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July 2, 2009

How to Extract Doubt From Your Sales Copy

A few years ago, something happened that provided incontrovertible proof of the importance of an infallible rule in copywriting. I knew it all along but never saw it proven to me in such a personal and direct way.

What am I talking about?

No, it’s not the headline. It’s not being emotional. It’s not benefits. And it’s not split-testing, either. In fact, my opening paragraph gave you a clue.

Sure, the headline, the benefits, and all those things are important. Very important. But the one element I’m referring to, the one element that can transform flimsy, “yeah-right” copy into a sales-inducing powerhouse, is…

… Proof.

Other than poor targeting and shoddy copy, the lack of proof in your copy is what probably (and most likely) causes it to fail. But when I talk about “proof,” I’m not just talking about one or two types, but seven. Yes, seven different types of proof!

Not only are people more educated, they’re also more cynical and skeptical than ever.

They never believe anything - at least, not at first. Today, I believe persuasion has much less to do with selling than it has to do with building believability and trust.

Blame it on the proliferation of scams and snake oils. Or blame it on the profusion of aggressive, hype-filled, carnival-barking salesletters.

But the reality is, everything readers see is suspect right from the get-go. It gives new meaning to the word “conversion.” People never believe anything the moment they read your copy, so you need to “convert” them not into buyers but into believers.

You need to prove your case - and not just tell it or, worse yet, sell it. You need to provide proof. As much proof as you can muster. Any kind. Every kind.

For instance, criminal cases win in court because of a preponderance of proof, and not just a little. Conversely, they also lose if there’s reasonable doubt. That’s all that’s needed, and often it’s not that much - O.J. Simpson’s case being a perfect example.

Well, it’s the same with sales copy.

If there’s reasonable doubt, you’re going to lose the sale. Even if it’s just a little. Or at best, you will only get a tiny fraction of what’s possible in terms of sales, if any.

Here’s what happened in my life recently that proves this point.

My wife is a breast cancer survivor. A while back, she started a personal blog at that journals her courageous journey into healing.

She started this blog for personal reasons. It’s part therapy, part education.

(Awareness and prevention are incredibly important to her. She wanted to clear up a lot of the misconceptions out there - a common one being that breast cancer only affects older women. Sylvie was only 36 years old when she was diagnosed.)

Nevertheless, here’s what happened.

Sylvie started posting openly about her cancer and discussed the many visits, tests, and scans she had to undergo, from mammograms and ultrasounds, to MRIs and biopsies.

She even talked about her pain, grief, and bouts of sadness that naturally followed the surgical removal of her entire left breast, also known as a “mastectomy.”

So to show my support, I emailed my lists to notify them of her new blog. I did it several times to maximize exposure. And the resulting outpouring of affection, compassion, and support as people commented on her blog was simply amazing.

Some posts received as many as 10-20 comments. Some received as many as 50. Others got nothing at all. But keep in mind, this was a brand-new blog, with no search engine exposure, no traffic, no advertising of any kind.

Then, something completely unexpected happened.

It blew me - and Sylvie - away!

Soon after she started her blog, my wife visited her surgeon who, after sending the excised breast tissue to the pathology lab for a complete analysis, needed to discuss the report’s findings with her - as well as the necessary treatments.

“You have breast cancer,” the doctor said. We all knew that.

She also underwent six months of chemotherapy and three months of radiation therapy to prevent the cancer from spreading. Again, we all expected that, too.

But here’s what happened and what we didn’t expect.

Sylvie posted the results of the complete diagnosis to her blog. With a copy of the report in hand, she posted some of the medical terms discussed in the report, and what they meant - what they meant in general, as well as to her, personally.

She included medical terms like “Intraductal Carcinoma in Situ,” “Multicentric Central Carcinoma,” “Lymphatic/Vascular Invasion,” “Invasive Tumor Necrosis,” “Modified Scarff Bloom Richardson Grade,” and more. She explained what each of them meant.

