Talking great copy is easy. But can you torque it?
June 2, 2011
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.
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.
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?
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.