I write the signs. I write the signs. (Interpretative content guidelines for professional copywriters)

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As a professional copywriter bereft of a specialty, I get to work on a remarkable array of projects.

One of my favourites is developing content for interpretative signage (or interp’s projects, as they’re known in the industry).

You’ve all seen them … those signs fringing the trail as you wander through coastal wetlands, the storyboards at historical homesteads, the panels that describe how the early mariners were shipwrecked just off the shoreline (then invite you to press the big red button to hear a recreated audio track of their desperate cries amongst the roaring winds and screeching seabirds).

Interp’s often combine placemarking (naming and directional signage) with placemaking (creating a memorable experience in a particular environment). They can interpret many ideas and concepts – social and cultural history, geological history, natural/environmental values and more.

On most interp’s projects I team with a creative director/designer who specialises in interpretation and can guide the layout of the signs to fit the physical space. We’ll collaborate on theming and messages and then, depending on the level of resources provided by the client, I will research the background and the topics before outlining the specific information to be included.

That’s the fun part – interviewing the locals, poking around at historical societies, searching the internet, online libraries, archives and public records authorities.

All the while, I’m keeping an eye out for images (and usage permissions) to complement the interpretative text.

Sam Ham’s book Interpretation – A Guide for Making a Difference on Purpose, describes the TORE model of interpretation – Thematic, Organised, Relevant, Enjoyable.

The process of developing interpretative content shares many of its principles with other forms of copywriting. It’s all about knowing your audience, identifying your key messages, finding the right voice and engaging your reader sufficiently to achieve your objective. Most interp’s are aimed at educating and inspiring the audience whilst positively engaging them in the experience of the physical environment.

These are my go-to guidelines for creating interpretative copy.

Pitch it low

Interpretation is there to help the reader understand. Most interp’s projects I’m involved in relate to tourist destinations. The target audience is diverse … in age, gender, education, ethnic background, interest level. For a general public audience at a tourist destination, the pitch should centre on the reading /comprehension level of 9-12 year olds. That’s trickier to achieve than you might think. The resources are often scientific or academic based and pitched much higher. That’s where a professional copywriter comes in.

Layer it

The audience will always include a cross-section of people with different interest levels. Effective content layers the information, from introductory material to explanatory to more detailed or technical information. Often signage can direct readers to more information online (QR codes are popular), in brochures, at information centres, even on other signs nearby. The layering allows the reader to digest the content at his or her own level.

Engage with it

Interpretation often includes interactive devices (like the buttons above) but diagrams and simple analogies to illustrate complex ideas can also make the difference between engaging or losing a reader. Copywriters collaborate with creative directors/designers to seek out and incorporate opportunities for high-engagement elements.

Picture it

It’s a big call for a copywriter, to promote this but … a picture does tell a thousand words. Compelling and evocative images capture attention and drive textual stories to better understanding. A panel of text (like a full page of words) is boring and uninviting.

Mix it up

Straight prose is not everyone’s cup of tea (unless you’ve actually sat down with a cuppa to read a novel). Quality interpretation combines the written word with images (see above), audio, interactive media and more. Within the words there is room to change it up with pull quotes from oral histories, snappy facts that can be boxed out, poetry verses, song lyrics, bullet lists, headings and sub-headings. Always relevant and always on theme.

Tell a story with it

The thematic approach lets the copywriter tell a story through the signage – it can be organised chronologically, sub-thematically or as dictated by the physical setting. A story pulls the audience through the material, leads them from sign to sign, deepens their experience and helps them leave with a sense of positivity.

Make them think with it

The holy grail of interpretation is not necessarily to persuade the audience to the interpreter’s point of view. It is to provoke the audience to think.

Got you thinking?

Discover more about the mysteries of interpretation at Interpretation Australia or give me (or your favourite professional copywriter) a call to have a chat.

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Make every touchpoint count, every time

copywriting, copywriter Australia, copywriter Melbourne

Our bathroom renovation almost complete, I only needed a large wall mirror cut and installed. Sounds simple?

It should have been. But this is how it went.

I tried phoning the nearest glass supplier in my town for a quick quote. Several calls to the show room within business hours went unanswered (by human or answering machine).

Towards the end of the day I emailed the customer service team as listed on their website, asking for a quote and querying what else they needed to know to fulfil the quote. I hinted at whether I might need a bevelled edge mirror or a special adhesive because the mirror was going in a bathroom.

The next morning, I received this email (yes, all cap’s):

DEAR SHERYL

COST TO CUT AND INSTALL MIRROR WILL BE $350.

THANKS, LORRAINE

So wrong on so many levels.

Perhaps Lorraine is jaded by the volume of quotes her business is putting through. Perhaps she was just having a bad day.

Perhaps she needs some training in what real customer service looks like, because it certainly doesn’t resemble a oneliner email with no contact details, no   offer to visit to measure and no value added.  She’s left me with one option – to compare her to the competition on price only.

I emailed the second supplier an identical request and received this reply.

Hi Sheryl

Thankyou for your enquiry.

The cost to cut, deliver and install a 1600 x 1600mm mirror in your bathroom will be $375 (including GST).

A bevelled edge mirror will cost an additional $35 (Including GST). Our clients usually choose bevelled edges for traditional decors and normal edges for a more modern look.

Let me know if I can be of any more help.

Regards

James

Mobile: 0425 666 XXX

Yes, James’ email was a clear improvement on Lorraine’s. He reflected (pun intended) the mirror size back to me, confirmed that the price included GST and included the cost (and some additional info) for a bevelled edge.

