What's your killer question?
When a national gym chain introduces something in all of their gyms, you know it must have been proven to work.
I spotted such a thing one day at my Fitness First.
‘Spotted’ isn’t the right word — it stared me right in the face as I was walking out on shaky post-spin-class legs one day.
It was a sticker on the exit door.
Six words that within weeks made me change from 'I work out when I feel like it' to 'I work out every weekday, except for the second Tuesday of each month when my horror writing group meets.'
The words were:
'When will we see you next?'
I don’t know who came up with it. I don’t know how many other people saw it every time they left the gym. It wasn’t even addressed to me, personally.
But every time I touched that door, I couldn’t help giving an answer in my head. 'Tomorrow.' 'Monday.' 'Too soon, dammit.'
That single question forced me to make a mental plan each time. I'd never worked out more consistently.
And I know I wasn’t the only one.
See, humans can resist a lot of things.
Constructive criticism; second helpings of triple chocolate cake; the urge to stalk an ex on Facebook after one drink too many.
But we can’t help answering a question when we see or hear one.
Oh, you disagree? Okay, when was the last time you ignored a question?
...ha. Got you there.
It just works.
A good question can make your reader change their mind, or at least reappraise a view.
It can make them think of something they’d never even considered.
It can make them go 'huh!' or 'hmm…' — and you want that, because that’s what paying attention sounds like.
It can make them click on an email that would have otherwise joined the Everest of forever unopened messages.
At the very least, a question can make people curious or entertained enough to read the first sentence of the body copy.
Questions are the difference between a monologue and a dialogue:
talking at people VS talking with them.
Which is basically the Holy Grail of copywriting, and written communication in general.
Great marketers know it, and great brands and organisations use it.
So find the killer question for your product, service, or cause.
And get asking.
A few tips to help you get to better questions:
The first few questions you come up with will always be less than great: expected, patronising, overly serious, and who knows what else. Keep going until you get weak questions out of your system and get to the good ones. (revisit Writing is rewriting if you need to)
Better research = better questions. Learn everything you need to know about the subject.
Consider who is asking the question. It really doesn’t have to be you or the brand – it could be anyone or anything.
Cheating won't work: sentences that open with 'Did you know that…' or 'How about…' aren’t really questions. Well, they are grammatically, but for our purposes, they aren’t. 'How about a frothy oat latte?' isn’t any more persuasive than 'Try our frothy oat latte.'
People are smarter than some marketers would have you think. Try not to write questions that underestimate your readers' intelligence. Here’s a good test: imagine being stopped on the street and asked your own question face-to-face. It’s ok if it feels unusual or a bit heavy, but if it sounds patronising or salesy, that’s a bright red flag.
There are different types of questions. In English we have general (yes/no) questions, special or wh-questions, choice questions, and tag questions. Play with them all to see what works best.
Wh-questions require more thought and interaction from your reader than yes/no questions. Watch this Volkswagen ad and see what happens if you change the question at the end from 'when did you' to 'do you ever'.
In the wild.
The answer is probably 'no, never', but that's exactly why this classic ad is so damn clever.
A masterclass in breaking all the conventions of a typically dull and samey category.
One of the most genius slogans ever. And it absolutely had to be a question in order to work.
A brutally brilliant execution of the legendary Economist campaign.
Hard to imagine a parent who wouldn't rush to read the whole thing if the answer is 'Not really.'
What a clever slogan looks like. Firstly, it makes you visualise winning. Secondly, it repositions playing the lottery as a non-selfish pursuit. It also led to some lovely executions.
To get to better questions, you need to write a lot of them. So let’s practise on a few different subjects.
Your task is to write 3 pieces of copy where the headline is a question. Research the topic as much or as little as you need to. Feel free to describe what the visuals would be, if it helps.
1. Write a poster for the hospital waiting area encouraging people to sign up to become organ donors. (after they die, not during their lifetime)
2. Write a cold email promoting copywriting services (yours or somebody else’s). Your choice of niche, specialism, and audience. Assume that you can’t personalise any of the email apart from the recipient’s name. Keep the body of the email under 150 words.
3. Write a billboard poster for an online store that sells house plants. Your ad should aim to persuade non-plant people to get some plants, rather than talking to existing plant lovers. Up to you what to do with the rest of the copy: short, long, a simple sign-off or slogan, or none at all — whatever you think it needs to be.
Dare to share.
Post your responses in the comments section below — anonymously, if you want.
P.S. If you enjoyed this post, you can subscribe to the Writtn newsletter.
P.P.S. Know someone who might like this, too? Please send them a link to this post.
P.P.P.S. Your feedback is my only hope of making this newsletter better. What worked well? What didn’t? Was there too much practice, or too little? I’m all ears.
Thank you for reading — and writing.
Until next week! Oh, and sweet dreams :)