Written by Charles Dalton-Holmes

Good business writing, or copywriting, is content that is intended to encourage its readers to take action. It can be anything from a short advertising slogan through to sales leaflets, articles, website copy, white papers and reports.

Copywriting needs to be many things. It should be clear, concise, honest and authentic. It should convey valuable, useful and actionable information. It should be engaging and bring its subjects to life. It should be persuasive and make its case effectively, without being over-blown or over-hyped.

1. Know your target readership

Consider what level of awareness your readers have about the issue you are covering and write accordingly. Copywriting expert, Ray Edwards, talks about his OPEN model: Oblivious, Pondering, Engaged, Needing. Oblivious readers will need more background information and a more comprehensive introduction of the topic, answering the critical ‘so what?’ question. Pondering readers have done some research and are looking for the next steps. Engaged readers are looking for potential solutions. Readers with an urgent need want a solution as quickly as possible. These four broad categories point to quite different approaches from your copy. Often you won’t be addressing just one of those groups and your readership will be mixed. However, it is still a good idea to keep these groups in mind and ensure that each has its needs met within your copy.

2. Write from the perspective of your readers

Be clear on who you are writing to, why you are writing and what you want your readers to do with the information. Understand what their motivation is likely to be. Know why they might buy / make a decision / take action, and know what might prevent them from doing so – and address that in your copy.

3. Get your timing right

Avoid what marketing guru, Seth Godin, terms ‘interruption marketing’, where content is foisted on clients at random intervals whether they have asked for it or not. This intrusive approach will be far less likely to result in your material being read or to prompt any action. He describes attention and trust as being the two scarcest commodities amongst readers. We all need to be mindful not to abuse that trust with sub-standard, unwelcome or intrusive material. Be timely. Be relevant. Give people information at the time when it’s most useful to them.

4. Map out a good structure

Ray Edwards recommends his PASTOR structure for content:

  • Define the problem, in order to prompt or provoke your reader. 
  • Articulate the real cost of not taking action now (avoiding crude scare tactics).
  • Story-tell as clearly, concisely and engagingly as possible, and framed to match your readers’ viewpoints, setting out the solution.
  • Provide testimony (evidence, proof or case studies to demonstrate the efficacy of the solution).
  • Provide an offer or encouragement to nudge your reader to take prompt action.
  • Provide the opportunity for a response (this is the call to action, what should readers do next, how to get hold of you, etc – and also explain the results that they can expect). 

5. The secret to good copywriting is a conversational style

Copywriting should not follow the same rigid structure and style as academic essay writing. It is essentially about storytelling and, where possible, engaging emotions. Reflect your reader’s language, terminology and concerns. Keep things as simple as possible. Use the active tense, short words, short sentences and short paragraphs – good copywriting must flow.

6. Don’t get hung up on word count

With the exception of specific word limits for newspaper or magazine articles, good copy doesn’t normally have a defined length. The best advice is that it is as long as it needs to be to make its case effectively in the most succinct way possible. If you are stuck on how much detail to provide, a challenging exercise is to summarise your key information on one page, then to condense that down into just a paragraph, and then to see if you can get it down to a single sentence or two to encapsulate your central argument. Which version appears to be most persuasive or appropriate for the needs of your readers?

7. Pay attention to the format in which your copy will be published

Be appropriate to your platform. For example, webcopy, and especially anything that might end up being read on a mobile phone screen, must be short and snappy, requiring minimal swiping, clicking or scrolling. On the other hand, hard copy reports allow for much greater description, detail and depth.

8. Don’t just think in terms of words

As the saying goes, a picture tells a thousand words, so think about saving on the word count. In our increasingly digital and screen-based world, don’t overlook the power of a good headline and strong imagery to go with your words. This draws readers in. Is there anything that could be better presented in infographic form? This is visually appealing and helps to get your point over quickly and effectively.

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