Which is more effective: the carrot or the stick?

Marketing communications is all about persuading people to take action—to change something about the way they do business, buy something new or try something different. In most cases, encouraging them to act will involve both positive and negative drivers—what we might call the ‘carrot’ and the ‘stick’.

Dangling a carrot in front of your audience can entice them to act in the way you want based on the promise of the benefits they can achieve; brandishing a stick focuses on the pain or the penalties that can result from inaction.

So which do you lead with?

Well, that depends. A carrot-led piece will be more optimistic, with a more aspirational and positive tone overall. On the other hand, a stick-led piece will be more hard hitting—but if you’re not very careful, it could risk sounding negative, patronising or even accusatory.

So it’s always better to lead with the carrot, right?

Not necessarily—you’ll need to consider a number of factors. Of course there’s the topic itself, the context, the target audience, and the company tone of voice—but don’t forget that for marketing there’s the overwhelming need to get people to act.

However big and juicy the promised carrot, change is hard and always costs something, whether that’s time, effort or money. Most people would really rather not bother if they don’t have to. If there’s nothing obvious to be lost by not changing, the carrot may not be enough to give people the impetus to change—the reader may be content simply to maintain the status quo. Failing to gain an advantage is something many people can live with.

So persuading your audience to take action may sometimes depend on convincing them it will be more painful not to act—even if acting is painful in itself—by leading with a big stick. Especially if you have limited time or space to get their attention.

Webinars: keep your audience’s attention

Unlike with face-to-face presentations, during a webinar there’s no speaker to focus the audience’s visual attention; nor can the presenter see the audience to gauge their interest or pick up on cues. And because the audience is sitting at their desks, it’s all too easy for them to become distracted by work: are they checking and responding to email instead of listening to what your speaker has to say?

Inevitably the visual focus of a webinar becomes the slides. But, just as with a face-to-face presentation, the audience really doesn’t want to sit and listen to the presenter read a set of slides. If that’s what you expect them to do, don’t be surprised if they simply do something else or leave.

In fact, reading any kind of script can be a turnoff if it’s clear to the audience that that’s what the presenter is doing. When the presenter can’t be seen, the quality of their spoken delivery is critical: the audience needs to feel that the speaker is opening a conversation with them, not reading aloud to what could just as easily be an empty room.

Keep the focus on the screen

As well as working on the tone and rhythm of the delivery, here are our top tips for keeping an online, invisible audience attentive:

    • With the slides as the only visual focus, make them visually interesting. Even more so than in face-to-face presentations, images are a good idea. Only a visually and emotionally engaged audience will avoid multitasking during a webinar.


    • Use more slides. In a face-to-face presentation you don’t want constant slide movement to distract the audience’s attention from the speaker. But in a webinar you should keep the visual pace moving briskly along: using slide builds, meaningful animations, highlights, or a new slide every 30 seconds on average to keep the audience engaged.


    • Regularly break up the presentation (and the visual movement) with planned audience interactions using web tools such as an instant poll, or a hands-up indicator for a show of hands, or use of the virtual whiteboard.


    • Include one or more Q&A sessions. Use the invisibility of the audience to your advantage: prepare some stimulating ‘questions from the audience’ in advance and use them if nobody actually asks any.


Presentations: attracting the right audience

Whether you’re presenting to your audience in person or online (for example, a webinar), you’ll only get the right people ‘in the room’ if your invitation to attend clearly answers the question:

“What’s in it for me?”

Standard invitations

If your presentation or webinar is a standalone event, your invitation must convince recipients to give up their time (and possibly money) to attend. The commitment you’re asking for is greater for a face-to-face presentation. So, depending on the nature of the event, the invitation might call for higher production values, or a noticeable level of personalisation, or conspicuous reference to the main drawcard for the event.

But generally the same basic rules apply to invitations whether the event is in person or online; and whether the invitation is printed and posted, sent as an email, or sent as an attachment to an email:

  • Keep it as short as is practical
  • Show a clear understanding of the problems or questions that the target audience is actively looking for answers to
  • Clearly communicate that your presentation is going to address these issues
  • Include some key takeaways
  • Mention the speaker to personalise the event
  • Make it easy to identify when and where the event is
  • Make it easy to register and find out more

Presentation abstracts

If your presentation is part of a larger event, your ‘invitation’ to the target audience is probably a short description or abstract in a programme of events. Your job is to make this presentation stand out from the others that are on at the same time; and you may have as few as 50 words to do so. Don’t waste them.

Consider the audience and why they’re at the event. If everyone is there for broadly the same reasons, think about leaving out the traditional statement of their challenges and cut straight to the takeaways of your presentation. Also focus on what you hope will make your presentation stand out: will you be covering lots of case studies; or is your speaker the world’s recognised expert; or do you have something surprising or controversial to say?

