Think back to high school. I admit it’s not the first place I think of looking for copywriting lessons. But do you remember that group of kids that talked really, really fast and carried a bunch of cue cards around?
Yeah, I’m talking about the debate team. And, surprise, surprise, debaters can actually teach us some serious lessons in copywriting. You see, writing copy is a lot like preparing an argument. In each case, what you are ultimately trying to do, is persuade your audience to take action. Let’s take a look at how that works.
In this article you will learn:
- What debate involves
- What lessons you can take from debate to improve your copywriting
- And see a two-part example of how those lessons can be applied
Let’s learn copywriting from the debaters
Competitive debate takes multiple formats in high schools across the United States, and around the world. The traditional format is the policy debate. Each debate team will receive a resolution (kind of like a topic) ahead of time and then be required to argue each side against other teams.
That’s about as detailed as I’m gonna get on how debate works. Trust me, there is a lot more to it for the really competitive debaters.
For our purposes, there are five key takeaways from the field of competitive debate that we can use to improve our copywriting:
Copywriting Lesson 1: Understand the problem
Before the debate, each team will be given the topic, known as the resolution. The first job for a team is to understand the topic. They need to know what the problem is.
In business, we do the same thing. What is the problem your customers are solving with your product? What is the job your customer is hiring your product to do?
To understand the problem deeply, you need to do the research:
- What is unique about your product?
- Why did you develop it?
- What problem were you trying to solve when you created it?
- What have your customers told you about the problem they were trying to solve when they bought your product?
- What other products solve this problem?
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but the point stands: research is where you start when you write copy.
Copywriting Lesson 2: Prepare both sides of the argument
Debaters are required to argue both sides of the resolution over the course of the competition. To do that, they must prepare both sides.
A positive benefit of doing this is that, by preparing one side, they are able to strengthen the other side as well. When you understand the strengths and weaknesses of your competition, you are able to prepare your arguments better.
When you are preparing to write copy for your product, it is critical that you look at your competition. The competition isn’t just products that are in the same category. The competition includes all the solutions that people may use to solve the problem your product is solving for them.
When you look at all the different solutions you gain a more complete perspective. You see how your product stacks up against other solutions. You are able to write compelling copy because you see clearly which points you must address in order to turn your shoppers into buyers.
Copywriting Lesson 3: Craft an argument that addresses the the right points
Once you’ve looked at the problem from all sides and you understand the problem in detail, you’re ready to to start writing. Debaters prepare speeches for their resolution. We prepare our copy.
When you are crafting your argument that you will use when you write your copy, you need to make sure you address the right points.
To do this, you tell them a story. But it’s not just any story.
The story you tell your customers must be the story they need to hear. Your product story must draw them in.
The good news is that there are two stories that are the key to crafting product stories that convert: the “why we exist story” and the “why this product must exist” story. You can learn more about crafting your product story here.
Copywriting Lesson 4: Make the argument compelling
Once the debaters have formulated their argument, they need to make sure they present it in the most convincing way possible.They need to shape their argument.
Just like a debater, you too must shape your product story.
You can have a deep understanding of the inner workings of your ideal customer’s problem and know every single thing there is to know about your product, but if you cannot write in a way that persuades shoppers on your website none of that matters.
Product story shaping is what will make your story irresistible to your customers. You can see how we use the 9 fundamentals of product story shaping to get amazing results for our clients.
Copywriting Lesson 5: Refine your argument
Debaters practice their speech dozens of times before the big day. They practice, discuss, get feedback, and refine. Over and over again.
You must do the same with your product story. Your first draft is just the start. You edit, revise, and then put it out there. Let your argument take some punches. See what others have to say about it. Then refine it.
You want your argument to be the most compelling version it can be. For copywriting, that means two things: editing and testing.
How to use these debate lessons in your copywriting
Cast iron or stainless steel: an example in two parts
Let’s look at a common argument from the world of foodies. Google “cast iron iron vs. stainless steel pan” and you’ll get about 21 million results. When someone is looking to buy a frying pan they want to answer the question, “which one should I buy?”
We are going to show you two examples of how you can use the lessons of high school debate to write copy for cast iron pans and stainless steel pans.
Imagine you run a business that makes cast iron pans. Now imagine that you run a business selling stainless steel frying pans.
