Archive for the ‘Copywriting’ Category
This was published in the May 2013 Auctioneer Magazine. Used here by permission. Here’s a PDF of the article. — Carl
By Carl Carter, APR
Your mother was right. It matters how you present yourself. Sit up straight. Be courteous. Speak correctly. Show up in clean clothes, and shine your shoes.
The same applies to our marketing materials. When people read our brochures, press releases, web sites and even emails, they don’t give us a pass because we aren’t professional writers. In their minds, they compare our work to that of people who are professionals, and that puts us at a disadvantage.
But we can at least follow the same general rules of grammar and style the pros use. Here are some resources that will help you do that.
Associated Press Stylebook
Nearly everybody reads the news in one form or another. And when you consider that the news is written and edited by thousands of different journalists in widely varying environments, the style in which they write is remarkably consistent. That’s because most of them rely on “AP Style,” as defined in this book, which has been the style “Bible” for decades.
You can get a copy for about $12, so there’s really no excuse for not having one.
Here are a few examples:
- It’s email, not e-mail or electronic mail. Don’t capitalize it.
- Don’t capitalize a title unless it precedes the name.
- Numbers. These get complicated. In general, spell out one through nine, and use numerals for 10 or more. But you’ll want to read the entire entry for the exceptions.
- It’s percent — not per cent or %. And it’s 6 percent — not six percent. This is an exception to the numbers rule above. See what I mean about it getting complicated?
Nobody can remember every rule, and you shouldn’t even try. I’ve been using the Stylebook daily since the 1970s, and I still have to refer to it constantly. Just keep it handy and get in the habit of checking the style whenever there’s doubt. You’ll probably find that it’s best to make some exceptions. For example, tight ad and brochure space might dictate that you abbreviate “square feet” and other terms that are spelled out in the Stylebook. Or you may decide to use “percent” rather than %. That’s fine. Just decide on a style and stick with it throughout all your materials.
(Note that the Associated Press stylebook is updated every year as the language changes, but you don’t really need the latest edition. A three-year-old copy that you actually use beats a current copy that sits on the shelf.)
The Elements of Style, by William Strunk & E.B. White
You’ve heard of this book. You probably even have a copy, though I bet you can’t lay your hands on it. Next to the Bible, I don’t know of another book that gets more lip service and less actual use. I’ve given away a lot of copies over the years, and I try to re-read it myself about once a year. Here are a couple of my favorite nuggets, along with comments from my own experience:
- Omit needless words. I love the way Strunk & White explain this: “This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects in outline, but that every word tell.”
- Keep related words together. In writing about upcoming auctions, resist the temptation to put any words between the subject and verb. If you’re saying “The home has a full basement,” you’ll weaken it by putting any phrase between “home” and “has.”
I’m not going to dwell on this, because you already know it’s true. Get in the habit of looking up any word that causes to hesitate. There’s simply no excuse for using the wrong word or spelling it incorrectly. Don’t fret over whether it’s Webster’s, Oxford or American Heritage. They’re all good enough if you use them, and they’re worthless if you don’t.
Poynter’s usually a lot more careful than this. The story is about making up quotes and facts, not stealing them. To their credit, they fixed it within the hour.
This morning, Mashable published a story about how Forbes writers are now writing and posting their own stories, without the benefit of editors. This afternoon, this Forbes story showed up on my screen:
Money that is disbursed will almost certainly be dispersed as well, but the two are not the same thing. If Forbes can’t afford editors any more, maybe they should at least pop for some dictionaries.
A healthy humility is good, but our English teachers set us up for trouble when they came down so hard on putting other people first in our writing. Everybody knows it’s best to say “My wife and I went out to eat,” rather than the crude and self-centered “Me and my wife went out to eat.” But if the wife and I are the objects in the sentence, it’s all about “me:”
They invited my wife and me to the event.” (It’s not “the wife and I.)
The easy way to tell is to see how it sounds without the wife. Nobody would say, “They invited I.” At least, I’ve never seen it happen. So like I said, it’s all about “me.”
Let’s move on to my other favorite whipping boy: Using “myself” when you real mean “me” or “I.” Here’s how it looks when we confuse them:
Somebody brought over some chicken for Eddie and myself. (It’s “Eddie and me.”)
Eddie and myself proposed a compromise. (It’s “Eddie and I.”)
This is an easy one. If you don’t use “I” earlier in the sentence, it’s almost never correct to utter myself.
In short, it’s:
Somebody brought over some chicken for Eddie and me.
Again, the easy way to check yourself is to take out the words in between. I’ve never heard anybody say “Somebody brought over some chicken for myself.”
A major reason is that stories move us and stick with us better. We tell them to our family and friends, and that cements them in our minds. And that’s a great lesson for all of us as we communicate about our products and services. With the exciting (and sometimes puzzling) changes in media technologies these days, we sometimes focus too much on the media and give short shrift to the message.
Let’s face it: the Christmas Story is about as good as it gets. A mother giving birth in a barn and using the cow’s food dish as a crib. Angels singing. Lights in the sky. Oriental kings paying homage, as the local tyrant kills hundreds of babies but misses the right one. I mean, sheesh, if that story doesn’t stick with you, I don’t know what will.
The 10 Commandments and Epistles, by contrast, are information. We don’t remember those unless we work at it. They don’t create pictures in our minds. I spent my first 10 years as a reporter and editor for The Birmingham News, where my first city editor, Clarke Stallworth, hounded me daily about the importance of telling a great story. And he was right. (He was also a great storyteller himself!)
That’s why I always try to find a story in whatever I’m communicating, and why becoming a great storyteller can improve your results as well.
I spend a lot of my time these days promoting upcoming real estate auctions, and those provide some great stories. A farm family selling their property after more than a century because the next generation prefers city life. A home previously owned by a rock star. A piece of ground settled in the early 1600s.
But you can find a story in almost anything if you look hard enough and ask enough questions. Folks love the stories of Steve Jobs, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard inventing computers in their garages. (What is it about computers and garages, anyway?) In the 1980s, when Jim Koch was launching his new line of beer, he tapped into the legends of Revolutionary firebrand Samuel Adams. But my favorite story — which as far as I knew was never used in the brewery’s marketing materials — was the one of how Koch showed up one day for an elective college course on homebrewing. The instructor asked the students why they had enrolled and practically all of them said it was because the winemaking class was closed. The exception? Koch, who earned some raised eyebrows by saying he wanted to start a brewery.
I can just keep in mind the sarcastic “Yeah, right” comments. (Keep in mind that this was before the explosion in microbreweries. At the time, the choices were pretty much Bud, Miller and Coors.)
Ask questions. Dig a bit. Use your imagination. Tell stories. You’ll get better results. I promise. And if you don’t, I’ll buy you a beer.