The Ethics of Good Copywriting

I’m fascinated by the power of the written word. I can spend hours immersed in a thesaurus, picking the precise word to express a thought. I analyze speeches, blogs, and news articles to understand how the choice of words and images can sway readers. Same thing with websites, billboards, flyers, advertisements, and social media posts. And that’s led me to a meditation on the ethics of good copywriting.

Good copywriters tell stories that make their clients happy. Websites get more attention, social media accounts get more followers, blog posts are read and quoted more often. Products and services are purchased, candidates win political offices. Clients are delighted; copywriters get more work.

The Dilemma

What do you do when a client sells something or promotes a point of view that you find dangerous or offensive? Should you write great copy for a bad purpose? Maybe to sell a product you know is defective, or a service from someone you suspect is not ethical? Sounds pretty straightforward: don’t take the job. Or do, and you hold your nose while you sign the contract.

Here’s another example: should you write great copy for someone you don’t agree with? They’re not evil, they’re not out to do harm; they simply have a different viewpoint from yours. Maybe a diametrically opposing viewpoint. Maybe they’re for lower taxes and your cause is funding social services for the needy. Or they want to preserve a natural habitat but you’d like to see more jobs in the area. What do the ethics of good copywriting tell you?

Ah, that’s the problem, isn’t it?

Even More Challenges

With the panic over fake news and the social media echo chamber, copywriters can feel driven to shout over the crowd to be heard. We use more emotional words; the tone becomes more hysterical. We play up social divisiveness to drive clicks and views. Us vs. them is an easy way to get attention. Us is the righteous few; them is the great unwashed enemy. Boo hiss on they, them, the others. The not us.

Charts on a laptopAnalytics count each mouse click and record it for posterity. Clients use those numbers to gauge success. Which words drive the stronger response, get more of whatever it is we’re measuring? Let’s push harder to get more of that. It’s like heroin. Our clients are addicted. We’re addicted.

If things don’t work out quite right, if the results are unpleasant or unexpected, the reaction is to say, “I just write the stuff. I can’t control how people react to it.

In a word, bullshit.

What Can Copywriters Do?

Take ownership of and responsibility for your content. Don’t act like a tech bro: you are obliged to consider how people will use your work. You are being paid to stir emotions and drive specific reactions. You need to think the implications through.

Recognize that someone with a different viewpoint isn’t the enemy. Lots of us disagree with each other. Some people like chocolate, some like vanilla. Vive la difference. Broaden your mind a bit by working for the other side. You may even learn something.

Talk to your client and insist on honesty. So much content relies heavily on emotion-laden words and dog whistles. Don’t take that easy road; challenge yourself to make the point in other, better ways.

If you can’t, maybe you need to find a new client.

How to Script a Memorable Video

There’s a good reason why videos are increasingly popular. They’re easy to consume and, more important for those of us with a message, they are easy to make. You can do a lot armed with just a smartphone. You don’t need an expensive crew, equipment, and studio to produce a decent-quality video.

record a video

In a memorable video, the speaker communicates their message clearly and succinctly. We are gripped by the speaker’s call to action. We viewers leap to our feet, ready to obey. Inspired, we share the speaker’s message with others.

Ah, if it were only that easy…

We’ve all sat through DIY videos listening to speakers “uh” and “erm” their way along. The speaker seems lost and befuddled, wanders off into side-topics, gets distracted by the cat (or dog) that comes into the room, and completely forgets their point.

Don’t be that person. Instead, follow these tips to script a memorable video.

Step 1: Grab Attention With a Powerful Title and Opening Sentence

You’ve only got a few seconds to lock in audience attention. Don’t waste this time. Hook your audience from the start. If you can’t communicate your message right away, nobody will bother watching the rest of your video.

Start with a powerful title that piques curiosity, then lure viewers in with an equally powerful opening sentence. Script the opening sentence to support your headline, then polish, polish, polish.

Tips

There are lots of free tools available to help.

  • Check out this article from HubSpot. Yes, it’s about email subject lines. But you can use this approach to craft great video titles.
  • Use the free headline analyzer at CoSchedule.com to craft a memorable video title. (CoSchedule’s headline analyzer will also score it for search engine optimization (SEO) characteristics.) Aim for a score of at least 70. 

Step 2: Close Out On a High Note

It’s counterintuitive I know, but next, write your closing. Script a sentence or two that recaps and reinforces your message and includes a call to action. Polish until it shines. This is what people will likely remember, so it’s worth the effort.

Hitting the high note

Tips

  • A call to action is the step you want your viewer to take. It may be to enroll in a class, donate to a charitable cause, or hire you. Whatever it is, make sure you clearly state that next step.
  • Don’t forget to include your or your organization’s name and contact information (website, email, and/or phone number).

Step 3: Fill in With One to Three Talking Points

Now develop the body of your script. Here’s where you tell your story.

Most videos are short (30-90 seconds) — just enough time to make a couple of points. You need to decide whether you want to dive into one point or skim lightly over two to three points. The more you have to say about any one topic, the fewer topics you should have.

Jot down a few five or six words for each bullet point. As you write, hone your message so that it is tightly focused. If there’s a specific example you want to use, note it. Write down specific words or phrases you need to remember. 

Tips

  • Worried about forgetting something? Keep your notes on your smartphone or on a pad nearby and refer to them if you need to when you’re recording.
  • I get asked a lot whether someone should share personal information. It depends on your audience, so you need to know who you’re talking to. For example, bankers, accountants, and lawyers may be more comfortable with bare facts. Parents might want to know a bit about you as a person before they trust you.
  • A little humor can work, but it can be tricky to pull off. If you’re not a natural with humor, don’t force it. And if you are, avoid snark and irony; even with body language, it may not work. (Your audience may be listening but not watching the video.)

Step 4: Practice, But Don’t Practice Too Much

Practice enough so you’re comfortable, but not so much that you sound rote. Be able to deliver your opening and closing as scripted, but allow yourself to explore your topic in different ways with each run through. You may discover something you forgot when scripting your talking points or find a better way to say it.

musician practicing

An old Toastmasters trick: memorize your opening and closing sentences. Know the major points you want to make, and let your words flow naturally as you move from open to close. 

Tip

It’s perfectly OK to get excited, even passionate about your subject. Just don’t overdo it and don’t fake it. Too much practice will kill the passion; don’t let that happen.

Do I Need a Videographer For a Memorable Video?

It depends. Some of the most effective videos I’ve seen were shot on a smartphone with no set, script, or video team. They succeed because the speaker is passionate about their topic and they want to share that excitement with you. Their energy shines through and pulls you in.

But there’s a good argument for paying a professional videographer. It takes a lot of pressure off you, especially if you’re not technically inclined. A professional videographer will add polish to the final product, in ways you probably can’t. I’m all for paying a pro to do something I can’t do as well. In the long run, a professional videographer can save you time, money, and a lot of frustration. They can be well worth the investment.

More Examples

If you want to see a wide range of videos, from polished to home-made on no budget, check out Indiegogo. It’s a fundraising site for everything from start-ups to non-profits, and most projects include a video. Some are great, some are awful. Worth the look.

And stay tuned to my website. I’ve been exploring videos lately and hope to be adding some soon.

Oh, and don’t forget to lock the door to the room to keep pets out while you’re recording your memorable video.

How to Write a Killer Bio

At some point in your professional life, you’ve probably been asked to write a bio. When you protest, you’re told “It’s simple. Just a few facts. Really, we don’t need much.” Ack.
It’s not all that simple. How do you know what facts to include and what to leave out? What will your audience find interesting? And what the heck do you do if hate to talk about yourself? Ack!
Here’s an outline to get you started, some tips to help you along, and a great resource with examples and templates.

Write Your Own Bio

  1. write a bioFind out what the bio will be used for and understand readers’ expectations. There are probably length limitations; it’s best to know before you start to write. No point in writing 500 words when 50 will do, or in embarrassing yourself by handing over something much shorter than expected.
  2. Who are you writing for? Your bio needs to be written so that it that meets your audience’s expectations. Bankers, accountant, and lawyers? Keep it formal and fact-based. Moms and dads? Less formal is fine—they want to feel they know you, so including a personal detail or two is good.
  3. Where will they read it? Is this for social media, a presentation you’re giving, or for a website? Length will also be an issue here. You want crisp and tight, especially for Twitter. Longer and more wordy is OK for a handout or a website when there are fewer restrictions on space. But don’t ramble on! You still want to keep it crisp.
  4. Line up your facts. What is it your audience will most likely want to know about you? How much of your professional life/career will they want to know? Would they care what your hobbies are? Use 10 years as a guideline, but know your audience. Academics will want to know your complete CV (space allowing). Parents and colleagues will care more about your more recent experience. Include your degrees; include certifications and awards if they’re relevant or demonstrate something important about you. Add hobbies if you’re comfortable sharing personal details. Some folks aren’t—and some audiences don’t care.
  5. A bio isn’t a resume. Summarize your facts in paragraphs, using complete sentences and correct punctuation. Start with your present situation and write in reverse chronological order. Next most recent situation or job, the one before that, then the one before that. You get the picture.
  6. Let a bit of your personality shine through. This is you you’re talking about after all. Balance your audience expectations with who you are. A stand-up comedian or improv artist would likely show their sense of humor. A doctor might prefer to show her human side, or perhaps mention a research project she’s particularly proud of. If you have a hobby you’re proud of, mention it. For example, I love to cook and knit. It’s something that I’m willing to share with my audience and it helps them get to know me better.
  7. Review review review. Send your draft to others and ask for their input. Review first for factual accuracy. Then review for flow—does the bio make sense? Next tackle grammar and punctuation. (Don’t rely on spell/grammar checkers!!!) Finally, give it a good copy edit. Have others do this for you if you can—another pair of eyes (or two) will catch things you’ll miss.
  8. Submit and ask for feedback. Some folks won’t care; others will want to rewrite your entire bio. Be sure you control the final product.

