Fishing For Ideas

Seeking inspiration for lively ad copy? Try hitting the newsstand.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the February 1999 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

I recently received a frustrated e-mail from a young entrepreneur whose plight may be similar to yours. He said he and his partners were banging their heads against the wall trying to come up with an arresting to use on a flier for their training program. Nothing seemed to "sing" for them, and he wondered if I could supply the magic words.

Unfortunately, I was too swamped at the time to offer hands-on help. But I wanted to at least help him help himself, believing in the essential truth of that proverb, "Give someone a fish, and you feed them for a day; teach them to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime." So I e-mailed back this thought: "Whenever I'm struggling for an headline, I go fishing for it in a special pool--the pool of publications related to my client's enterprise (software, photography, health and so on). There, I scope out cover headlines, story headlines and some of the text as well. Almost without fail, I come upon sets of words that have the potential, with a little editing, to become a hard-hitting advertising headline. I copy them down, let them marinate in my head overnight and look at them the next day. Invariably, some solid headline candidates come out of it."

A good case in point is one of my current clients--Cavanaugh Gray, a finance and senior at the University of Illinois in and a budding entrepreneur, who wrote recently. Gray runs a seminar program geared toward teaching young, aspiring entrepreneurs--those in seventh to 12th grades--how to get an early start on small- success. To promote his enterprise, he says, "I have done my best to put together a brochure that depicts what the program has to offer; however, I still feel there are a lot of things missing." Let's talk about what those elements might be.


This brochure gets attention with the acronym "YEP". But is there enough salesmanship? Nope.

1. A company name as a cover headline is great if you run "Fayetteville's Fabulous Fatburgers," but this one needs more.

2. The slogan below is a good one, but it needn't be on the brochure's marquee.


This new cover uses words that grab attention and hold out a benefit to the reader.

1. This headline gets readers' juices flowing.

2. The subhead uses the always-provocative word "secrets" to describe the benefits.

3. The footline further piques the curiosity of the target audience.

Jerry Fisher is an advertising copywriter, consultant and author of Creating Successful Small Business Advertising ($39.95), available by calling (800) 247-6553. If you'd like Jerry to consider your materials for a makeover in this column, send them to "Ad Workshop," Entrepreneur,2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA 92614, or e-mail him at

M.I.A. Headline

The cover of Gray's principal promotion piece drew my eye because of the acronym YEP, which stands for Young Entrepreneurs Program. It leaps off the page with its interesting graphic design. But I'm going to be picky and say that for any acronym to earn its badge of legitimacy--and be a truly powerful emblem--the word that's created must have a meaning relevant to the enterprise it promotes. YEP doesn't. And although the sin is not egregious, there's a lesson to be learned from an organization like MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, whose acronym is very powerful.

The acronym not withstanding, Gray's seminar program should be promoted with the potential benefits somehow incorporated into its identity. While the Young Entrepreneurs Program works fine as an underlying moniker, it needs some accompanying sizzle in order to sell. So where should Gray turn? As I mentioned, I like to head to the newsstand for periodicals on the topic, but in this case, I had them at home--10 years' worth of Entrepreneur magazine. As I write this, I'm looking at the November 1998 issue, which has the cover "Young Millionaires: 30 Hotshots Share Their Million-Dollar Secrets." I decided this was a rich little collection of words from which to fish for Gray's .

I borrowed the phrase "Young Millionaires" and the word "secret" from Entrepreneur's cover . . . and, yes, dear editors, I promise to return them in good condition. My recommended headline for Gray's brochure cover is "Young Millionaire Training," followed by the subhead "Secrets to making your entrepreneurial ideas pay off."

This new headline and subhead are followed by the session dates, as on the previous cover. And, finally, to tease the recipient even more about some of the information inside, I included this banner below: "INSIDE: HOW 5 FAMOUS MILLIONAIRES GOT STARTED AS TEENS!" This should be the clincher for getting young readers (or their parents) to turn the page and look inside, which is usually the hardest obstacle to overcome. As you can see, the cover of one magazine offered just what I needed to put together a much stronger brochure cover.

Inside Gray's brochure, there should be a detailed rundown of what the program offers, much more than what currently exists. Prospects and their parents need this detailed information since you're asking them to invest their time and money. As mentioned, the piece does have some compelling elements, especially a peek at how such people as Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and others were preparing for their careers when they were teenagers. Now the more skeletal elements need to be fleshed out . . . and the result will be a much improved selling piece.

Q: I've noticed you always advocate starting off a letter with a very short first line that grabs attention and looks easy to read. But I can't seem to come up that one, great short line. What should I do?

A: Here's one solution. Develop a "stack" of short sentences, one on top of the other. It looks interesting to the eye, and you don't have to settle on just one great phrase. For example, here's a stack I used for the makeover of a sales letter sent in by a computer cleaning service owner about four years ago:

"Dear Computer Specialist,

They're lurking all around you.
They destroy.
They contaminate.
They affect your health.
They can even kill your computer and all its data."

Then, having lured the reader in, I follow with this copy: " `They' are dust particles. And they're not the benign little specks you may think they are." It's a series of short, punchy, provocative phrases stacked pancake style under the salutation. They look easy to read. They spark interest in the subject at hand, and they draw people into the body of the letter more quickly than a traditionally formatted paragraph would. Try that with your sales letters.

Q: My simply isn't working, even though I've been told by many people that it's very good. (And these are people who'd be honest with me if it weren't.) How do you explain that--and can you help me fix it?

A: I often remind people of the one unpredictable "virus" that has always affected advertising: inertia. It's the predisposition of readers to not take any sort of action--and for no special reason. It's almost easier to accept that you created a weak ad than that people are simply being passive about a good ad. So is there any cure for the inertia virus? Sometimes a "promptness bonus" works. This means offering a special goody to prospects for not being their usual slothful selves and responding with an order in a specified amount of time--like 10 days. It's not a new idea. But depending on what you offer as a bonus, it can be a powerful little enticement that gets readers off their duffs and over to the phone with their credit cards.

Contact Source

Young Entrepreneurs Program, 770 N. LaSalle, #700, , IL 60610, (312) 706-7152.


More from Entrepreneur

Get heaping discounts to books you love delivered straight to your inbox. We’ll feature a different book each week and share exclusive deals you won’t find anywhere else.
Jumpstart Your Business. Entrepreneur Insider is your all-access pass to the skills, experts, and network you need to get your business off the ground—or take it to the next level.
Entrepreneur Store scours the web for the newest software, gadgets & web services. Explore our giveaways, bundles, "Pay What You Want" deals & more.

Latest on Entrepreneur