Who Do You Think You’re Talking To?

Or, who are you writing to?

Whether you write advertising copy or novels, video scripts or poetry…I’m talking to you.

Forgive me for indulging in a little cathartic rant in today’s post, but I felt compelled to write a few words about a scourge upon our advertising landscape. It’s something that is not only one of my personal pet peeves when it comes to copy writing, but it’s a sure-fire way to get potential customers and clients to immediately tune out your message. It’s an evil villain, but one that is easily thwarted if writers just take a little extra time.

It’s…industry-speak.

But hold on, poets, fiction writers, and voice artists – I’m not just talking about writing and advertising here. Industry-speak is more than just words; it’s also tone.

Are those pavers or pavestones?

Know your audience

I read scripts and marketing materials all the time. I know when someone is speaking to me about my concerns, and when someone is speaking at me about their product. I’ve written before about the importance of connecting with readers/listeners/viewers, and let me say right here that using terms and phrases that only others within your industry use – or worse, using terms and phrases that no one ever uses in real life – are copy-killers.

I hear colleges using the word “dynamic” to describe their courses. I’ve heard businesses offering “robust solutions.”  Just recently, I came across a script for a landscape company selling paving stones, brick pavers, and stepstones (I honestly don’t know if there’s a difference).

When you use words that normal, everyday folks don’t, you’re saying, “Let me speak to you in a language you don’t understand about things you don’t comprehend, so I can then wonder why you don’t care.”

What are pavers, and why should I care about them? Do I need them? Why should I get them from you? As a consumer, I have a flurry of questions when I hear something like that…and more often than not, I don’t want to be bothered with questions. I have enough questions in my life I’m trying to answer already without you throwing more at me.

On the other hand, if you ask, “Wouldn’t it be great if you could have an outdoor patio area that’s easy to clean, never needs staining, and can allow you to grill outdoors all year-round?” Well, now you have my interest. And you didn’t even use the word “paver.”

Don’t get me wrong, if pavers are what you’re selling, you obviously need to use the word “pavers” at some point.  What I’m saying is, don’t act like I already know what you’re talking about!  Also notice I said “easy to clean” instead of “virtually maintenance-free.” You know you’ve heard “virtually maintenance-free” in plenty of commercials before – but who actually talks like that?

Step into the Delorean

Before you write the copy, take a trip back in time and think about what life was like before you knew all this stuff.

Think back to when you couldn’t tell a flagstone from a fieldstone. When you didn’t care about the difference between clay and concrete.  Back when you didn’t even know college courses could be ‘dynamic’ (personally, I think colleges just make up that phrase to sound flashy).

Get rid of the industry-speak. Get rid of the advertising-industry-speak, as well:  crutch-phrases like ‘knowledgeable staff,’ ‘no-pressure sales,’ and – oh yeah, ‘virtually maintenance-free.’

Think about your listener or reader. Use the language that is used by the people to whom you’re talking.

The same goes for you, too, storytellers

OK, well, technically, radio and TV commercial copy writers are supposed to be storytellers…and if they’re not, they should be. But if you write fiction or poetry, ask yourself the same questions. To whom are you writing? For whom are you writing? Whether it’s a 4-line poem or a 1000-page novel, you need to know who your audience is, and use the language that best suits that audience. I’ve read drafts of picture books that use slang terms that went out with 8-track tapes. and drafts of YA novels about subjects that would only interest an 8-year-old.

Again, use the language of the reader.

Ask yourself who the consumer is; that is, the person who will be doing the reading. Some children’s authors say they write to their young self. Other authors write to an imaginary person they’ve created. Many poets write to their (former or current) spouse or significant other…their muse, as it were. Some folks simply write to themselves, too, which is fine if you don’t plan on distributing your material to a wider audience; I will never understate the importance of writing for oneself.

