How Social Engineering Can Make You a Better Copywriter

Adrian Lamo, Kevin Mitnick, and Kevin Poulson

A few years ago, when I started interviewing subject matter experts (SMEs) about their products and services, I struggled with knowing the proper lingo (cybersecurity SMEs have their own jargon), asking the right questions, having enough confidence, and ultimately being a good enough “listener” to pick up more than just the words being spoken.

As a tech guy from way back (any Commodore 64 fans out there?), I've had a fascination with hackers like Kevin Mitnick and how they are able to get their marks to trust them enough to give them access to confidential information. I like studying what they do, and find their exploits fascinating.

Who is Kevin Mitnick?

In case you're not familiar with Kevin Mitnick, he is a famous hacker who is known for breaking into large technology companies like Motorola, Sun Microsystems, and Novell in the 1980s and 90s. While these days it seems like a lot of hackers are destructive in nature, Mitnick never destroyed anything. He gained access (usually through social engineering) and made copies of information.

One of Mitnick's biggest assets is the ability to use social engineering to get people to trust him and give him the information he needs. He has the ability to get people on the phone and ask them questions in such a way that they feel comfortable enough to give him confidential information.

Unfortunately for Mitnick, his addiction to hacking destroyed his marriage and he ended up being on the FBI's Most Wanted Cyber Criminal list before being arrested in 1995.

Building trust with social engineering

As copywriters, we aren't hackers and we don't break into institutions to steal information. We don't even dumpster dive for critical pieces of information (well, not usually). However, we do need to be able to get on the phone with clients, their customers, and others and get them to trust us so that we can ask them the right questions and get them to give us honest answers.

Maybe it's asking about the customer's business or wanting to hear about their needs. It's all about getting people to know, like, and trust us, and in this way social engineering can help us obtain this goal.

Here are three things I learned from social engineering that can help you build trust when interviewing someone for your next copywriting project:

1. Know the lingo

In social engineering, when you talk to your mark, you need to know the lingo if you are going to get them to trust you. For example, if you can’t talk tech to a systems administrator, it’s unlikely they’ll give you the information you need.

The same is true when you interview a subject matter expert. If you’re discussing the latest hacking exploits and don’t know the buzzwords, you’re likely to lose credibility and they won’t trust you to write the content.

2. Dive deep into your research

When hacking, Mitnick often took several steps in order to infiltrate a system. For example, it may start with doing research and then searching for information that would help him gain access. The next step may be to call a person with insider access and build trust so they will give him the login credentials he needs.

The same is true for copywriting. We need to research our subjects and create the right questions before we get on the phone or video conference. This includes a full immersion to learn intimately about the company, its market, the product or service, its subject matter experts, and the competition.

3. Listen to more than just the words

While practicing social engineering, Mitnick needed to listen to the person on the other end of the phone and pay attention to more than just the words. Based upon their voice, is the mark buying into the story? Am I building trust or are they about to end the conversation and call the FBI?

As a copywriter, it helps to listen to more than just the words. That can include intonation and, if possible, body language. You need to empathize with your clients to help build trust. This includes understanding their stresses, causes of anxiety, and concerns. “Listening” to more than just the words can help you pick up on your client’s driving motivation and tailor your services to meet their needs.

What if you’re not a master of social engineering like Kevin Mitnick? The good news is that you don’t have to be in order to benefit from these tips. By knowing the lingo, doing your research, and listening to more than just words, you can build trust when you interview SMEs, CEOs, and more. Once you’ve established that trust, your copywriting will improve.

About the Author

Chris Hardee is a tech copywriter who creates compelling copy with a strong voice and simplifies complex ideas for a broader audience.

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