The Copywriter’s handbook : Robert W. Bly

Though published first in 1985 for print and TV content, this book has relevant gems that work for social media; and as long as you are communicating with a human on the other side, the basics of copywriting don’t change and can still be referred to from this bible. Some all-time great takeaways:

the copywriters handbookYour copy must: get attention, communicate, persuade.
Photography and copy must work together.
Internet has not changed human nature.
Consumers today more skeptical and better educated, have shorter attention span.
Receive more communication than ever.
Any visual has only 5 seconds to grab attention.
1st impression means success or failure.
Headline is most important, appeals to people’s self interest.
Answer the Q: whats in it for me?
Select the audience, generate reaction, avoid negatives, use brand name.
Make a list of words that relate to the product.
Keep it simple and straightforward.
Make a complete statement with the headline.
Use more facts. Communicate with people, not try to impress them.
Avoid vague copy.
Write in a friendly, conversational tone.
Empathise with the customer.
BFD formula: Beliefs – what does your audience believe? Feelings – How do they feel? Desire – what do they want?
Positioning: compliment features and benefits.
People like looking at pictures of people.
Make the brochure worth keeping.
Write snappy headlines, provocative questions, add a strong benefit, header should sell itself, go beyond obvious facts.
Headline should tell the story.
Excessive verbiage is a put-off.
Every speech should have . clear minded purpose.
Do not bore the audience.
First 4 seconds are like headlines.
Use supers. Think about your customer.
Repeat the product name twice. Avoid stagnant shots.
Relate your content to current or relevant news.
Readers love what they can use right away.
Give actionables: like useful ‘how to’ tips.
Are people having fun working?
Advertising is a serius business.
Your ideas should sell and market the firm’s product.
Be sharp. Be on time. Look professional. Bring work samples. Listen. Let the interviewer do the talking. Be aggressive. Dont be sorry.
Simple layouts are the best.
My copy has all the best takeaways on postits. This piece is a treasure for life.



The Culture Code – by Daniel Coyle

the culture code‘Culture has Strategy for breakfast.’

This well said quote is best enforced with great examples in this book. Cultures of winning teams in companies observed over atleast a decade prove that a great internal culture can make for a great place to work where constant communication and collaboration shows results. Constant communication with team members beats highly qualified folks working in silos. The book is very inspiring and learnings can be put to use immediately if you are leading a team or just working with a team where many skills come together.

You don’t have to be individually excellent, just collaborate with more instances of  interaction which is more important for improving a product and reducing errors. Examples are from basketball teams, the army, movie companies and startups.

You also don’t have to be a maverick – an ever misunderstood catalyst. Just be the guy who connects talent together which makes great things happen. Also, an office or any workplace can be designed for better interaction, eye contact and communication between team members. The more the random connections, the higher the chance of generating ideas. Though tech – chat and email can aid communication, not everything can be typed.

Another important takeaway for the leader is to make himself vulnerable to the team. No matter how much a leader knows, its advisable for one to ask others for ideas and expose his own weakness. The point is to create a ‘safe’ zone for other team members to be able to come out and contribute.

I managed to get my hands on this book in a few months after it was published. The review suggests that it be read immediately. True. My copy has notes and postit notes where ever there is an insight. I also hold less higher the idea of the ‘A’ team where only a group of highly placed qualified individuals can achieve greatness. The ‘B’ team has all the potential to do bigger things by simply staying better connected.

More takeaways – Embrace fun, highlight positive behaviour, overdo the ThankYou’s. High candor feedback, uncomfortable truth telling and face to face interactions are a must. Its about collective

Sapiens: most relevant book yet

Just finished reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. This is probably the most important book in recent times. Though published in 2014, anyone from any field or background will find this book relevant from an existentialist point of view at any point in time.

Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari

Yuval questions the very point of human existence and why we are doing what we do. The first part of the book charts the history of mankind and all the development yet in agriculture, perception of money, credit finance and how Europeans influenced the world (important) or science.

Biology enables, culture forbids: you may have all the capability bestowed upon you to create and achieve but the prevailing culture you are in may not allow it. Networking and social skills give humans the edge over others and not brute strength.

The last few chapters dwell into the whole point of what we are doing today. Is happiness the purpose of all innovation and development? Is it money or conquest? What makes us happy apart from just secretion of serotonin in our brain? Is the human race improving or worsening? What is the point of advanced intelligence and cutting edge scientific capability? What do we really want? A person who does not crave does not suffer. People who are genetically disposed to happiness will be happy anyway, with what the already have instead of craving for new things.

