Corporate Employee Benefits-at-a-Glance

Striking the Right Tone with Your Clients

When it comes to advertising copy, few things are as important – and as hard to pin down – as tone. Any client can tell you what kind of widget they sell and why their widget is better than their competitors’ widgets – but not all clients have a clear idea of what tone they’re looking for. And, as a copywriter, it’s your job to help them find out. Unless, of course, you really want to write five zillion drafts of that web page until you get the tone just right.

Deciding on tone isn’t as black-and-white as, say, figuring out whether your client prefers bullet points or paragraphs. And, tone is extremely subjective: Something that sounds fun and innovative to one client may seem dry and technical to another.

So, how do you know exactly what your client means when he says that he wants something “energetic, yet fiscally responsible” or “high-energy and professional”?

Read on for a few tips for pitch-perfect tone:

1. Make a list of adjectives. Ask your client for five adjectives that describe her business. For example, does she see her company as hip and cutting-edge? Or would she prefer a straightforward and businesslike approach? Getting a few good descriptive words down is always a good starting point.

2. Ask about your client’s favorite websites (or print ads or blogs). Ask your client for a list of websites he likes, and then go visit them. You should get a pretty clear idea of the tone he has in mind. If all of the websites are serious and technical, it’s probably a good indicator of the tone that will work for him.

3. Provide tone samples. Sometimes, showing is way more effective than telling, and tone samples are a quick and effective way to provide your client with options. Take one page of copy (something pretty basic – I usually like to start with the home page), and rewrite it two or three different ways. Comparing tones side-by-side makes it much easier for you (and your client) to decide which one works.

Keep in mind that, when writing tone samples, it’s absolutely critical that you keep the same information in each sample. If one tone sample includes, say, a list of products and the other sample has a Q & A section, your client may get distracted by the differences in information and pay less attention to tone.

4. Identify your client’s target audience. Tone is going to vary by audience, so make sure you understand exactly who your client is trying to reach. A website geared toward teenage skateboard enthusiasts will be completely different in tone than a website aimed at nuclear physicists, or retirees, or stay-at-home-moms, etc.

Say Goodbye to Fluffy Web Copy

So, how many websites have you visited that are “dedicated to providing superior customer service”? Or whose “mission it is to make customer satisfaction a top priority”? Or whose products and services “meet your needs”?

And so on.

Fluffy phrases like this are easy to write and, on paper, they sound nice. After all, who doesn’t want superior customer service? Problem is, these phrases have been done to death and overused to the point where they don’t mean a darned thing. And, they do absolutely nothing to drive sales or tell visitors what you actually do (other than provide “superior” customer service).

Good web copy should be clear and easy to understand. It should tell visitors what you do and how you do it. It should provide solutions. Good web copy should contain real information, not meaningless buzzwords.

Here’s what I mean:

“At XYZ Law Firm, our mission/our goal is to . . .” Instead of telling potential customers what you’d like to do, tell them what you actually do. Use strong verbs and clear language. Instead, try something like “At XYZ law firm, we . . . “

“At Uncle Bob’s Mini-Storage, we are dedicated to providing the utmost customer service . . .” Okay, that’s nice and all, but can I store my priceless antiques there? Is there 24-7 security? It’s better to get to the point. For example, “At Uncle Bob’s Mini Storage, we provide gated storage units and round-the-clock surveillance to protect your valuables . . .”

“At Mama’s Restaurant, customer satisfaction is our #1 goal.” Okay, but what do you serve? Do you have breakfast? Why should I eat at Mama’s? Good web copy should entice readers to try out your menu. How about: “At Mama’s, we’ve been serving up old-fashioned, down-home favorites since 1952. From huevos rancheros to chicken-fried steak and gravy, we’ll satisfy your big Texas appetite, 24/7.”

Have any other suggestions for killer web copy? Want to add to my list of fluffy words and phrases? Leave a comment!

Redundant and Repetitive

There is a lot to be said of brevity. Shakespeare wrote somewhat ironically through the mouthpiece of the long-winded Polonius in Hamlet that “brevity is the soul of wit.”

And William Strunk reminds us in Elements of Style that “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

Excellent copywriting should be brief and vibrant; take care to remove any unneeded “filler” words and phrases. It is important to look for these filler words that drag your copy down, making them dull and redundant.

One example of redundancy that rings clear in my mind comes from my elementary school grammar class: “I was home alone, all by myself.” Unless you’re using this sentence to create a character or style specific to your work, this is poor writing. To say that “I was home alone” necessarily implies that I am “all by myself,” making the second half of this sentence useless from a copywriter’s standpoint.

But what about those common phrases that can be easy to overlook – is something “absolutely essential,” or is it simply “essential?” “Basic fundamentals” are either “basics” or “fundamentals,” both able to stand alone quite nicely. Now consider “past experience,” “new innovations,” “qualified expert,” and “postpone until later” – there are better, briefer alternatives to all of these phrases.

A little hard-nosed editing will rid your copy of these superfluous filler verbs. In summarizing this already much-too-long blog about brevity, remember the words of Thomas Jefferson:

“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”