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.
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.
Analytics 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.
When I adopted Harley, he was a gangly 11-month-old teenager, all legs and big ears with a long, plumy tail. He was a White German Shepherd, with a bit of Siberian Husky and wolf mixed in. He’d spent the first nine months of his life chained to a doghouse. Other than screaming at him to stop making noise, his owners ignored him. One experienced rescuer called him a “project dog.” I have rescued all kinds of dogs, but I was unsure whether I’d ever be able to socialize Harley. In the end, he taught me how much words matter.
Harley joined my two Siberian Huskies, Reese (he-who-pees-on-snakes) and Brodie. Brodie was a handsome goofball, a muscular black and white husky who lived for food and held strong opinions about which he could be very vocal. He was not beyond chastising me if he thought it warranted as, for example, when dinner was five minutes late.
It turned out that Harley was indeed a “project dog.” Socializing him took months, and the ever-opinionated Brodie was a big help. The two became best friends. Whenever he faced something new, Harley would look to Brodie for guidance and reassurance. Brodie taught him that pigeons could be fun to chase, to be curious about new things, and to always welcome strangers.
Move Over, Dog Whisperer
Harley settled in. It was time to work on basic manners and I had a challenge. He wasn’t motivated by food and was still shy enough that praise might not work very well. With a flash of inspiration, I enlisted Brodie as my assistant. I figured as long as I kept the treats coming I’d have his complete cooperation.
One fine spring morning, I led the dogs out on the deck. I had a pocket full of treats and an optimistic frame of mind. We started with “come.” I issued the command, Brodie headed for the treat in my hand and received his reward. Harley watched, curious about this new ritual. I moved back 10 feet and said, “Brodie, Harley, come” a second time. Again Brodie trotted up to me and received his reward. Harley started to realize this might work to his advantage, so he strolled over and nuzzled my hand. I gave him the treat and praised him to the skies for being the smartest dog in the world.
Little did I know.
We progressed quickly to “sit” and “stay” over the next couple of days. Things were going very well indeed. Brodie watched me and the treats; Harley watched Brodie and imitated him. I started to think I was a world class dog trainer.
With “come,” “sit,” and “stay” mastered, it was time to work on “down,” as in “lie down.” I figured out my approach. I would Harley to sit then say “down” while holding a treat on the floor in front of him and praising him for doing the right thing. Like all the other lessons so far, it went very fast. Within a few days, Harley had all the basics well in hand. I was quite proud of myself.
Next step: test Harley’s learning without my chief assistant and crumb snatcher. We worked through the litany: stay, come, sit, down. Rinse and repeat: stay, come, sit down. One more time: stay, come, sit down. Harley executed the commands promptly, with a German Shepherd’s dedication to precision. I was starting to think Cesar Millan had nothing on me.
Then I tried mixing up the order of the commands.
“Harley, come.” Harley walked over to me. “Harley, down.” Harley lowered his front end, leaving his rear end up in the air while he proudly wagged his big, white plume of a tail. He was quite pleased with himself. I repeated “down,” a bit more firmly. Another enthusiastic tail wag. “Down, Harley.” Polite tail wag with somewhat less enthusiasm, “Harley. Down!” Barest of tail wags—he was running out of patience. He was doing precisely what I’d taught him to do. Sit was for the back end. Down was for the front end.
For the record, I did try to teach Harley a more conventional “lie down” several times over the years. He understood perfectly well what I was asking. And every time he’d lower his front end, wag his tail, and smile his big, toothy grin. My vet and the techs in his office got no end of laughs out of us.
Not the first dog to remind me I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. Or that words really do matter.
I started to wonder if this would apply to me, so I dug in and did a little research. Here’s what I found:
- The Consumer Federation of California has a good explanation of the law, in reasonably plain English.
- The Better Business Bureau, bless their hearts, has a simple template that will likely meet most of your needs.
As with all things legal, please have your lawyer review your final document!
Step 1: Grab Attention With a Powerful Title and Opening SentenceYou’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.
TipsThere 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 NoteIt’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.
- 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 PointsNow 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.
- 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 MuchPractice 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.
TipIt’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.
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.
The world is suffering from an overabundance of people who take themselves too damn seriously. Maybe we blame it on social media. Maybe we blame it on the current social and political climate. Whatever it is, people, we need to lighten up! How many of you have abandoned Facebook because of the vitriol, or look at nothing but puppy videos? Not that there’s anything wrong with a puppy video when you’re having a bad day.
