2020 was my second Copywriting Conference and I wasn’t sure what to expect from this year’s necessarily virtual event, after experiencing last year’s in the Brutalist splendour of London’s Barbican Centre.
Surely it couldn’t be as engaging through my 13-inch screen as it was in an auditorium of other writers and creatives. Surely it would be just a bit more, well, crap.
But of course it wasn’t. It was a day packed with practicable advice and insight on everything from writing microcopy to fascinations. But it also covered issues of social justice and mental health, and made attendees ask ourselves whether what we’re doing is actually contributing to a better world. Whoah, heavy. But this resonated with me, and judging by the event’s chat panel, with a lot of other people too.
It was a packed schedule and I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow narrative of the whole day. It was attended by hundreds of writers so a bunch of people will probably have done that already.
Everything was useful, but I want to focus on a few personal highlights – the bits that stayed with me after I shut my laptop and on that Friday afternoon and raised my first beer to the weekend (then had to promptly put the beer down to stop my small kids from killing each other/their grandma/a cat).
The power of simplicity
I knew from the title of this talk that I’d like it. When I first started writing as a (largely unpaid) journalist I thought you had to use big words and flowery imagery and prose peppered with metaphor and symbolism.
Then I learned you don’t. And you shouldn’t. This is especially true for copywriting, where the whole point is to clearly and succinctly convey a message. Though all writing benefits from clarity and simplicity – just ask Hemingway (he has his own app so he must’ve known what he was talking about!).
Robyn Collinge, who was the sole copywriter at WeTransfer for a long time and developed their tone of voice, is on board with simplicity. She had some great tips to share too:
1. Write how you speak
Don’t write how you think you should write, write how you speak. For example, don’t write ‘view images’ if you mean ‘see images’.
This goes for blog posts and web copy but also stuff like terms of service and contracts. They don’t have to be incomprehensible, jargon-filled joy saps, and wouldn’t it be better if people understood what they were signing? This is especially important when you’re writing about complex products or services. Robyn recommends you get to the core of what you want to say, and just say that.
2. Know your audience
This means know who you’re writing for – the buyer personas and ideal customer profiles you’re targeting. But it also means knowing when users on your site need you and when they don’t. When a joke would work – such as a funny 404 message – and when it really wouldn’t. Robyn gave the example of someone not being able to download their files on WeTransfer. In this situation their message is ‘Having trouble downloading your files? We know it’s frustrating but hang in there and we’ll get things back up and running as soon as we can.’
3. Be unexpected
Standing out is always important in copywriting and Robyn discussed various ways to do this. Humour and self-deprecation usually go down well, and writers, don’t be afraid to break the rules from time to time, as WeTransfer did with this email header: ‘WeTransfer Pro just go Pro-er’. Is it grammatically wrong? Yes. Does it work? Also yes.
Diversity in storytelling
Natalie Narh is a social content creative at Ogilvy UK and vice chair of Ogilvy Roots, a network dedicated to championing greater cultural and ethnic diversity within Ogilvy UK and the wider creative industry. She has other impressive credentials too which you can check out on her Twitter.
Natalie spoke about the importance of diversity in storytelling, in copywriting, advertising, marketing and the wider world. She also talked about how creatives can help.
Content – What am I saying?
Are you clear about the message you’re conveying? Will your audience understand your intention or could they perceive your work in a different way? (See PureGym’s jaw-droppingly misguided ‘12 Years of Slave’ workout, intended to celebrate Black History Month!)
Obviously there are subtler cases of intention and perception not connecting and Natalie suggests we consider what allusions we might be making and what connections our words could create to avoid creating offensive or inappropriate content.
Natalie and her team look at briefs and discuss opportunities for cultural representation. She says asking yourself ‘Is there a chance for more cultural representation here?’ is a great way to remain open to opportunities to represent a more diverse audience.
Relatability – Is this my story to tell?
Are you writing about an experience that you haven’t lived? Especially when related to race it’s vital for the writer to have direct insight into what they’re talking about, Natalie explains. So if you’re not the right person to write it, then find someone who is.
Research – Are my insights actually informed?
Again this comes down to life experience and whether you’re the right person for the job. You might be a top researcher, but when it comes down to it, would it be more appropriate for someone with direct insights to work on this brief?
Am I making society better by publishing this piece of work? Does it have the potential to really offend or even oppress someone? And is there someone I can ask to sense-check this? Natalie recommends we ask ourselves these questions before clicking publish, to gauge whether what we’re putting out into the world should really be out there.
Honor Clement-Hayes is brand manager at Ticker Insurance and an award-winning marketer. Her talk was about how to produce good copy without being paralysed by the pursuit of perfectionism. According to Honor, you can get great results without punishing yourself. Nice!
Perfectionism is about fear of losing control, Honor tells us. It can manifest as procrastination or obsessing over details. And anything based in fear has a negative impact on our mental health and on our bodies, due to the release of stress hormones such as cortisol.
There are three types of perfectionism, Honor explains:
1. Self-orientated perfectionism – ‘I don’t think I’m good enough’
This means beating yourself up and holding yourself to impossible standards in pursuit of something always out of reach.
2. Other-oriented perfectionism – ‘I don’t think you’re good enough’
This means holding other people to impossible standards. You’ll often see this behavior from bullying bosses.
3. Socially-prescribed perfectionism – ‘They don’t think I’m good enough’
AKA imposter syndrome. Chasing society’s expectations, or those you imagine society having, which Honor says we often imagine to be so much higher than they really are.
Don’t try to be perfect, Honor tells us, just do what you gotta do. Good enough work (in our own minds) is usually more than good enough for our company or client, and good enough work beats a blank page (and a writer jangling with paralysing self doubt).
Honor has some other tips for getting shit done without having a horrible time:
- Work with joy & be resilient
You might find you do better work by creating less from fear and more from joy. And resilience means believing in your work and being willing to push back if bosses or clients want to chop your stuff into pieces, which you know would make it less effective. Have faith that you know what you’re talking about.
- Treat yourself kindly
Key to resilience and good mental health is being kind to yourself. Look out for things that trigger your fear responses, be prepared to make mistakes and know that you can’t get better without the odd failure.
- Treat yourself as a business
Establish processes, such as creating evaluation documents, building just a couple of sets of edits into quotes and having trusted colleagues you can go to for sense-checks and advice.
- Treat yourself
Invest in understanding your mind and how you tick (Honor recommends a number of books including ‘How to Be Human’, a great book (I’m currently reading) on life and mindfulness by Ruby Wax, with a neuroscientist and a Buddhist monk). You should also enjoy your creative practice, Honor says, and make sure you have a hobby. Joy and self-worth need to come from more than one place, so extra-curricular activities are a must.
As I said there was loads more great stuff shared at the conference – for instance the formidable Jane Evans on women remaining visible in advertising as they age (more here), and Eddie Shleyner on writing fascinations. But I’m no stenographer and if you want to know exactly what goes down you’ll have to buy tickets to the next event. Soz.
But I will say that the Copywriting Conference 2020 was genuinely inspiring and motivating. Our work can be a joyful thing, and it can have a positive impact. In her talk Natalie Narh said ‘Society is a reflection of what we put out there’, so we have a responsibility to make it good.