Episode #142 – David Allan On Deliberate Fast Tracking Of Your Copy Skills

by John McIntyre

TITLE ­ Email Marketing Podcast Episode #142
Becoming great (or even better) at a new skill requires a plan.

Outside of copy, John and Dave have used strategies to get good at an accelerated rate.

Dave talks about his start in magic and street performing (aka charming people on the street)

John dives deep into research and what he’s been spending the last year on (which is awesome).

Together, they lay out how you’ll be able to hone your skills to a razor sharp edge.

So that you’re so good…

Clients can’t ignore you.
In this episode, you’ll find how real “street smarts” can find freelance clients now and show you the money!

In this episode, you’ll discover:

  • The truth behind the 10,000 hour rule
  • How to “cancel out” wasted practice hours starting today
  • How to use the deliberate “egg timer” secret of a famous ad man to become a copywriting stud or studette
  • One simple tweak anyone can use to boost the results of their skill training
  • What John has been working on the last year and how he’s made twice as much progress as anyone expected

Email Marketing Podcast Episode 1


Intro and outro backing music: Forever More by CREO

John McIntyre: Alright it’s John McIntyre here, The Autoresponder Guy, I’m here with Dave Allan once again, the street magician turned copywriter. I thought it would be really fascinating to talk about how to learn…anything, and not just say, copywriting – but a lot of people are like, how can I get clients – well there’s a way to learn – obviously people who get clients, they’re doing specific things. You need to learn what they’re doing and do those specific things and you should be getting clients – so it will be really valuable to have a bit of a chat about how the brain learns, how one learns, so you can apply that and go achieve your dreams…

Dave Allan: Absolutely

John McIntyre: [laughing} So tell me about you, man. You’ve done, I mean street magic’s pretty cool. I think you’re the only street magician I’ve met – it’s a rare breed. So tell me about that , how do you go and learn magic, is it something you do when you’re five years old, you know, you’re a kid and you’re obsessed, did you follow some kind of – how did you learn, how did you how get into it and did you develop – get it to the point you were like going into the street and shouting at people to come watch your show

Dave Allan: You know, it’s interesting because I am an atypical example of this I’d say because most magicians, just like you mentioned, start very young and progress all the way along a sort of linear path. And for myself, I didn’t start – I’m 42 now – I started when I was 29 and basically I started into magic because I was interested in psychology and I had taken stuff like that in university – my dad was always a very big practical joker – so the first few magic tricks I tried were in retaliation [laughing] on my father. And so when those things worked and I saw the effect it had and how easily – my dad is a rather sharp individual – how easily he was duped, I thought wow, this is really interesting and that sort of made me delve further and for a couple years after that it was a hobby until I started doing it professionally and the way I sort of learned it – Now I was lucky in a way I think – Because I think when you’re a child you sort of learn everything when you get into magic and a lot of stuff later in life you just discard. That’s not to say it’s not valuable because you probably learn what you like or what doesn’t work, or isn’t good, but by the time I got into magic like I said, when I was 29, I already had tastes in other arts that helped me inform the magic. So, I already had tastes in music, I already had tastes in literature, and so forth so I knew what I wanted to do in the magic thing. I saw tricks or I saw presentations and thought oh, I could see myself doing that, or I would like to play with that and so forth. So I sort of just went down that path in a very specific manner where I studied only things I thought I would actually do. So that really helped because it really narrowed down to the time I could spend on things – because I would only have these few things I would spend my time on – I wasn’t trying to learn everything at once. I think that directly applies to copywriting too because it does seem like this very big, gigantic, 5000 different tactic type thing where – and really it’s not, you know, if you sort of wipe the mystique away it’s actually pretty simple. There are a lot of nuances to it that you can use and people have used but, you know, it’s actually a pretty straightforward thing. So I think a lot of people make a big deal out of things that aren’t necessarily that big of a deal – and magic was one of them. Because people don’t know – unless you’re a magician or unless you’re familiar with how some of the tricks are done, there’s a lot of mystique surrounding that too – I for one, and we’re not allowed to reveal the secrets usually, it’s against the code – But I will say that a lot of the secrets are stupid. They’re very simple and you’d be surprised that you’d be fooled by them but it takes the magic really away – the magic is really in the performance, the performance of the effects, it’s not in the learning. There are a lot of cool ideas in magic, but most of it is when it’s finally presented live to another person that it does take on the actual magical quality because a lot of the stuff is pretty mundane, actually. So for me, I just decided to learn very specific things and then, like anything I think, I went at it basically every day and it was a hobby at first so there was no pressure to turn it into anything and that’s sort of how I got into copywriting too because when I first started I started looking around and first got into email, as I mentioned before, started with something very simple and worked my way up and I think that’s one of the best ways to do it when you find something you want to do – If you don’t have a passion for it or it interests you – I have tried almost innumerable things throughout my life and if I wasn’t super passionate about it or I didn’t really want to do it, it lasted, like, a week. And I was done. I don’t know what you’re like John, I know you’re into a bunch of different things and you just told me recently that you’re into music so maybe you can talk more about that.

