It's Not How You Say It – It's What You Say

I may be setting a large cat among the pigeons here. The view is often held that it’s the presentation that makes all the difference. That’s how many copywriters in agencies everywhere get to command large salaries.

I beg to differ.

I think it’s the substance of what you say that makes a sale, not the way in which you say it. In fact, the ‘creative’ part in copywriting often just obscures the message.

This is going to need an example.

Let’s say we’re trying to sell a cordless phone online. It’s a gift site, so we’ll be pitching this as a gift for someone else. We’ll be using a headline followed by body text up to fifty words or so.

So what can we say to ‘headline’ our wonderful cordless phone?

“A high-tech cordless marvel that clips on your belt.”

We’ll give this two out of ten for being a boring, flat description.

“Get more done with this incredible ultra-range cordless phone.”

We’ll give this five out of ten for beginning to touch on the fact that this phone will be used by a human being with a real life. Yes, we’re writing to a real person whose life might benefit from being able to walk a few hundred feet away from his or her phone.

“Give someone the freedom to walk away from their phone.”

Are we getting better? I’m not sure. I like the fact that we’re now addressing the fact that this is a gift. And the idea of freedom is always sexy. And being able to walk away from your phone certainly has an appeal. But perhaps we’re losing a little clarity here.

It’s beginning to read the way a ‘headline’ should, but are we beginning to sacrifice clarity for the sake of being clever?

We’ll be generous and give it a six out of ten.

On to the next one.

“Give the gift that’s a real conversation piece.”

Finally! Here’s something that sounds like a headline. It says gift. It’s short. It has a clever pun thing happening. Worth showing our friends and chatting about over a dry martini after work.

What mark shall we give it?

I’m going to give it zip, zero, nada, nothing, go back to Start.

(Be honest now. When was the last time you had an interesting conversation about a cordless phone?)

This is an example of where ‘how you say it’ obscures ‘what you say.’ This is where clever gets in the way of clarity. Where copywriting gets in the way of the client making sales.

Too many copywriters think that their craft is all about finding smart and new ways to say things.

It’s not. Copywriting is about understanding what will motivate a prospect to buy — and saying it very clearly

Here’s what I might write:

“Give someone the freedom to be there for family and friends — without being tied to the phone.”

(I’ll give this a seven out of ten. It’s getting better, but there’s always room for improvement.)

How did I arrive at this last line? I’m picturing in my mind how someone might really benefit from a cordless phone. I’m imagining a mother in her back yard, tending the garden, but with a cordless phone at her side. She can do the things she wants to do — but is still available for when the kids phone to be picked up from a friend’s house.

I’m thinking of grandpa on the deck, catching the sun, and being able to answer the phone without getting up. I’m thinking of a teenager playing street hockey outside the house and still being able to catch a call from his girlfriend.

Copywriting isn’t about being a clever writer. It’s about understanding how people feel. It’s about showing how a product or service will address those feelings.

And it’s about writing simply and clearly.

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