Embrace your vulnerability.
Good copywriters aren’t afraid to put themselves out there. They write from the heart and let their true voice shine through in their work.
But being authentic shouldn’t come at the expense of writing clear, helpful copy. So how do you make your boss and clients happy without sacrificing your voice?
In this episode of the Call to Action podcast, we chat with Unbounce writer Brad Tiller about reconciling your company’s (or client’s) voice and your own. Then, we speak to Brian Lenney, copywriter at Inbound.org, about how you can use the power vulnerability in your copy to connect with prospects and push them toward conversion.
You will learn:
- How a man with a gun taught Brian a priceless marketing lesson.
- Why you should take more risks with your copywriting when seeking employment or contracts.
- Why saying “no” to certain contracts is okay — especially when it’s a question of honoring your integrity.
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Read the transcript
In this episode: Dan Levy, Unbounce’s Content Strategist, interviews Brian Lenney, copywriter at Inbound.org.
Dan Levy: You start your post off with a story about something kinda traumatic that happened to you on your way back from a wrestling tournament back in high school. Can you set up that scene for us?
Brian Lenney: Yeah. So when I was a teenager I was a pretty wild kid, always getting into trouble, kind of like a Bart Simpson-type kid, causing problems, stuff like that. And it usually had to do almost every time with opening my mouth. So I was always that kid. So I was in wrestling in high school. One night we got back from a tournament and on the way home, driving home with buddies, we saw two cars getting into an accident. So my natural inclination in the backseat was to yell out the window at these guys, “Learn how to drive a-holes.” You know? I don’t know, 16 years old, right?
So it just entered my mind. I said it no filter, just yelled at them with no thought about what that might lead to. And what it did lead to was both of the guys getting back into their car, because apparently it looks like they knew each other, and chasing us, cutting us off, boxing us in. You know, this is after about a ten minute chase, if you want to call it that, of them trying to run us off the road, stuff like that. So they ended up cutting us off, blocking us so we couldn’t go forward. We couldn’t go backwards.
And one guy got out with a huge ass gun, I believe it was a 357 Magnum. It was a big revolver like Dirty Harry type thing, started walking towards me. I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie, Tombstone, when Kurt Russell walks across the river and he’s just pointing the gun at people walking – but started walking looking right at me. And he said, “You want to open your big mouth again?” Which I didn’t.
Before the guy got too close, my buddy slammed the truck into reverse, drove through – literally reversed through three to four people’s lawns who, thankfully, didn’t have their cars in their driveway. And we got out alive, obviously. So it was pretty intense. Glad he didn’t shoot.
Dan Levy: Whoa. Yeah. That’s something straight out of Compton stuff right there.
Brian Lenney: Yeah, definitely. Yeah.
Dan Levy: That’s – yeah, that’s a really intense story. Listeners are probably wondering though what it has to do with marketing. You say that you learned a priceless marketing lesson that day. What was that?
Brian Lenney: Yeah. Well, you know, to be honest, I didn’t learn the lesson that day. I had a series of events like that going forward, but I did learn the lesson years later as I grew up and kinda matured a little bit, looking back at that day. So my entire life I’ve been told that I can’t do this or you can’t say that or that’s crossing the line, stuff like that. So I always got an A in the classroom and like a F in the playground. That’s how my elementary school teachers graded me.
So always in trouble because of my mouth, but at the same time, always excelling in the classroom because of it, too. So it’s kind of like a double-edged sword. So I think the lesson I learned kind of looking back at that and over and over again is when you open your mouth you take a risk. Now, typically, ideas have consequences, right, when we say something.
A lot of people, though, look at risk taking as negative but it doesn’t have to be negative like getting a gun pulled on you. It can be good. I’m on the team at Inbound.org and that’s one of the products of HubSpot Labs. So I got that job when I literally applied for the job with a quote from Anchorman. And –
Dan Levy: What was the quote?
Brian Lenney: So they had the job posting up for a copywriter and one of the sentences they had in the job description was how much awesome can you pack into one sentence? So literally I emailed them and I applied. I said, “This job description stings the nostrils. If you want to know more, email me back.” And Sam, who’s the team lead over at HubSpot labs, he sent me a email back. And he said, “I love lamp. Let me see some of your writing.”
