist putting something down as a piece of copy. And I try to take all my notes now as copy, because it’s eventually going to end up that way. I just like to try it out to see how does it sound. I think it’s more that you want to… I guess for the answer to your question, you research until something says, “Hey, I got to get this down. I got to try it out, see what it seems like.”
Kira Hug: I would love to hear about your process in relation to convergent and divergent thinking, which I know you’ve written about, and how you strengthen your own divergent thinking and that side of your brain, and how we as writers can do more of that in our own writing, in our lives.
John Forde: Yeah. Well, I don’t know if I quite know the answer to that.
Kira Hug: How do you attempt to do it?
John Forde: I guess the only way I could think about it is that I don’t necessarily know what is, I don’t know what it is that’s going to help me or not help me think in any way creatively. I think it’s just more of an attitude. Now, this is something I am pretty sure I did read on your site too, which appealed to me, which is I think that you simply have to approach life as a person who is curious and asking questions all the time. Once you are in that mindset, things start to happen.
With a discussion about AI… I don’t want to take a path, but it just has occurred to me. The way that ChatGPT works… We’ve all probably played around with it and you see that ChatGPT, where it’s very strong is that it can go and scour the entire web and then assemble everything that it finds. Where it’s weak, if there’s nothing out on the web for it to assemble, it can’t do anything. That’s why it’s weak when we talk about using it to make an emotional pitch, or figuring out how to tell a story, or figuring out not just how to tell the story, but when to tell the story and how to weave it into the message that we want to give. How to use that story as a leaping point for something else we want to do. So, we’re thinking in chess moves and this ChatGPT is an excellent checkers player.
When you’re trying to be creative, I think a copywriter can learn all the formulas, study what everybody else did, do all the research; and those things are very valuable, but right now you’re just a human ChatGPT, because you’re assembling from other bits that you’ve picked up. And that’s a skill and that’s something that people aren’t necessarily willing or able to do very well on the fly.
But when you want to come up with something that’s original, I think that’s such an abstract idea. It actually comes out of, ironically, being exposed to all those other things, all those other sources that are out there, and then having a sense that something’s missing. And that something that’s missing might be a large original idea, or it might just be a connection that should be made between two things that everybody thought were not connected at all. And then you put them together and people are like, “Wow, I never thought about it that way.” So you take something that people believe is… We’re always writing to the things that people believe when we’re trying to persuade them, because we want to know where they are. And we’re trying to find a connection between that thing they already know and the new thing we want to introduce them to so they’re comfortable with it, so they trust it.
You can only see that something’s lacking by being exposed to lots and lots of things, but that skill to then figure out how to make that connection, I think that that’s more of a mindset about life. That you just are a curious person. That when there’s a question to ask, you don’t think, “Oh, I’m not going to ask it. I’m too shy to ask it,” or it’s a bother. Which is why I think there’s some people that are not designed for copywriting, because they tend not to be curious people. They don’t have patience for conversations that might go down a strange path.
Kira Hug: Maybe as a follow-up to that then, I know you also wrote about feeding your brain morning to night, and that speaks to curiosity, how we can do that. Do you have an example or two of how you do that in your own life?
John Forde: Well, I probably read too much on my iPad and just jump around reading articles. I like aggregator sites. I like the Flipbook app, because I like to stumble across something I’m not looking for. I like to read a lot. I think one of the things that lately I’ve been thinking… One of the things that I have not been reading as much as I should is more fiction. I think that a lot of people who are copywriters… Well, some people who are copywriters would say, “I don’t have time for reading fiction.” But the difference between fiction and non-fiction is that fiction is much better at developing your sense of empathy. And if you want to sell, you have to be able to try to read what people are saying even without realizing they’re saying it themselves. I think there’s a value to that.
I worked a few times with a copywriter named Lee Troxler who used to say he loved watching… And another guy, Dick Sanders, too. Who every year puts out this list of great movies. The year’s famous… Because he loves movies. But I do think you need to be plugged into popular culture. You need to watch movies, you need to… I mean, this is a reason to stream stuff on Netflix and talk to people about those kinds of things, and just see what people are reading, what books people are reading. I try to ask… When I work with a new guru, I say, “What are you reading? What book do you recommend to read?” Because often that’s shaping what their opinion is at the moment.