But to show how big this cancerous lump had grown, rather than writing the dimensions she created an actual-sized graphic replica, based on the dimensions described in the report, visually demonstrating how big the tumor was.

Now, let me backtrack a little.

In that post, she provided not one but three types of proof.

First, she provided factual proof. That is, she included actual medical terms, data, and numbers taken straight out of the pathology report.

Then, she provided evidential proof. That is, she included laboratory test results proving not only that she did have cancer, but also how big and advanced it was, and the fact that it has metastasized to her lymphnodes.

Finally, she provided perceptual proof. You see, facts and data are powerful proof elements. But with every one, she translated what those terms meant. For example, creating a graphic that demonstrated the actual size of the tumor was a part of it.

And more importantly, she related what these figures and terms meant to her - how she perceived and felt about them, even at the moment they were being disclosed.

Because of the fact that these findings used technical jargon, they are easily left to interpretation. Plus, they can make the person feel distant and removed from them.

But by making them more real and personal, Sylvie translated what these terms meant to her. This, in turn, provided proof and increased the perceived quality of that proof.

This proof made it more, for a lack of a better word, credible. It made the terminology easier to understand and internalize. And it made her story more concrete and real.

OK, back to my point.

After she posted this one post, I emailed my list one more time. Same thing as before: the same lists with the exact same number of people emailed on the previous occasions. But what happened next was absolutely incredible…

… That one post alone received over 150 comments in 48 hours!

Even now, two years later after that fateful day, comments are still pouring in every week - close to 200 at the time of this writing. See the blog post for yourself.

The bottom line is, once my wife provided proof the response rate shot up dramatically. It compelled people to respond. This doesn’t mean they didn’t believe her in her previous posts. But it did reduce if not eradicate any reasonable doubt.

And for those who already believed her, it made them believe more.

This entire event gave me an idea. I thought about all the elements of proof that can add more credibility and believability to your copy. So I came up with a formula.

With a little help from Sylvie, I came up with the term “FORCEPS.”

Think of a pair of forceps, which is commonly used by surgeons for extracting. In this case, think of it as a way to “surgically extract” as much doubt as possible from your copy! FORCEPS is an acronym that stands for:

  • factual
  • optical
  • reversal
  • credential
  • evidential
  • perceptual
  • And social

Let’s take a look at what each one means.

1. Factual Proof

In my wife’s example above, you were just given some examples of factual proof, such as medical terms culled from the pathology report. Statistics, data, factoids, numbers, test results, dimensions, and so on all fall in the factual proof category.

Facts of any kind about either the problem (i.e., anything that makes the problem more real and urgent in the mind of the reader) or the solution are powerful proof elements.

2. Optical Proof

In a court case, lawyers will argue that the best and strongest evidence is an eyewitness account. Similarly, optical proof (or visual proof) is one of the most powerful.

As the adage goes, “Seeing is believing.” Anything that can visually represent the product, the business, the person, the quality, the claims, or more importantly, the benefits of the product or service, gives your copy a strong advantage.

For example, if you sell a moneymaking infoproduct, these proof elements include scans of checks and bank deposits, screenshots of website traffic logs, pictures of the author leaning against his brand-new 2007 Mercedes-Benz S-Class S550, etc.

You get the picture. Literally.

eBay reported that auctions with pictures have 400% more bids than ones without pictures. That’s why adding a picture of your product in your copy works so well. Including a graphic cover of your digital product, even if it’s not in physical form.

If you sell a physical product, take a picture of it. Better yet, show it in action. (That’s why videos are better.) Or take a picture of the product as you would, for example, with an online auction. Use different angles and lights, even with its original wrapping.

But nothing beats before-and-after pictures. Even video, if possible. For the more vivid the proof is and the more senses they engage, the more believable the proof will be.

When I was writing copy for cosmetic surgeons in my early career, the most effective form of proof was showing before-and-after pictures of patients. You also see this in weightloss programs, bodybuilding equipment, diet programs, etc.