So it was a risk they were gonna think I was an idiot and tell me to pound sand. Or they would say, “Oh, this guy’s kinda different. Let’s see if we can bring him on.” So opening your mouth literally, verbally or when you do it online, it’s risky. But the risks can be good and they can be worth if it you get to go to bed at night knowing that you got to be yourself. But also I have that issue of crossing the line sometimes.
Dan Levy: Right. It’s a double-edged sword, I guess.
Brian Lenney: Definitely.
Dan Levy: I want to ask you a little bit about your copywriting prowess later on. But first, you cite in your post that famous Ted Talk by Brené Brown on vulnerability. What doe being vulnerable as a marketer look like to you?
Brian Lenney: For me, her Ted Talk really – I saw that when it first came out when I was working at an agency actually. And that really connected like a final dot for me of like, “Oh, okay. This is what we’re missing in marketing.” So in my experience, a lot of people in marketing pretend like they’re not real people, you know, just because you’re a marketer doesn’t mean you don’t have opinions, views, quirks. It doesn’t mean you don’t have something to say about politics and religion. Obviously, you want to do that wisely, but being vulnerable as a marketer just means that you get to be you. And that’s okay if you get to be you.
Or as Brené Brown puts it in her Ted Talk and in her books, she talks about being vulnerable — when you’re letting yourself be seen, the real you. That doesn’t mean it has to be all of you or complete you, but it’s letting people kind of look into your life and letting yourself be seen.
So as far as vulnerability goes, we all struggle, we all have issues. And when you can incorporate that into your marketing — kind of letting the struggle show a little bit, stuff like that, letting the issues maybe peak through, quirkiness, weirdness — people identify with that because, like I said, we all have stories. We all struggle.
So when you talk about it or you write about it or you can even – sometimes it’s difficult, though. When you can incorporate that into your marketing you kind of earn the right to be heard because you’re building trust, you’re building relational capital and people appreciate that. And when they trust you, they’ll do business with you.
Dan Levy: Can you think of an example of a particular company or a marketing campaign that you’ve either been involved with or come across recently, in which being vulnerable led to surprising results?
Brian Lenney: Yeah. The last job I had before I jumped ship from the corporate world and started freelancing was at a hospice agency, which is really weird marketing hospice because it’s end of life and you’re meeting with families who have a dying loved one, stuff like that. So my –
Dan Levy: Talk about being vulnerable, wow.
Brian Lenney: Yeah. Yeah. It’s – and you wouldn’t think there’s competition in hospice, which is end of life care. Typically, someone who has a terminal illness whose – a doctor has given them six months or less to live. But my step dad died four years ago and we got to experience that as a family. So when just by pure chance a friend of a friend type thing got a job at a hospice agency in a marketing – which I thought was odd, but I did that.
So one of the campaigns we did, we called it, “Have you had the talk?” And what we did is – the only thing we did is we went out to the community, doctors, offices, hospitals, literally inbound, outbound, door-to-door, online and we just shared stories about our own families, the actual marketing team, and experiences we had caring for loved ones while they were dying, me getting to say goodbye to my stepdad while he was on his death bed and how I wish we would have called hospice sooner, stuff like that. We had family members of our patients who had died already, passed away, we had them come back and say, “Wow, hospice did this for us.”
But it was really intense, really intense, stories, lots of tears, lots of crying. But we did video, copy, everything. And the result was we had a lot of people sign up for Hospice. We had a lot of inbound calls. We had a lot of referrals because people identified with our stories. When people are facing struggle, a lot of times they feel like they’re alone.
But when you’re coming to them sharing your story, saying, “Hey, I’ve been there, too, and I’ve struggled with this, too. And I know what it’s like,” and you’re just kinda sharing your story, they trust you. And that’s when you’re being authentic and you’re essentially giving them a piece of your life. And when you do that people tend to give back.
So we – it’s an awful way to look at it as business, but it really is. I mean, we got a lot of business. We had a lot of people sign up for hospice after that because of our stories.
