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Our Messaging & Writing Framework

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Happy Friday!

During a recent weekly stand-up meeting, one of our agenda items was to brainstorm ideas for today’s newsletter.

We wanted to change things up a little…

… and after some back and forth, an idea emerged.

Why not share one of our marketing strategies (paired with the tactics to execute on it) that no one has ever heard before?

It’s not a “secret” per se; we’ve just never shared it in public before. Hmm … guess that’s a sorta-secret, right?

We think this newsletter episode will be so valuable you’ll make hard copies and hide them in multiple off-site locations.

Okay … okay, perhaps we’re overselling this a little. But just a little.

Anyhoo…

We’re also going to make the lesson extra accessible because we have done the work ourselves, which we’ll share with you, so you can see us actually follow our own framework.

We guess you could consider this a “workshop” episode. We’re dividing the lesson into three parts:

Alrighty then! …

Introduction

Some of the most challenging work we do as marketers is to distill our messaging down to the essential parts so that our value proposition is clear and precise for the people we seek to serve.

(We and our in this context is you and us; the creative work we all do as marketers and creative professionals.)

This can be a unified brand message, product sales messages, social media posts, and the ads we write to lead people to our stuff like a trail of bread crumbs.

Getting to that point of perfect clarity is hard <insert expletive> work.

It reminds us of a quote attributed to Blaise Pascal, who wrote: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.”

Every business needs this skill, but the sad reality is that the majority of marketing messages suck, especially when they make first-contact with “cold” prospects.

It’s one thing selling to people who know, like, and trust us. Selling in this context can be (very) easy because meh copy can convert just fine.

But all bets are off when someone doesn’t know us from Adam…

Unclear meh copy will have us putting the champagne away for another day, replacing the sound of popping corks with the chirp-chirp of crickets.

For many of us, writing world-class copy can feel like bleeding on the page…

There is nothing easy about making a connection with a prospect who has no relationship with us.

Moving their heart and mind with the words we write, then galvanizing them into action is one of the hardest things we do.

This is why we have a process that (mostly) turns bleeding on the page into sunshine and rainbows. Trust us, we’re doctors. (Ok, we’re not doctors, but you should trust us anyway.)

Part 1: The Lesson (Recipe) — André

I have two friends, Sean & Johnny (well, Dave too, but he’s as elusive as a Monito Del Monte), who are exceptional writers and storytellers. Last time I asked, they had written over 1.5 million words the previous year.

To put that into perspective: the entire Harry Potter series is 1,084,170 words.

Although they’re naturally fast writers, they attribute their speed to the quality of their “story beats,” a plotting device popularized by Blake Snyder in Save The Cat!

“Story beats” are, in Sean’s words, sketches, signposts, and seeds of ideas you, as the writer, can expand on. Their job is “to get you going through the draft.”

In 2016 I enrolled in a live online fiction writing workshop called

StoryShop Apprentice. The idea was for Sean and Johnny to take writers through their fiction writing process live over 12 weeks.

Their story beats process really stuck with me. I was amazed at how much clarity emerged from doing the work.

It dawned on me that their process would also be useful for writing non-fiction — including marketing messages — because, in that use case, there are even fewer moving parts.

Shawn and I have adapted the inspiration I pulled from their process into a simple and very accessible messaging / writing framework.

Our Basic ‘Story Beats’ Inspired Framework:

  1. The Dossier (analog or digital ‘shoebox’ of ideas that inform everything that follows)
  2. The Manifesto (1-2k words) — this can be an internal document for your own use only (i.e., a lower-case manifesto), or a public-facing document (described below) — we think of that as a capital M, Manifesto.
  3. The Frame (300-500 words)
  4. The Hook (1-2 sentences)

There are two ways to work through this framework — bottom up (from most specific to least specific), or top down (which is the way we use it, inspired by Sean & Johnny).

Top down means we’re first collecting our ideas, then assembling, organizing, and distilling them step-by-step until they’re razor-sharp and concise.

We like the organizing question: How do we express the most essential stuff in the fewest words?

This question is our guiding star as we work from the broadest message (The Manifesto) to the most narrow and precise (The Hook).

It’s a process of reducing, reducing, reducing until all that’s left is a diamond that can’t help but instantly draw the attention of the people we seek to serve.

After collecting our ‘beats’, we start writing with the extended manifesto-length version. For us, a ‘manifesto’ represents a compact message made up of five elements:

  • A big idea that captures attention.
  • A thesis statement that expresses a controlling idea succinctly.
  • Contextual elements to shape beliefs by establishing authority and empathy, providing evidence and explanation, and conveying emotion.
  • Insights to be discovered by the reader but not deliberately revealed or overtly explained (inspired by the Unifying Theory of 2 + 2).
  • A conclusion that brings everything full circle and ends with a call to action. (“If this resonates with you, here’s what you need to do next…”)

It’s important to note that a manifesto is not a sales letter, but a sales letter can be informed by your manifesto.

The beauty of creating these four assets is that they act as forcing functions to discover the essential properties of your brand / product / offer / message, etc.

