How to Write Funnier Copy with the Rule of 3

How to Write Funnier Copy with the Rule of 3

The Rule of 3 (also called the “triple”) is a copywriting and comedy commandment.

Think about it.

Everything is just punchier, more memorable, and more enticing in threes — whether you’re creating a bullet-point list, ordering scoops at the ice cream shop, or juggling multiple lovers… none of whom know about the others’ existence. 😬

mesmerizing, isn't it?

This GIF is only tangentially related to that last thing, but honestly, how could I not use it

Schoolhouse Rock even did a song about the rule of 3, which is, like, Jesus, so incredibly creepy:


(Scroll down for an even creepier video on the rule of three. Oh my god, who rubber-stamps this stuff??)

So why does the rule of 3 have such power over us?

Psychological secrets behind the rule of 3

Secret #1: We like things with a beginning, middle, and end

Recently, I saw a newbie try his hand at a local standup comedy open mic.

He grabbed the microphone and started telling a story about his roommate walking in on him while he was masturbating.

Aaaand… that was the end of the story.

Highly dissatisfying. (Probably for everyone involved.)

lame

Actual video of the audience reaction

Why? Because this turdburger didn’t tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end! He left off the end and expected the audience to laugh anyway.

But no one was ready to laugh, because we were still waiting for the story to end (and for this dude to get offstage).

There’s a reason that plays often have three acts… a reason that the trilogy is a popular book and film format…

And that shitty, three-word, period-punctuated headlines like “Cutting-Edge. Superior. Amazing” still appear all over the Internet.

Also in the real world:

Hat tip to Digiday

Secret #2: Three is the minimum number required to create a pattern or “streak”

Remember 10th grade geometry, when your teacher pointed out that it takes a minimum of two points to create a line?

Well, it takes a minimum of three things to create a discernible pattern. That’s why, given a brain-teaser like “Find the 4th number in the sequence: 3, 6, 9, ___,” we can figure out the next number.

Having just “3, 6” wouldn’t tell us what to do next.

Interestingly, one study found that “the third repeat event in a sequence is pivotal to the subjective belief that a streak is occurring.”

Put another way, you need to see your boyfriend do the dishes at least three times before you believe he might actually be worth keeping around.

buuuurn

Lol, gender roles, amirite

Secret #3 (ooooh!): A series of 3 offers a concrete “middle” choice

We also like things in threes because offering three items can help anchor the “middle” choice as the best or most popular. This is a useful pricing tactic, and one you’ll see all over SaaS and other service-provider websites.

Secret #4: Three has a naturally satisfying cadence

Listen to any NPR broadcaster read a series of three items. Their voice will lift or lower on the second one.

It’s just a natural inclination to indicate the difference between one, two, and three.

How to use the rule of 3 in funny copy

In general, if you’re writing copy with a series of three, save the funny word or phrase for the last item in the series. That ensures it’ll have the maximum punch.

What’s funny?

Usually it’s something surprising or shocking. Or something that’s the opposite of what you were led to expect (this is called a reversal).

“I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.”

– Jon Stewart

You can also “heighten” throughout a series.

I could do an entire post on heightening (and I probably will… soon).

sooon

My next blog is just over that ice floe

But for now, think of heightening as moving in a clear direction. You can start small and make something bigger and more bombastic, or the opposite — start “normally” and get ridiculously small or insignificant.

You might go from “safety pin” to “knife” to “harpoon cannon”.

Or you might go the opposite direction, from “President of the Galactic Republic” to “2-term Congressperson” to “night janitor at the local high school”.

It’s the relationship between these items that’s funny, not any single item on its own (though I did titter a little when I came up with “harpoon cannon” just now, ‘cause it sounds good. More on funny words and sounds later… ).

I like how improviser Will Hines defines heightening as “hit[ting] a comedic idea several times in a way that obviously gets more absurd as you go.”

(Side note: buy Will’s book, How to Be the Greatest Improviser on Earth. It rules.)

Where should you use the rule of 3?

Aim to lighten the mood with humor in any of these spots in your copy:

Series of examples  — Item 1, Item 2, Unexpected/Absurd Item 3

 

ComparisonsWriting this post is like having my teeth pulled, only I’m both the dentist and the victim.