Conversing with your audience

It pays to read and re-read. If you’re a voice artist or speaker, look over the script and try to understand a) who you are representing while speaking, and b) who is receiving the information. Understanding who you are, who your audience is, and why any of you should care about the message is of utmost importance. There are plenty of tips out there about voice acting, but to me, they all come down to one truism: everything you speak is a conversation.

Writers, look over your copy, poem, or manuscript and see if that person to whom you’re writing will ‘get’ everything. Have someone else read it and ask them if they know what you’re talking about. If you’re an advertiser, it also pays to have a person who is not in your industry – but could be a potential customer – read the copy. If something doesn’t make sense to them, change the copy.

Again, it all boils down to knowing to whom, or for whom, you’re writing or speaking, and targeting your language to reflect that.

As they say in the advertising biz:  know your demographic!

(Wait, sorry….was that industry-speak?)

Poetry Friday: “Monster Supper”

Yes, I realize Halloween is both months away and months behind…but I had to post this now.

poetryfridaybutton-fulllYou see, back in early January, the creative yet enigmatic M.M. Socks posted a poem titled, “Eyeball Dinner” on his blog.  It got me thinking about what else might be served at a dinner that included eyeballs on the menu. But then, of course, I had to carry the concept further in my mind…and wondered what the whole dinner experience might be like.

Hence, the inspiration for “Monster Supper.” Hope you like it!  Or are at least able to get all the way through it. Today Sheri Doyle is hosting Poetry Friday, so be sure to visit her blog for links to all of the day’s offerings!

“Monster Supper”

Come, little monsters,
Sit down, take a seat!
Are your hands filthy?
Good!
We can finally eat!
Your mummy has made you
A terrible feast –
So you can grow up
As a strong, healthy beast.

Remember your manners
And don’t sit up straight;
Burp when you want to
But don’t clean your plate.
Put down those forks!
Play with your food!
Talk while you’re chewing
And always be rude.

Have some weed salad
With fried crispy lips!
I cooked up a rump roast
And saved you the hips.
You’ll love these fresh toenails –
The crunch is superb!
Or try some steamed muscles
With butter and Herb.

The sweet pickled pelvis
Is slimy and cold,
The grilled duodenum
Is starting to mold;
There’s liver lasagna,
Hot skeleton stew,
Gall bladder casserole,
Finger rolls, too!

So eat up, my darlings,
And make sure you drool –
But always remember
My dinnertime rule:
If you don’t eat your eyeballs
And finish your dirt,
You can’t have warm chocolate
Spleens for dessert.

– © 2013, Matt Forrest Esenwine

In Commercials or Poems, Be Specific!

I have mentioned before on this blog that different types of writing often need to follow the same rules, and can often benefit from the same methods. Thanks to a  7th- and 8th-grade English teacher in Haiti, I’m sharing another example today.

When I speak to clients about how to write radio commercials, one of the many things I tell them is to read the finished script and do a ‘generic check.’  I ask them to read the script, but wherever the name of their business is given, replace it with the name of their competitor.  If the commercial still makes sense…it’s not a good commercial.

Edit it – or throw it away and start over.

A commercial needs to specify a business’ Unique Selling Point (also known as the Unique Selling Proposition).  The “USP” is an industry term referring to the one thing that sets that business apart from all the others.  Ultimately, it’s the answer to the question, “Why should I give you my money, instead of the guy next door?” If your Italian restaurant commercial sounds fine using the names of other Italian restaurants, someone did something wrong.

If you don’t know what makes you different, how will anyone??

I’ll spend more time talking about USPs in a future post, but for now I want to concentrate on specificity.

SPECIFICITY [spes-ih-FISS-ih-tee]: noun. The state of referring to an explicit or definite thing.

Whether it’s a radio commercial, a poem, or even an on-air radio bit…don’t assume that by trying to be generic you’re going to attract more people.  If you’re not trying to be generic, but still come up with a script that can be easily appropriated by another business, your script is missing a key component.