The thing about dogs is they force you to lighten up. Most are naturally open, friendly and curious. At least my Huskies were, and they taught me three basic lessons that stick with me today.
Like clockwork, every afternoon at 5:00 the dogs would wake up, shake themselves off, and take me outside for a half hour of roughhousing. Like the littlest kid in the class, I was always “it.” I’d sit on the deck while one plopped his furry butt in my lap. The other two would stage an elaborately ferocious battle to unseat him. Eventually, someone’s teeth would flash a little too close to my face for comfort and I’d call a halt to the proceedings. We’d troop back into the house, refreshed. The boys would go back to sleep; I’d go back to work until dinner time.
It was a much-needed break in my day. It got me away from my desk, and it often knocked an idea or two loose in my head. Best of all, playtime reset my perspective. How seriously can you take yourself when you’re a living sock doll for three dogs?
Lesson #1: Play daily, even if you’re “it.”
I’ve written about Reese, my alpha husky. (He was the guy who dealt with a snake by peeing on it.) His most endearing trait was his welcoming personality. Everyone who came to my front door got the same greeting: an ears-back wiggle, a nod of the head, and a soft woo-ooo-ooo. He’d escort them to a seat and made sure they were entertained, often by graciously allowing them to scratch his ears. The delivery people confused him a bit–they’d never come inside. But even they didn’t leave without saying hello to him. It didn’t matter how he felt. Even when he was suffering from cancer, he’d wobble to his feet, shake himself off, and find the energy to be a gracious host.
He made a lot of friends that way. People would stop by just to visit him. He became a bit of a legend with the Fed Ex guys. He won over people who were afraid of dogs, people who didn’t like dogs, people who were just plain grumpy. The day I put him down, I called a list of people so they could come and say their goodbyes. His last gift to me was new friends I’d never have had otherwise.
Lesson #2: Always welcome new people into your life, no matter how you feel.
My White German Shepherd-Husky-wolf mix, Harley, was endlessly curious. Sometimes this wasn’t such a good thing. I spent my fair share of time in the shower de-skunking a large, irate dog. But I’ve learned that exercising your curiosity can lead to great things.
One spring Sunday, we were headed home after a long walk. Cars were pulling over along the curb. People were getting out to stare at the top of the hill in front of my house. Cell phones and cameras pointed upward. I was busy getting the four of us across the street safely so I didn’t look up.
Harley’s radar dish ears turned toward something. He led us straight up the hill to confront a magnificent great blue heron hunting for her next meal. Yes, herons are water birds. They will also hunt in open fields for a meal. This particular hillside is a condo complex for ground squirrels, and the hunting was good.
We all froze. I had never been so close to such a majestic bird, and I’m reasonably sure the dogs hadn’t either. More to the point, they’d never seen a bird so big. There was some confusion on their part. It smelled like a bird. They knew from decimating the local pigeon population that birds could be caught and eaten. But something this big…? Unclear about how to proceed, three faces turned my way.
The heron gazed down at us with considerable disdain and some annoyance. She spread her wings and slowly, gracefully, soared away.
Lesson #3: Stay curious. You never know what will happen.
Write Your Own Bio
Find 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
if 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.
One dim, damp, winter afternoon Reese, my alpha husky, was outside on his regular tour of the backyard. I was inside with the other dogs when we heard a high-pitched bark. Reese was calling out the cavalry. We ran to the back door. I let the dogs out and peered through the mist.
Snake vs. Dog
Rattlesnakes and gopher snakes are common where I live. As a rule, I don’t mind them. They keep the local rodent population in check. They eat; I save money on rat traps and don’t have to dispose of the deceased. Although rattlers and gopher snakes look alike, there’s one key difference: gopher snakes are not poisonous. On a bright, sunny day the differences between the two are clear. Not so much on this particularly gloomy Sunday.
The snake shook his head in disgust and beat a hasty retreat, never to be seen again. Reese turned and bounded into the house with his tail curled high, very proud of himself. Job done, he paused just long enough to collect praise from me then promptly took a nap.
The Solution Worked—Until It Didn’t
Who Needs Stakeholders?
Well, That Didn’t Work Either
The Point Is…
What problem are you really solving? People were sneaking into the hospital through a back door. The real problem: Security guards weren’t equipped to work effectively. (A little root cause analysis would have sussed this out.)