 

Exaggerations This chair is so old, it probably has grandchildren. It probably uses an AARP discount card. It’s so old, it needs its own goddamn chair to sit down and take a load off.

In intros or lead-ins You know, like I did with this post

 

Remember that 3 is the minimum number required to form a pattern. You don’t have to stop at three.

If you want to hammer home the humor and venture into absurdity, you can continue adding to the pattern, like SNL does in this sketch:

The basketball players in the background are what’s funny in this sketch. They get called out by the director three times, and then we see a series of quick cuts where the background players get more and more ridiculous.

(And did you notice the reversal at the end of the sketch?)

Quick caveat here: if you add more to your series of three items, make sure you don’t let your joke outstay its welcome.

PS. The world’s creepiest video on the rule of 3

Told you I’d give it to you.

How do you usually use the Rule of 3?

GDPR Emails: The Good, The Bad + the Come On Now, Y’all

GDPR Email Marketing, Ranked

Oh hey there!

Just in case you’re one of the 12 people who doesn’t have an email address, you may have missed a Big Thing in the world of online marketing recently.

The European Union passed some laws about how businesses can communicate with their customers and subscribers and use their data.

TL;DR: it’s called GDPR, and it made people freak the f*** out about their email lists.

oprah cat freakout

Any excuse to use this GIF, honestly.

(A non-marketer friend of mine, when I told him about this, said: “Is THAT why I’ve been getting all those ‘We updated our privacy policy’ emails?” What a sweet, sweet baby.)

Funnily enough, you might not have even needed to send a compliance email, if your regular list includes an “unsubscribe button”:

Anyhoo, my inbox was just as inundated with panicked GDPR emails as yours was…

But unlike you, I am a BIG OL’ EMAIL NERD.

So today I’m holding an impromptu awards ceremony for the email copywriters at these companies. Some of whom are doing really honestly fabulous work! And others… others who might not exist.

We’ll start with the BAD, move to the GOOD, and end with the “Come On Now, Y’all”. ????

Because who doesn’t love a good old-fashioned ribbing?

(As always, click the images to open the full-size screenshot in a new tab!)

THE BAD

The Bad includes literally every email that looked like this:indiegogo gdpr, gdpr emails, email marketing

HARDCORE SNORE. Sorry, Indiegogo. Not picking on you for any particular reason.

You could play Cliche Bingo with the phrases in these emails.

Mark one X per square every time you see the following phrases:

– “We care about your privacy”
– “Your privacy is important to us”
– “Our commitment to your privacy hasn’t changed”
– “There is no action required on your part”
– “We know you place your trust in us, and we don’t take it lightly”
– Subject line: “We’ve updated our privacy policy” OMG REALLY? YOU AND THE REST OF THE WORLD

Special shoutout to Against Malaria, to whom I donated once and promptly unsubscribed one million years ago. They sent me the same email everyone else got:

against malaria gdpr email

WHO ARE YOU???

Guys. GUYS. Why did you not segment your list to make sure that you were sending a version to unsubscribers that said something like,

“Hey, you haven’t heard from us in a while, but here’s why.” <– ???!!!

Even some of the other folks in this category managed that.

(OK, sorry for ragging on a nonprofit that probably doesn’t have the resources to know stuff like this. If you want, you can donate to them here.)

THE GOOD

This is the part where I give medals, because YES, TERRENCE, EVERYTHING NEEDS TO BE A COMPETITION.

Airstory

airstory gdpr email

What’s good here:

This was the only GDPR email to use a literary/nonfiction quote, and I’m here for it. Airstory uses Arndt’s words to remind people what their software actually does — helps people write — then segues into the boring stuff.

They acknowledge that people aren’t going to read their policy, and tell them what’ll happen anyway. Loving the honesty.

Sumo

sumo gdpr email

What’s good here:

“Because we don’t want to bore you, we’re going to make this fun.”

AND they’re giving away a swag bundle! Is that legal? Who cares, they did it. Look at Sumo go.

BidSketch

bidsketch gdpr email

What’s good here:

It’s personal, short, AND includes a CTA that helps Bidsketch make lemonade (new trial users!) from lemons (having to bother people).

