In many ways, though I didn’t know it at the time, the classroom was where I cut my teeth as a copywriter. Faced with 30+ fractious teenagers during that dreaded last lesson of the afternoon, knowing just the right analogy or allusion is a matter of survival. Speak the language of the tribe or get torn to shreds. Amuse and entertain, or die. Writing canny email campaigns or compelling web content is a cinch after that.
Everything is preparation for something. Lessons learned from a million and one mistakes in the classroom set me up for (reasonable) success as a copywriter.
Here are some of the lessons I learned.
Know your audience
Writing is all about the reader, and teaching depends on knowing the young people in front of you at any given time of the day.
You have to read the room. It’s not where you’re at but where they’re at. You don’t always know what sort of day or life a pupil is having. They may be tired and hungry because it’s nearing lunch. They may have received bad news from a form tutor. The class may be hyper having just come from footy or a fight in the playground.
Bizarrely – and you have to see it to believe it – children are often affected by the elements. Wind and rain weave their spell in strange and mysterious ways.
You have to work with all this in mind, while remembering there’s so much you don’t know you don’t know. As Donald Rumsfeld memorably put it, “We know there are known knowns: there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns: that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns- the ones we don't know we don't know.” (I’ve always loved this quote even though it got panned at the time.)
Teachers and copywriters aren’t mind readers, but we appreciate there are unknown unknowns, and we do what we can with the known knowns within our reach: data, past experience, conversation in the staff room. We do our best to connect with the pupil / audience / reader at that point in time, weighing up as many variables as we can. Before I write copy, I’ll roam reviews, forums, and comments sections.
Mind the gap
We all make the mistake of assuming others know enough to understand what we’re telling them. Unknown unknowns, or the curse of knowledge. As George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
It’s the teacher’s and the copywriter’s job to bridge that gap. Research what they already know and understand. Use this as base camp for venturing beyond this.
Analogies – or comparisons - explain the unfamiliar through the lens of the familiar. Pin your meaning to the everyday, the universal, the instantly recognizable. Analogies paint a familiar picture or take the reader on a well-trodden journey.
Note the italicised analogies above: bridge that gap, base camp, lens, pin, paint, picture, journey. None of them is especially original. But that’s the point. Their aim is to take the reader by the hand and gently lead the way, not distract them.
I would tell pupils that colons (:) are like car headlights in the dark: they point forward. The analogy soon sticks.
Advertiser uses analogies all the time. And, again, they don’t have to be wildly inventive. The NHS 2007 anti-smoking campaign was particularly powerful, with its imagery of smokers hooked at the end of a fishing line. Ikea’s recent adverts presenting pillows as little pills, hence portraying sleep as the new wonder drug, are proving popular with marketers. Again, the analogy doesn’t have to be especially creative. When I googled “sleep wonder drug”, numerous articles used these very words in their headline. Two or three journalists had beaten the copywriters to the analogy.
Don’t reinvent the wheel
This was my mantra when I mentored trainee teachers. Borrow other people’s resources. Learn from others that some things work and some things don’t.
Same goes for freelancing and writing copy. Rosser Reeves famously announced, “Originality is the most dangerous word in the advertiser’s lexicon.” Murray Raphel advised: “Search the world, and steal the best.” (Thanks, Drayton Bird. I pilfered them from one of his excellent newsletters. He, in turn, admitted to recycling them from elsewhere.)
Note, we’re not talking plagiarism as in lifting whole sentences or claiming ideas as your own. We’re talking taking strategies and reworking them so they become your own.
“To draw you must close your eyes and sing. I begin with an idea and then it becomes something else.”
Plan on the back of a cigarette packet
Be clear about what exactly you want students (or readers) to take away. Write it down, but allow yourself no more space than the back of a cigarette packet or a 3-by-5 inch record card. This concentrates the mind, make no mistake. One of the wisest things I learned was: “Teach less and they’ll learn more.”
Teachers know not to overfill. TMI – Too Much Information – is fatal in ad copy and lesson delivery. “Say less, communicate more” is the mantra I now live by.
Spoon-feeding, as an analogy and approach, has a bad rap, but it serves as a reminder that information has to be processed by the consumer. And this takes time. Feed the baby slowly; give them time to chew, swallow, and digest.
Focus on one thing at a time
Goal dilution tells us that the more goals we have, the less likely we are to achieve them.
Spoon-feeding tells us to make things bite-size and concentrate on each mouthful at a time. Targets, as well as information, appear more achievable when broken down into discrete, doable units. Ogilvy’s “10 Minute Shake-Up” campaign encouraged kids to exercise by breaking it down into short bursts. Similarly, teachers inculcate the reading habit by asking reluctant readers to read for “just 5 minutes” every night. Teachers know that, with the right selection of books, five minutes soon becomes 10 minutes and longer. Healthy habit formation is at the heart of learning. “Just five minutes” becomes a key mantra.
