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 the way I’d rewrite that 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 they like when they turn on the radio.
Second, it establishes a bond between the reader and the writer of the letter based on a common interest. That’s why I said “our” music instead of “your” music.
We copywriters are taught to write like that — in a conversational, intimate “voice.” What that means is to write the way our prospectstalk.
“You should talk as if you’re having coffee with the reader and use her language,” says copywriter Susanna K. Hutcheson. “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.”
Some argue that jargon is appropriate when writing to specialists because that’s the way they talk. But don’t confuse jargon with technical terms. Specialists may use jargon when they write, but not when they talk.
Technical terms are words used by specialists that communicate concepts more concisely than ordinary terms. Example: “operating system” to describe the software that controls the basic operations of a computer.
Jargon, on the other hand, can be more complex than the idea 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. Our chief engineer insisted that we replace “dumped” with “gravimetrically conveyed” in our copy.
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.” This is like calling the seashore 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? Is there any situation where you would deliberately use language more complex than the idea it serves to communicate?
Yes. The one time when you might consider it 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 the product. And 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.” They complain that “free” is inherent in the definition of gift. After all, what gift isn’t free? But as my colleague Herschell Gordon Lewis points out, “free gift” works because “each word reinforces the other.”
I remember hearing about a mailer who actually split-test “free gift” vs. “gift.” Not only did “free gift” win handily, a number of recipients of the “gift” letter responded by asking 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.”
P.S. The ability to write conversational copy is just one of the many skills you need to build your Internet business. Search engine optimization, e-mail list building, joint ventures, social media… you’ll learn it all in the Internet Money Club. It’s the premier Internet business building coaching program. And I’m one of the featured experts.[Ed. Note: Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter and the author of more than 70 books. To subscribe to his free e-zine, The Direct Response Letter, and claim your free gift worth $116, click here now: www.bly.com/reports]