Being a copywriter is a lot like being a chameleon.
Not the whole eye-swivelling, gross metre-long sticky tongue rocket thingy, but the ability to blend in with one’s surroundings. In our case, those surroundings are two-fold.
The persona of the person on whose behalf we are writing; and the mental landscape of the person to whom we are writing.
If you come from a comfortable, middle-class background and find yourself writing copy for a debt collection agency, you have a number of psychological shifts to make.
For a start, what kind of person gets into the kind of money troubles (and, by the way, they will almost certainly not be thinking of them as ‘financial woes’) that mean their creditors will send a debt collector? What does it feel like to be owed money by someone in that situation? And, what kind of person is it that runs a debt collection agency and, quite possibly, does the door-stepping?
Life would so much simpler for copywriters like you and me if all our clients were people just like us, selling to people just like us.
Although, as a counter-argument, life might also be incredibly BORING. But, happily or otherwise, it isn’t. Or rarely. Most of the time, we are selling to, or communicating with, all kinds of people, most of whom are very different to us. And that’s where the problems can start.
Every one of us is born with inbuilt biases, which grow stronger as we mature into adults and our experiences confirm our biases.
Some will reject authority, doing the opposite (or wanting to) of anything they are told to. Others will take risks when making decisions. Still others will seek the wisdom of crowds.
For an excellent article on psychological biases, read this post by Tom Albrighton. Copywriters are no exception. I have met, and taught, many hundreds of copywriters. Here are some the biases, or prejudices, they have displayed, often on social media or in their own blogs.
11 prejudices of copywriters
“Businesspeople are rational, so there’s no place for emotion in b2b copywriting.”
“I don’t use typefaces that I find ugly.”
“I can’t believe longer copy works better so I’m not going to test it.”
“Web users have short attention spans so my copy must be short.”
“Salesy copy is always wrong.”
“People don’t need to be told what the benefits of this product are: they’re obvious.”
“Humorous copywriting is naturally engaging to the customer.”
“Anyone who says you can’t start a sentence with ‘And’ is an idiot.”
“Anyone who misplaces an apostrophe is an idiot.”
“Anyone who changes my copy is an idiot.”
“People who read The Sun are idiots.”
Such rigid thinking is limiting in life generally, and damaging in our trade in particular. Our job is, or should be, to maximise profits for our client, employer or business. That’s it.
We are not “basically a chilled-out entertainer”. We are not community outreach managers looking for “engagement”. We are salespeople. You can test the validity of this assertion (because your inbuilt bias may already be screaming “REJECT! REJECT!”) by imagining a company with no sales. All the copywriters would be out of a job.
The merits of rigidity
Rigidity has its merits, of course.
One of them is strength. We can take positions and guard them zealously when we think rigidly, because, as highly articulate people, we have the verbal firepower to do so. It can be hard to win arguments against us when we’re in this kind of mood.
Which is why, I think, many clients/managers resort to the exercise of hierarchical power to win the day. Thus further reinforcing the bias that “clients know nothing”.
Rigidity also saves time.
When we don’t need to consider alternatives because we “know” we’re right, we can plough ahead with copy straight away, without the need to think more deeply about the problem. It reminds me of the career arc of many contemporary politicians, who go from school to university, where they study politics, to an internship in an MP’s office or a political think-tank, to a position as a political adviser to a seat in the House of Commons.
This is unlikely to produce a mind capable of empathising with the plight of unemployed call-centre workers, single parents holding down two jobs to make ends meet or people who worry about the impact of immigration on their livelihoods.
Finally, rigidity allows us to carve out a persona. You are the copywriter who’s hip. I am the copywriter who never works with one-person businesses. She is the copywriter who always knows more about English than anyone else.
But rigidity is an ill-mannered and lazy servant. It encourages us to pre-judge situations. It prompts us to make snap decisions. It substitutes prejudice for openness.
Rigid thinking also shows up in the way many freelance copywriters conduct their affairs. it can best be summed up in the phrase, “I’m not worth any more than that,” where “that” is the fee they charge for any given piece of copywriting. In my experience, “that” is a figure predicated on an hourly rate of somewhere between £25 and £60.
But how do they know? How do they know that a client whose business they are going to kick start wouldn’t pay more? How do they know that their ability to charm money out of total strangers is worth less than a mechanic’s ability to fix a car engine? Bias is how. Rigid thinking. “That’s the going rate for people like me so that’s what I am going to charge.”
So what is the alternative?
Aesop knew better
Linguistically, and psychologically, it’s flexibility. Aesop told the tale of a mighty oak tree boasting to a reed of its strength. Then a violent wind blew up, and under its relentless power, the oak tree snapped in half while the reed bent in the wind and resumed its upward path once the storm had abated. That reed is a flexible mind, able to adjust to changing conditions. Without surrendering, but with a graceful adaptation.
How might we, as copywriters, learn or display such flexible thinking? I think it helps to start by compiling a list of one’s own psychological biases. It’s not necessarily a comfortable exercise. We might find ourselves writing lines like these:
I am an expert so I know what’s right in every situation.
The familiar is better than the unfamiliar.
Arguments based on different ideas to mine should be destroyed verbally.
But this is OK because part two of the exercise it to write down ways to counter those biases.
Experts might decide to ask five questions before putting forward one opinion. Safety-cravers might change their routine. Verbal destroyers might use their linguistic dexterity to support the next argument they are presented with.
Flexible thinking also allows us to explore multiple solutions to the same problem. Instead of reaching for our “long copy is best” baseball bat and smashing it down on the keyboard, we might think about a two-minute video script instead.
Instead of an elliptical, punning headline, we might sit down with the product and figure out how it makes the customer’s life easier. Instead of resisting every revision requested by a client, we might think creatively about how to implement them and preserve the selling power of the original.
Time to let go?
This letting go of our biases is at once scary and liberating.
Scary because they are often a big part of who we are, and without them we can feel naked and unprotected.
Liberating because we are free to consider any and all possibilities, not just those on the approved list.
I have strived to free myself from my own limiting beliefs and biases, and I see the difference it has made in my life and in my writing.
Is rigid thinking holding you back?
It’s time to bend like the reed.