Exceptional managers need to possess superb writing skills whether they are drafting presentations or banging out e-mails. Under time pressure, it is all too easy to let the effectiveness of your messaging slip. To combat mediocrity, you should impose the ‘plan then write then edit’ discipline in all of your communications. Variously attributed to Mark Twain, Blaise Pascal, Marcus Tullius Cicero, and a host of other scribes and scholars, the hoary “If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter” is still one of my favorite quotes. Take that advice to heart during the planning and editing phases.
At some point in our writing lives, we are all told to plan. The prescription, more often than not, is structural, rather than conceptual. More concretely, a teacher coaches us to create an outline with an introduction, three main points, and a conclusion. Sound advice, to be sure; but you can up the ante.
The first step in planning to write copy that captures is selecting your audience. Whether you are writing to a large audience or a single person, picture a single individual in your mind’s eye. By way of example, imagine that you are marketing pediatric dental services. Rather than thinking abstractly about parents, develop a vivid image of a mother with two young children. Build out a persona including her name, her age, her likes, her dislikes.
After conjuring your muse, the next step in planning is to determine the benefits that are important to your audience. Keeping their needs front and center will help you stay focused on their ego not yours. For example, the mother that you have called to mind probably does not care about features of your practice such as the number of square feet, your panoramic digital x-ray machine, or your brand of tooth polish. Instead, you should focus on how your practice serves the physical (hygiene, limited radiation, allergy awareness) and emotional (empathy, entertainment) needs of children and their families.
The last step, often the hardest to commit to in the planning process, is to state one – just one – specific objective that you are trying to achieve in your writing. Though you will be tempted to extol every virtue, remember that less is more.
Once you have identified your audience and chosen a single objective, it is time to start writing. Let go of perfection and just write. Allow the words to flow. Whatever you do, absolutely, positively, DO NOT EDIT YET; that will come later.
As you write, adopt a conversational tone and let your personality come through. In the planning phase, you conjured the image of a specific person. Imagining that you are having a dialogue with this individual puts that task of drafting on a human scale, allowing you to create messages that are directly relevant on a personal level. A practice that some great copy writers employ is not only to imagine a particular person, but also to pretend the individual is a loved one to whom they are writing a personal letter.
In the course of committing words to paper, frequently you are going to get a nagging feeling that something you have written will elicit a question from the imagined conversation partner. Pay close attention to that inner voice. Those questions might probe for additional clarification or they may be outright objections. You should anticipate and answer questions as your muse would raise them.
As you become a more seasoned writer, you should engender curiosity. There are two smart ways to do this. The first is to introduce ideas that challenge conventional wisdom. Specifically, with respect to the individual you have conjured, provide information that subtly confronts that person’s belief system. After all, there is a reason that conservatives spend a lot of time consuming liberal media and vice versa. The second approach to manufacturing interest is to create a knowledge gap or surprise that makes your audience ask ‘how?’ or ‘why?’
The language and the style you employ are both critical. Write short sentences with simple active words. Use clear language. Employ repetition. Instead of “Eradicate inane matters to culminate in increased work productivity”, try “remove waste to drive results.”
Since you took the time in the planning stage to develop a persona of a distinct individual, you should now use language that paints a vivid mental picture or story for him or her. After all, you are writing to inspire curiosity. To do that, draw upon words that evoke positive emotions and stimulate the senses. Examples include: wonder, imagine, reveal, story, discover, rivet, inspire, and picture.
As a writer, one of your aims is to ensure that your audience trusts your message. To make your message credible, call upon external sources for proof when possible. For example, I could simply tell you that children experience less anxiety if they observe their mothers being treated by a dental hygienist before having their own teeth cleaned. It is far more powerful for me to cite an international study published in the Journal of Canadian Dentistry. Consider a a May 2009 study of 155 children bythe head of the department of pediatric and community dentistry at Saint Joseph University and the head of a pediatric dental clinic. The researchers found that children who first see procedures modeled on their mothers have an average heart rate of 96 beats per minute versus 102 beats per minute when modeled on fathers or when not modeled at all. Sorry dads.
Once you have completed your first draft, reward yourself by taking a break. Fierce editing demands a clear mind. While the goal in the writing process is to unleash ideas, the goal in the editing process principally is to polish language and secondarily to fill in the occasional gap.
In your first edit, focus on the overarching objective that you defined in the planning phase. As you encounter any text that does not serve your singular goal, ruthlessly delete, no matter how hard it is.
In your second edit, strive to make the language even more clear, riveting, and sensory. Break long sentences into shorter ones. Transform passive tense into active tense. Eliminate jargon and highfalutin words.
In your third edit, put yourself in the mind of your reader. Raise objections when you see flaws in logic or ask for clarification when you are confused. During this revision, you may want to engage the services of a friend or co-worker to play the role of the audience. Over time, you may develop a knack for doing this on your own, but there is never shame in drawing upon another pair of eyes.
Depending on how much time you have and how important the copy you are writing, you can go through the three edits in successive waves.
My final piece of advice is to finish what you start as well as you can and then release your writing into the world. You do the best you can with the time you have. Completion, not perfection, is the goal. Even Twain and Cicero knew that, at some point, they had to let go and just send their letters.
Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to write copy that captures: