Intent is more important than technique

That line, from Mahan Khalsa’s most excellent book on consultative selling, Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play, is one of my business (and life) mottos.

Here’s a story

In 1991, I was flirting with a macrobiotic lifestyle. I was attracted to the strictness of the diet, the sense of fixed rules, and the “magic” of the rituals that promised cures from all known diseases and joyful longevity.

I read a bunch of books and cookbooks, but so many of the ingredients were unknown to me (umeboshi paste, burdock root, daikon radish) that I found myself tied in knots. There was just too much to take in, and I found myself looking up again and again little things like, “When rinsing brown rice, should I stir the water clockwise or counter-clockwise.”

So I invited a friend, Nancy, who happened to be a macrobiotic chef, to come over and give me a lesson in simple macrobiotic fundamentals.

What I learned

The first dish we prepared together was steamed brown rice. Nancy started by pouring rice into a pot, then filling it halfway with water and using her hand to rinse and wash the rice. She was silent as she did this, focusing on the water, the rice, and the pot.

I interrupted her, “I can never remember which way to stir the rice. Clockwise or counter-clockwise?”

She stopped stirring, looked up at me, and smiled. “It doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you stir with the intent to clean the rice.”

Have the intention to clean the rice

I thought about that story this morning, when I received an article about using copywriting “power words.”

It was a fine article, featuring 20 words that can help boost website conversion. Words like “you” and “can” and “get” and “love” and “results.”

Definitely helpful stuff for anyone who wants to improve the performance of their website.

But technique, no matter how powerful, isn’t enough, and isn’t fundamental to making sales.

I would argue that the more important element of your sales copy is your intent.

Not your intent to make the sale, but your intent to serve your prospect. If you truly believe that you have a product or service that can help them, and that you would be failing them not to bring it to their consciousness in a vivid and powerful way, then your copy will be effective.

At that point, implementing copywriting techniques designed to facilitate trust and connection and desire all make sense.

But without the intent, the words fall flat. They become lifeless technique, and your website looks and sounds like thousands of others whose owners have read the same copywriting memos and listened to the same online marketing gurus.

Cars and bridges

I once took a storytelling workshop with Amina Shah, then-chair of the London College of Storytellers, and author of several books of folk tales. Most of the participants were struggling to memorize their stories, until Shah explained that memorization isn’t necessary.

“Do you have to memorize stories that happened to you? Of course not – you just tell them.

“If you want to be a good storyteller, then every story you tell must have happened, and you must have been there to see it. If you can see it in your mind, you can tell it in an engaging way to others.

“Don’t worry about the words. The words are just a bridge between your head and your audience. The meaning of the story – that’s the cars traveling across the bridge. The bridge must be sturdy, but without the cars – the essence of the story – nothing gets transferred, and no one is moved.”


So by all means learn to be a skilled bridge builder. Practice writing words, sentences, paragraphs and articles that cohere, that move, that convert. Spend time on the words, for they are a necessary bridge.

But never forget that the words are there just to convey your intent.

A heart full of love will always find the right words.

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18 Comments. Leave a comment or send a Trackback.
  1. #1 • Rick Louis said on July 5 2011:

    Agreed. Intent is to communication what blood is to life.

  2. #2 • Katherine Andes said on July 5 2011:


    Since I also do copywriting for SEO, I would only add this: I almost always write the content first … that is I write to convey the message.

    When I am happy with the page, I research the keywords that go best with my content.

    Then it’s a fairly simple task to weave the keywords, artfully, into the copy … without damaging the voice and tone of the copywriting.

  3. #3 • Gemma Laming said on July 5 2011:

    How do you answer all that?! We were never quite so exotic as to be macro-bioti, though many of our friends are. What is more they have written books about it.

    If there is one thing that will tell you that you are getting things right, it is your children. If they don’t like something, they will just leave it at the side of the plate. Now Howie has seen my garden, and it is but a poor shadow of our family allotment in England. Whilst there are fewer pests here (two legged pea-eaters,, male raspberry thieves etc) my two grew up knowing their veggies. Just after Christmas we were in the garden and I showed my little Tom how to plant some seeds. “There” I said to him “that is next year’s Christmas dinner” and he turned to me for he was old enough to know that we had just enjoyed the festivites. “These are parsnip seed, and they take more than a year to grow” and over the course of the year he was able to see them growing. For many years he saw them growing, and being harvested – and from time to time the odd few left for seed!

    My two did enjoy messing about in the dirt and mud, and of course seeing things planted turn into meals of one kind or another. If it was worth doing for no other reason it would be that my two ate their veggies before anything else. Why? When you harvest them and cook them when they are fresh they do taste rather better!