John McIntyre: Yeah, it’s a – I grew up playing guitar so I have that sort of in my background and became good at that, played in bands, stuff like that. But then I haven’t really touched music for a while – by the way, what we’re trying to do here is to pull out the concepts that you can then apply to copywriting and clients. But with music, haven’t touched it in five years and then back in December – bit of a long story on how this all came to be – back in December I downloaded some software on my computer, and I wanted to make dance music, music that you hear at ultra music festival…

Dave Allan: Oh ok, EDM.

John McIntyre: EDM, yeah totally. I wanted to make some EDM, go on a stage in front of 100,000 people and play some music. But so then the first thing – I have a basic understanding of music and I started making some…songs. The problem was, they sounded so terrible compared to the mainstream stuff. It’s very common, right. A good song sounds really simple but to number one write a song in the first place that sounds good and then to actually produce it – to use the right instruments and mix it and engineer it in a certain way that sounds good when you play it on a stereo – they’re actually quite difficult things. So then I’m in that situation where I’m like I can either have fun with it and just do what I want whenever I pick it up or I can deconstruct it and try to get there in a more effective way. So the first step, and I think this is really important, is I had to figure out where I wanted to be. I couldn’t just make music or try and create exercises for specific things without knowing where I wanted to go. If I wanted to be a mixing engineer that’s a very different thing than an artist like Skrillex, for instance, DJ-ing, yeah like that. So that was what I thought I was like if I could have anything yeah, if I could be on a stage in front of 100,000 people, that would be like the pinnacle – somewhere around that pinnacle. So that gives me something to aim at, what do I need to develop now and there’s two good books on this – “The 4 Hour Chef” – You don’t need to read the whole thing just the one chapter on learning is worth reading and then one book called “Peak” by Anders Eriksson – which is the guy who sort of invented the 10,000 hour rule – which isn’t actually a rule at all, it’s sort of a misappropriation of the research. You do need to do a lot of practice – but the fact it’s 10,000 hours you know it could be 5000, 200 or 15,000 – so he did that research, the book is called “Peak”. So I read those two things and broke up the process into all its components – you mentioned that it can be very overwhelming – any field can be overwhelming when you look at it like this big collection of stuff. What I did instead was to get the various components – you’ve got songwriting, you’ve got sound design, you’ve got mixing, mastering, probably got DJing – You can break it up into 5,6,8,10 different things and then – I think this is important – then after you break it up into things you need to figure out what’s standing between you – I’m like what’s the problem right now – between me and this goal, this rough point I’ve set – like, why don’t I have it already is a good question and I think the honest reason is, I’m a good marketer, I know that, but I just can’t make a song sound that great and this was almost a year ago. So then I was like let’s just work on the sounds, writing songs, did that for a while and then realized to split it up further – the songs are sounding pretty good now, but the song as a whole doesn’t feel like it’s that great of a song – So I started to think more about, you know, a great song in terms of the composition, is a great song no matter how it’s produced, whether it’s on a guitar, or piano, or an electronic song – it’s a good song. So, I’m like the biggest thing, the biggest limiter, the biggest problem is going to be my ability to write a good song. At least right now, it’s not how well I can produce the song – how great can I make it sound on my computer – it’s the song as a concept.

Dave Allan: I think that’s good – a good way of looking at it.

John McIntyre: It’s to basically find out – and it’s backed up by those books – is figuring out where your weaknesses are and creating exercises to target those and the real point of this – after twelve months – I’ve been working with a mentor to do this – this is the first time I’ve told this story on the podcast. I’ve been working with a couple different people to refine it and improve – teachers or mentors you might call them – and one said I made two years worth of progress in six months. And when I show people the music that I’m able to make, most of them are surprised I’ve been doing it for such a short time and I don’t think that’s necessarily me, I’ve spent a lot of time practicing but the method, which I just explained to you which is figure out what you want – figure out what’s stopping you from having it right now – what the problems are – and then, like don’t just practice in general, If I just sat down every day and said I’m going to practice music I wouldn’t get very far – but if I said “Where do I suck? What can I do today that will make me suck a little bit less?” with that specific thing. If I did that enough times – like what I did with songwriting – it wouldn’t be the issue anymore – I can write a pretty good song, that’s not holding me back anymore – what’s holding me back now is my ability to create a really great sounding synth – then I need to do that. So it’s as simple as that – and using teachers and mentors and coaches and stuff to just improve, improve that process of you getting data to find out where you’re good at or bad at. You could apply this process to copywriting, you could split copywriting into sales letters, emails and other specific things, get more granular, to me that’s really the way you learn something.

