We get asked for writing advice all the time; from clients, students and the occasional family member. And while each request requires a different approach, some pieces of writing advice are universal.
Getting to know quips and brilliances from Oscar Wilde is one of those universals.
His command of language was so exacting (probably because he was proficient in English, French and German, Italian and Ancient Greek). His concepts were so eloquent. And his unique ability to make you shake your head in disbelief and say “YES!!” has, in our minds at least, yet to be matched.
This week marks the 118th anniversary of Oscar Wilde’s death. And so, to honour the wittiest man to every put pen to paper, and to provide those seeking writing advice with a bit of additional inspiration, here’s a quick list of our favourite Wildeisms.
“Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”
Wilde has a knack for spinning a truth into a benefit. As you write, keep in mind that your audience is a real person with real motivations. They know the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. They want to know how this fact helps make their lives better.
“Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.”
With the changing of one letter, Wilde found a way to praise and insult at the same time. As you’re writing, look for wordplay opportunities like this. But use them sparingly. One of Wilde’s greatest literary gifts was his restraint (not so much in his personal life).
“I don’t want to go to heaven. None of my friends are there.”
Wilde was a master at bringing levity to tough subjects. This was one of his greatest strengths and can be a great strength when you’re tasked with a serious topic. Remember that your reader, in addition to being a doctor or a banker or mourner, is also a person who needs a bit of levity to break up the monotony.
“A good friend stabs you in the front.”
Understanding the basics of human experience was a skill of Wilde’s, and should be a skill of any writer. As you’re writing, try to rise up above the subject matter and look at the truth surrounding it. You’ll find something poignant to say.
“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”
This might be the best writing advice we can give. Always be ready to write your ideas down. You never know when you’re going to have them and you never want to lose a good one.
But Oscar Wilde’s best words may have been his last: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has got to go.”
A few years ago, we were bouncing around the idea of replacing “Choose Your Words Wisely.” In retrospect, it was a silly exercise because we have a great tagline. But one alternative we quite liked was “Well said. Well read.”
It was objectively good: catchy, well-balanced, thought-provoking. We knew it (or an iteration of it) would find a home somewhere.
We’re pleased to report that it did. And here’s how it happened.
A little over a year ago, we did an interview with Rick Kotick. At the time, he was Head of Competitive Intelligence at RBC. He’s moved up in the world and is now VP of Intelligence. But more importantly, he and Leslie Baker (a marketing director at the same bank) started a side hustle to improve the way people in the corporate world speak and write to each other.
Both Rick and Leslie are expert communicators. And in their respective roles, they noticed a problem: universities were spitting out brilliant analytical minds, but not offering the soft skills training to effectively share their thoughts. As a result, messages and directives are getting lost, people are getting frustrated, deadlines are being missed and business is suffering.
The KB4 hypothesis is pretty simple: if people were clearer and more intentional in their communication, everyone’s productivity would increase. So they started a company to offer that training.
And they needed a great tagline for their new venture. So they came to us.
KB4’s tagline had to kill it.
They’re a professional communication company in the business of promoting clarity and purposefulness. We knew this had to come through in their tagline. And we knew the tagline had to be aspirational.
Their target customer is someone who either wants to be a better communicator themselves or needs their people to be better communicators. KB4 had to demonstrate through their great tagline that they understood exactly what their audience wanted.
So we started tossing ideas around. Some were better than others, but we weren’t getting anywhere good. That’s par for the course in tagline development, though. Think about it: a tagline has to sum up a company’s mission, ethos and promise in five words. You’re not going to hit eureka right away. You have to get the bad ideas on paper and out of the way so you can get to the gold.
We went through a fair amount of bad, and just before we decided to call it a night, we remembered “Well said. Well read.” It wasn’t exactly right, but it felt like a strong jumping-off point.
We immediately gave the lads a call and shared the idea with them. At first blush, they loved it, but they agreed that it wasn’t quite there. We both decided to sleep on it and workshop it further in the AM.
We woke up the next morning to an email from Rick. All it had was a subject line:
“Be Heard. Be Read” is exactly what Rick and Leslie’s customers want, and exactly what Rick and Leslie help their customers achieve. And it’s only four words.
We loved it when we saw it. We still love it. And we love getting updates from the KB4 crew on their LinkedIn page. They just ran their first series of workshops to rave reviews. If they asked us to guest-host a session on snappy writing that gets co-workers’ attention, we’d be happy to do it. Hint, hint.