I was reminded of this by a teacher in Haiti named Ruth, who operates her own blog, There Is No Such Thing As A God-Forsaken Town.  Last Friday, she posted a love poem by Craig Arnold titled “Bird-Understander,” in which the speaker addresses his partner about a particular facet of her personality that is particularly endearing to him. You can read the entire post here.  The poem is a terrific example of specificity because as one reads this poem, one realizes this person is a unique individual unlike anyone else – at least in the speaker’s mind.

In her blog post, Ruth points out:

“A love poem should be specific, not a generic verse suitable for a  greeting card.  The beloved is not interchangeable with others, and  poetry about the beloved shouldn’t be, either.  By that standard, this love poem succeeds brilliantly.  When we read it, as people who don’t  know the woman being addressed, we see a beautiful quality in her, and  we see why he loves her.  We know what makes her special.”

If you’re an advertiser, do we know what makes your business special?

Not all mortgage companies are created equal

Several years ago, while working as the production director for a five-station radio group, I was asked to record a new client who was going to come to the radio station to voice his spot.  I was handed a copy of the script just a few minutes before he arrived, so I had no time to edit the script or even speak to the account rep who wrote it.

But I knew we weren’t going to be able to record it the way it was written.

It was basically sixty seconds of bullet points:  “if you need a mortgage, call us”….”offering a variety of options”…”residential or commercial”…blah, blah, blah. And then it concluded with multiple calls-to-action, including the location, phone number, and website. (Multiple calls-to-action are another of my pet peeves, but that’s another blog post)

Any – and I mean ANY – other mortgage company in ANY part of this great country could easily plug their name into this commercial, and by changing the contact info, they’d have a  script.  Again I say, if your commercial script can be used by anybody else in the same industry…that’s a major problem.

So when the client came in, we chatted about the script and he expressed his displeasure with it before I even had a chance to express mine.  He felt it was too generic (!!!), he didn’t think it was written the way he would naturally speak…he didn’t even want a physical address or a phone number in the script, because the only call to action he wanted was to direct listeners to his website!

I breathed a sigh of relief, and did a little Happy Dance on the inside. The client and I were both on the same page.

The spot needed to change, drastically.

I had an idea.

Letting the client speak for himself

He was a very friendly, animated fellow who knew his business, knew why he was unique, and knew what he wanted his commercial to accomplish.  While he was talking to me about it, I suggested he let me turn on his microphone, and I would record him speaking extemporaneously.  I figured I could edit the best parts into a :60 commercial and let his unique message and unique delivery – at least for a mortgage broker – be front-and-center.

This is what we came up with:

StarOneFunding_Image-#1 9-2006

Have you ever heard a mortgage company commercial like that? This was just one of 3 or 4 spots we ended up creating, and he loved them. They were unlike any others on the air at the time, and because of the unique features of his website (along with his style of delivery), they stood out from the pack. Try plugging another mortgage company’s name into that spot; I’d say it definitely passes the ‘generic check.’

Making a habit of ‘generic-checking’

Next time you need to write a commercial, plug in another business’ name and contact info and see what you get. Can any business use this script? Next time you write a poem about someone or something special, try plugging in someone else’s name.  Could this poem be about anyone?

If the answer to either of these questions is “yes”…start over.

After all, if the business you’re promoting isn’t unique, why should anyone be expected to patronize them? If the person you’re writing about is as ordinary as everyone else, why waste the ink?

If someone was going to write about you…wouldn’t you want to pass the ‘generic check?’

Poetry Friday: “Where You Find It”

A little something different for today.  I apologize for the inconvenience, but if you click the image you’ll be able to read it more easily…

Where You Find It - graphic

Many thanks to my daughter, Katherine, for providing the photo!  For all of today’s Poetry Friday happenings, visit this week’s hostess, Linda, at Teacher Dance.

“The Next Big Thing!”

