Him se yldesta andswarode,
werodes wisa, wordhord onleac:
That noblest man
then gave him an answer,
the leader of the band
unlocked his word-hoard:
Keep it simple, stupid. This oft-quoted mantra of the web copywriting industry contains its share of wisdom, but it has also proved the K.I.S.S. of death to much creativity in the marketing world. Newspapers, magazines, TV commercials, TV news, billboards and the words on the web should be dumbed down by you, stupid, for the reading public, stupid. But when all of us stupids have been reduced to using only the tiniest words in the merest of sentences, who stands out?
We have a treasure trove into which we can delve with the English language, but let me give you an example from Dick-and-Jane’s handbook that I’ve been seeing on a billboard almost every day for the past month:
“When it comes to your banking needs, where you bank matters.”
Say what? This is the slogan being advertised at considerable expense on a major highway by a national banking firm? Was the copywriter out of the office that day? Am I missing some angle, some slant, some play-on-words or some hidden gem of wisdom in this statement, or is it actually making this obvious and unexciting point in giant letters without intriguing insight or cleverness of any kind? The copywriter must have called in sick the day this bank chose the largest font slogan on their website’s masthead, too, which shows the head of a smiling woman and the vague statement,
“Because you have better things to do…”
Better things to do than what? Bank? Smile? Visit this website? Spend money? What? I don’t get it, and slogans like the two I’ve cited leave me with a sinking sensation that I’ve missed something. When the little girls in the 70’s Shake ‘n Bake commercials piped up,
“It’s Shake ‘n Bake, and weeee helped,”
there was a certain artless simplicity in the quip, conjuring up happy thoughts of little ones proudly helping Mama to fix supper. But those were small children coating meat with packaged breadcrumbs, unhindered by public expectations of a sterling vocabulary or a cunning wit. My examples are from a high-powered international bank, and surely, they’ve got the funding to find someone who can put just a few more minutes into crafting the copy which presents their business to the world. Not everyone in the office is tied up making sure that every in-coming phone call is put on hold for at least 15 minutes before being answered so that each customer has an equal opportunity to fully appreciate the muzak.
Poke, poke, poke. Yes, I’m poking a little fun, but I mean business when it comes to how words hit me and how they hit you, the reader, the customer, that prize of the western world: the consumer. I’ve thought it over and have decided I’m tired of the advice that everyone should always speak down to the lowest common denominator and should never use strange, unfamiliar or daring words.
Tell that to The Bible, which contains the word Mahershalalhashbaz in it, and yet has sold in the billions.
Tell it to J.R.R. Tolkien, whose Lord of The Rings is one of the best selling books of all time, and not only contains words like ‘thrawn’ and ‘fey’, but was actually written as an etymological showcase of the professor’s invented languages. Not a lot of people know this, but it hasn’t prevented the book from selling like elvish hot cakes (lembas, to you).
Let’s not forget Shakespeare, while we’re at it, and certainly we can’t leave out Google, Flickr, Digg, YouTube, Hulu, etc., whose weird and clever names were certainly not fit to conjure with in daily life until they sent them ’round the world.
I agree that it pays to be clear, it pays to be simple when you’ve got something to say or sell, but if you are using language in such a way that you sound like everybody else, then you’re losing the chance to grab attention, make people think twice about something and, just possibly, make them remember you.
If you’re looking for copywriting advice on the web, you will find near-universal sentiment on this subject of writing as simply as possible for fear that some unsuspecting reader may injure himself when stumbling across a sharp and fancy word. I’m not going to give you this same advice. In the style of the author of the epic poem Beowulf, I am going to suggest that when you write copy, you unlock your word-hoard.
Why do I believe this works? Because for next to a decade, I’ve received one voluntary comment after another on my own web copywriting from people who’ve gone out of their way to remark that it’s notably well-written, different and memorable. They tell me they plan to come back for more, and on the various hobby blogs I write, I get repeat requests to consider writing a book on one subject or another.