How to keep your reader’s attention

There are two issues with attention: grabbing it and then holding it…certainly holding it long enough to impart your message in a convincing way. There are multiple techniques already out there to keep the reader’s attention. Here are a few of my favourites:

1. What’s in it for me?
The best way to keep your reader involved with what you have to say is to give them what they want. To show the reader that your article matches their interest, you need to let them know what to expect in the first sentence—or better still, in the heading. If they see that it’s what they want, they’ll keep reading.

Try writing the heading from the reader’s point of view. Why will the story be interesting to them? How will they profit from reading your communication? Answer their question:

‘What’s in it for me?’

2. Choose content carefully
A little rule I rely on when I finish writing, or when editing another’s article, is to go back and ask of every statement ‘So what?’.

Does each sentence add something to the copy? Does it support your central message or argument? If not, then is it just an unnecessary distraction? What value is it contributing?

Remember, all of your content should be working towards persuading your audience to take an action. So keep to the point.

3. Talk benefits not features
Don’t just say ‘we sell seashells’. Say what your seashells will do to help your reader.

By focusing on benefits specific to your prospects’ business model you’ll demonstrate that you have a thorough understanding of their requirements and give them confidence in your organisation. And make them want to know more.

4. Clear signposting
For writing a good article and keeping the reader’s attention, formatting is very important. Above all it should make the reading easy. Brilliant thoughts written in poor formatting can be as poor as worthless thoughts. So using descriptive subheads in your copy is a must. Subheads have two basic purposes:

  • To break down your copy into easily digestible segments
  • To capture the attention of those who quickly scan your copy to see if they’re interested

See, most of your readers, probably quickly scan copy to see if you’re talking about the results or benefits that they want. So make it easy for them to find what they are looking for.

Know EVERYTHING – the importance of a good brief

Trying to write a piece of copy without any kind of direction is a bit like orienteering without a map: potentially fun but ultimately rather futile, even dangerous. You could end up with something that’s beautifully written but completely misses your original objective.

Before sitting down to write anything, even if it’s for yourself, you need to be in possession of a good brief.

So what makes a good brief? These are some of the question we like to ask our clients:

1. What is the central message that this piece must communicate? What’s the story?

Capturing the central opinion you want to express, argument that you are asserting, or the one message you want readers to take away from the article, will focus the piece on what you need it to say.

2. What’s in it for me?

Why will the story be interesting to the reader? How will they profit from reading your communication? Answer this at the start, and the writer can make sure—by asking this of every sentence they write—that this is conveyed to the reader. So they keep reading.

3. Who is your target audience?

Describe the target audience and their business issues, and you will ensure the writer can tailor the messaging to their specific needs. For example, if the solution is a piece of new software and the audience is made up of business managers, it would be better to talk about the capabilities that the solutions enable, rather than their technical features.

4. What 360° research can you provide?

Convey everything you can about your products/service, your competitors and your target audience. These are the things that are typically left off a brief because they’re the ‘hard to complete’ sections. But they’re so important. For example, competitor information may be hard to come by or no one may yet have assessed its significance but without this as part of your brief it would be easy to wax on about certain features, claiming them as strengths, when in fact, your competitors are better.

5. What tone does the deliverable need to take?

What tone/approach will your target audience respond to best? For example, when marketing to senior executives, it may be best to take a consultative role to help, not sell—at least not overtly—and communicate with your prospects on a peer level, empathising with their challenges.

Think about style in relation to:

    • Formal vs. informal/conversational (The most obvious marker(s) of this being whether to use 1st, 2nd or 3rd person when talking about your organisation and your clients)


    • Educational vs. ‘salesy’


    • Neutral vs. ‘opinionated’ (taking a stance)


    • ‘Academic’ vs. ‘straight-talking’ language


  • Using, using with explanation or avoiding technical jargon

Remember, one of the most important things about copywriting is about being able to see beyond the words, to the message being delivered. And this ability all starts with getting a good brief.

Features, advantages and benefits: knowing the difference can help you close deals

When I launched my career as a wide-eyed engineer in the early ’90s, the information revolution was just starting to transform people’s lives and the rate of change was phenomenal; in just five years, mobile phones the size and weight of a house brick were reduced to something you could keep in your pocket.

Features were everything.

As brand-new engineers, we didn’t always stop to think about how our customers would use these features, what value they would deliver, until someone from Sales or Marketing said, “So what?”and we discovered that “Because it’s COOL” wasn’t good enough. That’s when we started to learn the difference between features and advantages/benefits:

Features are the facts about a product or service – the what-it-says-on-the-tin bits – colour, size, weight, compliance, functionality; datasheets are often peppered with them. While they are important to customers – particularly the technically minded, who will have a checklist of features they’re looking for – they’re not likely to close the sale. They will, however, help to keep you in the running.

