How Close is Too Close for Copy?

Both in print and in person, we have a "space" that surrounds us. We are protective of that space, allowing people to enter only if it "feels" safe.

But (at least according to more than a few psychological studies), that space isn't just one big vast wasteland of "this-is-mine-that's-yours." Rather, it's divided roughly into three zones: a "personal" zone, a "social" zone, and a "public" zone.

The public zone is that personal space reserved for passing pleasantries. It's where you meet and greet on the street. It's the place where you park the unimportant or unmemorable details of daily living. At its cold, outer reaches is the distant public zone where you mentally place the ideas and people you couldn't possibly warm up to. Ever.

Your personal zone is just the opposite. It's as close to you, ideologically and emotionally, as anyone will ever get. This is the warm, embracing space where resides your dog, your family, and your longtime friends (not necessarily in that order).

And then, between the two, there is your social zone – the most ambiguous of the three.

In the social zone, there is familiarity and friendliness. You're willing to give someone a moment of your time. You feel you MIGHT trust what they have to say or what they believe … and you're usually willing to let them prove you right. Briefly. But there is also a level of light courtesy that you wouldn't necessarily find if your relationship to the prospect was much more intimate.

The categorization of a person into one of these three zones is almost instantaneous. Once it occurs, it will determine just how forward in their gestures and speech they can be. Whether they can put a hand on your shoulder … tell you something personal … or whether they should keep their distance … or not bother to come knockin' at your door at all.

Here's the link for copywriters: Those same three zones can be penetrated in print just as easily as they can be in person.

Over-hyped, pushy copy sometimes works. But it often fails? Why? For any number of reasons. But often simply because it assumes too MUCH familiarity. That is, a product or spokesman that's not ready to be welcomed into that closely held zone of intimacy tries to force entry.

Think of the car salesman who keeps putting his hand on you or stands too close while talking. His over-familiarity becomes a distraction and can actually cost him the sale.

On the other hand – and this is something you've seen with a product manager who is afraid of sales copy – overly formal and conservative copy can fail too. Why? Because, like the teen who's too scared to put his arm around the girl at the drive-in, it fails to "make its move."

The overly pushy sales copy plunges too deeply into the prospect's personal zone … and the overly conservative copy timidly sequesters itself in his public zone. For the most part, most product pitches work best written into that middle area: the social zone.

What, exactly, does that mean?

Well, it means you would still use what's closer to familiar speech (word contractions, local vernacular, one-to-one conversational tones). But you would be, to put it simply, polite about it. That is, you would write as you would speak when meeting someone for the first time.

It's normal, on a first meeting, not to state assumptions about a person or tell him to make assumptions about you ("You can trust me. I'm honest … "). Or to put him on the defensive ("If you think your government has that right, you've got rocks between your ears … ").

Instead, you allow your new acquaintance enough room to agree with you ("Doesn't that sound fair?"). You coax him to conclusions rather than jam your own ideas down his throat ("Don't take my word for it. Take a look at this recent study … "). And, just as you would hold doors or offer a cup of tea in person, in copy you would politely do the work of calculating numbers, showing results, gathering supporting statistics, etc. ("Let me show you what I mean. At the conventional earnings rate, in less than a year you would have a profit of about XX%. Not bad. But now suppose you use the investing technique I just showed you … ").

You get the picture.

Too often, I've seen copy that's downright crass and too family, too pushy with its conclusions. Or I've seen copy that's so timid about selling that it holds back on showing benefits or making any big promises.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. A bank will be a little more formal in its marketing materials … and a pro-wrestling event will be slightly, er, less so.

But when in doubt, aim for that social zone.

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Published: April 7, 2003

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