Tips

  • Explain it to Grandmaif you get stuck, use the grandmother trick. How would you explain what you’ve done to your grandmother?
  • Watch out for humor, especially if you tend toward the ironic or snarky. What’s funny or edgy delivered in person might seem cold and callous on paper.
  • Read your bio out loud and see how it sounds. More and more people are relying on the spoken word from their devices. Make sure your bio flows when you read it out loud.
  • When copyediting, read your bio backward. Errors will pop out more clearly.
  • Don’t let great be the enemy of good. There is such a thing as too much review where you’ll reach the point of diminishing returns. Time to let your baby go.
  • If you are asked frequently for your bio and you feel like you’ve got to rewrite it every time, stop. Do you really need a custom bio for each event? If you do (and you may), create a master bio and select what content you want from that. Stop reinventing the wheel.

Examples

A number of sites offer great bios, templates, and examples. Among the best I’ve found is from HubSpot. It includes examples for everything from Twitter to longer form bios, along with more tips for how to get this job done.

The Writer’s ToolKit

Like any maker, every writer needs a good toolkit. Professional writers, like carpenters or iron workers, have a basic set of reliable tools they use every day. I’m sharing some of my favorites with you here. Most of them are free or have a perfectly usable freemium model, with one exception.

Sticky Notes

That exception is my favorite all-purpose tool, the sticky note. I love these things. They’re great for capturing ideas, getting organized, making notes in books, jotting down an important bit of information (like a password…just kidding), and tracking progress on a kanban board. Their uses are endless. You can color code or not, depending on what you’re doing. They’re inexpensive and don’t require special training to use.

For some ideas on the many ways to use sticky notes, see this post by my colleague Shawn Greene.

Evernote 

Hands-down,  Evernote is my favorite note taking, idea capturing, judgement-free writing app. It’s available across platforms; there are versions for Mac OS X, IOS, Windows and Android. Content syncs seamlessly in the cloud so you can start something on your smart phone and flesh it out on your laptop or tablet. It has a few more features than a simple note-taking tool but it’s a whole lot easier to use than Microsoft Word. The free version is robust enough for most folks, though you may prefer to buy a subscription if you want to share your work with a team. I use it to rough out content outlines, store document templates, and even develop drafts of my work.

To polish my work, I rely on two grammar checking tools: Hemingway and Grammarly. Both have wonderful free versions.
 

Hemingway

Hemingway App

The Hemingway app isn’t for everyone. It’s all about terse, concise writing, a la Earnest Hemingway. If that’s not your style, you may not want to bother with it. I like it when I’m trying to tighten up my writing and add more punch. Hemingway works in two modes: Write lets you compose on a blank screen. Edit mode checks spelling, sentence structure and word usage, among other things. It will give you a reading level score, which can be very useful when you’re targeting a specific audience. You can purchase a version of Hemingway that works offline and lets you save your work. I spent the money–it’s inexpensive and I do a lot of writing in coffee shops with unreliable internet access.

Grammarly

You may find Grammarly more useful than Hemingway. The free version is pretty powerful. It includes a browser plug-in that can check your spelling and grammar in text boxes on websites. It’s a handy feature when you’re filling out a form and don’t want to sound like an idiot. The grammar check is basic but useful: it catches inconsistent voice (singular vs. plural), punctuation and other simple problems. The subscription version does a more sophisticated analysis. I have not tried that version yet, but I may be letting my professional pride get in the way.

 

Don’t Forget Toolkit Basics

Finally, don’t forget the writer’s oldest friends and toolkit basics, a dictionary and a thesaurusOnline versions are free and convenient–though there’s something to be said for leafing through a print dictionary.