Some important takeaways for me: Nationalism is fast losing ground. Soon it will not matter which country you hail from but what you can bring to the table for larger communities, how you can improve the current state of things. Your social skills and ability to collaborate and take things to the next level will matter more than your background. Two main examples are India and America. Both countries have been built by immigrants and conquerors who have left behind legacies which make both countries proud of what they have today. Indians love drinking tea, have a huge cricket fan following (both Brit behaviours), are the largest English-literate population and protect British buildings as heritage sites. Taj Mahal was created by Mughals with material from all over the world. Punjabi food is heavily influenced by Persian and Mughal inputs. ‘American culture’ -be it architecture, music or technology is made from inputs by Europeans, Africans and recently- by Chinese and Indians. So what is the fuss about ‘outsiders’?

All big scientific experiments and projects were given funding because the folks who agreed to fund them saw a larger political, social, economic or religious goal. So think bigger; infact things colossal at a much larger level before you propose your project plan to your boss. The goal must be sustainable with a much larger impact.

No concept, idea or theory is beyond challenge. As long as we accept that ‘we do not know’, there is always the path for more knowledge and debunking whatever hindered our ability to go beyond and achieve more. The status quo can always be changed. There is nothing natural about our current situation and that is evident from history.

This book is already influencing my work and my  perception of the world- more so after our US trip. Incidentally I read this book half-way while we were touring in Greyhound buses across the states so it was a surreal experience anyway. I feel that’s why its important to read while travelling. One tends to soak in much more in changing environments and the words get hard-baked into the cells somewhere :).

The unpublished David Ogilvy: still gold

unpublished David Ogilvy.jpgLooks like we stuck gold here in the land of ‘books of insights’ for the workplace. Published first in 1987, this 30-year-old gem still shines through all the changes the corporate world has seen. Just like Iacocca’s biography, Ogilvy also puts people first at the workplace; making this book very relevant today. Random takeaways-

On writing: Knowledge is useless unless you can put it down in writing. Avoid jargon, being boring, standard sales talk. The copy must be human and simple. Every word counts. Do your research on the client. Talk about your own company and what it can do for the client. Be definite, factual, tell the truth.Your ad has to carry the big idea, followed by position and promise. Write down every idea, and atleast 20 headlines. Edit ruthlessly, bring story appeal. People who think well, write well. Write the way you speak- naturally. Use short words, sentences and paragraphs.

On hiring: Be imaginative and unorthodox in your hiring. Character is the most important thing of all. Hire people who are better at things than you. Pay peanuts, get monkeys. Never hire friends and relatives. Avoid negative people who spread gloom and negativity. Encourage people who bombard you with ideas.

On competition: Never mud-sling competition.Be a leader in your space. Let competitors follow you. Anyone can do a deal, but it takes time and guts to build a brand.

On clients: Earn their respect. That matters most.
At client meetings, do not assume the posture of a servant. Both need each other.
The consumer is your wife. Do not insult her intelligence.

On leadership: A good leader must look confident at all times. Advertising from research give you an edge. Great professionals may not make great leaders.

Avoid excess in all things.
Hard work never killed anyone, boredom does.
Vacations are most important to charge the batteries.
Creative people do not have a monopoly of ideas. So create a culture where anyone can contribute.
Succeed in public, fail in private.
Have a divine discontent for your own performance. Its an antidote for smugness.

I think I found the Bible and handbook for advertising and messaging.

Iacocca – amazing man, life and book

Edit If you are looking for a book to read and can’t decide between biography, management and or general inspiration, pick up ‘Iacocca’. This is the autobiography of the former president of Ford and chairman of Chrysler corporation. An old colleague mentioned this book 6 years back and I made a mental note to pick it up. Finally, I managed to read this and I am only wishing I had earlier. Some books are just supposed to come your way at certain points in time.

