Talking great copy is easy. But can you torque it?

by
June 2, 2011

Torque is the force, created by the engine, which pushes a car forward.  And great copy works in a surprisingly similar way to generate energy and momentum.

This idea is a bit lateral.  But once you’ve grasped it you’ll be able to spot the difference between those writers who just talk great copywriting, and those that can actually do it – very useful if you ever need to hire one!

Where did this idea come from?

A recent LinkedIn discussion posed the question “When it comes to writing copy, is a background in journalism, or marketing, more beneficial?”  Not surprisingly the journalists argued they had the edge, while the marketers staked their competing claims.

The more I read the more pissed off I became.

I’ve been copywriting long enough to have a pretty good idea of what it is and how to do it.  And none of those using this discussion to blow their own trumpets had a clue – they were talking about content writing, not copywriting.

This prompted me to do two things.  I wrote a post “Are the words on your website dancing around their handbags?” that spells out the difference between content and copy (somebody had to, because most people make the big mistake of assuming they are the same).  Then I wrote this post to describe what I do when I write copy (and what many other so called copywriters don’t!).

Don’t read past this point if you don’t like your toes being trodden on

I see a lot of journalists, and a lot of marketing people, writing “marketing comms”.  These range from the content end of things (which involves relationship building and “telling”) to the copy end of things (which involves grabbing attention and “selling”).   When these characters stray towards the copywriting end they both prove to be equally pants.

Why?

Because they both assume (and this became painfully apparent from their responses to that LinkedIn discussion) that writing copy is easy for someone with their experience.  In fact, the opposite is true.  It’s not easy for anyone (unless you have very low standards!).  And their experience blinds them to the fact that copywriting is not journalism, or marketing – it’s copywriting.  Yes you need to be good with words, yes you need to have a basic grasp of some business principles, but there comes a point when you have to take off your journalist head off, or your marketing head off, and start thinking like a real copywriter.

The mechanics of copywriting

Copywriting has to interrupt the audience while they are concentrating on something else, it has to grab their attention, stimulate their desire and create a change in the way they think and feel, all in the space of a few seconds.  How do you do that?

Here’s how I think when I write copy.  I think about the workings of the internal combustion engine.

Compression.  It’s what happens in the engine of your car.  The fuel and the air are mixed in the cylinder.  The piston comes up, and the petrol/air mixture is compressed.  Then the spark from the spark plug ignites this compressed mixture, driving the piston down, to create the power which pushes the car forward.

What has that got to do with copywriting?  Err….everything!

Copywriting is compressed communication.  It has to fit tightly into a small space (the banner on a web page, quarter page in a trade mag, TV screen, poster, eshot) and the time frame is tiny (audience attention span is miniscule).  So the job is to push as much material into it as possible, rather like cramming fuel into the cylinder of your car.

We have ignition

However, and here’s the rub, the material must be combustible.  If it’s not relevant to the target audience, and is downright boring, it will not ignite.  What’s more, if you put too much in, it “floods the engine” – the fuel will only ignite if it’s in vapour form, so there must be just enough air in there as well (that’s what the carburettor is for, to get the mix right).  The fewer words it takes to make the point, and get ignition, the better.

Ignition?  Yes, compression, without ignition, is nothing – you must get combustion, because it’s the explosion that produces the power.  In a petrol engine the spark plug triggers ignition.  And the spark is created by getting an electrical current to jump across the gap between the two electrodes.  Great copywriting tends to work the same way.  Instead of labouring a point, the best practitioners credit the audience with intelligence – and leave some form of comprehension gap for them to bridge.

Mind the gap

The gap may be in the headline.  David Abbot was a great copywriter.  He took the banal proposition that “Read the Economist – it’ll make you successful” and turned it into something far more powerful.  Remember the poster with the headline “I never read The Economist”?  Nothing remotely explosive there (apart from the unexpected negativity).  But then he added, in smaller type, “Management trainee.  Aged 42”.  When your mind makes the connection between the two statements, there’s a spark of recognition – you get the message, and it is charged with emotions.

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The gap may be between the headline and the picture.  Most so called copywriters focus exclusively on the words (possibly because they come from journalism or marketing!).  The best copywriters are very visual (they may actually come from an art direction or design background) – they understand that at least half of the communication is in the image.  Remember the VW ad with a simple line drawing of a man holding the nozzle of a petrol pump to his head, like a gun?