Kira Hug: Rob, let’s jump back in. What was the takeaway for you from the first part of this conversation?
Rob Marsh: Yeah. Especially when we’re talking to people who’ve been doing this for a while, I really like hearing some of the tips, some of the first things that they learned. And as John was sharing what he was learning from Bill Bonner, a couple things really stood out. Number one, copywriting needs to be invisible so that it disappears. He pointed out that a lot of people will think, “Oh, I could do this copywriting thing,” because the copy feels so simple.
Obviously he’s talking about the work that goes into creating that level of copy that really disappears. But I’ve noticed there’s a thing going on in the industry where copywriters are actually… their particular copy isn’t meant to disappear. In some ways it’s meant to rub you wrong, or it’s really meant to stand out. I think thinking about the role of copy in particular and that it is to sell and not to be on the front of the stage itself, it’s really about the product, it’s about the expert that you’re talking about, it’s about the person that’s doing the launch, whatever; I just think that that’s a really good rule to keep in mind and something that’s worth pointing out.
Kira Hug: Yeah, I feel like that’s a struggle for me too, because I’m like, “I want my copy to sound clever. I want it to be so fun and clever.” And so, it’s a good reminder. I also liked when John talked about just enough research. Doing just enough research to get started. I think it’s easy for us to think that more experienced A-list copywriters do a ton of research upfront. And just to hear him talk about his process you just got to get started and then you can do more research, and then you jump back into the project and then you can do more research along the way. And talking about the speed involved. He said there has to be a sense of speed in what you do. Similar to customer service agents and smiling on the phone. Even though you can’t see it, you can feel it. I never really thought about speed in that way, and I think it’s just momentum. It’s building momentum. I think oftentimes with a new project we get in our own way and get in our own… We get in our heads about it and then we lose that momentum.
And so, I’m keeping that in mind in everything I’m doing, just like the Tiny Habits approach by BJ Fogg. It’s just doing a tiny baby step just to get started so you can build that momentum.
Rob Marsh: When he was talking about his approach to research, I realized that’s kind of the way I write. I’m not somebody who likes to sit down with 20 pages of research, because I start to get lost in all of the stuff. But when I’m doing research, every once in a while I’ll come across a thing and I’ll be like, “Ooh, that’s cool,” and I start writing there, like he does or like he said, until I get stuck and then it’s like, oh, I need to jump more into this kind of thing. It was sort of gratifying to hear that he has a similar approach. And yeah, sometimes it is a couple pages. Sometimes it’s a lot more than that. Sometimes it’s 10 plus pages to really find that thing that gets you started. But it’s a really good approach.
As we’re talking about that writing advice where he talked about you can’t find the start without the warmup, but that you need to get rid of the warmup, is really practical writing advice. Oftentimes the first few sentences, the first few paragraphs, even the first few pages aren’t that great until we get into the action, into the thing that we really have to say. I see this when we do copy critiques in The Copywriter Underground. I see this a lot on About pages and Home pages where there’s two or three paragraphs about why you need copy, or why you need words, or why I’m the right person, or the things that I’ve been doing in my life. It’s like this… So many of those pages, those messages, would be so much stronger if we cut out that warmup stuff and start where the start is. There’s a skill in finding where that point is.
Kira Hug: We talked a little bit about divergent, convergent thinking and how to be more creative as a writer. I always enjoy those parts of the conversation, because I think it’s easy to get caught up in thinking and improving the craft of writing. But it’s like, what else are we doing outside of writing to be more creative and to ask better questions and to be more curious in everything that we’re doing? So that we can bring that back to the craft and also just bring that back to the business and to marketing and everything that we do.
Rob Marsh: When he was talking about that, one thing that really stood out to me is that idea of making connections between the new thing that you’re writing about and the thing that they know, their worldview, because that’s how you build trust. That’s a total copywriting secret that he revealed. It’s not really a secret, but it’s one of those things where, if you can connect with their worldview, then they trust you. And he also mentioned, related to that, it makes you look smarter to them, because you show up as somebody who agrees with them. We all like our worldview to be reinforced. The people who tell us that we’re right, of course they’re smart, because they know we’re right.
