Ben Franklin, Copywriter

How to Write Like Ben

"Either write something worth
reading or do something
worth writing."
- Benjamin Franklin

At least twice, America nearly lost one of its early political architects, Benjamin Franklin.

First, when he dangled a key on a kite.

He was nearly electrocuted. Instead, he survived to invent the lightning rod.

Then we nearly lost him to an even more insidious force... poetry. That's right. He flirted with the idea of becoming a poet as a boy. And his brother egged him on. His father, however, told him "verse- makers are generally beggars."

So he picked another path. Not that he would have flopped at it. In fact, he kept dabbling in it over his lifetime.

But not full time.

Instead, he succeeded at a few other things. Like inventing the Franklin stove... founding public libraries, fire brigades, and the U.S. post office... running his print shop...

Acting as statesman, and scientist... negotiating treaties across Europe on America's behalf... reinventing underground journalism and American humor and last but not least...

Becoming a master marketer.



Take the Franklin stove.

It's a pot-bellied, wood-burning thing that we remember for distributing heat better than any of its day. Only... it didn't.

First, another inventor had to improve the design.

But by then the Franklin stove was already a top- seller. Why? Thanks in part to sales copy written by Franklin himself.

Franklin's sales pamphlet set the pace for many modern ad techniques today.

It showed how heat transfer worked... it quoted authorities to back up claims... it showed the healthy benefits of even heating... it even showed a graphic of the new technology and wrapped up the close with a clever "jingle."

Franklin didn't stop there.

He also sold his political and social ideas in editorials. He used his writing and personal selling techniques to sell heads of state across Europe on the idea of America. He did the selling that helped get his own printing company off the ground.

One Franklin sales technique a lot of us already know is the famous "Franklin Close," where you draw a line down the middle of a page.

On one side, you list the positives. On the other side, you list the negatives. In a good offer, the positives so outweigh the negatives, the prospect can't help but take you up on the deal.

It works.

But on a larger scale... and maybe less talked about... was the powerful style Franklin developed in his writing.

Franklin wrote thousands of persuasive letters during his lifetime. And it was with the printed word that he communicated some of his most successful ideas.

Including those ideas in his famous autobiography. An essay, by the way, he originally wrote to convince his son William to lead a virtuous and worthwhile life.

(William was a Loyalist; at one point, he even spied on his father and reported his colonial activities to the British crown. Can you imagine a dinner conversation at the Franklin table?)

In the autobiography, Franklin explains step-by-step how he developed that potent writing style...


First things first.

Before he wrote a word, Franklin read.

Often and a lot. But beyond voracious reading, Franklin's own method for teaching himself to write also had a lot to do with his success.

It started when Ben's own father found a stack of Franklin's letters to a friend. The letters had made the argument in favor of educating women, something the friend -- and many of the people of the time -- were against.

Franklin's father didn't take up the issue. Instead, he took Franklin to task for his writing style. It lacked, he said, eloquence. And therefore failed to persuade.

Ben agreed.

Here's what he did to fix the situation...

1) Role-Model Reading:

Ben picked out a piece of writing he admired and actually wanted to imitate -- The Spectator -- and studied it, front to back. He made notes on the outline and structure of paragraphs. He memorized the phrases. He noted the general themes in the piece. That taught him the style used by the authors he admired.

You can and should do the same with pieces of sales copy. Is a half a day spent studying one very strong sales piece a day well spent? Absolutely.

2) Flatter By Imitation:

I and other seasoned copywriters have often recommended this trick. Take that piece of writing you admire and copy it. Word for word. This is a valuable exercise, even done as simply as this.

But Franklin took it even further...

"I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try'd to compleat the papers again."

That is, not only did he study the original and copy its techniques, he actually tried to reproduce its key themes from memory... but in his own words. Then he compared his work to the original.

Where he made mistakes, he fixed them. Sometimes he found he'd even improved the original ideas. And of course, this happened more often the more he wrote.

Again, you can do the same, if you're willing. This is one reason you study the past controls -- to see how they did what they did, then do them one better.

3) Organize Your Mental Toolbox:

More and more, we see that the real power of written persuasion is the part you DON'T see -- the underlying outline.

Franklin saw that too.

He found, in his early rewrites of others' works, that his thoughts got jumbled and confusing. So he took his paragraphs and copied them on pieces of paper. Then he reassembled them in an order closer to the original outline.

You can take an outline from a control package and build new copy around it. You can also take notes, while writing the package, in random order and then reorganize when you're finished.

I do this now.

I start with an outline. But as I write, ideas come at random. So I use a feature in Microsoft Office 2004 for the Mac -- Notebook Layout -- that lets me deal with themes on tabbed pages.

Then I reorganize the tabs to fit my original outline. As more information pours in, I might resort the tabs a dozen times. It helps the ideas pour out freely, because I know I can safely organize them later. It also gives me a fuller picture of the whole prevailing theme of the promo.

I believe the PC version of Word now has this tabbed- outline feature too (it didn't when I first wrote this article -- search for the "Notebook" feature).

And if not, there plenty of other programs that do. Mostly in the "outlining" or "idea organizing" categories. Check freeware sites around the web.

Or you can pull off the same effect with -- you've guessed it -- good old index cards. Give it a try. Who knows how far it will take you?

John Forde, who aspires to write like Ben, can at least say he also hails from Philadelphia, not too far from Ben's old stomping grounds. John has written direct mail copy these last 15 years, with more than a few million-dollar controls under his belt. You can read his musings every week, via his Copywriter's Roundtable ezine:

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