Hunger, Smarts, and _____ Clayton Makepeace’s 3 traits every copywriter needs
I recently joined a panel of the world’s best copywriters to honor Clayton Makepeace.
It’s been a year since the industry was rocked by his untimely death soon after being hospitalized.
His wife, Wendy, as always, was at his side as he passed. She then served as our “rock” by inspiring us with how she sorted through her own heartbreak with extreme grit and elegance.
Clayton was a bonafide legend of our industry.
His content was some of the first great teachings I found on copywriting when I started along this amazing journey almost 17 years ago.
I was fortunate to know Clayton as a peer. We ate meals and hung out at events several times. I always cherished the time together.
He had a big spirit and a head full of wisdom about how to sell with the written word – which he shared generously and often with hilarity (like the story about working on Gene Schwartz’s “sex over 40” instruction product and accidentally leaving the videotape in the player where the kids were expecting to watch Barney. LOL)
There was even a rare appearance by the great Gary Bencivenga on this tribute. That’s a brother who knows how to retire. He very seldom (as in never) teaches or grants interviews these days.
To make room for all of us who wanted a chance to speak about Clayton’s impact, each speaker got ONLY 7 MINUTES to share a lesson we learned from Clayton.
Reduced mic time is a big challenge for a murderer’s row of top experts who all have lots to say about the craft, and about Clayton.
But Carline was not playin’ around about it. She swore the mic would go mute at exactly 7-minutes – no matter who’s on it.
This was actually a gift, to the presenters and the audience. Every share was super tight and meaningful, and the audience got a better show for it.
BTW… here’s a good tip for presenting:
If you need to craft a tightly timed set, then script out your talk in advance.
We average about 1-minute of talking for every 130 words on a page.
Script it, read it, time it in advance.
Then put the script away and go “natural” on the live mic.
That way you’ll get a perfect mix of “calculated spontaneity” during the presentation (works great for interviews, too).
So, below was me doing just that in prep for my panel appearance…
Once I began coaching copywriters, I asked Clayton what he looks for in a new copywriter.
I’ll never forget his answer.
He said, “Three things. The first one is hunger…” and he told me about a guy he’d met recently who was very eager to make a change in his life. “You can just sense that this guy is ready to do what it takes for an opportunity.”
“The second is smarts,” he said. “You have to be smart to be a good copywriter.” He explained that doesn’t necessarily mean having a sky-high IQ (wheww!), but that you are insatiably CURIOUS about things, and take a smart approach to learning new things and applying them.
“The third is, ‘can you write a letter?’… you know, ‘Dear Mom’.”
That third one really struck me because it’s so straight forward and obvious.
If you think about it, no matter how fractured the idea of “writing copy” becomes, or how much the landscape of our craft expands… the ability to write a good letter is at the heart of it all.
I mean, a personal letter – which is always how we want our copy to feel – can be written any way you want it.
The only actual rules to writing an effective personal letter is that you share an idea with clarity and express yourself with sincerity.
And then the quality of the letter improves when a skilled writer ramps things up with…
Call to action
And all the rest.
At its core though, a good letter is simply the ability to communicate ideas sincerely through the written word.
What makes the rest happen is EMPATHY, and a deep understanding of your “avatar”.
So I believe if you have an instinct for empathy and are drawn to research to satisfy your curiosity, then you will find it natural to add the other elements that take a letter from good to great.
That’s why I loved Clayton’s simple criteria…
Because, whether or not someone demonstrates those instincts in a letter… tells you almost everything you need to know about their chances of succeeding as a copywriter.
At the risk of being nostalgic here… I wonder how many people who want to be copywriters today have ever had the occasion to write an actual letter.
Especially to their mother.
The art of letter writing is a bit of a throwback in our constantly connected universe.
You can’t blame people who grew up with immediate direct access to every person they’ve ever known… for wondering why in the world someone would sit down and write out their thoughts to someone else… when they can just send them a Snap and say it right then.
And if we’re really going old school, write it on PAPER!
And send it to them in the MAIL!
OMG, that is SO awkward. They’ll think you’re like STALKING them or something.
(Can you tell I have teenagers at home?)
But yeah, that’s how we did it.
My wife and I fell in love at first sight when we were nineteen.
But I was already working as a comedian and traveling almost non-stop, and she was heading off to school.
So, we kept it real and set off on our separate adventures promising to keep in touch.
Which we did, through letters.
We just celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary and we both still have those letters – and always laugh and cry when we read them.
My mom and I exchanged letters during my travels. She passed away 20 years ago at the age of 49. Those letters she wrote me are the purest personal, tactile connection I have to her.
When I see her handwriting I can hear her voice again. Her phrasing and funny little asides are on perfect display. The crossing out of misspelled words. The tattered left side where she pulled it from a spiral notebook.
That intimacy… that connection with another person, whether they’re now physically gone from your life, or they’re just recapping their year in the annual holiday letter… happens uniquely through the written word.
Different from video chats, or a voice message where other syntax are firing… the written word puts your calculated choices on display.
If you visualize someone writing a letter, you see them completely present with the process.
Writing in a fury when they’re excited, stopping to ponder when they’re transitioning… the artful character of words on the page often change in size and style to reflect the writer’s emotion.
The physicality of it is not unlike a conductor leading an orchestra.
So, when Clayton names this as his third and final criteria for determining a new copywriter’s instinct… we can also use that as a reminder of the fundamentals of great copy.
Write a sincere letter to someone you care about.
Remind an old friend of a funny moment together in an email.
Plead your case to a government agency for creating change.
Conduct your thoughts in the written word and observe closely how your reader is affected.
If you fall in love with that, you’re off to a great start.
844 words. 6.5 minutes.
You can see how critical it is to truly understand your “avatar” when writing copy. Of course, we’re not writing sales copy to our relatives. So…
March in Copy Chief is all about combining your instinctive writer’s tools (imagination, visual storytelling, etc) with some fast and effective research tools to form a clear picture of your customer avatar when writing copy.
I’m going to show you a 30-minute process you can use anytime you need to bust out some eye-popping copy that has your prospecting saying, “It’s like you’re reading my mind!”
I call it the Mind Reader Copy Method and you can join the live training on March 24th (or next day replay) and take part in the weeklong avatar writing workshop afterward. You’ll get personal coaching from me and the other coaches inside the community. Click here to get all the details on how to join.
P.S. Whenever you’re ready, here are a few other ways we can help…
- Join Copy Chief. It’s your one-stop-shop for improving your copy chops, growing your freelance business, and keeping your finger “on the pulse” of what’s working now – all with working pro’s at your back to help you do it. Learn more and join here.
- Take your freelance business to the next “phase”
Get personal coaching from Kevin and his team to help you get better clients faster, attract higher quality clients to you everyday, and crisis-proof your business. Go here to learn about The Freelancer’s Journey and check out the programs.
- Get the truth about marketing on the Copy Chief Radio podcast. Find out what the top producers and change-makers in the world of marketing, copywriting, and business are doing to stay on top – listen here.