I know you’ve read a lot of pieces like this.
Often presented in one-sentence paragraphs — creating an irrepressible curiosity gap.
I imagine, if you clicked on this, you’re looking for writing help.
You want to learn the trade secrets on how to 10x engagement and conversion.
By the end of this piece, you’ll find out the single best words of advice I can give you. No games, no bullshit.
Ugh, sorry, I think there’s a gas leak. I don’t write like that … I actually loathe that style of writing, especially on Medium. This is a blogging platform — not a direct response email — y’all take that shit to Constant Contact.
Listen kittens, reading should be fun. That’s what I’ma give to you today. Maybe you’ll learn a lil’ something along the way, too.
Hi, I’m John. You may know me as an essayist, a yarn-spinner, an existentialist, a foul-mouthed agitator, and a sarcastic egalitarian. I am, to varying degrees, all those things. I’m also a former world record-holder in Super Mario Kart, a washed-up singer-songwriter, and a lifelong fan of the Philadelphia 76ers. I take my coffee black, my bourbon neat, and my wings XXX hot. None of that’s super important, or even all that compelling, but who doesn’t love extraneous, extemporal detail at the front-end of an informative listicle?
Ahem. So, I also run a small brand strategy consultancy and boutique creative agency. I’ve worked with Fortune-500 companies, viral progressive congressional campaigns, and breakthrough emerging technology startups. I’ve even written on Medium … as a mattress.
Before that, I spent seven years as the brand voice of a $100B global technology conglomerate. My work’s won ADDYs (dirty secret: they hand those suckers out like candy, but those four words sound great in print), WEBBYs, and even scraped the Emmy nomination pages. Plus, I’ve walked off with a handful of borderline anonymous national and global industry marketing awards that don’t end in -y. TL;DR — I breathe this shit, yet I’ve never paid it forward and unleashed the secrets to my success (besides being born a white guy in America) for a global audience. Until now.
Today, I want to unload my five golden rules for awesome copywriting. Today, I’m giving you the game. Best yet — it’s all free. There’s no $297 course, no email list to sign up for, no urgent call-to-action, and no retargeting campaign following you home. Just you and I, spending a casual six-minute read together, and at the end, we’re both going to feel a little better about our careers.
Rule №1: Know the Brand, Inside and Out
If the human/org/company you’re writing for has a brand book, brand guidelines, a brand voice guide, a brand platform, a brand ladder … anything brand, read that shit a couple of times. Take notes, reference them, and be able to regurgitate ’em like a mama bird.
If they don’t? Offer to make one for them. That’s extra money in your pocket, and they’ll thank you for your alleged expertise. I’ve written brand platforms for folks that made ’em cry. Who cries over branding? People reacting to you doing a damn good job.
Once you stick the landing on knowing (or making) the brand, then you can elevate it and push it farther in your writing. With every brand, there’s always a delta between where they are, and where they’d like to go without losing their way. Guide them down that path.
Rule №2: Deliver What they Expect, Plus 10% Extra
People don’t like surprises. They say they do, but they don’t. That shit starts young: Babies don’t just cry when Jack pops out the box for no good reason.
We love reliable romantic partners, dependable long-lasting trucks, and green Skittles that taste like the lime they used to be — not that 21st Century “green apple” bullshit … wtf Skittles. When we’re primed to experience something, there’s almost nothing better than the experience living up to our expectations.
So be consistent: Tell your clients what you’ll give ’em, when you’ll give it to ’em, and then give them exactly that thing, when they expect it.
Then, add a little bit of extra sauce. Some extra juice. One moonshot. Just give ’em that thing you know they probably won’t go for, but for a little extra, you can execute on it.
A quick story from my past: Dell owns gaming PC-builder Alienware, and for a hot minute, an outside agency handled Alienware’s branding. In 2014, a small team of us holed up in a conference room, blasted some Tycho, and added a secret option for an upcoming campaign based on insurrection. It was extra AF, but so’s guacamole, and unless you’re allergic or a monster, you throw down on avocado. Anyway, the client loved the campaign execution, and from that point onward, we brought Alienware’s brand and marketing in-house. Clients almost never pick Door №3, but when they do, it’s borderline erotic.
Rule №3: The Actual Copy’s Only 20% of the Work
You’re damn right. Selling the client in is the other 80%. You nail that, and you can write Twenty One Pilots lyrics in the copy bank and no one will give a shit.
What goes into that 80%? Here’s how I like to sell my clients in.