Back at the beginning of the year, I talked about how excited I was to be wrapping up my first 5 months of this blog.  Then just a couple of weeks ago, I told you about the Liebster Award that had been passed along to me. Now, I’m excited to be part of something new:

Many thanks to my friend, children’s author and poet Joyce Ray, for inviting me to participate in the online literary blog called THE NEXT BIG THING!

the-next-big-thingIf you’ve not heard of THE NEXT BIG THING, it’s a sort of “chain blog” consisting of a series of questions about works-in-progress and not-yet-published titles. Many national and international writers have participated in it; Joyce did last week, and now it’s my turn!

The nice thing about THE NEXT BIG THING is that it not only provides some extra visibility for the bloggers taking part, but more importantly, it gives readers a glimpse into the working life of a writer. Part of the fun is tagging someone else, so stay tuned to learn who I’ll be tagging at the end of this post!  Some of these questions require some deep thought, so I’ll do my best to answer them…

What is the working title of your book?

“Anticipation: Poems for a Winter’s Night”

Where did the idea come from for the book?

As someone who writes a lot of children’s poetry, one day I noticed I had written 5 or 6 poems about winter…so it occurred to me they should probably be organized into their own collection.  This was in May 2012.  So I decided to try to get the manuscript completed (written, edited, revised, finalized) by September. As it turned out, I was done by Oct. – so I wasn’t too far off!

What genre does your book fall under?

Children’s poetry.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Ha! Not sure this question fits, since the book is comprised of 23 poems…but since many are written in first-person, I’d say we could get Sofia Vergara to portray the school bus driver, Adriana Lima to portray the teacher, and Miranda Lambert to portray the person I ask to keep me warm outside.  Of course, this is all assuming my wife won’t mind…so I’m really going out on a limb here.

But hey, it’s Hollywood!

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?

“A funny, touching, and magical look at the coldest – yet warmest – season of all.”

Y’know, I just thought that up this minute. I kinda like it!

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Hard to say, as I edit poems as I go along; I revisit them, revise them, place them in the manuscript, rearrange them in the manuscript, edit them again, rearrange them again, blah, blah.  The first draft was probably done by late September, then it was just a matter of tweaking a few things here and there.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

It’s very difficult – if not extremely egotistical – for me to compare a manuscript by an unpublished author to books written by some of the best children’s poets in America. So I do this hesitantly and with a great amount humility…but as it’s a winter-themed poetry collection, I’d say it’s similar in tone to Jack Prelutsky’s It’s Snowing! It’s Snowing (2006, Greenwillow) and Douglas Florian’s Winter Eyes (1999, Greenwillow), although the number of silly or funny poems in mine outnumbers theirs.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I wish I knew! I always tell people how much I hate winter – the shovelling, the snow-blowing, the slickness of roads, the ice on your driveway, the cold temperatures, etc., etc. – and yet, it was not a difficult manuscript to put together. I’ve already come up with another two or three winter poems since I finished it, and I haven’t even been trying!  Perhaps I like winter more than I realized. I absolutely love Christmas, so that might have something to do with it.

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?

I think the diversity of poems. Not only is there a good balance of funny-to-quiet poems, but I used a number of various forms: there’s a villanelle, cinquain, triolet, haiku, tanka, and a couple others, in addition to more conventional forms. One minute you’re laughing about my Valentine’s Day dilemma with Beulah Buford, and the next, you’re sitting quietly by yourself in a school bus on a winter morning, scratching at the frosty window.  I really like the fact that each poem sort of has its own ‘feel.’

When and how will it be published?

Funny, I ask m yself that same question all…the…time.  Being an as-yet-unpublished author (other than having various adult poems published in independent journals over the years), it’s been an uphill climb trying to get my other manuscripts accepted. I’ve only sent this manuscript to one editor so far, who I want to give first-refusal. If she decides to pass, then I’ll let all the other publishing houses and literary agencies fight over the rights and I’ll eventually sign a six-book deal and movie rights with the highest bidder.  At least, that’s how I imagine things will happen.

