The Copywriter’s Curse

Stressed out copywriter

As copywriters, we immerse ourselves in our clients’ businesses. We get to know everything about them because it’s our job to essentially become them. We assume their voice, their tone and manner, and their personality. Their aspirations become our aspirations. Their promises become our promises. And their customers become our customers.

We essentially lose ourselves in them. It’s part of the job, and it’s a fun part of the job.

But getting to that point is a massive challenge. It takes iteration after iteration, feedback loop after feedback loop. It takes brainstorming sessions, working sessions, marked-up copy decks, more sticky notes than we can count, and a lot (a la-hawt) of late nights trying to crack the code, nail the voice and make the arguments our clients need us to make for them.

And it’s made all the more difficult by the fact that they taunt us.

Eyes Wide Open

Years ago, we were working on a copywriting project for Nissan. It was a beast of a project: Eighteen 25-page brochures for 18 different models. The volume alone was a challenge, but it was exacerbated by the fact that much of the information was the same but had to be served up differently in each piece.

Imagine having to describe the functionality and reasoning for Anti-Lock Breaking Systems 18 ways:

– Anti-Lock Breaking Systems (ABS) prevents skidding in wintery conditions by making sure the wheels keep turning and maintain a tractive contact with the road.

– Anti-Lock Breaking System (ABS) technology is what will keep your car from skidding off an icy road by making sure your wheels continue to turn and your tires continue to grip.

That’s two. Now do sixteen more. And while you’re at it, do 18 versions for child-lock windows, seatbelts, air conditioning, seat-warmers, USB power outlets, a V4 engine, every other standard feature Nissans come with and all available Nissan upgrades.

As you can imagine, it was hell on earth. And here’s where the taunting came in: we saw Nissans on every street corner.

Haunted and taunted at the same time

It wasn’t that there were more of them on the road, and it certainly wasn’t because our work boosted sales by 4 million percent (if it had this would be a very different blog).

It was because we started noticing them.

We saw Nissans on the street and in movies where we probably never would have before. We saw Nissan TV ads everywhere (FYI: we’re big NFL fans and Nissan is an NFL sponsor in Canada, so every commercial break was Nissan).

And every time we saw one, it was like our client was mocking us. We couldn’t escape the stress of writing 65,000 words. And every sighting reminded us how far we were from becoming Nissan.

Then we started dreaming about Nissans. We weren’t just falling. We were falling in a Maxima. We weren’t just sitting on the edge of a gorgeous river next to grazing unicorns and dancing leprechauns. We were sitting in a convertible Z. And when our dreams took us to far-off lands, they took us there in a Pathfinder.

It obviously wasn’t intentional (or it was and it’s to this day the most highly coordinated terror campaign of all time). But intentionality doesn’t mean anything when you’re being constantly reminded of your failure.

According to psychologist Sherri Klein, this is common across industries.

Ms. Klein has observed a similar phenomenon in her clients, primarily doctors. “I had one client who spent a year working on a drug for people with Down’s Syndrome. He said he had never noticed how many people with Down’s Syndrome are out and about all the time until he started that project. He said he had to have seen two or three a day. He’d never noticed before.”

“The subconscious’ ability to activate the conscious mind is one of its greatest powers,” says Ms. Klein. “It can show us what it wants us to see. This isn’t to say that we hallucinate or anything, only that we become hyper aware in the real world of what’s taking up large parts of our minds.”

But the Copywriter’s Tides Always Turn

We eventually cracked the Nissan file, delivered a winning campaign and moved on to the next job. It would’ve been great to see Nissan after Nissan post-campaign. A metaphorical pat on the back.

But we had started another project for a flower shop. So all we saw were men carrying flowers. Again, more than you’d think.

Breaking the Curse: Is it possible?

Short answer. No. As Ms. Klein inferred, our minds are hard-wired to do this.

The only real solution is to achieve Nirvana faster. We have it today with a major shipping company. We see their trucks everywhere and we seem to be seeing more of them. We’re happy to take full credit for growing their business to the point where their logo’s on every corner. But we know it’s just the curse — even if it doesn’t feel like one this time around.

Adjectives and adverbs: Objective versus subjective

Mark Twain: “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them — then the rest will be valuable.”