You’ll likely never use these four assets “as is,” although, in some contexts, you could.

Shawn and I start almost all our writing by journalling in long-hand (pencil and paper); either Morning Pages, or any expression of freewriting (see Accidental Genius, one of our favorite nonfiction books of all time).

We’ve found there is no better way (for us) to bump into non-obvious ideas and discover meaningful head-slapping insights than by analog journaling and conversation.

That’s our starting point.

The ideas that emerge are captured as ‘beats’ in a project Dossier.

At first they’re often rough and incomplete. They’re the seeds of ideas that will later develop into insights, explanations, stories, etc.

When our Dossier has enough material to work with, we fire up Ulysses (any digital text editor will do) and outline a rough narrative structure using our five-point manifesto framework as “signposts” for us to write to.

We never create a detailed structure of every element we want to hit (mostly because we don’t yet know). The “signposts” are all we need.

We almost always start writing without knowing what we were going to say specifically.

We write into the ideas from our journaling, then allow the writing process to reveal interesting ideas and insights and for a narrative arc to reveal itself.

It’s OK to thrush and flail around when you start.

This is rough writing.

No one will see these first versions. They exist to get you started and, over time, something great will emerge.

The manifesto is an asset that will later inform all manner of audience-facing messaging (and we may share it publicly, as a Manifesto, like the home page of our site (‘We are creators‘), or the introduction to Sphere of Influence, for example.

Once we have our manifesto message down, we’re off to the races. Each step is a process of reducing down to the essential.

Going from 1,000-2,000 words to 500 (The Frame ) means fat is stripped off the bone. Constraints are a powerful forcing function when used in this way.

Reduce, reduce, reduce…

When done well, fewer words = greater impact.

The final piece is to distill your message into a single thesis statement of one or two sentences which we refer to in this context as ‘The Hook’.

Once you’ve done the work, a manifesto, frame, and hook can be used to inform sales letters and VSLs, webinar scripts, social media posts, long-form ad copy, full capital-M manifestos, and concise Facebook and Google Ads.

I’ll close out Part I with wisdom from Stephen Sondheim (who has an Academy Award, eight Tony Awards, a Special Tony Award, eight Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, and a Laurence Olivier Award for his work in the arts).

Stephen Sondheim during a rehearsal for the Broadway production of the musical “Merrily We Roll Along”. (Photo by Martha Swope)

There are only three principles necessary for a lyric writer, all of them familiar truisms. They were not immediately apparent to me when I started writing, but have come into focus via Oscar Hammerstein’s tutoring, Strunk and White’s huge little book The Elements of Style and my own sixty-some years of practicing the craft. I have not always been skilled or diligent enough to follow them as faithfully as I would like, but they underlie everything I’ve ever written. In no particular order, and to be inscribed in stone:

Content Dictates Form

Less Is More

God Is in the Details

… all in the service of:

Clarity

… without which nothing else matters.

Now let’s take this theory and put it into real-world practice.

Part II: Doing The Work (Baking The Cake) — Shawn

Let’s start with some context so you know why we’re distilling copy from a manifesto to a frame and a hook.

The Traffic Engine will be the first of our four core courses to open for evergreen enrollment in 2021. As soon as that happens (early March), we’ll turn on paid traffic from Facebook and Google Ads.

Most people who see those ads won’t know André and I — we’ll be more noise in their newsfeed and search results competing for their attention.

If we want to earn their attention, our messaging must be easily understood, compelling, and valuable to them.

If our writing is muddy, imprecise, or it makes the same claims they’ve heard a hundred times before, our ideas will be easily (and rightly) ignored.

The Traffic Engine distills my 22+ years of experience running a digital agency that specialized in paid traffic.

Before I could write a single word of messaging, I needed to collect and organize my thoughts.

I had stories to tell, insights to share, my own hard-earned observations about what works and what doesn’t, and, most importantly, everything I’ve learned over the years that’s so powerful that it rises to the level of being a principle.

(Focusing on principles is how we teach our students to fish, instead of just giving them a fish in the form of a whiz-bang tactic…)

All of those ideas for The Traffic Engine are captured in a Dossier (partial screenshot below).

The Dossier is a living collection of ‘beats’. Over time new ideas are added, existing ideas are refined (and occasionally combined), and language is polished.

Those ‘beats’ aren’t the writing — instead, they inform the writing.

For example, one of the ‘beats’ in the Dossier was:

Story: winning the Million Dollar Power Hour award at Top One, March 2019.

You can see how that ‘beat’ became part of the messaging for The Traffic Engine in the intro at the top of the page here.

I also find it valuable to organize Dossiers as they evolve…

You’ll notice that I use shorthand (e.g., ‘Story’, ‘Perspective’, ‘Goals’, etc.)

I also group similar ideas together, and look for opportunities for the underlying structure to emerge. (Remember: Content dictates form.)

Excerpt from a draft Dossier for The Traffic Engine

This is a process of refinement.

