The Big Idea


If there’s no Big Idea, there will be no sale.

The Big Idea is a basic concept in copywriting.  It’s the spice, the key ingredient in the recipe that gives a tasty sales promotion its seductive flavor.  And it doesn’t matter if the copy is for a long sales letter or the briefest email.

I’ll say it again.

If there’s no Big Idea, there will be no sale! 

There’s a myth among copywriters that The Big Idea is the brainchild of several well-known members of the tribe.  But in fact, the big idea has always been at the core of effective writing.

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I think I should come clean – at least if we’re going to work together.

It’s just this.  I didn’t always like to write.  Okay.  Got that out.  I feel a little better now.

It was at the end of my first semester in college (after which I took a brief leave of absence – meaning I dropped out for awhile), that I had a revelation.

Every freshman was required to take English Composition.  We were assigned classic and sometimes modern literature.  After each work was read and digested, we were expected to showcase a novel idea in the form of a miniature dissertation.

The paper was to begin with a thesis statement – in other words, a Big Idea.

Ideally presented in the first sentence, certainly somewhere in the first paragraph, The Big Idea was to be fleshed out and argued vigorously and compellingly.  To convince the reader, of course.

Although no order device was attached, a sale of sorts was taking place all the same.

And just as only the most engaging copy will garner an order from the most wary customer, only the craftiest, most persuasive writing could fetch an A or even and A- from my professor.

Sadly, I was not to receive an A in any form that semester.

The truth is, I saw no value in the process, having doubts about education in general.  I slept through most of my classes – but especially English Composition.

It was no surprise then when at the end of the semester I found I had several incompletes.  Still, I was determined to finish English Composition on time.

The final assignment concerned a short story, “The Bear,” by William Faulkner.

The story centers on an imposing grizzly nicknamed Old Ben, whose stature in the eyes of the huntsmen who stalk him grows to mythic proportions.  Ultimately, in a tragic and dramatic climax, Old Ben is taken down.

Determined to prove my worth at least once before winter break, I read through the piece and quickly set about the task of organizing my writing tools.  I carefully wound a sheet of erasable bond around my typewriter’s platen.

And then a thought appeared.

It may have been the first authentic and original notion I’d ever had.

I vaguely saw Faulkner’s bear as a deity.   I began to type.  There was no hesitation.  I knew exactly what I wanted to write and I wanted to write it cleanly.  I also hoped to execute the mission quickly, so the final argument was thin.  But at least it was convincing.

I was sure genius was at work.  Hey, this was to be my semester’s final opus!

So proud of my creation was I that I couldn’t stop reading it.  Silently at first, I became more astonished with each pass at my splendid handling of the subject!  Brevity made reading it a breeze.

I stood up and read aloud, articulating, gesticulating as I circled the room… until my girlfriend asked me to leave.

She was a serious student, that one, with a bona fide interest in learning.  My performance – more auditory assault than harmonious oratory – proved distracting as she diligently worked on her final assignments.

My paper garnered a B+.  Hey, that was all right by me.

After assigning the grade, the professor called me into her office.  She smiled – that was a first – then excitedly exclaimed something like “I knew you could do it!”

Ordinarily, her demeanor was severe, she was exacting and incisive in her criticism.  However, in that moment I saw her differently.  Inviting… soft… even alluring.  I briefly imagined there might be an opportunity for extra credit, a chance for a higher grade.  But all she conveyed was that I had passed the gauntlet. Had I more thoroughly developed the argument, an A would have been guaranteed.

I never saw her again as soon after she was diagnosed with a dreaded disease.  Her wound – like Old Ben’s – was mortal.

After a stint of factory work I returned to my studies earning a bachelors in biology.  Later, I graduated medical school with highest honors.

But back to the matter.

To this day I firmly believe in the power of The Big Idea.  After all, “The Bear” is the only one of my readings I have any real memory of from those 4 years of so-called higher education.

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