Great ideas are unique. There’s no formula for innovative ideas, and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is selling the slickest of snake oil.
That said, a great premise always has certain elements in common. It took me many years to understand that, beyond all the tactics, it’s the premise of the message that matters first and foremost.
These days, they come naturally to me once I understand the market and the audience. The same will happen to you the more you work at it.
But first, let’s understand the essential elements.
- Be unpredictable
The first thing you absolutely must have is attention. Without initial attention, nothing else you’ve done matters.
And nothing kills attention faster than if your prospective reader, listener, or viewer thinks they already know where you’re going. Beyond curiosity, a great premise delivers an unpredictable and unexpected element that makes it irresistible.
It all comes back to knowing at an intimate level who you’re talking to and what are they used to seeing in the market. What messages are they getting from your competition? This is what you must use as the benchmark to create your own unique and unexpected angle that forms the foundation of your premise.
Think back on the classic Schlitz story from earlier. It wasn’t that clean-filtered water was unique in the industry. It was that the marketplace wasn’t expecting to hear that particular story.
In this day and age, you might have to dig deeper for a new and unexpected message that startles or downright fascinates people. A creative imagination combined with solid research skills help you see the nugget of gold no one else sees.
Part of why people tune things out is a lack of novelty, which makes even previously desirable subject matter mundane. So taking an approach that differs from the crowd can help you stand out, and that’s why unpredictability is crucial for a strong premise.
Beyond attention, credibility is also critical to a great premise. And when you take the same old tired approach as everyone in your niche or industry, you come across as manufactured and insincere.
Just remember as a final point, things change. What was once unpredictable can become not only predictable, but trite. This is why being able to come up with a fresh premise is a valuable skill for anyone who writes copy or markets anything.
- Be simple
One of the fundamental rules of Copywriting is to be clear and simple. Because a premise by definition is an unprecedented and grand idea, sometimes boiling it down to its essence is difficult, or worse, neglected.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying to water down your big idea to the point of stupidity.
That defeats the purpose.
What I’m saying is you’ve got to make it so simple and clear that it travels directly into the mind of your prospect, so he begins to tell himself the story. Your copy must guide them and inspire them, not beat them over the head.
So, you’ve got a grand premise that’s unpredictable and destined to shake up your market. Reduce it to a paragraph.
Now, take it down to two sentences.
Get it even shorter.
Just do it.
At this point, you may find yourself with a great tagline. At minimum, you’ve now got the substance for the bold promise contained in your primary headline (more on that in a bit).
- Be real
You’ve heard that in this day of social media, you’ve got to keep it real. Speak with a human voice. Be authentic.
You also hopefully know that social media hasn’t changed the fact that it’s about them, not you. In fact, it’s more about them than ever.
How do you make that work? What makes a premise real to the right people?
First of all, your premise must be highly relevant to your intended audience. Without relevance, you can’t inspire meaning. And it’s meaningful messages that inspire action.
Meaning is a function of what people believe before you find them. As we discussed earlier, what people believe is how they view the world, and your premise has to frame that view appropriately to be effective.
As a function of belief, meaning is derived from the context in which your desired audience perceives your message. From there, your premise has to provoke a desirable reaction before inspiring action.
Even with relevant meaning, many messages still don’t create the kind of instant understanding that a great premise seeks to create. That’s why they don’t convert at a high rate.
Your message must communicate meaningful benefits that are also tangible. This is the second important aspect of an authentic premise, because it’s so critical to understanding.
In this sense, tangible means real or actual, rather than imaginary or visionary. This is the aspect of your premise that is express, meaning the part where you tell the story in a way that concretely injects certain information into the prospects mind in a specific way.
Instead of saying something pedestrian like “Total has 25 times the nutrition of the leading brand,” they showed you a tangible expression of benefit. But it doesn’t need to be done with actual visuals to work. Words are plenty powerful.
The book Made to Stick gives us another example with the case of Art Silverman, a guy with a vendetta against popcorn. Silverman wanted to educate the public about the fact that a typical bag of movie popcorn has 37 grams of saturated fat, while the USDA recommends you have no more than 20 grams in an entire day.
Instead of simply citing that surprising, if dry, statistic, Silverman made the message more tangible. He said:
A medium-sized ‘butter’ popcorn contains more artery-clogging fat than a bacon- and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings — combined!
You’ll note that both examples contain the element of unpredictability and simplicity. But it’s the relevant and tangible expression of the premise that
creates instant understanding.
Make your messages as real to people as possible, and you’ll create the kind of instant understanding that all truly great premises contain.
But there’s one more critical element to a premise that works.
- Be credible
If you’re writing to persuade, you have to hit the gut before you get anywhere near the brain. The part that decides “I want that” is emotional and often subconscious. If your premise doesn’t work emotionally, logic will never get a chance to weigh in.
If you flip that emotional switch, the sale (or other action) is yours to lose. And I mean that literally. Because our logical minds do eventually step in (usually in a way that makes us think we’re actually driven by logic in the first place). If your premise is not credible (as in it’s too good to be true) you fail. That doesn’t mean hyperbole never works, as long as the prospect wants to believe you bad enough.
That’s how some desperate people in certain markets are taken advantage of.
But belief is critical in any market, with any promotion. And that’s why credibility is the final key to a winning premise — people must believe you just as your premise must match their beliefs.
Remember, the more innovative your idea or exceptional your offer, the more you’re going to have to prove it. This brings us right back to an unexpected, simple, and tangible expression of benefit in a way that’s credible.
Every box of Total cereal contains the cold hard data about the nutritional content. Art Silverman’s popcorn claims were backed up by solid scientific facts about saturated fat.
The kind of proof any particular premise requires will vary, but the more credibility that can be baked into the premise itself, the better. More on proof in a bit.