Dave Allan: No, I think you’re right and just thinking about it while you were talking it’s definitely the process I went through as well. When I got into magic and started learning the tricks – you have the sleight of hand aspect of it, that is whatever you’re going to do with your hands and whatever implement you’re using whether it’s a deck of cards or a piece of rope or whatever it is you’re using – then there’s the psychology of it you know, as to how this thing is presented such as what you’re going to say and how you’re going to address things like where you’re going to do them – not necessarily the moves – but how you’re going to block it, for those people who are familiar with theatrical ideas. There’s so many different components but chances are you’re weak at more than one of these things so when you address it as an individual part first and then you combine them all, and usually there’s a synergy where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. So you improve on these certain aspects and then when you bring it back to the whole it boosts everything to a higher level, it doesn’t add, it’s not just a +1 – it’s a +5. So that really helped me and if I really thought about how much I practiced doing the magic especially – practiced a lot more at the beginning – I don’t practice a whole lot now, I practice very specific things though, like you’re saying because I’m trying to do very specific things with the magic I’m presenting these days and I’m really hyper-focused on those things – it’s less broad and more specific.

John McIntyre: Right, it seems like in the – like where this research came from – he mentions this in “Peak” – Anders mentions this in “Peak” – You have a violinist – When they’re trying to practice a song they’re just playing the song – let’s say it’s Beethoven’s 9th – I don’t even know – whatever, some song – I don’t even know if that’s the right one – I’m not really a classical music…So they just pick up their instrument, play the song a few times and “Ah, I kind of missed that bit up there”, play the song through a few more times and then we’ll be good – like that’s how an amateur practices. And at the same time – I’ll give that example in a second – The experts on the other hand, the way they will practice – like medium, the amateur/expert next level up – they’d play the song and keep missing a note in the intro – so they’d practice the whole intro, 16 bars or the whole first minute of the song or something like that – just that. But the expert – true experts who get really good and keep getting better – if they find there’s a specific note in the intro that they keep failing – they try to isolate that 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 second sequence in the intro and just practice that and they will practice it as many times as it take to make it perfect – let’s say ten times in a row – not do it ten times to get it right once but do it so they nail it every time consistently – You know, that’s just sort of practice and to just give you an idea and another example that I think is really fascinating, there was a study where they got a bunch of amateur singers – let’s say you and me went to a singing class and we really don’t care that much about singing – let’s go have some fun, go sing and they get a group of people like that and then a group of people who are really expert singers and really trying to improve – they both went through this lesson and afterwards here’s what was interesting right – the amateurs had a great time, right, and felt like they were refreshed – got a chance to express themselves and tap into that part of them that wants to sing and be joyful and all that sort of stuff, which is great. The experts, on the other hand, were exhausted and they didn’t necessarily enjoy it and they didn’t feel fulfilled or satisfied that they were able to express themselves – they felt like they’d practiced and the difference between them was that they noticed the amateurs looked at the practice as a chance to have fun, to enjoy themselves, to express themselves whereas the experts approached the practice as a chance to improve – using the practice again, to find out where they suck and then, again, to repeat that specific thing until it gets better. This brings up an interesting side note here because I’m doing the music and fundamentally I really, really do enjoy it _ I would really enjoy being on stage, I’ve done that before – there is a deep sense of satisfaction and meaning that drives it but at the same time I’m trying to temper this idea with the things I need to do to get better – that aren’t going to be fun, they’ll be positively uncomfortable and that I’m going to have to use self-discipline to do. It’s true, you can go and follow your passion, but if you want to get really, really good at something, no matter how much you like it and think it’s really, really fun – getting better and getting really, really good at it is hard work and it’s not fun – that’s just what the data says.

