Stuart Ghent reveals some tricks to help your content stick in readers’ minds.
Iwas lucky enough to visit a terrible winery on the weekend. Lucky, I say, because in an effort to avoid giving the painfully enthusiastic cellar door staff my honest opinion – much as you’d avoid telling proud new parents their child is ugly – I was looking everywhere else but in their expectant faces when my eyes fell on a little sign. It read: “Wine is to women as duct tape is to men … it fixes everything”.
After enjoying its whimsical insight into the nature of men, women, wine and duct tape, and therefore into the very nature of the universe itself, I cast my gaze up at the ceiling (look away, look away) and pondered the nature of my existence.
It occurred to me that as a copywriter I have a good long roll of metaphorical duct tape of my own – made up of little easy fixes I apply to my clients’ ads, brochures, websites, blogs and so on. These little fixes are designed to give my clients’ marketing efforts a longer, more productive life. I thought I’d share a few with you.
Give it some ‘man bites dog’
Journalism majors learn this simple but powerful notion on pretty much their first day at journalism school. A lot of copywriters seem to spend their careers forgetting it or never having known it. What it means is that what makes a story (one of the fundamental units of human communication) newsworthy is the fact that it’s surprising.
Find what’s surprising in your product, service or message and elevate it to the top of your piece. It will go a long way to engaging people’s interest. And they’ll reward you with their attention for a lot longer.
“Many a bland dish of copywriting has been saved by the addition of a few raisins.”
In the headline on this article, for example, the surprising notion is that it may be easier than you think to improve the words your business uses to sell itself and its products. Not quite “man bites dog”, but hopefully surprising nonetheless.
Take the first sentence of this piece as another example. It’s not much of a story that I went to a winery, even with the slightly more interesting information that I considered it a terrible one. What is interesting is that I went to a bad winery and considered myself fortunate to have done so.
You don’t have to find opposites or world-upside-down examples. Just remember to focus on what makes your point surprising or different.
Show a bit of Flesch
Some versions of Microsoft Word (mostly older ones, I believe) have an inbuilt tool (or tools) where you can highlight the text you are working on and get a readability score. My favourites are based on the readability formula of evocatively named writing expert Dr Rudi Flesch.
If your computer has one of these tools, great. Use it. But if it doesn’t, don’t worry. The idea behind them is simple enough. The longer your sentences and the longer the words you use in them, the harder they are to read. Or, as Flesch might have put it, shorter is better.
Go through your copy with a metaphorical kitchen knife, looking for those great big rockmelons, pineapples and bananas of meaning. Then, being careful not to cut that meaning out all together, turn them into tasty, digestible, fruit salad-sized chunks. Duct tape patch number two applied!
Put some raisins in it
Legendary American writer William Goldman who, among other things, wrote Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride and All The President’s Men, said in his must-read non-fiction book Adventures In the Screen Trade that many a great movie is made up of just three or four great moments. My grandma used to say that if you’re bread pudding is boring, put some raisins in it.
These are effectively the same wisdom. In my view, many a bland and unpalatable dish of copywriting has been saved by the addition of a few raisins. By which, of course, I mean those analogies, quotes, metaphors, turns of phrase and other colourful pieces of language that take your truth from being readable to being worth reading.
Take this piece. Duct tape. Wine. Fruit salad. Humans feasting on canines. The guy who wrote The Princess Bride. Now raisins! I’ve probably overdone it a bit, but it’s a working demonstration of my point. I could have easily stripped this all back to:
- Keep it short
- Keep it relevant
- Keep it interesting
In many formats, in many instances, in many media, that would have been exactly the right thing to do. But truly where is the joy in that? Particularly in a longer format, such as a blog post? Where is the extra that would help make it “well told”?
For people to want what you have, they’re going to have to want to hear what you have to say. That’s why copywriting is important. So next time you’re doing a bit of copywriting DIY, try adding a few raisins along with the other duct tape patches above.
In my experience, most people – once they get the taste – are actually better at it than they give themselves credit for. And if you decide you need a professional, I know where you can find one.
Note: This article first appeared on the Written Pty Ltd blog.
Links & references
3 secrets to writing successful content in Brand Tales
7 keys to fruitful writing in Brand Tales