Here are the Merriam-Webster definitions of an adjective and an adverb. They’re long, but here’s a summary: an adjective’s role is to describe a noun while an adverb’s role is to modify a verb or adjective.

 

adjective dictionary entry

 

Here are a few examples:

Steve drove a red car. — “Red” is the adjective.

Ben ran very quickly. — “Very” is the adverb. So is “quickly.”

Think of your idea as a face and adjectives and adverbs as make-up. A little touch here and there accentuates your beauty and brings out your best qualities. But too much hides the natural brilliance and makes you look like a clown.

If you were describing Steve’s red car, you could modify red with “cherry” or “deep.” These are objective adjectives that paint a specific picture in the reader’s mind.

On the flipside, adjectives like “luscious” or “brilliant” don’t do anything for your reader because they’re subjective. What “luscious” means to you can mean something completely different to your reader. So you’re not helping them. In fact, you’re just confusing them.

You can always tell a novice writer by the way they overuse subjective adjectives and adverbs. You can almost picture them consulting a thesaurus for the perfect word they think makes the piece feel smarter.

It’s only when a writer becomes more confident in their ideas that they realize they don’t have to hide behind subjective adjectives and adverbs.

Steve drove a cherry red car. — Your reader knows what cherry red looks like. They can picture the hue of Steve’s car and you can get on with your story.

Steve drove a luscious and majestic cherry red car. — Your reader has no idea what you mean by luscious and majestic. So now they’re trying to read your mind, which is brain power they’re not putting towards the story you’re telling.

writing tips for avoidingsubjective adjectives and adverbs

As an inexperienced writer, you’ll find yourself using subjective adjectives and adverbs without knowing it. It’s one of the more common mistakes. So as you’re writing, consider the following:

Play with sentence structure

If you think you need to further describe Steve’s cherry red car, think about adding a second sentence after the initial description. “Steve drove a cherry red car. Its lusciousness was undeniable, as evidenced by how much attention it attracted.” You’ve now taken the subjective “luscious” and made it an objective fact, which you’ve then supported with proof. Your reader now understands what you mean by luscious, and they can picture people stopping to look at the car.

Consider metaphors and similes

Metaphors and similes are comparisons for the purpose of establishing context. The difference between the two is that similes use the words “like” or “as” to draw a comparison while metaphors don’t.

Simile: Steve’s car was red like a bowl of ripe cherries.

Metaphor: Steve’s car was a cherry on wheels.

Default to brevity.

If Steve’s car was cherry red, just describe it that way and move on.

As for adverbs, the one you should ALWAYS avoid is “very.” If Steve’s car is red, saying it was very red doesn’t make it any more red.

Fun with Translation — Google Style

Translation is a super-growth industry. Data from the US Department of Labourshows a 100 percent increase in the number of people employed in the translation industry over the past seven years, and 24 percent more translation companies.

And wherever you find growth, you inevitably find Google in the middle of it. Last week on a conference call, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that Google Translatetranslates a staggering 143 billion words every day — for free.

But free comes with a price — and in the case of Google Translate, that price is inaccuracy.

Yes, you can get the gist of something with Google Translate, which is why it’s great for regular folks. But businesses that need quality translation should be steering clear of the Googs.

To demonstrate this, we thought we’d have a bit of fun with Google Translate. If we took famous song lyrics, translated them through Google into a different language and then translated that result back into English, what would we get?

Let’s see…

 

Filipino

Didn’t I make you feel like you were the only man?

Didn’t I give you nearly everything that a woman possibly can?

Hindi ba ginawa ko sa tingin mo na ikaw lang ang tao?

Hindi ko ba ibinigay sa iyo ang halos lahat ng bagay na maaari ng isang babae?

Do not you think you’re the only person?

Did not I give you almost everything a woman can do?

 

Turkish

When the truth is found

To be lies

And all the joy

Within you dies

Don’t you want somebody to love

Don’t you need somebody to love

Gerçek bulunduğunda

Yalan olmak

Ve tüm sevinç

İçinde ölür

Birinin seni sevmesini istemiyorsun

Sevecek birine ihtiyacın yok

When it is real

Lie

And all the joy

It will die inside

You do not want someone to love you

You do not need anybody to love

 

Latvian

I am the eggman.

