Bullet 15

The Secret of the Monkey’s Fist

Perhaps the most effective
selling strategy ever discovered

Dear Marketing Top Gun:

When I was a young, inept copywriter, I felt acutely ashamed of my lack of skill. I craved respect in my craft yet reeked of mediocrity. I was determined to better myself by learning from the best.

That’s easier to do in New York City than just about anywhere else on earth because so many outstanding people in every field work in New York.

Reaching beyond my grasp, I applied for a job with the legendary copywriter and direct marketing agency boss Tom Collins. My interview with the great man took place in his office, after hours.

I can still see him now, so friendly and courteous to a copy cub so beneath his level. Leafing through my portfolio, he politely searched for something encouraging to say about my mundane samples. Finding nothing to compliment in my headlines, he plowed into body copy.

As he read, I glanced around his office and stared out his window, feeling that my future as a copywriter loomed as dark as the New York night. I had been rejected for other jobs with other masters, and the pattern was about to repeat.

Sure enough, he told me in a very considerate way that I wasn’t ready to make it in his agency. “Maybe sometime in the future,” he said, as he closed my portfolio and handed it back.

However, the experience did prove to be a turning point in my career. That’s because, during the interview, as I looked around his office, I noticed a little sign on his desk, carved in wood. It said, “Advertising Is Hard.”

“You’re not kidding,” I thought.

For several years, I had found copywriting exasperatingly difficult. Nobody seemed able to teach me a simple, logical way to produce outstanding copy consistently. It was all so subjective. I never knew where to begin an assignment. I had nary a clue about how to develop an ad into a powerhouse of persuasion. So of course I harbored no dreams of shattering response records. My lowly standard was, “If I can get this past the copy chief, I’ll feel so relieved.” But even that often proved to be an exercise in frustration.

There were few good books on the subject. One I remember was the Vic Schwab classic, How to Write a Good Advertisement, which I bought in a bookstore on my lunch hour when I was feeling particularly desperate for guidance. An excellent book, it extolled a list of “100 good headlines,” but, as I would learn, most of them, even back then, had already become tired old formulas that no longer worked in the real world. (After extensive testing, I wouldn’t dream of using 90 of those 100 headlines today. They would bomb.)

I could find no easy, repeatable path to success. Even worse, here I was, sitting in the office of a legendary copywriter, someone I fervently hoped could make my career easier, but whose blunt motto turned out to be “Advertising Is Hard.”

“This man is a legend,” I thought. “If it’s hard for him, it’s hopeless for me.”

I have always enjoyed walking. After this failed interview, I said to myself, “Maybe I should get a job as a mailman. I could walk my route each day, stay physically fit, deliver mail and derive fulfillment in life purely from my family and spare-time activities.”

Don’t Laugh, But…

…I actually went so far as picking up an employment application at the post office, only to be told that: (1) they were not hiring, and (2) if they ever did start hiring again, thousands of names were ahead of me on the waiting list.

This was an unhappy time for me. But when life knocks you down, you face a decision: either give up or get up, dust yourself off and try again.

In my case I had no choice. I had a young family, a medically involved daughter, and we needed an income and health insurance.

Then, not long after my interview flop with Tom Collins and reading his little sign, something in me snapped, a second wind filled my sails and, since the post office wouldn’t have me, I vowed, “I am going to make copywriting easier if it’s the last thing I do.”

And that’s what I did. Ever since that night almost 40 years ago, I have devoted myself to uncovering easier ways to trigger outstanding results in advertising. I thank my lucky stars that nobody fired me until I got the hang of it. It did take me several more years of trial and error, of scientifically tracking the results of hundreds and then thousands of campaigns, of studying under various masters and great copy chiefs, learning their tips and tricks. In time my snowball-size skill started a slow roll downhill, eventually picked up speed and turned into something considerable.

The most important lesson I learned along the way was that almost anything in life can be greatly improved with time and persistence. Almost always, there’s no reason to remain hopeless.

Eventually I succeeded in finding so many ways to trigger outstanding results in advertising that, ever since those early days, I have almost never failed to deliver outsize results for my clients, offering them not one but a variety of ways to beat their control packages and ads, usually by wide margins of 25 to 100 percent or more and sometimes, when their ads were weak, by several hundred percent.

Among the most powerful master strategies I ever learned is the one I will share today, The Secret of the Monkey’s Fist.

In every sale, either in person or in an advertisement, there are at least two sales that have to be made, not just one. This is true of anything you sell, and the sooner you realize this, the sooner you can become a master at selling anything, in person or in print.

The main sale, of course, is the product or service you ultimately want to sell. But before you can even get a chance to sell your main product, you must first sell your prospect on giving you an audience.

That is known as the sale before the sale. In short, you must sell the chance to sell. This will become clear in a moment.

I learned this secret from one of the greatest salespeople who ever lived, the legendary life insurance salesman Frank Bettger (rhymes with “catcher”).

Bettger was such a crummy salesman that he came close to quitting before he stumbled upon one of the most powerful strategies for selling anything. He later revealed it in one of the all-time best-selling classics of salesmanship, How I Raised Myself from Failure to Success in Selling. (I love that title. It’s exactly the same “oaf to success” road I had walked.)

