3 basic attitudes that make copy great
This is a follow-up from my previous post, Notes on Tone, in which I argued that tone of voice is the opposite of a verbal flourish – but comes from your attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions about your audience: your stance, if you like. (Head here if you haven’t read it). That post was all about explaining this idea. In this one, I try to define what a good stance looks like, i.e. one that results in content with an authoritative, trustworthy ‘tude.
I’m currently reading “How to own the room” by Viv Groskop, a book designed to help women become more confident speakers. It analyses famous women’s speeches – Michelle Obama’s, Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie’s, JK Rowling’s etc — and pulls out certain characteristics of their speaking style that make them exceptional. It’s a pretty good read (probably works for most blokes, too) and it’s got a few excellent bits. One of them is the idea of “happy high status”:
Groskop identifies “happy high status” as an essential element of Michelle Obama’s public speaking performances. It’s basically the idea that if you’re a famous, well-respected person — like George Clooney at a cocktail party — you can do things that other people might find embarrassing, or de-grading, and that might fluster them. In her example, a party guest mistakes black-tie’d George Clooney for a waiter, and asks him for a drink. And instead of getting angry, or annoyed, or yelling “don’t you know who I am!”, good ole tuxedoed George grabs a drink from the real waiter and hands it to the guest, with a smile. That’s happy high status — an unshakeable confidence in who you are and where you’re at. And Groskop’s point is that when you have it, no inappropriate, ‘lowly’ request or misstep will take it away from you. Not even touching the Queen on the back, which apparently Michelle did at one point.
Her other, and maybe even more important point is that Michelle Obama wasn’t born with happy high status. That she had to build up to it, and that it took her a while. And that this means everyone else can learn it, too. (Phew.)
Happy high status in writing
Groskop goes on to argue that “happy high status” isn’t actually conferred by society. It’s an inner attitude that anyone can achieve, regardless of social hierarchy. And when it’s genuine, it’ll make your public speech resonate like nothing else — because it transmits that you’re at ease, happy where you’re at, and not trying to hide anything. But – and this is key – it’s impossible to fake happy high status.
It seems to me that she’s describing the exact same thing that I called a ‘stance’ in my previous post. Well, she talks about public speaking, not content or copywriting. But they all come down to rhetoric. And her analysis holds some terrific stance advice for copywriters – and the brands we write for:
Get to a point where you’re comfortable in your role as a writer.
For a public speaker, it means projecting that you belong up there on stage (Groskop looks at Michelle Obama’s speaking performances over a period of ten years – and claims that in her early ones, she visibly disliked the publicity).
For a copywriter, especially when you’re writing about a niche subject you’ve only just discovered (data privacy engineering or the intricacies of airplane sanding and re-painting, for instance), this can be hard. You might be writing for an audience of specialists, and trying to tell them something new about their world. That can be bloody terrifying. But it’s all the more important that you project confidence in your writing, and signal that you’ve got something interesting to say. (Because if you don’t believe it, your readers definitely won’t.)
It might take a few days of research to get there, or a couple of interviews with experts. But eventually you’ll get to the point where you’ve found the hook, the entry point int your story, and you know you’ve got something good to say. You’re invested, and you care. You’ve earned the right to write about this.
In a public speaking engagement, this might mean revealing some of your personal experience, not just talking about a theoretical concept. Groskop refers to a speech of Obama’s in which she opened up about her relationship with her daughters, and how that earned her the trust and attention of her audience.
As a copywriter, it means focusing on the value of your copy to your audience. You’re demanding your reader’s attention, after all. And attention doesn’t come for free. Be generous with what you know. It’s what drives people to your content, and it’s the only thing that will sustain their interest.
Respect your audience
This follows directly from the above. For a public speaker, it’s about engaging with their audience – by the way they speak, and how they interact, keep eye contact, etc. For a copywriter I think it simply means that you need do the groundwork of checking that you’re actually hitting the ‘interesting’ mark with your audience – i.e. do your homework, make sure you understand where they’re at, and what they’re likely to know.
I also believe that you should be careful not to talk down to your imagined reader, but engage in an honest dialogue. Think of them as that whip-smart friend of yours who you think so highly of. You wouldn’t insult their intelligence, would you? You wouldn’t waste their time waffling on and on? So don’t so it to your target audience either. For example, if you’re writing a piece of sales collateral, don’t pretend it’s something different. Acknowledge that you’re selling, but offer something valuable in return. Show them that respect. It’s the secret trick that stops your copy smelling of marketing.
Happy high status is your best default tone of voice
And that’s pretty much it. And while it sounds straightforward, “happy high status” in content is quite hard to achieve – because it’s not about crowd manipulation or cheap tricks. It means being comfortable enough to admit that you can’t help with certain things, and suck at others. It’s about accepting that people might disagree with you – and still being happy to put yourself out there.
But the thing of beauty is this: with a bit of work, every writer can get there. If you’re genuinely respectful, generous and honest while you’re writing, good copy will happen. You will be providing value, and engage your audience – no matter what your tone of voice guidelines say. (And even if you have no tov guidelines at all.) Your writing may not be perfect, or super polished. But you will have done something 90% of all copy out there doesn’t achieve.
And with content pouring left and right out of the well-budgeted brand megaphones, we can’t afford to miss out on this differentiation. It’s liberating, and the best strategy to drive the old marketing moths out of the content closet.
You can find Vivian Groskop’s book here. If you’re going to buy it, please support an independent bookseller.