  4. #4 • Jeannette Maw said on July 5 2011:

    This one was spot on, Howie! Extremely well said and a very important concept for folks to understand.

    Thanks for a great post – sharing it now! :)

  5. #5 • Wendy Zak said on July 5 2011:

    You know how they say you can hear a smile over the phone? I think you’ve hit on the same principle. No matter how cleverly put together the words are, your underlying conviction still shines through.

  6. #6 • Nicholas said on July 5 2011:

    I agree, your intuitive sense or gut feeling, in my opinion, react to the written word as well as to face to face communication. Technique takes a back seat to intent.

  7. #7 • Bob said on July 5 2011:


    Awesome! Thanks for taking me away from over-analyzing and giving me permission and support to just go for it.

    If I know what message I want to convey, why worry about using the exact power words?

    Although I seek perfection, it is never attainable, so if my heart is in the right place while I write, the words I choose in the moment will work. This doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t review the words twice before putting them out there, but it shouldn’t hold back in search of the ultimate.

    Should I ditch the shelf full of reference books?

  8. #8 • Lee Rush said on July 5 2011:

    Love the quote from Amina Shah. Those are truly words to live by.

  9. #9 • Steve Potosky said on July 5 2011:

    hmmm …. content about content.

  10. #10 • Howie Jacobson said on July 5 2011:

    Don’t ditch the books, Bob. Right intent is magnified by right technique, and we can always discover new ways of connecting.

    I’m just saying (to borrow a golf metaphor), your putting technique isn’t worth sh-t if you don’t know where the hole is.

    Marketing education has focused so much on technique that we’re in danger of forgetting that all we’re trying to do is express our value authentically.

  11. #11 • Howie Jacobson said on July 5 2011:

    Beautiful analogy, Wendy!

    I was just caught multi-tasking on a phone call, so I definitely know you can hear engagement in tone of voice.

    I’ve just published an article in Fast Company that’s related:

  12. #12 • Howie Jacobson said on July 5 2011:

    Thanks, Jeannette. I just left a comment on your excellent blog…

  13. #13 • Scott - VBM Productions said on July 5 2011:

    Good article and great to hear you referencing the script writing craft. I often write scripts for our clients – I run a London based video production company – from a version they have written and they always overlook the personal, emotive perspective. There seems to be a perception that business talks in a third party, objective and independent voice. It’s not true. Conviction is key!

  14. #14 • roger said on July 5 2011:

    Excellent Howie,
    You have the rare gift of conveying profound ideas in simpler way. I wish I had 50% of it. Read FC article- horse whisperer too. Another gem.
    PS: copied and pasted in word and convered to pdf for future reference!

  15. #15 • Riyah Mahbubani said on July 5 2011:

    Hello Howie,
    Thanks for reminding me something my mother taught me as a child. She was a great humanitarian and savvy businesswoman as she and my family ran a jewellery business for a wide variety of customers. Her intent was to make the customer happy and satisfied because her main intention was aimed at personal fulfillment for the human being. Even though business was sometimes low she still maintained a positive attitude and therefore our shop earned a great reputation by all other merchants as most customers spoke of us as the friendliest shop in town. So I believe everything you say here is not only true 100% workable in practice.
    Thanks for sharing.

  16. #16 • Andy said on July 6 2011:

    Great post Howie, thanks.

    It really made me think about something I learned a while ago about selling and copywriting. At first, I thought a piece of copy was meant to fool the customer into buying whatever you were trying to sell. I thought, if I could just use enough trigger words and use the right words to paint buying pictures in the mind of the reader then they would buy. It was all about smoke and mirrors.

    It was really a shift when I realized that successful copy works when you use words to give the customer exactly what they want, not what you want to sell them. It is not about selling really, it is about helping the reader understand that you have the solution to their problem, and then actually solving that problem.
    Using a lot of hype to sell something that doesn’t really work is, in the end, a prescription for failure.

    The intent with your words should be to help people and then you can tap into something that is beyond just a quick buck that is not sustainable.

  17. #17 • Howie Jacobson said on July 6 2011:

    I hear you, Andy.

    The copywriters who sell their copywriting expertise like to portray the craft as a “superpower” like flight or invisibility.

    “Persuade anyone.”
    “Vacuum the dollars out of your prospects’ pockets.”
    “Hypnotize them.”

    There’s a young part of most of us that really wants to believe that if we buy the course, we’ll get bitten by that radioactive copywriting spider and turn into a persuasive superhero. (And of course we have to promise only to use the power for good.)

    I’m not saying that words can’t be used to hypnotize; just that I don’t trust myself with that intent. I feel happy when my words can help wake people up, rather than snap them deeper into a trance.

  18. #18 • Etienne said on July 11 2011:

    Howie, I love the way how you explain complex theories in easy words. thanks for this article.