The Tao of Copy: 11 Lessons on Copywriting from Lao Tsu
The beauty of deep truth is that it is universally applicable. The principles of the Tao run through everything. All the cosmos. All of nature. All human endeavor.
Including copywriting :)
The Taoist perspective is rooted in harmony. In timing. Not forcing it, but rolling with the natural flow. And the more I learn about copywriting and content marketing, the more I see how this Taoist approach is relevant to the craft.
So here are 9 lessons from the immortal Tao Te Ching by the sage Lao Tsu that you can use as guiding principles for deep, powerful, and authentic copy that attracts the right buyers with the right relationship.
1. “The Tao that can be talked about is not the true Tao”
The Copy that reads like copy is not good copy. The best sales people aren’t high-pressure sleezeballs – they are attentive conversationalists.
The best copy blends in to the reader’s own inner dialogue. It isn’t self-referential or steeped in jargon. It invites the reader in as they slide down the slippery slide of curiosity, interest, and desire.
It holds interest and leads to a purchase because it is emotionally engaging, not because it’s stuffed full of psychological triggers and false scarcity.
It feels natural and conversational.
It feels like a story, not a sale.
2. “Simplicity, Patience, and Compassion, These are your greatest treasures.”
Let’s take this one at a time.
Most high-level copywriters aim for around a 6th grade reading level. Some even less than that.
Complex sentences with big words and clever arguments don’t help your copy. They might make you feel smart as a writer, but they don’t do the reader much good. Or the sale for that matter.
Aim for clarity and simplicity over cleverness and sophistication.
Another word for compassion is empathy. And empathy is at the very heart of copywriting. Understanding how another person feels, their struggles, their dreams and desires, what frustrates them, what they wish would happen, what keeps them up at night – knowing the landscape of their inner emotional world. This understanding is what creates truly great copy.
This might seem to go against everything you've ever heard about the importance of scarcity, but when it comes down to it, not everybody is ready to buy. Everyone has their own path they walk down as they learn about your business and make a buying decision.
When you understand the process of the “Buyer’s Journey” you understand that you don't’ need to make the sale now. Patience is the long game.
You can give them value. You can nurture the relationship and build trust with an email sequence. You can teach them through valuable content that demonstrates authority and builds trust.
And in time, with patience… they will buy.
3. "Knowing others is true intelligence, knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power"
Knowing your audience is important. But in a crowded, competitive marketplace you need something else. You need to stand out.
This is your USP your Unique Selling Proposition.
You need to know what makes you unique. What makes you stand out from the armies of clones and lookalikes. Why should they choose you out of the whole field of options and possibilities?
When you truly understand what you offer and what sets you apart, you have a foundation to work from, a platform for the rest of your marketing efforts to build from. Without that, you are vulnerable to the whims of the market. You are a commodity.
Master yourself, master your USP, master your foundations – that is real power.
4. “The truth is not always beautiful, nor beautiful words truth”
Some of the most effective copy is not pretty. It’s easy for writers to fall in love with their own words, with their own cleverness. But that doesn’t make it good copy.
Copywriting has nothing to do with what you want. It’s all about the reader. It’s all about serving their needs, understanding their core emotions.
And sometimes those core emotions aren’t pretty. Sometimes it’s self-loathing. Or greed. Or jealousy and anger. Or vanity. But if that’s what motivates your audience… well… that’s what you need to speak to.
That’s the conversation in their head, so that’s the conversation you need to enter into.
The truth may not be pretty, but it’s real. And real makes good copy.
5. “Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt”
You don’t need more knowledge.
You don’t need to read another blog or download another 10 Tricks to [insert your desirable result] freebie.
You don't even need more practice.
The Tao of Copy lies leis in implementation and execution.
Write. Test. Rewrite. Test more. Keep writing. Direct feedback is your best teacher.
6. “If you want to accord with the Tao, just do your job, then let go.”
