by Gary North
I like stories about successful people who became successful by overcoming a handicap or career roadblock.
There are not that many successful people. Of those who make the cut, I imagine that they all have stories of obstacles overcome. But I have in mind serious roadblocks that, for most people, would have become crushing. Yet some people seem to get around these barriers and become even more successful as a direct result. In other words, the roadblock was an essential part of their success. They can look back on it and say, "I am glad I went through that."
I came across one of these stories recently. It impressed me enough that I thought I should share it.
Brian Keith Voiles is a copywriter. He writes advertising copy that sells a lot of stuff. He is one of the best in this little-known, relatively small industry. To hire him, you need $45,000 up-front money, plus he gets 5% of the revenue from mailing his ad. He designs the entire campaign. If you generate a million dollars, gross, he gets $50,000.
I hate to admit this, but if I were that good a copywriter, and I could crank out (say) half a dozen campaigns a year on his basis, I would be tempted to write fewer newsletters.
Mr. Voiles is not worried about his next paycheck.
His is a true rags-to-riches story. When he started out, he and his wife lived in a mobile home. He worked as a day laborer stacking newly fired bricks onto pallets. He was paid piece-rate, and he earned minimum wages. He did that for four years.
He got involved with Amway. He never made a dime with Amway, but he — like those bricks — got fired up. He listened to the motivational tapes, read the motivational materials, and got motivated.
He and a buddy started a janitorial service. To get clients, he walked up and down the streets of Salt Lake City. He handed out business cards. It took him a month to knock on those doors and make his sales pitch. He was hired, one by one, but only by small firms for small jobs. The biggest client paid $120 a month. But when he had finished marketing door to door, he had $3,200 a month worth of jobs.
He still kept his brick job. So, he worked long hours. Four months later, he got fired by the brick company. That was a blessing in disguise. But it wasn't the roadblock that caught my attention.
For years, he had been an amateur magician. He began offering his services to day care centers. He got jobs. Then he got jobs at local public schools. He began getting calls from mothers about doing birthday parties.
One thing led to another. He built up his business. He got into direct mail: postcards. Then he set up a fan club. He got referrals. Then he paid for a seminar on building a magic business. He found out that he knew more about this than most of the speakers. When he told the group that he had a 20% to 35% response rate on his mailings, one of the speakers told him to quit the magic business. There was more money in writing ads. He took this advice, though not overnight.
Ad job by ad job, he began to replace his magic business and the janitorial business.
He noticed that he was having a problem with his vision. In his left eye, there was a small dark spot.
He went in for an eye exam. At the end, he told the optometrist about the dark spot. The optometrist sent him to an ophthalmologist — a physician specializing in eyes. Here, he tells his story.
So, I go over there and they do all these tests on my eyes, and they blow air in them and they shoot lasers and they test my peripheral vision; all these tests and stuff. They shoot this dye in my blood. Anyway, it was really weird. Finally, I came back three days later to meet with the doctor to see what his findings were. And he goes, well there's nothing wrong with your eye, nothing at all. You have really good eyes, actually. I said well what's going on then? He goes; well we're really not sure. We're probably going to have you take an MRI. I said, well what's that? And he explained it to me. I said okay. I didn't ask why. So, he goes, we'll let you know. We'll call you and let you know when that's going to be. So, as I'm walking out his door and I start walking down the long hallway, he peeks his head of out the office and he said, oh by the way, most of the time when we see this, it's a brain tumor. . . .
And he jumps back in his office.
You can imagine how well this went over. He was in denial. But not for long.
I had an MRI done and they actually had me drive the pictures from the MRI up to the brain surgeon and have him look at them. They felt that it was that urgent. And as I was driving, I looked at the picture and said I wonder what that big old white thing is. And I could see it. It really didn't occur to me that that was the tumor. But sure enough, I had a brain tumor the size of a softball in the middle of my head. And it had started to push on the optic nerve. They just said I had to have surgery immediately. And I did. That was rough, I tell you. I ended up canceling three or four dozen shows just to get through all that. And that's not something you want to do when you're self-employed, cancel business.
That was just the beginning. His medical insurance company fought it because he had been signed up for only four months. The company paid 10%. The surgery took 18 hours. He was in the hospital for three weeks. The bill was over $100,000.
They did not get all of the tumor — merely 60%. The operation damaged his pituitary gland. He gained 120 pounds.
Over a decade later, in an interview, here is his assessment of the result:
What it did . . . to apply it to copywriting, it made me extremely empathetic for others. Michael, if I had to sum in a nutshell what's unique about Brian and in my copywriting is this deep compassionate empathy that's truly heartfelt for other people. And I think that's what I took away from the brain tumor experience. I mean I had on a certain level, a notoriety before the brain tumor, but I just think I gained so much depth and breadth, virtually, from going through that experience. At least that's what I thought at the time. And looking back on it, I see that it has taught me a lot. It's been a blessing to me spiritually and mentally; that whole experience. Physically, it's still somewhat of a challenge, but I'm actively pursuing things to deal with that, as well.