Zapier – Bronze Medal

zapier gdpr email

What’s good here:

Instead of taking the Eeyore approach of “We have to do this, bah humbug,” Zapier flips this mandatory email into a boon for subscribers.

They also helpfully remind people of the lists they’re already subscribed to (though mine don’t show, interestingly), and tell them what’ll happen if they don’t click the big orange button.

Fomo – Silver Medal

fomo gdpr email

What’s good here:

This might be the chillest email I have ever seen. Ryan comes across as an animate bottle of CBD oil, he’s so chill.

It’s funny, it’s calm, and it ends on a sweet and upbeat note: “happy selling”. What’s not to love?

Endcrawl – Gold Medal

endcrawl gdpr email

What’s good here:

Who’s NOT going to open an email titled “Please help us stay out of jail”? No one. Except maybe Trump.

But you, dear stranger, are better than he is.

And Endcrawl is better than all of us. Just look at this lively email, with its casual tone, front-and-center bullet-point benefits, funny and varying CTAs, and — just like Bidsketch  — its tantalizing offer, which could turn inactive or clueless subscribers into brand-new users.

Bravo, Endcrawl! U single?

(Hat tip to Alan for bringing this email to my attention!)

Honorable mention goes to Josh Kaufman, whose “New Post + GDPRmageddon” subject line made me smile, and who smoothly rolled a real intriguing lede right into his own policy updates:josh kaufman gdpr email

THE COME ON NOW, Y’ALL

This category is reserved for businesses from whom I just… expected more.

GDPR emails in this category are basically the same as those in “The Bad,” but I had higher hopes for these companies. And they let me down.

Maybe that’s my fault? … Did I just gaslight myself?

Moo

Moo absolutely KNOWS how to write and send funny, piquant emails. I loved this one in particular:

moo email

Image thanks to Really Good Emails. Click through and tap “View the Live Email”. It’s worth it.

So their GDPR email, while friendly and succinct, felt a little flat to me.

There was an opportunity here, and Moo missed it:

moo gdpr email

MailChimp

mailchimp gdpr email

Come on, MailChimp! You were one of the first brands to stand out in the email marketing space.

Why hand over the reins to the legal team and let them send this snoozefest? This makes you look more like MailChump.

What happened to your lovable zaniness? Where is your zest and zip? Wherefore art thy zazz???

AppSumo

appsumo gdpr email

Only the subject line here (“Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (to our privacy policy)”) and the subheader (“laws are a-changin'”) are good. The rest of it is, well, boring.

And that concludes the GDPR Email Olympics! Conceived, hosted, produced, and attended by… pretty much only me. #lonelyolympics

Was this fun for you to read?

I’ll give you a minute to think about it and add a sweet comment.

In the meantime, here’s some #GDPR easy listening for you:

GET CREATIVES is coming to Propeller on July 13!

Hey, New Orleans business owners, marketers, and entrepreneurs! I’ve been working on this thing with my talented friends Julia Sevin and Frank Aymami, and we want to share it with you.

Get Creatives is a pithy 45-minute presentation that packs in a ton of information you need to know if you’re the one who markets your business. Register now on Eventbrite, or read on for a few more reasons to join us on July 13 at 6pm!

Communication design: What it is, and why it matters

getcreatives-squaregraphic-outline-1080x1080

You’ll learn how your investment in communication design (including copywriting, graphic design, and photography) actually increases your profits and positions your brand for bigger and better things.

You’ll get actionable tips on where to find “creatives”; how much to pay them; what to ask for; and what to look out for.

And you’ll learn how to scrimp smartly so you can save your marketing dollars without sacrificing the end quality of your product.

Register ahead of time >>>

Did you know…

  • 55% of your website visitors will spend less than 15 seconds on a given page
  • Your contract with an independent creative should always specify a kill fee
  • You might not own the rights to the photographs you commissioned

There’s a lot more where that came from.

We’re going through the entire process of working with a “creative”–everything from how and where to find quality writers, designers, and photographers, to contracts and taxes, to the best way to send feedback and get the results you want.