Dave Allan: I think you’re 100% right on that – everything that you get good at requires hard work or its not worth anything. And another aspect, just as you were talking, and you went through the various stages of finding out what you were terrible at – what was holding you back – One of the things that really helped me in learning magic, and in copywriting and a lot of things and I can remember the specific examples too – was when I saw other people who were good at it, FAIL. It reminded me, these are just people and are capable of failure, and it isn’t as easy as they make it look most of the time. So people are often measuring themselves against this ideal that they have, you know with magic is was certain professional magicians I looked up to or with copywriting it was the Gary Halberts or John Carltons of the world. But when you listened and eventually heard stories, and in some cases I saw people in person who did things very badly, and street magicians, when I first got into street magic I saw people who had been doing it for decades fail to be able to get a crowd- it emboldened me to work harder because I saw how – in bold relief I saw how that this is very difficult regardless of how long you’ve been doing it so it was almost, whoa, these people screw up too and so that really helped me focus even more. I don’t know if other people have that same experience- it almost, definitely kind of pulled back the curtain and you saw the wizard kind of thing.

John McIntyre: Right. And that reminds me – I mentioned before that the 10,000 hour rule is actually a lie. Because how that became a rule is that – Anders Eriksson did the research – the original scientist who did all the research behind elite performance – the book is incredible – totally worth reading. Malcolm Gladwell then wrote, I can’t remember what the book is called, one of his books, he then pulls it out of context and calls it the 10,000 hour rule and it’s a catchy way to refer to it takes a lot of time to get good. The reality was – the way I understand it – and the way the book seems to explain it – that its more like an economy where within say, violinists, being an elite solo violinist – that’s an old profession, it’s been around for 100s of years- so that means you have had people who have been doing it for 40, 50 years and who have also been standing on the shoulders of giants – there have been people developing methods to learn violin for hundred, thousands of years maybe – the violin is an industry maybe violin soloist learning and mastery side of it is very well developed. Therefore, it means if most violinists are putting in roughly 10,000 hours to reach an elite level of performance – you need to not hit 10,000 hours as he mentions in this book – 10,000 hours will take you 5 hours a day 4 days a week for 10 years, but what you’ve got to understand is that by the time you spend that ten years, where’s the violin industry going to be ten years from now, 2026, because maybe by that point people are investing thirteen thousand hours to become masters which means you don’t need 10,000, you need 13,000. Now this sounds kind of intimidating, but I think where this gets really interesting – Cal Newport has written a bit about this stuff – 10,000 hours and deliberate practice might apply to violin solos, it applies differently to, lets say there’s a new – let’s take Ruby as a programming language right – it’s been around for a while and you probably have a fairly high level of proficiency, a lot of experts around, a lot of ways to learn it, but because it’s a relatively new programming language, t might only take you 1500 hours to become an expert in that. Whereas you could take some brand new database CRM software, like go take a new salesforce release or machine learning software or whatever, go take something like that and there’s probably like two people in the world – you know, you might only need two hundred hours to become an elite expert at that. And so there’s this interesting economy and I’m thinking that the most significant event in our lives will be A.I. – artificial intelligence – and that’s a huge topic may e for another time and I’m thinking how could you apply it to A.I. and it’s a fairly new industry, been around for a couple decades and it’s proceeding at such a fast pace that whatever you learned from 10 years ago is not particularly relevant now – so if you wanted to become an A.I. expert, A.I. and nanotechnology and all that which will be huge industries – you could go apply this same thing. What don’t you know right now? What are your weaknesses? What do I need to get better at? And apply the same process – you’re choosing which game you want to play and each game has a different amount of hours that’s going to require to get good.

Dave Allan: I think that’s exactly true and for people out there we’re mostly talking about marketing and copywriting and that’s the same way to approach it – just chunk it – You know I think a guy I interviewed that i consider a friend, Roy Furr, who’s a copywriter that people may be familiar with and he actually wrote the letter for the Titans Of Direct Response event that Brian Kurtz put on – that’s one of his big successes – he said that Gary Bencivenga, whose considered the greatest living copywriter I guess, told him that the way he approached it was to get just 1% better every week. So he would go about learning, reading, applying things and learned to make himself 1% better and by the time you get to the end of the year – that’s 52%…

John McIntyre: Well, actually of you think about it- you have compound interest on that, 1% of 1% of 1% is more like 60 or 70% by the end of the year…

