Thu Oct 13th 2011

How to create words that work

Name one outdoor board you passed on your commute this morning.

Tricky, isn’t it?

The average American is bombarded with so many messages a day* that most people tune them out without even realizing it. But, then, if you’re taking the time to read these words, you probably already know that. 

So, how can you make sure your words hit home? 

Don’t just write. 
Yes, it helps to be (or have) a good writer, but these days especially, a good writer isn’t enough. You also have to be a scientist, a psychologist and a devoted student of human behavior. Because making words that work isn’t just about what happens at the keyboard. It’s about what happens in your reader’s head.

In fact, when it comes to creating effective messages, writing should literally be the last thing you do. 

Define your position.
Today, most people’s minds are like supersaturated sponges. There’s just no more room in there. If you want space, you’re probably going to have to take it from someone else, and you can’t do that by chattering aimlessly. 

Take a good look at your competitors through your prospect’s eyes. Now take an honest look at yourself. How can you position your brand in a way that will stick? Maybe you aren’t the first out of the gate, but can you be the first to deliver a specific message? 

In their advertising classic, Positioning: The Battle for your Mind, Al Ries and Jack Trout point out that, “IBM didn’t invent the computer. Sperry-Rand did. But IBM was the first company to build a computer in the mind of the prospect.”

What can you build in your prospect’s mind? Once you’ve defined your position, own it. Guard it carefully. Make it the foundation upon which every single word is built. 

Know your reader.
A solid position is only half the formula. If you want your words to work, you have to also create an emotional connection with your reader. That being said, when you’re knee-deep in terms like “target audience,” “demographics” and “prospect,” it’s easy to lose sight of what you’re really talking to: people. A good writer knows when to take the research/strategy hat off and put the relationship hat on. 

Author Donald Miller recently said the best writing advice he ever received was, “Love your reader.” 

We may not be penning life-changing books, but this advice is just as smart for copywriters. Soak up the research. Spend time mingling with your reader (online or in person). Get to really know your reader. Then, when you finally sit down to write, think about who’s on the other end of the conversation. Suddenly, instead of whipping out a 30-word banner ad, you’ll find yourself writing a message to someone you know and, hopefully, like.

That’s how real communication works. 

Zone in. 
We’ve already talked about the mass of words that swarms your reader on a daily basis. The only way to cut through the clutter is to sharpen your message. Define the main point and let it fly. Sure, you can add in a few other things here and there, but always lead with a single key point.

Also, don’t just focus on what you need to say, but how you need to say it. Think about how you can deliver your message in a way the reader will be open to hearing. At this point, you should know that reader well enough to determine what will resonate and what won’t.

Start writing (finally).
Once you’ve done all of the above, then and only then begin crafting your words. 
Sure, you may wrestle with a headline for days or hit a block from time to time. Every good writer does. But, as you struggle to find the perfect words, at least you’ll have confidence in this:

You’ve done everything possible to make them work, even before you’ve written them.

*Statistics vary. Apparently the roar has become so overwhelming, even the specialists can’t agree on the actual volume. 

photo by Jason Taellious