Business Insights from Andrea Hill


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At some point we all end up either writing our own marketing or working with someone who is writing our marketing. Here are some tricks for putting what we want on paper.

Cut! Cut! Copy, Print

19 September 2007

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At some point we all end up either writing our own marketing or working with someone who is writing our marketing. It’s hard work. If you have a talented copywriter already, you’re probably done reading. For the rest of us, here are some tricks for putting what we want on paper. First, the steps of designing an ad, IN ORDER, are:

1.  Express the idea for the ad in one sentence (if you’re working on a catalog or larger advertising work, the advice is different and not our focus today). Why one sentence? One thought is all you can effectively convey in one ad. Examples include:

  • “This ad will generate traffic by promoting our visit-with-the-expert Thursdays.”
  • “This ad will generate sales for a specific product.”
  • “This ad will engender good will for my business by sharing the results of our community action project.”
  • “This ad will generate new service contracts by making people laugh, which shows them how fun we are to work with.”Each example states what you want to accomplish (sales, traffic, good will) and how you expect to accomplish it. You have only a few seconds of your prospect’s attention, so make those seconds work.

2.  Always write copy before designing or selecting visuals. Resist the temptation to do the reverse. Graphics and photos are gratifying. They make us feel as if our ad is coming together, they’re creative, and they’re fun. But graphics are intended to do three things: a) capture the prospect’s attention, b) amplify the message, and c) reduce the number of words required by translating them to a visual medium. If you haven't articulated the message, you can't amplify or refine it.

3. Write, rewrite, and rewrite, the words. Any capable writing teacher will tell you the nature of good writing is re-writing. If the words don’t flow from your pen or your keyboard, it’s not because you can’t write. It’s normal. We’ll come back to this step in a moment.

4. Once the words are written and edited, design the graphics. If you’ve done the hard work, you’re probably in love with your copy. Beware! The role of graphics is to further reduce the need for written or spoken words. If a graphic can convey the ad’s mood or personality better than adjectives, drop the adjectives. If a graphic can clearly and powerfully convey action, you might drop a verb or a directive sentence. If you’re too in love with your words, the graphics won’t be allowed to make their full contribution.

So let’s discuss writing and re-writing. If you’ve expressed your idea in one sentence (Step 1), you’re on your way. I recommend you begin by writing the ad without concern for the number of words, if they are the best words, or if your sentence construction and grammar are correct. Say everything you want to say in the expression of your one idea. Self-editing while writing is a common reason for not being able to write at all, so let yourself go. The editing will come next.

When you have one long, somewhat sloppy, not-quite-publishable thought, stop and get a cup of coffee. Celebrate! This is a big accomplishment.

If you are writing in long-hand, re-write (print not cursive) with enough room between the lines for editing notes and marks. If you are working on the computer, print a double-spaced copy. Editing requires uncluttered thinking. Approach editing with a clean desk and a red pen in hand to prepare your brain for the work you must do. You’ll also need a thesaurus and a dictionary. Now you will take four ‘passes’ through your copy.

Pass one: count your adjectives. I highlight them. Most writers clutter their writing with adjectives, turning a swift run around a smooth track into a jog through soft sand. Eliminate repetitive adjectives. Three adjectives in series are never as powerful as one perfect adjective. Use your thesaurus to develop a list of options and your dictionary to probe precise definitions. Avoid million dollar words. Keep it simple while conveying refined meaning.

Pass two: examine your verbs. Public advertising enemy number one is passive voice. Saying “our business was recognized by the governor for our contributions to state literacy” is passive. Saying “Governor Thomas praised our business for our contribution to state literacy” is active. Purdue’s online writing lab is a good resource for understanding passive and active voice.

Pass three: organization. Make sure your ideas are in the optimal order. Switch the sentences around to smooth flow or escalate energy. An advertisement is an argument for someone’s money. Build your ad as you would build a case, so by the time your prospect arrives at the call for action they’ve been primed to respond.

Pass four: grammar. Do you dread this part? Most people do, because they don’t feel competent. Tackling grammar after the first three passes is surprisingly easy. Read your copy out loud. Your ear will hear grammar and structure problems that your eye did not see. Still uncomfortable? Many online resources can help you. Try the Well Bred Sentence for starters.
If you have followed these steps you are either done with your ad or remarkably close to finishing. Is it perfect? Probably not. But it’s considerably better than it would have been, and you can trump writer’s block when you follow a process.

Advertising is communication. When you want to stop a child from running into a busy street, you instinctively choose abrupt, succinct, loud communication. If you want to convince your spouse to make an expensive but unnecessary purchase, you naturally choose conversational, persuasive communication. You already know how to choose communications styles. Combine the correct communication style with thoughtfully constructed copy that clearly conveys one idea, and your ads will be better than ever.

(c) 2007, Andrea M. Hill

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