“How To”... 7 Rules for Leveraging the 2 Most Powerful Words

Aaron Orendorff
Aaron Orendorff

A few weeks ago I gave my Intro to College Composition class a handout with the wildly ambitious and (albeit) slightly ambiguous title:

Process Analysis: The Most Important Handout You’ll EVER Get… Seriously.

The sheet’s opening lines weren’t exactly gangbusters (especially for folks outside the course), but—as hard-won audience analysis has taught me—when instructing on a college campus you either use the textbook or invariably face the righteous indignation of the more vocal students.

(I think has something to do with the price of textbooks. )

Anyway, the handout began:

Paul Eschholz and Alfred Rosa’s Subject & Strategy: A Writer’s Reader define the “strategy of process analysis” as involving three basic parts:

. . . [1] separating an event, an operation, or a cycle of development into distinct steps, [2] describing each step precisely, and [3] arranging the steps in their proper order (223).

I know what you’re thinking: “Wow. Way to back up that big, hairy title.”

Thanks. But hang in there, because here’s where things get good.

At its core, process analysis is about leveraging the two most lucrative, most compelling, and most powerful words in the English language: “How To.”

Want proof?

Head over to Copyblogger’s Free Membership page and just peruse the titles…

What’ll you find?

A pattern.

  • How to Craft Compelling Copy
  • How to Write Magnetic Headlines
  • How to Create Compelling Content that Ranks Well in Search Engines
  • How to Build an Audience that Builds Your Business
  • How to Create Content that Converts
  • How to Effectively Promote Your Content
  • How to Build Authority through Content and Google Authorship
  • How to Push Send and Grow Your Business

Now, before you jump ship and actually do head over to Copyblogger, let’s ask the obvious:

What is it that makes “how to” so damn lucrative, compelling, and powerful?

The answer: because “how to” makes a promise.

You don’t know.

I do.

But don’t worry…

I will show you.

Doesn’t matter what the topic is: copywriting, bass fishing, building better relationships, or building a better deck.

“How to” is powerful precisely because it’s practical. Because it’s need based.

“How to” saddles up beside you and calmly assures, “I know where you’re at. I’ve been there… it’s a cold, dark, lonely place. You feel confused, uncertain, and (above all) inadequate. But there’s good news. You don’t have to stay there. Sure, the door’s lock and the windows are barred, but I can give you the key. All you have to do is pay attention and I will show you exactly what to do.”

Also, “how to” promises steps: an actionable list of “1, 2, 3” that you can actually follow.

Lastly, “how to” promises results: if you do what I did, you’ll get what I got.

This principle of promise is illustrated in literally every copywriting book on the market, both implicitly in the titles as well as explicitly in each and every chapter on the most holy of Holy (copywriting) Grails: the headline.

A perfect example of this is what CopyHacker Joanna Wiebe calls “Formula 3: The How-To”:

FORMULA: “How to” + verb + noun + benefit

How to Support Customers 7x Faster with GizmoJo

How to Transform Your iPad into a Money-Making Machine

You get the idea.

The question I want to focus on is simple:

How do you “how to”?

2 words. 7 rules. Let’s get started:

1. Never start with “how.” Always start with “why.”

The first question in every audience’s mind is always: “Why should I care?”

Until you tell your audience “why,” there’s no point in telling them “how.”


Because if they don’t care, they won’t listen… nor will they read… nor will they BUY.

This is precisely why every good (read: every profitable) piece of copy from time immemorial starts with the benefits (particularly the emotional, save-you-from-this-hell-and-get-you-into-this-heaven benefits) instead of the features.

Check out Robert W. Bly’s chapter on “Writing to Sell” from The Copywriter’s Handbook for some great tips on (not to be cheeky) how to do this well.

2. Put last things first. And first things second.

Give your audience a clear picture of the final project or end result right from the beginning.

In structural (or rhetorical) terms, this means leading with your thesis.

In copywriting terms, this means majoring on the “After” in the old “Before and After” formula.

Marketing Experiments does a phenomenal job of putting last things first with titles like “Long Copy vs. Short Copy: How
discovering the optimal length of a webpage produced a 220% increase in conversion” and “When Should You Reveal Price?
The 3 principles of presenting price and how they helped one company generate a 97% increase in conversion.”

Bottom line: tell your audience the destination—where you’re going—before you tell them the directions—how you’re going to get there.

3. Use (ridiculously) obvious transitions.

Don’t over think it. Everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) loves a good list.

“First . . . Second . . . Third . . .”

“A . . . B . . . C . . .”

“1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . .”

“At the start . . . In the middle . . . At
the end . . .”

(or even)

“What? . . . Why? . . . How? . . .”

Create and stick to a clear structure. Your English teachers and customers will thank you.

4. Be consistent.

I hate to say it but (when it comes to communication) creativity is overrated.

Way overrated.

Get your innovation on when it comes to products and content. But on the structural, linguistic, talking-like-a-real-human-being side: do not get fancy.

No where is this more true than when it comes to maximizing a how to.

Clarity. Clarity. Clarity.

How? The easiest way is to select and then USE the same keywords throughout your entire analysis, especially in your main points and subheadings.

If you tell me, “There’re 5 steps to this process,” don’t tell me in the next paragraph, “The first rule is…”

If there’re “5 steps to this process,” then tell me, “The first step is…”

If you’re writing about how comprehensive your product is, then (1) tell me your going to tell me it’s comprehensive, (2) tell
me it’s comprehensive, and then (3) tell me about how you told me it’s comprehensive.

And, above all (for the love of Godin) if you say, “5 Tips to a Better Body,” then make sure there’re 5 tips (period).

5. Be precise.

Avoid abstractions, generalizations, estimations, and vagaries.

A good how-to is like a recipe. I don’t want to know that there’re eggs in the cake. I want to know exactly how many eggs, when to put ‘em in, and how long they should be whipped.

Moreover, I don’t want to know I should bake it. I want to know what temperature, for how long… and at what elevation.

Follow Natalie Goldberg’s timeless advice:

Be specific.

Don’t say “fruit.” Tell what kind of fruit—“It’s a pomegranate.”

Give things the dignity of their names.

Remember, the promise of how-to isn’t just that you know how to do what I don’t.

The promise is, you’ll show me.

An ongoing example of this is Copyblogger’s “Here’s How [So-and-So] Writers” series. Without precision, how else would you get gems like this from their post on Austin Kleon?

Who or what is your “Muse” at the moment (i.e. specific creative inspirations)?

Reading obituaries. I find that thinking about death every morning makes me happy to be alive and guilty that I’m not up making something.

6. Keep it simple, stupid (KISS).

Never assume your audience knows… anything.

This is especially true of anything technical, meaning anything you didn’t know the first time around.

Two rules of thumb should help:

First, if you had to look it up… then you better define it.

Second, if the average high schooler would’t get it… neither will your average reader.

There’s nothing worse than getting to step 4 in a 6-step article on writing effective web copy and reading, “Optimize for SEO.” First, if I knew how to optimize for SEO, I wouldn’t be reading your article on writing effective web copy. Second, the “O” in SEO already stands for “Optimization.”

Of course, that one’s obvious, but it illustrates the point well.

7. Examples. Examples. Examples.


Tell a story.

Present an illustration.

Put flesh on it.

Draw a picture.

Chart a graph.

Above all, make it real.

The “how to” genre lives and dies by its connection to reality. The clearer that connection, the more life it has.

Reality is where “how-to” power comes from.

Make me see it. Make me hear it. Make me smell it. Make me taste it. Make me feel it.


Well, I can’t give you all my secrets.

Let’s save the world from bad content

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