The Elevator Test: Context. Meaning. Structure.

[February 19, 2011] 

What’s a copywriter’s job?

Take a casual poll of your office mates and “to write,” is the likely statistical winner. Or if you’re blessed with a colleague whose wonkometer is in overdrive: “To motivate consumers to take the desired action, with strong, research-tested language.”

That’s strong, as in “Act Now” or “Our office products are the fastest around. Bar None!”

Only slightly less deluded are those who believe a copywriter’s job is mostly wordplay. At times, the lust for a snappy, innuendo-laden one-liner leads to incurable creative paralysis. At least on the part of those with the final say.

The cure for paralysis? As I’ll explain later, I heartily recommend a leisurely ride in an elevator.

Meanwhile, let’s contemplate the depth of this delusion. Because even if you agree that the goal of copywriting is to produce “great lines,” you’re still bound by a simple truth: There are no great lines without a great thought process. That pithy summation of your brand value can only arise from a true coherent strategy—a train of thought encompassing the value you deliver to your audience. Headlines with ‘tude are only a means to an end. Great copy arises from great structures.

Writer? Master builder.
On the large and small scale, a copywriter’s job is to create such structures: smooth-running channels that allow a branded message to flow effortlessly into a consumer’s consciousness. Sure, you can doll up your channel with glamor, sex, data, savings or exclusive rewards. You can pimp it out for dramatic effect, for a thoughtful appeal, a tug at the heart, or a tickle of irony.

But it’s a structure, nevertheless. Nine times out of ten, if someone’s “not crazy about” the copy, it’s not because of grammar or style. Either the train of thought is missing or, excuse me, derailed. Trouble is, writing without a coherent strategy is more akin to laying down carpet than rousing bored consumers to action.

It’s also the very mistake that wrecked the direct marketing industry as, year-by-year, the original impetus to move an audience with a compelling story degenerated into a ritualized fan dance above a flaming call to action.

“Isn’t there a better way?” asked the tried-and-true problem summation from two generations ago.

Today, the answer’s still affirmative, though not quite as succinct as it was in the veg-o-matic era. In this case, the better way is an interrelated series of process steps that grow from a single premise: Structure first. If your agency’s creative process begins with setting the due date for “delivering the comps,” this may take some getting used to. But the rewards will show themselves immediately, in a drastic reduction in nitpicking and a downturn in the scornful rejection of an honest day’s work.

Start with a blueprint.
What everyone involved in preparing a creative brief needs to understand is that words, on their own, say absolutely nothing. If you need proof, take the elevator test. Ride the elevators of a large American office tower, preferably one housing several unrelated businesses.

In the course of a day, you’ll hear countless sentences in fluent, contemporary English—and have no idea what your fellow travelers are talking about. With no knowledge of the conversation’s backstory, you’ll catch only a few strands of comprehension:

“…and that was Jim’s whole thing, that we have to be more,
[facial expression] with the legal department…”

“Yeah, except Sally’s really the one who has to say, ‘Hey’…you know?”

“So true.”

Context, anyone? Meaning? Yet we frequently send writers off to their iPads without the basic materials they need to build a communication channel: an appreciation of the larger context the brand inhabits and the meaning the brand holds for consumers. That makes as much sense as asking them to pave a sidewalk with lime Jell-O. No surprise the squishy mess fails to support the global brand strategy, despite desperate hours poring over reams of pointless revisions.

Why are such revisions pointless? Without a solid strategic foundation, it doesn’t matter how many paragraphs you convert to bullets, how many lines of “approved copy” you insert, or how often you misquote Mies van der Rohe. Your copy will still read like a conversation overheard in an elevator going nowhere.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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