What's the story?

Delights, dejections and dispatches of an advertising copywriter

Need an idea to get you started? Here’s what you can do when you’re stuck

Being faced with a virgin white piece of paper, without a clue what to put on it, is a common enough problem for every copywriter. But there are strategies you can use to overcome this frozen moment. Here are three that I use. They’re not definitive. All might not work for you. But any one of them can help kick start your creative juices.

Word Assembly. Write down all the words that you think are relevant to the subject. Start piecing them together in different ways. Switch them around a bit. See what happens. It’s like the ‘cut up’ technique beloved of William Burroughs and David Bowie. It suggests ideas.

Read Up and Walk. Read everything in the brief and supporting material. Do a bit of extra research. Then forget it all and go for a walk. Think about something else. Leave the problem to silently ferment. Before you know it, ideas will pop into your head. Thoughts indignant at being ignored will rush forward, jostling for your attention.

Just Write. Here’s a funny one. Just start writing. It can be about what you’re trying to say. It can be about related subjects. Don’t go back and refine. Just write and write and write. It’s a bit like unblocking a pipe. The idea will come when you’ve removed the rubbish and freed your flow.

There are other techniques too. But I’m saving them for a future post In the meantime, perhaps you could share your strategies. Let me know. How do you go about generating ideas?

Grab your reader, hold your reader, don’t let your reader go

Want to know the truth about what will keep someone on your website? You might agonise over a neat or witty turn of phrase, but they don’t care. You might pour in a shedful of SEO Google-approved keywords, but it won’t hold their interest. You might twat around with colours, pictures and layouts, but none of this will hold them… unless you also follow the SRRC formula.

So what’s the SRRC formula? It was reported in Joe Pélissier’s excellent guide ‘New Rules of Writing for the Web’, and this is how it goes:

  • Speed – can your reader read and understand what’s on offer, fast?
  • Relevance – is it related to what they’re looking for?
  • Rapport – do they get a sense of the personality behind your business?
  • Credibility – does your reader see any evidence you deliver what you promise?

So why does it work? Readers want the maximum amount of information in the least amount of time. They want what they read to be relevant to what’s going on in their head. They want to know you understand them. Finally, they want proof you have a good track record.

Why not have a go at applying the SRRC formula to your own site, and let me know how well it improved your responses.

Get a SPIV to help you write copy that always gets results

Admit it, when you read SPIV you thought of a sharp-suited geezer who can get you anything you want. Like Private Walker on Dad’s Army. Sorry, its not that kind of SPIV, but mine could be just as useful – because if it’s results you’re after, my SPIV always comes up with the goods.

SPIV stands for Situation, Problem, Introduce and Value, and here’s how it works. When you’re sitting down to write your copy, think of the Situation your reader is in. It builds trust and affinity, and your reader immediately recognise themself in your words. Then work out the Problem that their situation presents. It’s their pain point, the annoying consequence, the difficulty they’d like to see the back of. Now it’s time to Introduce change… that’s going to be your product or service. In other words, the way that you will solve the problem of their situation. Finally, you should demonstrate the Value of introducing your product or service. Show how they’ll be better off with you on their side.

Want to an example of SPIV in action? Let’s keep it close to home. Imagine you’re a copywriter writing to prospective clients. This is the SPIV you could use for your pitch.

Situation: You need to advertise your services, so you write emails and ads to people you think might be interested in them.

Problem: The trouble is, you’re not a copywriter, so writing copy takes you ages and the results aren’t great.

Introduce: Get me in to write your copy for you.

Value: Your advertising will be more effective, you’ll get all your time back and the improved results you’re looking for.

It works a treat every time. Not too different from the problem / solution approach but I think it produces a richer, more rounded piece of copy – especially where space is tight, such as emails. Do you have any views on SPIV? Or do you have any proven strategies for writing compelling and convincing copy? Why not share them?

Genius…or utter bollocks?

Groupon’s copy polarises opinion more than most brands’ copy. Looking at the following examples, plucked almost entirely at random from Groupon’s crazy, offer-packed website, it’s easy to see why.

‘Often equipped with hiking boots, musicians can require additional grip when attempting to reach exceptionally high notes’ (for facial injections).

‘Viewing life from the perspective of a bird makes skyscrapers look like toys, humans look like ants and worms look delicious’ (for flying lessons).

‘When interrogating fruits, be aware that you can never trust a lychee but, if pressed, grapes will spill all the juicy details’ (for wine cases).

Hardly run of the mill stuff I’m sure you’ll agree. But I like Groupon’s copy. Not because of the way it describes things (which usually require little in the way of description beyond the simple bullet points which preface the bonkers prose). No, I like Groupon’s copy because it has personality. It’s eccentric in a world of advertising conformity. It’s non-cynical in a world of SEO-induced neediness. It’s individual in a world of bland corporatism. It’s like a mad uncle. Unpredictable. Close to the knuckle. But always entertaining in frequently surprising new ways.

So what do you think of Groupon’s copy? Is it good, bad, mad? Genius or utter bollocks?

True grit

Here are some great words, written from the heart, in tribute to a great moment in sport. In the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Derek Redmond was considered likely to win a medal. Yet he will forever be remembered for tearfully completing his 400m semi-final having used his father as a crutch. In the days after the race Redmond received many messages from fellow competitors, including this from a Canadian competitor he had never met:

“Long after the names of the medallists have faded from our minds, you will be remembered for having finished, for having tried so hard, for having a father to demonstrate the strength of his love for his son. I thank you, and I will always remember your race and I will always remember you – the purest, most courageous example of grit and determination I have seen.”

