John Caples: The Genius Behind “They Laughed When I Sat At The Piano 

By  Csaba Borzasi

Today we will look at one of the most memorable headlines of all time.

It was written by the legendary copywriter John Caples in 1927...

But don't let that fool you - even though this ad is almost 95 years old (!), it's still as punchy as ever.

I'm serious, read it and see.

The way Caples tapped into a key universal fear that people have (being looked down upon) is nothing short of spectacular!

In a few short sentences, you find yourself completely rooting for John - and in the process, you’re getting emotionally invested in the ad as well.

This beautifully demonstrates that emotional copywriting is timeless...

And you can still influence people just as effectively using the same principles today.

It's a super short ad that ran in newspapers...

So let’s break it down, shall we?

Prefer video instead? Watch Below!

How John Caples Addresses The Reader’s Key Universal Fears

“They laughed when I sat at the piano but when I started to play…”

The ad starts with an interesting scenario where the protagonist gets up to perform on stage after an iconic performance of “The Rosary”.

As he is excited about his turn, he hears the audience mocking him. A girl says, “Can he really play?” to which someone responds, “he never played a note in his life”...

That’s how the lead section builds the tension and performance anxiety that most people experience whenever there is a major event.

As per Eugene Schwartz, you should address mass fears and desires in your copy - and John Caples does exactly that by evoking the emotion of shame.

At the same time, though, he kind of alludes to the upcoming surprise, which helps evoke the emotion without making it uncomfortable.

Many people may relate to this and thus are immediately drawn to the story.

Moving on, John musters up the courage and starts playing the piano. As he’s playing, the laughter dies away and people are left in awe.

Then John begins to enjoy himself so much that he forgets about the audience around him. He gets into deep flow. His friends are spellbound.

Everyone in the room is astonished by John, while he is truly enjoying the experience.

If that’s not a desirable outcome, then I don’t know what is.

This story lead cleverly leads the audience to their ideal scenario, showing it is absolutely possible for them to perform like a pro too.

Moreover, the vivid details make the scenario more engaging, like you are experiencing it as an audience, which helps with our own feeling of amazement.

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How John Caples Uses The Hero’s Journey

“Where did you learn that?

How long have you studied?

Who was your teacher?”

Suddenly, everyone starts asking these questions.

John Caples, to everyone’s surprise, claims that he’s only been studying for a short while, and that he decided to keep it a secret to surprise his friends.

Next, he reveals that he learned through a new correspondence system, within a few weeks, from the US School of Music.

This is when the unique sales propositions (USP) is introduced to the story.

While sharing the details, John says that he saw an ad in a newspaper about a woman who mastered the piano without a teacher.

In addition to that, the new system does not need the painstaking effort that standard music learning is associated with.

Wow! That’s great.

Notice how brilliantly the story lead has been used to challenge a preexisting belief, that hours of practice are required to master the skill.

It shows that anyone who wants to learn how to play the piano can easily do so without extensive and time-consuming practice - just like the woman in the ad did.

Stories help cut through rational barriers and help engage the audience. We are naturally attracte to storytelling, and are always looking forward to learning what happens next in the plot.

We have to give it to John Caples: the overall structure of the ad is perfect in many ways.

This is why it has been copied over and over again in several promotions to date.

Closing Off With A Strong Promise Of Results

The last section of the ad gives a bold prediction that you too can learn to play any instrument in half the usual time.

“The simple method that has shown half a million people how to play their favorite instruments.”

So, you can be talented too!

What an amazing ad. As a reader, you don’t lose the appeal at any stage.

A huge round of applause for John Caples for this very popular promotion. Despite being a relatively long story lead ad, it doesn’t bore the audience at any stage…

If anything, it led to the immense success of the ad.

Check the detailed analysis in the video and share your thoughts in the comment section.


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Csaba Borzasi

Csaba Borzási is the founder of Game of Conversions. After spending 10 years learning the ins and outs of persuasion psychology, Csaba now focuses on what he loves most: helping ambitious entrepreneurs grow their online business and get more profitable customers. When he isn't geeking out on discovering how the human mind works, you can probably find him climbing a mountain, dancing salsa, or traveling around the globe.

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