When copywriting fails, it fails because it lacks clarity.
Yes, there are technical reasons why it lacks clarity.
And these are amply and repeatedly described.
The include muddy syntax, overlong sentences, nouns instead of verbs, Latin instead of Anglo Saxon word-roots … yada, yada, yada.
But these are merely symptoms not causes.
Clarity should begin with the brief. And it is here that we so often fail to find it.
If the brief states an objective it may itself be unclear. The most obvious culprit here is, “to raise awareness of X”.
Any copywriter or marketeer worth their NACL should immediately ask, “from where to where?”
Without a defined start point and a target end-point, the whole exercise is meaningless.
A project I turned down was explained to me by the incoming marketing director thus:
“We have a new product and we’d like you to help us with the copy. The only problem is, the CEO and the Chairman don’t agree on how it should be positioned, or how much it should cost, and our product division heads don’t agree among themselves about whether we should be launching it all.”
“I’d rather have thin slivers of bamboo hammered under my fingernails,” is how I replied.
There was a short silence. Then an explosive burst of laughter.
“Leave it with me,” the marketing director said.
He came back to me a day later and said, “Our Chairman is intrigued by your refusal to work for him. Would you be prepared to write a sales letter for him raising funds for a charity he supports?”
“Yes,” I said.
You see? Clarity.
Let’s assume the brief possesses crystalline clarity. The next place to go poking around is the copywriter’s thinking.
Before they write a word, they should have fixed in their mind all of the following:
- The identity of the target buyer: their likes/dislikes, hopes and fears, lifestyle, lifestage, professional concerns, social attitudes, position in the social hierarchy, physical, social and spiritual needs.
- The benefits product X confers on the target buyer. Practical and metaphysical. Financial and social. Psychological and organisational.
- The risks of buying. To self-esteem, bank balance, social status, health, spiritual equilibrium.
- How best to overcome those risks. With testimonials, endorsements, press coverage, awards, statistics, guarantees and warranties, stories, promises, illustrations, photographs.
- The emotional state that will most likely induce a buying decision.
- The facts the target buyer will need to be aware of before they trust that emotional state.
- The preferred method of ordering NOT of the client but of the target buyer.
This is not an exhaustive list, but it will take the writer a goodly way along the route they need to travel before they start typing.
Then, finally, the act of writing itself: composition.
Lots of writers including, sadly, those who call themselves professionals, lack the ability to write a clear sentece. Or, to jump up a level, to express a single thought clearly in writing.
It is at this level of the craft that such injunctions as “keep your sentences short” reveal their worth. But even here, the muddled writer can no more use the advice than a donkey can use a teapot.
Take the sentence,
“Our proprietary enterprisewide solutions offer scalability without the scares.”
Yes, it is a short sentence. Nine words. It is also unclear to all but the most dedicated interpreter of IT jargon.
But as well as being unclear linguistically, it is unclear commercially. It offers no clear idea why the target buyer should buy from this firm as opposed to any other.
Clarity is a slippery fish to catch. It does rely on pithy phrases and crisp punctuation. On muscular sentences and evocative vocabulary. But it relies on more than merely trying to emulate Ernest Hemingway.
Andy Maslen’s ten rules for writing with clarity.
- Express your entire proposition in a single sentence of whatever length you feel is necessary, but no longer. Do not begin your copy until you can do this.
- Only include information that makes it more likely your reader will do what you want them to as soon as they finish reading.
- Make the case for your desired outcome overwhelming. Include ALL the reasons why it’s a good idea. Leave out NONE of the reasons why your reader’s fears are unfounded.
- Ensure your narrative unfolds logically. Each idea should make sense in terms of the ones that come before and after.
- Do not use words where visuals would do the same job better. It is not our job to explain everything.
- NEVER present your reader with options in the call to action beyond do it/don’t do it. The use of the word “If” at the start of a call to action is the worst sin of all, suggesting to the reader that the writer is unsure of the wisdom of a buying decision.
- Read your draft out loud. Be ruthless: if you frown, stumble or pause, rewrite the offending passage.
- Ask yourself, “Is it clear to my reader what this copy is about?”
- And, “Is it clear to them why they should a) read on and b) do what I am suggesting?”
- Finally, “Is it clear to them what they are supposed to do next?”
Remember, in the lifecycle of a piece of copy from brief to trash, the last person to care about it is you.
After that its status deteriorates from professionally written copy to junk mail, spam, advertising (not used reverentially) or marketing bollocks.
Give it the best chance of success by ensuring, above all, that is has clarity