Here are my notes from The Boron Letters, written by Gary C. Halbert to his son Bond, while locked up in California’s Boron Federal Prison Camp.
If you’re like me and you’re goin’: “The hell was he serving time for?” I just Googled it. Long story short: Gary wrote an ad that was a little too good. Him and his partners got so many orders they couldn’t keep up with all of ’em. Eventually got indicted for mail fraud. Oops. Here’s the long version if you’re interested.
Okay, onto the good stuff.
The best way to start your day is to wake up and do an hour of “road work.” Walk, run, or jog – 30 minutes out, 30 minutes back, six days a week. This cleans you out, settles you down, clears your head, improves your quality of thinking, gives you a good high that sticks with you throughout the day. Bond adds: the reason dad talks about this first in these letters is because how you feel affects how you think; so writers need a strict routine that lifts their mood each day, allowing for improved writing.
Eat three pieces of fruit and some type of bran cereal each day. Munch on veggies all throughout the day. This steady dose of clean food stabilizes blood sugar and keeps you energized. Sprinkle in some protein, and you’re good. The more nutritious food you fill up on, the less likely you are to crave junk.
Try fasting one day each week, on your non-road work day. It’ll normalize your body functions and develop a self-discipline that spills over into other areas of life. Don’t tell anyone. Keep it to yourself and enjoy the benefits before the masses talk ya out of it. “Everyone knows breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”
Another thing I noticed, that Bond commented on at the end of Chapter 3, was that his dad repeats himself a lot. He’s always sayin’: “So far I’ve told you…” blank, blank, and blank. Bond said he does this intentionally, just to be sure his readers are always on the same page as he is. And so they don’t miss out on any of the little – but important – details.
Rely on your own strength instead of somebody else’s compassion. And it’s not good enough just to act tough; you have to be tough.
Big money follows big enthusiasm. And a good attitude is the most important thing of all.
Be a student of markets. Not products, techniques, copywriting, or ads. All of those are important, but before that, you need to learn what people want to buy. So, observe what they do buy. Which is, of course, different than what they say they buy. For example, most people will say they buy premium booze. Yet, if you went to their homes, you’d see they drink the cheap sh*t. Said different, be a student of reality.
The best buyers for a new product are satisfied buyers of your last product. Outside of that, you want recent, repeat, well-to-do buyers of similar, pricey products… purchased the same way you plan on selling – be it direct mail, Facebook ads, whatever.
Sell people what they want to buy. So obvious, so overlooked, so important. Keep an eye out for ads and direct mail that are being run for long stretches. Obviously, they’re working.
On not feeling like working: most of the world’s work is done by people who didn’t feel much like getting out of bed.
Truth is determined by how people use their wallets, not their mouths. Be skeptical of surveys, of questionnaires. Instead, believe in numbers. And the more honest you are with yourself and others, the faster you’ll see what really motivates people.
The more custom tailored your promotions, the more successful they’ll be. “Dear Person’s Name” will do much better than “To whom it may concern,” for example.
Get your promotion opened and read by not making it look like a promotion in the first place. Make your pitch more personal by including specifics like the day of the week you’re writing it on, the exact time, day of the month, and year; also, describe where you are and what you’re doing. Here’s an example from Gary in Chapter 12:
Right now, I’m sitting cross-legged on my back here in room seven of dorm six in the Boron Federal Prison Camp. I just finished running the hill five times (four miles), and I did it in 57 minutes and five seconds.
See how that personal, specific insight brings writer and reader closer together?
Don’t underestimate how busy and distracted your readers are. Hold their hand and guide them. At the end of a page, tell them to turn to the next one, for example. (Yes, really.) You have to work hard to make your sales letters pleasant, interesting, easy to consume, and easy to understand.