Kira Hug: Right. And there will be people who say you’re an idiot, and that that’s okay, because those people are not the right people for you. That’s fine.
Rob Marsh: Let’s go back to our interview with John and ask him about his approach to Great Leads. I want to change our conversation just a little bit. I think most people who are listening probably recognize you as one of the authors of the book Great Leads. I’m sure you get asked about this probably more than just about anything else because of that. But in the time since you wrote Great Leads or helped write that, how has the way that we start off sales messages changed? Or has it changed at all? Are the six leads still the six leads? Would you add anything to that? Just maybe take me through that thought process.
John Forde: I mean, something that’s interesting about the finding of the six leads is that we came up with six not because there are only six, but because we were looking for patterns that we could reliably turn to when we’re overwhelmed with choices. And by limiting it to those six, we seem to be able to cover most bases. I think that that’s still true, but I would probably… Because that’s become such a filter that I understand, if somebody were to present to me a new lead type, I’d probably go, “Well, that kind of really fits in this category,” one of the six categories. That doesn’t mean that they’re wrong, it just means that that’s how I now see it and it just works for me. The whole thing is kind of exercise in limiting your choices so you can actually make a decision. I think that that actually still applies now we have even more choices to make.
Most of what changes are formats and just ways of presenting the pitch. But at the end of the day, I think we’re still selling to people. They still have the same interests and needs and desires and biases, so I think a lot of that still works. And I think that the Great Leads part we’re trying to address from a fundamental standpoint rather than something that’s about the shifting of the times. I do think that people today have, I don’t want to say different attention spans, they have different expectations of what things are going to do for them. And we’re competing now… Especially for people who are selling in the information age, we’re competing against a lot of free information. And information and wisdom are not the same thing. A lot of what we do when we’re selling any kind of info product is we’re trying to establish that it’s a wisdom product, not an info product. Kind of like the book. We’re narrowing the field so that people aren’t overwhelmed by choice.
Kira Hug: What are a couple ways, I know there are many ways to do this, but a couple ways to establish yourself or your product as wise, the brand as wise, and not just the regular info product?
John Forde: I guess one of the most immediate ways is with track records, testimonials; show that people are getting a good result from what it is that you do. That’s probably the fastest way. Then I think you become… It’s a little bit harder to put your finger on, but I think the way… If you can learn to speak authentically in the voice of that expert, if you can stay true to them… Especially now that we have VSLs and things and those experts are appearing on screen, reading the transcript that you’ve written for them, it has to sound like it comes from them. They have to look comfortable with it. I think that that helps just to give that appearance and sense, sound of somebody who’s engaged by things and that makes them seem wiser.
And then simply, I guess, understanding who it is that you’re writing to. Knowing how to use the lingo that they like, that they understand, and knowing what it is that they already believe about how the world works and staying true to that. Because if they see a reflection of themselves in it, they’ll think that’s a smart person.
Rob Marsh: As you think about leads, what you’re trying to accomplish, do you have a go-to that you almost always start with? Or do you consider the ideas, the thoughts that you’ve got, you’re working through and think, “Oh, that should be an invitation. This one should be an invitation later. This one should be a story.” Is there even a hierarchy between which ones you would want to think through as you start writing?
John Forde: Well, I mean, if I can find a story, I’d like to tell a story. That would probably be my go-to. It’s not always easy to find a story to tell. I mean, sometimes there are stories there, but you really have to dig with the people that you’re interviewing to get the information, to get them to realize there’s a story to tell. They’re the guardians of those past tales. If I don’t have a story to tell, I would say probably a go-to for me is some kind of prediction, brand prediction, because I like that. I like being able to try to paint that picture. I mean, I like doing things visually. I like movies a lot. So, I think that probably… It’s either a big futuristic vision, or somebody’s very personal tale.