THE CRUCIAL ABILITY
A person who sells anything by direct mail has to have the ability of empathizing with his targeted readers. He has to understand their hopes, dreams, and fears. It's not enough to be able to know this analytically, as if he were writing a college term paper in psychology. He has to feel these emotions. The better he can do this, the more likely his success in motivating them to buy.
Some would call this manipulation. But all motivation of others is inherently manipulative. A drill instructor in the Marine Corps is a highly motivational fellow. But the kind of motivation he imposes is very different from the kind of motivation a copywriter possesses.
When a man writes a love letter during a courtship, he is being motivational. He is also emphasizing his good points and ignoring the bad points. A wise recipient of such a letter is aware of this, for her written replies take the same strategy. Of course, if one of them is an axe murderer, then it's bad manipulation. The point is, under most circumstances, nobody blames a writer of a love letter for being manipulative. That is what love letters are. Yet the consequences are far greater and the stakes are far higher than switching to a new credit card or buying a different brand of detergent, even if it's "new, new, new."
What about if the product is no good? Isn't it bad to write manipulative ad copy? It's not in the same league with producing the bad product. The problem is the product, not the ad copy.
With few exceptions, most of the people I have known in the copywriting business will not knowingly take assignments to sell bad products. The skill of empathy is such that they cannot write effective copy for a bad product. Maybe if the bill collectors are closing in, an ad man will do this, but the bill collectors rarely close in on a successful ad copywriter. Good copywriters make too much money.
There's something else. I have watched the skills of a particular copywriter deteriorate, along with his morals. He cannot save any money. He has no self-discipline. He always seems to be in a jam. I have watched from the sidelines as he has become ever less successful. I used to be favorable, but since the mid-1990s, I have distanced myself from him. I have done my best to warn him, but he has ignored me.
There is something about the skill of direct-response ad copywriting that polices itself. I can't explain it. But Voiles's testimony comes close. It has something to do with empathy, with putting yourself in the other guy's shoes.
Everyone is selling something: his dream, his vision, his candidate, his skills, his output. If we expect a customer to buy, we have to sell. Some people do this better than others.
I believe that a person becomes more empathetic when he goes through the wringer at some point in his life. I also believe that, when developed, the ability to empathize makes people better salesmen.
Dale Carnegie's book, "How to Win Friends and Influence People," is a book on manipulation. Like any tool, this skill can be misused. But whenever you pay attention to someone else, even if you don't feel the emotional connection, you are improving the other person's life, assuming that you're not selling junk.
We are polite to people we don't really like much. This is surely manipulative. It is also called good manners. We do not say, "How's your wife? Did she ever shed those extra hundred pounds?" We say, "How's your wife?" If she did shed those hundred pounds, the guy will probably say so and, if encouraged in the slightest, will spend 20 minutes talking about the kumquats-and-rutabagas diet that made it possible.
There is something about being decent outwardly that tends to make most people decent inwardly. This is why we tell small children to say "Thank you." We don't really expect them to feel thankful. That comes later, with their maturity. It starts with an outward conformity that is imitative of inward conviction.
I never had anything like the disaster of Voiles, but I lost a job once under difficult circumstances. My wife tells me I became more sympathetic of other people's difficulties. Sympathy is the first step toward empathy.
Within two years, I had taught myself the basics of copywriting — not reading even a book on this — and was able to write ads that made me $2 for every dollar I spent within two months after the ad ran. I had not been able to do this on paper before I was booted.
While we have life, we can compensate for disasters. Not everyone does. Not every disaster, even with compensation, puts a person ahead of where he was before the disaster. The classic case in literature is Job. He wound up richer than he had been before the disasters began, but he still had the graves of his children to remind him of the pain and the loss. That loss was permanent. Only the merciful fading of bad memories and the discipline of not remembering the bad old days can get a person into positive territory after this kind of disaster.
No disaster is valueless. Every disaster can produce positive results. This is not the power of positive thinking. This is the power of positive doing, which can and should reshape negative thinking.
For instance, I just tried to insert a hyphen into the word reshape. No hyphen. I have just lost a crucial key on my 1983 PC/AT keyboard. I have only one functional PC/AT keyboard in reserve, which I use for emails. I cannot type without a PC/AT keyboard. Will my emails survive without hyphens? What if that keyboard dies, too? Which key will go next? My K key is gone on my third PC/AT keyboard. I can't recall which key died on my 4th keyboard. Entropy is closing in on me. Will I, an inveterate user of hyphens, be able to go on? Or must I learn how to type on one of those new fangled keyboards with the function keys across the top? Will I forever have to write "new fangled" without the obligatory hyphen? A disaster has struck. Where is that silver lining?
June 2, 2005
Copyright © 2005 LewRockwell.com