What a man, life and book. Though this book was published in 1984 and the product and industry is of an era gone by, the learnings shared are still relevant today. That’s because its about managing people. There are people who live amazing lives, but don’t bother to write about it. Even if they do, not everyone has the charm and ability to spin an engaging story till the end. Mostly written straight from the gut, the book is easy to read and flows like a movie at times. Lee Iacocca was always a brilliant marketing genius and clearly his writing shows. Some random takeaways –

Be the best in your field. All the talent in the world doesn’t excuse deliberate rudeness. Why walk when you can run. You need to compare happiness to something to know its worth.
For marketing folks – People dont read stories, only headlines. Headline writers influence people’s perception of the news. Always prepare, rehearse before presenting to a customer. Play out the relevant consequences and details, all conceivable options and scenarios. Put your great idea on paper. If you can’t, you haven’t thought it out. Its a shame when a talented executive cant tell a board whats in his head. Always work with a script.

For managers – Quarterly reviews force managers to talk to their teams. It changes the boss’s role; he becomes less of a authoritative figure and more of an advisor. The conversations remind people not to lose sight of their dreams. Regular reviews make it self regulating. Managing is all about motivating other people. When giving credit, give it in writing, when giving hell, do it on the phone. Play it with your heart. Nobody goes far kicking people around. Speed of the boss is the speed of the team. Everyone in the world is accountable to everyone.

General observations at the workplace – when the secretaries are goofing off, you know the place has dry rot. One incompetent manager brings along another. If morals is low, the place becomes a sieve. If you stand still in this business, you get run over quickly. All business operations are reduced to – people, products, profits. People come first. Unless you have a great team, you cant do much with the others. Build quality products. Its all that matters. In the end, what counts is performance.

Life is about timing. Sometimes you just have to take a chance and correct our mistakes as you go along. Coming out with a new product too early is as bad as being late. You can only sell what people are ready to buy. Work can kill you. So can not working. Always think in terms of other people’s interest. In a disposable society like ours, nobody is a hero or lasts too long. People are hungry to be led. If you are not Number One, you have got to innovate.

Thats my copy – with postits and notes all across the book. What a treasure.

Black Swans – always around and relevant 

What’s interesting about Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book is that the iPhone, Barack Obama, 2008 financial crisis and other unforeseeable events happened after this book was published in 2007. So in retrospect, Black Swan makes you wonder why one accepts theories from suited experts without questioning or encouraging the imagination for alternatives.

Some interesting takeaways (randomly) – no one can predict the future. And predicting is not the approach, but preparation is. From Louis Pasteur’s ‘chance favors the prepared’, preparing for unseen, exercising thoughts for other possibilities, and creating and encouraging the same culture is more important. But alas, this is most difficult to do when amidst situations at the workplace in meetings and discussions. Also don’t look for the precise and the local. Jump at opportunities that may not look that appealing at first. You never know what you are going to get. Those with big reputations are worse predictors than those who have none. True self-confidence is the ability to look at the world without looking for signs to stroke one’s ego. The best way to increase exposure is to keep researching. Luck favors the prepared.

We take risks not out of bravado but ignorance of risk and probability. We favor the sensational and visible which may cloud our vision. Go for empirical observations and not incidents. Beware the narrative fallacy- others’ theories and judgments based on the lack of further research and imagination. There is nothing usual about the future – it is not a platonic category. Beware tunneling, and conclusions based on the normally distributed Gaussian bell curve. We can learn from data but not much. People only know enough math to be blinded by it!
We look for correlation between two variables. When it does not yield, it emotionally upsets us. A lot is happening outside the observed and expected. Avoid platonic, definitive, closed beliefs. Infinite vigilance is not possible. Knowledge may decrease the ability to forecast; there is such a thing as a gut feel.

Overall a great book. Despite reading this piece on behavior science after a decade of its publishing, it still makes a ton of sense. Hope is a huge driver.

Old man and the sea – of big fish and incoming sharks 

This classic Hemingway action adventure and quick 99-pager in a sunny park is the sort of perspective in a metaphor that frames your professional life in a snapshot. Whatever big fish you chase obsessively will run you into rough sea and wake you up with a tight slap across an overconfident smug face you think you can walk around with for life. And it won’t matter how damn good you think you are at what you do because incoming hungry sharks don’t care.

Hemingway is a man’s man and this 1950s work of art is still gold. Talk about seeing a book like a film in your head- more so if you can enjoy ocean adventures like  In the heart of the sea, Castaway, and Life of Pi. There are scenes in the book which have undoubtedly inspired today’s film makers. Totally recommended for anyone and I wished I had read this earlier. But some books are meant to be read at certain points in our lives and their meaning changes every time. But in the end, you can nevertheless dream of lions.

Best takeaway from this one – “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”