Say What You Mean

At the heart of good copy is clarity - saying what you mean. The anonymous mass copywriters never rise above the mean because they only parrot what they think others want to hear or they try to be clever until all meaning is lost.

Years ago, in college, I remember these long-winded dissertations by students trying to sound like Milton. In peer revues, I was occasionally criticized for choosing simple words over scholarly sounding French and Latin derivatives. The truth was, I didn't really enjoy reading Milton (too much work) and wanted to sound more like Mark Twain or Louis L'Amour. Milton may have sold more books, but Louis L'Amour sold more in his own lifetime when he could still enjoy the royalties.

Ad copy is no different. If you gob it full of meaningless crap, people walk away with meaningless crap. Here's five simple ways to start getting at the heart of what needs to be said:

  1. Tell the Truth – The truth is the shortest way to a working campaign that stands the test of time.
  2. Use Simpler Words – Know the entry-level reader in your audience and stay there. Showing off your vast vocabulary doesn't sell anything.
  3. Use Narrative – Most of us spend time telling stories to our friends and family. We tell a sequence of events we witnessed on the way home from work, "This little sports car was trying to ditch around traffic on the right when this big old pickup loaded with hay crunched him. Hope he had insurance." Of course, like anything else, you've got to get to the point. My teenage daughter burns up most of her talk time with "She was all like, then he was all like," etc. When did the word said drop out of vogue? Narratives are the way you sound natural, use them.
  4. Focus on What Matters - I've written a lot of packaging copy for the housewares industry and had to constantly fight executives preoccupation with watts. Most women (target market) didn't have the slightest idea about watts. They just knew that this blender sounded just like that blender so the one with the most watts and buttons for the money usually won. The way I mixed it up ;) was to push one main idea they cared about. How did I find out? I asked them. The product managers were too busy coming up with cool synonyms for mix to ask people if they even wanted to blend, liquefy, and whip. Focus on what matters most; your reader will.
  5. Get passionate - learn about your subject by talking to the inventors, advocates, and service providers. If possible, become a user of the product so you can extol its virtues first hand. Passion doesn't run to thesaurus to find fancy (a.k.a. fake) words to describe something. Passion lays out the wonders of interacting with the product, service or company. Ask someone to talk about their kids (small or adult kids, not teenagers) and you'll hear passion. Talk about the subject as if it were your child (again, not a teenage child).

You may have just read this and said, "Yeah, but I have to write an annual report. It needs to be loaded with important sounding words so investors will know how smart and busy we are." First, stop yeah butting me. The principles are the same for the annual report. I had a client that was writing novels for business proposals and not getting any clients. We cut the fat clarified the important points, and started selling deals. We cut more than three quarters of the crap and added in a few things customers actually cared about. The proposals we built were easier and faster to write and customers actually read them. And at the end of the day, that's what counts.