The concept of the Cooperative Principle was introduced by philosopher H. Paul Grice way back in 1975.
Grice had noticed that when two people are holding a conversation, they tend to cooperate in some important ways.
He framed the Cooperative Principle with four conversational ‘maxims’ people should follow to move a conversation forward.
Here’s a simplified version of what he drafted…
- The Maxim of Quantity: Be informative with enough information, but not too much.
- The Maxim of Quality: Don’t say what you believe to be false or misleading.
- The Maxim of Manner: Communicate clearly and briefly.
- The Maxim of Relevance: Keep it relevant.
While participants in a conversation might not always agree on what they’re talking about, they almost always apply these maxims, usually without even knowing it.
A conversation can survive pretty much everything… other than a breakdown in cooperation.
You can crash a conversation with just one or two words.
Jack: “Can you give me directions to the nearest coffee shop?”
In a literal sense, there is no problem there. The question was asked and answered. But even Alexa and Siri could figure out that Jack wasn’t looking for a yes/no answer. He wanted directions to a nearby coffee shop.
The maxim of quantity was broken. Not enough information.
Bob crashed the conversation by failing to be cooperative.
The idea of cooperating to move a conversation forward is profound.
Putting aside any application to writing and copywriting, I’m blown away by Grice’s insight that we cooperate when holding conversations.
While we might disagree, express ourselves poorly, repeat ourselves, and fail to listen carefully… we still protect the fabric or structure that keeps the conversation moving forward.
We still cooperate.
Without cooperating, our conversations would fall apart within moments. Like we saw with Bob.
And when you consider the role of conversation and debate in the rise of culture and civilization… I can’t image humans would have progressed much beyond the hunter-gatherer stage without adhering to the Cooperative Principle.
How this applies to the conversational approach to copywriting…
Here are those maxims again…
- Be informative with enough information, but not too much.
- Don’t say what you believe to be false or misleading.
- Communicate clearly and briefly.
- Keep it relevant.
If you’ve been a copywriter even for a short while, I bet you can see how these apply to writing sales copy.
Particularly if you’re a student of conversational copywriting.
Grab any page of sales copy, online or offline, and judge them according to the four maxims.
I’m pretty sure you’ll find that most examples of traditional sales copy break at least one maxim.
Sales copy depends on implicit cooperation between the writer and the reader.
Does it matter if sales copy breaks these maxims? After all, a page of sales copy isn’t exactly a conversation.
But the same maxims apply.
If the writer is long-winded, unclear, dishonest or wanders off in directions that are irrelevant… the reader will stop reading.
The reader depends on the writer following all four maxims.
But a good writer needs the reader’s cooperation too.
For example, take a look at this classic 6-word story attributed to Ernest Hemmingway…
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
The writer needs the reader to cooperate, because there is so much that hasn’t been said. What happened to the baby? What are the parents feeling right now?
The writer needs the reader to participate, to fill in the gaps… to cooperate.
The sharing of a story – or even a sales message – is a cooperative venture between the writer and reader.
This is why conversational copywriting is such a powerful choice.
Conversational copywriting follows all four of Brice’s maxims. You’ll see this is true if you read through our manifesto.
By its very nature, the conversational approach is cooperative… engaging both the writer and the reader.
And that cooperative approach is the perfect fit for the fastest-growing areas in digital media… like social media, text messaging and voice search.
The future of the web is all about cooperative conversations.
Which is why conversational copywriting is the future of selling online.