In order to be able to sell your product you need to have copywriting on your website that is so compelling that it will convert your shoppers into buyers. Here’s how you can apply the principles of good debating to make that happen.
Understanding the problem in detail: doing the research
We start with two, seemingly simple questions:
- What problem is our ideal customer trying to solve in buying a cast iron pan?
- What other solutions are available to that problem?
What problem is our ideal customer trying to solve?
There are a number of answers to this, but we’re going to focus on two problems. The really, really obvious problem, and then a less obvious, higher level problem.
The first problem our ideal customer is trying to solve is:
I want a pan I can use to fry the food I want to fry.
Makes sense, right? This is a good starting point, because we can look at all sorts of different types of other frying pans and see what advantages each one has.
But if we dig deeper, we arrive at another problem our customer wants to solve. A more basic problem:
I need to eat.
What lesson can we learn for our copywriting? Once we understand that, we can use that idea to really round out our product story. It’s not that we’re going to talk about how a cast iron or stainless steel frying pan compares to take out. Instead, since we are aware that our pans are competing with take out, or going to a restaurant, or even oven cooking or barbecues, we can use that knowledge to talk about what is important to people when they are thinking about what they eat and how the cook (or don’t cook) their food.
Frying pans are still going to be our area of focus.
A quick search reveals factors that matter to cooks when choosing frying pans.
- Holding temperature
- Even temperature distribution
- Thermal conductivity — how efficiently the pan transfers the heat from the elements to the food it is cooking
- Whether or not the pan is a non-stick pan
Then we can look at which pan — cast iron or stainless steel — are better at which feature. Here’s a quick list.
|Feature||Cast Iron||Stainless Steel|
|Holds temperature well||X|
|Even temperature distribution||X|
Being prepared to take all sides
First we’ll take the side of cast iron. One of the things that came up again and again in my research with champions of cast iron pans is the flavor you get from cast iron. How the pan gets seasoned over time and it provides this extra flavor when you cook anything in it.
So I would definitely use the product story angle that cooking with a cast iron frying pan gives you a flavor experience that gets better with the age of your pan and you can’t replicate it with a stainless steel pan.
Second, I noticed that cast iron is non-stick, whereas stainless steel is not. From my own experience with frying an egg, and seeing eggs specifically mentioned in conjunction with the non-stick element, I want to include that.
That’s another product story angle I would take. I can use my experience trying to fry an egg on a stainless steel frying pan, giving up, and using teflon, before finally getting a cast iron pan.
From my research I see that stainless steel pans do a lot of the precision, more technical elements better than cast iron. I know right away that I’m going to use those elements.
I also know that stainless steel is significantly pricier than all but the most expensive cast iron. So I know that my ideal customer is looking to pay more and likely more into the science of cooking.
I’m going to be able to use both of these elements as product story angles in my copy for my stainless steel pans.
And always remember…
You should be doing this work no matter what product you are selling. If you only focus on your own product you will not do a proper job of handling your customer’s objections.
This is how skilled debaters do it. When they learn the material for a resolution they learn both sides. This allows them to use what they learn about one side to prepare their arguments for the other side.
Take advantage of this tactic.
Craft an argument that addresses the the right points
Copy is a lot like debate in that it has the same end goal: persuade your audience to agree with you. Learn this copywriting lesson and make sure you’re using the right arguments.
When it comes to your business, we’ve learned that there are two stories you must tell in order to turn your shoppers into buyers:
- The “why we exist” story
- The “why this product must exist” story
These two stories are the twin cornerstones upon which your product story rests.
They help your shoppers answer the questions “who are you and why should I care?” and “what makes your product the best possible solution to my problem?” Or, more simply, “why should I buy your product?”
I’ll show how I would write a product story for cast iron pans here.
Cast iron stories
So I’ve started a cast iron cookware company. And my best seller is the Perfectly Seasoned 12” Cast Iron Pan. And I know, from reading the Frictionless Commerce blog, that my best seller product page is where I want to tell my product story.
“Who are you, and why should I care?”
I’m going to start with my “why we exist” story. I’m going to tell my personal story. I’ll talk about how I have eggs for breakfast most days. When I was growing up my mom would cook them in her big, ancient cast iron pan and that, for me, easy over eggs, with just a dash of salt and pepper, are what home tastes like.
