Copywriters: What the %$@#* are you saying?

Copywriters: What the %$@#* are you saying?

I’ve got a problem with words.

My problem is that everyone uses them, has been using them since they were little and continues to use them every day. Which makes people, by their own estimation, experts at using words. And that’s pretty much the same thing as being an expert at writing, right? Perhaps. But unless someone is paying them to type, it does not make them a professional at writing.

I, on the other hand and by the definition I’ve just outlined, am a professional at writing. I write for money. It’s how I survive. It’s why I get paid the medium-sized bucks. I studied for it, got my qualification. I turn up to work and do it every day. I’m doing it most nights as well. I’m even doing it in my spare time. Seriously. I’m writing a novel, as another writer friend once described it, ‘like a dickhead’.

Which is why I felt both justified and qualified to fall upon the ground and beat my fists against the earth recently, when a billboard on wheels rolls past me announcing “Brand X: providers of multiple solutions”.


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? I want someone to explain to me what they think that means and why it was worth my time to decode. After that, explain to me the process whereby someone approved a substantial investment to bring that message to me. Actually, don’t bother, I know the process. Intimately.

Failure to deselect

The process is called failure to deselect. It’s driven by a fear that unless we say every single thing we can possibly say about a brand or product, we therefore fail to communicate the full range of the brand’s attributes. And we therefore fail as marketers. So, to avoid failure, we use all of our words to try and say all of the things.

Ultimately, however, we say nothing

We say nothing because we are concerned we might leave something, or someone, out.

Fortunately for those lacking the conviction of their own ideas (or ideas), the world of business (via politics and academia) has provided us with an extensive range of Weasel Words with which to continue to say absolutely %$@#* all, at length.

As Don Watson, Paul Keating’s former speechwriter, outlined in his brilliant book Death Sentence: “Today’s corporations, government departments, news media, and, perhaps most dangerously, politicians – speak to each other and to us in cliched, impenetrable, lifeless sludge.”

His war on these sophisticated-sounding but ultimately meaningless phrases inspired A site for people who have “silently wept into a crumpled copy of their workplace’s mission statement; who have been underpinned by a strategically aligned, innovative, creative, sustainable synergy”. These user-contributed examples of empty linguistic posturing would be funny if they weren’t genuine – or so widespread.

B2B marketing

B2B marketing material has become the nadir of this style of writing, which I find completely baffling. It’s one arena where you can safely assume your audience has a reasonable level of education and possibly some interest in the topic at hand (when compared with your average billboard reader and their interest in the efficacy of washing powder, for example).

Yet we squander the opportunity for genuine peer-to-peer writing, believing we somehow need to write ‘up’ to business in a more formal tone. Fact is, the people you are talking to in a B2B setting are people. You can’t actually write to a business, even if you wanted to.

I tend to use a clutch of business publications as a barometer of the level of language (the mix, for example, of sophistication, intelligence, deference, aggression, and jargon) that a B2B audience reads by choice.

I found it fascinating that Fast Company was established by a group of ex-HBR editors, primarily because they thought the content they were covering for HBR was right, but the tone was wrong — too stuffy, too much like hard work for the reader. Even The Economist has been drifting towards a higher incidence of more casual language as it modernises. Its editors have also realised that a growing chunk of their readership are not native-English speakers. Keep that in mind, global brands, when you write your regional campaigns.

Skilled writing

Ok, enough about bad writing (you’re reading this on the internet, for god’s sake, which means you are practically soaking in it. You may even be of the opinion that this very sentence here, right now, in this actual paragraph, within the article you are currently reading, is a perfect example of perfectly lousy typing. It’s certainly a fine example of a sentence that’s gone on for far too long within parentheses for its own (and the reader’s) good). That sentence also had too many parentheses. But I digress.

I’d like to end with an example of good writing. Or rather, skilled writing.

This week I walked past a specific poster in an OOH campaign for a University (can’t remember which one, which makes it a not-so-great example of brand recall) and saw the image of a young-ish woman smiling confidently at camera. There were no quotation marks around the text, but the direct gaze led me to assume the words were hers: “I left university for a girl. Now I’m going back to finish my degree.”

Wait: is she old enough to be what the advertising-military-industrial-complex would cast to represent ‘a mother’? Is the girl she’s talking about a girlfriend, perhaps? Did I just leap to a conclusion? And then another? Is that the most exercise I’ve had all week?

And right there, as these questions are running by, is when I realise I’m experiencing one of the most abused terms in our industry right now: audience engagement.

It was generated entirely by the space left in the writing for the reader to create their own meaning, for me to draw my own conclusion and, therefore create my own relevance.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is skilled writing. And it’s exactly what the %$@#* I’m talking about.

More reading:

Are your words leading to feeble or powerful outcomes?
Personal branding: 10 words you should NEVER use to describe yourself
How to make it as a copywriter


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