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Are You Writing ‘Table Stakes’ Copy? (If So, Don’t Bother)

By Momoko Price, July 12, 2014

So the other day I had an interesting conversation about good vs. bad copy with a colleague the other day …

She asked for feedback on a tagline she’d thought up for her online portfolio. English wasn’t her first language, so she wanted a sanity check from a professional copywriter. Her proposed tagline?

“I create rich user experiences.”

My reaction?

The tough part was trying to explain what didn’t work. After failing to get it across with my standard points (unique value propositions; be specific; show don’t tell), I finally blurted out something that hit home:

“The problem is … it’s table-stakes copy,” I said. “You know, table stakes — like in poker?”

Once I explained the concept, she could finally see what was wrong and why. ‘Table stakes’ (often misspelled and incorrectly referenced in business PR circles as ‘table steaks’) refers to the minimum buy-in a poker player has to make to play the hand. "You want to play? You put in the same amount as the next guy and we’ll go from there."

From a writer’s perspective, table-stakes copy is the kind of copy that fails to “up the ante” (if you’ll excuse me trampling all over this poker metaphor). It’s copy that tries — and fails — to sell by focusing on the bare minimum your client/customer expects from you, rather than highlighting the extra-special oomph that you — and ONLY you — can bring to the game.

Here are just a few examples of “table-stakes” copy:

“I’m a UX designer who creates rich user experiences”

“I’m a software developer who writes clean code”

“I’m a project manager who keeps teams organized”

I mean yes, there are sub-par UX designers who create thin, janky user experiences. And there are software developers who ship unforgivable snarls of spaghetti code. But they’re the guys who, if “The House” (a.k.a your prospective client) had its way, wouldn’t even get to sit at the poker table.

If you want your sales copy to grab people’s attention and get them excited, it has to up the ante. It has to highlight something unique & valuable about your offer that goes beyond what the guy beside you is putting down. Anything less, functionally speaking, is just boilerplate. Space filler. Noise.

So the next time you get a chance, take a few minutes and try identify what the "table stakes" of your industry are by looking at a few competitor websites. What’s their baseline offer? Then, once you’ve figured it out, make darn sure your sales copy goes above and beyond it — and your business will be all the better for it.

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