10 quick tips for powerful copy
According to research, 10 is the magic number.
Articles with lists of 10 got the most shares.
Hoping that number works for me, too.
If you don’t know who I am, I’m a freelance copywriter. Been a writer for over 30 years – freelance for most of that.
But I’ve also run workshops on copywriting for the past 20+ years. So I’ve uncovered lots of tips.
Which is why I thought I’d write this list.
Ten proven tips for creating more powerful and compelling copy.
Put the kettle on: grab a cuppa. It’s an eight-minute read. But it’ll be worth it.
Here goes, with number 1.
1. Do your homework
Tempting, isn’t it, to just start writing.
You’ve got an hour to write something, so you start. Typing away like crazy.
Then you realise you’ve got no idea what you’re writing about.
So, you have to stop. Start your research.
‘Who’s my audience?’ ‘What’s the topic?’ ‘Why are we doing this?’
Best to put your (real or digital) pen down, and do your homework. First.
The homework is the four Ws.
Who (my audience). What do I know about them?
What (am I writing about?).
Why (a compelling proposition).
And Where (the choice of medium).
(These are explored in more detail in my ‘Don’t start your writing by writing‘ article.)
Do them in that order. Because if you start with the audience, you’ll naturally be lead into segmentation: a more tailored and relevant message.
Talking of audiences…
2. Be a customer
Products (or services) are full of ideas.
So, can you be a customer of what you’re writing about?
Can you buy it, try it, taste it? Experience it as your (potential) audience would? Discover what makes it different?
Dig for the magic.
Sometimes, of course, you can’t. It’s too expensive. Not something you can personally experience.
There’s a famous ad by David Ogilvy for Rolls Royce. You can see his headline, above.
Now, if you’re writing about a Rolls Royce, you can’t go out and buy one. (If you can, let me know and let’s see if you can buy one for me!)
No. But you can take it for a test drive. Or, as David Ogilvy did, find people who have driven one.
His famous headline – see above – came from a quote in a write-up in Motor magazine.
He drew on someone else’s experience to give him the insight he needed.
Talk to (or read about) someone who’s experienced what you’re writing about.
Get an insight. Make that your hero.
3. Verbal diarrhoea
Here’s how I (and every copywriter I’ve ever spoken to or read about) start the writing process.
Pour your thoughts onto the page. Gush.
Three words I see in every copywriting article: just start writing.
Don’t worry about the number of words.
Need to write 250 words? Don’t. Write 25,000. Don’t hold back.
Get your homework and customer insights down. Quickly. While it’s fresh.
Keep writing until you run out of things to say.
4. Be brutal
Copywriting is the craft of saying as much as you can; in as short a space as possible.
Its about ‘how much can I say, in as few words as possible’.
No-one’s interested in our messages. No-one rushes home so they can catch the ads on TV. No-one skips the articles in a magazine so they can read the ads. No-one reads the marketing emails before the ones from their boss, colleagues or friends.
(Well, unless you work in marketing: occupational hazard.)
If you’re lucky (and good with your homework), your audience might give you a nanosecond.
So look at what you’ve written (under point 3, above).
Question every word, starting with the first. Is it 100% necessary.
What helps me is: when in doubt, chop it out.
Looking at a word and not sure whether you need it? Delete.
Be absolutely brutal.
(Want to know more about the editing process? Check out my article, ‘Find the angel in the marble‘.)
When you’ve cut back all unnecessary words, consider your structure.
5. Sell vs tell
How do I structure my copy?
Well, I need to answer the question: ‘Am I selling, or telling?’.
Most marketing interrupts lives. An ad interrupts your YouTube experience. A billboard interrupts your concentration on the commute to work. A pop-up interrupts your browsing.
When you interrupt, you’re selling. (More on that in point 6 below.)
But sometimes you’re just telling. Informing. An email product update. A post linking to your latest blog. A project update to the boss.
When informing, put the Big News First (as my colleague, Paul Jones, would say).
What is the most important information? Can you put that first – not last?
It’s a common issues with writing (not just copy). Thanks to our academic training (school and Uni), we tend to tell a story: and get to the point (the conclusion) at the end.
Who’s got time to plough through hundreds of words to get to the point?
Start with the big stuff first: then go into the context, story and background.
Now, that’s great if you’re informing – simply telling.
But sometimes we have to persuade: to sell.
That needs a different approach.
6. Start in the reader’s world (not yours)
The opposite of the ‘telling’ structure is the persuading, selling one.
