by John Wood

“Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle.”

That just might be the most famous piece of sales advice ever. And as a copywriter, knowing the real meaning behind those words can transform your writing – and your career.

I often wondered who came up with such a great line. Until about a week ago, I still didn’t know …

I was reading Joe Vitale’s latest book, Buying Trances. In it, he mentions Elmer Wheeler as its originator.

Who’s “Elmer Wheeler”?

Born in 1904, Mr. Wheeler was well known as one of the pioneers of persuasion.

In Buying Trances, Joe tells the story of how Texaco was looking to sell more oil to its customers. Too many people, without giving it a second thought, said “no” when a service station attendant asked, “Check your oil today?”

Wheeler suggested replacing the question with “Is your oil at the proper level today, sir?”

Now asking something like “Is your oil at the proper level today, sir?” would seem to be just common sense. A line so simple you’d think most gas station owners would naturally come up with it – but few did.

This is why Texaco paid Wheeler $5,000 for those nine words … a small fortune in the depression-riddled 1930s.

They got their money’s worth and more. In one week, Texaco attendants got under 250,000 more hoods.

Another Wheeler sales triumph came when he was asked by the president of Barbasol to help them sell more shaving cream.

The first slogan they tried was “How Would You Like to Save Six Minutes Shaving?”

Wheeler instructed their salespeople to then say “Use Barbasol. Just spread it on. Shave it off. Nothing else required!”

When they tested it, they found it increased sales by 102%.

A light bulb went off in Wheeler’s head, and he changed the slogan to “How would you like to slash your shaving time in half?”

That adjustment increased sales by another 300%.

Over the years, Wheeler tested 105,000 selling statements for 5,000 products. He eliminated 100,000 of them.

He summed up the philosophy behind what he called “Tested Selling” by saying …

“Don’t think so much about what you want to say as about what the prospect wants to hear– then the response you will get will more often be the one you are aiming for.”

Great advice.

In his book Testing Sentences That Sell, Wheeler laid out his five “Wheelerpoints:”

  • Wheelerpoint #1. “Don’t sell the steak – sell the sizzle.”It’s one of the first things a new copywriter learns. Sell benefits and deeper benefits. Your prospect could care less about the product.
  • Wheelerpoint #2. “Don’t write – telegraph!” Back in Wheeler’s day, telegraphs were a popular way for people to send messages. But you were charged by the word, so, to keep the price down, you had to choose your words wisely. By saying “Don’t write – telegraph,” Wheeler meant “Make every word count.” He often said that your first 10 words are more important than the next 10,000, and you have only 10 short seconds to catch your prospect’s attention.
  • Wheelerpoint #3. “Say it with flowers.” This simply means that it’s not enough to make a statement to your prospect, you have to prove it. In other words, say “I love you,” and then prove it by sending flowers. (Of course, you have to be sincere and do it convincingly.
  • Wheelerpoint #4. “Don’t ask if – ask which.” Meaning, always give your prospect a choice between something and something … never between something and nothing. For Abraham and Straus, Wheeler worked out a way for their soda fountains to sell more eggs. Instead of asking “Would you like an egg with that?” the clerk would ask “One egg or two eggs?” while holding an egg in each hand. The result? It induced seven out of 10 customers to add at least one egg to their order. I’d like to add my two cents to this one …I’m continually surprised by how many waiters and waitresses don’t use this gentle sales technique. Most ask if you’ll be having wine with dinner. Few say “Will you be having white wine or red wine with dinner tonight?”And, one more example from Wheelerfor this point: He noticed that when a customer at the soda fountain requested a cola and was asked whether they wanted “small” or “large,” most chose “small.’ He wondered what would happen if the clerk, instead, just said “Large one?” When they put it to the test, they found that seven out of 10 people said “Yes.” This simple idea could have a dramatic impact on a fast-food restaurant’s bottom line. If they sell 500 drinks a day and the difference between a small and a large is 50 cents, converting 70% of their drink orders to large translates into an additional $175 per day. Over a year, that’s an increase of $63,875!
  • Wheelerpoint #5. “Watch your bark!” This one came out of Wheeler’s love of dogs – and how much you can tell about how a dog feels by the way they wag their tails and the sound of their barks. So by saying “Watch your bark!” Wheeler’s reminding us that it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. For copywriters, that means keeping the tone of your copy conversational and engaging.

I’ve printed out these five Wheelerpoints and taped them up next to my computer. They’re as meaningful for all of us in the “persuasion business” today as they were when Elmer came up with them 60+ years ago.

Wheeler wrote many books during his life. They are hard to find, however, you can access his Testing Sentences That Sell, free of charge, online at:

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