By Jeffrey Hedquist
What can the author of The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bells Toll, The Old Man and the Sea, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro teach us about writing radio commercials?
A good commercial is a very short story with a specific purpose. Hemingway’s style shows us how to tell a complete story in the fewest words.
Hemingway’s early work as a reporter at the Kansas City Star and later as a foreign correspondent helped develop his style, which has been characterized as stark, simple and austere with short declarative sentences and accessible language.
A stylebook for young reporters advised:
• Use short sentences
• Use short first paragraphs
• Use vigorous English, not forgetting to strive for smoothness
• Be positive, not negative
His iconic style is exemplified in this sentence from For Whom the Bell Tolls: “He was dead and that was all.”
From his short story A Clean, Well-Lighted Place: “It was late and every one had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light.”
Hints from Hemingway
1. Simple sentences rule.
Your audience is distracted, busy. Make it easy for them to get into the story, but make it compelling. Strong words. Exact words. Short sentences.
2. Short opening paragraphs.
The power of a compelling audio headline is huge. Grab ‘em quickly and then deliver a message that will lead ‘em to act.
3. Be vigorous.
Verbs are the engine to carry the listener along. Use them to convey the advertiser’s passion for helping their clients and for getting listeners to act.
4. Be positive.
This doesn’t mean eliminating negative words. It means “show, don’t tell.” It defines word choice. Instead of saying “Sales didn’t get better,” say “Sales got worse.” Instead of “We won’t keep you waiting for answers,” say “We’ll answer your questions right away.”
You can accomplish more by telling your audience what something is than what it is not.
The problem/solution format works.
Leave room for the listener to make the leap to understanding. When you use powerful words with clear meaning, you can tell your audience something, without actually telling them.
5. Write with a firehouse, edit with an eyedropper.
Pour out your copy with no thought of editing. Let it sit. Edit it until you’ve told the most with the least words.
Legend has it that the following story was written by Hemingway to win a bet, but no one knows for sure. Whoever wrote it, captured his style. It has a beginning, middle and an end – all in 6 words.
“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”
You can read more 6 word memoirs from famous and not so famous people in Not Quite What I Was Planning.
Hemingway’s approach isn’t the only way to write a compelling spot, but it’s worth the exercise to hone your own style. Clarity informs.
© 1997–2012 Hedquist Productions, Inc. All rights reserved.