We are the eggmen.

I am the Walrus.

Es esmu olu saimnieks.

Mēs esam ērģeles.

ES esmu valzirgs.

I am the owner of eggs.

We are an organ.

The EU is a waltz.

 

Tamil

You gotta fight for your right to party.

நீங்கள்கட்சிக்குஉங்கள்உரிமைக்காகபோராடுகிறீர்கள்

 You are fighting for your rights to the party.

 

Urdu

It was cold and lonely in the deep dark night.

یہگہریاندھیرےراتمیںسردیاورواحدتھی

 It was dark and cold in the dark in the dark.

 

Sundanese

You’re the meaning in my life. You’re my inspiration.

Anjeun hartina hirup abdi. Anjeun inspirasi abdi.

You mean my life. You inspire me.

 

Azerbaijani

Come on baby, light my fire.

Körpə işığına çıxmağımla yanma

 Do not burn with my baby’s light.

 

Hungarian

Oh, Pretty Woman

Ó csinos nő

Oh handsome woman.

 

Punjabi

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous.

Here we are now, entertain us.

I feel stupid and contagious.

Here we are now, entertain us.

ਰੋਸ਼ਨੀਦੇਨਾਲ, ਇਹਘੱਟਖ਼ਤਰਨਾਕਹੈ

ਇੱਥੇਅਸੀਂਹੁਣਹਾਂ, ਸਾਡਾਮਨੋਰੰਜਨਕਰਰਹੇਹਾਂ

ਮੈਨੂੰਬੇਵਕੂਫਅਤੇਛੂਤਕਾਰੀਲੱਗਦਾਹੈ

ਇੱਥੇਅਸੀਂਹੁਣਹਾਂ, ਸਾਡਾਮਨੋਰੰਜਨਕਰਰਹੇਹਾਂ

Along with lighting, this is less dangerous.

Here we are, we are entertaining ourselves.

I find stupid and contagious.

Here we are, we are entertaining ourselves.

7 effective political slogans, and one ineffective but ballsy one.

At the end of the day, all politicians have are their words. Well-designed political slogans can push a so-so candidate over the top if it’s mobilizing, motivating and simple enough to get behind.

Let’s look at some of the best political slogans from the past 120 years and what made them so effective.

It’s Morning Again in America (Ronald Reagan, 1984)

Political Poster — It's Morning in America

By the time 1984 came around, the United States had gone through 20 years of hell, starting with Vietnam and the counter culture, ending with AIDS and 21% interest rates, and highlighted by Martin Luther King, Watergate, disco music, the Cold War and everything else Billy Joel sang about in We Didn’t Start the Fire. Americans needed calm. They needed to turn the page. And what better way to signal the coming of a new day then to actually signal the coming of a new day?  

Yes We Can (Barack Obama, 2008)

Political Poster — Yes We Can

In 2008, America was lost. It knew it was the greatest country on earth but it didn’t think it was behaving that way. It was hunting a man it couldn’t find. It had written cheques it couldn’t cash. And the US dollar was worth less than the Canadian dollar. The “American Way” of picking yourself up and dusting yourself off wasn’t going to work this time. So instead of a kick in the ass, Barack Obama extended a hand. And his political slogans invited everyone to join him.

 The Last Best West (Clifford Sifton, Canadian Minister of the Interior 1896)

Political Poster — The Last Best West

The CanCon portion of this list comes from the Laurier government. In the late 19th century, the race to populate the West was in full force. The Americans had been pushing hard for upwards of 60 years, and all signs were pointing north. Laurier knew he had to extend Canada (then just a 29-year-old country and still part of the British Empire) or America was going to grow around them. To do that, he needed immigrants. He could’ve played the “chase your fortune” card. But he went more basic than that. With gorgeous pictures of the plains, prairies and mountains, he sold the vista and the space, which resonated with Europeans who’d been living on top of each other for 400 years.

