The copy writer’s toolkit
The copy writer’s toolkit
Introduction: Writing to persuade
Writing an article, advertisement, technical feature, business case, tender or indeed any piece intended to inform or persuade can be daunting. We asked the professionals about what makes killer copy and came away with some tried and tested guidelines that will help you overcome the terror of the ‘blank page’.
This blog marks the first of a series on how to write good copy. We explore a number of topics that will bring clarity to your writing, allowing it to be seen and understood just the way you intended. The copywriting series explains in detail the main structural elements that make up a punchy piece of copy, plus it includes a checklist that you can use as a reference guide whenever you need. We will cover:
- Value proposition
- Call to action
- Killer headlines
- Long copy versus short
- Words that flow
We begin our series by asking the fundamental questions:
- What are the core reasons for writing a piece of copy?
- How can we best express our ideas to inform or persuade?
Our minds process countless written messages each day – most of them forgettable – so what makes your message stand out in a sea of noise?
1. Why are you writing?
‘Why’ always comes first. It is your blueprint for success. It is the sense-making filter through which all decision forming information must pass. If your ‘why’ is strong, it is much easier to form a convincing argument. Don’t be afraid to really spend time with the big questions. Why is this product or service valuable? How do you want your organisation to be perceived? And, importantly, are you writing to:
- Build trust with customers?
- Raise awareness?
- Educate an audience about a new product, service, or campaign an important cause?
Your answers will form the very foundation from which your ideas can grow. They will guide the shape, structure and emotional quality of your writing.
“The strategy comes first. I can’t think of anything until I know the area in which I’m writing. The premise has got to be right. If the issue seems muddled or plain wrong, then I can’t start. So the first thing I do is sort out what I’m going to say, and check on it, and believe in it, and make sure that it’s what everybody wants me to say. Inevitably, if you are worried about it, somebody else back along the line will be worried about it, too. By the time the strategy is sorted, my first thoughts are forming. They could be visual or verbal thoughts, it doesn’t really matter. If its television, I’ll be thinking of storylines, narratives, a way a thing can unfold” – Tim Delaney, Leagas Delaney Advertising
2. Who is your audience? Striking the right tone
‘Speak’ to your reader. This might involve actually going out and talking to the people who you wish to persuade. Ask them to answer some simple questions that will give you clues about what angle to take in your writing:
- What are their aspirations and desires?
- What motivates them?
- How might your product or service fit in to their ‘bigger picture’?
- What sort of language resonates with them?
- Are there certain words that have connotations specific to their demographic/industry?
Remember, it’s not you who will be reading the copy. Invite your reader in, take their perspective by phrasing sentences with the word ‘you’ instead of telling your story with ‘we’ sentences. Thoroughly researching your audience, and how they go about their daily life will help inform both the content and tone of your writing. It will also help answer some of those big ‘why’ questions.
“I was an architecture student before I got into this crazy business. So I tend to break the problem down in terms of who we are talking to, what we want to say, what’s the tone of the company. I’m very conscious of tone, because I work on a lot of big corporate stuff. The company might tell you, well, we’re customer-focused, our company is about integrity, honesty, trust for the consumer. And you realize there’s nothing you can say that’s very different, it’s all going to be tone. What’s a great ad for IBM may be a terrible ad for Ever last. The tone is like a piece of clothing; it has got to fit the client. If it doesn’t, they’re not going to feel comfortable in it. I don’t work like some people do; they tend to start purely intuitively. I can’t do that. I try to build outwards from the rational. Once I have a rational thought, then I ask how can I add some spice, how can I make it more intuitive.” – Gary Goldsmith, former Chairman of Lowe Advertising
3. Features versus Benefits
If you are trying to promote a new product or service, it is important to sell the benefits, not the features. It will be the benefits that catch your reader’s eye.
Say, for example, you are writing a brochure for a new training course. You could list the length of the course, the schedule or timing of training, or features of the curriculum. These are all important features of your training product. But, although this information may be accurate (and important), it is unlikely to inspire action. Features shouldn’t appear in your opening paragraphs. Once you have persuaded your reader, they will naturally look for technical information, perhaps listed or, ideally conveyed as a diagram or picture, later in your brochure.
Copy that focuses on ‘benefits’ should appeal to the reader’s desires and ideals. How much value they assign to your product or service will depend on how they ‘feel’ about it. Their underlying question is ‘what’s in it for me?’.
As an example, for an undergraduate nursing course you might pitch:
“Join the heroes. Save lives. Study nursing.”
“Get the small-class, big-heart, hands-on experience. Study nursing at Australian Fictional University.”
“Reap the rewards. 100% of our nursing graduates were employed within 3 months of graduation in 2016^.”
4. Keep your copy simple
Writing concise, punchy copy is a process of distillation. Simple language and short sentences are always the fastest way of ‘getting to the point’. Your writing should follow the path of least resistance between your idea and the reader’s comprehension. Often there is a compulsion for the writer to try and impress the reader with complex, wordy text. If it is confusing or difficult to understand, chances are it won’t be read.
5. Dot your i’s
Get your grammar right. I know it sounds obvious but if it’s not edited with care you’ve probably made some bloopers. Errors are not convincing. If your idea is going to be air tight, then your presentation needs to be immaculate too. A good trick is to read your copy out loud. This helps with flow and irons out clunky grammar. Also get someone else to read over a draft – they might pick up something you missed.