That’s why adding before-and-after pictures show not only the results but also the extent and measurability of those results through the element of contrast.

However, before-and-after pictures are not restricted to the cosmetic industry.

One of my former clients sells special lighting fixtures. These lights were not your usual lightbulbs. They were using a special type of halogen that was twice as intense as a normal, high-wattage incandescent lightbulb, but with only a third of the power.

What did he do? He took a picture of a someone’s living room with normal lighting in it, and then took a picture of the room with his special lights. Both unretouched pictures were placed, side by side, on his sales copy.

The contrast was obvious. The proof, astounding. The sales, significant.

3. Reverse Proof

Speaking of comparisons, comparisons with other types of products or services is another powerful proof element. You often see this in competitive analyses, when your product is compared to other products in its class or category.

(You’ve probably seen this with lists of features and benefits of various products, often in a tabular format, with checkmarks, where you can instantly see that the product in question had more features and benefits than its competitors.)

But don’t limit yourself to direct competitors. This can apply to indirect competitors, too. For example, an airline’s direct competitor is another airline. But an indirect competitor can be the train, automobile rental, bus, ship, etc.

But I prefer to call it “reverse proof” because the comparison doesn’t have to from product to product. It can also be from purchase to non-purchase. Anything that shows what can happen if they don’t buy the product is reverse proof.

In other words, if you can provide proof of any potential downside if the prospect buys a competitor’s product or, more importantly, fails to buy at all, is just as powerful. Because in reality, their non-purchase is an indirect competitor as well.

Some people call this comparing apples to oranges.

You compare the price of your offer, not against the price of a competitor’s product (i.e., apples to apples), but against the ultimate cost of not buying yours.

For example, let’s say you know someone who spent over $20,000 advertising a poorly written ad that had little to no response. If you sell a copywriting course for, say, $1,000, then you compare the price of your course to the cost of not knowing how to write copy.

In this case, you compare a small $1,000 investment to a potential $20,000 mistake.

4. Credentializing Proof

Credentializing proof is anything that helps to credentialize - i.e., demonstrate, highlight, or bring attention to the credentials of - the product, business, or person behind it.

What kind of education or expertise does the author have? How many years has the business been around for? How many clients did they serve? What kind of degrees, accreditation, certifications, or awards have they won?

If the product or author in question has appeared in the media, don’t be shy in adding these in your copy, including: newspaper and magazine articles, media reports on the product or business, appearance in trade journals, writeups in consumer reports, etc.

If you can namedrop someone who’s a recognized authority in their field or even a celebrity, and do it in an ethical and logical way, do so. Or let them do the talking for you.

In court cases, one of the most commonly subpoenaed witnesses are “expert witnesses.” Similarly, reviews from industry authorities, even endorsements from celebrities, though biased, also give your copy perceived objectivity.

If you were talked about on TV or radio shows, or in publications, drop those names, too. Some copywriters even add graphics or logos of those media in which they appeared.

For example, some of my clients have added scanned magazine covers to their copy - magazines in which articles by or about them appeared. Some even add the words “As Seen In…” This provides both credentializing and optical proof.

But nothing beats authoritative endorsements, both direct and even indirect ones.

Ostensibly, a direct one is one in which an authority directly endorses the product. But an indirect one is one in which there is perceived authority, or that the authority is implied, such as “9 out of 10 dentists agree.”

Another example of an indirect authoritative endorsement was once used by master copywriter Gary Bencivenga, who discussed a headline that said, “When doctors have a headache, here’s what they do.” You can read that article here.

5. Evidential Proof

Evidential proof is evidence or an argument that compels the mind to accept an assertion as true. In fact, in the dictionary one of the many definitions of “proof” states:

“1. The validation of a proposition by application of induction or deduction to derived conclusions; a statement or argument used in such a validation. 2. Convincing or persuasive demonstration; determination of the quality of something by testing or trial.”

Therefore, anything that can prove the validity of a claim, result, or promise, and anything that can justify, backup, or support a claim, in any way, is evidential proof.

