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How to make a copywriter happy? Give them a clear brief

The other day I was approached by a client who asked me the following question:

“Can you make my product sound nice please?”

“Yeah sure,” I replied. “What’s the product and who are you selling it to?”

Dear reader, my abject failure in getting a clear answer to this question is the subject of this blog. What I’m talking about here is the importance of a clear brief. To a copywriter there is nothing more defeating, more humiliatingly failure-inducing than an unclear brief.

Frankly, I should have known better. Here's the story...

What’s the product?

This was my first mistake.

Yep, it was my fault. I’m not criticising the client because there wouldn't be any point. It was my job to establish, clarify and then double-check what The Product actually is.

The Product in this particular tale had more reincarnations than the Dalai Lama. Its identity changed day by day. Meanwhile, one draft after another was written, sent off, rejected and rewritten with virtually no progress.

To write convincingly about anything, copywriters first need to ascertain that we are not, in fact, writing about “anything”. We need to define exactly what we are describing. If you can be clear about what you're offering, a copywriter will find any number of ways to sell it. Trying to create words around a vague, nebulous shape-shifter is like fighting demons with a peeled banana.

Who are you selling to?

I never got a clear answer to this question but thought it would be OK. This was my second mistake.

Have you seen a movie called “The Thing”? The Product’s target market was a bit like that monster at the end of the film. Every time I got a handle on one person, another quite different creature would emerge horribly from the original.

Is it a man? A woman? A dog? Oh, it’s everyone. Great.

To get the right conversational voice, copywriters “talk” to just one person when we're writing. The more we know about that person, the better the voice. Who is your customer? It's fine to be vague and actually, it's OK if you don't know.  Most copywriters prefer the refreshingly honest “I’ve no idea” over the multi-headed monster that is "everyone".

What do you mean by “nice”?

“Well, just kind of nice really.”

Language is a tricky thing and hitting the right tone of voice requires effort and skill. The fluid perception of words hovers over every copywriter’s shoulder and one person’s interpretation is rarely going to match another’s. But please, give us a clue.

Thankfully, this story ended happily ever after. I eventually produced some killer copy for The Product and apparently, it's selling like umbrellas in a rainstorm. But it was time-consuming for me and, more importantly, time-wasting for my client.

Copywriters are never going to get it completely right for everyone. But the more accurate your briefing, the less likely we are to make mistakes.

Helen Beckingham is an SEO copywriter at Keyword Copywriting. Expert scribbler on websites, blogs and e-books, rather good bassoonist, terrible singer. Contact helen@keywordcopywriting.co.uk here