For what you are about to hear today, may the readers of your future communications be truly grateful.
Thank you for letting me talk to you about something I love. I write passionately because I am passionate about writing.
Can you write?
Wonderful. The rest is just practice.
It is not a special gift.
Do you read newspapers?
Have you got a favourite book?
Do you read often?
Do you read ads?
Do you read direct mail packs?
There is so much bad direct mail. Most of it is written by people who ‘learn’ how to write direct marketing. They learn DM-speak. They follow all the rules from all the books but they end up with a dog’s dinner. They come on courses such as this one and get told by copywriters and Creative Directors how to write in a direct marketing way. Is this right? Isn’t writing just a simple conversation – person to person not robot to robot? And, via data, the more you know about them, the more personal it can be. You can write a multitude of different letters to a multitude of different people – that’s the beauty of targeting and lasering.
Salesmanship in print.
We have a job to do.
Don’t get me wrong, what we do HAS to sell. We get paid to get ROI. For every pound our clients spend they want at least a pound back, preferably two, three, four, ten, fifty, one hundred pounds. What we do is persuade people to part with their money. No need to shout and scream. No begging. No emotional blackmail. No ‘you’d be stupid not to’. A simple, intelligent conversation leading up to a sale. That’s what a good, old-fashioned salesman does. It is not about trickery, just common sense. Here are a few indicators to help you write things that are worth reading.
Words make history.
Choose them carefully.
This is the hard bit. Everything you ever write has to be thought through. Every single word you put down means something. You must think at length before you put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. When you are writing an email, don’t put the recipient’s email address in until right at the very end when you are 100% happy (and when others are too – we’ll come on to the later.) Just one click in the wrong place sends the things you meant to correct/rephrase/remove in a split second.
Whether you are writing to your bank manager, your mum, your mate overseas or anyone else for that matter, what you say is incredibly important as it reflects back on you and your level of your overall capability and stature. Sloppy writing, poorly punctuated, rambling non-sentences make you look stupid and uncaring. Take pride in everything you write, words are truly wonderful.
A writer once told me that spelling and grammar weren’t his strong points, writing copy was. After all, someone else can correct his spelling and put the commas in the right place. Oh dear – someone doesn’t care. And if you don’t care when you’re writing it, why should someone care when they’re reading it?
Copy or text?
In one respect, he’s right though. Copy is completely different to text. Typists can write text – a series of factually correct statements that describe a product or service. No warmth, no humour, no understanding of the reader, no empathy, no flow but it might get read. Only by the most forgiving and persevering reader though (your mum).
Writing copy is incredibly simple though.
Write like you’re talking to someone.
No fancy words, no jargon, no marketing speak – think of someone you know who would be interested in the thing you-re writing about. Then just tell them about it in exactly the same words as you would if you were chatting to them. Nothing will appear false then and it won’t feel like yet another dirty sales piece. Yes, we are selling but we can do it with style. Keep the language simple and easy-going. Remember, you’re a salesman after all and how many salesmen do you know that have a English degree and a vocabulary worthy of a Poet Laureate? When was the last time a Booker-Prize winner tried to sell you double-glazing?
Start where the reader is.
To strike up a rapport and try to get a connection with the reader, start where the reader is, not where you want them to be. What this means is you need to forget how incredible the product or service is you are trying to sell – this is only of interest to the company selling it until you have got the ear and empathy of the reader. Try to understand the situation the reader is in when they receive your communication. Are they at home or at work? Will the weather be cold or hot? Do they have kids running round their feet trying to get them to school? Etc. Data and planning are key to understanding your audience. Once you have an understanding and they are nodding at what you are saying, they feel comfortable that you understand them. Only then can you go on to explain how your product or service can enhance their life.
You. You. You. Me.
As a rule of thumb, three ‘you’ to every one ‘me’. Everybody’s favourite subject is themselves. We know more about ourselves than anything else in the world. The opening paragraph is the absolute killer. This is the make or break for any letter. Bore them, confuse them or try and sell them here and you’re fighting a losing battle (unless either of these is actually part of the concept). You this, you that, you again – you might just keep them…
If the envelope is the shop window, enticing you inside, the brochure is the shop offering its wares, then the letter is the sale and has to clinch it by the end. Not all direct mail works in this way but think very very carefully before deciding to do without a letter. Some creatives will tell you that no one will read it anyway, or, keep it short because no one will have time to read it. This is nonsense.
People read what interests them. Sometimes it’s a mailpack.
Imagine telling a salesman no to say too much just in case the person gets bored… If you are selling something, learn all about it and tell the reader all of the benefits. They will decide if they want to read everything or simply skim through the cross-heads to get a quick idea of what it’s about before ploughing in. Often, we are asking people to part with a significant amount of their hard earned money. Wouldn’t you want to feel confident in the company before splashing out?