Kira Hug: I want to roll two questions into one. I read on your website that you don’t check email until 3:00 PM or 4:00 PM every day, which is miraculous. I’d like to do that. I want to do that. And then the question really is, how do you do that and how do you stay focused, clear minded, avoid distractions? Especially today when there are so many distractions. What helps you, even if it’s not perfect?
John Forde: Well, one of them is kind of an unfair cheat, which is that I spend a lot of time overseas, so six hours or so before everybody that I work with. So, check their emails because they aren’t sending them. Not everybody can replicate that.
Rob Marsh: Although I think more of us are going to try. Yeah. Joining you overseas might be a good goal.
John Forde: Yeah, come on over. But every time that I’ve gotten on any kind of social media thing, I wind up getting hooked on it. I was doing Twitter for a while. I was drawing political cartoons and uploading them to Twitter. That was my rationalization for being on Twitter, was to upload the cartoons. But then I found myself commenting on things. It’d be one of those things where it’s like one o’clock in the morning, two o’clock in the morning and there’s a glow from my iPad and my wife is saying, “Go to sleep.” And I’m saying, “I’m just typing something.” I’m writing to some person to try and correct their opinion, who I’m never going to meet, who I’m never going to persuade. I eventually had to burn my Twitter account. I went to the change password thing, I typed in another password and-
Kira Hug: Oh wow.
John Forde: Yeah. Because I keep hitting Twitter links in articles and it’ll go to Twitter and then it’ll say Sign Up. And then I remember I don’t want to do this again. Then I did that on Reddit for a while and then I got off of Reddit. Now I’ve just written something about AI and that made me look on TikTok and now I’m afraid I’m already developing a TikTok addiction.
Kira Hug: Don’t do it. Don’t do TikTok.
John Forde: Yeah. So, I mean, I think that all adds up to… One way is to, yeah, you’ve got to… It is good to be plugged in, but sometimes though you’ve got to make sure you’re not. Fortunately and unfortunately it seems like fewer people are into using it now, but now though there’s Slack. I’m dealing now with a love-hate relationship with Slack, because they can find you. I’ve gotten messages at the end of a day in the US now, at 11 o’clock at night, 11:30 at night. Can I get on the phone for just a minute? I’m like, “It is 11:30 here.” They’re like, “It won’t take long.” So yeah, it’s tough.
Rob Marsh: While we’re talking about discipline, you probably have the longest running email, consistently written email, in the copywriting space I’m guessing. You’ve been writing it for something like 20 years. How do you manage that discipline and how do you find something to write about consistently every single week so that you’re able to continue building this audience and communicating with the people who want to hear from you?
John Forde: Well, sometimes I’m able to find something. Sometimes I open the MailChimp thing and I have no idea what I’m going to write. But I feel like I have an obligation, because I promised people. Other times I’ll have multiple napkins with little ideas written on them, or files or something like that where I’ve just started to write. Oh, I got to do something about this, got to do something about that. One thing I found, and I bet you guys have also found this too, is that in the beginning when you’re trying to figure out how to do this, you’re thinking, “How are we going to come up with enough ideas?” But as soon as you start thinking about it, the ideas start to find you and then you’re like, “How am I going to remember all these so that we can get them into an episode?”
I don’t know if you have this experience with the things that you write copy for, but I just finished doing something where the main promotion has been out and finished for a while, but now there’s all this ancillary copy of lifts that I need to write. I think today I just wrote my 40th lift for this thing. That means I’ve got to come up with 40 different ways to say the same thing, or to say something that’s new about the thing. In a way it’s a nightmare, but in another way it’s good. Because once you’re forced to do it, you realize there are so many ways you can do these things. Yeah, so I think that that’s just being there, just showing up. Sometimes that helps you come up with ideas.
I mean, The Copywriter’s Roundtable is interesting, because it really started… a group of copywriters met at a meeting around a table and we wanted to keep in touch. We were just going to exchange emails and it was only meant to be about 25 of us, and then people started passing it around. I’ve never really marketed it, I’ve never made any attempt to grow the list. And it’s not a huge list. It’s about 7,000 people or something like that now. I never changed the ads. It’s not because they’re working fantastically. I hope I’m not confusing people who are reading, going, “That must be a great ad.”
