Write More Good by Wayne Geyer

(from How magazine, June 2009)

In this article, we’ll look at four ways to improve your copywriting: defining a message; translating that message into headlines that push beyond puns; writing simple body copy for an ad; and editing your client’s copy for clarity and style.

This of the process of defining a message as a series of three steps:

  • research or input
  • distilling or refining
  • identifying and stating the message

My research process probably isn’t much different than that of most designers. I’m looking for interesting nuggets or details that stand out as potentially intriguing to an audience. At the same time, I’m filtering and distilling lots of information. As communicators, our job is to feed our audience information in bite-sized pieces- and in a particular order. I find it helpful to ask myself, “What does the audience need to hear?” I also ask, “What needs to be addressed in a separate campaign, or in a different medium, or not at all?” I like the way one Dallas agency describes the objective in its creative briefs: “What’s the single most important thing we need to communicate?” More often than not, it’s some version of this answer that will become the big idea for a great campaign.

As you filter out the less important details, start writing out the message until it succinctly solves the communication problem. In fact, try writing it in five words or less. The end result might even sound like a tagline or slogan – but resist the urge to make it sound creative for creative’s sake. You’re looking for the essence of the problem. For example: “BMWs are fun to drive.”

The American Heart Association wanted some ads encouraging people to sign up for CPR courses. During the research and input stage of the process, the designer and I learned a few interesting facts. First, many people put off learning CPR because they fear aving to help a stranger. Second, of the people who learn CPR, 80% actually end up helping a friend or family member. These two contradictory points inspired this proposed all-type concept: “If you’re worried about giving CPR to a stranger, relax. Odds are, it won’t be a stranger.”

The Speedway Club at Texas Motor Speedway, for example, combines a country club atmosphere with the excitement of live auto racing…one of the concepts we pitched featured a photo of NASCAR icon Jeff Gordon, along with this headline: “Giggle. Scream. Faint. Then introduce your wife.” This headline does a lot of work in just a few words. It lets the reader know that he can meet a driver, which speaks toi the exclusive nature of the Speedway Club. It certainly connects with a fan’s passion for the sport. And including the wife in the idea tells the reader that it’s not just about beer and racecars.

Thinking visually for a moment, what does the world look like with or without you client’s product or service?

Here’s a guide for getting your point across in just a few sentences:

  • Sentence 1: PLAY OFF THE HEADLINE – Lead the reader into the body copy by restating your headline in a different way. Avoid writing a caption that simply repeats the main idea.
  • Sentence 2: TURN THE CORNER – Brace yourself for the unpleasant business of actually having to sell a product or service. Then use this sentence to introduce that product or service.
  • Sentence 3: ANSWER “SO WHAT?” – With your headline and visual, you’ve told the reader that your product is the answer to a problem they have. Now, you need to link the product to some kind of benefit. What’s in it for the reader?
  • Sentence 4: TIE IT TOGETHER – Put a nice little bow on the whole package with a conclusion that recalls the headline and image, and restates the message.
  • Sentence 5: CALL TO ACTION – Don’t be afraid to ask the reader to do something. Buy, test, click, call or writ…Don’t expect warm, fuzzy typography to get them off their couches.

Here are a few things you can do to re-position that copy so that it connects more closely with the customer:

  • FIND THE STORY – Somewhere in that laundry list of credentials is a real emotional or financial message.
  • FIND THE FUNKY GRAMMAR – Restructure to sound more natural.
  • LOSE THE JARGON – The whole point of branding is differentiation, so why let your clients use the same “me too” vocabulary as everybody else? Grab a thesaurus and find a better word for “robust.”
  • SHIFT THE FOCUS – Talk to the audience, speak to the benefits they want.
  • SPELL IT OUT – State your intended message plainly and directly. Ask for their business, their confidence and their trust.
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