Random, Yet Fitting Writing Lessons I Learned from Gary Halbert, a Famous Copywriter
It’s weird how once you start learning, you don’t stop. Such is the case for me now as I started with a book on copywriting and now I’ve traveled down a tunnel where I probably won’t see the light for a while.
That is okay though.
I feel like Ms. Frizzle, well, one of her students that is filled with discovery and a desire to learn. But, you know, all grow’d up.
If you are a writer or maybe a copywriter, maybe you’ve heard of Gary Halbert, who was really well-known as a copywriter. Considered one of the best, actually.
Well, I read this thing of his called “The Boron Letters”, which is 25 Chapters of distilled life, marketing and writing advice from Gary Halbert to his son.
Here is where things get a little interesting. Halbert wrote the letters from jail. Long story short, he was indicted for not being able to fill orders for a sales campaign. So he spent some time at the Boron Federal Prison Camp. Hence the name of the letters.
I don’t know if you’d want to know that, but I think it adds something to the story.
Anyway, I read them by way of a suggestion from a copywriter. And blogged already about some observations that were a little uncomfortable for me because of the race and gender norms, I guess, in 1984 when the letters were written.
But now that is done, I want to distill some of the lessons I learned. If there is someone to listen.
So are you ready?
Yes, it is niche-specific to writers. And no, this isn’t a gripping personal narrative. I’m still dipping my toes in the water of these things.
For now, I’d like to just share a few lessons I learned, lessons that don’t fit neatly into a single post. That is, unless I name the post in acceptance of the randomness of the lessons, in which case, they fit perfectly.
So I hope that you can learn something as I did. These are five random, yet fitting lessons I learned from Gary Halbert’s “The Boron Letters”.
1. People will say what you want to hear, but buy what they want to buy.
“Be skeptical of what people say…instead trust the numbers…” -The Boron Letters (Chapter 8)
Basically, money talks. Maybe to look better or more cultivated, a person will say one thing. Yet when it comes down to it, the only metric worth trusting is the one that shows where we place our dollar bills.
For example, Gary Halbert gives an example where he asks students at the University of Southern California if they prefer movies or plays. Most students said plays. Then he asks if they went to a play in the last week — nobody raised their hand. He then asked if they saw a movie in the last week? Hands went up.
Why would a person say they prefer plays? Again, maybe because it seems more cultured, like visiting the museum. I don’t know the reason, but the students spent their money on a movie, not a play. Their mouths and money told different stories. So Chapter 8 of these letters showed me I need to ask myself this question as a writer:
Would a person invest in writing? When and why? Is it something they would buy, or is it just talk?
And if I ask myself this question, I then turn the microphone over to you. What question, if any, does this knowledge inspire you to ask yourself?
How do you feel when you open an email that isn’t addressed directly to you, but has a generic salutation? I don’t feel like the person even tried to know my name or learn anything about me. It’s kind of annoying to be honest.
The more customized your information is, the better someone can connect with it. Halbert gives the example of addressing a letter with a person’s name instead of “Dear Reader” (Chapter 12). You can also customize language to fit a person’s demographic or work industry. Or maybe the person is in a certain city and you can customize to fit the city as well.
Here’s an example of my thoughts, possibly yours (with the first salutation) when I see different email salutations:
It might seem a little silly, but it gets to me psychologically. Customization shows respect, an acknowledgement of the person and who they are, in my opinion. And it lets the person reading the email connect to the email sender, too. So why not customize, you know, like a Spotify playlist.
3. If you find a formula that works, stick to it.
Halbert’s focus was direct mail. So using his industry as a reference point, he gives an example of his “formula” as finding a list of names and creating a direct mail campaign to reach these people and then customizing to each industry (Chapter 9). This “winning formula” worked for him. So if there is a formula that works for you, it is important to use this to your benefit. Don’t edit or change, because it works.
4. Engage with learning.
I liked the parts in the letter about ways to make learning more powerful. Halbert suggested reading books more than once, the first time without taking notes (Chapter 10). The second and third times taking notes. He also suggested copying word-for-word copywriting that you like to develop an understanding at a “cellular” level (Chapters 16 and 17). This is only my second real resource I’m reading about copywriting, but as I continue, I’d like to try this. And I posit it as a learning tool for you as well.
5. Movement can get you through tough times.
If you have trouble with a task or something even in life, movement — as in continuing to work through it rather than quitting or stopping — can be a way to move forward (Chapter 10). Otherwise, stopping ensures that we stay where we are, according to Halbert. I will try this as well. In turbulent waters, movement does seem like the only option if you want to reach dry land.
So that’s it. These are five random, yet fitting lessons from “The Boron Letters” that I couldn’t place neatly into a single idea as I was brainstorming upcoming posts to write.
I’ll be keeping these lessons near and dear, and hope you can find something worthwhile in them too.
Thanks for reading.