The better you write, the higher you go in life.
I’ve written successful communications for Ford, Shell, Orica, Porsche, Qantas, SBS and others. Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.
Here are 39 of the things I’ve learned.
1. Universal truth. Writing is an art, not a science.
People first make decisions emotionally which they then rationalise logically. Putting logic before emotions in any writing puts the cart before the horse.
Despite recent upheavals in media, people all over the world across every demographic want what they’ve always wanted - love, acceptance, beauty, health, nutrition, community, social status, relief from suffering, transcendence.
‘The engineers of the future will be poets.’ Terence McKenna
2. Everything is writing. Advertising, public relations, corporate affairs, marketing, branding, design, etc. It’s all communications.
Every way your brand interacts with people is an opportunity to communicate successfully. Or not.
Every problem is a communications problem. And every communications problem is a writing problem.
3. Brand personality. Every piece of written communications should contribute to the complex symbol which is the brand personality.
Ninety-five percent of all written communications are created ad hoc. Most brands lack any consistent personality from one year to another, which breeds scepticism and distrust.
Whoever dedicates their written communications to building the most sharply defined personality for their brand gets the largest share of the market.
4. Most important decision. I’ve learned the effect of your communications depends on how you position your brand?
Should you position Qantas as an airline or the spirit of Australia? Should you position Lexus as a luxury car or an idea in pursuit of perfection?
The results of your campaign depend less on how I write your communications than on how your brand is positioned. It follows that positioning should be decided before the communications are written. Research can help. Look before you leap.
5. Large promise. The second most important decision is what should you promise people?
A promise is not a claim or a theme or a slogan. It’s a benefit, clear and simple. A benefit as a result of changed circumstances because of the brand.
It pays to promise a benefit which is unique and competitive. And the brand must deliver the benefit you promise.
Most written communications promise nothing. It’s doomed to fail in the marketplace.
‘Don’t get hung up on who owns the idea. Pick the best one and go.’ Steve Jobs
6. What’s the BIG IDEA? Unless your written communications are built on a BIG IDEA, they will pass like a ship in the night.
It takes a BIG IDEA to jolt people out of their indifference. To make them notice your communications, remember it and take action.
BIG IDEAS are usually simple ideas that fit the strategy to perfection. BIG SIMPLE IDEAS are not easy to come by. They require genius and midnight oil. A truly big one can change a company’s fortunes - like Apple’s THINK DIFFERENT campaign.
The best writers, copywriters and screenwriters are idea writers.
‘Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.’ Buddha
7. Words make all the difference. There’s a magnitude of difference between good and bad communications.
John Caples has seen one advertisement sell 19 1/2 times as much as another. Same size, same image, same copy. Different headline. A handful of words can make all the difference between success and failure.
Think of words as music. Consider beat, tempo, timbre, rhythm, phrasing, harmony, melody, etc.
8. Medium is the message. Context is king. How your message appears says more than you think.
When BHP runs a quarter-page advertisement in the Australian Financial Review for its “Think Big” campaign, it’s actually thinking small. At best it negates the message. At worst it triggers cognitive dissonance and seeds distrust.
Rather than scatter eight of these small advertisements across the newspaper for reach, it would be far more arresting (and far more effective) to think big and buy a large double-page spread.
9. Positively good. How do you stand out in a world of product and service parity?
Don’t slam the competition, don’t get down in the muck. Convince people that your brand is positively good. Dial down the hyperbole, dial up the honesty.
Don’t insult people’s intelligence. Put your best foot forward.
10. High-quality. It pays to give most brands high-quality writing.
I’ve been conspicuously successful in doing this for Apple, Ford, Levi’s, Nike, Porsche, Qantas, SBS and others.
If your written communications are low-quality, people will conclude that the brand is shoddy, and they’ll be less likely to buy it.
11. Don’t be boring. Nobody was ever bored into paying attention. Yet most written communications are impersonal, detached, cold and dull.
It pays to involve people. Talk to them like a human being (not an algorithm). Charm them. Make them smile. Make them hungry. Get them to participate.
12. Psychological segmentation. Anyone can position brands for demographic segments of the market - for women, for young children, for farmers in Far North Queensland, etc.
But I’ve learned it often pays to position brands for psychological segments of the market.
I’m fond of positioning high-quality brands to fit nonconformists who scoff at status symbols and reject flimflam appeals to snobbery.
Choose your brand’s tone of voice carefully to appeal to a point of view rather than a group limited by age, income or geography.
13. Burr of singularity. The average person is now exposed to thousands of communications a day.
Most of them slide off their memory like water off a duck’s back.
Give your communications a flourish of singularity, a burr that will stick in people’s mind. One such burr is the MNEMONIC DEVICE, or relevant phrase - like ‘independent travel’ I devised for STA Travel.
Alliteration and assonance can help.
14. Don’t bury news. It’s easier to interest people in a product or service when it’s new than at any other point in its life.
Many brands have a fatal instinct for burying news. This is why most written communications for new products or services fail to exploit the opportunity that genuine news provides.
It pays to launch your new product or service with a loud BOOM!
‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’ George Bernard Shaw
15. Salvage communications. Written communications which test poorly can be salvaged.
Faults revealed by the test can be corrected. I’ve doubled the effectiveness of written communication simply by re-editing it.
The 3 Big Don’ts of effective writing
16. Don’t preach. Exhorting your beliefs tends to put people off. Be inclusive.
17. Don’t finger wag. Admonishing people undermines your authority. Praise them.
18. Don’t take a snide tone. Ease up on the sneering. Play nice.
What works best in headlines
19. Branded headlines. On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy.
So if you don’t include the brand in your headline, you’ve wasted 80 percent of your money. That’s why most of my headlines include the brand name and the promise.
20. Benefit in headlines. Headlines that promise a benefit are more effective than those that don’t. Appeal to your reader’s self-interest.
Strengthen headlines by adding emotional words like darling, love, fear, proud, etc.
21. News in headlines. Time after time, I’ve found that it pays to inject genuine news into headlines.
People are always on the lookout for new products and services, or new improvements in an old product or service, or new ways to use an old product.
You can almost always find something new if you try hard enough.
22. Simple headlines. Your headline should telegraph what you want to say in clear, simple language. Readers don’t stop to decipher the meaning of obscure headlines.
Tricky headlines with puns, literary allusions and other knickknacks are a sin.
What works best in copy
23. Be brave. Fear is at the root of bad writing. Don’t second guess yourself. Get adventurous. Have fun.
24. Write the way you talk. As if you’re sitting down with a friend and sharing a story. No matter who your audience is, make it personal.
Write one word at a time. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
Relax with the grammar. The object isn’t grammatical correctness but to welcome the reader and then tell a story.
25. Use simple words. Never use jargon words like conceptualising, onboarding, actioning. They are (in David Ogilvy’s words) hallmarks of a pretentious ass.
Stay away from over-intellectualising, multisyllabic, verbose words.
26. Avoid adverbs. Adverbs are not your friends. These timid modifiers lead to flat, lazy writing. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and adverbs.
Use active verbs. Spice up your verb choices but keep them succinct. Think Hemingway.
27. Simple brand language. Create a consistent, constantly-used, easy-to-remember brand language which over time will create distinctive memory structures.
Build a reference list of unique words, phrases and expression. This is your bible.
These sensory and semantic cues will refresh and reinforce memory structures and keep your brand top of mind. Avoid unnecessary changes.
28. Yes, people read long copy. People read what interests them as long as it’s well written.
While readership can fall off rapidly up to fifty words, it drops very little between fifty and five hundred words. (So far, you’ve read 1,590 words, and your head hasn’t exploded.)
I’ve used long copy with notable success – for Nike, Orica, ANZ, Qantas and others.
29. Story appeal in words. Stefano Boscutti has achieved noteworthy results with copy structured as a story.
People are naturally drawn to a universal narrative sequence that puts them at the heart of a story that leads to transformative success.
Brands that make themselves the hero of the story miss the point entirely and waste everyone’s time. No one likes (or believes) a braggart.
Why tell a story
A good story is a prescription for courage.
A well-structured, well-plotted, well-told story can show us how we can become our very best. It can embolden and strengthen us, help us overcome our greatest fears and lead to profound, meaningful change.
How to tell a story successfully
There are some key elements that take a story from good to great.
30. Read more. Stephen King’s book on writing is a good place to start. It’s called, er, “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”. Read it twice.
31. Bone up on myths. Joseph Campbell’s exploration of comparative mythology provides universal insights into fundamental story structure.
Carl Jung’s archetypes and analytical psychology of the collective unconscious will help you become conscious of narrative patterns and motivations.
32. Bring yourself. A story is as much about you as anything else. Reflect on what originally captivated you and hand it to your audience as if it were aflame.
33. Set the context. Give the place, time, setting, and any relevant context without too much fuss. Keep it factual, short and sweet. Avoid unnecessary exposition.
34. Find a new angle. Attract a new audience with an audacious new angle. A fresh perspective that dares to show the character in a vulnerable, if not embarrassing, light at some point in their life. Follow this angle all the way through. Often this is the real story, the story behind the story. The hidden narrative that holds it all together.
35. Be vulnerable. Dare to share the emotion of your story. Be unafraid to ask your audience what you questioned along the way, so they share your doubt, confusion, anger, sorrow, insight, glee, delight, joy, epiphany.
36. Tune in to your senses. Choose the strongest of the five senses in your story and use it to make a deeper connection with your audience. There is always one primary sense that dominates every memory. Dial it up.
37. Choose a gleaming detail. Something that best captures and embodies the essence of the story.
Find one shimmering image that connects with your audience, that sparks an ‘Aha!’ moment. A singular, implicit moment of startling clarity.
Sometimes an ordinary, overlooked detail can reveal an extraordinary truth.
38. Spur juxtapositions. Take two ideas, images, or thoughts and crash them together to startle your audience. In posing two opposing ideas, a whole new idea is created. Thesis + antithesis = synthesis.
39. Be kind. Be generous. Share your story with a smile. Let it build to its natural, emotional punchline, then end it and get out fast. Leave the audience wanting more.
‘The universe is made of stories, not atoms.’ Muriel Rukeyser