Why smart copywriters write about people

January 28, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Copywriting Tips 

write about peopleThere’s a saying: Dumb people talk about people. Smart people talk about ideas.

It’s a saying usually recited by those who think they’re smart and enjoy rattling on about obscure trivia. However, these people aren’t as bright as they think they are.

The saying is wrong. In fact, I’m going to show you why talking, or rather, writing about people is very smart indeed and how this can help you dramatically improve your copywriting .

And I’ll prove it by taking you on a tour of my local grocery store, the experimental lab of evolutionary biologists, and my own direct mail swipe file.

People are interested in people!

The first stop on our tour is my local grocery store to glance at the magazines.

Why look at magazines? Because they’re in the business of offering editorial and photographic content they know people want. They can instantly gauge which words and pictures generate the most sales. So, if you want to quickly know what people respond to, look at high-circulation magazines.

They’re all over the store. Sports, auto, and biker magazines by the beer … cooking, home decor, and fashion near the bakery … and news, puzzles, and gossip at the checkout.

They’re all different in their subject matter, but the most successful all share one vital characteristic: they feature people.

Psychology Today shows a picture of a woman looking at herself in the mirror. Headline:

Body Image
An In-Depth Look at How We See Ourselves

Entertainment Weekly does little more than show pictures of stars with short blurbs:

Harrison Ford Teams With Brad Pitt in ‘The Devil’s Own’
Liv Tyler in ‘Inventing the Abbotts’
Tim Allen in ‘Jungle 2 Jungle’
Meg Ryan in ‘Addicted to Love’

American Health for Women shows a close up of a beautiful woman. Headline:

Exclusive Sex Survey
500 Women Tell Why It’s Hotter Than Ever

Mademoiselle show another beautiful woman. Headline:

Your Friends & You
Understanding the Relationships That Can Make or Break Your Life

Ditto for Time, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, and just about every other magazine. In some form, they all feature people in pictures, in headlines, and in editorial content.

(Okay, you caught me. These headlines are from a few years ago. But so what? Nothing has changed.)

People think in terms of people!

Next stop, a laboratory where evolutionary biologists are exploring a unique question: What is the brain really for, anyway? The heart pumps blood. The stomach digests food. But what is this great big brain actually designed to do?

In a series of experiments, researchers give subjects a problem to solve.

To one group they present it in the form of an abstract logic problem. Only 10% solve it correctly. To another group they present the very same problem, but in the form of a social situation between people. In this case, 75% get it right.

From this and numerous other experiments, the researchers develop a theory that the human brain has evolved very specialized ways of thinking. It’s not a calculator or computer, but an organ that is designed primarily to help us deal with social situations.

Is this person trying to cheat me? Will this person make a good spouse? How can I use this relationship to my advantage? What will that person’s reaction be when I do this? When I wear these jeans, do other people think my butt looks fat?

The researchers conclude that while our brain is fully capable of processing abstract information, it was never specifically designed for this. It works best when it must deal with people, emotions, relationships, and other elements of the human experience.

People respond to messages about people!

The final stop is my swipe file, which is a box under my desk where I toss direct mail samples until I file them away in my basement. Let’s take a look at some well-crafted pieces.

America Online sent me a polywrapped magalog-size piece showing a father and his two sons at a computer. Headline:

More access, More content, More AOL for you!

The Hume Group sent me a 6″ x 9″ manila envelope. Teaser:


Inside the “report” is actually a letter with a picture of a financial planner. Headline:

Special Report …

“Forget the hype of get-rich-quick schemes,” says this top financial planner

Nightingale Conant sent me a 6″ x 9″ full-color envelope with a picture of Zig Ziglar on the front. Teaser:

Thousands of Sales Professionals Have Benefited From His Dynamic Presentation …

There’s a lot going on in these and the thousands of other samples I have, but the point is that the best are often all about people – pictures of people, names of people, subjects distinctly people-centered and loaded with people benefits, and language that is personal and emotional.

General guidelines for people-centered marketing messages

What have we gleaned from this whirlwind tour? We humans are captivated with ourselves. It’s the most interesting subject we know. It’s not just a media or marketing trend, but an evolutionary fact. So why fight it? Use it to strengthen your sales copy.

Develop copy around people and their concerns. Forget abstract ideas and deep meaning. Good copywriting is about PEOPLE selling things to other PEOPLE who are primarily interested in PEOPLE, most especially themselves. Clever concepts are completely irrelevant.