Dan Levy: Wow. What a powerful example. What do you think the consequences are of not being vulnerable as a marketer?
Brian Lenney: That’s a really good question. I’m actually reading Brené Brown’s newest book right now called Rising Strong, which is about bouncing back after failure. So she has three books. This is kind of like the capstone, like, “Hey you failed. You’ve fallen down, time to get back up,” type thing.
And in that book she talks about people who are always compartmentalizing their lives or hiding parts of themselves or editing their stories in an attempt to look better or not let people see them. But I think the consequences of not being vulnerable as a marketer is you’re being fake. You’re not being genuine, I think. Part of that is – I think it’s an integrity issue because people want to see and get to know you. They want to know who you are. They want to hear your stories, your struggles, your flaws.
One of my favorite copywriters – I’m not sure if you’re familiar with her. Her name’s Ash Ambirge. She runs the copywriting gig, I guess you could call it, called the Middle Finger Project, which is a great name. But she’s a master storyteller. The stuff she writes about, she talks openly, writes openly about the good, the bad, the ugly, her struggles, her failures, when she’s blown it as a marketer, as a copywriter. She’s just a really, really vulnerable, amazing storyteller.
But because of that, she’s built a tribe around herself and she’s letting people see her. And people love her for it. She’s killing it business-wise. She’s just – she’s doing really great. And I think that’s because she’s a great storyteller. She lets herself be seen and people appreciate that. But if we’re not vulnerable, if we don’t let ourselves be seen, I think we’re just – we’re kind of selling ourselves short, I think.
Dan Levy: Well, you’re a copywriter, and conversion-centered copywriter at that. I’m wondering if you could think of an instance where you’ve used vulnerability – and not to make it sound crass, but you’ve used vulnerability as a persuasion principle either on a landing page or other form of marketing copy, put it another way, can vulnerability and conversion work together?
Brian Lenney: Yeah, I think they can. This one kind of happened on accident so I wasn’t trying to be vulnerable but I think part of being vulnerable is you’re not technically trying. You’re just being you, letting the chips kinda fall where they may. So I’ve gotten a lot of – on my website I have – it’s pretty minimal. I just redid it with Unbounce landing pages, by the way, so good product there.
Dan Levy: Good to know. Thanks.
Brian Lenney: My About page is just – it’s not a typical About page. It’s not just like, “Here’s who I am, here’s how long I’ve been writing, here’s how you get ahold of me.” It’s just kind of my story, so on the top of my About page it’s my story of how I became a freelance copywriter, kinda short version. And I just tell my story about frustration in the corporate world and I know it’s not – freelancing, obviously, it’s not for everyone. But for me I felt like the 9:00 to 5:00 kind of office job at a typical agency or marketing firm, it almost drove me crazy.
So I have had a lot of clients contact me. Unsolicited, they’ve said, “Hey, I read your About page. I love your story. I want you to write like that for us.” And on my About page, it’s just me saying I hated the corporate world. It wasn’t for me. I wanted to be my own boss type thing. And it’s gotten me a lot of clients. I’ve had one-time gigs off of that. I’ve had a couple retainer clients that were really long-term retainer kind of projects.
So it was vulnerable. It was being me. It was kind of like — I’m just gonna tell my story about, like, “Who is this guy? How did he become a writer? What’s his deal?” And it was a bit of being vulnerable, but people appreciate it. And I’ve had more comments on my About page than anything else on my site, so.
Dan Levy: Yeah. It seems a bit counterintuitive, I guess, to reduce things like vulnerability and being yourself into persuasion tactics or like actionable tips because I think once you do that you get away from the genuineness of it. But that being said, being human marketing to other humans, people tend to recognize that and actually gravitate towards that, so.
Brian Lenney: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Hubspot is team-based but one thing we say on our team, I’m pretty sure it’s kind of a team-wide thing we say at Hubspot is: “We’re marketers marketing to marketers about marketing,” you know, with Inbound.org specifically.
Dan Levy: Yeah. We can relate to that at Unbounce.