Join us July 13 at 6pm at Propeller Incubator to find out more!

The 3 Laws of Copywriting

[Psst–this post is by Terra, the sharp-as-a-tack English Maven intern! Don’t you wish your intern was smart like mine? OK, enough bragging. Read on. — Lianna] 

Fabulous graphic goes here.

When it comes to writing for any genre, there’s a clear list of minimum required skills. You need to know how to read and write, how sentences and paragraphs work, and how to build on them to create meaning. And while anyone can apply that baseline, lowest-common-denominator skillset to just about anything written, not all wordsmiths can write copy.

Let me break that down just in case you, like me, are math-challenged: you need to know how to do much more than write to be a good copywriter. It’s not enough to be able to write a nice metaphor—great copywriters turn phrases that turn into dollars. And you can, too.

In order to harness this power, you must first understand it. The art of copywriting distinctly differs from other forms of writing. Once you learn the rules of copywriting, you can follow them, apply them, customize them, and use them to transform into the copywriter you were meant to be.

Are you ready? Let’s begin.

1. Copy sells something.

Copy is writing that businesses use to advertise a product’s market value. To effectively sell a product, copy must inform, entice, and inspire the audience to become customers. Good copy appeals to its audience, and allows readers to realize the product’s value, connect its benefits to their specific needs, and compel them to buy it by outlining how said product could improve or enhance their lives. If your writing doesn’t sell, the product won’t either. That’s it.

2. Copy targets a specific audience.

Everyone is different, but not that different. Understanding what unifies your target audience is crucial to determining its wants and needs: information you can use to better appeal to them.

Knowing your audience will also shed light on other make-or-break factors, like which publishing platform will drive the most traffic, which advertising channel will return the best results, and which tone and style resonates the most with your audience. Focusing on the customer is a huge part of that equation—by tailoring your copy to a key customer demographic or demand, you can capture their attention more fully and direct business where it matters most.

3. Copy compels its audience to take action.

If your copy doesn’t impact your bottom line, it’s your bottom on the line. Copy’s ultimate goal is to turn readers into customers; if your copy isn’t compelling, the audience won’t respond to it, period. Inciting copy allows readers to visualize the product’s benefits to their lives, which makes becoming a customer more attractive to them.

In order to spur its audience to action, your copy needs to explain why the reader should care, what to do about it, and then exactly how to do that thing. To that end, clients often work with copywriters to determine how the copy should come across to maximize results– inclusive of tone, language style, customer preferences, length, structure, content, and technicalities. Such client specifications are important for producing effective copy, but the process is by no means a one-way street: copywriting is very much a collaborative activity, one in which the customer’s needs and writer’s voice must be heard (and read) to achieve the best possible end result.

There you have it: the three tenets of copywriting that will help you drive profitable business, better communicate with potential customers, and transform your love of language into a tool more powerful than you could ever imagine. By crafting masterful copy, a writer can convey meaning and create opportunity.

But do be wary of your new powers…with great copy comes great response-ability. 

3 Ways Crawfish Boils and Copywriting Are the Same

Crawfish Boils and Copywriting
This little guy should have stayed home today.

Pull up a pile of newspaper, grab a beer, and get comfortable. We’re talking about crawfish, and the qualities it shares with copywriting.

(I’ll admit I was late to the crawfish-eating game. Despite growing up in New Orleans, I didn’t peel my first crawfish until college. But now I’m making up for lost time.)

Last night, I went to a boil, where I ate far more crawfish than I should have. Originally, this was going to be a post about crawfish boil etiquette…but when you’re diving face-first into a pile of tiny, dead lobsters, you can pretty much leave manners by the wayside.

So what do crawfish boils and copywriting have in common?

No pain, no gain.

I developed a bad case of “crawfish thumb” last night around batch three. New Orleanians know that this is when the boil spices begin to creep under the quick of your nails, making the process of peeling each little crustacean a bit more painful.

Similarly, sometimes you have to grit your teeth and chip away at a copywriting assignment, no matter how much it might be hurting your brain (or aggravating your carpal tunnel).

The spicier, the better.

