The Micro-Script Rules

By: Bill Schley



It’s rare that a book title says it all, but if there was ever a book to do it, it’s this one.

The Micro-Script Rules: It's not what people hear. It's what they repeat...

As author Bill Schley recounts, he got forwarded a secret email at the start of the 2008 recession. It was intended for the portfolio companies of venture capital firm Sequoia, and it set off a panic in Silicon Valley.

It said:

Forget about getting ahead, we’re talking survive. All assumptions prior to today are wrong. Do it right and you may be able to capitalise on this downturn and live...Nail your marketing message, now. Measure everything and cut what’s not working. A key takeaway: You can’t quit marketing and selling and stay in business. But if you keep spending fantasy bucks and don’t deliver an ROI, you’re toast.

Of course, nailing your marketing message is good advice, recession or otherwise.

And I’ve never used testimonials from jacket covers in our summaries before, but these two - by legendary marketing thinkers Jack Trout and Al Ries - are so good at explaining what Micro-Scripts are all about, I had to use them.

The Micro-Script Rules is dead on—it’s how to verbalise a point of difference. And without a one, you better have a low price.”

—JACK TROUT, co-author of the legendary Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind and Repositioning: Marketing in an era of competition, change, and crisis

“The missing ingredient in most marketing is memorability. Bill Schley has developed a list of Micro-Script rules that solve that problem. Well-organised and well-written.”

—AL RIES, co-author of the legendary Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind and War in the Boardroom

Let’s get started.

What’s a Micro-Script, anyways?

A Micro-Script is a message that people like to repeat, most often word-for-word, to inform or impress others. It will usually contain metaphors, vivid imagery or rhythmic sounds to paint a picture in the mind.

As Schley points out, great communicating is directly proportional to our capacity for cutting through the crap, finding the heart of the matter, making it our strategy, and then staying there.

There are 4 big rules to remember about Micro-Scripts.

Rule #1: It’s What They Repeat

Frank Luntz, the Republican word man who taught the GOP to use language like Death-tax instead of Estate-tax, and “No child left behind” instead of “The Mandatory Punitive School Testing Law”, once said:

“It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.”

Schley takes this one step further and says that the most important thing is not what people hear, it’s what they want to repeat after they’ve heard you.

This is a big distinction. If you can create a marketing message that describes your Dominant Selling Idea (more on that in a minute), and that people want to repeat, you’ve hit the jackpot.

Which leads us to the next rule.

Rule #2: Every Screen’s A Word of Mouth Machine

Word of mouth was big a deal in caveman times, took well-deserved break when radio and TV took over, and is now back out of retirement to rule the world once more with social media.

Getting your message down to a simple, repeatable message that people spread to their network is the holy grail of marketing.

Why? We’ll it’s because of…

Rule #3: What they want to repeat are Micro-Scripts

Raise your hand right now if you’ve ever been to Las Vegas. Now keep your hand up if somebody in your group slyly winked at the rest of you and said, “hey, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas?”

You can put your hand down now. Just do a simple search of your favourite social media network for that phrase and you’ll realise that it’s alive and well, selling Las Vegas as the destination for when you want to get away from it all and let loose.

Rule #4: Build Them on Dominant Selling Ideas

As Schley points out, A Dominant Selling Idea is the one most unique, important and own-able advantage that you can claim that others don’t — your single, best, differentiating attribute. It’s brand positioning brought to its sharpest, most specific edge.

Safest car. The dentists #1 toothpaste. The working mans favourite beer. The fastest headache pill.

Here’s an example of a Dominant Selling Idea and its Micro-Script counterpart.

DSI: If the glove you found at the crime scene doesn’t belong to OJ Simpson, he must not be guilty.

Micro-Script: If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.

Why this is important

The right 5 words will always beat 5,000.


Human beings do not consume your marketing message like you think they do. You present them in a boardroom to a captive audience who listens and obsesses over every word.

But your target market couldn’t care less. Not only are they bombarded with thousands of other messages every single day, they are also in a rush and most likely stressed out about something going on in their lives.

And when things get tense and overwhelming for people, built in heuristics take over. We make snap judgments based on the smallest amount of data. We try and cut to the heart of the matter, even if we are off the mark by a country mile.

All to say that we have a bias against things being complicated. It’s why the sayings “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”, “if the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit”, and “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” are still being passed around today even though they were first said decades ago.

Remember: the idea that’s say-able is always more play-able.

Some famous examples

Here are some more examples to get your creative juices flowing.

“It’s made from sugar so it tastes like sugar…”

Splenda used that Micro-Script to rocket to a 50% market share within three years of being introduced. The whole “made from sugar” thing was a stretch, and the scientist who accidentally discovered Splenda was trying to invent a new insecticide.

However, even a successful lawsuit by their competitors banning them from making the claim about sugar didn’t make a dent in their rise to success.

Michael Pollan, a guy who probably doesn’t like Splenda at all, wrote a best-selling book called In Defense of Food. It contained 244 pages, but the first seven words on the very first page said this:

Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Pollen had to apologise that he’d given away the entire book in the first seven words and had to find a way to fill the other 200 pages. Now that’s a book summary.