Why does the problem need solving? Bad people were trying to gain access to drugs, equipment, and patients. Yup, that’s a good reason to fix the problem!
Who is impacted by the problem? Bad people, sure; but also security guards, out-patients, volunteers, parking attendants, staff, and vendors—stakeholders no one thought about.
How would your stakeholders solve the problem? Locking the back door seemed like the simplest, easiest solution. Who doesn’t love simple and easy?
How will you measure results? Clear indicators catch problems in the making. In this case, the solution eliminated security problems at the back door and meant the guards could be reallocated elsewhere. (Yay! Problem solved!) But the unintended consequences were more costly by far–and weren’t uncovered until much later. Oh, and in all the confusion, more bad people were getting past the guards at the main lobby. (Boo! Hiss!)
I love my honey, I really do. He’s a fabulous organizer; without him, our home would look considerably messier than it does. (He and I disagree: his “mess” is my “comfortable.” Right there we have a problem: we lack a shared vocabulary. More on that in another post.) When he’s bored, he’ll re-organize the garage, the bookcases, the closets and the kitchen. He’s a dream that way. Mostly I appreciate his considerable efforts to bring order to our lives. He doesn’t organize things like I do—he’s an engineer, for one thing. He takes any mess personally. But one man’s entropy is another woman’s pile, or stash, or clothes closet. Or kitchen.
Don’t Touch My Toolbox
We’ve already had the “don’t touch my toolbox” conversation. I could find things in my toolbox, but he couldn’t. We agreed that was his domain, so he took it over. I don’t mind; toolboxes aren’t all that big and his system is obvious if counter-intuitive to me. He applied the same rigorous logic to the junk drawer in the kitchen. It is now organized to within an inch of its life and has been renamed the “utility drawer.” I get reprimanded if I slip and call it the “junk drawer.” I can’t find anything in it but he’s usually around to ask, so I live with it. Then he oh-so-helpfully organized another of my toolboxes, the drawer of cooking utensils under the range top. I was making pancakes one morning, happily ignorant that the organizational elf had paid a visit when I wasn’t looking. Time to flip the pancakes. The spatula was not where it should be. Now mind you, I have several specialized spatulas: one for pancakes and hamburgers, one for fish, one for eggs. Different shapes and sizes, slotted or not, each specific to its purpose. I’d have settled for any spatula at that point—the pancakes were starting to burn. Couldn’t find any of them. Shouted for the engineer, who was reorganizing his closet again. Somewhat offended, he showed me his new system. This, he proclaimed, would make my life easier. He opened another drawer entirely. Et violá! There were my missing spatulas—and everything else I hadn’t thought to look for—organized by material (wood, plastic/silicon, metal), color and size.
No, Really. Don’t Touch My Toolbox
He ate burnt pancakes for breakfast and we had our second “don’t touch my toolbox” conversation. I tried to explain wood/plastic/metal + color is not how I look for tools. I failed. (it wasn’t logical. Thank you, Mr. Spock.) I got his attention when I said he’d be eating a lot more burned meals if he messed with my tools. I thought we’d gotten that resolved until I decided to make a stew that called for fennel. I could have sworn I had fennel, but I didn’t see it in the spice drawer. I bought a bottle and opened the spice drawer to put it away. That’s when I noticed things looked suspicious: bottles, boxes, and cans were organized by material (glass, metal, plastic), color and size. The organizational elf had struck again. As I reorganized, I realized we had four bottles of fennel, three of cinnamon, no salt (turns out that was stashed in another cabinet across the kitchen), no cumin (a staple in my kitchen), and a bottle of mace I thought I’d thrown out years ago.
The Point Is…
Build a common vocabulary.
- Get stakeholders involved. Understand their perspective. Cook in their kitchen—understand why the spatulas are where they are and the spices organized the way they are. And know that every stakeholder, like every cook, is different.
- Clarify vocabulary. Get definitions. These will often conflict. My microplane is my honey’s rasp; my French rolling pin is his wooden peg. Have you ever asked Sales, Marketing, Operations, Customer Service, Accounting, and HR to define a customer? It’s an interesting conversation.
- Document what you learn. Build a dictionary if you need to. Agree to disagree. Note differences and conflicts. Publish/share it across your project.
Meanwhile, I’m looking for more recipes to use up the fennel and cinnamon.