Rob Marsh: That’s actually really interesting to hear, because I’ve wondered about that. And I know a lot of them are your friend Bob Bly. You share a lot of his programs. Yeah. But I’ve wondered about that. I’ve wondered if-
John Forde: Yeah.
Rob Marsh: So it’s interesting to hear that.
John Forde: It’s partly because Bob has a lot of great products, and partly because he had the easiest affiliate system when I needed to set something up. Every week I look at the ads and I think, “I’ve got to start doing a better job with this,” but I just haven’t the time, because I do so many projects. At some point. Some point.
Kira Hug: We are nearing the end of our time together and I still have many questions to ask, so we might need to do part two at some point. But just to wrap it up, I’m curious what you see as the biggest opportunity for copywriters today, in 2023.
John Forde: It’s funny, because now I’ve just mentioned that I spent so much time on the TikTok thing and I’m aware now, much more than I was before, how many people are pitching the idea of the copywriting lifestyle to people as a way to… On TikTok it’s always, “You want to make $10,000 a month and barely work?” Like, okay. Well, I wouldn’t say that we barely work. I mean, I think if you’re really doing it, you’re probably working a lot and it’s hard to stop when the day ends. But the volume of what people need out there is so great. It’s almost hard to isolate one opportunity, because as soon as you realize what copywriting is, related to it content writing, everywhere you look you’re going to start seeing copy. I mean, if you’re a kid reading the back of a cereal box on a Saturday morning, you’re reading copy that somebody wrote. And now all those things are online.
Everything, every communication that we have online involves copy. Everybody realizes they need copy for their websites, their landing pages, their longer ads. They need somebody to write their Twitter feed, they need somebody to write blog posts to get them out there. There’s just a ton of opportunities.
I don’t know if you saw in The Copywriter’s Roundtable in the last couple of issues, people ask me how to get clients as a copywriter freelancer.
Rob Marsh: Yeah. It’s been an interesting series, as you’ve shared those.
John Forde: I try to answer honestly. I’m actually the wrong person to ask, because I fell backward into the situation where I am and it’s just very lucky. There are many projects that are trying to find me and they’re all originating from Agora and Agora affiliates and things like that. So, I wanted to ask other people what they thought.
I would say that the most consistent piece of advice that people had that I put in there was finding people who do what you would like to do, contacting them and saying… And being authentic about it, being honest about what your experience is, but saying, “I’d like to take a shot at writing this thing or that thing for you.” That is an opportunity. It is one that you kind of create for yourself. But there’s just a ton out there, so you just gotta keep your eyes open on who’s writing stuff. Who’s trying to persuade people with a message.
I would say that there is an opportunity that’s arising that we’re going to understand better in a year or two because of the AI stuff. Which is, if you’ve got an AI out there that can write low intensity copy, low value copy… If you’re using an AI to write an About page or something like that, there’s not a lot of risk there. It just needs to get some biographical data and it can do just fine at that.
But the longer the copy gets or the more pressure that’s on that copy to make something happen, there are going to be a lot of people out there who are using these chatbots to produce that stuff and they’re going to be doing it by pulling from the internet. Well, if all the chatbots are pulling all from the internet and then they’re all producing the content, it’s all going to start to homogenize. The opportunity there for copywriters is to be the person who does more than just be an automated or formula driven copywriter. The better you are at coming up with ideas that are original and at collecting and retelling stories in a way that gets a message across, the more chances you are going to have, I think. Or the more success you’re going to have once you land a client. I mean, that’s always been true, of course, but I think that this AI situation is just going to intensify that.
Rob Marsh: You said you like to start with a big prediction. That’s a pretty good ending, on a good prediction as far as this episode of the podcast goes.
John Forde: I think also there’s this kind of community that you guys built, which is also something I always meant to do with the Roundtable, but I’ve been too lazy to do it. Getting around other writers, that’s another way I think to become that kind of thinker, to have those kinds of ideas. This is like the Steve Jobs thing, when you randomly come across somebody. How in the Pixar building he put the bathrooms in places where people had to cross through other people’s workspaces so that they would have conversations. I think that the more that you can do that, create that kind of productive chaos, that’s very valuable.
