Six Essential Skills Scholars Can Learn from Copywriters

I just spent the morning going through applications for my 2010 French paleography course. It struck me how ignoring basic copywriting practice hampers so many academics. Unfortunately, nothing teaches bad writing like a life inside the academy and many of the worst characteristics of academic writing showed up in these applications. Even a cursory knowledge of basic copywriting would help scholars win fellowships and grants, and improve their chances on the job market.

So here’s a quick rundown of seven things every scholar should know about copywriting.

Get Over It

First, though, I need to have a private word with you scholars. For pretty much all of my adult life, I’ve been a scholar and a researcher. I thought “marketing” was a dirty word. It’s not. Whether you are trying to sell soap, yourself, your cause or your religion, knowing some basic marketing and copywriting principles will help you down the road. It all boils down to a simple question: would you rather have your ideas rejected because you present them poorly or rejected on their merits?

A good copywriter focuses on one thing: getting the reader to take the desired action, whether that’s buying a product, donating to the Sierra Club, voting for their candidate, joining their religion or signing up for their newsletter. There is both a pull and a push at work:

  • Push: all the reasons that the reader would benefit from taking the desired action (look younger, save the planet, save your soul)
  • Pull: moving all obstacles out of the way (money-back guarantee, simple and secure payment, free trial).

Good copywriting demonstrates benefits and removes obstacles. Applications for fellowships or grants need to meet those same goals, but most scholars are woefully bad at it. I’m not saying I’m particularly good at it, but here are a few things you might learn.

WIIFM — What’s in it for me?

Young woman weighing pros and cons

Copywriters know that their prospect always has one question in mind: what’s in it for me? One faculty member suggested that I should accept someone because the course would be good for the student’s curriculum vitae. Why would I want to pad that particular student’s resumé?

What I want to hear is that the applicant can do the work and will actually take those skills and put them into practice. I want a return on my teaching investment.

Always stay focused on the benefit to the institution, granting agency or hiring committee. I want to train researchers, so saying it will benefit the student by preparing her to conduct archival research is a benefit to both of us, but saying it will make the student look better on paper has no benefit to me and therefore is not relevant.

Ask yourself “Why are these people taking applicants and offering money? What do they get out of it?” Before anything else, try to answer that question. You may not be able to answer it perfectly. You may see multiple reasons. You may see the wrong reasons, but at least you’ve figured out some reason. Anything in the application that does not specifically demonstrate that the course won’t be wasted on you, can be cut.

Features and benefits

This is the oldest saw in copywriting: focus on benefits, not features. Let’s say we’re talking about a car.

  • Feature: rear-seat side impact airbags.
  • Benefit: keep your children safe.

You have to mention the feature. Not to do so would leave you with vague, vapid promises — “Keep the kiddies safe. Drive a SomeCar.” But you sell the benefit. You don’t want to list off features without saying why anyone should care.

  • Features:
    • Person: smart, well-read, engaging, excellent language skills, good writer, hard-working, drop-dead good looking and smells good too
    • Project: never been done before, studies the interaction of X and Y, examines the Blank Protocols.
  • Benefits:
    • Person: will do valuable work, will put the money/class to good use, will make your institution look good
    • Project: will solve the long-standing question/problem of X, will allow future scholars to answer long-standing question, etc.

If you find yourself listing a “feature” and it doesn’t have a “benefit” to follow up on it, then either don’t list the feature, or figure out what the benefit is. Features only exist in copywriting to make your benefit claim credible. If you’re listing a feature that isn’t necessary to make the benefit claim credible, you’re wasting paper, ink and time.

Be Specific and Concrete

Every writing teacher, whether teaching copyrwriting or fiction, will say to be specific. How specific? This is where copywriters have an advantage. They can test two different ads, one that says “resulted in a 104% gain in efficiency” against “more than doubled efficiency” and see which one performs better (in the test I saw, it was the less specific one in this case). We can’t do that for grant and fellowship applications, but we know that in general, specificity beats generality and I’m surprised at how vague and general many applications are.

Let’s say you’re answering the question “Why do you want to take this course?” Consider three applicants. They each answer the question like this:

  1. I’m hoping to do research for my dissertation on the price evolution of poker chips and that research will likely require use of manuscript sources.
  2. My dissertation research on the price evolution of poker chips in Lyon from 1500-1800 will require me to read council registers and account books in the S series in the Archives départementales in Lyon
  3. During my preliminary research for my project on the price evolution of poker chips, I came across several key documents the archives in Lyon that I was unable to read. In order to finish the project, I need better paleography skills.

Number one is actually pretty good. It could get a lot worse and did get a lot worse in these applications. One faculty member sent in an letter basically saying he was a nice guy who thought the course would be interesting. Not good enough.

But even considering the pretty good choices above, who seems more likely to put the course to good use? Who is more likely to work really hard? If you are a younger scholar who is just getting started, Option 3 is off the table. But you can still mention work that you admire and plan to emulate. You just have to get as specific as you can without sounding like you’re full of shit.

Avoiding Doubt

Man scratching his head

The first example above also sows doubt (only “hoping”?). It’s not by accident I gave that as an example. One applicant, by all appearances an excellent candidate with an MA and some teaching experience to her credit, wrote: “I am wanting to pursue a doctorate degree in hopes of studying….” Any writing teacher would see the problem there. The average copywriter would grab his chest and gasp for breath.

