A man begs on a street with a sign: ‘ Homeless and hungry. I’ve been blind for 22 years and I’m unemployed. Can you please help with some small change?’ Donations are slow.
A passing copywriter turns the sign over, writes a few words, drops a coin into the cup, and leaves with a kind word. Contributions boom.
That evening the writer returns. The blind man recognizes his voice and asks what he did to cause the dramatic improvement.
‘I re-wrote your sign’
‘What does it say now?’
‘It’s a beautiful day. I wish I could see it with you.’
Urban myth but…
The story’s an urban myth. But what you say, how you say it, and to whom you address the message, depend as much on listening as they do on writing.
As a journalist, I was trained to ask open questions that encouraged information-rich answers. I was taught to recognize the feelings behind the words. And I learned how to interpret and communicate those feelings in language that my audience could understand.
That was more than 30 years ago. Every day since, I’ve learned something new about words and how they work.
Six basics for great copy
In decades of writing marketing copy—words that sell—I’ve learned these six basics. Great copy:
- Has its roots in knowledge and emotion—it listens to the market
- Disrupts expectations, by taking a new approach, or attacking an existing challenge from an unusual angle
- Uses plain English and the language of the people addresses
- Connects the apparently unconnected
- Bows to the power of the headline to make your readers read on
- Economises on words, getting to the point without the puffery
- Combines with visuals to multiply and magnify the power of the message.
Great copywriters always surprise and delight with something extra, like my additional point above.
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