Rob Marsh: Yeah, that’s a good challenge. Something we need to be doing more of. John, this has been awesome. I mean, I’ve been wanting to chat with you one on one for quite a while, so I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us. I’m a longtime subscriber to the Roundtable, longtime reader, I think, of a lot of your promotions. I remember joining Bill’s list back in 1998 when he was… It was really just starting out in some ways. But I’m a fan, so it’s been great talking with you and appreciate you sharing all that you have. Obviously we can find you thecopywriterroundtable.com. I believe that’s… Yeah, copywriter or copywriter’s?
John Forde: Copywritersroundtable.com, and I just conveniently avoid the question about where the apostrophe is supposed to be, because it doesn’t fit into the URL.
Rob Marsh: Exactly. But it’s great. Everybody should join your list and see what you have to share each week. Most people probably have a copy of your book, but they should have that on the shelf behind them for reference, especially if you’re writing any kind of sales promotional stuff. Anywhere else we can connect with you and follow you or see what you’re doing?
John Forde: Well, I think right now that’s mostly it. I did during the lockdown start interviewing other copywriters, something like this, and put it on a YouTube channel. But it’s a very small channel.
Rob Marsh: So look for that as well.
John Forde: Yeah, Bob Bly, Mark Ford, David Deutsch, Todd Brown, some of them are up there. Rich Jefferson.
Rob Marsh: Awesome. Awesome. So check that out. Thanks John, we appreciate you.
Kira Hug: Yeah, thank you. This was great.
John Forde: Yeah, it’s great talking to you guys.
Kira Hug: Really appreciate it.
Rob Marsh: That’s the end of our interview with copywriter John Forde. Before we close out the interview, just one or two other things that maybe are worth mentioning. John was talking about Great Leads. There are six approaches that are outlined in that book. And it’s a great book. We’ll link to it in the show notes. Everybody should have a copy. Or at least copywriters writing sales messages should probably have a copy of that on their desk. But it got me thinking, Kira, when you think about writing your emails or promotions or whatever, do you start out with lead ideas? Or are you just looking for just a fun hook that’s appealing to you? And I was asking myself the same question. I don’t necessarily start out… Like John says, his go-to is the story. And I’m not always looking for a story. Sometimes I just have like, “Oh, here’s an idea. That’s an idea. I’ll write about it.” I was just curious, how do you write?
Kira Hug: Yeah, Rob. Thanks for asking. I mean, the hook I prepare ahead of time. I usually am thinking it through the night before I write or the morning of, so that I’m not stuck when I’m staring at the blank page. But as far as the lead, that is tricky. I feel like I do a lot of what we were just talking about, a lot of just coughing to get the copy out and then editing that lead and then finding it midway through that process. When I get it though, I know I’ve got it. It is a tricky process. I think I need to pay more attention to it.
Rob Marsh: Yeah, I was thinking about it. I actually saw somebody… I wish I could remember who it was that said this or wrote this, but somebody recently said in an email or something that I saw, said, “You don’t need a hook, you need to hook people.” And that might be a distinction without a difference, but it made me think. Okay, when we talk about hooks or we talk about leads, oftentimes we’re thinking I need this 500-word thing. It’s a very specific headline attached to a subhead, whatever. And maybe just backing away from those kinds of formulas and saying, “Actually, I just need something that’s going to grab attention so that I can get to my point.” And again, maybe it’s a distinction without a difference, a way that I was thinking about it a little differently.
Kira Hug: Yeah, yeah. What else stood out to you, Rob?
Rob Marsh: Again, some really good advice as far as writing goes. You asked about differentiating information products as wise, and John started to talk about results and proof and how, if you can show something’s effective and shows that it works, that is a better, wiser info product. And again, we’ve got lots of resources in The Copywriter Underground around proof stacking and how do you prove that things work. Something that might be worth checking out. But coming back to that idea we talked about the first part of the show, when you confirm your audience’s worldview, they think of you as a smart person, as an intelligent person. And I think that’s really critically important when we’re writing.