- A “Lay of the Land” slide: Reword the challenge detailed in the brief. This is what your copy will ultimately solve for. Anything you considered from the given instructions that you incorporated into your own work? Drop it in here.
- A Concept Statement: This is where you tell a compelling story about the words they’re about to see. Put some serious effort into this. This is where you get your client excited about what they’re about to read. Some clients will love this tale so much they’ll ask to include it in the copy options. That’s great. Some clients are idiots, and they’ll provide feedback. That’s when you politely grin and nudge them that it’s not copy, and to wait till the next slide.
- A Copy Slide: 3–5 general headline-subhead options, plus whatever copy they asked for. I don’t need to explain this any further. This is what most copywriters deliver clients, and this is why most copywriters don’t get build winning client relationships.
- A Data Slide: 6–10 proof-points that explain why the copy in the previous slide is on-brand, on-message, ownable, and satisfies both the conditions of the brief and the constraints of the vehicle. You’re answering why the copy slide answers the lay of the land.
- A Side-By-Slide: The biggest mistake I see creatives make in their presentations is not including the final side where clients can compare and contrast the various creative executions on one slide. There’s no bigger creative buzzkill than “can you scroll back?” Jumping around in PPT is no one’s idea of a good time. Plus, that’s how “Frankenstein-ing” happens. This cornucopia’s a menu, not a buffet. (Of course, if they wish to Frankenstein against your wishes, you again politely grin and tell them it’s no big deal and you’re just thrilled they found enough options that worked.)
Sure, it’s extra work for you (you can price that in, because this makes you one of the best in the business). Sure, it’s extra slides in the presentation deck, but what the hell — we’re all remote anyway, and that gives you longer on screen-share mode and less time staring at your own mug (or the fraught reactions of middle management) on Zoom.
Rule №4: Beats and Rhymes are Life
Rhythm (beats) and alliteration (rhymes) are copy royalty. The two elements, combined, almost supersede every other copy consideration short of satisfying the brief. They make almost any message unforgettable. Most catchy copy boils down to being easy to say. Here’s a couple of examples.
M&Ms “melt in your mouth, not in your hands.” Four syllables. Comma. Four syllables. Perfectly rhythmic. Also, a subtle accent of M and the short-O vowel sound. Well done. Here’s another.
Maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s Maybelline. The rhythm and alliteration in this couplet’s so iconic it’s been meme’d to death as a humorous snowclone. Again, more M. Plus, a double-shot of six-syllable gold.
If I were to open up a club, I’d implore patrons to “Pop in. Pop off.” If I opened up an Italian restaurant, I’d call it “Lotsa Pasta.” I’m just giving you this shit for free. Y’all can run with it.
Rule №5: Crack Your Clients and Colleagues Up
Look. This ain’t emergency cardiac surgery … this is copywriting. You get paid to arrange words in whatever form you want to make them memorable and beautiful. Maybe you get to be edgy, magnanimous, or punny. Congrats. Remember to have fun with it.
Take your work seriously, but not yourself, and definitely not your job. People remember how you make them feel as you deliver for them just as much as they remember what you delivered. Collaborate. Make cheeky small-talk. Throw out ringer ideas that they’ll never use. Make copy dad-jokes. (Sorry, Mauna Loa.) You can even make fun of your competitor’s copy.
Point is: don’t treat your clients like adversaries, and don’t treat your words like sacred cows. More often than not, clients just want to read words they like and ideas they already agree with. All you gotta do is give ’em to ’em.
I’d love to tell you it’s harder than that. I would. It’d make my diligent effort valuable … but it isn’t. Most small businesses — and even some enterprises — will outsource words overseas and settle for cut-rate copy … Fuck ’em. Let ’em sound dull. If you provide a superior experience, clients will pay a premium just for that.
This is supposed to be the part of the essay where I drive urgency.
Where I tell you my free e-book’s available.
Where I give you 101 additional hacks if you sign up for my newsletter.
But, I’ma be honest with you: I’m about to hop on the horn with an iconic retail giant to talk about words. I’m monetizing just fine.
But let me leave you with this, instead — world-class writing’s mostly just world-class thinking, world-class direction-following, world-class charisma, and world-class organizational skills. Most of the work’s done long before you get your assignment, as you get your reps in over time. The remainder’s done as you study the brand, study the brief, and make clients feel warm and fuzzy, safe and taken care of, in your communication.
You nail all that shit?
Well, whip out those TwentyOne Pilots lyric sheets and do your worst.