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Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.


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Sales Letters & Proposals

“Openings are key to successful sales letters”

“Personal pitches, not tricks, are what sell”

“How to make sales letters work like a charm”

“Effective sales proposals focus on solving problems”


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Openings are key to successful sales letters

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere


If there’s one thing your prospective customers probably don’t have, it’s time – time for you, time for your advertising, even time for themselves.


Knowing this is key to writing an effective sales letter. These days it seems as though you have only nanoseconds to grab your readers’ attention. If your opening doesn’t do its job, your letter goes unread.


The number one rule to getting your letter off to an effective start is to write from your readers’ perspective. To do this, begin not by describing your product or service but by appealing to your readers’ interests, needs, or desires. Only after you have caught the attention of your readers should you begin trying to convince them that what you have is what they want.


Here are some examples of attention – getting openings that might help you connect with potential customers:


Offer of dramatic savings
“We can provide you more dependable courier service at half the price you now are paying.”


Offer of a gift, free trial, or coupon
“As a busy office supervisor who has only limited time for shopping – and no time for mistakes in purchasing – you will be pleased to know that you can shop for all your office needs through OfficeNet, a new, interactive computer network now available in your area. Call today for free installation and a no-obligation, 30-day trial.”


Appeal to customer’s need or desire
“Are you tired of getting sales calls at the dinner hour but afraid that if you don’t answer you’ll miss an important call from a friend? Now there’s a device that screens those calls and automatically plays back an appropriate pre-recorded response.”


Thought-provoking question or surprising statistic
“When was the last time you checked to see how much your company was spending on duplicating? You may be paying two to three times more than your competition pays for the same volume of copying.”


A clever or engaging quotation
“Andrew Jackson once said, ‘I have no respect for a man who knows only one way to spell a word.’ Well, the planners at Creative Retreats Conference Center have no respect for any team of consultants who know only one way to help you boost your employees’ morale and productivity.”


A touching or dramatic anecdote
“In 1984 Jane Williams survived a 2,000-foot fall when her parachute failed to open. She landed in three feet of water in a farmer’s pond and waded to shore without a scratch. Now she volunteers her time as a nurse’s aid helping veterans who weren’t so lucky.”


A testimonial or celebrity endorsement
“‘I was so impressed with Mill City Flour’s success in entering the fiercely competitive cereal market,’ said marketing expert Thomas Quin, ‘that I decided to investigate.’ Here’s what he found about how we do business.”


An apology linked to a sales proposal
“Your disappointment with how long it took us to deliver your last order is of great concern to us here at the Muffin Shop, where we pride ourselves on quick, dependable service. I apologize for the inconvenience and embarrassment our delay caused you. To make it up to you, I am offering you a special 20 percent discount on your next order.”


Remember: To determine if you have written a successful opening to your sales letter, check to see if you have used the “you viewpoint.” Then ask yourself two questions (in this order): Will this catch my readers’ attention? Will this arouse interest in my product or service?


As always, the surest way to know is to test your copy on a sampling of prospective buyers.



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Personal pitches, not tricks, are what sell

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere


I’ve had it. I’m fed up with advertisers and advertisements.


When they call me at home during dinner, I tell them I don’t respond to telephone solicitations. When they send me something in the mail, I don’t open their envelopes. When they disguise their envelopes to make them look like personal letters or checks made out to my name, I learn to recognize their deceptions.


The problem is that there are too many of them and there is only one of me. I’m outnumbered. And as the advertisers become increasingly frenzied in their attempts to pique my interest, I become increasingly apathetic and unresponsive to anything they might try.


My guess is, I’m like most people the advertisers are trying to reach. What can they do to penetrate my protective shell?


Assuming they know all the tricks to getting me to open their envelopes (such as signing their name under the return address), they can create the impression they are communicating with me person-to-person. Here’s how they can write a sales letter that gets and holds my attention:


Appeal to my interests.
If they begin their letter by mentioning something I need or want, I’m more likely to keep reading. Often the advertisers are just guessing what that something is (which is why direct mail advertising is known as “junk mail”). Obviously, the more the advertisers know about me as an individual, the more likely it is they will connect with me.


Describe how their product or service will benefit me personally.
Sure, it’s impressive if millions of other people have benefited from what they’re selling, but what do they have for me? I want to hear them describe their product or service in specific language and vivid images that apply directly to me as a unique individual.


Use the words “you” and “your.”
I don’t care for false familiarity any more than the next person. But when writers refer to me directly with “you” and “your,” it makes me feel important, as though I’m part of the conversation. In fact, “you” and “your” (when used in reference to me) are two of my favorite words.


Refer to me in the singular.
I don’t want to feel as though I’m one of many. Even when writers use my favorite words, if they refer to me in the plural with phrases such as “many of you” or “your households,” they make it easy for me to walk away from the conversation. If on the other hand they address me as though they are talking to me as one individual to another (“We have the perfect vacation just for you”), I have a harder time saying no.


Tell me how much it costs.
If the advertisers don’t mention a price, they must be writing for the person who can afford anything. For me, price is always a primary consideration in making a purchase. If they expect me to call to find out the cost, they can forget it. I’ve got better things to do with my time.


Tell me to do something.
If they’ve held my interest this far, they might as well do the obvious: Tell me what they want me to do, tell me more than once, and make it something I can do with little or no effort. If I put their letter in my pile of things to do tomorrow, I’ll never see it again.


I offer this advice with some trepidation. Now that I’ve revealed the secret of writing effective sales letters, the advertisers probably will use this person-to-person approach on me. Then where will I hide?