As you think about your next great tagline…
Think of it like it’s the first thing people are going to know about your business. It’s your ice-breaker, your mood-setter, your opening statement. If you get it right, people will want to know more about you. And then you can sell them on whatever you want.
5 elements of a great tagline:
Phonetic balance: Easy to say; rolls off the tongue.
Less than five words: Anything more is a statement, not a line.
Future-pointed: Describe the ideal and show that you believe it’s possible.
Simple language: Everyone should get it.
Positivity: Make people feel good about you.
P.S.: It appears The Globe and Mail’s picking up what we’re throwing, as their newest tagline is “Well written. Well Read.”
Content marketing, as an industry, is obsessed with best practices to ensure effective content, not enjoyable content:
– This is how many keywords you need
– This is the keyword frequency you should be aiming for
– This is the time of day you should post
– This is the blah b-blah b-blah
Sometimes we think the complexity of content marketing rules exist solely as a way for content marketers to generate more content. You’ll find a million pieces of content spewing out there about what you should be doing, when you should be doing it and how sorry you’ll be if you don’t.
But here’s the little secret they don’t tell you in these data-driven blog posts: if people stop reading it after the first line because it’s boring or useless or not at all what the reader had in mind from the description when he or she clicked the link to get to it, then following all those rules is a waste of your time.
And so, above all else, content has to be enjoyable. But what does that even mean when everyone’s definition of “enjoyable” is so different?
We think it means three things:
Enjoyable content solves a problem
It doesn’t matter what the problem is or how trivial it may be. And “problem” doesn’t have to be a negative thing either. A problem could be “How do I get better at Scrabble?” or “How to make a sandwich that won’t get soggy?” (Ed. note: use the cheese or meat as a barrier between the bread and wet ingredients like tomatoes or pickles).
When readers can come away from a piece of content having learned something they can actually use (which you’ll no doubt do next time you make yourself a sandwich), most find that enjoyable. Content like that is helpful, and everybody likes a bit of help ¾ even if they say they don’t.
Enjoyable content is friendly
Yes, there’s something to be said about professionalism. You’re not going to pepper your piece with OMGs. But regardless of the subject matter, it shouldn’t be stuffy either. Remember, even PhDs put their pants on one leg at a time. They’re people, not boring, soulless robots. Don’t write to that.
Write to the person on the 5:30 train home, not the 8:30 train in. That means short sentences with small words that everyone gets. It means getting to the point quickly and not waxing poetically about yourself. It means making the reader feel good by showing them a future state with your product or service as opposed to making the reader feel crappy by showing them a future state without your product or service.
Enjoyable content is credible
It’s hard to enjoy what you don’t believe so your content should be giving readers reasons to buy in. If it’s an opinion piece, the opinions should be backed up by sourced facts. If it’s a fluff piece, the topic should be well-researched so it adds value to the reader. And if it’s supposed to be a funny piece, then make sure it’s funny. Not much worse than trying for a laugh and coming up short.
And why do you need enjoyable content?
For the same reason movie theatres need enjoyable movies, sports teams need enjoyable players and companies need enjoyable people: it’s much easier to get buy-in when everyone’s smiling.
Unless you’re one of those people who finds silence louder than noise. Or you’re the kind of person who feeds off secondary sensory stimulation (creativity in one area is heightened by exposure to creativity in another). In fact, many non-professionals forced into copywriting or copyediting find secondary sensory stimulation to be helpful in tackling the task at hand and feeling good about the results.
“I tend to write and edit faster and better when I’m listening to music,” says Kelly Fischstein, a photographer in Toronto. “Responding to clients. Putting quotes together. Looking over my kid’s homework. It’s all easier with tunes.”
Our informal poll shook out around 50/50. And interestingly, among the “yay for noise” group, almost all genres were represented, including death metal (yes, death metal).
Our playlist doesn’t rock that hard. In fact, our playlist doesn’t “rock hard” at all. As copywriters and copyeditors, the sound can’t define the environment because that’s what the work does. Instead, it has to be part of the environment. Hard rock’s tempo, riffs, chords and lyrics define an environment. Great for after work. Not so good during (this assertion is supported by a 2013 study similar to the one mentioned above).
Be better at copywriting and copyediting with this playlist
It’s mellifluous but inspiring. It keeps you awake without distracting you. The lyrics are powerful enough to spark thoughts, but repetitive enough to fade into the background. And while there’s definite variety, the Beats Per Minute (BPMs) are fairly consistent throughout so you’re never jarred out of rhythm.
