Great example of “entering the conversation” going on in your prospect’s mind

by Kevin

in Copywriting

Election_1999filmHave you seen the movie “Election” starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon?

It popped up on HBO the other night and my wife and I watched it again.

It’s a great film and there’s a particular scene that perfectly exemplifies the famous Robert Collier quote about how writing a good ad begins with “entering the conversation already taking place in your prospect’s mind” … and two more great examples of how most marketers get this SO wrong.

Here’s the scene…

It’s speech day for candidates running for president of the student council. The gym is packed with restless students annoyed at having to sit through speeches.

Reese Witherspoon is Tracy Flick, the type A student destined for a life in politics who sees this election as an important step towards fulfilling her mission. Her strongest opponent is super nice guy and school football hero, Paul Metzler, who is inspired to run by a teacher who fears dealing with Tracy if she wins. Paul’s sister, Tammy, decides to run to get back at Paul for (unknowingly) stealing her girlfriend.

First up is Tracy who gives a perfectly structured and completely ignorable speech that brings yawns and insults from the crowd.

Then it’s Paul the jock’s turn. The crowd is eager to root for Paul, but riddled with fear and completely out of his element he stares down at his notes and plows through a single run-on sentence of empty rhetoric without a single pause. The students can only stare back in confused silence.

When Tammy approaches the mic, the crowd is ready to  pounce. Heckles and cat calls bring a warning from the principle, and then Tammy shocks everyone by “entering the conversation”…


Skilled copywriters have their secret methods for getting discovering the conversation they need to enter. It can be difficult to nail. But, once you find the technique that works for you… the one that puts your reader right there on the barstool next to you at the neighborhood pub, the writing tends to get much easier.

One tactic I’ve relied on is to search discussion boards where users of similar products like to hang out. People chat openly on message boards and they also tend to enjoy helping out a newbie. So, become that newbie with a lot of questions. You’ll be amazed at the amount of useful insight you get.

You can pick up the lingo, find the hot button topics, and you’ll know what makes users of similar products say “so what” and “yeah, right” about new products like the one you’ll be pitching.

And if you really score, you’ll make a “board friend” that inspires your writing, and will become the customer avatar you write to in your sales letter.

Once you have that, striking a conversational tone – and building trust with your prospect – comes natural.



Lorrie Morgan-Ferrero February 18, 2014 at 11:07 am

Nice parallel, Kev. Saw this movie again about 6 months ago, but I didn’t think of finding the copywriting lesson in it. You made such an eloquent, but simple point about persuasion in this post. You’re never going to get someone on your side if they have a spinning rat’s nest of thoughts & objections taking over their thought process. You HAVE to start from the conversation in their mind. Thanks for this!


Kevin February 18, 2014 at 3:55 pm

Thanks, Lo.

Great point about the jumble of loose puzzle pieces we all carry around in our domes day-to-day. Our job is to enter the conversation and then drive it, providing new clarity and conclusion all the way down to the sale.

We don’t get paid enough.

Bill Jeffels February 18, 2014 at 12:08 pm

Hey Kevin,

Awsome post as usual. I love the Collier analogy.

Do you think that Collier quote is also like you’re going in and answering your prospects predetermined objections as well?

Bill Jeffels

Kevin February 18, 2014 at 4:00 pm

Hey Bill,

I’d say that’s certainly “Step 2” in the formula. Only we’ve got to be extra cautious about addressing predetermined objections because they can’t be the same of everyone, nor can we cover the entire spectrum in the main pitch.

FAQ section to the rescue!

Thanks for commenting.


Scott McKinstry February 18, 2014 at 3:26 pm

Great illustration of the lesson, Kevin.

Another thing this scene made me think of: our sales prospects are a lot like bored students sitting through an assembly. Both groups have heard a LOT of B.S.

So they tune it out.

Kind of like one of those Gary Larson’s cartoons, where the only thing the dog or cat hears is its own name. “Blah blah blah blah blah Mitzie blah blah blah.” (Which is what it sounds like when I get a “personalized” sales letter titled “Dear Scott” … but then the letter drones on and on about stuff that doesn’t relate to me at all.)

