When “You” Should Be “I”

When I first started copywriting (pre-AWAI), the gospel was clear. The most important word in copywriting was “you.”

I’d read the primacy of “you” from enough books and websites that it seemed like that was the key. And that’s why my writing was mediocre … at best.

I wonder how many could-have-been-good copywriters were led astray by this fallacy.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s incredibly important to include your reader in your writing at all stages. That’s the central point behind the “know your prospect” imperative. But this doesn’t happen simply by using the word “you.”

I eventually learned how far from reality this rule really was thanks to AWAI and Mark Ford (aka Michael Masterson).

The power of “I” …

But I hadn’t thought much about my own struggle with this approach until Richard Armstrong’s presentation at this year’s Bootcamp “The Top 10 Secrets I Wish I Knew Before I Became a Copywriter.” Specifically, his 5th secret — Unleash the Power of Drama.

This 5th secret is all about the tremendous power stories bring to successful copywriting. But Richard dug deeper. He told about the persuasive power of stories when they’re told in the first person. That is, when you tell your own story from the “I” perspective.

Using “I” in these stories makes your writing more personal for the reader. You’re letting him into your life, and by doing so, you’re creating a greater sense of connectedness.

My “story” of how this works for me …

I recently took this approach for a promo I’m writing for AWAI. They needed a copywriter who’d had experience as a teacher to write to teachers. (And that’s me! 27 years in all.) At first, I tried to write around my personal experience, generalizing the copy to the reader. Trying to fashion it to her life.

But it didn’t work. It felt forced and dull. Then I remembered Richard’s advice, to harness the drama of my own story. That meant a pretty extensive rewrite, but the rewrite was easier and went faster than when I tried to avoid that approach.

I’m still waiting to hear back from AWAI, but I feel confident that this copy will be better accepted than if I’d sent the first version.

What if you don’t have a personal story to relate? Get one from the client. Use the company owner’s, the product developer’s, the editor’s, or a happy customer’s story —told in the first person.

(This means you’d have to spend time interviewing this person. But this is a good thing. When you do this, you’ll discover many ideas for your headline, lead, and copy in general. Make it easy on yourself when you interview. Record it!)

Beware the biggest pitfall …

There’s a built-in problem with this first-person approach, however. You must remember that you’re never really writing about yourself, even when you’re writing your personal story. You’re writing about your prospect. About his wants, needs, hopes, desires, fears … and everything else in his core complex. You’re writing your story only to touch that part of him.

It’s easy to forget this while you’re writing your own story, easy to get caught up in its finer points, and feel you have to give them. I call this “ego-driven copy.”

For example, I included a fairly-detailed discussion in the AWAI promo of my schedule when I was first learning the AWAI way of copywriting while I was still teaching. It seemed important to me to show that since I was able to learn copywriting while teaching full-time, the reader could also. And to show how to do it. What better way than to show my detailed weekly schedule? But in fact, that was a terrible way.

I trimmed the copy down until all that remained (I hope) was the reader’s sense of “it is possible. I can do it.”

It’s all about when you do it …

But here’s the trick to make this work for you. When you’re writing your personal story for a promotion à la Richard Armstrong, don’t worry about including too much of yourself, too many of your own details for the first draft. Just write. Let it all flow from you unimpeded. That’s what I did the first time through with the AWAI promotion.

Then, when you go back for your first rewrite, look very closely for ego copy — those parts that are really about you and not about your reader. It may be hard to cut those down — or eliminate them entirely — at first. After all, they’re important in your life. But be brutal. Your reader really doesn’t care about those details that relate mostly to you.

What he cares about is how your story can make his life better.

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Published: December 3, 2012

2 Responses to “When “You” Should Be “I””

  1. The power of "I" can be difficult for some, if taught by parents to always focus on others! (I guess that marks my age bracket!)

    Recently, an AWAI expert have taught me the power of first person: Dianna Huff recommended using first person copy on my website - and she was right! Immediate improvement in the copy flow and "sound."

    You are right - no one needs all the gory story details, what you call "ego-driven copy." It CAN be tough to cut those details ... but the end result is worth it.

    Nancy Ross Brewer

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