Sadly, there is no worse training for dynamic writing than academia. Academia is perhaps the only domain where there is no penalty for being boring, but there is a harsh penalty for being imprecise. Academic writing demands attenuation and hedges — “We believe that in some cases it appears possible for a limited number of quatloos to transform into looquats given the right conditions.” A sentence like that would hardly raise an eyebrow in academia, whereas you would get attacked from all sides if you said “Quatloos transform into looquats.”

Copywriters, however, are always thinking about how the reader will respond and what possible interpretations and emotional reactions the reader might have. “I’m wanting… in hopes of” and other hedges make a very serious applicant appear risky, uncertain and hesitant. Is this person really committed to learning what I’m teaching? Do we want to give a stipend to the person who is hoping to use the course knowledge or the person who will use that knowledge?

Be Honest

One thing that surprised me when I started reading marketers and copywriters is the value they place on honesty. The calculation is simple:

  1. Every item returned costs enough to negate 5–10 sales. Making claims that you can’t back up will cost too much.
  2. It’s usually cheaper to make a second sale to an existing satisfied customer than to go out and find a new customer,  and nothing creates dissatisfaction like being lied to.

Those two things being true, deceiving the customer ends up being costly for anyone except fly-by-night outfits that want to make a quick buck and get out. All that to say that you shouldn’t claim to have come across key documents in the archives if you haven’t actually been there. Credibility matters and a single manifest exaggeration raises questions about the credibility of everything else.

Most of our applicants say their French is “fluent”. I have to say, the question is poorly worded on the application, so I don’t blame them for answering that way. That said, it does raise questions when someone says that his French is fluent and then lists four semesters of college French as the sum total of his French training. What else is exaggerated? Again, this makes accepting the applicant seem risky.

Risk Reversal

The classic example of risk reversal in marketing is the guarantee. I’m afraid of spending all that money on a new car and taking the risk that I’ll be stuck with a dud. So the manufacturer says “You’re right. That’s a lot of risk for you, an individual. Let me take on the risk. You buy that car, and I’ll take care of repairs for the first 5 years or 60,000 miles, whichever comes first. Will you buy it now?”

Obviously, scholars can’t fully reverse a risk in that way — you can’t offer to pay back your fellowship if you haven’t successfully completed your dissertation within six years. But you can address risk. We had one first-year grad student some years ago who had a mixed letter of recommendation. The faculty member had good things to say about the applicant, but had some reservations about specific weaknesses. The professor was honest with us and with the student, though, so he was able to say “I know that professor X has doubts about my ability in this area. I will, however, commit to work extra hard in order to make up for that deficiency”.

We took him. The course was hard for him, as expected, but he seemed to get a fair bit out of it and is now an advanced PhD candidate studying under one of the top scholars in the field. The result is that the professor retained her credibility. Next time I see a letter from her, I’ll know it means exactly what it says (see “Be Honest” above).

But she also gave the student a fighting chance to state how he would compensate for weaknesses. Not exactly a classic risk reversal, but it gave us a lot more to go on than a vague application with all the usual platitudes. I’m fairly sure that some better-qualified people were rejected that year, but the combination of specificity, honesty and risk mitigation in the application got that candidate through the door, even though we tend to reject students with similar language skills.

What’s Your Story?

Seth Godin says in All Marketers Are Liars that he really wanted to call it All Marketers Are Storytellers, because he believes that effective marketing requires a compelling and authentic story. The story is a lie only in the sense that any story, whether about events that actually happened or a work of fiction, is a lie — all stories leave things out and tell the tale selectively.

A grant application should also tell a story. That story is not your biography or a prose version of your resume. Notice that under “Be Specific”, example three is a story. There’s an arc to it. “Young student goes to Lyon, excited about research project on poker chips. Confronted with documents he can’t decipher, he looks for help and finds my course, just the thing he needs in his quest for arcane knowledge and scholarly bliss. If only there’s a spot for him.” A story need not be quite as personal as that, but you need a story that helps answer the question why you?

A Last Word

It’s not like getting into my class is a super rough competition. The financial award is only $500 for the two weeks and we accept over half the applicants, most of them in the summer after the second or third year of grad school (though we often admit one undergrad and one or two faculty members). Most of these students are soon going to be facing much stiffer competitions, like applying for Fulbright grants to do research in France, which this year had 25 slots for 197 applicants (12.7%). That’s a lot better than the 13 slots for 405 applicants for the UK (3.2%).

I would say it’s a fair bet that out of 200 PhD candidates, it’s fairly likely that 25 will have decent natural or acquired copywriting skills. If you’re not one of them, you’re not going to France on a Fulbright no matter how good you are. Simple as that.

The good news, though, is that in my experience of reading applications from PhD candidates, if you follow the simple suggestions above, you will have a leg up on at least 75% of them. You can show them this essay after you land your Fullbright.

PS. During my graduate studies, I was awarded both a Fullbright for study in Switzerland and the much more prestigious Chateaubriand for study in France (I only took the Fullbright). I actually met a person on the Fullbright committee who reviewed my application and remembered it because it followed most of the rules above. One other thing that has nothing to do with copywriting that helped though: I laid some groundwork by connecting with local scholars for a couple of years before my application. I was one of the few applicants who had letters of recommendation from scholars at the destination institution. But that’s for another article.

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