We copywriters are taught to write conversational copy. Many marketers erroneously think “conversational copy” means “write like you talk”. But what it really means is “write the way your prospects talk”.
A public radio station in my area, featuring eclectic rock and pop, sent me a fundraising letter. It began: “Dear Neighbor: I know you are a savvy media consumer.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but if you ask me why I listen to the radio, I would not say because I am a savvy media consumer; I’d say, “I like music.”
Here’s my rewrite for the fundraising letter lead: “Dear Fellow Music Lover: Do you ever wish, when you turn on the radio, that they’d play OUR music?”
While my rewrite hasn’t been tested against the original, I believe it’s an improvement, for two reasons.
First, it talks about something the reader cares about: hearing music I like when I turn on the radio.
Second, it establishes an empathy-based bond through a common interest between the reader and the writer: that we share similar musical tastes—which is why I said “our” music instead of “your” music.
“In most cases, you should write in a conversational, intimate voice,” says copywriter Susanna K. Hutcheson. “You should talk as if you’re having coffee with the reader and use her language. Many copywriters, and just about all people who write their own copy, don’t understand the concept of writing in the language of the reader. It’s truly an art.”
Is there any situation where you should use language other than conversational copy? What about writing to sophisticated audiences? Don’t specialists prefer jargon when discussing their industry or trade?
Some argue that jargon is appropriate because it’s language used by specialists in your target audience. But I think they confuse jargon with technical terms.
Technical terms are words or phrases that communicate a concept or idea more precisely and concisely than ordinary terms. Example: “operating system” to describe the software that controls the basic operations of a computer.
Jargon, on the other hand, is language more complex than the ideas it serves to communicate.
Example: I worked for a company that made industrial equipment. In one of our products, a door opened at the bottom of a silo, allowing powder to fall into a dump truck underneath. Our chief engineer insisted that in our copy we replace “dumped” with “gravimetrically conveyed”.
For a client, I wrote that the dental brace they manufactured helped keep loose teeth in place. The product manager rewrote “keep loose teeth in place” to “stabilize mobile dentition”. To me, this is like calling the sea shore an “ocean-land interface”.
Mark Twain said “I never write metropolis when I get paid the same amount of money to write the word city.” But is there an exception to the rule of writing the way people talk? A situation where you would deliberately use language more complex than the idea it serves to communicate?
Yes. The one case in which you might consider replacing ordinary language with more sophisticated phraseology is when you want to set your product above the ordinary.
Take a look at a Mont Blanc catalog. They don’t describe their products as pens; they sell “writing instruments”. Why? Because Mont Blanc pens start at about $100…and, while that’s too much to pay for a pen, it’s not too much to pay for a “writing instrument”.
The goal of direct response copywriting is not to produce perfect prose or great writing. It is to persuade the consumer to buy your product. And the bottom line is: the copywriter should do whatever it takes to achieve that goal, whether or not writing purists approve.
For instance, grammarians dislike the phrase “free gift”, complaining that “free” is inherent in the definition of gift: what gift isn’t free? But in a recent lecture, my colleague Herschell Gordon Lewis defended “free gift” because it works, explaining that “each word reinforces the other”.
I remember years ago hearing about a mailer who actually split test “free gift” vs. “gift”. Not only did “free gift” win handily, but a number of recipients of the “gift” letter responded by inquiring whether the gift was indeed free.
Which reminds me of what Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “It is not enough to write so you can be understood; you must write so clearly that you cannot be misunderstood.”
Bob Bly is the author of “World’s Best Copywriting Secrets” and has written copy for more than 100 companies including IBM, Boardroom, Medical Economics and AT&T. He is the author of more than 75 books and a columnist for Target Marketing, Early To Rise and The Writer. McGraw-Hill calls him “America’s top copywriter”.