Keep Calm And Carry On (British Ministry of Information, 1939)

Political Poster — Keep Calm and Carry On

The line’s obviously experienced a bit of a renaissance lately, but when it was coined in the lead up to war with Hitler, it was the confidence that Brits needed to throw down. As political slogans go, it’s one of the best ever. It was like “Relax, we got this. You go on about your day and we’ll rid the world of its most dangerous person. We’re the British Empire. This is what we do.” Of course, they had to keep reminding themselves of this during the Blitzkrieg, but it all worked out in the end.

It’s Time (Australian Labour Party, 1972)

Political Poster — It's time

The conservatives had been in power for 23 years. The Labour Party had no real directional alternative and no experience leading anything bigger than a marching band. But they had Gough Whitlam at the helm, a gifted orator in contrast to the piece-of-cardboard Prime Minister William McMahon. So they let Whitlam do what he did best, and supported him with a super-simple message: 23 years is too long. The Australians bought in and elected the Labour Party. As it turns out, they got what they paid for. Three years later, in what’s still the greatest political and constitutional crisis in Australian History, Whitlam’s government was dismissed by the Governor General. There’s even a miniseries about it.

Labour’s Not Working (British Conservative Party, 1979)

Political Poster — Labour Isn't Working

We featured this line in a previous blog, and it’s worth revisiting because it’s that good. The late 70s in Britain were marred by industrial strikes, closing factories and way too many unemployed people. So when Margaret Thatcher, new leader of the Conservatives, tapped ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi to give them a takedown line, they came back with “Labour Isn’t Working.” Ugh…it’s so good.

Make America Great Again (Donald Trump, 2016)

 Make American Great Again hat

Say what you want about The Donald, but you can’t deny that he’s a skilled marketer. In four words, he captured what much of the country was feeling. It was simple. It was motivating and it got the job done. Not to be understated, it also works perfectly as an easily repeated acronym: You can say “maga” and not trip over it. In the hashtag-dominated world of today, considering this is critical.

Special Mention: Roosevelt for Ex-President (US Presidential Candidate Wendell Willkie, 1940)

Political Poster — Roosevelt for Ex- President

Chutzpah of the highest order.

Don’t trust an AI copywriter

Last month, Chinese mega-publisher Alibaba unveiled their own virtual copywriter. It’s a computer program that they claim can generate 20,000 words of copy per second. Their promise to advertisers is that having an AI copywriter in their back pocket will save them time and, more importantly, save them a ton of money because they won’t have to pay a real person to write their sales copy for them.

We call hogwash, and here’s why:

An AI copywriter won’t take its time.
Alibaba’s proof point for their creation’s efficacy is that consumers couldn’t tell the difference between a human-written piece of text and the AI copywriter’s writing. We’d challenge Alibaba to put their robot’s copy against a skilled copywriter’s work. Because as we’ve said a million times before on this blog, half of writing is knowing when to put the proverbial pencil down. Just because you can write 20,000 words in a second doesn’t mean you should. It’s about finding the right words to drive action. The fact that Alibaba’s AI can generate 20,000 words an hour is like a cook who says they can pump out 200 grilled chicken and veggie plates an hour. Do you really think the meat in any of those mass-produced meals is going to be grilled to perfection? Will you get that quintessential carrot crunch?

A robot copywriter

Most importantly, if you owned a restaurant and you knew a Zagat critic was coming in that night, would you want to give them one of the 200, or would you take your time and cook something up that was just perfect? Right.
So yes, you’ll save time and money in the creation. But you’ll lose money every time a consumer doesn’t choose your product or service because your copy is blah.

An AI copywriter can’t account for audience
Sure an AI copywriter can write all day about the product it’s given. But as any good copywriter knows, the product is secondary to the customer benefit. “What it is and what it does” pales in comparison to “why should I want this and what will it do for me on an emotional level?” You can’t just program this kind of understanding into a bot — it comes from years of experience resonating with people and moving needles, knowing what works and what doesn’t. And it comes from understanding what people respond to today as opposed to what they may have responded to last year. If you were running a campaign to middle America, you’d probably speak very differently today than you may have at this time two years ago.

Again, you’ll save time and money on the front end, but it’ll cost you dearly on the back end.