Brian Lenney: Yeah, definitely, so I mean, kind of what you said — if you take out marketer and put human in there, we’re humans marketing to other humans and when we can really, truly be ourselves and act human and share ourselves with other people, people appreciate it. And I think it’s especially with this millennial younger generation coming up, the 18 to 34 kind of category, they’ve grown up with the internet. They’ve grown up with technology, marketing, sales, buy this, click here, do that. And I think they’re sick of it.
I mean, all the data and things I’ve read on it, people just want – you know what I mean? People just want to have a human connection. They’re sick of being sold to and marketed at. And I think when they come across something that’s human and is real, that’s – it really speaks to people.
Dan Levy: I want to shift gears just a little bit because I’d like to get into some of the copywriting that you’ve done. You’ve taken part in a couple different copywriting contests that we’ve held here at Unbounce in the last few months, I guess. And one of them ended up actually winning you a free trip to Vancouver for our Call to Action conference last month. Can you tell us a little bit about the landing page copy that you wrote for that contest that won you the grand prize and how you went about it?
Brian Lenney: Yeah. That was – the Unbounce CTA conference was just amazing. I had a great trip up there. You guys are amazing hosts. I’ll just – short version.
Dan Levy: Thank you.
Brian Lenney: So yeah, that one, it was the DJ Roomba. For people who weren’t familiar with the contest, it was writing a landing page copy for a product from Parks and Rec that doesn’t actually exist, a robotic music playing vacuum cleaner.
Dan Levy: This is like the second or third Parks & Rec reference on this podcast.
Brian Lenney: Yes. Yeah, true. I’m a huge fan. I was sad when it ended. So yeah, with that one, that was tough. So I mean, looking back, I think was a little bit verbose as far as the length of it. But what I was going for there was quirky, funny, trying to get people to identify with humor. I think reading through all the other contestants, there was a lot of really great stuff. It’s tough. It was actually really tough writing copy for something that doesn’t exist.
But I think my style, my natural voice, I like to write like I talk. So I’ve had several people say, “I read your copy for — I felt like we were just having coffee and you were just sharing with me.” So on that one I used humor to kind of break down barriers to make it sound like a real conversation. And I used, of course, I used a Ron Swanson testimony, which Demian Farnworth thought was great. So I scored some points with the judges there.
And I think using humor and writing like you talk, that also connects with people. That was a tough contest, though. I mean, the judges were ruthless. I think you were one of the judges weren’t you?
Dan Levy: I think I was one of them, yeah.
Brian Lenney: Yeah. So I mean –
Dan Levy: We didn’t pull our punches there.
Brian Lenney: But it was helpful. People learned a lot. The thing I learned from that and from Joanna from Copy Hackers and a lot of the people in the Unbounce kind of posse is that I need to be clear. I need to focus on clarity more than cleverness. When I first started copywriting, I tried to be too clever, which is obviously you know what means, but tried to be too witty or too clever. But all that does is end up confusing people.
Dan Levy: Do you remember what your headline was for the fictional DJ Roomba product on the landing page?
Brian Lenney: Yeah. It was – what was it? It was, “No More Dirty Floors, Way More Dirty Dancing.” You know? And the subhead said – I pulled it up right here – the subhead says, “Do you dream of dancing around your house naked to an endless loop of the Black Eyed Peas while someone else cleans your house? Meet DJ Roomba.”
Obviously, it’s a little click baity kind of funny humorous, but if it gets people to keep reading that’s the goal of good – the goal of a headline is to get people to read the first sentence. The goal of the first sentence to get them to read the second, third, fourth and so on until you hit the button.
Dan Levy: And yeah, maybe it’s more humorous than vulnerable in this case, but it’s still taking a risk, which I think is the main takeaway of your post there.
Brian Lenney: Yeah. I mean, there’s a client I have right now and I have someone I’m working for right now who happens to be in Canada also. And I’m about to submit some stuff. And some of it is really – it’s taking a risk because some of the headlines are like, “Oh, we can’t say that.” But I’m like, “We kinda can, like let’s test it.” So it’s taking a risk, especially in B2B copy when you’re business to business.
