Read This and Write Better

Read This and Write Better

By Chuck Husak

Everyone in business must write persuasively, whether it’s an ad, a report, a brief, an opinion, or even an email. In that spirit, everyone is an advertising copywriter. So here’s a short course on how to write better, intended to serve anyone who wants to make a more compelling impression with their written pieces.

Mainly, don’t “write” advertising copy. Instead, imagine that you’re “reading” your words, as a customer would.  This approach should guide your process whether writing for print, or broadcast.

It’s not about what you say, but what your customer perceives—and takes away.

Advertisers have been trained to ask, “What can I say that no other company can say? What claims can I make?” In other words, how can I be ME talking about ME?  Wrong.

This approach isn’t copywriting, it’s ham-handed sales copy—a level of writing “bereft of human understanding” as Tom McGilligut would have said.

Don’t try to sell. Give your reader permission to buy.

Ask yourself, “What do I want someone to feel after reading this?” Read your copy the next day—as if someone else wrote it, and you’re the customer. Read it out loud, even if it’s not broadcast. Do you hear what you want your customer to hear?

Follow the Rules?

The best ads, and best writing, don’t happen by following rules—but by breaking them. So, I’ll break this rule right away and state some rules for good writing.

  • Don’t write for a group, an audience, a category, or a segment. Write to engage a person. Your work will be perceived by individuals, not a giant committee.
  • Think about telling a story, whenever possible. Your job is to engage people.
  • If you’re writing about something people already know, you need to articulate it in a new way that helps them know it even better – in a way that ratchets up their awareness for, or priority for, your message.
  • Word plays are “square one” for copywriting. It’s the go-to approach for every young writer. Even fine copywriters revert to word plays, now and then. But resist them. Word plays make advertising copy sound like “advertising” and less like a conversation. If you do use a word play, make it profound and not just clever.
  • “Humor” is easy—because anyone who tries to be “silly” can claim they’re taking a “humorous” approach. But “funny” is very hard. If it’s funny, people will laugh. If they don’t laugh, toss it because it’s not funny enough.

Theme Lines

A smart theme line is really hard to write. So often, these phrases include words like commitment, integrity, trust, innovation, the future, solutions, passion, quality, etc. These words all sound better to the advertiser saying them than to the customer reading them.

Let’s look at a short list of the best all-time theme lines:

  1. Smith-Barney. We make money the old-fashioned way. We earn it.
    A theme line doesn’t have to be short – it can be two sentences.
  2. Apple. Computers for the rest of us.
    Expanded the computer market exponentially.
  3. Nike. Just do it.
    Iconic. Brave. The spirit of the brand.
  4. Kentucky Fried Chicken. Finger lickin’ good.
    Never been topped, by KFC since, or any other fast food chain.
  5. McDonald’s. You deserve a break today.
    The first theme line for the first fast-food chain should have been “Small hamburgers, fast and cheap.” Micky D’s knew they served more than that.

Keep these theme lines in front of you as a conceptual bar to shoot for. Measure your own work against them.

Final Words

Good writing also appears between the lines. Sometimes, it’s what you don’t say. It’s the confidence and leadership you exude with your sense of restraint—and letting the reader conclude you’re smart or advanced or honest—rather than you telling him so. In fact, if you have to tell him those things, there’s a good chance you’re coming up short on those issues.

For example, Nordstrom is famous for service. Yet, they never mention “service” in their ads. Service is something they demonstrate. Most companies who advertise their famous “service” are looking to change a perception of not being good at it. Likewise for “quality.” And so on.

These cues only scratch the surface of what makes good writing. One more thought: don’t use clichés like “scratch the surface.”

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