Gary Halbert: 7 Lessons From An Infamous Copywriting Legend

Gary Halbert

As a beginner copywriter, I always heard references to “The Boron Letters”.

They were mentioned in every Facebook group, podcast, and Reddit thread.

I wasn’t sure why they were so important.

However, I began handwriting the letters to get a feel for “great copywriting”. 

I quickly realized that Gary Halbert was a copywriting genius. He understood human psychology deeply and knew how to apply copywriting frameworks to make consistent sales.

The letters felt like they were written specifically for me. 

At the time it seemed like I had my own copywriting coach. 

Throughout this article, I’ll explain who Gary Halbert was and seven lessons I’ve learned from this copywriting legend.

So who is Gary Halbert?

Gary Halbert is arguably one of the greatest copywriters there ever was. 

Before Optimizely or Crazy Egg made it easy to run A/B tests Halbert was experimenting the old-school way. 

He would write different variations of his copy, mail it out, and wait until the letters were received before making a decision on which converted best. He then built a list of proven formulas that copywriters around the world still reference.

Unfortunately, Halbert was charged with tax fraud in the 1980s and spent a fair amount of time in Boron Federal Penitentiary. This is where Halbert started writing letters to his son. Eventually, the letters were grouped and they formed “The Boron Letters”.

Why are The Boron Letters so famous? 

First and foremost the Boron Letters were written from Boron Federal Penitentiary. This already makes them interesting.

They weren't exactly something you found at your local library.

Personal writings from the greats have always been sought after. Consider Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. The whole world has studied these to learn more about Stoicism.

It’s the same with Gary Halbert. The Boron Letters are timeless and they teach us everything we need to know about copywriting (and business). With proven strategies to back them up!

Lessons We Can Learn From Gary Halbert

The Boron Letters weren’t the only letters Halbert wrote. There were other direct marketing newsletters that had copywriting gems. Below are the most important lessons every copywriter can learn from Gary Halbert.

1. How to write a headline

We know headlines are important.

More than ever since attention is incredibly difficult to gain on the internet.

Halbert knew how to take a generic headline and tweak it to be compelling. In Chapter 9 of the Boron Letters Halbert shows how to go from a generic to a specific headline by making it more focused. For example

  • Generic: How You Can Make Extra Money
  • Specific: How To Buy L.A. Real Estate With No Money Down

The end goal and the customer are still the same. All that changed was the method in the title – this is now intriguing.

So whenever you’re writing a headline, be sure to nail your audience and make the headline very specific to their desires. The more intriguing the better.

2. A winning formula is the most important

Halbert knew the importance of a winning formula. 

He also mentions in Chapter 9 of the Borron Letters that a winning formula is more important than the profit you make from a single campaign. 

He often used the AIDA formula to build his sales letters. This stands for:

  • Attention: Grab the reader's attention as soon as possible without annoying the reader.
  • Interest: Pique the reader's interest and give them a reason to continue reading.
  • Desire: Show the reader how you’ll solve their problem and make their life better.
  • Action: Tell the reader what to do next.

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3. Grab attention without annoying the reader.

Ever found a $50 or $100 note on the floor?

You get this small rush of excitement when you spot it. “Free money” you’re probably thinking.

By now you probably know where this is going.

You pick it up, and something seems off. You turn it over and boom… it’s fake.

An advertisement for a plumbing company to get $50 off your next water heater installation.

This is f*cking annoying.

Never do this!

Halbert makes it clear to grab your reader's attention but never under any circumstances annoy them. 

Gimmicks that trick the reader into giving you their attention never work. They become resentful and you’ll never make the sale. 

If you deeply understand your customer's problems getting their attention won't be hard.

4. Build a swipe file!

Plumbers have vans with tools. Copywriters have swipe files with proven formulas. 

It’s just how the world works.

And Gary Halbert sure believed this to be true. 

Make yourself a collection (a “swipe file”) of good ads and good DM pieces and read them and take notes. (Eric and Blade can help.)

Gary Halbert, Boron Letters

Here are 6 resources you’ll need to grow your copywriting swipe file:

➡️ Simple Science of Copywriting: Become a better copywriter in two weeks. Includes resources.

➡️ Marketing Examples: Contains copywriting examples to help generate ideas.

➡️ Swipe File: Contains copywriting examples to help generate ideas.

➡️ SubReddit Stats: Use this for Problem identification & user research.

➡️ Anvaka Reddit Tool: Use this for problem identification & user research.

➡️ User Testing: Use this for problem identification, customer interviews & user research.

Related: Best copywriting tools and resources.

5. Find a starving crowd

One aspect of business that is often overlooked is market demand.

Do people actually need what you’re selling?

According to Gary Halbert, you must find a starving crowd. Or at the very least they need to be hungry. 

Think about it. When it comes to direct marketing, the most profitable habit you can cultivate is the habit of constantly being on the lookout for groups of people (markets) who have demonstrated that they are starving (or, at least hungry) for some particular product or service.

Gary Halbert, Direct Marketing Newsletter

Whenever starting any business, it’s critical to validate your idea as soon as possible. All your copywriting efforts will go to waste if you’re selling to an audience without a problem that needs solving. 

6. Translates facts into benefits

This is my favorite lesson.

Every copywriter needs to practice this exercise.

Translating a feature list into a benefits list for your reader is what separates the good and the great.

I told you to make your FACT SHEET as detailed as possible and then go over it very carefully and translate the facts therein to benefit for the buyer and to create a humongous BENEFIT LIST.

Get It Going Newsletter, Gary Halbert

Halbert makes it clear that you need to spend time uncovering every single fact.

After you make your fact sheet be sure to ask “so what does this mean for my reader?”. This will help you develop a very clear and compelling benefit. 

This is what makes your copy truly irresistible.

7. Always test your copy

Gary Halbert was the original A/B testing guru.

He knew that a winning formula is much more valuable than a bit of short-term profit.

If you can consistently test your copy you’ll eventually find a winner.

Tools like Crazy Egg or Optimizely make this so easy.

In some cases, you don’t even need to do anything complicated. 

Facebook ads make it easy for you to test multiple campaigns to the same audience.

ConvertKit makes it easy for you to test headlines and intro copy to your list.

LeadPages makes it easy to service different landing pages to your users.

The list goes on.

It’s very easy to test your copy, and it’s essential. 

Wrapping up

Gary Halbert loved copywriting. 

It was clear he relied on his swipe file to find inspiration and tested variations of his copy to find winners. Any beginner copywriter should study the Boron Letters before they write copy.

Here are the seven lessons we can learn from Gary Halbert:

  1. How to write a headline.
  2. A winning formula is most important.
  3. Grab attention without annoying the reader.
  4. Build a swipe file!
  5. Find a starving crowd.
  6. Translate facts into benefits.
  7. Always test your copy.

I help B2B software and service companies nail marketing and growth. In other words, I fill your bucket with water and plug all of the leaks.

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This blog is supported by readers. I put a lot of effort into personally using and thoroughly testing every product (digital or physical). So, I may earn an affiliate commission if you buy a product or service through a link, at no additional cost to you.

I help B2B software and service companies nail marketing and growth. In other words, I fill your bucket with water and plug all of the leaks.

Need help with growth?