Read This Or Cry

Share with your friends

Share on Pinterest
There are no images.

Six weeks ago my buddy Jesse convinced me to sign up for an Improv class.

“It’ll be fun,” he said. “We get to perform again. Plus, you can probably write it off on your tax return.”

You may know improv from the TV show Who’s Line Is It Anyway, or perhaps your local theater sports troupe.

In improv, there’s no script. No rehearsed lines. Just a suggestion from the audience and the improvisers make stuff up. Create a scene – a story – in real time.

Improv is great training for “living in the moment.” (You don’t have time to worry about what you’ll say next. Be spontaneous or die.)

And it’s also good training ground for telling a good sales story, because it teaches the value of going deep with a single idea.

It just takes one

You might think that the key to a great improviser is an abundance of ideas. (“What crazy thing will he say next?”)

Well, that’s not quite right.

Our teacher explained the difference between a raw rookie improviser from a master.

The rookie, he said, keeps throwing out one idea after another in a scene, hoping that one of them will stick. These ideas are called “offers.”

For example, let’s say a group of improvisers gathers on the stage. The emcee asks the audience for a location. “A flower shop!” shouts a tipsy lad in the back row.

Okay, a flower shop. Nothing sexy there. So one of the improvisers might throw out this opening offer: the flowers getting hungry for manflesh (a la Little Shop of Horrors.)

Lot of places to go from there.

But the rookie player who talks next stalls the action, because he keeps throwing out offers …

“The president just arrived in the flower shop.”

“My character is actually an alien who is trying to take over the world.”

“It’s actually not a flower shop at all – we’re just kids in a school play.”

The rookie believes that more is better. Keep piling on the zaniness. He gets manic about it.

But the experienced master does it different.

She takes one premise and runs with it, going deeper and deeper to find out what makes that story tick.

So if the flowers have the munchies, she might don the role of a nutritional adviser and lecture them on eating “paleo”– sure, manflesh might be tasty, she says, but it’s just not natural. Time for some diet discipline focusing on the big three: water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide.

Next thing you know, she’ll have them crossfitting and puking up their fertilizer.

When you go deep, you make interesting discoveries. When you skate on the surface, you stick to clichés.

The same can be true for marketing stories.

The raw rookie copywriter is often guilty of trying to do too much in an ad: prove too many points, pile on too many benefits, list too many features … hoping that the sheer number will overwhelm the prospect into submission.

Problem is, he never digs deep enough to make a case for any of the points, and so the ad falls flat.

Result? Crying copywriter on the living room couch.

The master will take his time on a single point – diving deeper and deeper, “dimensionalizing” the product … looking at the same thing from several different perspectives, finding the nuances.

He brings a rifle to this hunt, hoss – not a shotgun.

Now, as Gene Schwartz tells us, we can still unsling the shotgun and nail a bunch of points in rapid succession later on in an ad – this is where “bullets” can make their mark.

But for the majority of the copy, it’s best to focus on just one big idea. If we have the courage to do this, we may knock one out of the park.


Consider Jim Rutz’s famous “Read This Or Die” direct mail piece for the newsletter Alternatives.

Although the body of the ad tours a host of different ailments, the central theme is repeated throughout: the worst diseases in the world have been cured … somewhere on earth.

The hero behind the story is David G. Williams, the intrepid health explorer who trots the globe hunting down these esoteric cures.

His story is woven throughout the direct mail package, punctuating the sales copy with constant reminders of the man behind the mission.

We hear of David …

“Backpacking in Japan … trekked through the Australian outback … a research trip to Nicaragua [with a thank you note from the country’s president] … schmoozing with tribal elders around a campfire in icy Nepal … swatting tse-tse flies in African jungles, or enjoying a croissant and tea with executives in a zillion-dollar research facility in France.”

I’m sure there are many stories that Jim Rutz could have told about Williams. But he focused on just one – William’s global exploration of cures.

The theme of the sales piece is established early on. After the brass-balls headline, the very next sentence reads: “Today you have a 95 percent chance of eventually dying from a disease or condition for which there is already a known cure somewhere on the planet.” The rest of the piece – including the travelogue of Williams – elaborates on this one essential point.

