Marketing can be a strange and hectic job sometimes. And one of the most valuable things I’ve learned along the way is how to write quickly.
Beyond all the last-minute video scripts, ads, social media posts, and website copy I’ve written over the years, perhaps most bizarre is that I’ve even had to write and deliver industry-specific speeches on behalf of clients on three different continents—each time with just a few hours’ notice.
I say this not to make my job sound hard, but to demonstrate how easy it can be. Because I’ve always been able to fall back on a simple principle:
“Tell the truth and make it interesting.” — David Ogilvy
Describing his own writing style as “a silk glove with a brick inside it,” Ogvily believed that the best way to make an impression was with facts and information, well stated.
And that’s long been the advice of the world’s most celebrated marketers.
Mary Wells Lawrence, the mind behind some of history’s most famous ad campaigns, wrote in her autobiography that “there is nothing better than a fact if you have a great one.“
John E. Powers, who arguably invented modern ad writing around the turn of the 20th century, said there are two important things in advertising:
“The most important thing in advertising is getting the attention of the reader,” he said. “The next most important thing is to stick to the truth.”
Because if you narrow the focus of your job to telling the truth and making it interesting, the words actually come easily. It’s when we think we need to embellish, distract, or pretend that we get into trouble.
The truth can, of course, pose a challenge for a writer who needs to promote a business with some rough edges. But Powers meant what he said.
“That means rectifying whatever’s wrong in the merchant’s business,” he insisted. “If the truth isn’t tellable, fix it so it is.”
We need to make sure that what we’re promoting is actually worth buying, and if there are tradeoffs inherent in the purchase—and there always are—we should be upfront about them.
It’s not about being perfect, it’s about providing real value, and being honest about the tradeoffs we’ve made. Because the best part is, that will make us more successful, not less.
“Your prospects know you're not perfect, so don't pretend to be,” Josh Kaufman wrote in The Personal MBA. “People actually get suspicious when something appears to be ‘too good to be true.’”
“Instead of making them wonder,” he continued, “tell them yourself. By being upfront with your prospects regarding drawbacks and trade-offs, you'll enhance your trustworthiness and close more sales.”
Marketing that highlights perceived downsides can be funny, eye-catching, and extremely effective. And when we’re honest, the right types of clients will be drawn to us—the ones who truly value what we sell.
But telling the truth takes more than mere willingness to be honest. It takes knowing the truth.
To be able to write quickly, I need to know to whom, exactly, I’m writing—one person in particular—and how the business I’m promoting is uniquely able to help them overcome an obstacle in their life.
And I need to identify the action I want them to take today and in the future based on what I’ve told them.
This upfront work can feel like it’s slowing me down, but it always leads to a faster result.
Because we rarely need inspiration—what we need is information.
We need a marketing position.
We need a clear and real problem we’re trying to solve.
And we need an identified and interested customer set we’re looking to target.
Without all of those, we’re not telling the truth, we’re just talking. And if we’re only interested in getting noticed and not on getting sales, we’re not marketing, we’re just making noise.
“Here’s the test,” legendary copywriter Bob Levenson said. “If you look at a commercial and fall in love with the brilliance of it, try taking the product out of it. If you still love the commercial, it’s no good.”
“Don’t make your commercial interesting;” he said, “Make your product interesting.”
The same goes for our social media posts, our videos, our search ads, our website, and everything else. We need to make what we’re selling interesting, not just the words and images we use to sell it.
Clever wordplay, powerful phrases, and inspirational imagery are necessary and vital amplifiers of the truth. But if people remember our post but not our product, we’ve wasted our time and theirs.
We’re writing to create customers, promote our services, and make an impact in the world with our business—and that requires more than attention.
It requires truth.
So if you’ve got marketing to write, and precious little time to write it—like, I suspect, nearly everyone—these are my tips:
Figure out what you want the person to do with the information you’re providing to them.
Think of why they would want to do that, not just why you want them to.
Identify the barriers in the way of them making progress in that direction.
Then, think of a creative way to get their attention. Perhaps through a unique choice of medium, visual, humor, or context.
Use your words to demonstrate how your business is uniquely able to help them get what they want, by taking the action you want them to take.
Be open about the trade-offs and decisions you’ve made—make light of them, even—because that will endear you to the right people.
Make it uncompromisingly easy for them to take the action you’re suggesting.
And refine, adjust, and improve as you experiment and learn.
That’s how you tell the truth, and make it interesting.