Speak Like a Copywriter: 10 Rules for Having Better Conversations

There are times when I feel smart about my conversations. And there are times when I feel dumb.

I feel smart when I give someone a good idea and they gladly agree to try it.

I feel dumb when a conversation turns into an argument or ends with bad feelings.

As a longtime copywriter, I’m well aware of the “rules” of written persuasion. And when I’m writing or editing copy, it’s easy to follow them.

But when I’m talking with family and friends – or even having informal business conversations (including email exchanges) – I often ignore the rules. I end up feeling dumb. And regretful.

In some ways, writing and speaking are very different forms of communication. When you are speaking, for example, you can convey irony, sarcasm, and a host of other things with a gesture or the expression on your face. You can’t do that in writing.

But when the primary purpose of a conversation is to persuade someone to do something, many of the copywriting rules hold true.

Example: One of the lessons I teach new copywriters is to never begin by directly stating the idea you want your prospect to embrace. (This is especially true when the idea is either unfamiliar to the prospect or one he might disagree with.) Instead, you should lead off with a statement designed to grab his attention. Then say something to entice him to keep reading. Start to build your argument. Anticipate and overcome any objections he may have to what you’re telling him. And continue to build your argument until you have convinced him to take the action you want him to take. (Usually, that means buying the product you’re selling.)

Say you’re selling vitamin D supplements. You’ll turn off your prospect by starting with something he could easily disagree with. Something like: “If you want to reduce your chances of getting skin cancer, you should be taking vitamin D supplements.” A much better opening would be: “Did you know that 9,730 people die each year in the USA as a result of skin cancer?” Followed by something like: “Would it interest you to know that the single best deterrent for skin cancer is easy, available, and free?”

Then you might tell a story or list some facts that gradually convince him to start taking vitamin D supplements. And not just any supplements… the one’s you’re selling.

Well, if you want to be a persuasive conversationalist, you pretty much have to do the same thing.

I know that. But do I do it?

Hardly ever.

And that’s why conversations that I initiate with the intention of convincing someone to do something or think a certain way often turn into arguments. Or end with bad feelings. And I feel dumb.

But starting today, I think that’s going to change. Because I’m going to try to follow nine rules based on what I’ve learned about the art of persuasion from copywriting.

Here are the rules:

  1. Begin positively. Never start off (as I am wont to do) by saying something you know the other person is likely to find disagreeable.
  2. Look for a “yes.” Ask a question or make a statement that he is likely to agree with.
  3. Yield the floor. Let the other person make his point. Nod your head and say vaguely encouraging things. Then repeat what he said. Say, “Did I get that right?” If he says “No,” let him correct you.
  4. Build trust. By listening politely, you make him feel safe and comfortable with the way the conversation is going. He feels like he is talking to someone that understands him. This makes it easier to win him over when you begin to make your own points.
  5. Introduce your argument. Tell a story or state a fact that begins to move the conversation in your direction. The story or fact must be accurate and sound accurate. And it must be emotionally compelling. Make him feel that he is about to learn something new, exciting, and potentially valuable.
  6. Quell the desire to be contrary. Never say, “You are wrong” – even if you think he is entirely Say something like, “I thought otherwise, but I might be wrong. Let’s look at the facts.”
  7. Answer objections. A good copywriter will anticipate any potential objections his prospect might have and answer them in the copy. When you’re trying to persuade someone face-to-face, it’s a little different. Your “prospect” is sure to have objections to what you want him to do. Expect them. And when they come, don’t interrupt. Listen patiently. Then calmly counter his objections with facts.
  8. Have the facts at hand. Before a copywriter starts writing, he spends hours and hours doing research to dig up the facts he’ll use to build his argument. Likewise, the only way to “win” an oral argument is to do your research and be prepared with the facts before you begin talking.
  9. Keep persuading your “prospect” to come to the conclusion you want him to come to… while making him believe he’s getting there on his own. In laying out your case, use phrases like: “As you’ve already pointed out…” and “As you correctly said a minute ago…”

One more rule: Keep an open mind. If, after following the above rules, the argument doesn’t seem to be going your way, accept the possibility that you could be wrong… that the other person’s idea could be better than the idea you’ve been trying to sell.

Either way, you’re a winner. You will come away from the conversation feeling very smart.