An AI copywriter won’t understand your feedback
Copywriting is an iterative process. It’s a partnership between the client and the copywriter to get the message and the tone right.
As we explain to our clients, they know their business better than we do and we rely on them to steer us in the right direction. We listen to their voices and the passion they have for specific things over other things. And as a client, you’d expect to have direct access to your copywriter. You won’t get that with a robot. And you certainly won’t get the level of attention from a robot that you’d get from a real person.

Save time? Sure. Save money? Maybe. Save hassle. Not on your life.

Alibaba, stick to world retail domination
Ali (can we call you Ali?), you wrote the book on eCommerce. You should stick to that. When it comes to writing the copy for that book, leave it to the experts.

The Power of A Value Prop

Most business owners can clearly describe what their company does. But how many can clearly describe what they do for their customers? These are two very different statements, and the latter is far more valuable than the former — and in marketing circles, that statement is called a “value prop,” which in plain English translates to “what’s in it for me?”

The purpose of a value prop.

A value prop’s main purpose is to elicit the following response: “Yeah, I want that for me!” And more specifically, “Hmm, if I hire/engage/partner with this company, this will be the end result.”

It’s important to keep this construct front and centre as you’re working through your value prop because it’s all too easy to fall back into what you do versus what your customer or client is going to get.

Why does your company need a value prop?

Because a potential customer doesn’t care about what you’ve done, who you’ve worked for or all the capital investment you’ve put into your company to make it cutting-edge, profitable or viable. None of that has anything to do with them, so why should they care? 

What they really care about is what all that means for them.

Imagine two wedding photographers sitting down to talk with prospective customers. The first one says:

“I’ve been a wedding photographer for 15 years. I use a top-of-the-line camera and I have a top-of-the-line retouching studio. I’ve shot weddings all over Canada. And I was trained by Hudson Taylor, the foremost wedding photographer in the city.”

And the second one says: 

“You’re going to remember your wedding day for the rest of your life. When you look at your pictures, you’ll feel the love you and your husband shared that day and if you ever feel like the spark is fading, the pictures I give you will reignite the flame.”

Which is more compelling? Clearly the second one is because it’s about the value you’re going to get from the photographs.

You don’t know anything about photography or cameras so you don’t care what kind of camera he uses. You don’t know anything about studios so you don’t care about how top-of-the-line his studio is. You don’t know who Hudson Taylor is so that means nothing to you. And your wedding is happening in your backyard so the fact that he’s shot weddings in Banff National Park means nothing to you.

But what is important (and valuable) to you isn’t what happens on your wedding day, but what happens the days, months, years and decades after the wedding. What is important to you is how those pictures will make you feel and how those pictures will make your life better.

We call that the “happy future state.” And THAT’S what your value prop should be conveying.

How to write a compelling value prop.

Step 1: Write it simply. It’s easy to overwrite a value prop, weaving in big phrases and clauses that make you look amazing. But remember: it’s not about you. It’s about them. And remember also that they’ll want to understand it quickly. So put yourself in the mind of your customers or clients. What’s their pain point and what does their happy future state look like? It doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, it shouldn’t be complicated. Because it’s too easy for someone to click back on their browser or phone and choose the next option. And if someone gets to your site, gets confused and leaves, the chances of them returning are slim to none.

Step 2: Keep it real. Don’t overpromise something you can’t or won’t deliver. This requires a deep understanding of your capabilities as a business (which we’re sure you have). Our second wedding photographer from the example above would never say that your photos will be so good that they’ll appear on Page 6. And while that might be a compelling value prop for some people, unless he works for Page 6, he can’t guarantee that. The worst thing you can do with a compelling value prop is not make good on your claims.

Step 3: Make it unique. This requires a bit of competitive analysis, but it’s well worth the extra legwork. A well-crafted value prop will set you apart as offering something that no one else is. So in the case of our wedding photographer above, while everyone else in his industry is talking about the gorgeousness of the wedding day, he’s taking about the longevity and health of the marriage. No one else is saying/selling that. 

A last point about value props.

Having a compelling value prop will make any future marketing communications you put together so much easier because your value prop is like your North Star. In a perfect world, every blog post, every ad, every direct mail, every presentation and every microsite will ladder back up to that value prop. Which means every time you reach out to clients, customers, prospects, investors, employees or anyone else, the value you bring comes shining through.

