I’ve finally got a chance to relax and take the time to say hello.
More than that, I want to share some thoughts that I’ve been having since I attended a writing retreat in France last month.
But before I do anything…
I should apologise: I’ve been out of action for a little while.
Sadly I had some bad news on a personal front, which meant I haven’t really had chance to think much about copy.
On top of that, I’m working on a big project at the moment, which needs a lot of focus, so I simply haven’t had the time to properly sit down and write.
Today, though, I have.
So, let me set a scene for you…
You’re in Normandy, France. You’re far from any real form of civilization, just a few old brick buildings set back from winding roads and rolling hay fields.
One of these old buildings is a large 16th century chateau, owned by Bill Bonner, founder of information publishing giant, Agora.
In the building are gathered copywriters from all around the world, with one aim: to discuss copywriting and compare notes.
You look at headlines that work and those that don’t… you look at persuasion techniques that can have a huge effect on the order process… you look at how pricing can completely change the way you approach a sales letter.
You meet copywriters from India, Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Australia and even China and it’s interesting to see some of the different copywriting challenges people face in their particular markets.
But even more interesting is how NOT different things are when you really scratch below the surface. (Grammar stalwarts, please take a moment to breathe after that sentence.)
What are you really writing about?
This was me, last month.
And as I listened to the different copywriters explain their projects to me at this year’s Agora writing retreat, I realised one of the biggest errors most copywriters make (and this especially applies to newer writers) is that they simply don’t know enough about the product they’re selling.
Don’t get me wrong… many successful sales promotions have been written despite the copywriter only paying lip service to research. I know a guy who’s an expert at working like this. Indeed, sometimes it’s enough to rely purely on your skills of persuasion.
But I don’t advise it.
As I’ve gathered more and more experience over the years and matured (a little) from being an arrogant upstart, I’ve noticed that the most successful copy I write (and I mean successful in terms of engagement, not just sales) is almost always the most authentic.
I’ve written about this many times in the past, but it pays to keep attacking the issue. It’s important.
Indeed, when you can write authentically about something – be it a product you’ve used, a song you’ve listened to, an emotion you’ve felt – a magical thing happens that simply CANNOT be trained.
You write truthfully – and readers notice that.
The problem with many copywriters – new and old – is that they write what they THINK they’re supposed to write. They’ve read so many old sales promotions and learnt to mimic the content and delivery so well that what they produce looks and reads exactly as it should.
But the magic is missing. It’s not real. It’s just…
Well, it’s literally ‘copy’.
Don’t write until you’re ready
I’ve experienced the problem myself.
When I thought about doing an MA in creative writing, I wrote a short detective story and gave it to my tutor to read.
It’s very good, he said, but it’s just like Paul Auster.
At the time, I was appalled. What do you mean ‘but’? That’s a good thing isn’t it? I loved Paul Auster (and still do), so to have written an Auster-esque story was surely an achievement.
Of course, it wasn’t. I’d merely emulated something good. The fake was a good one, but a fake all the same. The story needed to be rewritten in my own voice. It needed to be authentic.
And so, at the time, I decided I wasn’t ready for an MA. I needed to do more research. I needed to find out more about myself, about my voice. I needed to dig deeper to find my authenticity.
I recommend you do the same with your copy.
Well, don’t start your next project just yet.
You see, no matter how qualified you might be I’m sure there’s more research you could do… something more you could find out about the product you’re writing for so that when you share your insight with the reader it blows them away.
Indeed, to do this, you must keep asking why.
Keep digging into the story, into the product itself. Read as much as you can with ‘why’ at the front of your mind. Ask customers who’ve tried the product why they like it. Quiz the product creator on why they created the product in the first place…
For example, if the creator of a health product thinks you shouldn’t use prescription drugs… ask him why. And when he tells you it’s because of a book he read on the subject… ask him why he read that book in the first place. And when he tells you that a local Shaman who practices medicine in a small wooden hut in Uganda gave it to him, you’ve got a much more authentic story already.
Or if the editor of a financial newsletter says you should invest in gold… ask him why. And when he tells you it’s because gold has been going down and he thinks it’s going to turn around… punch him. Then ask him why. When he tells you that he’s just spent the last two weeks deconstructing the Bank of England’s monetary policy with a crack team of Oxbridge economists… you’re on your way to a more authentic story.
Even if a sports tipster tells you to back a greyhound to win the Grand National… ask him why. But then call his loved ones and tell them to come and collect him from the office as he’s quite clearly gone mad. Sometimes, no matter how authentic an idea may be, it just won’t work. But anyway…
My point is that you must dig deeper than you are doing. It’s not enough to just know the rough idea behind a product, how much it costs, and what the customer gets.
You need to know more about what you’re selling than the person selling it. (I realise that might be impossible, but don’t they always say you should aim high!)
Sure, it’s more work in the short term…
But it’ll repay you in the end.
In fact, if you take the time to do the research and truly put the effort in, you’ll very rarely end up with people like me asking you questions because you’ll already have told me so much good stuff that I’ll be sold and handing you my card details.
And, if nothing else…
At least it gives you a great excuse to sit on your arse and do a lot more reading!