Last updated: 2020-10-08
Author: Gary Halbert and Bond Halbert
Who should read: Marketers, writers, entrepreneurs, hypnotists
Rating: 8 / 10
One part Arrested Development, one part copywriting masterclass, and one part self help book - The Boron Letters is one of the more interesting ways to learn entrepreneurship fundamentals and the basics of copywriting.
What a combo
It’s a collection of letters written by the legendary copywriter Gary Halbert to his son, Bond - all while serving time at Boron Federal Prison Camp.
These are my most important takeaways from the book.
Throughout the book, you'll notice themes about protecting your mental state. Gary and Bond speak to the link between confidence, enthusiasm, and your effectiveness as a copywriter.
When you are "off", it comes off in your writing. In a way, this makes intuitive sense, when you write, you are capturing how you felt in that moment - and thus, you want to capture enthusiasm, not depression.
"How you feel affects how you think. This is why writers need a strict routine which gives them the best possible chance to be in a pretty good mood for work." (p. 8).
Towards the end of this review, there's a section on "Life Advice" that speaks to how to ensure your psychology is in tip top shape.
At the core of Gary Halbert's copywriting technique is the acronym, AIDA = Attention, Interest, Desire, Action. This sequence is how you hook, convince, and close a potential customer.
Gary provides ample examples in his letters - and let's go through one to see how this works.
In one direct mail campaign, Gary would attach little ziploc baggies filled with dirt along with his letter.
If you received this letter, wouldn't you be wondering, "What's in this baggie?" "Is that dirt in there?" "Why would somebody be sending me a baggie of dirt?" (p. 65)
There are lots of other ways to grab someone's attention, but as we will see, this is "quality attention". Don't make "cheap shot" attention grabbing attempts:
People resent this kind of fraud. Don't do it. If you put your mind to work you won't have to either. You can grab attention without "cheating," without making the reader feel ripped off.
So quality attention is both attention grabbing AND relevant to the product at hand.
How do we parlay attention into interest? We need an interesting segue. See how Gary utilizes the dirt filled baggie:
Dear Mr. Tiberion,
I am attaching a plastic baggie to the top of this letter for two important reasons:
First of all, what I have to say to you is very serious and I needed some way to be sure to get your attention.
And secondly, what is inside that baggie could very well be your passport to complete financial independence!
Why is this? The answer is simple: You see, what is inside that baggie is a very tiny amount of what is the most valuable thing on earth.
I'm talking about real estate and, in this case, Hawaiian Real Estate! (p. 78)
So he ties the baggie to financial independence, and finally, to the product which can deliver it - Hawaiian Real Estate.
The next step, is to engage the reader's emotions. This process starts by evoking vibrant imagery:
if I were to continue writing this letter, I would use words that would make my reader "picture with pleasure" that beach in his mind. Before I was finished, he would be able to feel the sand in his toes, smell the fresh tang of the salt air, drink in the stars with his eyes and feel the warm friendly sun on his back. (p. 78)
Bond elaborates on this further. In addition to imagery, "Describe what it looks like when happy customers receive the benefit of your product":
“My clients wake up all excited and can’t wait for the morning because………… they love to sip coffee while opening their email to see how much money they made while sleeping.” (p. 82).
And Gary reminds us how important it is to make it explicit what benefits your reader might obtain. Even if it feels extremely obvious.
let’s help him to picture in his mind the benefits of having more money. Don’t think it’s not necessary. Remember, you must always do even the obvious. (p. 91)
Yes, so if your benefit is to help the reader make money, you need to spell out what some of those benefits might be.
