I’m feeling under the weather today, so I’ll opt for a reprint…
Unexpectedly, after a good evening last night (a reading celebration for my son’s class, and my best improv class yet!), I spent half the night awake, shivering uncontrollably…
And had a 102.6 fever when I woke up this morning (that’s since gone down, thanks to drugs).
But I’m falling asleep at my computer while doing research for client work, and can’t think straight enough to write an essay.
So instead I’ll re-share an essay I wrote a little over a year ago, that’s continued to shape the ENTIRE way I think about getting good at anything.
Without any further ado, here’s…
The Architecture of A-List Copywriting Skills
It’s about to get heavy…
One of the thinkers who influenced me most in early adulthood is a guy named Ken Wilber. What Ken is best known for his is Integral theory. Ken has devoted his whole life to chasing one big problem:
If there’s a theoretical model of existence that could contain and give context to all other models of the existence, what would that look like?
In other words, if there were a model that could contain, honor, and understand the value of science, religion, and so much more… What would that model be?
People have leveled all sorts of criticisms against Ken. Some very rightly so. But overall, I think the model you can find in the reams of his collected work is a pretty good approach.
In fact, that’s why when I did a closed-door Advanced Direct Response Copywriting workshop back in 2014, Wilber’s work was one of the first things I covered.
I don’t think any other copywriter has ever taught Wilber in the context of copywriting. But I find that folks who have read and really comprehend his work have better thinking. And better thinking leads to better writing, or so says the illustrious copywriter, AWAI founder, and Agora partner, Mark Ford.
“Why are you telling me this, Roy?” you might ask…
Here’s why. One of the most critical elements of Ken’s work is the idea of a holarchy (borrowed from Arthur Koestler) — a concept you’ll soon discover puts all copywriting skills, knowledge, and ability into a useful context.
First, what the heck is a holarchy? You might guess it’s closely related to the concept of a hierarchy — and you’d be right.
We all know what a hierarchy is — it’s a relationship between separate things. A holarchy, on the other hand, is a relationship between things where one contains the other. Every part — every holon — is both complete in itself, and part of a greater whole.
For this, imagine a circular target, made up of a series of concentric circles. The middle circle is contained by the next, that by the next, and so on. As a philosophical principle, this goes outward forever.
For our purposes, we simply have to understand the target image. What’s in the middle is contained by the next circle, and that by the next, and that by the next. (This is also how I think of Dilts’ Logical Levels, which I wrote about a couple weeks ago.)
This is the architecture of all skills and knowledge — including A-list copywriting skills!
I was thinking about this for two reasons:
- First, I frequently get requests for more lessons on the tactics and techniques of copywriting. And while I find those useful on one level, I believe there are so many good resources on this — starting with the classic books on copywriting — that I’m just being redundant if that’s all I ever write about. And frankly, while it’s valuable to learn that stuff at some point, I’ve grown really bored by it! If I’m not writing something that sparks my interest, I fear Breakthrough Marketing Secrets will grow boring as well. And nobody wants that!
- Because I knew but couldn’t explain why — yet — I’d be doing you a disservice and not giving you my highest and best value by focusing on the tactics and techniques. That my true value to YOU comes in exploring the deeper truths of copywriting and marketing.
I’ve had my subconscious mind working on this for years. But it wasn’t until recently, when I was going through training from world-renowned hypnotist Mike Mandel, that one final thing clicked and it all came together with the clarity I needed to tell you what you’re about to hear.
Take a look at this picture…
What you see is a holarchy, as described above.
— At the very center is TACTICS. Decisions like specific wording of an idea in a headline, or color choices, or bullet length. Tactics, by themselves, are interesting. And can be useful. But if all you ever learn is tactics, your advertising will never really connect with your audience, and you won’t know why. “But I used red buttons and a ‘Who else…’ headline, and did a price drop, and… Why didn’t it work?!”
— Around tactics is TECHNIQUE. Techniques are a bit more comprehensive — all tactics are a specific way to implement techniques. Such as how you structure a sales pitch. A pattern interrupt. Even the idea that every ad has to have a headline in the first place. Once you decide you need a headline to get attention and provoke curiosity, you then choose from the best tactics behind great headline writing.
— More comprehensive than technique is STRATEGY. Strategy is the plan of which techniques you’re going to use, and how you’re going to put them together to get the desired result. Here you’re defining a higher-level objective, and organizing the to-do list to achieve it. All important decisions on messaging, among other things, occur at this level or above.
— Containing even strategy is PRINCIPLES. This is your collection of truths about marketing. Your model of how marketing — and even human psychology — works. A great example of a direct response principle is that all advertising should achieve a measurable business objective, such as getting a customer or directly making a profitable sale. Another principle would be Eugene Schwartz’s market awareness model from Breakthrough Advertising, the idea that the more aware a market is, the more direct you can and should be with your messaging (and the inverse).
Got it? Good! Now here’s how to put this to use to become an A-list copywriter (or become the best in any skill or knowledge area)…
I mentioned above that this applies to any skill or knowledge area. But since my emails get the best engagement rates when I talk about copywriting, we’ll keep up with that application…
Here’s the thing about a holarchy. When you make an improvement in one of the holons, that improvement alters everything lower down or inside of it… But does little or nothing for the holons that contain it.
In other words, improving your technique will also improve your tactics. But it does nothing for your strategy or principles. If you use better technique and tactics with a still-miserable strategy, or based in wrong principles, your best hope is marginally-better performance. So, for example, if you write a tactically-better headline but you’re still speaking to the wrong market or on the wrong message, you’ll still fail.
On the other hand, improving your principles gets you better results without ever learning better tactics. Better strategy — such as more on-target messaging, or actually getting your message in front of a more targeted audience — will improve your outcome without changing technique.
Most often a true breakthrough comes not from better techniques or tactics, but by shifting strategy or even principles.
I also believe it’s relatively easy to get someone to change technique, and easier still to get them to change tactics. However it’s very hard to get them to change strategy, and altering principles is almost as hard as getting someone to change their identity.
SIDE NOTE: This is why I’ve pretty much stopped working with clients who are not dyed-in-the-wool direct marketers. If you don’t match my principles, I know it’s a losing battle to try to get you to change. Even if, for example, a 10,000-word sales letter would make you millions of dollars, if your principles say your market won’t read it, I don’t want to have that fight.
If you want to become an A-list ANYTHING, model the principles and strategies of those already on the A-list…
When I was writing the sales letter for the Titans of Direct Response, Gary Bencivenga ended up writing his own bullets. Dan Kennedy ended up writing a couple positioning statements. When they sent that copy to me, I was blown away by their technique and the tactics employed.
And yet, in neither case was it the most transformative thing that I’d gotten from them.
Both act from deeper principles. They have a model of the world that determines their approach. They make decisions and take action based on specific strategies they’ve refined and tested and proven over decades in the business.
And in studying the work of both, I’ve gotten far more value by listening for these principles and strategies than I have by copying specific technique and tactics. (In fact, I directly contradict Dan on the tactical use of copywriting swipe files — although I fundamentally agree with his strategy.)
You will be best-served — and have the biggest skills, knowledge, and abilities breakthroughs — by focusing on the principles and strategies that the best in your field are using… And letting any technique and tactics you learn follow from that.
Modeling and matching the principles and strategies of the best is the fastest, most-effective way to improve your own skills and abilities to rival those heroes.
And that’s exactly why I focus on these for the vast majority of Breakthrough Marketing Secrets essays.
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,