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How to make sales letters work like a charm

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere


As someone who is constantly bombarded with sales letters, I consider myself an expert on the subject. After all, I’ve spent the last 35 years or so of my life trying to avoid giving in to their charm and persuasiveness.

Here are five types of sales letters that I have the most trouble resisting, along with my thoughts on how to make these letters work when you’re the one writing them.

The "Let me entertain you" approach.
Open this type of letter with an attention-getting statement (sometimes called a "grabber") such as a thought-provoking question, a surprising statistic, a clever quotation, or a compelling anecdote. Offer a few specific points about your product or service, but keep in mind that your main objective is to ensure that your reader has a good time reading your letter. The theory here is that a reader who enjoys hearing from you will be more likely to think of you when the time comes to make a purchase.

The "We’re always here" approach.
Emphasize quality and dependability in this type of letter. Your goal here is to carve out your market niche and defend it. Whenever your reader thinks of a need that relates to your product or service, you want your reader to make an association with you and your company. Plan to send this type of letter at regular intervals.

The "I know you’re busy" approach.
Open your letter with a no-nonsense statement such as "You’re a busy person so I’ll be brief." State the terms of your offer simply and directly, and emphasize how convenient and easy it is to make the purchase.

The "Have I got a deal for you" approach.
Make an offer your reader can’t refuse. This old hard-sell approach can be softened by including a gift or offering a free trial or coupon for dramatic savings. The idea here is to prompt your reader to act now.

The "Just thinking of you" approach.
Make your tone personal, friendly, and low key. Think of this letter as a continuing conversation. Your objective is not so much to make an immediate sale (though you probably wouldn’t turn one down) as to remind your reader of the importance of your business relationship. Like the "We’re always here" letter, send this one at regular intervals, perhaps linking it to a holiday greeting or to an event that has special significance for your reader.

Once you have determined a strategy regarding which letter (or letters) will work best for you, keep in mind a few particular points that apply to all types of sales letters:

Know your readers and their interests, needs, and biases.

Open your letter with the "you viewpoint," appealing to your reader’s interests and emphasizing their needs rather than describing your product or service.

Be concrete and detailed in your description of your product or service.

Demonstrate your experience, knowledge, and expertise.

Limit your appeal to a few key points.

Write in a personal, friendly tone.

Keep your paragraphs short and sharply focused.

Be clear and explicit about what you want your reader to do.

Make it easy for your reader to make the purchase.

Close on a positive note.

Use a P.S. to restate a main point or to emphasize an important feature.

Make absolutely certain that your copy contains no errors in grammar, punctuation, or spelling, errors that will distract your reader from your message and undermine your credibility.

Test your copy on prospective buyers.

Ready to give it a go? Now write the best sales letter you’ve ever written in your life.



Seminars & email courses

Effective sales proposals focus on solving problems

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere


Have you ever spent hours preparing a sales proposal only to have someone else win the contract? To get a better return on your effort, combine three basic types of rhetorical appeals with five principles of persuasive writing.

Here’s what I have in mind.

As the Greek philosopher and rhetorician Aristotle postulated two and a half thousand years ago, effective arguments combine three types of rhetorical appeals: appeals to feelings and emotion (pathos), appeals to reason and logic (logos), and appeals to ethics and credibility (ethos). Of the three appeals, credibility is the most essential.

Your challenge in putting together a successful sales proposal is to combine these three appeals with five principles of persuasive writing. Here’s how:

Formulate a communication strategy.
To construct an effective argument, don’t begin by writing or speaking; begin by thinking. As Rosalie Maggio points out in How To Say It, “Whether you’re selling a product, a service, an idea, space, credit, or goodwill, the sales letter [or, in this case, the sales proposal] requires more work before you begin to write than it does to actually write it.”

As you focus on the problem or problems you will solve and on the benefits your solution will offer to your customer, use pathos to appeal, for example, to your reader’s frustration with the time it takes to fill an order, anxiety about changes in the industry, or fear of not keeping up with new technologies.

Establish your credibility.
Use the appeal of ethos by describing your experience in solving similar problems for other customers and by presenting the qualifications of your staff, perhaps including their resumes in an appendix. Remember: Your reader’s perception of you as a reliable, qualified, and knowledgeable person or organization depends not only on what you say, but also on how you say it.

Of course, the most immediate evidence of your commitment to high standards is the care and skill with which you prepare your proposal. Your competence and attention to detail is measured by the degree to which you express yourself with clarity and precision and you avoid distracting errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Use the right words.
Speak your customer’s language. Demonstrate your command of the vocabulary of the industry.

Take care, however, not to use jargon or technical terms merely to impress your reader. Also, use accessible, less technical language in your executive summary, which is likely to be read by decision-makers who may lack the in-depth knowledge of the technical staff.

Offer evidence to support your contentions.
At the heart of all sales proposals is the quality of the evidence you offer to support your claims. Here is where logos comes into play. To be persuasive, evidence must be accurate, specific, detailed, sufficient, complete, relevant, and appropriate to the audience.

Structure your argument.
A long sales proposal typically has these components: a cover or transmittal letter, a table of contents, an executive summary, a statement of need, a presentation of the product or service, an analysis of the costs, and a presentation of credentials.

Because the openings and closings of cover letters receive special attention, use all three types of rhetorical appeals here. Open by establishing your credibility and preparing the reader both intellectually and emotionally for your argument. Close by restating your main points and reminding your reader why you are the best person or organization to do the job.

Now, pull out an old proposal that failed and look it over. Ask yourself: Did you incorporate all three types of rhetorical appeals? Did you follow the five principles of persuasive writing?

If you didn’t, you may have discovered why you missed the sale.




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