On confidence and copywriting
As a copywriter, you’re rarely starting from scratch. More often than not, you begin with what a predecessor wrote a while back.
Copy is like makeup.
It tells you a hell of a lot about what someone wants to hide, what they’re self-conscious about, what they want to highlight (because they’re proud of it), what they want people to think of them, and what they don’t.
A lot of the copy you see is all about distinctions.
Your local vegan cafe wants you to know that they don’t have artificial colours or preservatives in their food, to draw a line between them and the greasy spoon next door.
The sales page for an online course teaching you the secrets of top earning developers will make that strong distinction between the low earners and people who’ve taken the course.
The guy selling a 10 ft long boa constrictor for £20 on craigslist puts ‘VERY FRIENDLY’ in all caps so you don’t make the silly mistake of thinking it’s cheap because it’s dangerous. That’s an actual ad I saw by the way.
When you write copy, you take a product and you detract from any bad points or shortcomings. But that alone is bland and unmemorable. You need more than distinctions.
The lines drawn within copy tell you more about the person who wrote it — usually someone close to the product — than they do about the product itself.
We make distinctions, as Adam Phillips puts it in Going Sane (a book which has already prompted at least three posts) when we fear the links.
- No one builds a wall unless they’re scared of what’s on the other side.
- No one puts up defences unless they know who or what their enemies are.
- No one is in denial unless they know what they’re denying.
We’re all very good at putting things in labelled boxes and at knowing which we don’t want to be in.
Alfred Hitchcock famously based his films on the principle of ‘show, don’t tell’ (mise en scene.) Good copy is so often centred on the same idea.
There’s sometimes an expectation that you need to spell everything out.
You end up with lots of ER words — cheaper, faster, safer, better, easier, simpler, quicker, cleaner, healthier, smarter, cooler, bigger, smaller, lighter, newer.
The problem is, contrasts are all about comparisons. Those terms exist in relation to a competitor.
To the average customer (or prospective customer) reading the copy, it just tells them that the company has done their competitor research and decided to present a mildly improved version of whatever everyone else is doing.
Which is great. Except it doesn’t empathise with the customer. It doesn’t speak their language or make it clear why this improvement should matter to them.
My brother and I recently had an interesting conversation about invisible scripts in dating. The way he sees it, the first time you meet someone is for establishing how they feel about themselves.
Their self-esteem basically — how much they value themselves.
I find that problematic though, because the image we have of ourselves is rarely (if ever) anything but the crudest approximation of who we actually are.
We all know people with an overinflated sense of their own importance, intelligence, attractiveness and appeal. And we all know people who vastly underestimate their scores in those areas.
Personally, I find it more interesting in any situation to pay attention to how people don’t want to be seen, to the distinctions they draw.
It says a whole lot. Confidence can be little more than a mask for insecurity.
So you’ll notice that some people rush to let everyone know that they have a PhD, or they’ve been in a particular industry for a long time, or they’re not one of those stereotypical engineers, or they’re a cool mom, or whatever.
We always sense someone is a bit off when they rush to put everything into words rather than letting actions convey it. When looking competent matters more than actually being competent, everything reeks of artificiality and pretension.
It’s the distinction between bragging and just being. Seeming to do and doing. Telling and showing.