WHO’S NEXT?

It is my honor to tag and introduce to you Catherine Johnson, who is also currently working on a manuscript…

Catherine is a British ex-pat living in Canada with her family. She writes picture books and poetry and has several poems published, and was a British champion twice in Tae Kwon-Do.  (How cool is that??)  She blogs at http://catherinemjohnson.wordpress.com…so be sure to stop by, and learn about herNEXT BIG THING!”

Super Bowl 2013 Commercials: Touchdowns, Fumbles, and Questionable Calls

This past Sunday night, millions tuned in to CBS for the 47th Super Bowl. And if you managed to make it all the way through  Alicia Keye’s “stirring” rendition of our national anthem, you eventually got to see a football game.

Of course, the competition is not the only draw; a number of folks who watch the game tune in to see the commercials, the production of which has become an annual game of advertising one-upsmanship unto itself. If you have not seen them, there are plenty of ways to find them on the internet. I’m not going to post every single one. Some were funny, some were touching, some were downright bizarre (what was Taco Bell thinking??)…but most were forgettable. The few I’m going to talk about today are the ones that – for better or worse – left the biggest impression on me.

Touchdowns

These are the only three commercials I felt really nailed their objective – that is, to attract the viewers attention, to create interest and a desire to act, and give a clear, compelling message. First on my list (and on a lot of people’s lists) is the return of the Budweiser Clydesdales in “Brotherhood”:

 

You can almost never go wring with the Budweiser Clydesdales. This spot is nostalgic, charming, warm, fuzzy…but doesn’t feel pandering. It not only draws the viewer in by telling a compelling story, it reinforces the brand as part of the fabric of American family life. And really, what more could a brand want?

(Side note: the foal they used was born on Jan. 16, and was just seven days old at the time of the commercial’s filming. The fact that people are just learning about this now is helping to continue the momentum of the spot…and drive viewership)

The second commercial I felt was also successful – if not underrated – was the Sketchers ad, “Man vs. Cheetah:”

 

This spot isn’t showing up on many ‘lists’ of this year’s top Super Bowl commercials, probably because it’s not laugh-out-loud hilarious, rip-your-heart-out poignant, or scratch-your-head-wondering-what-the-hell-just happened bizarre. (Most car manufacturers, especially Hyundai, seemed to have a near-monopoly on that last category) But this spot does what every effective spot should do: it directly ties together the premise with the benefits of the product. Too many commercials try to connect the product to a contrived premise, which leads to a confusing, ineffective message – if there’s a message at all.

The third commercial that stood out for me was Tide’s “Miracle Stain:”

 

Here again, it’s a compelling story told with humour that immediately gets your attention, creates interest, and concludes with a perfect ending. It doesn’t get into the details of why Tide is so great, it doesn’t compare itself to other detergents…it just puts the brand front and center as the payoff.  Ironically, the brand becomes the downfall of the main character – an unusual twist – and that reinforces the notion that Tide’s power is somehow ‘non-discriminatory.’  For top-of-mind awareness, this was a winner.

Fumbles

I could give you a long list of all the spots I thought were failures. Actually, I can’t. Many of the spots were so forgettable…I forgot them. And personally, I don’t feel like sifting through all the Super bowl 2013 commercials just to find the worst ones. So here are a couple that really annoyed me.

First up, Volkswagen’s “Get In, Get Happy:”

 

OK, OK, the spot is amusing. It does make you smile. Even I chuckled when the guy says to turn the frown “dee udder way ah-roond!”  But let’s be serious: did it compell you to consider buying a Volkswagen? Did it spotlight any benefits to driving Volkswagens, other than they’ll make you happy? Without rewatching it, was the car they were driving a Beetle or a Jetta? This is an example of trying to get a premise to fit the brand. Sure, you might be happy driving a VW – but the image the viewer is ultimately left with is a white guy speaking like a Jamaican, not a red 2013 Beetle.

