Copwriting: Observing

[March 19, 2010] 

One of the most amazing things about being a copywriter is the absolute blizzard of free and unsolicited advice available, online, offline, by e-mail, over the phone, one-on-one or at a full conference table. It’s one topic everybody has an opinion about.

You might even think it was important.

For the most part, that advice revolves around the statement and perpetuation of rules of thumb, tricks of the trade, and usually involves at least one reference to standing a pyramid on its head. The latter is derived from the sort of writing seminar exercises given out at continuing education centers. Nothing wrong with that, except to the extent that its evocation of geometry is the very emblem of formulaic thinking.

And that’s the problem. As useful as this kind of training might be to help beginning writers find their voices, as principles of professional copywriting they are absolutely useless. Formulas don’t communicate and, in fact, don’t even function that well as conduits for communication.

Psst. They’re on to you.
That’s doubly true today, when the advertising formulas celebrated by Mad Men are the subject of parody and fodder for pop-culture sampling. As far back as I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners people were already wary of the snake-oil cadences of American marketing speak. Today, as always, connecting to consumers means crafting a specific message for a specific context and then finding an idiomatic way to get it across. Idiomatic, that is, in the subculture of your audience, an audience made up of real people.

Write according to a sure-fire formula and you might as well pitch your wares to mannequins—not that this hasn’t been tried. Sure, Americans share cultural values, up to a point. But travel around just a bit and you’ll soon get an inkling of the simmering stew of attitudinal nuance bubbling just beneath the surface. No formula fits that, whether it’s a headline tip, a sentence tip or tips to make your copy more punchy.

An ear for compelling rhythms…
All of this is a complete waste of time. The craft side of copywriting comes from daily, hourly practice, coupled with a lifetime of voracious reading. You don’t learn copywriting in school and you certainly don’t learn it by downloading software promising “explosive headlines.”

The technical side of copywriting is something people with talent learn on their own. Talent is, in large measure, the ability to acquire technique and then adapt it to one’s own purposes. But copywriting talent is also something much more.

It’s a talent for observation, for empathy, combined with the ability to capture and reproduce the rhythms of everyday life. It’s the ability to compel, to motivate, to move people to tears or make them laugh—not because you’re clever, but because you’re true.

…and an eye for telling details.
So if I were to offer one little tip to copywriters I’d boil it down to this: Observe. Forget about market research, conversation studies, audience segments, Google analytics, household incomes, education levels—and just listen. What are people saying with their eyes? What can you hear them seeing in their speech? Who do they listen to and what do they listen for? What do they love, hate, cherish, lust after, yearn for and pray to?

This you can learn on your own: Down at the bus station, on line at the bank, in the frozen food aisle at the convenience store. Observe. It’s the only school of copywriting that can teach you anything about connecting with your audience. Because there is, after all, nothing punchier than the truth.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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