What Tammy does is address that B.S. directly — and that gets the attention of her prospects. “Who really cares about this stupid election?” Exactly! everyone is thinking (including the teachers, I’m sure).

Tammy uses the “Call out your competitor’s BS” Lead. (Bencivenga’s “Lies! Lies! Lies” comes to mind.)

And then she builds on it. With a raw, authentic view that expresses all the things the students have thought but never wanted to express in front of teachers.

So Tammy speaks truth to power, too. Which takes balls.

Personal note: I ran for ASB president at my school. I didn’t quite follow Tammy’s strategy, but in my campaign speech I did target the idea that student government didn’t seem to matter much. Instead of vowing to just scrap the whole thing, I proposed a complete re-write of the school constitution that would form a new kind of government …

(cue “Hail to the Chief” music)

… a government for the students …

… by the students …

(and with me as the Supreme Leader, of course.)

And hey, guess what? I won. (Strangely enough, my opponent was also named Tracy.)

The more we can be the oracle for our prospect’s fears, desires, and dreams, the more they trust us. And that’s where the introvert’s skill of Empathy comes in handy, as you and John Carlton delve into in episode #8 of Psych Insights.

Kevin February 18, 2014 at 4:03 pm

I had a sense that you were a natural born leader, Scott. So, how did true democracy play with the student body? DId they get more involved?

Thanks for mentioning the podcast. Here’s a link for anyone who hasn’t checked out Carlton and I yet…

Scott McKinstry February 18, 2014 at 9:10 pm

Thanks, man. We did manage to get the new constitution ratified by both the studentry and the school district. After that … not so much. It was a good learning experience, though: Lot of hoops to jump through, lots of different groups to please. Kinda showed me that a life in politics wasn’t my cup of tea. (And if House of Cards is anything like real life, I’m grateful I didn’t travel that path. That show is terrifying.)

It’s one of the liberating things about targeted marketing: you don’t have to please everyone. Just speak the story of your tribe.

Rodney Washington February 18, 2014 at 4:42 pm

I’m a newbie to the copy writing arena so I’m trying to pick up nuggets where ever I can. I think it was brilliant Kevin to illustrate your point with a film clip to give us visual thinkers a point of reference. I don’t know if I ever would have thought of that.

My question albeit possibly a silly one, but I’ll ask anyway, how do I craft copy for people who converse in images? Is it ok to use film clips on sales pages?

Thank for the great copy writing lesson today sir, now back to work!

Kevin Katzenberg February 18, 2014 at 6:50 pm

I love that speech. I saw that movie for the first time a couple months ago, but never drew the parallel to ‘entering the conversation’. It really does though.
The first thing that popped into my mind was a parallel to headlines. Shocking the crowd into a little bit of disbelief. The crowd first is making a little noise and then she drops a couple bombs on them; they go totally silent with undivided attention. Then the rest of the speech is right down the slippery slide to the order form.

Great find and a lot of fun to talk about.


Damien February 18, 2014 at 9:58 pm

Great example, Kevin. I think the biggest challenge isn’t so much finding out the conversation going on in their mind, but how to enter that conversation without seeming creepy or like a schmuck!

If you’re writing a service page on a website, for example, how do you tell the reader you understand their thought process without it coming across as sounding overly familiar or intrusive?

Plus, there’s the added challenge when writing for a wide audience that one person’s “conversation” isn’t the same as another’s, which you kind of allude to in your above comment about objections.

Kelvin February 22, 2014 at 8:45 pm

Yep…brilliant example of reading the audience/prospects mind. The audience felt understood. Their resistance came down. They were now in agreement and not in skepticism.
I thought Tammy did bit of a take-away as well (“I don’t care if you vote for me or not”).

It’s fun to watch movies through the eye’s of marketing and sales. Mucho content fodder.
Good stuff as always! Thanks Kevin

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