Boron Letters: Advice on Copywriting - Part 1

Why Read This Book

The Boron Letters are famous in the world of copywriting. They are written by a person named Gary C. Halbert in the 1980s. They are written by a father addressing his son.

Side note: this author apparently went to jail for mail fraud. Basically taking orders, collecting checks and then not fulfilling the orders. And these letters are written from prison. So I suppose we'll take all this with a grain of salt?

The first four chapters do not have much to do with marketing or copywriting advice per se. I was going to skim them and not write notes. But I changed my mind after reading. I think they establish the characters and their relationship and lay the groundwork. They contains advice on health and fitness, as far foundational things go these topics fit right in.

I personally decided to read these letters because I want to see what all the fuss is about. More than that, I believe in learning from first principles. In my study of the broad field of marketing I find copywriting to be foundational. Plus I like reading original source material. And these seem to be that. So let's see.

Chapter 1

Here we learn what these letters are going to be about.

I am going to try to teach you what I have learned about selling by mail, getting and staying healthy, how to get along with people, and, in general, how to have a good life without getting yourself all screwed up. There will also be stuff about sex, drugs and rock and roll! I'm going to try to write to you every day of the week (except Sunday) and spend about one hour on each letter.

The first letter mostly focuses on health and physical fitness.

The first thing I want to talk about is "road work". Road work is walking, jogging and running. And, in my opinion, you should do about one hour of road work everyday of the week except Sunday. I believe the best time to do your road work is right after you get out of bed.

[This bit is interesting to me as it matches with what I've known my grandfather (age 95) do for at least 45 years. Walk 1 hour every morning.]

He claims the benefits to be enormous. It makes you clearheaded, improves the quality of your thinking, gives you a nice glow that will stay with you throughout the day, etc.

And if you do this long enough you'll become positively addicted to this habit. The addiction is not just psychological but physiological as well. Your brain releases endorphins and what not.

Son's Reaction

In the comments to the first letter, the son writes this after the father's death at age 69.

Unfortunately he had an arterial blockage that caused his death, but the ME confirmed that other than that he was in great shape for his age.

Wow the irony is almost humorous if not for it referring to someone's death.

[Lesson] Another lesson in the story is "try things twice"

The moral isn’t just to not give up. The moral of my dad’s workout story and mine is the same and it applies to all of life. Try things at least twice. 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.

[Hm...this is worth noting. It's not about persistence in the face of all else. It's more about trying it more than once. Showing up tomorrow to give it just one more shot]

[Lesson] This one is about the important and urgent 2x2 grid (from the "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective" people). Our work days are often filled with urgent tasks, sometimes important but sometimes not. The mornings should be for more important but not urgent things, such as exercise. And also within the context of business:

Take care of important things first and early before you lose the chance. If you have a marketing campaign to test, the earlier the better. If you are writing copy for an ad, do it early before the phone starts ringing.

[The Internet never sleeps so this is a little different in 2021. One way to do this is have a blocker that blocks all distracting and social sites for the first two hours of the work day.]

Chapter 2

More health related advice here. About fasting once a week.

I intend to keep fasting one day a week (at least) for the rest of my life. When you fast, you begin to normalize your body functions and also, you develop a certain self-discipline that will help you in most other areas of your life.

[Hm..this is oddly similar to what I know of my grandparents do. They too fast or eat once a day. Maybe there is something to this fasting thing]

Also mentions that breakfast being the most important meal is wrong and you don't need to eat much before lunch. This part is foreshadowing the modern Intermittent Fasting trend.

Son's Reaction

We learn more about the father, the author of these letters (and the legendary copywriting advice to follow).

He grew up in an economically depressed small town, served as an MP in Germany and had five children by the time he was thirty. He got rich, went broke, got rich and blew it all again several times by this point in his life and squarely faced going to prison head on.

He was also divorced twice. He admitted to getting away with a lot of things, including drunk driving. And this section confirms that the father did in fact go to prison for mail fraud.

[getting skeptical about this person's character. But also curious how it came to be that he became some sort of a copywriting legend. I've heard several people say they read these letters and even wrote them out by hand, etc. Hm..very curious I am]

As far as the advice in these letters, the son tried fasting but it didn't take for him. He hated it. He did take the advice to write letters to his daughter Emma and pass on his life lessons.

Ah ha! I was not alone in finding the "great shape" comment funny. He brings it up again:

After he passed, the medical examiner remarked that he was in great shape, other than being dead of course. He would have loved that comment.

Chapter 3

This letter is mostly about diet and nutrition. Eating fruits, vegetables, and protein. And repeating the advice from the previous letters.

Son's Reaction

He takes away 2 lessons from this one.

[Lesson] Don't tell other people your plans for getting rich. Because most people are naysayers and they will tell you all the reasons you can't do it. [I think this doesn't apply when you're in a community of fellow Indie Hackers. You constantly get the message that you can definitely do it!]

[Lesson] Intentionally repeating your points is a good way to make sure everyone is on the same page.

I know this advice also applies to teaching. Speaking and doing presentations. Repeat your point 3 times. It also applies to anyone in a leadership position trying to manage and influence a bunch of people or set culture. And this applies to parenting. Tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, and then tell them again.

Chapter 4

This letter talks more about physical fitness. Specifically having 'big arms' and the benefits of that.

He talks about not being or appearing weak (physically or otherwise). In prison and in business. To rely on your own strength, instead of somebody else's compassion. He talks about not "acting tough" but being tough.

He also makes a point about self reliance, adding a quote that "nothing is as satisfying as self reliance"

Son's Reactions

[Lesson] One lesson is that everyone needs a support system. A good support system is really helpful (in business success). The father had a great appreciation for this fact. He also had a skill of "eradicating people from his life if they were not a positive influence".

A support system is like a garden and you always need to be on the lookout for weeds to pull.

We learn more about the author of the letters. His own father (Gary's father, Bond's grandfather) was actually someone that did not believe in him and tried to hold him back. [So in a way he had a chip on his shoulder to prove himself by getting rich. Same pattern I've observed in other 'success' stories]

[Lesson] Don't be or appear to be a weak target. Physically but also in business. It is easier to not appear weak when you are strong. Carry yourself with confidence (not arrogance) in everything you do and people will respond to it in a good way.

Last observation is that self-reliance is the real motive of great business men people, not money.

The next letters will finally start with talking about marketing and copywriting stuff.

Well, hopefully, by now now I've got you doing your road work, developing your arms and eating more or less properly. On that assumption I am going to temporarily drop this area and start writing about how to make money.

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