Advantages are the reasons that a customer or prospect might want to buy your product or service. At the early stage of your sales process, you will want to capture the advantages of each and every one of the features on offer to show their potential to deliver savings, increased revenues, or to delight your customers in some other way. When writing sales collateral, always ask yourself, “so what?” and you will unearth advantages you may not have realised existed.

So what then are benefits? (…this is the really important bit)

Benefits* are advantages that meet the specific needs of a given customer. As you move on from an initial engagement, repeating generic advantages could become an annoyance. By focusing, instead, on advantages specific to your prospects’ business model (ie benefits) you’ll demonstrate that you have a thorough understanding of their requirements and give them confidence in your organisation when they enter the decision-making process.

*The words ‘benefit’ and ‘advantage’ are often used interchangeably and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t talk about ‘benefits’ in your top-level collateral. The important thing is that your prospects receive the right message at every stage of the sales process.


If it’s not stating the obvious, endings are often the last thing you think about in any piece of storytelling, be that using video or the written word. And yet your ending is the last chance you have to impress your audience and should be given the attention it deserves. It’s your final opportunity to make sure you’ve delivered on your premise: what do you want them to think, feel or do differently as a consequence of engaging with your communication?

Here are a few different types of ending to get you thinking about what might work best for you:

  • The crescendo: that ‘ta-dah’ moment when all is revealed
  • The elliptical: when you open the door to new possibilities in the mind of your reader and leave them wanting more
  • The circular: when you bring them back to the beginning and your opening hypothesis
  • The emphatic: the logical inevitable take away message stated succinctly

Of course never forget that in sales communication, after all that effort to persuade and deliver a compelling argument, you still need to ask the audience to take the next step with you – be that a conversation, a trial or download. The end of your ending is always a call to act.

In pursuit of short copy…but you don’t want that (really)

Making sense of the world around us is both helped and hindered by the mass of information we can access these days. Never before have we had so many opportunities to learn and satisfy our curiosity on just about any topic that piques our interest. I love it: instant access to expertise and knowhow right around the globe. How great is that.

Overwhelming copy

But a little like Midas, perhaps, that wealth and richness can be hard to handle. The risk is we become bloated and feel overwhelmed by ‘too much information’. So, the smarter practitioners look for ways to simplify and take short cuts to the information they need. When we are communicating with savvy business decision-makers we need to apply this principle with rigour.

Short copy isn’t always best

When it comes to copy, the misdirection is a request to ‘make it shorter’. Can we use less words? The answer, of course, is yes we can. But in the cutting it’s all too easy to lose the very thing that will guide the reader to a eureka moment. Brevity is good but, to quote Roger Horberry (again), clarity is much much better.

Clarity doesn’t necessarily mean longer copy – but it might do. It could be vital to include essential details to crystallise understanding or provide examples to illustrate the point. The trick is not to include so much detail as to bore the reader ridged, to stop when they are likely to have got the message already. It’s easy enough to annex detail and explanations while still making them accessible in a sidebar or appendix.

Our goal is to persuade and move the reader though the buying process. By understanding their need for information at each stage we’re able to make sure the content we are creating aligns with this – and we don’t force feed them more than they can handle.

Spotting the good stuff: the role of the copywriter

Before they call us in, some of our clients are in the habit of briefing a creative team to come up with a concept. They’ve seen visuals and have selected a front cover; a dps layout and a couple of variants; a set of beautifully shot images. It looks the bee’s knees and right on brand. And then they brief the content. I simplify, but ‘about 2000 words to fill this please’ isn’t too wide of the mark.

But who are we talking to? What do you want to say? How do you know that it’ll take 2000 words and who said a brochure was the right vehicle in the first place? And now they have to brief all over again.

So when should the copywriter get involved?

The best jobs are the ones when the copywriter is first in and last out – thank you Mr Horberry for articulating this so eloquently.

  • First in because someone has to ask the questions, capture thoughts and opinions and turn ideas into words; this is the natural role of the copywriter.
  • And last because writing provides continuity and ensures coherence in the final execution.

Whether for digital, print, or presentation our writers are involved throughout the creative process.

What is copywriting?

A definition that I have liked for a while now and endorsed by Roger Horberry in his interesting book ‘Brilliant Copywriting’ is that it is salesmanship in print. This is a quote from the illustrious adman John E Kennedy. We’ve long chattered on about words that sell, but what about those that persuade and incite action. Roger is right (or is it just that I agree with him?); ‘selling’ is only half the task of the copywriter. If you take the construction of a rational logical argument based on a tangible financial attributes to its extreme you end up with copy that’s cold and pretty unconvincing. People rarely buy for wholly rational reasons and charm, humour and good ol’ entertainment all have a part to play in persuading our audience to act.

Is that a drum roll I hear? Enter the copywriter: professional persuader and story teller extraordinaire.