For this, don’t start your copy in your world.
I know it’s tempting, though…
‘At WordPress, we’re pleased to announce…’
It’s about them, not the reader.
If you’ve done your homework (point 1 above), then you should have an insight into your audience. What makes them tick, what issues they have, what keeps them awake at night.
Start with that. Show empathy. Understanding.
‘You work hard. You deserve the best. Time with loved ones, time to relax. The new WordPress update saves you time by…’
See how it starts in the reader’s world?
It’s known as the Socratic Method, and mentioned in Dale Carnegie‘s book ‘How to win friends and influence people‘.
I have to say, the Socratic Method is very difficult. You tend to default to your world as a writer.
The more you role-play your audience and understand them, the easier it will be.
See if you can get them to say a mental ‘yes’ to the first opening lines.
Draw them into your world, from theirs.
Your reader is busy. In fact, they’re more likely to skim your copy than read it.
The vast majority – 79% according to Jacob Nielsen – of online readers scan.
Their attention is taken up with headlines, subheads, captions and bullet points.
Don’t fight it. Make it easy for them.
Break your (online) copy up.
Bold your key points.
Break it up with subheads.
Use bullet points to:
• break information
• into easily
• scanned pieces.
In an ideal world, your reader should be able to scan through and pick up the bulk of your messages.
Without having to read in-depth.
8. The Copy Sonata
This one’s for all you classical music fans out there.
Apparently, a Sonata is made up of three movements: an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation.
With apologies to the musicians out there for over-simplifying things: but the last movement, the recapitulation, returns to the musical theme from the first movement, the exposition.
It reminds the listener of the hook that got them in, in the first place. It reinforces the journey they’ve been on.
Good copy does the same. It ends with a reference to the first line, or the headline.
For example, an opening line of copy might read:
‘Our new range will save you an arm and a leg on servicing costs.’
Beautifully crafted copy follows. Then ends with:
‘So, save your arm and leg for better things.
Like picking up the phone, or walking to the nearest store.’
Can you feel the power of that?
We’re letting the reader know we’ve arrived. Finished our argument. Now, it’s up to them.
To help, you can build in a threat to that Copy Sonata.
For example, you might have an opening line of:
‘AI is the future.’
A positive Copy Sonata would be:
‘So, discover the future of AI at our webinar.’
But a threatening Copy Sonata could be:
‘Don’t get stuck in the past. Join our webinar on Tuesday.’
When I say threat, don’t suggest they’ll die, get divorced or fired.
No, a simple twist of the knife to persuade them, if they weren’t already.
Photo source: BBC News
How do you feel when you see a spelling mistake in a piece of writing?
For me, it undermines my trust in the writer (or organisation behind it). If they can’t get that right, what else have they got wrong?
Some people think it’s the responsibility of the client who signed it off.
Me? I’ve always believed it’s my responsibility, as the writer.
Proofread your work carefully.
Not just for the words that are misspelt: but for the words that are spelt correctly, but are the wrong words.
Imagine if you’d signed off this poster, for example…
Oh dear. Spellcheck isn’t going to pick up on that. You, as the writer, need to.
Build trust and rapport by getting the detail right.
10. Never be satisfied
This part can be frustrating.
Your copy is never finished.
No: there’s always more crafting to be done. It’s a work-in-progress.
Can you learn even more about the audience or topic?
Keep chopping the copy to delete unnecessary words.
Is there a more engaging Socratic opening?
Have you built rapport and empathy?
Are you sure there are no spelling mistakes?
Even the work that’s won me international copywriting awards makes me wince, now. ‘Oh, look: I could have chopped that word out.’
Talking of which, now I’ve finished this article, time to go back over it.
See you in 10, when I’ve finished my refining. Never.
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Jon is a multi-award winning copywriter. For over 30 years, he’s helped clients – large and small – develop engaging concepts, content and copy. For 25 of those years, he’s been teaching people how to do it themselves. His courses on copywriting, ideation and presentation skills are highly sought-after and highly effective. Jon lives in Sydney, Australia: but is often found on a plane, heading to where he’s most needed.
More blogs and articles:
• Instant ideas: 30 concepts in 30 minutes
• Speed bumps, traffic lights and punctuation
• Sell vs tell: two powerful structures for your copy
• How to (kick)start your freelance copywriting career
• Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia – a fear of big words
• Don’t start your writing by writing
• Find the angel in the marble
• You’re naked without briefs
• Pssst: 5 secrets professional copywriters won’t tell you
Image sources: Pixabay