Genius is the art of taking pains

What to write when you don’t know what to write about

Knowing what to say in our marketing is one of the most frustrating challenges business owners and marketers like you and I face every day.

It’s just very hard to know what people will care about, and how to express our value to them in terms they’ll understand and appreciate.

In his 1927 memoir, My Life in Advertising, Claude C. Hopkins told the story of writing his first advertisement on automobiles, all the way back in 1899.

“They referred to a steam car made in Milwaukee. The model I owned was the first motor car in Racine,” Hopkins wrote.

It didn’t start well. “My first day of ownership cost me $300, through the scaring of hack horses and other forms of damage.”

The automobile was, of course, an extremely new invention and steam-powered cars did not last long, for reasons made obvious as his story continues.

“There are pleasanter experiences than sitting on a boiler on a gloomy night waiting for it to explode. And contemplating the long muddy road ahead.”

Learning to operate an early automobile was a difficult and messy task, but Hopkins felt it was necessary to do great work. He said that the experience made him an enthusiast, and helped him write successful ads for more than twenty other cars.

Hopkins would later become one of the most influential and successful copywriters of the 20th century. So effective were his words and work that, in today’s dollars, his salary would have exceeded $4 million.

What was his secret to great advertising writing?

He wrote, “Perhaps countless people can make similar products.”

Or perhaps you don’t know what, exactly, sets your business apart.

“But tell the pains you take to excel.”

In many of his successful ads, he would simply state how the product was made (in grand and expressive terms, of course), demonstrating the effort and diligence that went into solving the problem.

He understood that his audience was in a moment of struggle—or eventually would be—and they’d need a product to help them overcome it. So his advertisements communicated, ‘we get you, your priorities, and what you’re going through—and this is the effort, time, and resources we’ve put into helping you make progress in your life.’

And the people who cared, who saw the value, would become ideal customers willing to pay a premium for such a well-crafted product that was so suited to their needs.

His story about the steam-powered car was, in many ways, exactly that—a demonstration of the pains he himself took to excel as a writer—and his memoir served as an advertisement for his pioneering style.

So the next time you’re struggling with what to say, first consider the circumstances of your ideal customers. Where might they find themselves when they realize they need a product or service to help them overcome their own struggle in their life?

Then, simply describe what you do and how you do it, in a way that expresses the effort and thought you’ve put into helping your customers overcome that particular struggle.

Tell your blog readers, your newsletter subscribers, or your social media audience about your process. Tell them what your business had to do to create the things it sells, and the roadblocks and barriers you’ve surmounted that your customers can benefit from.

Unless it constitutes a legitimate and necessary secret, how did you design your product? Why did you launch this service? What goes into making each product special? How did you design your software? Why do you implement your solution in this particular way, instead of another? What small details go into each experience?

Your process or way of working needn’t be entirely unique to be worth discussing. As Hopkins reassures, “If others claim [the same process] afterward, it will only serve to advertise you.”

Your ideal customers will appreciate the pains you’ve taken—they’ll see the value in it—and they’ll want to work with you.

“Genius is the art of taking pains,” Hopkins once wrote. And great marketing is the art of telling the pains you take to excel.

This isn’t the only way to work or write, but it’s a handy technique to lean on when you get stuck. Which will keep you moving forward, instead of getting frustrated and giving up.

So when you don’t know what to write, just write about what you know so well—the thinking, the work, and the time you’ve put into helping your customers overcome their struggles. Even when it’s hard. Even when it’s messy.

As Hopkins’ story concludes, “I remember nights on muddy roads when we watched the water gauge go down.”

“At a certain point we knew the boiler would explode,” he wrote.

“But we kept on going to shorten our walk back home.”


If you’re struggling with how to describe your business or how to market it effectively, please send me an email—I’d love to discuss it with you: joel@familyknife.com

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