So when I moved out, I wanted to cook eggs myself, and I got myself a cheap Teflon pan, but it wasn’t the same. The flavor was off. Then, my girlfriend’s parents upgraded their stainless steel pans and gave us their old ones. But my eggs would always stick and I gave up trying to use stainless steel for eggs.
Then I went home for a weekend and my mom made eggs for me…
You can see how this story is developing. We are showing our customers “why we exist.” In this example, I’ve shown how I created this company to address a very real problem I was facing in my life. A problem they can relate to. They will now know who I am, and why they should care.
“What makes your product the best possible solution to my problem?”
Here’s where I’m going to talk about the seasoning element of cast iron. As I said before, in my research I came across the fact that people who love cast iron love the taste they get from it. That taste comes from understanding how to keep the pan seasoned.
I remember reading a story about a greasy spoon diner that never, ever washed their cast iron and how they had hundreds and hundreds of raving fans who claimed their breakfast was the best in the country. I’ll tell that story to set the stage.
Then I would talk about how I learned everything I can about how seasoning works. I can talk about how I recognized that the ability to season your pan was the most important thing to cast iron lovers.
And then I could go into detail about how we developed a special process by which your pans arrive seasoned and that the flavor will only grow over time. And how we provide our customers with our special cleaning sponge that, when used properly will never, ever remove or reduce that seasoning that has been built up.
Now our customers know why our product is the best possible solution to their problem.
What’s the copywriting lesson: stories move people to act.
Want to find out how to unearth your product story? Learn more about our process for developing product stories.
Make the argument compelling
Every debate team knows that they must make their argument as compelling as they can. They must persuade using both emotion and facts.
When you’re writing your copy, it’s the same way. You must shape your product story in a way that is irresistible to your ideal client. You need to use the tools that are available to a copywriter in order to frame your product story in the right way.
At Frictionless Commerce we have worked on over 340 product pages, and during that time we have found that there are 9 copywriting tactics that are essential, but often overlooked. Here are the 9 fundamentals of product story shaping:
- People are skeptical of “too good to be true”
- They find expertise sexy
- They root for people who beat the odds
- They are fascinated by surprising details
- They are visual animals
- They need motivation to break habits
- They love personalized experiences
- They like knowing they’ve stumbled onto something rare
- We must resolve their negative thoughts
We will use the stainless steel pan to show how you can use those tactics to create more compelling product stories.
Shaping Stainless Steel Product Stories
I know from my research that stainless steel pans are more precision cooking instruments and carry with them more technical elements. I’m going to use that in my product story.
Fundamental 2: People find expertise sexy
In my product story for my stainless steel pan, I’ll talk about thermodynamics. I’ll discuss how heat transfers, why there is a more even temperature distribution of heat (and what that means for the cooking process).
I’ll combine this expertise with…
Fundamental 4: People are fascinated by surprising detail
Fundamental 5: people are visual animals
When I add a picture that shows the heating patterns in skillets it will add to the narrative and make it even more convincing:
So you can see that in just one story we are able to apply three different copywriting tactics that make copy more persuasive. Try it on your product pages.
We use these tactics to help our clients create product stories that skyrocket their conversion rates. We have some examples here.
Refine your argument
Refining your argument will come in two forms: editing and testing.
Editing helps you strengthen your argument and your copy immediately. Debaters know intimately how much this helps. They practice their speech time and again, getting feedback from other teams and coaches. Try using this tactic yourself by getting feedback from a trusted colleague.
It’s worth repeating: make sure it’s a trusted colleague, not just anyone will do.
Testing will be an ongoing process. Publish your copy on your product page and see how it works. When you were creating your copy, you developed ideas about what stories to use. You had a hypothesis about what stories would be the most compelling.
Sometimes we get it wrong. But that’s the beauty of testing copy: if your copy isn’t working, you can try something else. Keep doing that until you end up with product pages that convert like you always hoped they would.
Summing up our key copywriting lessons from debate
Debaters are in the argument business. When you write copy for your products, use these copywriting lessons that you can learn from debaters. Remember:
- Understand the problem
- Be prepared to take all sides
- Craft the right argument
- Make the argument compelling
- Refine your arguments
Do that, and you’ll find yourself with a nice boost in your conversion rate.
Want to find out if Frictionless Commerce is a fit for you? Click here to see.