Rutz announces the theme and dives deeper and deeper, convincing us in the process.


Find one “offer” and go deep with it.


Learn more about using the power of stories in marketing in Scott’s

Share on Pinterest
There are no images.
Share with your friends

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 9 comments
  • Reply

    Excellent piece, Scott.

    Brought me back to my time in Chicago. There were two camps of improvers there, the hacks and the purists. They were all talented, but the purists were near genius.Many learned directly from legendary Del Close and Charna Halpern at ImprovOlympic and went on to create Upright Citizens Brigade. Amy Pohler was an original UCB player as was Adam McKay who directed Anchorman and other classics.

    Watching masters like Pohler and Matt Besser perform gave me new respect for the artform. As comics we would sometimes close a show with “improv”, but it was really just 5 guys one-upping each other with filthy punchlines. I never had the heart to do it after Chicago.

    I have to include the Wikipedia story about Del Close bequeathing his skull to the Goodman Theatre and Charna’s prime-time gag that lasted until the Trib called her out. Hilarious. All the world’s a stage…

    Close died of emphysema on March 4, 1999 at the Illinois Masonic Hospital in Chicago, Illinois.[2] It was five days before his 65th birthday. In his will he bequeathed his skull to the Goodman Theatre, to be used in its productions of Hamlet , and specified that he be duly credited in the program as portraying Yorick. Charna Halpern, Close’s long-time professional partner and the executor of his will, donated a skull—purportedly Close’s—to the Goodman in a high-profile televised ceremony on July 1, 1999.[10] A front-page article in the Chicago Tribune in July, 2006 questioned the authenticity of the skull, citing the presence of dentition (Close was edentulous at the time of his death) and autopsy marks (Close was not autopsied), among other problems.[11] Halpern stood by her story at the time, but admitted in a New Yorker interview three months later that she had purchased the skull from a local medical supply company.[12][13]

  • Reply

    Thanks, Kevin — I was hoping you’d share.

    My favorite part of Improv (also the scariest) is that it FORCES you to jettison left brain-led thinking and go with your gut. That’s a major reason I took the class — avoid getting too stuck in my own head.

    That’s some real commitment to the craft by Del Close.

    Speaking of one-upping — the Del Close story reminds me of a one-man show I put on in high school reciting Dr. Seuss’s “Green Eggs and Ham(let).” Decked out in Elizabethan garb, I held aloft a talking skull that cajoled me to try some emerald eggs. “Alas, poor Sam, I knew him well.”

    (The gross-out climax of the show was when I finally sampled the cuisine by cracking open the brain case of the skull and scooping out some yummies.)

  • Ionut

    Hei guys,

    great writing, I fully embrace the concept, I do believe that especially in today’s climate, where the attention spam is diminishing by the day, it is an excellent view on things.

    my q is, starting with the one true, major, life changing benefit, is it ok to branch out into others that are linked to it?

    for example, if i’m writing a copy for a remedy product, the cure is the obvious benfit, but what about the social and psychological ones? increase in self esteem, happiness? or this would actually be the “drilling” part?


    • Reply

      Hi Ionut, great question.

      The social and psychological benefits would indeed be part of the “drilling” deep into the major benefit. They are all ways of “dimensionalizing” the value of the product.

  • Reply

    Love it Scott. Love the idea of sticking to one idea and follow with it. I’m a lecturer, I always stick to a rule of 3 when giving advice. Sticking to one idea at a time tends to make my students remember it the most.

    • Reply

      Thanks, Dean, good to hear. You’ve got the advantage of seeing an immediate “eye glazing” effect of veering into too many directions. Students can be a tougher audience than a motivated customer:)

  • Tim Genster

    Great piece Scott. Thanks!

    It reminds of something I read years ago. David Ogilvy I believe.
    The lesson was short: ‘Stay single-minded.’

  • Jerome

    Great story and loved it.

    The elusive one idea you spoke about and am still searching for. Too bad there are no improv classes i can partake in singapore. Thanks for the share, dude!

Leave a Reply to Jerome Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.