October 4, 2012Copywriting for Dummies

My free ebook, “Think Like a Copywriter” sets out a nine step process enabling anyone — professional or amateur — to start writing better copy. But what do you need to consider before you put words on the page?

Most people start writing with their own objectives in mind. “What do I want this copy to achieve?” This is wrong.

Ask not what you can do for yourself, ask what you can do for your customer.

Good copy is part conversation, part negotiation. Ask what your customer’s objectives are before considering yours. Good copy starts with an understanding of your customer’s needs, enabling you to communicate your value to them.

I don’t know about you, but I hate being told what to think. Of course, copywriting is about influencing people — it’s about changing minds, winning hearts, and convincing your audience. But telling people what to think rarely works.

Most professional copywriters know this. So why do so many copywriters seem to be telling us what to think?

The answer’s simple. They’re asking themselves what their customers want. But they’re not asking themselves how their customers like to be addressed.

Register your disapproval

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that people who write copy are smarter than the average joe. Professional copywriters are likely to be university educated, bookish, literary even.

Let’s face it, we’re nerds. Trouble is, what appeals to us won’t appeal to most. Yet “mass market appeal” — knowing what people want — is essential to copywriting. I like Earl Grey tea, opera, and staying in on a Friday night and reading my Kindle. I’m in the minority. So how do I write for the majority?

Bad copywriters, who are often highly intelligent, make two elementary mistakes. Firstly, instead of talking “to” their audience, they can find themselves talking “down” to them. Or, worse, they cravenly attempt to mimic the tastes of their audience. In which case they end up sounding even more patronising.

In both cases, the copywriter gets the register completely wrong.

Copywriting for dummies?

So if you’re smart (or think you are), what do you do? Chances are you play it safe and “write dumb”. I suspect this is why so much copy appears moronic, bland, and unadventurous. “People won’t be smart enough to get it,” the agency says, and so it gets dumbed down. I would ask anyone considering this route to remember David Ogilvy:

“The customer is not a moron, she is your wife.”

Far too often copywriters confuse writing simply and directly with talking down to their audience and patronising them.

Far too often we take a “we’re smart, you’re dumb” attitude before we’ve written a single word. This attitude isn’t lazy. It’s outright incompetent.

“Simple” isn’t “stupid”.

Good copy has three qualities. It is

  • honest
  • simple
  • direct

It is honest, because dishonest copy can never be simple. And copy that isn’t simple is always bad. Dishonest copy must be convoluted, so you can’t see the wool being pulled over your eyes. Good copy is simple, because if your message is honest, you are able to convey it quickly and without obfuscation. Ever watch a politician give an interview? When they don’t want to tell the truth, they go on, and on, and on, hoping the lie will get lost. The same principle applies to good copy.

The most persuasive arguments are often the most simple ones.

How do you get more young people to listen to opera? Well, if you’re English National Opera, you decide to be down with the kids. They’re currently running “Undress at the Opera” nights that are supposed to be casual, relaxed, modern — jeans and t-shirt affairs. Yet critic Rupert Christiansen suggests that far from adopting this strategy, the almost alien sense of the theatrical is precisely opera’s strength: people don’t want another trendy bar to drink in while wearing their Converse, they want a place they can go for a genuinely alternative experience. He says:

I think that the slogan “Undress at the Opera” might be counterproductive – it makes the extraordinary sound ordinary, and turns opera into an everyday sort of a thing, rather than something exceptional and magical. So my advice would be to drop the “undress”, and plump for something more like “Put on your party clothes and come to the Coliseum for a very special treat”. That would have them queuing round the block.

In other words, you don’t need to pander to your audience to appeal to them. You should concentrate on an argument that demonstrates your product’s innate strengths.

Whether you’re selling to professors or plumbers, your argument should always be honest, simple, and direct. Copywriting is about sales. And few people, regardless of age, class, intelligence, or interests, appreciate their time being wasted by smarmy salesmen giving them a spiel of tricks.

Honesty, simplicity, and directness are valuable assets. Writing simply means using fewer words and picking them more selectively — just because you’re writing with the shallow end of the dictionary, doesn’t mean your argument has to become dumb.

As I’ve blogged previously, my newspaper of choice is The Sun, Britain’s biggest selling tabloid. I like it because it has mass market appeal and only the pretentious believe it patronises its audience. The market doesn’t lie. People buy it because they like it.

What particularly interests me is that The Sun has a “grown up” equivalent, The Times. Both are owned by the same corporation, both are made at the same site, both have the same agenda. The register is different, yet the message is the same.

Far too often copywriters believe they should “dumb down” their message when what they should be doing is choosing a more appropriate tone of voice. The Sun and The Times display the same message differently. They do this by understanding their target audiences.

  • What does the customer want?
  • How does the customer speak?
  • Is your message as simple and direct as it could be?

These are the things to consider before starting to write. If you’re not sure how to pick an appropriate tone of voice, there’s an excellent article on Smashing Magazine that will help you get started. Just don’t make the mistake of confusing an appropriate tone of voice with talking down to your audience. Many copywriters may prefer classical music and tea flavoured with bergamot oil to football and lager. That doesn’t mean they can’t write effectively for both audiences. Just keep your copy honest.

Words matter. But so does the tone of voice you write in. It’s easy to write simply. Just don’t confuse it with writing dumb.

To learn more about improving your copy, read my free ebook.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, October 4th, 2012 at 5:20 pm and is filed under Blog, Copywriting. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

One comment

  1. Holly Lane says:

    thanks for the book, Mr. Allday. :)

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