This article was written by one of my junior copywriters, Joe Valente, as an introduction to one of my articles — which I will be publishing on this blog later this week. But Joe’s article is so good, I decided to reprint it here. Take it away, Joe!
There’s an old saying: “Depending on the circumstances, any tool that comes to hand becomes a hammer.”
Now, let’s start with a basic premise: When you write copy, you build knowledge, trust, and sales, and language is your hammer. Some might take that a step further and say that the point of your writing is to “nail” your prospects, but I don’t think I want to go down that road today.
Instead, I want to talk a bit about your main tool of the trade, your proverbial hammer…
As some of you know, I come from a corporate background, largely technical documentation and B2B marketing copy. In that world, writing is a very formal affair.
In my years as a corporate denizen, I’ve worked with several very talented people, professional writers who understood that they had to write differently for technical white papers than for tutorials, and that the way they spoke was vastly different from the way they wrote under almost all circumstances.
That’s why it always amazes me when I get phone calls like this…
I got a call the other day from someone I used to work with. Seems someone I know knows someone she knows, and as a result of that small-world phenomenon, she discovered what I was doing these days.
So, in response to either morbid curiosity or pure boredom, she came to read some of the copy I’ve written over the last little while.
And then my old colleague, a militant, self-styled keeper of the sacred trust of the English language, called me up out of the blue to — well, the phrase that comes to mind immediately is “rip me a new one.”
“How can you write like that? You’ve butchered and bastardized the language at every turn! You’ve dangled participles! You’ve used contractions! You’ve sliced and diced sentences! And the Harvard commas — WHERE ARE THE HARVARD COMMAS?!?!”
Now, don’t get me wrong, this is a very educated lady — she has an MA in English — and she generally knows what she’s talking about. But that didn’t stop me, because such things seldom do. I had been challenged, a gauntlet thrown down, my credibility called into question, and my reputation sullied.
My testosterone demanded — and formulated — a swift response. And for once, much to my surprise, it actually had the right answer:
“Maybe. And that copy sold 240-odd products at $60 a piece in less than 24 hours. How much did your last writing assignment sell?”
“It’s not the same thing!”
In fact, my point exactly.
You all know that there are dozens of ways to speak English — “dialects,” if you will — and each one serves a pretty specific purpose. This is what I like to call Venue Appropriate Language, “VAL” for short.
Val is your very best friend, not to mention one of the most important tools of our trade.
And if you don’t do it with Val, you’re just not doing it right.
Think about it.
When you write letters to people you don’t know, you are a lot stiffer, a lot more formal than when you write to friends. When you promote yourself for marketing jobs, you’re a lot more playful than when you promote yourself as a technical editor. And sales letters selling financial products are more language-conscious than letters written to sell information products.
Why? Because whether you’re trying to win the hearts or minds of your audience, you need the right language to drive your message home. Because what you say is about informing and persuading, but how you say it is about painting a picture that the client’s buying motivator can recognize.
We sometimes use formal language to paint a picture of button- down logic. Sometimes we use warmer, less direct language to help the heart feel joy or need. And sometimes we write in a familiar, friendly way to help the reader feel comfort or hope.
Michel Fortin’s latest article deals with the concept of using effective (as opposed to correct) language, and represents another little refresher that ties into last month’s back-to-basics theme. Reacquaint yourself with Val, who is your supreme ruler.
If you don’t make it with Val, you just might not make it at all.
So I guess the two things I’d like you to take away from this are these:
- Be very conscious of who you’re writing to — the heart or the mind, the family or the individual, and so on — and make sure you use the right dialect, and …
- Before you follow in the steps of some of my old colleagues and jump all over the way someone has written, put yourself in their prospect’s shoes and ask yourself: What do I feel when I read this? And what do I see?
Remember that it’s more important to have the right language in your copy than it is to have the correct English. Because, while anything that comes to hand can be a hammer, there still is nothing like the right tool for the job.
Tool belts, everyone.