Four copywriting habits that could help me survive all this political combat
(And not by winning more Facebook pissing matches.)
Since this election season kicked into high gear, I’ve spent many hours locked in the Facebook chains of my friends. The vicious back-and-forth of Liberals vs Conservatives. Middle America vs Mainstream Media. Pussy Grabbers vs Pantsuit Nation. Sometimes I simply follow the comments, forcing myself to stay out of the fracas. Other times, I stay up far too late crafting responses that are far too long in an effort to convince people who are far past the point of being convinced by anything I have to say.
The other night, my comment was aimed at an old high school friend who became a cop. I’ve always known him to be a perfectly kind and decent human being. Now I know him to be a vocal and rabid Trump supporter. But I insisted on replying to him anyway, knowing that my comments would either fall on deaf ears or ignite a firestorm of Facebook fury. Then, while clicking “Reply” with my eyes half closed, I had a revelation.
I’ve been a copywriter for over a decade (yup, since before you were allowed to say “over a decade”). Every day demands my ability to understand other people’s perspectives and speak to them in a way that hits home. What am I doing at work that I’m not doing on social media? I thought about it and came up with four habits that come second nature on the job and could come in even handier on the wall. (Not THAT wall).
1. First I research. Then I reflect. THEN I write.
Unlike our prime-time counterparts (I’ll always love you Peggy Olson) most real-world copywriters don’t spend their days spitballing clever lines for soda campaigns. Some weeks I’m writing websites about credit card processing, videos about manufacturing, and white papers about industries I never even knew existed until the brief hit my desk. So I spend a lot of time exploring a subject. I seek out multiple perspectives. I dig into historical record. I welcome complex, even conflicting narratives. And once I’ve compiled all this information, I take the time to process and prioritize it before ever setting pen to paper. In other words, I don’t just read the headlines, skim the bullets and click over to the angry emoji.
2. I dig for humanity and don’t stop until I find it.
My agency Think Creative has a pretty diverse client roster. Sure, we’ve got resorts, fitness centers, grocery chains, and other things that are actually part of my normal life. But we also do a fair amount of B2B work, and sometimes the subject matter is way over my head (for example, we once named a new suite of manual gestures that could be incorporated into simulation software to provide the user with more touch points and pressure sensitivity.) But no matter how complicated the product is, I never forget that it’s actual people who made it and actual people who need it.
3. I hone in on what matters to the audience, not to me (or my client).
Benefits, not features. Benefits, not features. Benefits, not features. It’s a copywriting mantra that we share with clients on nearly every project. Instead of telling people what you do, let’s talk about what your customers want and show how you are giving it to them. At work, I know beyond question that this is the best way to reach people. Yet my political rants tend to involve me shouting about what I want and care about to people who want and care about very different things. Here’s a great TED talk that offers an alternative approach.
4. I find a way to care about things I never cared about.
Throughout the course of my creative career, the most common question that arises (first in my own mind and more recently from the mouths of junior writers I encounter) is:
“How do I get other people to care about a product/business/brand that I just don’t get or don’t believe in?”
I always tell them the same thing:
Your most important job is not to “make people care.” YOU need to care. You need to believe, in your bones, that this client is not only interesting, but that they bring something deeply valuable to the world. Nail that, and you’ll figure out the rest.
Hell, if I can do it for a company that sells rubber hoses and couplings, maybe, just maybe, I can do it for a friend facing me down from the opposite side of a political divide.