Then all you have to do is deliver. And if you’re good at what you do, that should be no problem.

5 value props we dig.

As you can see, they’re all written simply, they’re easy to understand, and most importantly, they paint the picture of the happy future state.

Value prop: Bring everything you need without checking a bag Value prop: remember everything Value prop: Soundtrack your life Value prop: send better email Value prop: Small business accounting software designed for you, the non-accountant

The demise of email has been greatly exaggerated

Morpheus to Neo: What if I told you that email is still very important

So, about that prediction a while back that email was going to go the way of cassette tape — looks like that was a whole lot of nothing.

Email is STILL the most influential source of outward-bound B2B information. In fact, the only two sources of information that rank higher are co-worker recos and advice from industry-specific thought leaders.

That puts email in pretty impressive company. But some people are still not convinced. They think email is archaic and that platforms like Slack are superior — at least, that’s what these platforms are touting. But they’re not having very much success.

Email isn’t going anywhere. It’s easy. It’s universally accessible. It’s become part of our behaviour since we all got our first hotmail addresses in the late 1990s. And kudos to all the contrarians out there who had a “coolmail” address.

But here’s the best reason for sticking with email:

A recent study found a $44 return for every $1 spent on email marketing.

Yes, you read that right. A well-thought-out email marketing strategy can deliver a 440% return. So the million-dollar question becomes this: “What’s a well-thought-out email marketing strategy? The way we see it, it’s a 4-step process.

Step 1: Build a robust list

Take every opportunity to add more email addresses to your list. There’s no wrong way to do this. Some of the more common tactics include:

  • Offering exclusive content in exchange for email addresses
  • Inviting people to enter a contest by giving you their email addresses
  • Adding a request for email addressesat the end of a blog post
  • Creating social media posts that ask for email addresses
  • Collecting email addresses one-to-one at trade shows or events

We came across this blog post that breaks down the value of an email address. It’s an interesting read, but the money shot of it all is this:not only is email the most effective form of marketing, it’s also the most profitable because you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get email addresses. You just have to give people a reason to offer you a place in their inboxes. And from there, the following equation applies:

# of contacts x Conversion Rate x Average Order Value = Revenue

 Now simply plug in your conversion rate and your average order value and you start to see what a quality marketing email campaign can do.

1000 contacts x 2% Conversion Rate x $10/order = $2,000

You didn’t spend any money. You didn’t run an ad. You sent an email.

 

Oprah screaming "You get an email, you get an email!"

 

Step 2: Increase your conversion rate

This is the key to maximizing the equation above: you have to get through people’s natural inclination to delete emails before they read them. And this is where you need a good copywriter.

We approach an email this way:

Subject lines— They’re everything. If they’re not compelling, the email won’t get read.

Headlines— Email readers really don’t have a lot of time. Get. To. The. Point.

Offer— What’s in it for the recipient?

Strong Call to Action— Get good at being direct in a friendly way. Tell people what you want them to do and why they should. Do that and they probably will.

 

Lionel Ritchie singing "Hello...is it leads you're looking for

 

Step 3: Be consistent

It doesn’t matter how often you communicate with the folks on your list. But whatever schedule you choose, stick to it. You win when people start to expect and look forward to your presence in their inboxes.

We send out a monthly email. People like it. And you will too. Sign up for it on the bottom left corner of our home page.

Half of copywriting is knowing when to stop writing

Young scribes new to copywriting have a tendency to overwrite. And they do it for different reasons. Some want to show off their vocabularies. Others want to be super-diligent in their explanations. A few draw their writing inspiration from the verbose masters of English literature like Charles Dickens who, while we love the guy, was most likely allergic to short sentences.

But here’s the thing about copywriting that separates it from every other form of writing out there: no one wants to read it.

That’s not to say they won’t read it. They will, but they have to be convinced. A big part of that convincing process comes down to time: you can’t waste a split-second of it because it’s without a doubt the most valuable commodity you, we and everyone on the planet has.

The reality of brevity

To write a little takes more time than to write a lot.