By now, if you have a compelling product, grabbed the prospect's attention, fed them interesting facts, and fueled their desire, you have hypnotized the prospect. Bring it home. Here's how Gary does this for the Hawaiian investment example:
Would you like to get in on this great investment opportunity? Would you like to be one of the privileged few who actually own a piece of the finest beach in Maui? If so, it’s easy to order. All you have to do is fill out the order coupon and send it to me with your payment (p. 92)
In this step, again it's crucial that you hand hold the prospect through seemingly obvious steps:
Lead him by the hand and take him exactly where you want him to go. Tell him where the order coupon is. Tell him to fill it out. Tell him to enclose the payment. Tell him how much to send. Tell him who the checks and money orders should be made out to. Tell him to use the envelope. Tell him the envelope doesn't need a stamp. (If it doesn’t.) Tell him to put the envelope in the mail. And, above all, tell him to do all this RIGHT NOW! TODAY! (p. 92)
Walk the prospect through every step until you've secured the bag.
Scattered throughout the letters are useful copywriting tips. I won't go through them in as much detail, but here is a list for reference:
"This means wide margins, a certain amount of white space, double spacing between paragraphs, short words, short sentences, short paragraphs and an attractive, inviting layout." (p. 101)
"One way to increase believability is to give exact details. Instead of "most car owners" write "77.6% of all car owners". Instead of "you can lose lots of weight" write "and the average reported weight loss over a 31-day period was 37.5 pounds for men and 26.3 pounds for women"." (p. 129)
In addition to the copywriting, I think one of the best things about this book is how simple it makes business. So many of us have broken mental models of how to make money, and it's so refreshing to hear it from a mentor who has figured out the game.
The single biggest mistake among budding entrepreneurs:
"What is that mistake? The mistake is finding or developing a product FIRST and then looking for a market to sell it to. This is backasswards." (p. 125).
The secret to making money?
"when someone asks me what is the #1 big secret to making money, I tell them they should get involved in whatever excites them the most..." (p. 28)
Money is a by-product of enthusiasm:
"Money, in my opinion, especially big money, is most often a by-product of enthusiasm." (p. 28)
Whatever you do, make sure you help the customer solve their problem:
"the copy is only about you in so much as it proves how you can help the prospect solve their problems." (p. 89)
What advantage to you want in the restaurant business?
"The only advantage I want," I reply, "is A STARVING CROWD!" (p. 32).
One of the most useful pieces of advice in this book is how to look for good ideas. And Gary has some of the most practical thoughts on the matter. Instead of building a product first, or surveying potential customers on what they want, his advice is to find a highly valuable mailing list first.
What makes a good list? In short, a good list is comprised of people who have bought something similar to your product, done so recently, done so with frequency, and at a price point that makes this all worth your while.
These three guidelines are recency, frequency and unit of sale. (p. 37)
So how was Gary finding these lists? Well, back in the 80s, there was a database of mailing lists from a company called SRDS. In fact, they're still in business today! And they have competitors like Clickbank and Nextmark.
That said, the direct mail advertisement model that Gary utilized probably won't work today, but surely we can learn something here, right? Well, absolutely - the idea is we need to find groups of people who have already bought similar products and find ways to access them. Here are some ideas:
Follow the money. Find what people are already buying, figure out HOW they're buying it and search for adjacent opportunities utilizing the same purchasing channels.
My favorite part of this book is the little nuggets of life advice
Just the second attempt at anything hard will be much easier. Not a little bit but by A LOT. It is true of almost everything, not just sports. (p. 9).
