Body (Copy) Language: Six Accidental Messages Copywriters Send

Does your marketing copy send prospects a message you didn't MEAN to send?

You remember that in a previous article, I made an analogy between personal, physical space and the "comfort zone" you might aspire to write to with a piece of good marketing copy. Just because direct mail or online marketing isn't face-to-face, we reasoned, doesn't mean that you and your reader don't "interact."

It's different in print. But not by much. So, this week, I'm going to continue the analogy.

Another much-studied aspect of face-to-face communications – especially in a sales setting – is body language.

A chin rub means one thing. Steepled hands, another. Crossed arms, something else yet again. In the face-to-face setting, the different gestures can betray messages you don't intend to send, but send anyway.

In promo print, body gestures might not apply. But there are still different things copywriters do that can also send accidental messages. And if you're not careful, these little slips can derail the message of your whole campaign.

For instance …


    Your testimonials are eloquent and effusive (e.g., "I'm entranced by your product. I laughed, I cried. Sublime, utterly sublime"). To convey a personal touch, or perhaps to protect reader privacy, the names underneath are signed with only a first name (e.g., "Loved It, Chuck"). And the photos are gauzy professional shots, with people wearing pressed T-shirts and laughing.

    What You MEAN To Say: "Our customers are smart. They're good-looking. They're overjoyed. And we're all on a first-name basis (not to mention discreet)."

    What It ACTUALLY Sounds Like: "We couldn't really get good testimonials. So we wrote our own. Chuck is my cousin in Des Moines."

    A Better Approach: Give full names wherever you can. Use real photos of customers, even the ugly ones. And most of the time, resist the temptation to edit away poor writing in testimonial quotes.


    You start your letter, "Dear Reader, Let's be honest …" or pepper paragraphs with "to tell the truth" and "I really mean that." In your guarantee, you write, "You can trust me … I'm a gentleman."

    What You MEAN To Say: "I mean what I say. And when I make a promise, you can bet I'll stand by it. I'm not like that other guy who sold you the bike with square wheels."

    What It ACTUALLY Sounds Like: "I'm worried you think I'm like that guy who sold you the bike with square wheels. My pitch sounds deceptive, so I subconsciously want to reassure you that it isn't. You do trust me, don't you?"

    A Better Approach: Root out whatever it is in your pitch or product that makes you leery. Good products make it easy to write truthfully and confidently. Whatever you do, cut the weasel warm-ups and just make the promises.


    Your words are weighty and profound. You've never seen four syllables you didn't love. Not to mention what you'll do given five minutes in a dark room with a word processor and witty puns and word play.

    What You MEAN To Say: "Aren't I smart!"

    What It ACTUALLY Sounds Like: "Aren't I pretentious!"

    A Better Approach: You've heard it often. But not too often, I'm guessing. Always, always use simple words. You're trying to call attention to the ideas, not to the words you've used to express them. Big difference.


    Your newest promo is printed on silk paper. With hand-etched, four-color graphics. You've hired Japanese geisha girls to fold the letters and Peruvian mountain cats to lick each envelope closed. No expense was spared.

    What You MEAN To Say: "I care about you, which is why I care about how this promo looks. If it looks professional, we'll look professional to you too. Or at least, we'll look pretty damn hip."

    What It ACTUALLY Sounds Like: "I care more about how you'll think of me and my promo than I care about how what I'm selling can serve your interests. Look at me, look at me, look at me!"

    A Better Approach: OK. First off, sometimes elegant DOES work. It depends on the project. Membership in an exclusive club might call for high-ticket design. But imagine if you're writing a donation letter for a non-profit … or a pamphlet to sell a low-budget vacation to college students. Sometimes LESS really is more.


    " XYZ's Water-Matic might make a better cup of tea," says your pitch letter, "of course, there's no guarantee." The rest of the copy is littered with "could" … "can" … and "should."

    What You MEAN To Say: "We don't over-promise to our customers. We're conservative, not rash like those hucksters down the road."

    What It ACTUALLY Sounds Like: "I'm not sure we can deliver on what I'm saying. And I don't want to look stupid if we fail. So I'm not going to commit to any of the promises you're reading here. In fact, don't call. I'm just going to go sit in the corner now and shiver."

    A Better Approach: True, again, that sometimes, you have to be conditional in your speech. Lawyers recommend it. Nervous CEOs prefer it. But those reasons aside, wherever you can, use as many bold and confident words as you can. ("XYZ product tested as tops on the tea-maker market nine years in a row.") Write confidently and with conviction. It can only improve your results.


    Your copy bubbles over with enthusiasm and lots of really, really … really … awesome adjectives.

    What You MEAN To Say: "I LOVE my product! It's the absolute BEST on the market. You couldn't find a BETTER product than mine even with a JILLION bloodhounds sniffin' the trail!"

    What It ACTUALLY Sounds Like: "I'm not sure WHY my product is good! I'm not even sure IF my product is good! I just want you to BUY my product. Is that so wrong?"

    A Better Approach: It's not your exuberance that's at fault. It's the lack of substance. Add case studies and stats to back up your claims. Plus customer stories and testimonials and track record. The fluff will fade away.

OK, I could go on until the cows come home. But the point is clear. Be careful HOW you say what you want to say. As a guide, be especially on your guard when you're writing copy under one of these two conditions:

Either (a) you're trying to hide your own opinion from the reader or (b) you're trying to get the reader to think something about YOU, the writer, as well as the product.

In both scenarios, you risk writing something between the lines of your copy that you simply did not intend.

And that's not good.

Just a thought…

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Published: April 21, 2003

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