Ok, enough. On to the music.
Track #1: Mad About You — Hooverphonic
Violins, a subtle drum beat and the angelic voice of Geike Arnaert is a great way to start the job. Not too hard, not too soft and light on bass. You’re not quite feeling the work in your soul yet. No sense wasting heart-pounding beats before you’re ready.
Track #2: Kiss Me — Sixpence None The Richer
Ok, you’re getting into the groove a bit. Positivity is key. And this boppy poppy track is perfect for that, especially with Leigh Nash’s fun Nashville-style vocals. Little known fact about the band: they’re primarily a Christian Rock group.
Track #3: Perpetual Dawn — The Orb
You’re probably zoned in now, to the point where a bomb could go off beside you and you wouldn’t notice. So you want a repetitive track that won’t distract you with its lyrics or its music, but that’ll maintain the mood. This is it. With a bit of ragga, with elements of trip-hop, you’ll zone out by zoning in. And when you’re done your work, check out more from The Orb — they’re a ’90’s must.
Track #4: Hello — Ice Cube
Warning: this is definitely an NSFW track, but by this time, you’ve probably taken a chunk out of the first part of your job and you’re looking for some verbal inspiration to kick up your efforts. This track has it in spades.
Track #5: Sunshine Superman — Donovan
Ideas are floating around your mind and on the page, and you want to concentrate on them. This track won’t stand in your way. It’s simple but interesting. The lyrics are basic. And the beat is repetitive enough to not throw you off kilter. Of note: this is an example of a track that has no traditional chorus.
Track #6: What Is Life — George Harrison
You’ve no doubt heard this song before, and so you’re less inclined to be distracted by it or want to listen intently. But it’s arranged to be motivating. We find it gets our fingers moving and our minds racing. Actually, most of George Harrison’s Beatles and post-Beatles work does that for us.
Track #7: Somebody That I Used To Know — Gotye
Unless you were living under a rock five or six years ago, you know this song. And that’s a good thing because you can probably recite the words without thinking. This is a good thing. And the lyrics oscillate between alto and soprano to keep your ears on their toes.
Track #8: Pump Up The Volume — M/A/R/R/S
You’re feeling it big time now. And you’ll feel it more with this in the background. What’s cool about this track is how the beat never changes, but the arrangement changes every 20 seconds or so. So while the cognitive part of your brain will notice, the functional part of your brain is unaffected. It’s a 6:29 song, and you’ll be amazed how much you get done in such a short time.
Track #9: Reflektor — Arcade Fire
Hello CanCon! This is a straight-up pump-you-up track to bring home phase two of your job. You’ll find yourself bopping along. And being as zoned in as you are, you probably won’t notice the David Bowie cameo at 4:42. But how cool that Bowie agreed to back up the track.
Track #10: The Goonies “R” Good Enough — Cyndi Lauper
We’re back to boppy poppy to get you back to pounding away at those keys. And you get to think about one of the greatest ’80s movies for a ten-second break.
Track #11: Next To Me — Emeli Sande
A bit more intense than the previous track, but still repetitive enough to not throw you off your train of thought. Also, the lyrics are uplifting, motivating and make you believe you can do anything. Which you can!
Track #12: Hopeless Wanderer — Mumford and Sons
We saved the best for last. This is your big finish, and perfect for looking over what you’ve done. You’re feeling great about your work. And about yourself. As you should.
So there you have it: our copywriting and copyediting playlist. You probably have your own. And we’d love to give it a whirl. If you have a playlist, share it with us on Facebook or LinkedIn. And happy working.
P.S.: Here are links to all the songs on our copywriting and copyediting playlist:
Smart businesses seek out the services of a copy editor because everyone in a company can use a second set of eyes.
Yes, you want to avoid embarrassing mistakes, but that’s more the job of a proofreader (we do that too, by the way). A copy editor will make sure you’re conveying what you think you’re conveying, and that you’re doing it in the best way possible.
The relationship between a creator and a copy editor is an interesting one. As the creator (that is, the writer of the piece in question, be it a report, a pitch, a website, an email or a tweet), you should expect the copy editor to:
understand you, how you speak and (more importantly) how you don’t.
understand your subject matter and your message.
understand your audience and the kind of language that would resonate with them.
But also important is the copy editor’s understanding of how you like to work.
We talked about the objective basics of feedback in a previous post, but we didn’t touch on the subjective aspect of it, which we deem as the fit.