By nature, I’m a rather shy person, and I blush a tinge over what I’ve written in the preceding paragraph. At first, I thought people were just being nice to me when leaving comments of this nature, but when this type of praise kept coming in from people I don’t know, I began to understand that my approach to writing strikes people as sufficiently out-of-the-ordinary that they feel impelled to tell me so. And, in realizing that I don’t follow the ‘rules’ of the craft, whittling our Giant Sequoia idiom down to toothpick snippets, I’ve had to decide that such advice is not necessarily sage.
What Works For Me Could Work For You
If you are writing the online or offline copy for your business and want to enhance your abilities, these are the four most powerful tips I can give you:
Develop Habits Of Literacy
I’m convinced that good writing comes from good reading. People dream of becoming authors because, somewhere along the line, they fell in love with compelling words they read in someone else’s book. My advice to you is to go to a library or a used book store and select only those books which were published prior to 1940. It isn’t that people haven’t written exceptional books since then, but I think you will find that far richer language in literature emanated from a culture of aiming high rather than dumbing down. If your diet of prose is confined to the slim pickings of the modern novel, your brain is unlikely being fed words and phrases that delight, inspire or stand out as memorable.
Begin Studying A Foreign Language
Every native speaker is handicapped in that their original acquisition of language happened through absorption rather than analysis. It is only when we begin to study a foreign language that we start to comprehend the building blocks of our own. Once you begin asking yourself why you choose the words you choose, why you structure sentences in a certain way, you are on the road to discovering the beauty of your own language. I would recommend that native English speakers pick one of the Romance or Germanic languages as these will have enough similarity to modern English to make what you learn most profitable. Through study, you will gain an objectivity about your own tongue that will set you apart from the average speaker who talks and writes without analytical thought.
Take Time To Choose The Best Words
Once you have developed habits of literacy and of regarding language objectively, you will be like a master painter choosing from a rainbow of pigments. In setting the tone, style and goals of your writing, you will be able to pick and choose from elegant turns of phrase, humorous slang, and a host of wonderful words with different shades of meaning. You will write a sentence and the stop at the period, look back over it, consider if you’ve chosen the best words or if there is some alternate wording that would be truer to your intent. You will polish and perfect until you’ve made a statement that deserves to be read and considered by the reader.
Make It Sing
I think one of the most useful writing exercises involves attempting to pen a dialogue between two people. One of my biggest beefs with fiction is that few authors have the gift of writing believable dialogue. This has always bothered me, and in my own first attempts at writing fiction as a kid, I recall that I had my characters swear a lot in an effort to make them sound like real people! While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the cussing method of realism, I do suggest that you think of a topic and write out a conversation about it and then read it aloud with someone. Do the lines sound real when spoken? Do they come across as stilted, with a no-one-would-ever-say-that ring to them? Try again. Listen really hard to the way people actually speak and, of equal importance, listen to the way you speak in your own head.
Practicing this goes hand in hand with writing on the web, because whether I am selling an idea or a product, I am talking to you. And if what I ‘say’ gets your attention because it isn’t what you’ve already heard a million times everywhere else, I may have won your loyalty for life.
I think your ultimate goal is to develop a style of writing that flows like natural speech, but that is tinted with enough unique interest that the reader experiences a feeling of genuine pleasure in the act of perusal.
Don’t Get Me Wrong
I once had a client request that I write a piece of copy with ‘big words in it that no one could understand’. His thought was that this would make his business look ‘smart’. Please don’t think this is what I’m suggesting. In writing for the web, it is vital that your readership can understand you, but I think our creative minds can aim higher than what has become all-too-common in publishing.
Let me jot down a very short list of words that are definitely part of our language, but are growing rusty with disuse:
You probably know all of these words, but when was the last time you saw or used them? They have an innate freshness that makes them a pleasure to read. Throw one of them into your next slogan and I guarantee, it will stand out. With all of the sweat and drive that goes into grabbing this brass ring of standing out from the crowd, getting to the root of the matter – the words one uses – seems to me a very good place to begin.