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It grabs your attention, and puzzles you.  Then you look a little closer and see the little line of type at the bottom – “Or buy a Volkswagen”.  As you read those four words your brain makes the connection – and the idea “If the price of fuel makes you feel like topping yourself then get a Volkswagen” is ignited in your consciousness.

So, the best copywriters leave a gap, and ask the audience to bridge it.  But what creates the spark itself?  The answer is wit.  The kind described by the Concise Oxford Dictionary as the “power of giving sudden intellectual pleasure by unexpectedly combining or contrasting of previously unconnected ideas or expressions”.  The phrase “A smile in the mind” (from the book of the same name) sums it up perfectly.

Get a tune-up from the neck up

Achieving all this is incredibly difficult.  It requires the imagination to make unexpected connections, the ability to express oneself with extraordinary brevity, a highly developed visual sense, and the lightest of touches to bring everything together elegantly.  If you think you can achieve all this with ease, just because you have some experience of journalism or marketing, then your car is not firing on all cylinders.

 

13 Comments
  1. Christopher Stokes June 6, 2011 Reply

    Thanks Jim for clearing the fog. Every time I jump into my car and turn over the motor I'll be thinking of you and your very obvious copywriting skills. Not much of a gap to bridge. Just need to find someone who can help me impart information to a select group. I wonder who?

    • Jim June 6, 2011 Reply

      Hi Chris,
      Got the hint! I'll try and do it before i go away tomorrow! Cheers, Jim

  2. Sam Finlay June 18, 2011 Reply

    Bloody Hell Jim!!! - Incisive and Inspirational. - Again.

  3. Mike Johnson June 24, 2011 Reply

    I truly hope that a few of the more outspoken advocates of either the marketing or content lead approaches, swallow their pride and take the time to read and then appreciate this article - although I suspect that for many it will be a gap too far!

  4. Jim June 24, 2011 Reply

    Hi Mike,
    Glad you liked article. I hope some of the self proclaimed marketing/content gurus give it some thought, though, like you, I doubt it. I'm not really writing this blog to suck up to self proclaimed experts...I think the main reason is just to let off steam and attempt to get my own thoughts straight.
    Cheers,
    Jim

  5. Helen June 27, 2011 Reply

    Great article to show to clients who don't understand why I want them to use a copywriter as well as a designer (me).

    • Jim July 9, 2011 Reply

      Hi Helen,
      Hope it does the trick!
      Kind regards,
      Jim

  6. Caroline J July 9, 2011 Reply

    Ah Jim - I knew I was going to enjoy this. I think it's the first article I have read of yours, blieve it or not, but it reminded me how darn clever you are with words.
    PS. Did you build your WP website?? or was that Sheila?

    • Jim July 9, 2011 Reply

      Hi Caroline,
      Thanks for the compliment re words (apart from occasional egg-on-face spelling mistakes!).

      No, I didn't build WP website, and nor did Sheila - I am still the opposite of a geek (there must be a word for it!), and Sheila very busy being a consultant to local authorities and housing associations on adapting homes to help those with disabilities, so I didn't ask her. How many consultants does it take to build a WP site?

      I got designer friends to do the graphics and a 3D animator to put it all together (although it doesn't look very animated or 3D to me!)

  7. jeremy stratton July 10, 2011 Reply

    And I didn't think you knew anything about cars Jim! But you remain my benchmark for what a copywriter should be...

    Sorry I have been out of touch (to put it mildly!) but my life has changed out of all recognition. This is not the place to go into it but email me and we can catch up. Hope all is well on all fronts. Best Jeremy

    • Jim July 11, 2011 Reply

      Hi Jeremy,
      That is about the sum total of my car knowledge - nobody will ever be able to call me a petrol head! But very happy to be a benchmark.

      Am intrigued about your new life...I will email. Not even sure what hemisphere you are in right now!

      All the best,

      Jim

  8. Murray Ambler-Shattock July 10, 2011 Reply

    Excellent article Jim. This is indeed very much the case in my experience.

    • Jim July 11, 2011 Reply

      Hi Murray,

      Many thanks for the positive feedback and encouragement.

      Kind regards,

      Jim

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