Axiomatically, that doesn’t make sense. But think about your own writing (like an email to a friend). If you just spew out whatever’s on your mind, you can write it, send it and be done. But if you go back, review what you wrote, take out sentences you think might offend them or be interpreted improperly, shorten your thoughts so you get the response you want and make sure your recipient fully understands what you’re saying, it’s going to take a lot longer.

Now imagine you’re trying to sell something: a product, a service, an idea. You’re competing with everyone else in the world trying to sell products, services and ideas, so you have to do it quickly. You’re competing with modern attention spans (that really shouldn’t be called spans at all because for something to span it should at least be more than two seconds long) so you have do it compellingly. And you’re competing with consumers who demand more than the facts. They want to be entertained. Their entire relationship with social media is about being entertained. They willingly give up their personal privacy to be entertained. So you have to make them laugh, cry or think.

And you have to do all that in a matter of seconds, lest you fade into the background of obscurity.

So when we come across a piece of copywriting that says everything it needs to say in a few choice words, we graciously tip our hats because it’s not easy.

Great copywriting: A print ad by the Economist that reads "Utter Brilliance"

The Economist has a rich history of brilliant copywriting. It helps that every ad they put out has the same message: read The Economist and you’ll be smarter. Each one’s better than the last one, but for us, this one sits alone at the top.

Great copywriting: A print ad from the Canadian Literacy Foundation for Dyslexia research that reads "EFORBE/AFTER"

This one’s for Canadian Literacy Foundation’s fundraising for dyslexia research campaign. They could’ve spent all day going on about the science of dyslexia, its effect on children, and why it has to be researched and eradicated. But instead, in two words (well, one word and one kinda word) they demonstrated their value to the world. Genius.

Great copywriting: A print ad from the UK Conservative Party that reads "Labour Isn't Working"

We talked earlier in this post about being quick, compelling and entertaining. In three simple words, they nailed all three. You can’t read this headline and not feel your eyebrows and sides of your mouth rise uncontrollably.

 

Great copywriting: A print ad from the Cancer Patients Aid Association that reads "Cancer cures smoking"

Another three-word ad that says it all. Again, they could’ve gone all doom and gloom, showing sick people and dirty lungs or heart-broken widows. But instead, they did quick, compelling and entertaining in three words.

Four ads. Four categories. One copywriting style.

Publishing, charity, politics and health. That’s diversity right there. But the approach to the copywriting was the same: say it straight with a bit of style. In each of these cases, the writer had every opportunity to wax on for paragraphs. And they could’ve.

But they chose something else. It’s why their work is so respected. And why it works so well.

Technical Writing is The Opposite of Writing Technically

A mug with five words that will help you with technical writing: thingamabob, dealie, whatsit, plug thing and electrocution

When you think of technical writing, do you think of big words and bigger equations, text that could put a person drowning in Red Bull to sleep and a complete lack of anything resembling creativity?

If so, then you’ve been exposed to bad technical writing.

Good technical writing is the opposite of all that. It has to be, or it’s not really doing its job.

What is technical writing and why is it so in demand?

Techwhirl provides a bang-on definition of technical writing: the practice of putting technical information into easily understandable language. It’s in high demand for two polar opposite reasons: too many experts and not enough experts.

Let’s look at both.

Too many experts means not enough understanding

The age of the generalist has gone the way of the dodo. Today, everyone is a specialist, sub-specialist or sub-sub-specialist. They know more about their narrow field of expertise than anyone else, and that knowledge acts as a bottleneck to understanding for everyone else.

Oftentimes, when one of these specialists attempts to explain what they know, it’s wrapped up in far too much jargon and inside information for anyone without their level of learning in the field to have any idea what it means.

And you can hardly fault the expert for that. After all, they understand the material perfectly well, and they probably spend most of their time with people who understand it too. To them, the complexity of the material is what makes it simple; they have no need to simplify further and no practice doing it.

This is where a good technical writer comes in. A technical writer worth his or her weight can read through the text and find the key messages or benefits that would impress a reader who needs to understand what the specialist is saying but doesn’t.

Served up simply, a layperson can understand what the material means, but more importantly, they can understand what it means for them.

