Production 512 - A Beginner’s Guide To Copywriting

I know, I know…a lot of you aren’t writing the copy you produce, commercially or promotionally. For those who are writing, this will hopefully open your eyes to a few ways to sharpen your skills. For those who do not, this should guide you in making better production decisions, knowing where you need to spend your energy on any given project.

Prod512 Logo 400pxIf the copy you are producing goes outside a LOT of these guidelines, you might think about quietly agitating for a better writer. As usual, I have to add the caveat that rules are made to be broken, but you’d better have a pretty good reason. It’s not that I think these rules should be hard and fast, but long experience has taught me that the impact of your copy (and in the end, your production) will be greatly magnified by them. So, let’s call them guidelines rather than rules and stipulate that straying out of these lanes might mean less strength.

An Observation

How often have you caught yourself watching a favorite show on your DVR, and when a break comes along, you DON’T hit the FF key because the commercial captures your interest for a moment? It happens to me, a lot. Or, let’s say you’re watching something ON-DEMAND. You can’t fast-forward so you typically hit MUTE during the break, but sometimes you forget because the spot or promo hits your imagination or curiosity button and you just sit there in fascination. Same deal…at least for me.

THAT. RIGHT. THERE…is something we need to explore a bit, because as radio pros, we need to have that kind of magical power over our audience. That moment of hesitation or distraction that stops our finger because our brain is otherwise occupied. That is precisely what we need to accomplish with every piece of production we push out of the studio. We need to grab the attention of the listeners and make them WANT to listen to what we have to say. If it’s a promo, you really need to make that happen for the sake of the radio station ratings. If it’s a commercial, you need that something for the sake of the client and the subsequent re-orders for your radio station’s bottom line.

While we’re at it, we should also acknowledge that what captures one person’s interest might completely miss another’s. There have been several times when my wife will nudge me while we’re watching Blue Bloods or FBI and say something like, “Are you gonna zap it, or what?” If I’m really mesmerized by a commercial or promo, I’ll say, “Just a sec,” and continue watching. Of course eventually, the spot will end and the zapping commences.

So, what is it that makes us a slave to the screen over the remote? What makes us forget to hit FF or MUTE for those precious moments when the advertiser gets eyes and ears on their pitch and they get their always important ‘impression?’

If you’ve read even a small bit of anything I’ve written over the years, you know I don’t believe it’s facts and figures. That stuff is dry as dust from the old Crypt-Keeper’s breath. It’s always going to be emotion that makes the sale and here’s why:

Paging Dr. Broca

Jon Reilly is a country client of mine in Albany, New York who writes some of the best concert promos I’ve ever had the pleasure of wrapping my lips around. He recently started one with, “Sure, he’s successful…pulling in almost 40-mill a year. Yeah, he’s good looking.  And he can carry a tune.  But, most of all he can give you a night you’ll never forget…Luke Bryan!” That rolled over the intro to Luke’s latest hit down to the hook. It was poetry in motion. ANY fan of Luke Bryan would get sucked in immediately, usually with a passion. LOVE makes it work, particularly for the legion of his female fans.(Listen to the promo.)

A few weeks ago, Adam Star, a CHR client of mine in Ft. Myers, Florida sent, “It’s almost Summer Vacation! The kids will be out of school in days and they’ll be staring at you, saying those two words that make you cringe, I’M BORED.” Brilliant, short, sweet and direct. You know every Mom and Dad listening will definitely know the truth (FEAR) and feel compelled to continue listening to learn how the station will solve that dilemma -- In this case, free tickets to Busch Gardens to experience their new roller coaster. (Listen to the promo.)

Just this morning (as I write this), I got a really fun promo from Kevin Wood in Rockford, Illinois that started with, “At 104-9 The X, we know that lawn chairs...suck. They're uncomfortable…they break...and some of them leave that ugly waffle pattern on your butt….” Being a Rock station pretty much means that “keeping it real” humor is a way of life. HUMOR is a fabulous emotion that, when used well, gets the listener nodding in agreement, a huge step in getting total acceptance. (Listen to the promo.)

All three of these examples craft an emotional path (check the red text) to the unique selling proposition (USP) that’s incredibly simple to follow. They all push Broca’s Area and make the whole brain receptive. (If you’re not familiar with Dr. Paul Broca, he was a French anthropologist of the late 19th century who discovered the part of the brain that acts as a gateway linking memories, sensations and emotions to words and vice versa. Once Broca’s Area gives a positive vibe, the rest of the brain tunes in.) Once you’ve convinced Broca’s Area to cooperate, your job becomes stupid simple.

Here’s the really fun part: Study after study has shown that the average listener will retain up to 3 to 5 words of any message you send, regardless of how well you present it. Almost never will it be more. Your ONLY job is to make sure it’s the RIGHT 3 to 5 words (your USP, of course) and present it artfully enough to make sure.

