zen, stones, peace-686333.jpg

Simplicity:Attention He swears to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth…Yes I swear


For a while, the cars used by BSM (a leading UK driving school) carried this slogan:Learn to drive

That’s right – just those three words.

It seems almost too simple to be true, but if we unpack it we can see that this little sentence accomplishes four very important functions:

· It clearly defines the product (driving tuition).

· It communicates a key benefit of the product (you’ll learn to drive).

· It sets out a strong call to action, commanding the reader to act (learn to drive!)

· Through its basic, generic phrasing, it confirms BSM’s market positioning – the market leader, default option or natural choice.

Notice how this slogan respects its readers. Nobly declining to spin or sugarcoat its message, it gives customers some credit as thinkers and choosers, setting out the stall and letting them decide. Its simple, solid language makes counterparts like ‘For the road ahead’ (AA’s corporate tagline at the time) sound pretentious and patronising. (Most effective slogans are simple, but not all simple slogans are effective.)

But is it really copywriting? After all, it’s ‘just’ a simple, everyday phrase. There’s nothing really there – no technique, no clever choice of words, no sophisticated appeal to the emotions, no carefully judged tone of voice. Was it even deliberately created? Did, perhaps, the designer just insert it as a placeholder until the real slogan was created?

It doesn’t matter. Great ideas are where you find them. ‘Yesterday’ came to Paul McCartney in a dream. And if this phrase did come from a copywriter, it was an exceptionally intelligent, brave and independent one. Someone who wasn’t afraid to put forward the right solution – not the one that made them look clever, sophisticated or hardworking. For their part, BSM deserve praise for setting aside corporate pride and brand insecurity so they could communicate with customers in the most direct way possible.

Achieving this kind of simplicity isn’t necessarily easy, quick or straightforward. Pablo Picasso said, ‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.’ Often, our first ideas are convoluted and confused as we try too hard to make something special, original or arresting. Then, over time and through many revisions, the diligent copywriter discards what isn’t needed to arrive at the essential.

When the answer comes, it can seem ridiculously simple. But that’s how you know it’s right.

Imagine asking a group of women what they love most about their husbands. One says he’s kind, charming, thoughtful, generous and handsome. Another simply says he makes her laugh. Whose opinion will you remember the next day?

Of course, not every brand, product or value proposition can be reduced to three words. Complex technical products and B2B services are very often tough to boil down to pithy phrases that don’t sound glib. But when it comes to developing the messages about a brand or product, it still pays to focus on, or organise around, a single idea.

Trying to cover too many ideas dilutes the audience’s cognitive resources and introduces ambiguity over the key message. It turns a straight-line narrative route into a garden of forking paths. It can only reduce the space you devote to hammering home the key idea. And, most importantly, it sends an implicit message of uncertainty and bet-hedging.

What constitues ‘too many ideas’ depends on context. For a short-copy ad, ‘too many’ means ‘more than one’. The copywriter is looking for copy, imagery and layout to dramatise a single key benefit in an arresting and memorable way. Anything beyond that is not needed. Company taglines are also strongest when they express just one corporate character trait, instead of trying to cram in two or three.

Longer copy assignments, obviously, will have more points to make. But they’ll still need a unifying theme or structure. And each paragraph will still need to say as few things as possible – ideally, just one.

Although writing to a formula is probably a bad idea, there’s a lot to be said for three sentences per paragraph. The first introduces an idea, the second develops or explains it and the third adds proof or punch. See how I’ve done it in this paragraph, and several others in this section.

It’s natural for projects to pick up content themes over time, like a snowball rolling down a mountain – the phenomenon known as ‘feature creep’ in tech product development. So achieving one-idea focus may involve getting rid of distracting extra stuff, or perhaps reassigning it to another campaign or publication where it will be more valuable.

The process can be challenging, but the outcome is worth it. While you may feel something’s been lost, what you’ve gained is more important: copy that you can be confident in, with the best possible chance of being read and remembered.


Author: Lom