Thursday, 8 June 2017

The ten commandments of copywriting

Writing copy is an art - but there is method in the madness. Here are ten golden rules all copywriters should follow.

1. "Copy is not written. Copy is assembled" - Eugene Schwartz
'Copyassembler' would be a rubbish job title, but Schwarz is right. A copywriter takes all the materials in a brief - tone of voice, communication objective, product features - and assembles those elements in a way that will make the audience sit up and take notice. And then take action. A strong brief makes this process a lot easier.

2. "A lot of copywriters think they're good judges of their own work. I know I'm not." - David Ogilvy
 By way of illustration, here's a joke a graphic design friend likes to trot out now and then.

Q: How many copywriters does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Copywriter: '*^%$ off! I'm not changing anything'.

Not all writers are protective. But everyone finds it hard to spot weaknesses, let alone mistakes, in their own work. Hence copywriting agencies, who have someone review the work when it's sent, are more popular with big brands than lone freelancers. Find out why it pays to go plural.

If only it was that simple...
3. "You must be as simple, and as swift, and as penetrating as possible" - Bill Bernbach
Even when a copywriter is grappling with a complicated message, the resulting copy should always be as simple as possible. Anything else is a copywriting sin.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Anglo-Saxon v Latin: why brands have to choose

The English language is a funny old mix of Anglo-Saxon and Latin vocabulary. But it's serious business when it comes to writing copy. Here's why the difference is vital for brand messaging and tone of voice.

One of the most striking ways you can alter the tone and meaning of what you write is by varying the use of Anglo-Saxon or Latinate vocabulary.

Anglo-Saxon words come from the languages spoken by Germanic settlers arriving in England from the fifth century. Latinate words derive from the British Isles' interactions with the Roman Empire and later medieval France. Today, the English language is a mercurial mix of the two.

It's important for brands to take note of this because a copywriter's choice of words either way can have a big impact, both for messaging (what you say) and tone of voice (how you say it).

Short, simple, brutal
Spot the difference

So what's the difference? In a nutshell, Anglo-Saxon words are short, simple and blunt: 'think', 'pick', 'help', 'eat' and 'drink'. Compare these with their Latinate equivalents: 'imagine', 'select', 'assist', 'consume' and 'imbibe'. Latinates are multisyllabic, cerebral and a bit soft.

Saxon in action

What's that got to do with branding?

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

How to make everyone do what you want: the science of pre-suasion

Any piece of brand or marketing communication seeks to persuade audiences to do something. Now a new book promises to reveal the science behind the art.

As copywriters, persuasion is what we do and language is how we do it. As an agency, we've helped top brand agencies and companies influence audiences and regularly teach a Guardian Masterclass on how to write persuasive copy. We reviewed Robert Cialdini's Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion and found it a proper page turner. It's safe to say we were intrigued when his new book emerged last year promising 'A revolutionary way to influence and persuade'.

But what is persuasion, exactly? William Bernbach was one of the twentieth-century's most successful advertisers, so he knew a thing or two about how to get people to do things. But his much-quoted claim that "advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art," doesn’t ring so true in the twenty-first century.

Does this count as 'guiding preliminary attention strategically'?
The rise of behavioural economics (borrowing liberally from social science and psychology) has supplanted classical economic and theoretical explanations of why people buy stuff. In other words, we’re seeing the rise of persuasion as a science.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

How to choose a conference theme that motivates

Every conference needs a theme. Clients want something that conveys the key message simply and memorably. Here are seven tips to help you go about it.

Make it snappy

A conference theme needs to be catchy, and it needs to work well in spoken conversation. To test this, just see if it can be used as noun: “Are you going to the Total Performance conference in March?” That’s punchy – it rolls off the tongue. “Are you going to the Making sustained progress: building on success conference in June”? Not so nifty.

"Erm, I know we said make it punchy..."

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Seven ways to improve any copy brief

You know the feeling. A brief comes in and it just hits the nail on the head. But what exactly makes a brief spot on? Here are seven things to look out for that’ll guarantee your next brief is up to scratch.

1. Go deep: reveal how your audience ticks

Getting to know your audience...

If you don’t get to know your audience inside-out, you might as well be playing a game of marketing pin the tail on the donkey, and that’s a bleak birthday party no-one wants to go to. Tell us what makes your audience tick.

2. And take a long, hard look in the mirror: be honest

Is your brand really that strong?
You might know exactly what you want customers to think, but what are customers thinking right now when they encounter your brand? What are you doing right – and what are you getting wrong?

Jeff Bezos, founder of, says, 'Your brand is what other people say about you when you're not in the room'. To produce a strong creative brief, a brand needs to be honest with itself about its weaknesses, warts and all.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

5 easy ways to become a better writer

The secret to good writing? Good editing. No one gets it right the first time. But if you know what to look out for when editing your own work, you’ll be able to transform your copy from vague to vivacious. Here are five quick tips.

1. Remove ‘that’

The decision that we are faced with…
It made me realise that my earnings were sufficient…
Taking into account new information that I have collected…

If I had a biscuit for every time I removed an unnecessary ‘that’ from a sentence, I’d be the CEO of McVities. This is a writing tic affecting most people. But it’s the easiest thing in the world to correct. Keep your eyes peeled for the T-word.

1. Cut unnecessary words and phrases

Due to the fact that…
Be that as it may…
For the most part…
In a very real sense…
It goes without saying…
Of course…
What I mean to say is…

Inexperienced writers (and everyone, really) often feel the need to ‘elevate’ their writing by using long words and abstract language. But good writing is plain, clear and simple. Look out for these common phrases, and cut them.

3. Use active language

Passive: A freelancer was used to complete the project.
Active: We used a freelancer to complete the project.

Passive language disconnects the action from the actor, making statements vague and non-specific. Things just happen: no one is responsible. That makes writing sound a bit remote. Active language is shorter, more direct and involves the reader more.

4. Stay positive

Negative: Our food isn’t made off-site, avoiding the risk of stale sandwiches
Positive: All our food is made while you wait, meaning it’s fresh every time

The subconscious doesn’t distinguish between the negative and the positive. So if you mention something negative, there’s a risk it will become associated with your brand. So, the next time you find yourself pointing out a downside, stop. Reframe it as a positive.

5. Be definite, specific and visual – and avoid the abstract

When they set out, Microsoft nearly had a mission statement along the lines of ‘Working towards the global adoption of information technology’. But they realised this was about as motivating as a damp biscuit, and found something a little easier to visualise: ‘A computer on every desk and in every home’.

"I meant a Microsoft computer on every desk..."
Their current mission statement, unveiled in 2013, is ‘To create a family of devices and services for individuals and businesses that empower people around the globe at home, at work and on the go, for the activities they value most’. Oh well.

For messages with impact, keep it concrete.

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Thursday, 3 November 2016

Messaging first. Grammar second.

When it comes to choosing between proper grammar and impactful messaging, there can only be one winner. And it ain’t the semi-colon.
Last week, I received an email from my father. The subject line – ‘HAVE YOU SEEN THIS?’ – could mean one of two things. Either a rogue intern had glued down his caps lock, or someone was guilty of breaking the Holy Rules of Grammar. Turns out it was the latter.