Writing that tells the truth

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June 16, 2011 by Stephanie Janard

The more books I read, the more news stories I skim, and the more commercial copy I study, the more impatient I grow with patently unrealistic writing.

In the realm of books, I’m speaking about authors who can’t take a heavy subject and inject some unexpectedly funny irony in it, or who can’t do the opposite – tell some painfully jarring truths about subjects that are conventionally thought of as lighthearted and fun. Believe me, the mark of a good author is one who makes a point of doing either. That’s real talent. And it’s real rare.

Take a look at Barbara Ehrenreich’s work. Her book “Nickle and Dimed” will leave you angry, depressed – and frequently bursting into laughter as you read about her undercover travails as a low-wage worker. At the other end of the spectrum, if you pick up Bill Bryson’s “The Lost Continent” hoping for a light travel read, yes, you’ll find yourself chuckling and infused with warm memories of traveling as a child with your family – and you’ll also experience moments of quiet despair as he ruthlessly dispatches with many of the myths of “small town America.”

The news media – and all of us who are desperate for actually useful news – could certainly benefit from such unique perspectives and articulation in its own reporting. But “unique” is becoming a rare quality in a media model that I suspect is based on a lot of piggybacking and outright lifting. It’ s not even just the topics that seem like carbon copies of each other. It’s how they all seem to be reported using almost the exact same words and characterizations.

So where am I going with this in terms of commercial copywriting? That all the copy is starting to sound the same? That it’s not funny or depressingly realistic enough?

No – I just don’t find a lot of copy very truthful. It often doesn’t speak how prospects really think, or speak to what prospects are really thinking about. For example, is there anyone who honestly believes prospects rave out loud: “Wow! This software looks like it could maximize efficiencies and enable streamlined leaner operations!” Come on. If they do like the software, what they’re really thinking is something along the lines of, “This could be pricey, but it will also finally put an end to the huge pain in the a– I’ve been dealing with.”

I’m not saying that copy should use such earthy language when describing a benefit or feature; what I’m suggesting is it should use language that speaks to the reader’s actual reality to convince the reader why they should waste no time in buying your solution. Because no one lays awake at night stressing over their unmaximized efficiencies!

Well, maybe a handful do.  These are probably the same poor wretches who identify themselves on their business cards as the company’s  “evangelist” – and contrary to what might be hoped for when adopting this title, it does not suggest a passionate person with vision. It brings to mind an annoying person who will not get out of your face. (And please, don’t swap it out for “maven.” This harkens the equally unfortunate image of a shrilly cawing raven.)

I wish I could say I’ve done a bang up job in talking every client I’ve ever had out of publishing copy like this, but I’ve seen even straightforward lines like “ends the impractical and irritating task of a, b, c…” crossed out and swapped with muddled statements such as “helps you re-distribute corporate resources on more prioritized objectives.” While such language technically broadens a benefit description, it sheds little light on how the solution or company will completely transform the prospect’s daily reality for the better. And of course, it just doesn’t come across as real. Which means it doesn’t come across as credible. 

Your content literally speaks for your company. If you want it to cut through all the marketing clutter out there, then for heavens’ sake, don’t add to that clutter with the same safe and boring messages the competition is putting out. It won’t ring true – assuming anyone will even hear it over the identically clanging bells from everyone else.

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