Punctuation Tip No.1: using hyphens

You may have heard people talking about using a hyphen or an en-dash. Some are particularly bothered about the difference, so let’s take a closer look at how to use the hyphen and en-dash.

The hyphen The hyphen (-) is the shortest, followed by the en-dash (–) and the nearly irrelevant em-dash (—).  The em-dash is approximately double the length of the en-dash. It’s easy to remember which goes by which name because the character ‘m’ is a doubled version of the character ‘n’.

Hyphens are mainly used to form compound words and phrases. If you’re dealing with a compound, you should be hyphenating not employing a dash. While many compound nouns have smashed into a single word (‘wallpaper’), some utilise a hyphen, especially when a preposition is involved (‘lily-of-the-valley’, ‘mother-of-pearl’, ‘check-in’). Compound modifiers are almost always hyphenated:

  • A feel-good movie
  • A three-bedroom house
  • A five-year-old child
  • A well-known researcher
  • A fat-bottomed paper pusher

Also, keep in mind that the examples above are compound phrases that come before a noun and modify it. Do not use hyphens if the phrase is not serving as an adjective directly attached to the noun. So no hyphens here:

  • The child is five years old.
  • The researcher is well known.

The en-dash The primary use of an en-dash is in parenthetical references:

The Rubik’s Cube Suite – designed to capture the spirit of everyone’s favourite 1970s toy – offers you the chance to lose yourself in its design as if you are caught in   the Labyrinth and trying to outrun a painful death at the hands of the Minotaur.

These parenthetical references can be mid-sentence, as above, or at the end of a sentence:

Immerse yourself in the throws of the Inner Child Massage – our most popular treatment.

In many instances, the en-dash is merely a stylistic alternative to parentheses or commas. Whereas parentheses under-emphasize and virtually hide a statement, en-dashes usually impart greater emphasis. They can also be useful in providing clarity when there are already clauses separated by commas within a given sentence.

Never use a hyphen to punctuate parenthetical references. In Microsoft Word the en-dash is automatically formed when you type two hyphens mid-sentence and press ‘Enter’. Always include one space before and after the en-dash when writing a parenthetical reference.

More punctuation tips to come soon. Why not follow my blog and make certain you don’t miss out on writing better.

The Devil’s Child

I play Sunday morning football. It’s a crap standard – at least my contribution to it is – but we do enjoy ourselves. As well as the game itself, a big part of the fun is the post-match beer, chip cob and retelling of the game. This inevitably focuses on the laughable, the lamentable and the loss of dignity faced by a fair few of our players. Notes are taken before our captain and chief scribe goes away to produce the eagerly awaited match write up.

Now this is where we get back to copywriting.

Because while this chap works for the NSPCC and is as far removed from the poncey world of advertising as you can get, he is the coiner of the meanest copy…including my all-time favourite phrase.

As a player, he likes nothing more than a teammate scoring an own goal. The opportunity for pouring scorn and derision is unsurpassed in his eyes. So when one day he volunteered to play for our short-of-numbers opposition, and then scored an own goal against them (but equally for us), he used his write-up to explain away this aberration as not his own goal, but as ‘a child of the devil’s making’. Magnificent.

Do you have any good examples of supposed ‘non writers’ putting professionals to shame?

Telling stories

No-one likes being sold to. It’s seldom a pleasant experience, particularly when the noisy advertising is equivalent to a red faced salesman-on-a-losing-streak shouting in your face, spraying you with spittle and desperation. When it comes to winning the hearts and minds of your audience, the hard sell is rarely an appropriate tactic.

A much better approach is storytelling. As children, we all loved listening to stories. They have a special place in our hearts, evoking comfort, warmth and trust in your mum reading to you. It’s why stories are such a powerful way of communicating the benefits of your products and services. Here’s how to do it. First, describe a situation – perhaps even a problem. Then demonstrate how your product or service helped someone move on from that situation. Suddenly, you’ve told a story.

Because your reader has seen how your product or service works within a scenario they will recognise, storytelling sells the benefits to your reader without them even realising they’ve been sold to. Why not give it a try, and let me know how storytelling worked for you?

Cloud-making Factory

If you can switch off your adult mind, with all of its experience, closed thinking and rational ways of seeing the world, you can enliven words and objects in completely new ways. Try looking at things as if for the first time. Think like a kid. I’ll give you an example. To the south of Nottingham, there’s a power station that frequently belches forth waste energy in the form of evaporated water. For many, it’s an ugly sight, one that evokes pollution, environmental harm and even health concerns. Not to my son. To him it is a cloud-making factory. A magical place that he looks forward to passing every time he knows we are off on a long journey.

As a copywriter, I try to see whatever I am trying to sell in different ways. It’s one of my jobs to open up fresh ways of looking at things that are otherwise all too familiar. Like the girl looking at her mum’s breasts, wondering if one is for hot milk and the other for cold.

Fuck ‘passion’

I’ve had enough now. To all those people who want something without doing anything to merit getting it, simply saying you are ‘passionate’ about it simply won’t cut it. You are not ‘passionate’. You are not ‘unbelievably passionate’. And you are a long way off  being ‘incredibly passionate’. No, you’re desperate.

As a word, ‘passionate’ has joined  the ranks of the Vacuous Words of Our Time™. Words which have become hollow representations of a certain something, somewhere, that somebody desires. Community. Journey. Space. Solution. Journey. Results. Unique. Flexible. Innovative. Once great words, now brave soldiers, left for dead, killed in the prime of life through mindless overuse by zealous imbeciles. As for ‘literally’, well I’m that passionate about the incorrect of the word ‘literally’ that I am literally going to be dedicating a post to its misuse.

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