Why Great Copy is a Conversation,
Not a Soliloquy

Hamlet's Soliloquy

This is a guest post by Dan O’Sullivan.

Have you ever been trapped at a party with someone who can’t stop talking about himself?

You know the type. He goes on and on about his plans for renovating the guest bedroom, his battles with back spasms last weekend, or the latest accomplishments of his remarkable toddler.

The topics are seemingly endless.

Along the way, you might pick up an interesting tidbit or two about raising a gifted child. But when you finally extract yourself from the soliloquy, you feel annoyed (“That’s 30 minutes of my life I’ll never get back”) and maybe even angry (“The jerk never asked me about my family”).

As copywriters, we notice a lot of Web sites, brochures and data sheets that are the marketing equivalent of that guy. That is, they breathlessly expound about the company’s offering without actually addressing what’s in it for the customer. All features, no benefits.

So, how do you avoid being that guy?

It’s all about adopting the right mind-set. When you’re working on new marketing materials, take a step back and assume the role of a skeptical customer. Ask yourself: Why should she care about your product? How will it make her life better or easier? What are the damn benefits?

Yes, you should still refer to those spectacular features (“The advanced design makes this the world’s sharpest knife …”). But don’t stop there. Think of the skeptical customer, and then state how your product will benefit her (“… so you can slit your throat quickly and easily if you get stuck talking to that guy“).

That may be an extreme example, but try it with any product or service feature. If it helps, use the transitional words “which means” or “so you can” and then state how the feature benefits the customer.

This might seem like obvious advice. But keep in mind that as a company insider it’s easy to get caught up in the bells and whistles of a new product. Just remember: Your customers don’t always care about what matters to you.

Communicating what matters to your customers will make your marketing much more effective — and ensure you never become that guy.

Dan O’Sullivan is a partner at The Hired Pens, a Boston-based copywriting firm.

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Reader Comments (31)

  1. says

    Additional tip: Count the number of times you use the word “you” in your copy – If you’re saying “I” more than “you,” then you’re probably that guy.

  2. says

    Wow, Dan. You’ve got great timing, I was just working on my website!

    Between you and Anna (who I recently featured over at About Freelancing), The Hired Pens must be on FIRE:)

  3. says

    This reminds me of the saying “People don’t want to buy drill bits. They want to buy holes.” Focusing on the outcome is the way to go, every time.

    (Gee, you were really selling that knife, weren’t you? Slitting your own throat to get out of a conversation is pretty rough, but if it can be done ‘quickly’ and ‘easily’? Sold!)

  4. says

    I think I met “that guy” at a wedding last week. On a more serious note Dan makes some great points. Every company could benefit from putting the needs of their customers first. Companies are great at touting features but fail miserably when it comes to communicating how those features will benefit users. A great copywriter once told me, “Great copy is about them, not you.” So simple, so right!

  5. says

    Since the copy is to be used to communicate with the prospective buyer, we are communicating with the buyer which begs the question of conversation vs soliloquy. Communication like conversation is a two way street.

  6. says

    Thanks for reminding us to keep a sharp focus on customer perspective.

    I especially liked when you pointed to the reality behind effective markting: our customers don’t always care about what matters to us.

    So it’s up to us to target our message around what matters to them.


  7. says

    I recently applied some of the copywriting techniques I learned here to writing a killer ‘apartment for rent’ ad on CraigsList. It was so different from the usual ad that I couldn’t keep up with the calls and emails. I found a great tenant in only two days! One caller left a message saying, “You’re right. Those are the reasons why I want to live there.” It was amazing the responses that I got.

  8. says

    The point of this article goes beyond copywriting. It stretches to all avenues of marketing. Whether it’s blogging, writing an apartment ad like Steve did, or selling a guitar in a guitar store . . . you have to show your customers the benefits of what you are selling (or saying) and not simply the features. They are human. So speak to them in terms they can relate to.

    Who buys a hot tub because an ad mentions it features 30 jets? What they are really buying is the benefit of those 30 jets; the way those 30 jets make them feel after they have messaged their body. So tell them about it!

    Keep in mind to always point out benefits to your buyers. So many Realtors miss this point when they advertise a house. Sell the sizzle, not the steak!

    Good article, Dan.

  9. says

    EMPATHY – is something that one has naturally.

    Not everyone has the capacity to see the other person’s perspective.

    Some are completely self absorbed and will always be that way, regardless of how they are tutored.

    Their brains just are not wired to think outside of their focus.

  10. says

    To do this well, you really have to know the “you” you’re talking to. If you don’t have any knowledge about your audience, it will be really hard to supply them with the answer they are looking for.

  11. says

    Good tips, Dan. This is a nice reminder for those of us who are in-house copywriters. Unlike freelancers, we tend to be very close to the product(s), so it’s sometimes harder to remember that we’re supposed to be providing value and benefit to the audience, not just the company (after all, if the audience can see no benefit, they won’t become a paying customer).

  12. says

    Piggybacking on commenter #1, Jon, try to stay away from the (self-serving) pronouns “I” and “me” as much as you can in your marketing copy.

    If you must refer to yourself, use the more collective “our” because it’s so much more inclusive than the self-serving “me, me, me.”

    Yuwanda Black

  13. says

    Excellent points. I — I mean “you” — I mean “we” — should always try to get ourselves in the habit of divorcing ourselves from the product before we begin writing about it. Nice Web site, too. Best read of my day, easily.

  14. says

    Your article describes networking events and why I loathe them. The ones that do the talking are never the ones that start the conversation.

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