Learning, Practicing, and Understanding

Thursday, December 20, 2018

 Delray Beach, FL.- What’s going to be on your list of New Year’s Resolutions for 2019? Do you want to become a masterful writer? Marketer? CEO?

Whatever your goal is, know this: There are four stages in mastering a complex skill: learning, practicing, and understanding.

The first two are intertwined. The last is an achievement.

You cannot practice without some little bit of learning. And you cannot learn without a lot of practice. But the understanding… oh, that’s the wonder!

Let me explain.

For some time now, I’ve been mentoring three young people in the financially valuable skill of writing advertising copy.

Each week, they bring in some piece of copy for me to critique. These are not long pieces. Nor are they complete. They are early drafts of what we call “leads” – headlines and the first 300 to 700 words of copy.

When mentoring copywriters, I like working with leads because they are short and yet they provoke the most important questions about advertising:

For example:

* Does the headline work? Does it hook my attention? Does it make me want to read on with positive expectations?

* Does the rest of the lead introduce an emotionally compelling promise or idea? Does that promise or idea meet the prospect where he is at the moment of reading? Does it build from there? Does it leave the prospect desperate for more?

* What type of lead is being used? A story lead? A secret lead? A promise? An offer? If it is a secret lead, is it followed by a story? If a story leads, is a secret introduced?

The other advantage of using leads for teaching copy is that if their leads are flawed (as they often are), the flaws will typically be the most common mistakes junior copywriters make.

For example:

* Mistaking topics for ideas

* Breaking “the rule of one” – i.e., presenting  multiple ideas or making multiple promises

* Making claims without proof

* Writing copy that is generalized and/or vague

I’ve been using this teaching format for decades, and it’s usually good and useful. Smart, hardworking students generally make fast progress. I’m sure there are other ways to teach and learn that are as good or better for individuals. But for me, this is a protocol that has proven to be effective for most people most of the time.

One thing that has surprised me is that there is little to no relationship between a person’s ability to understand a writing principle and his/her ability to put that principle to work.

In fact, I’ve been confounded by how often, after, for example, explaining how a particular headline isn’t working, I will get the same mistake the very next day. And the day after that. And so on.

When I first noticed this many years ago, I assumed the fault was mine. That I had not explained the principle clearly. But repeated and even variant explanations of the same principle did no good.

So was it the student? Was it his fault?

In some cases, for sure, I thought. (“Gee, this guy’s dumb as a rock.”) But in most cases, I was talking to very bright people.

So I tried a different tactic. Rather than re-explain the principle, I asked students to verbalize it in their own words. And guess what? Most of them had no trouble doing so. Yet, the very next time I critiqued their work, the mistake persisted.

This got me thinking. How was it possible to be able to verbalize an idea and yet not understand it?

In trying to answer that question, I could not help but think about my own 20+ year struggle to master the complex skill of Jiu Jitsu.

* I understand the important principle of off-balancing: that to compete at a high level, I must always be aware of fulcrum points and weight distribution. I must know at every moment where my opponent’s weight is based and where mine is, too. But that doesn’t mean I can execute this principle in practice.

* I may be able to off-balance my opponent in a particular entanglement of our bodies that I know very well. But if that changes even slightly I might have no idea what to do.

By considering my own experience as a student of grappling, I realized that there is big difference between principles and rules. (Off-balancing is a principle. Moving your hip in a certain direction when your opponent is in a certain position is a rule.) I also realized that though students can understand rules, they will notbe able to understand principles until they have developed mastery.

Back to copywriting…

My students’ failure to learn was, after all, my fault. The fault was in lumping together rules and principles.

It is reasonable to expect a student to remember a rule and to be able to execute it. If, for example, I tell my students that they must write in the first (and not the second or third) person, I can reasonably expect to see lots of first-person pronouns in the copy they submit to me.

But if I tell them that they must always “begin where your reader is,” I’m trying to teach a very important rhetorical principle. And I can expect, if they are intelligent, that they will be able to repeat this phrase to me the following day. They may even be able to explain it to me. (“That means figuring out what the prospect thinks and feels about the problem I’m solving or the product I am selling.”)  But that doesn’t mean they will be able to execute that idea in the next draft of their copy.

The most important knowledge in learning is the knowledge of principles. But principles cannot be effectively understood abstractly. They can only be understood after thousands of hours of practice. And if that practice is to be efficient, it must follow a set of rules suggested by the teacher.

Many years ago, after asking Marcus Aurelio, my Jiu Jitsu teacher at the time, the 100th question about this or that, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Mark, there are many questions in Jiu Jitsu, but only one answer: training.”

The process goes like this:

The teacher gives you an assignment. You do it. He critiques your performance, telling you what was good and what was not. In that critique, he gives you rules to follow. The next time you practice (if you are smart), you follow those rules.

Eventually, after hours and hours of practice, you get better. And throughout that time, the teacher is giving you more rules. But he is also giving you principles. You think you understand the principles, but you don’t. If the teacher is a smart teacher, he knows that you don’t. But he continues to explain the principles to you.


Because one day, after you have achieved a high level of competence, you will tell him how you no longer use this or that rule. He will smile at you and he will be hopeful. He will be hopeful because he knows it won’t be long before you come back to him and say, “I don’t follow too many rules anymore. But I finally understand those principles!”

I’m not going to abandon my pedagogy at this point. I can’t think of another way to teach. But what I will do is change my expectations. Identifying common mistakes and explaining how they violate some general rule or principle is a necessary part of the first stage of teaching. But it is not sufficient. To get the student to advance to the next level, I have to give him a chance to master the doing.