Bettger discovered this strategy on his vacation, while standing on the deck of a ship about to dock in Miami. Bettger noticed that the ropes needed to moor a great ship to the dock are tremendous. They are very long and as thick as a man’s thigh. He wondered how any seaman, no matter how strong, could ever lift such a thick rope, let alone hurl it so that it would reach the pier.

So He Decided to Watch How It’s Done…

He discovered that the crew doesn’t even try to throw the heavy rope, known as a “hawser.” Instead, he saw a solitary crewman hurl a little iron ball, called a “monkey’s fist,” which was attached to a thin rope about the size of a clothes line.

He tossed this monkey’s fist to a longshoreman standing on the pier, waiting to receive it.

When the longshoreman caught the little iron ball, he started to haul in the thin rope attached to it. This thin rope, in turn, was attached to the huge hawser, which Bettger then saw moving through the water as the fellow on the dock hauled it in. And that’s how the big, unwieldy hawser gets tied to the moorings on the pier.

Throwing the hawser was too big a first step for any sailor, just as it’s too big a first step for any marketer to approach ice-cold prospects and instantly persuade them to buy.

So this is the little-known but amazingly reliable formula for opening—and then closing—many, many more sales, in person or in direct response advertising. Make the first step for your prospect irresistiblyeasy to take.

This means that whether you’re selling in the mail, on the Net or in space, you shouldn’t start off trying to sell your product. Break it into smaller steps. As a first step, offer something that makes it easy, irresistibly easy, for your prospect to say yes.

An Example from the Great Claude Hopkins

Claude Hopkins, the Aristotle of advertising, described how in the early days of the twentieth century, door-to-door salesmen would go through a neighborhood, knocking on doors, to sell coffee.

Sounds like a tough way to make a living, doesn’t it? Imagine how many doors would be slammed in your face by the end of the day?

After experimenting with many different presentations, the coffee marketers found an incredibly easy and effective way to sell. They “threw the monkey’s fist”—made the first step in the sales process irresistibly easy. It was so simple…

The salesman would knock on the door. When it was opened, usually by the woman of the house, the salesman (almost all salespeople were men in those days) would NOT launch into a sales pitch about coffee.

Instead, he would say, “Good afternoon, madam. Today I bring you a special gift, a free half-pound of our finest coffee. Please accept it with my compliments. In about a week, I’ll return to see what you think about it. Fair enough?”

How could she refuse?

Next week, he’d return and, instead of asking for an order, would surprise her with another gift, which could be hers free if she placed her first order.

Making the sale in this way was so easy, because the salesman made the first step easy. He completely bypassed the automatic rejection he would surely get if he tried to strong-arm prospects with a hyped-up sales pitch. As Hopkins put it, “Any apparent effort to sell creates corresponding resistance.” Therefore, do NOT approach your prospects, either in person or in print, with an obvious effort to sell.

There are countless ways you can achieve this gentle, seductive first step in your marketing. The free sample of the actual product is one way. A magalog or direct mail letter that reveals interesting, valuable information right in the copy is another. A free checkup, audit, analysis, first lesson, consultation, etc., are yet more. So is an enclosed quiz or treasure hunt or free informational guide on a topic of high interest to your prospects. The Gary Halbert, dollar-bill- stuck-to-the-top-of-the-letter is still another. The variations are endless.

The Best Way to Do This, Most of the Time

I have found that offering valuable, free information that targets your prime prospects is the most versatile, economical and usually most effective execution of this strategy. It works so well because it not only makes it much easier to open the sale with your best prospects, but also sets you up perfectly to close it.

For example, if you sell a carpet-cleaning or housekeeping service, you can offer your prospects a free booklet entitled, “How to Keep Your House Free of Health-Destroying Dust Mites.”

If you sell a course on Internet marketing, you can offer a free e-book such as, “The 100 Most Successful E-mail Advertisements Ever Written.”

If you manage a real estate office in, say, Marietta, you can offer a free “Trend Report—Sale Prices of Marietta Homes, Condos and Co-Ops over the Last Six Months.”

If you’re a chiropractor, you can advertise a free guide, “My Seven Best Secrets for Having a Pain-Free Back in Just Six Weeks.”

If you’re a headhunter, you can offer a free report, “How to Launch Your Career on the Fast Track—By Getting Today’s Best Employers to Call You.”

If you sell a course on public speaking, you can offer a free cassette,“Secrets of Getting a Standing Ovation Almost Every Time You Speak.”

If you sell a magazine on parenting, you might offer a premium, “How to Raise a Happier, More Confident Child—Startling New Research from Harvard Psychologists.”

All these examples “throw the monkey’s fist”—they make it much easier for your prospects to lower their guard, give you their time and allow you into their busy lives. This is how you make the sale before the sale.

It’s the same as courtship. You would never dream of walking up to a total stranger and asking him or her to marry you. The first step might just be a flirtatious conversation, which leads to a date, which leads to more dates, which lead to an engagement, which leads to a marriage proposal, which leads to a lifelong relationship. Trying to race to the ultimate destination from an ice-cold start just won’t work.

Romance your prospects in the same way. Make the first step easy, nonthreatening, enjoyable, irresistible! Then make the next small step the same way, and keep going until you’re both in love.

Perhaps this bit of doggerel will help you remember the principle…

Whether you’d like to dock a ship,
Sell a product or be kissed,
Just follow this little tip—
First throw the monkey’s fist!

Sincere wishes for a good life
and (always!) higher response,

Gary Bencivenga Signature

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