It’s easy to obsess over results. But at a certain point you have to let go to keep moving forward.
If you get hung up on what may or may not happen, what did or didn’t happen, or any number of the infinite possibilities out there, you become victim to analysis paralysis.
Your progress, your growth becomes stunted.
It’s a core direct-response marketing practice to test and observe the results of your work so you can improve and refine your efforts. This, however, is different than obsessing over perfection and worrying about the results.
Perfection is the enemy of done.
Do your work. Write the copy.
Then let it go.
Relax and see what happens.
Only then are you free to move forward with your business.
7. “Not knowing is true knowledge
Presuming to know is a disease.
First realize that you are sick
then you can move toward health.”
Anyone promising you specific results is deluding themselves. Dan Ferrari, one of the best direct response copywriters today once said
“the biggest difference between an ok copywriter and a really good copywriter is the really good copywriter is wrong a little less frequently.”
Nobody knows everything. Nobody knows their copy is going to work. It’s all educated guesses and best efforts.
As long as we admit that we don't know the definitive answer, we allow for possibility, we make space for the freedom to adapt and respond to changing circumstances. By admitting we can’t know everything, we gain flexibility and adaptability as writers and marketers.
8. “Clay is fashioned into vessels; but it is on their empty hollowness, that their use depends.”
Copy creates a context, it creates a space for the reader to come to their own decision.
We work our words into vessels, hollow structures that frame problems and solutions for the reader. It is this space, this framework that allows the reader to put themselves into the situation you have constructed, to see how they might benefit from your solution.
The decision to buy, to opt-in, to say yes, occurs in the emotional space the words create. The words don’t “make” it happen. The person making the buying decision does. The person choosing to trust you, to believe that you can solve their problem.
‘The copy merely creates the setting. It leads them to their own conclusions, their own decisions for what is best for them.
A well-constructed framework clarifies and frames the decision.
9. “Without opening your door,
you can open your heart to the world.
Without looking out your window,
you can see the essence of the Tao.
Words can open new vistas in our perceptions. They can cast problems in a new light. A truly skilled copywriter can see straight into the heart and mind of the prospect.
From behind their screen and turn the readers eyes to previously invisible windows and unknown opportunity.
10. “A skillful soldier is not violent, an able fighter does not rage, a mighty conqueror does not give battle, a great commander is a humble man”
Gary Bencivenga is possibly the greatest copywriter who ever lived. He is a gentle, humble man. He could make a client millions with a single letter, and yet he was humble.
No Killer Copy.
No “Crushing it with another 7 figure launch, Bro.”
No dick wagging or macho bravado. No idiotic hyperbole.
Just humble mastery in service.
Whether you are seeking a copywriter or a copywriter seeking work, keep this in mind.
11. “There is no calamity greater than lightly engaging in war.”
This has nothing to do with “business is war” rhetoric. It’s about harm and pain.
Creating harm, causing pain, violating trust is not something to be done casually.
There is a common copywriting formula called "Problem-Agitate-Solution."
You identify the problem, then you highlight all the ways this problem is causing pain, then you present your solution.
The agitation part – the identifying and amplifying of pain points – is critical to getting the copy to work. The reader needs to understand how much their problem is costing them. They need to come to terms with their pain to finally take action on a solution.
But this process causes pain. It can make people uncomfortable. It doesn't feel very good. This isn’t something to be done casually. It needs to be done intentionally and with integrity.
And your solution had better work.
Because business IS relationships. It is trust.
Someone investing their trust in you, your business, your service, this is a powerful moment. We are inundated with thousands of marketing messages and slanted news stories, each clamoring for our attention and trust.
Trust is the most valuable thing people can give us.
Don’t abuse it. Don’t betray it by not following or making claims you can’t fulfill. Don't agitate someone's pain just to make a sale.
Don’t engage in business lightly.
Show up fully. Give your full effort in the giving your gift – your product, service, advice, whatever it is.
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