"Write down your goals and go over them every day, not just once a year." (p. 21)
"The first thing I want to say is that a fat, sloppy, or skinny and weak body tends to broadcast to the world that the owner of that body is lacking self-respect. The second thing is that tough animals have a tendency to prey on weak or helpless animals." (p. 22)
"One of the best ways to avoid fights (I know this sounds kind of silly!) is to have big arms." (p. 24)
"Prison is a microcosm of society and weak fish are gobbled up fast." (p. 128)
"you should eat a lot of vegetables." (p. 16)
"Don't depend on your mother or anybody else to buy or cut up your vegetables for you. You should, instead, develop a tough independent attitude." (p. 17)
"often, self-reliance is the real motive of great business men and not money." (p. 27)
in my opinion, the best groove to get into is get out of bed, (early) wash your face, brush your teeth, use the bathroom, etc., and then, eat a piece of fruit (I think a banana is the best) and then hit the street! (p. 7)
"In business, my father tried to never appear weak, and it is easier to not appear weak when you are strong. If he found out someone was charging more for an ad, he raised his price. He was the best and he was putting it out there. Carry yourself with confidence (not arrogance) in everything you do and people will respond in a good way." (p. 26-27)
So what I do when, like today, I don't feel like working, is that I start working anyway and I pay attention to what signals my brain and body is sending me. Then, after working a while, if I honestly do start to feel worse, I will stop and quit. However, if I just feel a little bit crummy (as I do now), I keep on plugging along. (p. 42)
"when you get stuck or emotionally jammed up one of the ways to get yourself unclogged and flowing again is just to keep moving. Run. Walk. Jog. Write. Do the dishes. Or whatever. But don't sit around waiting for a flash from Heaven." (p. 53)
In addition to bad days, Gary also talks about being "off" - or just the feeling of being out of it. Again, he talks about how when you're off, you seem to communicate it in subtle ways
When I am off, when anybody is off, this is communicated! (p. 141).
I pay attention to myself and when I am off, I drop out of sight and do what is necessary to strengthen myself. (p. 143)
People can smell it when you are weak. When you are vulnerable. They can smell success too. They can sniff out a winner. (p. 143)
And so when you're feeling low, take care of yourself. Exercise, sleep, be with friends and family, relax - get yourself back to a position of strength. Definitely something I've felt before too.
This section could be its own article by itself, but I wanted to leave a section here for reference.
At the highest level, the idea is to immerse yourself by reading, taking notes (in a manner eerily reminiscent of "How to Take Smart Notes"), gathering inspiration, and copying.
Read Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins three times (~100 pages), and The Robert Collier Letter Book by Robert Collier twice (~300 pages). On the first time, read for enjoyment. On the subsequent readings, take "nugget notes".
Nugget notes are a lot like smart notes, which is a "two-pass" note taking process. However, instead of creating permanent notes on the second pass, you simply put "stars" next to the fleeting notes that you really liked - those become your nuggets.
But with these notes, it's important to do them by hand.
ALL great copywriters write their nugget notes, bullets, and headlines by hand. (p. 89)
The next thing to do is to create a swipe file of good examples. Again, you should read them and take notes on what makes those examples great. Bond in fact recommends reading tabloids to learn how to use language to grab someone's attention (genius).
In fact the swipe file is a crucial part of what makes a successful advertiser:
Mail order (and all other) fortunes are made by men and women who know what's going on in their fields. These are the people who stay up to date. They read the trade journals, they make sure they are on everybody else's mailing list so they know what the competition is doing, they read all the "HOT" mail order publications, they keep their "SWIPE FILE" up to date, they read and reread the classic books written by the best people in the field, they have idea files that contain newspaper articles, notes of unusual info, hot new ideas, good layouts, unusual propositions, and so forth. They also know who the leaders are in their respective fields and they communicate with these people on a regular basis. (p. 128)
And don't just keep a Swipe file, copy the best ones by hand. Here's Gary explaining why handwriting is so powerful:
what happens when you actually write out a good ad in your own handwriting is that the words, the flow, the sentence structure, the sequence of information, and everything else about the writing of that ad becomes a part of you. (p. 95)
This is a way of internally imprinting on your mind and body, the process of good writing. If you do this often enough, you will soon have a deep “inside out” understanding of what it takes and what it feels like to write a good piece of copy. (p. 95)
Obviously, there's a lot more that goes into it, but these practices can be done by anyone
The Boron Letters is a fun little book. It's a quick read and will set you up for success in entrepreneurship and copywriting if you take its lessons to heart. The fact that all of this is being written from a low security prison for white-collar and small time criminals gives the book an endearing quality.
I found it highly enjoyable, and it's really shifted my mindset to look for places where money is already trading hands. Unless you're trying to reinvent how people do something, most of us are best off looking for business ideas in areas where business already happens.
The last 5 chapters, you can tell Gary is running out of steam, so I don't think you need to finish the book to get a ton of value out of it. Overall, it's a great good read and quite practical too.