Don’t sound like a bad spy, Mr. Bond.

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Okay, I admit it. I’m a bit of a geek.

I know what the “T” stands for in James T Kirk and it’s not the same as the “T” in William T Riker.

I can recite Green Lantern’s oath from memory: “In brightest day, in blackest night …”

And, if you care to bend me your ear, I can recite poetry from The Lord Of the Rings set to music composed by yours truly.

But those hours spent reading comic books and sci-fi paperbacks in my myth-spent youth (hunched over a book indoors with the shades turned down, while my brother threw a ball outside and bugged me to join him) weren’t all for naught.

Because they taught me some useful lessons about world building – making a place feel real – that can help me write more convincing sales copy.

To wit — the key role that language and terminology play in creating a believable universe.

Because a sales letter and marketing message needs to feel authentic to the right prospect.

And the keystone in that arch of authenticity is the language you use.

Spout the wrong terms to a specific audience, and you brand yourself as an outsider.

Suddenly you’re unmasked — you “sound like a bad spy” as Kevin Rogers put it to me once.

Now, if you’re a linguist like Tolkien, you can invent a new language from whole cloth. Or hire a word-geek to do it, like the HBO blockbuster Game of Thrones did for its Dothraki language.

Or, my little droogie, you can sling together your own lingo, as one beloved email expert does.

But when you’re selling to a distinct market, you have to talk their talk.


One of my favorite tales of such a task stars the great John Carlton.

(I heard this story from a Perry Marshall interview with John from some years back — you can listen to the entire jam session in Perry’s member area for his 80/20 book.)

What I love about this story is that John was faced with writing for a market he knew nothing about: motocross racing.

Didn’t matter. Because as a seasoned copywriter, he knew the sales points to hit.

The letter sold an information product, so he needed to demonstrate it was the right information that allowed you to master the track and not the equipment you used.

And what better way to dramatize this claim than to brag that these secrets could help you win even on the worst equipment?

But to make this believable, he had to talk like a real racer … or risk being unmasked as a “squid.”

So he donned his “sales detective” hat and probed his DMX asset for the name of a really crappy bike.

Once he got that, he came up with this …

John's copy: "You can win riding buck-naked on a clapped-out 6-year-old two-stroke!"

Yes, that is my hand written version of the letter.

A “clapped-out 6-year-old two-stroke”. I don’t know what that is — and John didn’t either — but the prospect did. And I bet it made an instant, visceral impression.

And the rest of the letter is filled with other racer jargon, including track obstacles like “whoops”, “tabletops”, and “nasty ass ruts.”

I can see the kid reading this in his bedroom — thumbing through a motocross magazine a few decades back and salivating over John’s advertisement — imagining himself king of the track.

(Some kids dream of Middle Earth, and others dream of a mud track.)


Swipe the language your prospects use when they tell stories to each other. Look for key terms, names of common problems, etc. The internet has gifted us with numerous forums and urban dictionaries. (And make sure to corner a “native” to read your copy before you go to press.)

Stay Tuned For Next Week …

In which I search Netflix for a movie that doesn’t suck

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Scott McKinstry
Scott McKinstry
Scott McKinstry is a direct response copywriter who specializes in telling stories. You can contact Scott and learn more about using the power of stories in marketing at
Showing 2 comments
  • Kevin Rogers

    Great piece, Scott. Love the Carlton example. These days us scribes are like kids in a candy store with all the forums and FB groups and Amazon reviews we can dive into and emerge speaking the lingo like natives.

    This is a great reminder to spend the time developing our own voices, too. Today’s experts can’t get away with just knowing their stuff, we need to share it with flair. Rhyming helps.

    You touched on one of my personal favorites when it comes to strong copy voice – Ben Settle. The guy is dialed in like a safe cracker. Another is Perry Marshall.

    I like Perry’s voice because, while it doesn’t come on like a hammer, he always keeps me guessing. You can never “check out” of a Perry marshall piece because like any great read, you just don’t know where you’ll end up.

    • Scott McKinstry

      Right on, Kevin. That reminds me of a Hollywood story I heard once. I can’t remember the details, so I’ll invent them.

      Some producers were talking about a film and how they needed the main character to be played by an actor with idosyncratic flair … you know, like Christopher Walken.

      So one of the other producers said: “Okay. Why don’t we just hire Christopher Walken?”

      My dad, an illustrator and designer, always told me he admired those cartoonists and illustrators who created a very specific style (think the characteristic dreamy quality of a Maxfield Parrish mural). For example, you always know when you’re looking at a Gary Larson cartoon, to say nothing of his trademark skewed view on reality.

      Develop a voice or style unique enough, and suddenly you’re in a category of Exactly One. Not a lot of competition in there.

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