Copywriting is a Joke

Joke about a cat studying arithmetic

Over 10 years ago, I was a professional touring comedian. It was a unique experience that I’ve been able to somehow apply to every job I’ve had since. Command of the stage, for example, was extremely useful when I became a high school teacher.

This comfort getting onstage — what is commonly seen as the hardest thing about stand-up comedy — is actually only half the battle. The pros all write their own acts (or pay writers, or steal), and I’ve always maintained that it is the writing itself that is the hardest part of comedy.

And it is the comedy writing that I’ve been able to draw so much from as a direct response copywriter. Here are seven tricks of my show business trade that translate perfectly to marketing.

1. Know your audience

I’ve been on all kinds of stages, from a bowling alley in Nebraska to New York City’s Gotham Comedy Club. I would never dream of doing the same show at both of these venues, and some gigs I just won’t pursue because I’m not a fit for the room. In marketing, do the same. Know your audience. Tailor and tweak your message for each niche you’re in front of. And know which “venues” won’t be worth your time or money.

2. Incite a certain reaction, or fail

For a comedian, it’s never enough to just get a reaction. Even though some amateur “shock comics” think they’re doing well by getting moans and gasps, the whole point of comedy is to get laughs. If I don’t get laughs onstage, I fail. The necessity of getting such a specific — and emotional — response is what makes writing comedy so difficult compared to writing anything else. It’s also what makes copywriting so difficult. You’re not looking for people to think an ad is well-written, entertaining, moving or even funny. If you don’t get one specific response, which is whatever your call to action is, you fail.

3. Structure is critical

Jokes have certain structures, and there are a number of specific formulas that work. If I just stood onstage and talked about funny topics, people would only stare and I would fail. So it’s setup, surprise, maybe include a list of three things, then tag line, then maybe another tag line, and then a callback later.

In an ad, structure is just as important. The pieces must be in the right places or you won’t get that specific reaction you need. Start with your headline.

Maybe lead into a pain point. List your benefits. End with your call to action. If you don’t use the right structure, it’ll be worse than getting stared at. They’ll look away.

4. Open strong

In comedy, it’s absolutely critical to win a crowd over in the first few seconds. Make an impact. Get that emotional reaction. The same goes for copywriting. If your headline is a dud, you’ve lost your audience.

5. Close strong

It’s also just as important to close strong. Comedians all have a favorite closer. I have three (which one I use depends on my audience), and they all guarantee me an applause break to end on. The show biz standard is this: Always leave them wanting more. The same goes for marketing. Your close — or call to action — must not only leave them wanting more but also compel them to actually take action and get that “more.”

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6. Don’t lose them in the middle

While the beginning and end matter the most, the middle part of a comedy act has to be solid and consistent. The rule of thumb in comedy is to get five or six laughs per minute. That means my material needs to be “tight.” Likewise, in marketing there’s no room for fluff. Everything needs to matter. Everything needs to continue to engage. Say only what’s necessary, and don’t take too long to say it. Otherwise, you’ll lose your audience.

7. Practice and learn

An ad, like a joke, is a process. Sometimes inspiration will be just right, and you’ll hit it out of the park right away. Most times, you need to get an ad in front of an audience, see how they respond and then tweak accordingly. It takes a year for a comedian to write and polish 10 minutes of new material to work into a show. Let the flops go. Keep generating new material. Stay “onstage,” and if you get something your audience loves, keep using it as often as you can. Break a leg!

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