Dave Allan: That’s a good point. I did the same thing when I learned various card tricks and so forth – was I just chunked it down to the moves I had to learn- the ways in which I had to present it – and then eventually added them all back together – and once you come back to the whole, for instance with copywriting you’re going to learn about how to do offers or how to structure offers better and how to present them and so forth and you come back to the whole which would be like a long for sale page – it will boost it up – much higher than just adding it linearly – it will create that compound effect and the whole will be much greater. People out there you don’t have to do everything in a single day – it’s a journey and a friend of mine – Colin Theriot who runs the Cult of Copy – on Facebook, a group that probably any copywriter should be a part of – to hang out with other copywriters and learn and talk about this kind of stuff. He had said that there is no board, no judgment council that proclaims you capable – so its just can you produce the results or not and at first if you’re looking for somebody to say “Yes, you are now a copywriter!” – it’s just not going to happen – you have to just go out there, do it and fail like John said in an earlier podcast and cut your teeth. You’ve got to take action, you can listen to podcasts until you’re blue in the face, but action always trumps meditation. So just get out there and do something, trust me, when I started doing street magic and I went out there and talked to people walking by and nobody stopped or gave a you-know-what and then you became emboldened and numb to that and then you started talking louder, which is what you needed to do, and saying funnier things and acting more extroverted and it’s just a process so it gt a little better, a little better, a little better you know and even when you get really good at it – it’s still hard. That’s one thing to keep in mind, you don’t all of a sudden hit easy street and everything flows out of you and you never have to work hard again – it’s always a battle.

John McIntyre: Yeah, absolutely. And one thing – you mentioned this a moment ago – the time – you don’t need to be doing this all day every day. The data actually supports this, in this book he talks about the various violinists and how much they study and they found that the most expert – the elite violinists – weren’t the ones who practiced the most – I think this is revolutionary because you have guys like Gary V saying you need to be working 16 hours a day and if you don’t you’re going to fail and then you have Kanye West in the music industry saying he went and locked himself in a room and made beats for three months or four months and you have to be so passionate that you work all day. The reality is that most everyone can’t do that and sustain that level of focus and try and work for 16 or 18 hours a day you will burn out sooner or later or the quality of the work that you do just won’t be that great and you’ll end up reinforcing bad habits. What the research actually says – with these violinists is that the best violinists would practice for two hours usually in the morning when they’re fresh – they’d take a break, take a nap or a break of some kind and then they would practice for another two hours. They’d usually practice on average three and a half to four hours a day, five days a week – they slept on average one hour more per night than the average players and I think they had a more active social life as well. So that’s really interesting right, these most elite violinists practice less, have more sleep and have a better social life = the difference was when the amateur players practiced they would just sit there and play the song lots and lots of times which takes a lot of time, it’s not efficient – the expert players would go in there and let’s say practice for one and a half or two hours – the reason they would take a break or a nap was because of how intensely they were practicing and how much they were focusing on their weaknesses. the brain was so overloaded, so exhausted it needed to take a break, it had to rest and couldn’t have continued all day. So that’s something to keep in mind when you’re trying to learn copywriting or you’re trying to learn how to get clients – Intensity trumps volume.

Dave Allan: Yep. I think that’s a very good point. If memory serves me correctly, this very famous copywriter amongst copywriters by the name of Eugene Schwartz = he used to plant himself at his desk and set his egg-timer for 33 minutes and 33 seconds if I remember correctly and force himself to work but he only put in like two or three hours a day and had other pursuits, he was an art collector and so forth and he did all the stuff in the morning if I remember correctly – but he did that every day and by knowing what worked best for him he might have been onto something which was later borne out by the research.

John McIntyre: yeah, it’s like with the music I set a time for 60 minutes – no Facebook, no email, the idea is to be completely focused and then as soon as that time is finished take a ten minute break and then once that’s over back into it and you can apply that to learning anything – you might not need to take a nap but you need structure – like, if you were able to practice for four hours a day like that and do that consistently for three, six, twelve months, you’re going to be really, really…

Dave Allan: You’re going to crush

John McIntyre: Most people don’t have four hours of good focus time each day, you know.

Dave Allan: You know that’s really funny that you say it that way too because that’s one of the reasons I became a nomad and left the jobs I had several years ago was that I realized that because I was working normal jobs and had most of the time allocated to that- that I couldn’t allocate the time I wanted to learn the things I really wanted to learn – copywriting and , at the time I didn’t know I was going to be a street magician so eventually that – and so that’s one of the reasons I became a nomad was to get that time back so that I could focus on things I really wanted.

John McIntyre: Alright. Let’s wrap it up I think it’s been a pretty good discussion and if you can’t figure out how to learn anything after this then ….you’ve got some problems

Dave Allan: [laughter] There’s no hope for you!

John McIntyre: Maybe you need to go listen to this podcast with maybe lots of intensity, you know for four hours a day for a few weeks and then you’ll get it – maybe that’ll help. Anyway, well let’s wrap it up here – thank you for listening, links will be in the show notes at themcmethod.com, if people want to get a hold of you where should they go?

Dave Allan: makewordspay.com

John McIntyre: Cool, cool. Good chat and I’ll see you next time.

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