Interview with a Pro:
How to Increase Response Rates Up to 100% Without Changing a Word, Part 2 – A Conversation With Ted Kikoler

In the last issue of The Golden Thread, we were treated to Part 1 of an exclusive interview by Krister Maxe (a direct-mail copywriter at DM Konsult in Sweden) with Ted Kikoler. Today, in Part 2, we hear what Ted told Krister about the relationship between copy and layout, along with his thoughts on the use of pictures in direct mail and whether "slick" or "ugly" packages work best.

KM: Could you give us a comment about the relationship between copy and layout?

TK: At the heart of every sale is emotion. You learn in the AWAI copywriting course that people buy with emotion and explain their purchase with logic. Your job as a copywriter is to awaken that emotion within the reader. This is done with words. Let me explain…

Notice the difference between your emotions when you read a good book versus your emotions when you see the movie. How often have you read a book, then seen the movie, and said, "The book was better"?

That's because when you read (as opposed to watching the story on TV or in a movie), you become an active participant. Whatever it is that the writer is describing comes to life in your imagination. And so, the power comes from the fact that the descriptions or events that the writer describes take place inside YOUR head. You, the reader, are an active participant and are therefore more inclined to feel emotions.

TV and printed photos, on the other hand, make you a passive observer. Your reader loses the advantage of having the words come to life only because they (your readers) don't have to put the effort of reading into it.

This is why, copy is so important in direct mail. You must engage your reader with your words and hold his or her attention. The only thing your design must do is support your copy and drive your reader's attention to the actual words rather than the graphics.

Unfortunately, much of the direct mail design that's created today hurts readership. Why? Because designers use too much color. Too many different typefaces. Too many photos. Too many squiggles, bars, useless shapes that may look attractive but have no meaning or relevance. They only distract the reader. Thus decreasing their active participation.

KM: There is a saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. What are your thoughts about that when it comes to direct mail?

TK: If you're in a hurry, pictures are better. Pictures, in the form of symbols, are great for telling you that this door leads to the men's toilet or you have to go this way at the airport to pick up your baggage and in that direction to get a taxi.

But words have a huge advantage over pictures. Imagine that you're holding in your hands a photo of a sandy beach with palm trees in the South Pacific. It looks gorgeous. But you're detached – aware that you're here and the beach is on the other side of the world.

But imagine what happens when there's no photo, just a string of words on a page describing what it's like to sit on the beach: feeling the hot sun on your arms and legs, hearing the waves lap up on the white-sand beach, smelling the salty sea air, tasting the cool drink, leaning back and looking up at the palm trees swaying back and forth and dancing in the breeze, feeling the sand between your toes and a bug crawling on your knee, hearing a seagull …

Words have the ability to take you to the other side of the world – to make it real and involve you in the scene. And another thing that makes it so involving is that as you read it, you see YOUR ideal beach and you taste YOUR favorite drink, while I see MY favorite beach and taste MY favorite drink. Just think of it. One thousand different people who read the same thing see one thousand different individually personalized mental movies. Wow! And if that isn't enough, the reader becomes the leading actor in his own movie. Now, that's power. Is it any wonder that bestsellers are hundreds of pages of little black letters on white pages … without photos?

When is the last time you sat in one spot for three hours glued to a book of just photos? No words, not even captions. Just photos.

KM: In your experience, which works best: slick or ugly?

TK: I've been known for promoting the concept of "ugly." But that's the wrong word. I prefer the word "human." Let me explain.

When a world leader delivers a speech, it should appear as if he's coming up with the words at the instant he says them. A good speaker makes the listener forget that a professional writer created the speech and that he practiced it in front of a mirror the evening before.

It's the same with direct mail. If it looks too slick – as if it were created by clever, scheming advertising professionals – people mistrust it. But when you receive something in the mail, and you can sense that human beings were behind it, you are more trusting. And without being aware of it, you warm up to it and are more receptive to the message.

What I'm saying is this: Like a good speech, a good direct mail package should look as if a professional writer and designer played no part in it. It should look real. It should sound and feel human.

But even if a mailing looks plain, it still has to conform to the rules of what is easy to read. For instance, many people prefer to use a sans-serif typeface (lettering without the tiny feet and tails), such as Helvetica, instead of a serif style, such as Times. But Times is seven times easier to read than Helvetica. And when using color, a black headline at the top of a page makes that page almost six times (5.8 times, to be exact) easier to read than if the headline is red. Often it's those small things that can make such a big difference in how readable the text is. And the higher the readership, the higher the response.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

At last, a professional organization that caters to the needs of direct-response industry writers. Find out how membership can change the course of your career. Learn More »


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Published: February 3, 2003

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