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Against Metaphors in Sales Letters

A lot of sales letters follow a form that allows them to say a lot and imply the promise of a lot while disclosing that either the sales letter or service is not honest.

They start with an idiom, usually as the headline. Then the writer summarizes a craft or vocation. Then, they reduce the complexity of the craft to make the whole discipline fit into the idiom. Then, they take the whole thing and analogize it to business, and that’s what they try and sell you: an analogy to a reductive comparison to an idiom.

Imagine going to a restaurant, asking what the specials are, and your waiter begins to tell you about a hiking trip they took last summer… and the importance of a good pair of boots… and so really, they’d recommend you get the cobb salad.

Maybe the salad is what you want, but is anything they’ve said really relevant to that?

Reducing their service and the thing they’re comparing it to in order to make the analogy almost always gives an inaccurate perception of one or both. That’s a small problem - while it’d be nice if advertisements could provide a complete explanation of the thing being advertised, it often isn’t feasible.

What’s a larger problem is that by introducing you to their service by way of analogy, you’re being presented with information in so sideways a manner, it does very little to help you actually reach a conclusion. Learning about the salesperson’s experience hiking, or dealing with their niece, or going to a restaurant, might teach you something about how that salesperson does those things, but anything you learn about the service they’re selling is based on the assumption that the analogy was good enough.

That’s a dangerous risk to add to a piece of writing. The advertisers already had to make a bunch of assumptions about what I know and don’t know. Add in an analogy, and there’s a second set of information they need to assume my understanding of. This adds so many new challenges to writing the advertising, and being a reader of it. Often I’ve noticed I read this style of letter only because it is engaging, not because it is informative or educational… and if it’s engaging but not informative or educational, that probably means it’s a bit confusing, and that’s why I’m interested: I’ve been confused, and I’m trying to remove that sense.

I think, unless you’re directly targeting someone interested in a secondary topic who is guaranteed to be interested in your primary topic, metaphor- and story-based sales letters are going to be too long, too complex, and too difficult to be worth the benefit over a more straight-forward advertisement.

To be clear, I’m not against all analogies in sales writing. I used an analogy earlier, comparing the problem I’m discussing to asking to hear a restaurant’s specials. But I did not construct this piece around that analogy, and I didn’t give you the analogy first.

Assume as little as you can about the audience and explain things to them directly: give them all the tools they need to make a truly informed decision about the fitness of your offering to their needs, and you’ll save yourself a lot of writing effort, and you’ll save them when it comes time to onboard those who otherwise might’ve had a misguided notion as to your offer, thanks to your own marketing material.

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