Use attention grabbers (i.e. a tiny bag of dirt stapled to the top of a “How To Make Money In Real Estate” report) that support the copy. For example, the report might start out: “Inside that baggie is a very tiny amount of what is the most valuable thing on earth. Yes, I’m talking about real estate.” Whatever you do, make it genuine; don’t trick people into reading. Like, how many emails have you opened cuz of some sensational subject line, only to find out the actual email had nothing to do with it? Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Help your reader “picture with pleasure” the result you’re sellin’. Here’s Gary, in Chapter 14, describing what that looks like for a hypothetical Hawaiian real estate offer:
Before I was finished, he would be able to feel the sand in his toes, smell the fresh tang of the salt air, drink in the stars with his eyes, and feel the warm friendly sun on his back.
Use a copywriting formula like AIDA – attention, interest, desire, action – when writing. After a natural attention grabber like the bag of sand, list interesting facts, then benefits he or she gets from buying, then end with a clear, specific, easy, time-sensitive call to action.
Make a habit of hand copying the best ads and direct mail pieces you come across. The words, the flow, the sentence structure, the organization of information – it all becomes a part of you. If you do this enough, you’ll develop a deep “inside out” understanding of what it takes and what it feels like to write great copy.
Use simple, common, everyday words. Short sentences, short paragraphs. Use transition words and phrases to make urrthing flow smoothly. Examples out of Chapter 17:
Well, as a matter of fact, I first…
Now, naturally, we don’t want to…
And, of course, here is what she said…
Not bad, eh? But listen to what happened next!
And so on.
Also, from time to time, Gary likes to ask questions and then answer them himself. Some ideas:
Bond, do you understand what I am saying? You do? Good, then let’s go on.
How do we get the benefits? The answer is simple. All we have to do is…
Can you imagine that? I know it sounds unbelievable, but facts are facts.
What is a good writer? Someone who makes things perfectly clear. He makes it easy on the reader – both to read the entire piece and understand fully what was said.
What’s the best way to become a good writer? To write good writing. To hand write and absorb all the little things that good writers do.
Interesting: the very best writing goes unnoticed. You don’t want someone to read your ad and go, “Damn, that ad was sure well written!” No. What you really want is someone to buy. Write for money, not applause.
Give readers plenty of eye relief through an attractive, inviting layout and lots of line breaks. But also, try to make it look less like an ad and more like an exciting editorial piece… to pull more readers in.
You never get a second chance to make a first impression. You either hook a reader or lose him when he first glances at your advertisement. Then, the rest of the time, he’s merely trying to find evidence to support his original opinion. Therefore, you want an uplifting look to your campaign. Photographs should be clear, crisp, bright.
Don’t make important decisions when you’re emotional. Go do road work, read, write, let some time pass. Come back to it. You’ll save yourself a lot of grief.
Make strong propositions (deals) and then explain why you’re offering ’em.
Read your copy out loud. Find the rough patches and smooth them out. Repeat until you can read the entire thing, out loud, without stumbling at all.
Stay ready. Read, study, add to your swipe file, know what the competition is up to, jot down ideas and notes, communicate with the leaders in your industry – be ready to capitalize on any opportunity that presents itself.
Make your ads more believable. How? Specifics. Instead of “most car owners” write “77.6% of all car owners” or whatever the true number is. Video testimonials are another, newer way. Highlight the most important takeaway of each video testimony in quotes below the video.
Pay attention to yourself. When you feel “off,” weak, tired, angry, vulnerable… lay low, recover, get your strength back. It’s important not only in prison, but in real life and in business. Winners and losers give off distinct vibes. If you don’t smell like success, hunker down, and re-emerge when you do.
Summary: solid book on copy, making money, plus lots of life lessons. An easy, interesting read, given the circumstances. Oh, one thing. All of the letters talk about mail order, but you can easily apply everything to online marketing, magazine ads, or anything else. The Boron Letters is one of the few copy books I think everyone should read. To me, the coolest part was seeing Gary apply what he was teaching his son Bond, all throughout the book. Helped hammer home each concept.