A lot of people are afraid of taking risks but I think the people who have I immediately think of MailChimp. They do some really funny stuff and it’s B2B stuff mostly, but they’re killing it. And they’re doing really well because they take a risk and they kind of inject humor and personality all throughout their site that’s conversational and funny. And people love them.
Dan Levy: So you’re obviously a copywriter who knows how to convince people to convert, but you’re also someone who prides himself on being a marketer with integrity. How do you make sure your copy remains conversion-centered without selling your soul in the process?
Brian Lenney: Weirdly enough, I’ve had a few people ask that question. And it is – it’s a great question because people – when you say “copywriter” to people who aren’t familiar with marketing or digital marketing, a lot of people think of, oh, Mad Men and Don Draper and these guys who would just do anything to sell anything. But weirdly enough for me, personally, it’s not tough.
And what it ends up being is I end up saying no to a lot of people. I choose who I work with very carefully because for me it really is about integrity. I want to go to sleep at the end of the day knowing, “Hey, I did this for this client and that’s valuable and it’s gonna help people.” But I just can’t put myself into a situation that’s gonna force me to compromise my values or my beliefs or my integrity. And I just take a very hard stand on that.
Obviously, if a client or someone who might want to work with me contacts me, I’m not gonna say, “Well, no, I don’t believe in what you’re doing. Sorry.” I’ll just tell them, “You know, I don’t think we’re a good fit. I just – I kind of draw a line in the sand with a lot of the internet marketing niche, like Make a Million Dollars from Your Kitchen Table in Your Pajamas. I don’t write for those types of niches — the guru type people who are trying to make everyone millionaires in a week.
So for me I just – I know the types of people I want to work with and I only work with those people. Because if you say yes to a shady client or someone who might be kind of like, oh, I don’t know if what they’re doing is really great. It just doesn’t sit well with me. You know?
Dan Levy: Yeah. I guess if you really believe in the product and you really believe that people clicking that button on the landing page that this is something that’s going to make their life better or this is a product or service that they really need, then those two things aren’t really mutually exclusive. Right? Like you’re persuading them to do something that you actually believe in.
Brian Lenney: I mean, I couldn’t – yeah, I couldn’t say it better. So I mean, you can use persuasion and like you guys and Oli at Unbounce talk about a lot. You can use psychology and persuasion to convince people to do something, but if what you’re convincing them to do is going to make them a better person and like we say in marketing a lot, make them a better version of themselves, then I don’t mind doing it.
Dan Levy: Can you leave us with one actionable tip for writing copy that’s both persuasive and perhaps a little bit vulnerable?
Brian Lenney: Yeah. So what I do when I write most of my posts, the ones that are particularly vulnerable and where I really, really let myself be seen, what I do is I write as fast as I can, not necessarily speed, like I’m not sitting there like the keyboard’s burning up, but I just write as fast as I can without editing. And I don’t hold back on anything.
What I do is I pretend that the only people who are gonna see this is me and god and I’m writing in a journal. So I treat it like a diary entry, like this is what happened, this is what I did, this is how I felt. I do start to finish without stopping. I leave nothing out. I write from the heart. And then when I’m done, I’ll walk away sometimes for a day, maybe two, sometimes depending on what it is maybe for a few hours.
And then I’ll come back and I’ll correct the typos, edit the grammar, make sure that – check for clarity, make sure it flows well, but I usually end up keeping about probably – I don’t know, probably about 90 percent of what I write. And I think when you write like that, if you’re treating it like a journal or diary, you’re being authentic and you’re being raw. And people don’t typically edit their journals or their diaries.
But I think the flip side of that is if you try too hard, then you’re not really being you. You know what I mean? Like if I’m sitting there I want to try to be vulnerable. And I’m just sitting there like what can I say? What can I do? Then it’s coming from the head, but when you let it come from the heart and just let it flow, it usually ends up being pretty powerful.
Dan Levy: Well, I think that’s really good advice and I really appreciate you putting yourself out there on behalf of the rest of us. So thank you so much, Brian.
Brian Lenney: Yeah. No problem.
Transcript by GMR Transcription.
The Power of Vulnerability in Copywriting [PODCAST]