Not enough experts means too much misunderstanding

Think about the typical business unit and how many roles are represented: technicians, operators, analysts, communicators, sales reps, account managers and lord knows how many more disciplines. Each of these people have a client they have to answer to, and the only thing more frustrating to a client than having to wait for answers from their suppliers or vendors is getting the wrong answers.

The problems with big multi-role teams is that (a) no one can be an expert in everything, (b) not everyone is available to answer technical questions about their part of the job when a client needs those answers and (c) if an expert is available to answer the question, it might not be satisfactory for the client (see previous section).

For this reason, big companies will invest in technical writing to put everyone on the same page. They’ll deliver what amounts to cheat sheets for everyone on the team that clearly and simply outlines the features and benefits of everyone else’s contributions so anyone can speak to anything confidently and accurately. 

Technical Writing Isn’t Creative? Ha!

Anyone can drop a zinger or throw some sarcastic shade at someone else. But only a highly creative person can pour through reams of information about hot mold injections, Copper Beryllium and Titanium-Zirconium Molybdenum and come back with something that a plant manager who dropped out of high school would understand, while at the same time pleasing the Double-PhD in Physics and Chemistry who created the technology.

And only a truly gifted creative writer can teach a boomer to program an iPhone.

Two old people trying to work an iPhone. They could us a good technical writer.

4 qualities to look for in a technical writing vendor

 1. A diverse portfolio

You want a technical writer with demonstrated comfort in a variety of material. This shows you they know how to read and research, and they’re not reliant on their background for knowledge.

2. A universally easy writing style

You want anyone who picks up your material to be able to get it. And you don’t want them to have to work too hard.

3. Attention to detail

Technical writing is about getting the facts right and you want people who respect that. These are people who check, double-check and triple-check their work ¾including their emails to you.

4. Respect for deadlines

Technical writing is often associated with a presentation, launch, pitch or another time-sensitive event. Your technical writer should be consistent in delivering ahead of schedule.

Willy Wonka meme: You say you're a technical writer...tell us about your last installation guide.

Content Writer or Copywriter: Which Do You Need?

The difference between a content writer and a copywriter is the difference between a fast food joint and a Michelin restaurant. Both have their place in the world, but their value depends on the appetite of the people in the room.

Content vs copy, displayed as a short order cook vs a high-end chef

A content writer deals in quantity

Content writers churn. And they do it well. Give a content writer a hundred topics and they’ll come back to you with 100 pieces of writing that hit all the SEO benchmarks, meet the minimum-word requirements and deliver the information well enough.

If your aim is to flood the web with drivers to your website and establish your business as one with an interest in (or even a passion for) something, a content writer can do the job amicably. Will you compel real action? No. But that’s not the point. The point is presence, awareness and page ranking.

A copywriter deals in quality

Copywriters persuade. And they do it equally well. Give a copywriter a desired business outcome and they’ll come back with two or three versions of a message that hit all the right emotional and psychological tones, and drive real-world results.

If your goal is to drive sales or sign-ups by establishing your business as the unmistakably right choice and a leader in your industry, you want a copywriter on the case. You’ll pay more for a copywriter’s time and expertise, but you’ll get more than just a pair of eyeballs. You’ll get more feet moving and more wallets opening.

All copywriters write content. Not all content writers write copy.

Content has become this catch-all term to connote the consumable information we find online. And since content has become THE currency of choice in the new economy, people who can produce it en masse have become among the most sought-after folks by ad agencies and marketing departments.

And because so much content has to be created on a regular basis (consumers today will look at three to fivepieces of a company’s content before reaching out for a quote), it makes financial sense to bring in a content writer to pump it out quickly and regularly.

But here’s the question you have to ask yourself: what good is an investment in content if no one wants to read it?

It’s a fair question, especially given how much content you’ll compete with for every keyword and every subject.

This is why, as a marketer, you always want a copywriter

Like a short-order cook, a content writer will fill you up. But like an award-winning chef, a copywriter will make it an experience. They’ll make your reader feel differently about a topic or force them to question their stance on an issue. A content writer can present the facts about an issue. But a copywriter will force you to take a side (and more often, the side that leads to an action). They’ll present the argument in a voice that speaks to readers instead of speaking just to the subject matter. And they’ll get you real results.

An eCard that talks about the benefits of copy over content