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To be or not to be – Shakespeare; To do is to be – Socrates; Do be do be do – Sinatra.

It’s a joke on a t-shirt. Yet these short phrases announce Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquy; the rationale at the core of Socratic philosophy; and the essence of Sinatra. It’s a lot to get into a couple of lines – and the writer did it, and was funny, engaging and relevant all at the same time. He must be a copywriter.

Memorable words, preferably all in the right order

Words chart the course of humankind. “Houston; eh, we’ve had a problem”. How’s that for an understatement that became instant folklore? If memorable phrases can capture the highs and lows of our existence – admittedly often in the hands of genius – consider the difference that well-chosen words can make in promoting your business.

But firstly, how difficult can it be to write about your business (or products and services) in a way that makes people want to actually read? The key word here is ‘read’. Everyone writes about their business, and their products and services. But who reads it? It’s estimated that the attention accorded to headline copy on the internet is 80 characters! Did I make the cut? Well you’re still here, so presumably yes – and in fact my headline came in at 78 characters including spacing. Close.

But even then I had to enlist the help of three of history’s greatest to catch your attention; not always possible if you’re selling things and trying to be relevant. Fortunately in my case I’m selling copywriting and can be excused a bow to the greatest wordsmith of all time. But your headlines have to work even harder to hook people. Of course the 80 character limit is not a hard and fast rule. But the longer the headline, the more enticing the idea and execution needs to be. That is a rule.

In fact there are quite a lot of ‘rules’ just around headline copy writing. There are instruction books used in media colleges which warn darkly against using ‘puns’ – especially in headline copy. And set against this you have the UK’s weekend Financial Times – arguably the world’s most authoritative and fiercely stylish lifestyle magazine – consistently and brilliantly emblazoning their features with the most deliciously audacious and rule-breaking headline puns ever.

And that’s only the headline copy – and I asked if it’s difficult to write about business, and products and services, in a way that makes people want to read? That means all the ‘body copy’ too.

Body copy is all the main narrative or description. This may be only few lines if it’s a newspaper advertisement, or pages, if it’s a brochure or report, or more likely a website. But these, at times lengthy descriptions, have to be engaging and readable, and relevant. And getting these elements in the right balance calls for creativity, painstaking craftsmanship, and product knowledge: creative because you have to interest people; craftsmanship, because even ‘do be do be do’ doesn’t sound right in the wrong order (try it; be do, be do…nah); and product knowledge, because you have to really understand something to convincingly sell it.

Having product knowledge at my fingertips is the reason why as a business consultant, I offer copywriting as a service. It comes from the fact that when I spend time in a client’s business as an advisor, I gain an insider’s understanding of the business/product/service. I identify the real value being offered, because as a business consultant it’s my job to help capture that value. And because I understand the value, I am very well placed to communicate it. Contrast this with briefing a copywriter who’s not familiar with your business, and yet is tasked with presenting your business to the outside world.

Then there’s craftsmanship. I’m old-school (actually I’m just old) and am plagued with old-fashioned notions like sweating the detail and getting things right. It’s painstaking. Incidentally, having written the perfect version, the copywriter invariably discovers on presenting the work, that there’s only one human urge stronger than love and war; it’s the urge to change someone else’s copy.

And then there’s creativity. The advertising world is notorious for its wholesale appropriation of the word ‘creative’ and bestowing it on the thinnest of talents. In fact in an advertising agency, anyone doing any writing or designing is deemed ‘creative’. In this company, I’m more than happy to stake my claim.

Finally when it comes to effective copywriting, English copy that is, I have a BA Hons in literature from a UK university, which provides a certain base if you believe in that sort of thing. And I’m a Pom, which has got to be useful for something, if only for writing English.

Along the way, I’ve written brochures and annual reports, voiceovers for corporate videos and events, newspaper ads and copy for websites. I’ve even been known to name things – back in 2000 I created the brand name ‘STRATE‘ for the JSE’s landmark electronic settlement system; used daily by stock traders worldwide. 

So if there’s a spot of copywriting required for your business, let me see what I can do. In the old days when I had hair, I remember trying a trendy barber in London’s West End. I asked him what he could do for me, and in particular I remember his response: “I’m not saying I’m any good, but I could do better than what you’ve got” – pointing at my 70’s mullet, cropped short on top, and long at the back, which I thought made me look like David Bowie on the cover of ‘Spiders from Mars’. In fact I looked a twat.

Likewise your copy. Is it doing you justice? You may want to have another look. I won’t be rude like my barber, and what I’ll write won’t be Shakespeare. But it may be better than what you’ve got.

Business & Management
Cape Town, South Africa

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