Kira Hug: We also talked about John’s discipline of writing the weekly email and just how we generate ideas. Often it’s easy to think, “Well, I’m not going to be able to come up with enough ideas. I’m not going to be able to come up with a weekly email idea.” So many email copywriters are writing daily emails, or posting on social media three times a week. That fear is always there, at least for me. I’m like, “How am I going to come up with enough ideas?” But then if you sit with it long enough and you allow yourself to be curious or to actually think outside of the business and get lost in other aspects of your life, all of a sudden I get hit with too many ideas. Then that’s another struggle.
And so, I’m glad we talked about that and all the ways you can come up with multiple ideas, 40 ways to say new things. We touched on ChatGPT as well. That is a helpful tool when we’re trying to say new things in a different way and come up with a bunch of different combinations, so I’m glad that we pulled that into the conversation too.
Rob Marsh: Yeah. As he was mentioning, the 40 different lift notes that he had to write for that particular promotion. That’s a very common thing in the newsletter industry. It got me thinking, oftentimes when we are working with people about a launch, think about that launch lasting more than just a week, as will happen with a promotion that John’s writing for. It might last a month or two, or even longer if it’s successful. And how many different ways that you might need to introduce your audience to it so that it attracts their attention. And if we had to introduce every idea or come up with 40 ways to introduce every idea, that’s a skillset. And it’s not easy to develop, but once you have it, I think that’s incredibly valuable to a lot of our clients. Whether we’re writing emails for them, promotions, that kind of thing. So, worth thinking about and developing and something I admire about John.
Kira Hug: And if you get stuck, you can use tools like ChatGPT to help you get unstuck, to come up with those ways. It doesn’t mean you have to use it as a crutch, but you can use it just to get unstuck in those situations.
Rob Marsh: In fact, in the AI training that you and I are putting together, and may even be ready for launch, by the time people are listening to this, we’re going to show people how to use AI to come up with more ideas as well.
Kira Hug: Wow, look at you teasing that offer. Nice. Okay. And then we ended the conversation talking about the future of copywriting, which I felt like was quite positive from John’s perspective, which is great. That there’s just so much opportunity. And I agree with that. We’re still so needed. And even just talking with some of the copywriters today in the accelerator program, we’re talking about, if you can create great copy, that is still rare. It’s rare. And so, even though it feels like there’s so many copywriters out there and there’s not enough work and it’s hard to find clients, if you become the best at what you do, there is so much opportunity for you regardless of the shifts in AI. If you can be the best person who does that one thing, you will continue to do well. And we need more of those people out there.
Rob Marsh: Yeah. And when we say something like that, if you can become really good, or when you can become the best, that’s sort of a hard concept to wrap your mind around. There is a lot of mediocre copy out there. In order to be the best, you need to have things like a very specific voice, or the ability to adopt your client’s voice, or you need industry specific knowledge, or you need product specific knowledge. There’s lots of ways to get there and make it different and stand out from, again, the vast majority of copy and content that’s pretty mediocre.
Kira Hug: Yeah. And when I say best, I mean you get results for your clients. I don’t actually mean you’re the number one person and the only person, but you can deliver on the promise and they can depend on you to do what you say you’re going to do and to hit those results consistently. It’s not every time, but consistently.
Rob Marsh: Well, we want to thank John for joining us on the podcast to talk about copywriting, his approach to doing the work. And as we mentioned at the end of the interview, John writes a weekly email that you can sign up for at copywriters, with an s, roundtable.com. And if you’re a member of The Copywriter Underground, John taught a workshop on the six different lead types in which he shared several real life examples of how to start a sales message with a story, or with an invitation, or with a prediction. That training alone is worth the price of admission into the underground, especially if you write sales messages as part of your work as a copywriter. You can find that at thecopywriterunderground.com.
Kira Hug: And that’s the end of this episode of The Copywriter Club podcast. Intro music composed by copywriter and songwriter Addison Rice, outro is composed by copywriter and songwriter David Munter. If you enjoyed this episode, please visit Apple Podcasts to leave a review of the show. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.