The second spot (actually a series of spots) that I felt missed the mark were Coca-Cola’s “Chase ads.” Here’s one of them:

Apparently, the idea was that viewers were supposed to log onto Coke’s website and vote how the story ended. A good idea to create a story that continues through the game. Unfortunately, Coke forgot two important things: 1) you need to compell viewers to take action, and 2) you need to compell viewers to take action.

I don’t know how many people bothered to log on and choose the ending – because, frankly, I didn’t care. Why should I? A bunch of strange characters are racing somewhere…I don’t know who they are, why I should care about them, or why I should be bothered to log onto Coke’s website. Hey, here’s some free advice for Coke’s ad agency: compell me to BUY A COKE. You’re welcome.

Questionable Calls

These are spots that were memorable and did a pretty good job of getting people to take notice of the product or brand, but fell a few yards short  (to carry the metaphor).

First up, the one everyone’s been talking about…GoDaddy.com’s “Perfect Match:”

 

Yes, my skin’s still crawling, too. A lot of folks have slammed this commercial for being tacky, crude, and totally un-funny. It is, indeed, all of those things…but we’re still talking about it, and that was the plan.  Come to think of it, it may also be the first time I’ve turned away from looking at Bar Rafaeli. Those Go Daddy people are just evil.

Another commercial that swung hard and missed was Ram Trucks’ “Farmer:”

I realize I’m going against a lot of my fellow ad geeks and agencies – but I was really disappointed in this. The production values are terrific. The intonations of the late, great Paul Harvey are sincere and stirring. The images are powerful. And the fact that it never felt like a two-minute commercial reinforces my belief that a compelling story will maintain the interest and attention of the viewer or listener, no matter how long it is. If a story starts to feel long – whether it’s a commercial, movie, or book – it’s not as compelling as it should have been.

My problem with this spot is the payoff. After watching this heartfelt tribute to the American farmer…we discover it’s a pitch for Ram Trucks. Really? You’re going to play with my emotions for a play at my wallet? I just felt let down. Now, I’ve thought about this quite a bit – about how they could have done this without it coming off as being tacky or cheesy – and I think if it they had used a different line other than, “to the farmer in all of us.” That line feels like they’re pushing their trucks on me. Perhaps a subtler, “thank you, farmers” or something that at least felt less pitchy, less…sales-y. I don’t know.  I’m still torn on this one, but it’s still not sitting well with me.

Runner-Up

The last commercial I want to spotlight was Oreo’s “Whisper Fight,” which gets a nod not for its uniqueness, but for what Oreo’s executives managed to do in the middle of the game. First, the spot:

 

It was funny, yes – I was laughing along with everyone else – but it felt like a retread of the old, classic Miller Light commercials: “Tastes great! Less filling!” Not a great commercial, but I think it definitely will have life after the Super Bowl – and it was certainly one of the funnier spots, which helps with top-of-mind awareness. I’m not sure how many viewers were compelled (there’s that word again!) to take the call to action and send an Instagram to @Oreo on Twitter, but Twitter is where the real action ended up taking place…

Only a few minutes into the 3rd quarter, half the stadium’s power went out – leaving literally half of the stadium in darkness for 34 minutes. During that time, Oreo’s ad agency, 360i, received approval from the company execs to send out a graphic on Twitter showing part of an Oreo cookie and the phrase, “You can still dunk in the dark.” According to Buzzfeed, the image has been retweeted more than 14,000 times and the Facebook graphic has amassed 20,000+ “likes.” As Buzzfeed points out, the brand that got the biggest impact on the most expensive advertising day of the year…may have done it for nothing! Gotta love social media.

So what commercials did you feel had the biggest impact? Any I missed? Am I totally off the mark on any of these? LEt me know – I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section, below. And if you liked this post, feel free share it and subscribe to the blog! Thanks…and keep in touch!