When you’re looking for a copy editor that fits your organization, it’s important to consider their feedback style, their adherence to the rules and if you genuinely like working with them.
For example, one of our editors has zero flower to her comments. When you read her notes (if she bothers to add notes at all), they’re almost robotic. And the clients she works with appreciate this lack of candour. They’re not interested in learning how to improve or in even considering the extra effort required. They want their copy fixed. No more, no less.
Another editor we have is exactly the opposite. You smile when you read her notes. You feel like you’re being helped versus being corrected. And you come away learning something new about being a better communicator every time.
Neither approach is right or wrong. And neither implies that the copy editor doesn’t care. Both our “robotic” and our “conversational” copy editors are militant about effective communication — they simply have different ways of expressing it.
A copy editor’s adherence to convention
We have an internal style that we’ve built over 10 years and continue to build. Some of our copy editors follow it like the bible. In their eyes, there’s never a reason to break the conventions. This isn’t to say that the client has to accept all the changes and recommendations, but our “stickler” editors don’t feel they’d be doing their jobs properly if they didn’t call out these broken rules. The clients they work with appreciate this exhaustiveness because they see quality writing as writing following the rules.
Other clients prefer a copy editor who knows the rules and has it in them to break said rules in the interests of impact. To these editors, words like “ain’t” are fine as long as the context and the type of client they’re working with warrants such words.
A copy editor’s personality
This is probably the most critical aspect. Because the more content you produce, the more interaction you’ll have with them.
We encourage you to take the time to find a good fit for you and your company. And, of course, we encourage you to consider us. We’re obviously great copy editors, and we’re good people too.
We build revision cycles into our copywriting quotes because we expect client feedback. We like to think we provide our clients with the best ways to phrase their messages, but they’re certainly not the only ways. And because our clients (a) know better than we do what they want and (b) know their business better than we do until we’ve been working with them long enough, their feedback is tremendously valuable and almost always makes the work better.
Notice how we said almost always.
Sometimes, client feedback can be the opposite of helpful: confusing, demoralizing, rude, disorganized and unthoughtful. You can’t do anything with this kind of feedback other than address it, give the client what they want and move on.
But this blog isn’t about bad feedback. It’s about great feedback and what makes it so.
The five qualities of great feedback
We’ve been doing this for a long time. We’ve written a ton of V1s and gotten feedback on just about all of them. This is what we look for.
It’s okay to not like something. Seriously. This is a subjective business. But we have to know why you don’t like it. Too pithy? Too scientific or conversational or funny or goofy or long? If we know your specific objections, we can address them. Context is everything.
If you have an idea about what you want to see, share it! We’re not mind-readers. It can be a link to something you like. It can be something you write. Tell us where you’re head’s at and we’ll join you there.
It’s important to read your feedback over before you send it through. Do you understand what you’re saying? If you don’t, how likely is it that we will? Our advice in this area is to stay basic. “I’m not feeling this paragraph. It’s too long and I think the reader’s going to get lost. Consider shortening by half and leading with the value prop instead of the example.” Perfect.
Years ago, we heard a story of a senior copywriter who, upon getting a change request from an account manager with an outrageously short window to complete it, turned around and said, “You know, we’re not baking cookies here!” And it’s true. Feedback needs to be digested and considered. And it requires thought to shift from what we thought was solid to what you think is more solid. If you want it done right, give us the time to do it right. This isn’t to say we need a week, but more than 45 minutes would be nice.
Never be afraid to give feedback, and never be afraid to give it to us straight. We’re all big boys and girls — we can take it. And we won’t take it personally because good creative professionals know it’s always about the work.
A last word about giving good feedback
Writing is an iterative process. This can get frustrating, but stick with the process because it’s effective. The best work results from a healthy back and forth between us and you. Sometimes we’ll do a few versions only to decide that what we showed you first was the best option. That’s okay because it’s all about discovery and comparison. The most important thing to remember is that we’re on the same side. We both want the work to be the best it can be, and we both want to be proud of it. And with a commitment to working together, it will be.
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.
– 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.
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.
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.
3 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.
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?
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?
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
Ve tüm sevinç
Birinin seni sevmesini istemiyorsun
Sevecek birine ihtiyacın yok
When it is real
And all the joy
It will die inside
You do not want someone to love you
You do not need anybody to love
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.
You gotta fight for your right to party.
You are fighting for your rights to the party.
It was cold and lonely in the deep dark night.
It was dark and cold in the dark in the dark.
You’re the meaning in my life. You’re my inspiration.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)