Two powerful structures for your copy, Jon Maxim, Freelance copywriter

Sell vs tell. Two powerful structures for your copy.

Sell vs tell copy structures

I’ve shared tips on the copywriting process in several other articles.

About the all-important preparation. Or the craft of writing.

Even how important the brief is.

What I haven’t considered is how to structure your copy.

That’s pretty important.

How do you organise the information, the material, in a way that engages the reader? Reflects their needs?

For me, it starts with a simple question.

Sell vs tell?

Question marks

When I sit down to write, I ask myself: am I selling? Or telling?

There’s a difference.

When I’m selling, I need to draw the reader from their busy world. Into my (the client’s) world.

I’m interrupting their life with a message they were neither expecting, nor interested in.

Most advertising mediums interrupt. A TV ad interrupts your favourite program. A billboard interrupts your concentration on the drive to work. A pre-roll interrupts your YouTube experience.

You have to work hard to get their attention, and draw them in.

That’s selling.

If I’m telling, then I have to assume the reader has made a choice. That they’re actively looking for information. They’ve chosen to interrupt their life.

Think of a website, for example. I choose to go there. I don’t need to be seduced into the client’s world. I’m already there. A ‘selling’ style of copy just isn’t going to work.

That’s the difference. Tell vs sell.

So, what structures should we use?

Sell: the Socratic Method

Statue of socrates - the selling structure

Socrates was a Greek philosopher who lived some 2,400 years ago.

He’s credited with being the father of Western philosophy (from the Greek ‘philo’ = love, and ‘sophia’= wisdom. So ‘the love of wisdom’).

Interesting enough.

But he’s also credited with a way of arguing. Of persuading his opponents. Selling his point of view.

Dale Carnegie describes it in his book ‘How to win friends and influence people’:

‘His whole technique, now called the ‘Socratic method’, was based upon getting a ‘yes, yes’ response. He asked questions with which his opponent would have to agree. He kept on winning one admission after another, until he had an armful of yeses.

He kept on asking questions until finally, almost without realising it, his opponents found themselves embracing a conclusion they would have bitterly opposed previously.’

Yep. Ask questions with which his opponent would have to agree.

Good, seductive, interruptive copy does the same.

Start with something the reader has to agree with.

Here’s an example (from a real ad):

Everybody has bad days. Even bosses.

Agree with that statement? You might not be a boss, but you can understand how they might feel. In fact, the beauty of the Socratic opening is that it will filter out those not interested.

Onto the second line:

But when you’re the boss of a small business, a bad day can get out of proportion.

Agree? Nodding away? Good. They’re drawing you from your world, into theirs.

Next section:

In a big company, you’d probably be surrounded by experts in finance, sales, personnel, marketing, production, and so on. People you could talk to, argue with, try your ideas on, blame, have lunch with, confide in and who would generally make you feel better.

Ah: they’re starting to give us some clues. With the Socratic style, you have to get to the point eventually.

Final line (before they reveal who they are and what they offer):

But when you’re the boss of a small business, you’re on your own.

That opening copy feels like a conversation. It’s focussed on the reader. Understands and empathises with them.

Powerful, right?

Now, who’s the ad for? What clues did they give us?

Something about ‘confiding in’. So a business network/mentoring solution?

They’ve listed some areas of business. So an outsourced finance, sales, marketing service?

A piece of software?

In fact, you could sell anything off the back of that empathetic opening.

It’s for HSBC Small Business loans.

Now, they could have started in their world:

At HSBC, we’re pleased to announce …

And you would have switched off. It’s about them, not me.

The Socratic opening is incredibly powerful. But incredibly hard to do.


First, you need a deep understanding of your audience. What are their issues? Pain points? Feelings and challenges.

Second, you tend to start in your world. Sitting at your desk, in your bubble. With all the pressures and distractions. Knowing what the message is, and what you’re trying to promote. That’s your world, but it’s not the reader’s.

Imagine the reader – where they are, what time it is, what’s on their mind.

Empathise. Show an understanding of their issues, then how you can help solve them.

Give it a shot. Get it right, and it’s mighty powerful.

But what if we’re telling?

We have a different structure.

Tell: the Inverted Pyramid

Louvre inverted pyramid - the telling copy structure

Imagine I type ‘car insurance’ into Google. I click on a link, and land on a page.

The copy reads:

You deserve the best. The finer things in life.

Like that beautiful home. Fabulous wardrobe. Dream holiday.

And a wonderful car.

How does that feel?

Right. Waffle. I’ve searched for ‘car insurance’. I don’t need to be persuaded. Just get to the point.

What I expect to see is copy that says:

Looking for a car insurance quote? Click here.

That’s more like it. To the point.

If someone chooses to go to the information – to interrupt their life – we use the inverted pyramid structure. Not the Socratic one.

The inverted pyramid comes from journalism.

A good piece of journalism will answer six pieces of information, up front. The 5Ws and the H.

Who, What, Why, Where, When and How.

Take a look at this example from essay5w.com:

The Inverted Pyramid 5Ws and H

Can you see how the important information is right up front?

That’s the opposite of the Socratic method – which leads you into the information.

Think about your audience. What do they need or want to know? What’s important to them?

Again, your reader research is vital, here.

The inverted pyramid is particularly useful for websites and emails. Mediums where I choose to access the information.

Don’t go Socratic. That’s just going to have your reader closing the tab, and going to the next one.

What next?

Pink pen checklist ticks

If you’ve got a piece of copy you’re working on (or it’s already live), check it.

Is it seducing the reader in (interrupting their busy life)? Then use the Socratic method. Open in their world.

Or: has the reader made a conscious decision to come to your message? Then does it start with the most important information first? Think Inverted Pyramid.

Don’t get them confused. Or you’ll confuse the reader, and switch them off.

Harness the power of Socrates or journalism. For a powerful opening that engages.


Image sources: Pixabay


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Jon Maxim

Jon is a multi-award winning copywriter. For over 30 years, he’s helped clients – large and small – develop engaging concepts, content and copy. For 25 of those years, he’s been teaching people how to do it themselves. His courses on copywriting, ideation and presentation skills are highly sought-after and highly effective. Jon lives in Sydney, Australia: but is often found on a plane, heading to where he’s most needed.