Picture the scene. I am sitting at my desk in The Quill, trying to come up with a worthy article for you. As I wait for the muse to visit, the post arrives.
Half-hidden among the direct mail, takeaway menus and letters offering me a million pounds to tweak a speech for the Prime Minister (OK, I made that last one up) is a pale blue airmail envelope bearing a Swedish postmark and addressed in a familiar, spidery hand.
It can’t be. It is! A letter from my old friend Professor Herr Doktor Andreas Maslenski, President Emeritus of The Huh? Foundation and Chairman of the Syntactical Institute of Vienna.
Andreas additionally holds the position of Head of Nuancing and Emotional Resonance at a highly sought after Stockholm-based copywriting therapy centre so secret it has no name, just afaint smell of vanilla.
“Dear Andy,” he opens, “I thought you – and your members – would be interested in three more cases from my medical practice.” He continues with the case notes, which I reproduce faithfully for you here.
Nick D works as a Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) copywriter for a Los Angeles new media agency. In many respects Nick’s copy is, as they say, cutting edge. What he can do with a breadcrumb trail would make a maiden blush.
However, he is occasionally overcome by a strange, atavistic yearning to adopt the language of the Ancients.
On a landing page I reviewed with him, I came across the following words:
Deducing, rightly, that Nick’s preference for these classically derived words stemmed from a mistaken belief that they meant more than shorter ones, the treatment was simple.
I prescribed Nick regular doses of ‘best’, ‘near’ and ‘before’.
Ah, yes, Christine P. We first met late at night at a conference in Manchester on the use of personal pronouns in internet sales letters.
Her hair was as shiny as the screen on her MacBook, her lips, … er, hrumph. As I was saying, personal pronouns.
She showed me a draft of an email she was writing. Here is the opening paragraph…
I am delighted to tell you that I have recently been appointed sales agent for nibs ‘n’ scribbles in your area.
I hope to be supplying copywriters all over the North-west with our exciting range of copywriting consumables and I would love to add you to my list of clients. I believe I can meet all your copywriting needs and I have a short presentation I would like to give you. I am in your area next week and I hope we can find a date when I can come and see you.
I pointed out that even spiders only have eight eyes and suggested rewriting the email with “you”s instead of “I”s to engage the reader and make them feel she cared more about them than about herself.
Queen Victoria’s Syndrome
Shelley H came to me with distressing symptoms that were leaving her swooning at the end of a paragraph, as breathless as a dowager duchess in an over-tightened corset. Her job writing press releases within a government department called for clarity, precision and punch.
Yet her boss, a gentleman whose ideas about copywriting were as unbending as the creases in his trousers, insisted on astyle in keeping with what he referred to as “the department’s brand values”. Whatever that means.
Shelley’s press releases, which had once been so vital, so fresh, so modern, were now couched in stiff, Nineteenth Century prose where every conclusion was prefaced by an “indeed”, a “thus” or a “hence”.
Clauses that, rightly, could be sent out into the world as separate sentences were shackled together into long chains by semi-colons. And an issue was never cloudy but always “suffering from an unfortunate degree of obfuscation”.
Poor Shelley. I at once diagnosed Queen Victoria’s Syndrome, a particularly nasty viral infection, all the more saddening because in this case it had been passed onto a young woman by a much older man.
In this case I had to treat both the patient and the carrier, instructing both to read a page of Fowler’s Modern English Usage every night before sleep.
And I’m telling you this because
Copywriters are, by and large, a healthy bunch. But none of us can afford to be complacent, as the threat of these ailments, and others equally uncomfortable, is lurking just behind the shift key.
The Prof always recommends prevention rather than cure (he no longer needs the money). He suggests brisk walks, moderate consumption of alcohol (and all other words of three or more syllables) and at least five portions a day of Anglo Saxon.
You can read more from the Professor in the Sunfish Copywriting Library at http://www.sunfish.co.uk/Copywriting-ailments-part-2.htm.