I recently started working with a new client — one of the biggest clients I’ve ever worked with; a real “marquee” client that has the potential to change the game in my business.
So, when they sent me my first copywriting assignment, I definitely didn’t want to screw it up! Hitting my marks on this first assignment would mean a steady flow of great work from them for years to come.
That first assignment came in. I sat down to write it, sweating through every detail. It came together really fast and really solid and when I got the first version back to them on time, I was really happy with it. (In fact, after sending it to them, I thought, “wow, this is good.” and I read it a couple more times).
But I was nervous (yes, even though I’ve been doing this for a couple of decades)… would they like it? What if I totally missed something?
Then the initial feedback came in: “Love it. VERY strong work.”
We made a couple of tweaks — not very many — and they sent the copy off to their web team and followed up with additional feedback to me: “Fantastic. Love it.”
Awesome. I don’t get tired of hearing that. And given the amount of effort (and the bit of nervousness I felt), the feedback was even sweeter.
And, I couldn’t stop thinking about the work. I was really happy with it. I knew it was good. I count it among my best pieces of copywriting yet. I achieved magic. A moment when a bunch of things came together to create something special… to create a result that was a level above what I normally produce. I’m NOT telling you this to boast about it (which is why I’m not going to show you the copy or tell you who the client is; that doesn’t matter). I’m telling you this because it got me thinking…
I achieved magic that day. It felt good and the result was amazing. I’ve had a few of these moments throughout my career and I suspect you have too. They happen from time to time. In retrospect, they’re the times when I send something off and think “wow, it felt great to write that” and then I go back and re-read it, barely believing that it my was fingers that typed it.
If I could do it once in a while, why can’t I do it all the time? Why do I hit a certain level occasionally and how can I conjure magic more often?
I know I’m not the only one who feels this way or who wants to reach higher. I have friends in many industries that I’m sure also touch magic from time to time and want more. Maybe you do too.
So I set about to quantify that magic and to see if it can be repeated.
I’ll be drawing from my own copywriting experience but I hope that the concepts and lessons here will easily translate to your (non-copywriting) situation…
QUANTIFYING THE MAGIC
The first thing I needed to do was quantify the magic. What made it so magical?
It’s pretty clear that the copy itself wasn’t the magic. It was the result of magic. I think the magic was the entire process from start to finish.
There were several aspects of this project that were similar to every other project (it was a topic I was familiar with, they needed direct response copy and there was a deadline. These things are pretty standard across all of my projects for nearly all of my clients so I’m not including them in the quantification because they are common).
So I started looking at what was different about this project compared to other projects and the list below is my best estimation about what made this project so special:
- I received very detailed instructions: This doesn’t happen as often as I’d like. Often I get a small list of vague goals or concepts and I’m tasked with creating copy from that. I don’t mind doing that — in fact, I think it’s a value I add for real estate investors who don’t necessarily know what good copy can do. They’re not copywriters, I am; so I know what info is needed. But the guy who gave me instructions has plenty of copywriting experience and a lot of business experience so he knew what information I needed before I could start, and he delivered it.
- I did a thorough analysis: Since this was the first copy I’d ever done for this client, there were plenty of things I didn’t know about them so I invested a bit of time up-front to learn about them. I try to do this for every client but I don’t always go as deep, and after I get to know a client, it kind of stops. But the effort here was helpful and important, and it reminded me that I don’t need to stop once I’m familiar with a client’s business… there are always things to learn.
- The stakes were higher: This project was different in that this was a first project for a potentially game-changing client, so the stakes were higher. It seemed to matter more. This was a make-or-break assignment because if it sucked, they’d pass on future work. (Of course I love all of my clients and try to deliver great work to them, and I try never to “phone my work in” but we all have days where we give a bit more or a bit less of ourselves).
- I pushed myself harder: Probably because the stakes were so high, I worked very hard on this project and examined every word under a microscope. I kept pushing myself, focusing in on perfection and working relentlessly until I knew I had “it”.
- I focused: When I sit down to write, I try to stay focused on the project. But sometimes my mind wanders or I’ll think of something else on a different project and I’ll quickly jump to that other project to deal with that distraction before returning. But on this project, I was 100% into the project; nothing could have pulled me off of it.
As best as I can tell, these are the points of difference that separate this assignment from most of my other assignments.
And as I look at this list of five elements, I can immediately identify two that are primary drivers from which the others flow: A stronger foundation (more information from the client and from my own analysis) and higher stakes (which led to focusing and pushing myself harder).
CONJURING THE MAGIC
I want to repeat that result again. I don’t want magic to “just happen”… I want it to appear regularly.
(Side note: Maybe it’s no longer magic when it happens regularly but by quantifying it and systematizing it, I think I can push to a higher level… and maybe when I’m experiencing that higher level, I’ll encounter a new type of rare magic that seems inconceivable right now).
On future projects, assuming that all else is equal (the topic, the type of writing, the deadlines), then I should be trying to re-establish the five magical elements I quantified above. And I should be able to do it with a stronger foundation and higher stakes — when I do, all five elements will be present.
To get these a stronger foundation, I need to do more up-front work before I start writing. I need to do more research earlier and let the ideas “percolate” in my head for a while. (This is a real change for me, since a lot of my writing starts very early in the process). To make this happen, I’m putting together a checklist of information I should collect after I get an assignment but before I start on it. I don’t think this up-front effort will slow me down substantially — because I wrote very fast when I did finally sit down to write.
To increase the stakes, I need to make sure that the project truly matters. I would say that my clients’ work is always important to me and I love working on it but I have to admit: After I’ve been working with a client for a while, I get comfortable with them; the stakes seem lower than they did with my big new game-changing client. So how can I increase the stakes? I’m not sure yet. Here are a few ideas:
- Perhaps a more robust guarantee, such as a 200% refund if the work does not deliver?
- Perhaps a personal goal of trying to stretch myself and do something new in each project?
- Perhaps an “internal” reward that raises the stakes on the project for me (even if it doesn’t raise the stakes for my client?
- Perhaps just a mindset shift that recognizes how critical every single project is to every single client?
I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t think I’ve hit on the right formula just yet. The 200% guarantee sounds like it’s the closest so far but I would like something that raises the stakes in a positive way rather than a negative way.
CREATING INTENTIONAL MAGIC
So far I’ve used my own copywriting experience as the model. But I suspect that similar things are true in other industries.
Think about your work. When the “common things” are true (whatever those things happen to be for you) then perhaps a stronger foundation and higher stakes will create magic. What does a stronger foundation look like for you? What do higher stakes look like for you? Can you “force” those things to happen?
This blog represents some really early-stage thinking on the topic. I’d love to hear from you — in the comments or through email or Twitter — to let me know what you are thinking. Am I off base? Am I missing anything? How would you raise the stakes?