Find the human element in your offer and build your offer around it. Anything you have to sell has something to do with people, otherwise it wouldn’t exist. What’s the human need? What’s the human benefit? But don’t stop there. Dig to find the human stories, human qualities, and human relations in what you’re selling. Offer that.

Write copy that speaks to the human experience. Your language should be full of names, pronouns, feelings, hope, helpfulness, kindness, and warmth. Raw technique can certainly makes sales if your offer is good, but to supercharge your message, make a meaningful personal connection.

Speak directly to your ideal prospect about his or her wants and needs. People listen when you talk to them personally about what they want. Make your copy about them. People also respond to promises. Make a dramatic but believable promise. Make it easy for people to identify with what you’re writing about.

Use design that triggers the appropriate emotional response. A good designer does more than typeset the copy. A designer must help to communicate the copywriter’s message with type that has the right feel, with images that elicit clear emotions, and with a layout that encourages reading and involvement. And yes, as a copywriter you have to consider the design, if for no other reason than to make sure it doesn’t suck the life out of your writing.

What’s wrong with being clever?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with clever advertising “concepts,” except that they too often focus on an analogy or image that is not about people. All things being equal, the farther away your focus strays from people-centered concepts, images, language, and benefits, the harder it is for your prospect to be interested, to process the information, and to respond positively.

Consider these examples from my “What in the name of Sam Hill were they thinking?” file.

From the United States Postal Service – a self mailer with a picture of an orange stamped PARCEL POST. Headline:


From ADWEEK Directories – a 6″ x 9″ envelope with a graphic of a clock and a dollar sign. Teaser:

1/2 the cost
1/2 the time
All the benefits of our unmatched worldwide resources

From Roosevelt Bank – an envelope with a photo of an eagle flying in a blue sky. Teaser:

The Search Is Over
Not Just Another Gold Card … A Better Gold Card

Every one of these examples uses a what the writer thought was a clever concept or turn of phrase to make a point. But the concept and the point are divorced from the central subject people are interested in: people.

When you use a “concept” to deliver a message, your audience has to connect the concept to your message then try to relate your message to something they find personally relevant. Why make people work so hard, when there’s one subject they are guaranteed to find interesting? PEOPLE!

If there’s only one thing you improve about your copywriting this year, make it this: Build your copy around people.

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Smart Comments

7 Comments on Why smart copywriters write about people

  1. Hugo Moolenaar on Jan 28th, 2010 8:18 am
  2. Hi Dean, great post. Again.

    Thanks for reminding me. Have a lot of concepts on my mind. Time to fit them into stories. Real stories, with real people.

    People want to see, meet and read about people. So they can recognize and/or identify themselves. As easy as that.

    Smart people, please go read Dean’s blogpost, on smart copywriters!
    .-= Hugo Moolenaar’s last blog … All bloggers are =-.

  3. BrianJUY on Jan 28th, 2010 8:29 pm
  4. This post is a prime example of why you are THE Direct Marketing Guru…

    Everything you wrote here makes perfect sense, it’s the elusive obvious…

    Thank you.
    .-= BrianJUY’s last blog … How to Write with Authority… =-.

  5. Dean Rieck on Jan 28th, 2010 9:01 pm
  6. Thanks, Brian. If I weren’t so smug, I’d be blushing. :)

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Roseli A. Bakar, D Bnonn Tennant and Stephen Da Cambra, Dean Rieck. Dean Rieck said: Why smart copywriters write about people: There’s a saying: Dumb people talk about people… http://goo.gl/fb/lPlG [...]

  7. Charlotte Rains Dixon on Jan 29th, 2010 1:53 pm
  8. Along the same lines, my mother once gave me advice on taking photos that I’ve never forgotten–don’t just take photos of landscapes and buildings, always put a person in the photo, because people are more interesting. And Mom was right–snapshots of tourist destinations and lovely vistas are quite boring without anybody in them. I think the same holds true for writing, as you so wonderfully pointed out!
    .-= Charlotte Rains Dixon’s last blog … Whole Abundance =-.

  9. Dean Rieck on Jan 29th, 2010 2:10 pm
  10. Charlotte:
    That’s a perfect analogy. And your mother is right. Photos are always more interesting with people. That applies to marketing photos as well.

  11. Sara on Jan 30th, 2010 11:28 am
  12. I turn to magazine headlines for inspiration on much of my writing. Everything from fiction to online dating profiles to marketing copy can be improved by following the masters of mainstream readership success. Fashion magazines!

    You also made me laugh with this: “When I wear these jeans, do other people think my butt looks fat?”

    I completely agree with what you’re saying and plan to share it with my readers too. Nice work.