Think in terms of mantras, formulae, soundbites, or straplines
Writing courses is similar to planning marketing campaigns. Teachers, like copywriters, are in the meme business, or making learning sticky.
You’ll be familiar with some of these – sorry, more shameless pilfering.
i before e except after c (for the e-sound)
the PEE formula (point, evidence, explanation)
thesis, antithesis, synthesis
Here are some of my own...
If you’re head’s not burning, you’re not learning (we’re only making progress when we’re adapting to navigate the unfamiliar – and that’s hard work)
First thought, worst thought (move beyond clichés; move beyond the obvious; don’t just parrot what everyone else is saying)
Am I bothered? (prompt more arresting openings)
Where’s the burger? (where’s the meat of the essay? This is all processed padding and limp lettuce)
Show me the evidence
Prove it (to prompt more quotations and other references to the text – precise detail improves any piece of writing)
Shakespeare didn’t write in a box (don’t forget context)
Stage not page (remember it’s a play to be acted on a stage – context again)
Prune the prose (admittedly this sometimes needs explaining, but the alliteration and repetition eventually seals it in their memory banks)
Let’s hammer the grammar
Look how far you’ve come
You couldn’t do x last month. Next week you’ll find this easy
If an idiot like me can do this, you lot can
“Life’s not fair” won’t get you very far
Where there’s a skill, there’s a way
Get the framing right
As the above illustrate, it’s not what you say, but the way that you say it. (That’s what get results, as the song goes 🎵 .) This is obvious really, but people lose sight of this when they focus solely on the message itself.
Simple language, punchy rhythms, repetition, climaxes, rule of 3, arresting imagery, unusual combinations, and tweaking clichés all make memorable soundbites. And repetition at regular intervals will seal the message until it eventually sticks.
“Children are 22 times more likely to remember a fact when it is wrapped up in a story.”
Jerome Bruner, cognitive psychologist
Teach through stories
There’s a real buzz these days about storytelling marketing, but it’s nothing new. Jesus, Muhammad, and the Buddha were all powerful influencers and they all taught through stories. Why?
Well, we process the concrete – the sensory, the tangible – more quickly than the abstract. The phrase “red roses” resonates more than the word “romance”. We’ve also evolved to relate to people and faces rather than things. Babies illustrate this perfectly. Finding a friendly face is a matter of survival. Connection, and its sister empathy, are key traits.
Add to that the phenomenon of neural coupling, where we experience echoes of emotions felt by characters in a story. Monkey see, monkey feel. When we read about the heroine’s trepidation as she ascends the creaking staircase, we feel it ourselves. In this way, stories spark emotions which in turn soften us up or make us more receptive to outside influences or messaging. They trigger teachable moments which stay with us.
So, as Claude C Hopkins says in Scientific Advertising, “Whenever possible we introduce a personality into our ads.”
Seize upon stories that interest them
Newsjacking, in marketing terms, means joining conversations at the water cooler.
At the time of writing, it’s Boris Johnson telling us, “’Tis the season to be jolly careful.” I opened a LinkedIn post thus:
Wreck the fall with lockdown folly
’Tis the season to be jolly...
Don we now PPE apparel
Blah la la la la la la la
You get the picture.
Shared interest is a shortcut. That’s your way in; that’s the chink in their armour.
Your pupils are mad keen football fans? Look at Marcus Rashford’s persuasive language when discussing child food poverty.
In a similar vein, I was helping my son with homework on the language of advertising. He found my examples about as interesting as the intricacies of international employment legislation, but couldn’t get enough of Coke ads and had some great things to say about them.
(Sadly, overprescriptive curriculums and lack of trust in teachers are killing this sort of spontaneity in the classroom. When everyone along the corridor was teaching the same poem, at the same time, and in the same way, as dictated by the powers that be, all of the joy leached out of teaching for me.)
“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
William Butler Yeats
Let them do some of the work
Let them work it out for themselves. The best copy and the best teaching often work through implication.
Take Nike’s immortal slogan “Just do it”. The reader can make of that what they will. They write the story. Most importantly, they place themselves at the heart of it.
Meaning is a product of what is read and how it is interpreted. Both reader and writer make meaning. We’re born storytellers and imagining is as natural to us as breathing or talking or movement.
Teachers and writers work with not against this. They let their audience work things out for themselves and take ownership of the message. No one likes to be led by the nose. Dadsplaining is excruciating for everyone except dad, who seizes upon every opportunity as if it’s his last chance to play the Dane.
Sometimes you have to spell it out
That said, sometimes you need to show, sometimes you need to tell.
Clear instruction is the foundation of good teaching.
If a class has homework that evening, it’s best to repeat that message at intervals through the lesson, just as you have to sprinkle clear, dynamic imperatives or calls to action throughout a web page or direct response newsletter, so that no one misses it.
With that in mind, if you’re looking to make the words work a little harder, get in touch. I’d love to help if I can.