For example, some of them include product demonstrations, samples, independent studies, clinical trials, controlled tests, etc. Even events and challenges work well, which is a blend of credentializing proof and evidential proof.

As the author of “Nothing Down,” a book on how to buy property with no upfront money or collateral, Robert Allen was challenged by the media to prove his claim.

The challenge was to drop him in the middle of nowhere with only $100 for food and water, and within 24 hours he had to buy a property with nothing down.

Not only did he buy one but also ended up buying several.

He took the challenge to put his claims to the test and won. But more importantly, he got the media involved, which provided a lot of publicity. Those are the kinds of results you certainly want to discuss if not showcase in your sale copy.

This is similar to “controlled tests.” I’m not talking about the marketing kind. I mean tests that actually validate the process, the product, the results, the claims, etc.

You can do hard tests or soft tests.

Hard tests are where you actually put your product to the test to measure its quality or validate its claims. Soft tests are tests that do not directly validate the product, but used to drive home a certain point or prove an important benefit.

In the infomercial for a synthetic car oil called “DuraLube,” they had cars put up on cinder blocks, drained them completely of oil, and had the motor run until it seized. To fix the engine, one would have to invest in costly mechanical work.

Then they added one small bottle of DuraLube, drained it once more, and started the car, which was running on DuraLube’s residue only. Not only did the car start without any problems, but an elapsed timer showed the motor ran for hours without fail.

While DuraLube is an example of a hard test, a soft one is like the commercial for Oreck vacuum cleaners. The goal was to prove that their vacuum, which was incredibly lightweight, could have unbelievable “hurricane force” suction for such a light machine.

So they had the vacuum literally suck up a bowling ball. That’s somewhat of a hard test.

The soft test was when they showed how the vacuum, placed on one end of a large scale against the same bowling ball on the other, weighed less the ball itself. You saw the bowling ball plummet while the vacuum raised up in the air like a feather.

6. Perceptual Proof

Also called “persuasive proof,” perceptual proof helps to increase the perceived quality of the evidence, and strengthens how someone appreciates that evidence.

We all know that facts and figures can mean different things. But how did one arrive at these conclusions? Against what can they be measured to understand their importance? And what do they mean at an intimate level, particularly to the reader?

That’s where stories, analogies, anecdotes, examples, metaphors, and real-life accounts help to not only expand on and solidify the proof given, but also relate them to the reader and increase their level of appreciation.

Just like my wife who, in her blog post, related what those medical terms meant to her.

She didn’t just list all the medical details and what they meant. She also told them in the form of a story, and included a few metaphors to help us understand and appreciate what was happening to her. It made the proof more real and concrete.

7. Social Proof

Lastly but not the least, social proof is proof by modeling. In other words, we tend to give more credence to an idea or behavior when we see the masses approving or doing it.

Also known as “informational social influence,” social proof occurs in social situations when people make the assumption that others, especially by their numbers, possess more knowledge and therefore deem their behavior as appropriate.

They tend to assume an idea is valid not by its objective evidence but by its popularity, following, or acceptance by others. The more people talk about it, endorse it, or buy it, the assumption is the more valid and relevant it must be.

For example, forms of social proof include testimonials, case studies, sales numbers, clientele size, number of endorsements, fan base size, and so forth.

The more real you make them, the more believable they are (such as testimonials with audio, video, pictures, signatures, screenshots, graphs, etc). Even blogs, forums, and social media are widely recognized and used as effective forms of social proof.

So, there you have it.

These are just some ideas. The bottom line is, the more proof you provide, and the more you backup your claims with proof of any kind, whether they are hard or soft, or objective or subjective, the more believable - and profitable - your copy will be.

Michel Fortin is a direct response copywriter, marketing strategy consultant, and instrumental in some of the most lucrative online businesses and wildly successful marketing campaigns to ever hit the web. For more articles like this one, please visit his blog at and subscribe to his RSS feed.