There is nothing more boring than an under-spiced crawfish boil. It’s like traveling to the Grand Canyon and turning the other way. Okay, I might be exaggerating. But if the potatoes aren’t going to make my gums burn, what’s the POINT?

Copywriting is the same way. You’re writing for a purpose. That purpose is to persuade, inform, build trust, create a relationship. Boring writing just isn’t going to get those things done.

Drinking helps.

When it comes to eating crawfish, ice-cold beer is your friend. When it comes to writing, beer will help you come up with ideas, while coffee will help you refine them.

 

Any other ways crawfish and copywriting are the same? Leave ’em in the comments.

And remember: If you get between me and a table of steaming crawfish, I will cut you. Tweet: If you get between me and a table of steaming crawfish, I will cut you.

90-Year-Old Copywriting Advice That Still Works Like a Charm

Allow me to introduce you to one of my favorite people. Though long-dead, he’s still a total boss.

Ladies and gentlemen, please meet Claude Hopkins, whom I like to refer to as the Original Gangster of Advertising.

Claude Hopkins is the reason you use toothpaste.

Claude Hopkins
Behind those cute owl glasses and sweet ‘stache lies the cutthroat mind of a killer. A killer salesman, that is.

He’s also the reason you use coupons. (And, if you send email newsletters, he’s the reason you have the option to do an A/B split test with different versions of your letter.)

Who the F*** Is Claude Hopkins?

Our friend Claude was born in Michigan in 1866, and grew up working his face off as a school janitor, paper boy, and other various pursuits.

By working until 2AM in the morning every day of the week, Claude eventually ended up writing advertising for Bissell Carpet Sweepers (yep, the same Bissell vacuum cleaner company you’ve heard of).

Bissell Carpet Sweepers
Claude sold, like, $300,000 worth of these wooden carpet sweepers, back when that amount of money was basically the worth of the entire United States.

From there, Claude snagged himself a position as advertising manager at Swift & Company–by asking every single client of his to write a recommendation and mail it to the person in charge of hiring.

THEN, he got his local newspaper to agree to publish a daily advertising column so he could show off his knowledge. He mailed all of the columns to the Swift & Company hiring manager. (Still think writing a cover letter is too much effort for a job application?)

Job application
Claude Hopkins worked harder as a 9-year-old than you do as an adult.

Long story short, our boy Claude ended up managing advertising for Lord & Thomas (which you might know as FCB, or Foote, Cone and Belding–one of the world’s biggest ad agencies.

In 1923, Claude wrote a book called Scientific Advertising, which he followed up with an autobiography: My Life in Advertising. He’s a no-nonsense kind of guy with a lot to say.

Here’s Claude Hopkins’ best copywriting and advertising advice from both books. Bullet-point summaries in bold, courtesy yours truly.

1. How to appeal to people

  • Be trusting. “Try to hedge or protect yourself, and human nature likes to circumvent you. But remove all restrictions and say, “We trust you,” and human nature likes to justify that trust. All my experience in advertising has shown that people in general are honest.”
  • Know your customer. “We cannot go after thousands of men until we learn how to win one.”
  • Frame everything as a benefit. “Argue anything for your own advantage, and people will resist to the limit. But seem unselfishly to consider your customers’ desires, and they will naturally flock to you.”
  • Don’t push too hard. “People can be coaxed but not driven. Whatever they do they do to please themselves.”
  • Promise access to a secret. “Curiosity is a strong factor in human nature, and especially with women. Describe a gift, and some will decide that they want it, more will decide that they don’t. But everybody wants a secret gift.”
  • Offer cures, not prevention. “People will do anything to cure a trouble, but little to prevent it.”
  • Don’t be cheap. “We learn that cheapness is not a strong appeal. Americans are extravagant. They want bargains but not cheapness.”

2. How to write persuasively

  • Write plainly. “Successful salesmen are rarely good speech makers. They have few oratorical graces. They are plain and sincere men who know their customers and know their lines. So it is in ad-writing.”
  • Write to one particular customer. “Don’t think of people in the mass. That gives you a blurred view. Think of a typical individual, man or woman, who is likely to want what you sell.”
  • Spend more time on your headline. “The purpose of a headline is to pick out people you can interest…What you have will interest certain people only, and for certain reasons. You care only for those people. Then create a headline which will hail those people only.”
  • Be specific. “The weight of an argument may often be multiplied by making it specific.”
  • Pick a descriptive name. “Often the right name is an advertisement in itself. It may tell a fairly complete story, like Shredded Wheat, Cream of Wheat, Puffed Rice, Spearmint Gum, Palmolive Soap, etc.”