Crossheads are king.
Rarely does anyone read a letter immediately starting at the beginning and stopping at the end. The main headline should sum up exactly what the whole letter is about. The crossheads throughout give simple indications of what the following paragraphs are about. It’s strange that we start with the person’s name and end by signing off with a client’s signature, name and title as if it really is a personal letter. When was the last time you wrote to your friend and put headings in the letter explaining what you were writing in the next few sentences? Weird really. But everyone knows it’s a marketing communication and they’ll be asked to do something at the end. Our job is to get them there and to want to react/respond when they do.
Be succinct. Then shorten it.
Keep paragraphs short. Keep sentences short. No more than 16 words in a sentence if possible (otherwise they become a bit unwieldy) (I’ve just re-read some of this and come across a 26 words sentence – but I’m not selling to you!). Paragraphs must have no more than one thought in them. When you are working out what to cover in your letter or other written piece, write down separately all the different elements you need. Arrange them in order of importance then write about each one, always maintaining the thread of a story to link them so there is a flow.
In for the kill.
The climax though is the sell – you must know what you want them to do and give clear instructions of how to do this. Call this number, visit this website, email us at – whatever the call to action, make it very obvious. If there is an offer on the table, tell them about it up front if appropriate, but definitely show it in all its glory at the end. If there’s a close date, remember to put that it too. It’s amazing how many people think ‘I must do that later’ and never do. They must do it NOW, or it’s forgotten. Why waste money on a follow-up mailing when you should be doing your job properly in the first place.
People will often read the PS before the rest of the letter. They are used to seeing an offer or something extra special down there. What little extra treat have you got in store for them if they do respond? Try and think up one if the client hasn’t.
Never think you have finished writing just because you have got to the end. What you have written is just the start. Everything you have written could be said in a different way, probably simpler, more effectively and with more personality. I hate being told that the client knew I’d written the copy. And I love being told that the client knew I’d written the copy. Hate because I don’t want to have a style – it should be infinitely adaptable. Love it because I hope I’m a damn good salesman and know what to say to get the response.
Murder your darlings.
Word plays, puns, cleverness for cleverness sake must go. There are only so many times you can refer to the concept of the mail piece without it feeling forced and cheesy. Keep within the boundaries of the idea but don’t try too hard.
Remember who you are speaking to.
Back to data, guys. If this is a cold audience, address them as such. If you have mailed them before and they have or have not responded, acknowledge this. Tell them about things they might be interested in. Only the irrelevant is boring. Talk too much about yourself whilst forgetting them is dull too – they’ll soon switch off. If your letter runs on to the next page, split it mid-sentence so they have a reason to turn over to keep reading. I like what Roald Dahl said about writing for children – ‘On the first page, grab them by the throat and don’t let go again until the end’. Do you read a book from cover to cover or a newspaper story after story simply because you’ve paid for them. No – the writers know how to write to get read. ‘Take a leaf out of their books’ – ‘literally’. (What did I say about puns..?)
Think about your argument.
Go back over and over your writing think about whether you are making your point. Primarily how stealthily you have been able to move them from where they are to where you want them to be. Once you understand their viewpoint, it is easy to empathise with them. This is by far the most persuasive of writing styles. It means writing as if you see the world through their eyes and can recognise their problems and their point of view. Is the writing natural and conversational?
GET SOMEONE ELSE TO READ IT
It doesn’t matter how fabulous you think you are, what position you are in the company or how much you get paid, you have to let other people read your copy. You are your own worst critic. The ‘I wrote it so it MUST be wonderful’ approach doesn’t help anyone. It is not a case of copywriting by committee or showing any sign of weakness. Everything can be improved on. Nothing is ever perfect.
Just like everything in life, the more you do it, the better you get. Did you ever pick up a musical instrument and play it perfectly instantly? Could you have passed your driving test after your first lesson? Did you really need to go to school or were you that bright already? Everything worth anything in life requires effort to achieve.
One big confidence trick.
Who knows what’s right when you write? Be confident when you put the words down. Expect criticism. But keep writing. Confidently. In fact, I am confident that no one will actually bother to get to the end of this, not because it isn’t well written but because most people don’t actually want to learn anything new. They think that if they just simply turn up on a course, they’ll write better. If you by chance have listened to a word I have said and taken it in, you can now phone me on 020 7907 1416, email me at [email protected] or write to me at Chris Catchpole, catchpole&friends, 97 Charlotte Street, London W1T 4QA and I will send the first caller £25 of M&S vouchers. Hey, M&S vouchers always work in mailpacks to get responses. Close date: 21 December 2007.
The best things don’t come to those that wait. They come to those that write.