The first interactions with a Dossier are exercises in getting ideas out of my head as quickly as possible. There’s no pressure to even think about writing — at this stage, I’m capturing and compiling ideas that may, or may not, ever see the light of day.

Over time, as I re-read those ideas, a structure emerges. That’s generally not the final structure — that emerges from writing a manifesto.

Using the contents of the Dossier as ingredients, I wrote the original 1,800-word Manifesto for The Traffic Engine in March 2020. You’ll see many of the ingredients from the Dossier explained in more detail in the Manifesto.

The Dossier captured the basic ‘beats’. The Manifesto expanded on them.

To be clear, the work you do to create a manifesto (lower case m) does not have to be shown publicly as a Manifesto (capital M). André and I often do that because it makes sense for the way we like to teach.

Your manifesto may inform a sales letter, webinar script, VSL, etc. Think of it as a road map that captures and explains your ideas to your ideal audience in a way that’s meaningful, interesting, and compelling to them.

Next, I want to be able to describe The Traffic Engine powerfully in 300 — 500 words. Borrowing a phrase from Bruce Lee, creating a Frame creates an opportunity for me to “hack away at the unessential.”

A frame is a concise representation of the ideas found in the manifesto.

Frames are written to capture attention, generate interest for the right audience, and discourage the wrong audience. What’s in it for them is the underlying structure.

However, a frame isn’t simply excerpts from a manifesto strung together into a few paragraphs. A frame captures the promises we’re making to the reader.

A really good frame says, “here’s something interesting … here’s why it’s interesting … and if you want to learn more, here’s what to do next”.

Here are a few questions I use when creating a Frame:

  • What is my audience’s core desire? If they could wave a magic wand and get exactly what they want, what would it be? (It’s worth highlighting that part of our job is to “read between the lines” because people often can’t externalize their deeply felt, visceral emotional needs.)
  • What can my audience accomplish better / faster / with less effort and/or lower cost as a result of what I’m going to share?
  • What is something I know about this topic that my audience doesn’t that would be interesting and valuable to them?
  • What is one thing that, if my audience internalized it, would completely change their perspective? (Think: mind blown!)
  • In what ways is conventional wisdom about this topic wrong or less effective?
  • If someone is interested in the value I have to offer, what should s/he do next?

This list is not exhaustive, but you get the idea.

Use these questions as prompts.

The most significant shift that informs how I write (and how I think about the work we do in general) is that I’m continually re-orienting to the perspective of the reader.

What does she want most?

How can I create the most value for him?

Excerpt from a draft frame for The Traffic Engine

Finally, the last step is the hook…

This is the ultimate exercise in writing precision and power. To do it well, you need perspective. It’s hard to find a hook if you’re caught up in the weeds of your messaging.

Instead, take a step back, look at the core ideas you’ve expressed in your manifesto, and refined in your frame.

If you could summarize all of that into a single sentence, with extreme precision, clarity, and power, what would you say?

That’s your hook.

One framework to consider is “I help X accomplish Y without Z”, where X is your target audience, Y is their core desire, and Z is the biggest challenge they face.

I could use that format for The Traffic Engine:

We help online businesses grow quickly and effectively without wasting time and money on traffic strategies and tactics that don’t work.

Simple, clear, and a useful starting point for improvement.

I’ll polish that hook over time and add some of our personality to it. I don’t have to be in love with my first draft — I have something to work with and that makes all of the difference.

Now it’s your turn.

Start by creating (and compiling) your Dossier…

That’s where you’ll collect your ‘beats’. The priority is getting those beats out of your head and captured on the page (or screen). If it’s helpful for your writing, you can always edit your ‘beats’ later.

Once you’ve reached critical mass in your Dossier, arrange the beats into an outline representing the structure of a manifesto.

Next, in a separate document (the first draft of your manifesto), expand the beats into full thoughts expressed as sentences, paragraphs, and perhaps even pages.

A manifesto is critical because it includes all of the essential elements for an idea to succeed.

You’re taking the reader (or viewer if you prefer video) on a journey from where they are now to where they could be if they knew what you know.

Once you feel good about your manifesto, create your frame.

You have all the ingredients you need in the manifesto — pare those down to their bare essence (and notice the power that emerges from removing words).

Finally, create a hook.

Don’t worry if it’s good — just get something on the page.

Sit with it, notice what you like and what you don’t.

Polish it.

Try new ideas. Explore different angles.

Write, rewrite, and rewrite again.

You’ll know when you’ve nailed it — you’ll feel it like a lock tumbler clicking into place.

Everything we’ve described above is simple, but none of it is easy.

Don’t let that discourage you. No one writes well on the first day. That’s not the goal.

Instead, the goal is to follow this framework and see where it leads for you. Fill your digital ‘shoebox’ with ideas and write something.

Make this a habit, and you will be amazed by what emerges.

Trust us … we’re doctors…

André & Shawn

P.S.

Thanks to everyone who applied to our support role from last week’s email. We’ve had 73 applicants (so far), which has far exceeded our expectations.