a good start on good copy

a good start on good copy

by jessie mcnamara

I have a friend whose husband was nerding out at a party about numerology. My friend, who had heard her husband’s numbers spiel a million times, said to him, “Be interesting.” The husband, who loved this topic and did have our attention, said, “I think I am being interesting,” only to hear back from his wife, “Yes. But, be MORE interesting.”

I think about this a lot. While what it was in the moment was a wife worried her friends would think her husband was boring, beneath it was a lesson about sharing a passion. You have chosen to be an entrepreneur; a seller of something you love. You certainly wouldn’t have started a business for something you didn’t feel strongly about. But, you can’t expect the world to feel as strongly as you do about your passion. So, how do you build that bridge? How do you get the world jazzed enough about your company to patronize it? Be interesting. Be MORE interesting.

We are squarely in the middle of the Information Era, which is cool, because every bit of information in the world is at our fingertips. What is not cool about access to all the information on the planet is that it is too much for our human brains to capture. So your job, when writing for the benefit of your business, is to cut through the noise and the cacophony.

Take this piece, for example. Why did I not capitalize the title? I wanted you to read the blog. I knew it’d be a little long, and I didn’t want it to look authoritarian and boring. The lowercase letters make it more approachable. It’s not always the answer, but it’s the tone I wanted to set at first glance. I began with a specific, short anecdote I thought would be relatable for most people reading this piece. I chose terms like “nerding out” and “not cool” because that’s how I talk, and making readers feel comfortable gains me more trust than using stilted terms. And, I am writing it in first person so this all seems like a conversation, rather than a sermon. These are all choices I made for this specific task and for you, my specific audience.

The most important thing to think about when writing is empathy. You have to put yourself in your potential customers’ shoes. The biggest obstacle that you share with my friend’s husband is you know too much about your topic for people to consume. You have to sail away from your island of expert knowledge and look at it from a distance to remember what dazzled and drew you to your industry in the first place. Did it fill a need you had? Make you feel good? Solve a problem? You want to sell what sold you.

Here’s the good news: almost everything we need to be successful in writing, we learned in elementary school. And, the rest, we can look up on the internet.

who, what, when, where, why?

You remember these. The five Ws. Each piece of writing you create will have a different purpose. Before you begin, make sure you indeed have a purpose. Nothing will make your audience space out quicker than grey noise or feeling like they’re at the Church of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. Maybe you have a bit of information that isn’t wildly important at the moment. Could you hold off and combine it with something else at another time? We can all relate to an email inbox full of offers and announcements. You only get a set number of shots to get these emails opened. Make each one count.

be frank. get to the point.

Have you ever asked the internet for a recipe, clicked on it, then had to parse through eight paragraphs of background information about the author to even get to the ingredients list? Don’t be that guy. People will click away, and fast. Get down to it. You’re there for a reason. Stay focused.

There is no doubt we are living in a high-consumer culture. Everyone is an expert at being a targeted customer. And, because of that, almost everyone has their bull antenna up at all times. You have a strong product, a strong reason for existing as a business. Present what you have as something that could help them. The last thing anyone wants is to feel manipulated, condescended to, or like a dollar sign. Sometimes it’s a tough line to walk when you’re trying to anticipate your customers’ needs. The answer is to imagine how your words would make YOU feel. Be warm, be approachable, be accountable. There will always be another place they can turn for their solutions. Make yourself their favorite, trusted, easy go-to.

consider your audience.

Budget time to write. It’s more important than you might at first think. For many people, what you write on social media, in emails, in advertising copy will be customers’ first impression of who you are as a company. In another attempt at breaking through the online monotony, create and maintain a consistent public personality for your business. Your business is an extension of you, so it shouldn’t be too far off your own. Is it quirky? Is it new-agey? Is it downhome? Consider this decision carefully. Once you’ve established a persona, it’s tough to change how you’re perceived.

Always be thinking about how your messaging will impact your audience. Like it or not, these are sensitive times. Odds are good your customer base spans a pretty wide swath of the public. It would be impossible to match everyone’s personal, religious or political beliefs. That’s not what this is about. You are creating a community that feels welcome and appreciated at your business. Try to imagine how your words will land. Compassion is usually the right answer. Everyone likes to be spoken to respectfully. Proof it a few times, looking for blind spots you might have.

persuade, inform or entertain?

Be willing to mix it up. With the regularity that we need to be posting to keep ourselves in our customers’ minds, it’s a challenge to have something new to say. You’ll end up having to find different avenues to keep it fresh. So, sometimes, just tell people the advantages to owning your product. Other times, be funny about it. Another day, be really earnest. Or, post something really heart-felt. Avoid wringing out the same emotion day after day. While everyone appreciates a sappy sentiment every once and again, it’s important to keep balance with humor and information. And, every once in a while, throw in an interactive post. Ask a question to your followers that they might answer in the comments. Even better, engage them to tag a friend who might not yet know of your company. If it helps, create a social media calendar for yourself to keep track of your rotation of approaches.

proofread. and spell check.

A quick way to lose you audience’s attention is to not appear professional. If you haven’t spent time attending to detail in using the proper your/you’re, can they trust you to attend to detail in providing safe food for their family, mending a family heirloom or caring for their credit card safety? We all make mistakes, but these sorts of easily fixable moments register with your clients.

Go back. Check it over. At this point in writing this document, I have already proofed it five times. (Whose/who’s always trips me up). I’ll proof it at least that many more times before I let it go. I’ve also looked up the proper spelling of two words. Don’t let a mistake of haste be something you regret later. We are incredibly lucky. We live in a time when grammar, spelling and punctuation can be checked in moments with the aid of the internet. English may not have been our strongest subject in school, and our brains may want to focus on other aspects of our business. Sometimes, we have just looked at something of our own for so long, we become blind to typos and errors. All of this is okay and normal. Find a friend/employee/colleague who is good at it, and ask them to set fresh eyes on your writing before you publish. It’s a really common thing to do.

the little stuff that becomes big stuff.

Before hitting send on what you’ve written, look it over one more time. Break long paragraphs up. Exhausted human eyes will look at thick blocks of text and dismiss it as insurmountable. Find a good place for a paragraph break.

Read over each sentence, and then the section. Have you repeated terms? Just in the previous paragraph, I wanted to use “long” twice, but it sounded repetitive. So, I replaced the second “long” with “thick.” I use all the time. It’s a quick and valuable tool.

Vary sentence length. It keeps brains interested when there are different cadences in your writing. Hit a short sentence, then a compound one. These sorts of choices on your part will entice your audience to keep reading.

Choose positive terms. This can’t always be accomplished, but negative terms register in the subconscious. Try to substitute an affirmative. Instead of, “Don’t miss our sale!” consider something like, “Catch our huge sale!” It’s a small detail, but it’s asking people to take action instead of telling them what not to do.

Have fun with writing, and let that come through. People will be able to tell if you think it’s a slog. Approach business writing like the first time you saw people coming through your door. It’s an opportunity to share that excitement with a lot of potential customers at once. Humans are drawn to joy. Reflect the love for what you do in your writing.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go back and check this document over …