Go ahead and search for that exact phrase on your favourite social network and you’ll see it quoted multiple times daily, even though the book was published in 2008.

Sticking with the theme, here’s another book summary. A Talmudic scholar was once asked if he could explain the Bible. He said that he could do it in one sentence:

“Do unto others as you’d have others do to you.”

The rest, he said, is commentary.

And if a NY Times best-selling book and the entirety of the Bible can be boiled down to a simple repeatable phrase that gets to the heart of the idea, so can your product, service, or company.

Finding your Dominant Selling Idea

Notice that it’s a Dominant Selling Idea - singular, not plural. That’s because all great value propositions have a single promise. Not two, three or twenty.

It’s one attribute or advantage that’s most important to the target that you do best. Safest tire. Fastest human. The only shoes that breathe.

Here’s the thing - when you give somebody a data dump, they’ll simply pick out whatever idea they deem to be what’s important for them anyways. So you might as well make it the one thing you want them to walk away with.

Here are some current brands that do a great job with their DSIs:

Splenda—the non-artificial low-calorie sweetener
Geox Shoes—The first shoes that have ventilation in the soles.
Geico—the car insurance that’s 15% cheaper.

But what you were probably thinking in your head were the Micro-Scripts that go along with those DSIs:

Splenda—made from sugar so it tastes like sugar
Geox—the shoes that breathe
Geico—15 minutes saves you 15%

Here are the five ingredients that those brands use to enable their proposition to be a Dominant Selling Idea:

It tells people you are:

1. “Best at.” It says you are number one at something. The best (      ). The only one with ( ).
The most (      ) , etc.

2. Important. What you’re #1 in has to be something that matters.

3. Believable. There has to be a unique, plausible reason why you claim the above that makes logical sense.

4. Measurable. It must be specific and obvious in your performance.

5. Own-able. Not already taken by somebody else.

The 4-step process to find your Micro-Scripts

Now that you’ve got your Dominant Selling Idea, it’s time to start panning for Micro-Script gold.

Here’s the four step process to get there.

1. Hypothesise. — Pose Some Simple Questions

Usually, the basics are the key to the whole thing, and Micro-Scripts are no different.

Head out, and talk to as many stakeholders as you can. Ask them to tell you what your big idea is, in their own words.

As Schley says, you’ll be amazed at the likelihood that someone you never expected, without realising it, simply gives you the golden nugget you’ve been looking for.

Ask a lot of questions. Make sure to take copious notes.

2. Plagiarise — Borrow the Already Proven from the Already Great Who are Already Around You

No, you shouldn’t go and steal somebody else’s Micro-Script to use for your business.

What you should do is follow your best sales people (or people who sell something similar to what you sell) and listen to exactly what they say to convince prospects to become customers.

Again, make sure to take copious, word-for-word notes.

3. Memorialise — Jot Down a Little Story; Let the Story Crystallise More Ideas

Now that you’ve got some inspiration, write down some stories about how your product or service makes the lives of the people who use it better.

Use that story to crystallise more ideas, which leads to more stories, which leads to more ideas…until eventually you’ll find the headline for your campaign in the copy.

As Schley’s boss at the advertising agency Ted Bates (the people who invented the USP) once told him:

The best headline’s always in the copy.

4. Synthesise—Collect the Pieces and Put Together Micro-Scripts

This is the easiest part. If you’ve done a good job of writing down the story and found some good lines, now it’s just time to pull out the Micro-Scripts that are already there.

Of course, remember that these are just candidates until they prove that they are repeatable.

When you start finding people repeating your Micro-Script (and it communicates your Dominant Selling Idea), you’ll know you’ve made it to the finish line.

Proven Templates

Finally, let’s look at some proven templates you can use to create your very own Micro-Script.

Template 1 - The A/B Equation

The pattern you’ll see most often is a simple logic equation, which can come in a few forms.

Here are some examples:

You snooze, you lose (If A, then B)
No pain, no gain (A causes B)
A diamond is forever (A is B)

Template 2 - The Stark Reminder

This Micro-Script gets right to the point. It says “Do or don’t do this.”

Here are some examples:

Just do it!
Just say no!
Save the whales.

Template 3 - Unique Wordplay

This is a unique, clever, entertaining word combination that lends itself to memory and speech. They almost always include a rhyme or rhythm that is pleasing to the ear.

Here are some examples:

Snap, Crackle and Pop!
I came, I saw, I conquered.

Template 4 - The Whole Micro-Story

Finally, nothing is more powerful than a Micro-Script that tells the whole story.

Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway wrote the following on a bet that he couldn’t tell a story in six words:

For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn.

But you don’t have to be Hemingway to write headlines that convey a story. Consider this headline, widely considered to be the best headline in copywriting history:

They laughed when I sat down at the piano, but when I started to play…

Use one or all of these templates as you are exploring your own Micro-Scripts and you are bound to land on one that works.


The Micro-Script Rules: It's not what people hear. It's what they repeat.

Now it’s time to get to work.