Copywriting: a life-saving kit. (A father’s day guest article)

My dad, Tony Brignull, won awards for copywriting including seventeen D&AD silver awards and three golds. I asked him if he feels that the principles of advertising copywriting from the 60s, 70s and 80s might be of help to UX designers today. Here’s his reply.

I earned my living writing press advertisements, tv commercials and posters. When I got reasonably competent I was asked to help young writers.

I noticed that some of them were good at press copywriting while others were good at tv. They had different talents but they had the same problem, one every writer knows well:

How to make words say what you want them to say in a way that makes others want to read them.

The question Harry asked me to address is, will the principles of writing ads and commercials hold good for what you are writing today?

Well, I’ve never written a website or a viral but dull is dull and bright is bright and witty is witty whatever the medium. Everyone who’s had to tell a story to a child knows this. And if we don’t know it the child certainly does.

But this doesn’t help us much if we are staring at a screen and we have to say something to someone we’ve never met, and the words we’re trying to use are heavy as bricks, and what we’re trying to build with them keeps falling down.

So here are ten things that help me in similar circumstances, perhaps they’ll help you.

1. Who are you?

No, this isn’t one of those ultimate mystical questions, I mean who is the person you’re speaking for?

We relate to companies, big and small, as if they were people. And we expect them to behave humanely, decently, honestly and, importantly, in character.

We expect a bank to be serious because money isn’t funny. A food company must be clean and wholesome, a car manufacturer thorough, a watchmaker precise and stylish. Your tone of voice should be consonant with your client’s persona. So first find out what it is.

2. What exactly do you want to say?

Make a list with bullet points before you start. Then put them in order of importance. You may think you know what they are but you’ll be surprised how jotting them down shows you may have left one or two out.

3. Is this what your reader wants to hear?

Now make another list detailing what a reasonable customer wants to hear. This had better correspond with question 2 or you’re wasting your time.

4. Use facts not adjectives.

Don’t say a Ferrari is blindingly fast, say it goes from 0 – 100 in 6.9 seconds or whatever. Avoid adjectives of self praise in particular. It’s not for you to say I’m handsome, beautiful, talented. This will only make you sound smug. But it’s OK to quote other sources if they’ve praised you, or if you’ve won a prize or a beauty contest, because this is a fact.

It helps to make yourself a fact book about your client. In it write down every possible fragment of information, even those things you may never need. How thick is the metal on a Ford Focus, for instance, how fast does the windscreen de-mist, how (exactly) does it save on gas. And compare these facts with its rivals.

Be like an investigative journalist. Facts are more persuasive than adjectives.

5. Write short.

Write short sentences, use short words. Anglo-saxon words like get got, want, ask are muscular and virile. They’ll give your writing an onward momentum. And they are easy to read.

Avoid words with multi-syllables (like multi-syllable). And totally avoid the intransitive – that is, verbs where no one takes responsibility, ‘it is raining’, ‘it is generally considered that’. Only lawyers and insurance companies use the intransitive, guess why.

Good role models? Enid Blyton for simplicity. The New Testament for reportage.

6. Read your writing aloud to yourself.

It’s amazing how the flaws ring out loud and clear when you read what you’ve written aloud. Anything pretentious or awkward or faked is uncovered.

7. Don’t use one word more than you need.

Whether you are writing short copy or long copy this holds true. If you can take out a word and your copy still makes sense that word is probably redundant.

Then go through what you’ve written and take out all the words – especially the ones you love – that don’t add something. Because if they don’t add something they take something away.

8. Be original.

This is hard, don’t I know it. And it’s very hard to be original without sounding too arty for words. So don’t try to be original, just cross out everything that sounds borrowed and see what’s left. It may only be a few sentences but treasure them, you have created something new.

9. The overnight test.

It’s old advice but it’s hard to beat. Leave your writing overnight. Don’t show anyone. Then see how it reads next morning. It has saved me from looking foolish more times than I can count.

10. Is it clear?

This last needs total honesty. You’ve laboured over something. You love it. The client will thank you with tears in his eyes. But hang on. Have you said what you had to say? Is it crystal clear. If you have the slightest doubt show it to others in the office. Ask them to read it then tell you what they get out of it. In all my career of approving other people’s copy, lack of clarity was the most common fault.

Good luck.