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.
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.
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?
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.
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?)