3. How to avoid wasting money

  • Use space wisely. “Some advocate large type and big headlines. Yet they do not admire salesmen who talk in loud voices…[Large type] may not be offensive, but it is useless and wasteful. It multiplies the cost of your story.”
  • You’re here to sell. “Do nothing to merely interest, amuse, or attract.”
  • Instead of “buy one, get one,” offer a free sample… “Before a prospect is converted, it is approximately as hard to get half price for your article as to get the full price for it.”
  • …but make them work for it. “Give samples to interested people only. Give them only to people who exbihit that interest by some effort. Give them only to people to whom you have told your story.”
  • Imitate what works. “Before you use useless pictures, merely to decorate or interest, look over some mail order ads. Mark what their verdict is.”
  • Sell to new prospects only. “In every ad consider only new customers. People using your product are not going to read your ads. They have already read and decided.”
  • Track your returns. “Never be guided in any way by ads which are untraced. Never do anything because some uninformed advertiser considers that something right.”
  • Know your customer’s financial situation. “We must learn what a user spends a year, else we shall not know if users are worth the cost of getting.”
  • Budget for waste. “The cost of advertising largely depends on the percentage of waste circulation.”

Did I mention that Claude Hopkins published Scientific Advertising in 1923? Ninety-one years later, this man still knows more about successful, efficient advertising than most CEOs.

Do yourself a favor and get to know Claude.

You can find copies of My Life in Advertising and Scientific Advertising online, but you should probably just buy it.

Scientific Advertising
Yup. Yup yup yup.

What do you think of Claude’s advice? Anything to add? Throw it in the comments.

How Copy Editing Makes the World Better

Terror-Eyes
Terror-Eyes seek out and destroys your typos!

Sometimes I feel like Atlas, using both hands to keep the world from getting stupider.

Just kidding, y’all. I have long been a natural copy editor–constantly pointing out typos, missing words, and incorrect punctuation wherever I see it (and I see it everywhere).

To a lot of people, copy editing seems like nitpicking. LET ME TELL YOU WHY IT’S NOT.

Copy editing pays (my) bills.

Aaaand on to the next one.

Copy editing improves reading comprehension.

People understanding what they read is pretty much super-pivotal. How many times have you tried to read the impossible “English” on product packaging and been completely enraged by its obscurity?

Or have you ordered breakfast from a badly written menu, and received something other than what you were expecting?

Oxford orange
Haaaaaaa, get it?

Copy editing makes text as perfect as it can be.

For anyone who appreciates the sheer beauty of words, this is a crucial consideration. There’s nothing like getting into the flow of a piece of writing, and having a typo or missing word straight-up donkey-kick you out of your Reading Rainbow reverie.

Beauty is important. Copy editing, in its small way, helps preserve beauty. [Click to tweet]Tweet: Beauty is important. Copy editing, in its small way, helps preserve beauty. - @theenglishmaven http://ctt.ec/M47X7+

Copy editing preserves the English language.

Ding ding ding! Ladies and gentlemen, in all of its truthiness, here is the crux of the issue. English is a living language, yes. But like all living things, it can only take so many unceremonious gut-punches before it shudders and dies.

Please stop misspelling “night” as “nite”. Please stop thinking “you’re” and “your” are synonymous. Please stop eliminating commas, one by one, from every sentence (though if it’s a stylistic choice, I’m down for that. But you have to be doing it on purpose; most people are not).

And please understand that these things matter, for the reasons listed above.

I’m not casting myself as the last, valiant defender of a dying art–but I am saying that if you speak to me in “abbrevs” one more time, I will break your laptop.

The “shameless plug” section

Did I mention I’m a copy editor, and that I offer Editor On Retainer packages so you never have to worry about provoking the anal-retentive rage of people like me? Get at me here.