A Call To Action

Once you’ve tickled Dr. Broca’s fancy, the listener’s brain opens a tiny hatch allowing you to deposit your USP nugget into the main brain. All you really have left to do is deliver the Call To Action (CTA). For most promos, it’s “Listen to win…” or “Register now on our website.” It can vary of course, but not as much as the commercial CTA. Most commercial fails usually center around getting too complicated on the CTA. In my experience, it’s almost always due to the commercial being some manager or owner’s vanity project. Yes, they’d LOVE to add to their customer base, but more often they want to hear their name on the radio or stream. Worse still, they often want to hear their voice.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “People have been telling me all my life that I have a GREAT voice and that should be on the air.” Honestly, it makes me sad when I hear it because the vast majority of times it means the spot will fail to drive traffic, but there’s almost nothing you can do about it. Of course, when it fails, it is somehow your fault or “radio is a lousy medium” and they won’t come back.

One exception I recall was a woman who owned a Nissan dealership in New Jersey. Lynn had a great personality and spent one whole summer promoting her business exclusively on Z100. She launched in May and by late August, she was the number one new car dealer in the entire NY/NJ/CT region…a true radio success story. Then an ad agency convinced her to spend her money on TV instead. She had a nice run, but her business slowly declined from that August high and 2 years later, she sold her dealership. I don’t blame TV, but her personality just didn’t come through as strongly on TV as it did on Z100.

I have to take a little of the credit for her early success, because I was writing her copy, but she deserves most of the credit because she understood what a genius I am.

What!?! Well, I did write her commercials.

Point By Point

So, here’s my short list of things to look for in good radio copy. These are guidelines, not rules, but consider carefully when you want to bend things around a bit.

1) Open with something that stokes an emotion. It doesn’t much matter which emotion you use, but generally speaking, stronger is better.

2) Drag your USP into the picture quickly. It will cement attention quickly for listeners who are interested and pretty much hold it for the duration.

3) Make sure the call to action is simple and direct. Use the KISS principle at all times: Keep It Stupid Simple. “Listen to win” is perfect.

4) Keep the housekeeping details (how to win, where to buy, when to do it) to the absolute minimum. If the interest is high, they’ll figure it out, guaranteed.

5) Keep your focus on the USP at all times. Don’t let yourself get bogged down with listing locations or giving phone numbers. Listeners don’t care…FACT!

6) Don’t fret about appealing to too small an audience. While interest level will vary widely, keeping it laser-focused will bleed over into a bigger audience. Live by the “Narrow the focus to broaden the appeal” mantra. It really, REALLY works.

Whenever my wife is nudging me to zap the commercials on our DVR and I stay on that first spot, invariably she ends up making a comment about it afterwards, but negative or positive…the impression is made. Her interest isn’t there to start with, but she eventually gets the message. A more important note is that people outside your target DO take an interest. If your target is a 22-year old woman, younger women invariably perk up, because they often wish they were that 22-year old. Soccer moms up to 35 do too, because they wish they were 22 again, or even better, think of themselves as still being that age. By keeping your focus directly on the target, you drag two very important groups along. Conversely, if you broaden your target age it becomes less clear who the target is and the appeal is diminished. Every. Stinking. Time.

We Need To Talk

The absolute best copy writers are somewhat psychotic…in a good way. They can write a monologue that sounds like a dialogue.

Without putting too much thought into it, one would have to argue that the nature of broadcasting requires your copy to be a monologue. Radio, print, television and motion pictures are all one-way communications. If people cannot respond directly and immediately to whatever you are ranting about as you rant, it pretty much means you’re delivering a monologue. If you truly want to engage the listener/reader/viewer, you must write it as if it is a dialogue.

This is an important lesson we can learn from social media. Because people can interact with the author of a tweet, gram or blog as soon as the ‘monologue’ is finished, it then becomes a dialogue. When you see someone opine on Twitter, it very often turns into a largish town hall on the subject with all the attendant ‘amen’ and ‘flamethrower’ comments. As a copy writer, you WANT that kind of reaction from the audience (hopefully on the positive tip), so you need your copy to BE a dialogue, if only one-sided. If your call to action is positive and clear, the listener will react. In the case of a promo or sweeper, they’ll listen more closely. If it’s a commercial, they will check out your client’s business.

Your After-Action Action

Do whatever it takes to get your work to play first in a stop-set. If it’s a promo, that already happens most of the time on a majority of radio stations. (I’ll never understand PDs who insist on playing promos last-in-set.) If it’s a commercial, you might want to consider labeling your best work in a way that will signal the traffic department to play ads in a certain order, unless other spots are sold as first-in-set. The spots with the highest production value (most entertaining/interesting) should always play first. This does two things for you. 1) It adds to the impact of the spots and 2) It actually helps drag the audience through the stop-set, just like when I’m watching The Good Fight.

For sound this month, I have the 3 promos I highlighted above. I think you’ll hear why each grabbed the listeners by the ears and delivered the message loud and clear. My thanks to Jon, Adam and Kevin for sharing.

The next time your work airs, you will hopefully NOT hear the sound of thousands of buttons being pushed to ‘zap’ to another station. Your AQH will jump just a little and you can rest easy, knowing that your station and paying clients are all reaping the benefits of your wisdom.

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