James got the job, not because of his email, because of one more thing he did … I’ll tell you about that later.  On its own, James’ email was still not a deal-maker. In many ways he’d missed the opportunity to win this job in a single customer-focussed email.

What if James’ email had gone more like this?

Good Morning, Sheryl

Thanks for emailing the Cutting Edge Glass Company for a mirror quote.

The cost to cut, deliver and install a 1600 x 1600 mirror in your bathroom will be $375 (including GST).

A bevelled edge mirror will cost an additional $35 (Including GST). Our clients usually choose bevelled edges for traditional decors and normal edges for a more modern look.

For bathrooms, we recommend a specially-developed moisture-resistant adhesive for mirror installation. We don’t charge any extra for this specialty product, because we wouldn’t install a bathroom mirror without it.

Cutting mirrors is a precise craft. I’m very happy to call around (without obligation, of course) to measure your space, to check the mirror dimensions you require.

We generally suggest a 6mm mirror for these applications (which is what I have quoted for above) but can also supply in 5mm or 8mm thicknesses.

If you decide to go ahead, we can cut, deliver and install your mirror within a week. Our installation team will advise you of a one-hour window for their arrival and their job will only need access for about 30 mins. We accept payment within 48 hours of installation via EFT, credit card or cash.

If you are not normally at home during business hours, we can make other arrangement to suit you. I’m happy to collect a key and supervise the installation personally if you prefer.

Please call me personally on 0425 666 xxx if you require any further information about your bathroom mirror, or mirrors or glass for any other application.

Regards

James Sparkle / Cutting Edge Glass Company

Ph: 0425 666 xxx

http://www.cuttingedgeXXX.com

PS. We installed a mirror of similar dimensions in another home in your suburb. If you’d like to check our workmanship, I can put you in touch with that very satisfied customer.

That would have made my mind up: all my questions answered, plus some. Extra value, a demonstration of experience and mention of a satisfied customer. Tick. Tick. Tick.

And it’s not that hard.

Remember that every person in your business is a potential touchpoint for customers (not just your dedicated sales team).

Here’s a quick guide to improving customer service at EVERY touchpoint of your business.

1. Make sure your phone is answered or a message taken EVERY time it rings during business hours.

2. Provide the people answering your phones with a script and/or training and a contact-rich email signature so that they offer value, answer questions and lead customers through to a purchase decision, without over-selling.

3. Provide staff who prepare quotes for prospects with standard email/letter templates they can use to add value, cover all the bases, tick all the boxes. You might choose to have a professional copywriter help you with this process.

4. Train your staff to understand what prospective customers are calling about and how giving them what they came for (and some) translates into sales.

Now, for the deal-maker that won James the work, despite his less-than-ideal email.

What did James do next? He phoned me later in the day to ask if I had any questions. Simple, but by doing so he:

  • made me feel valued
  • reinforced the professionalism of his business
  • eliminated any niggling doubts I had
  • gave me an opportunity to decide.

And I did. There and then.

Marketing is not all about business cards and flyers. It’s about making connections and demonstrating value … at every touchpoint of your business, every time.

What do you see when you hold a mirror up to your marketing efforts?

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Webinar 101 – the rookie approach to webinar learning

Today, we (that’s my Executive Assistant, Darcy, and I) tuned in for our first ever webinar – The ProBlogger Guide to Blogging for Business (brought to us by mUmBRELLA.).

In any given week, several emails hit my inbox promoting various webinars. I’ve been routinely ignoring them while remaining ignorant about what a webinar actually is.

I wasn’t sure if I needed new software, plug-ins or other equipment. Was I expected to interact or participate? Is a webinar just an excuse to sell me something I don’t want or need?

According to Wikipedia:

 “the term webinar is short for Web-based Seminar, a presentation, lecture, workshop or seminar that is transmitted over the Web, specifically a portmanteau of web & seminar, to describe a specific type of web conference.”

Anything that has the word “portmanteau” in its description has to be worth a look and, given that this webinar was free, we had nothing to lose but an hour.

We registered for the webinar a week ahead to allow time to check out what we needed. I’ve recently converted to an iMac and am still a bit fuzzy on downloading, navigating and lots more, so this would be an extra challenge.

Our confirmation email arrived with a link to a “wizard to test your webinar setup.” Google suggested we’d be best using the Firefox browser (instead of Safari). We downloaded Firefox then the wizard-recommended file and were set – the iMac’s speakers and microphone were all the equipment needed.

The big day arrives

We clicked the “join” link in the confirmation email a little ahead of the scheduled time and were in! Two windows opened on the screen – one for the presentation and the other a smaller communication box where we were invited to type and send questions during the webinar. We could even raise our virtual hands if we wanted to pose a question verbally, using our microphone. We were also advised of a hashtag to follow the conversation on Twitter.

The host introduced himself then introduced Darren Rowse (ProBlogger) who launched into his hour-long pre-prepared presentation, including a slideshow which streamed to our screen as he spoke.

The host referred to audience comments during the presentation and Darren took and answered questions (that others had presumably asked via the window on their screen).

We felt very much integrated and part of the group, which we were told comprised 200 attendees to begin with, later peaking at 300.

Well you may ask:

Did we learn much? We learnt bucketloads! Watch this space for a soon-to-be-prepared blog post about our webinar takeaways.

Was it a worthwhile experience? Absolutely! What a perfect way for soloists and SMEs to access quality training info. I tend to read and research online – the webinar is a fresh and connective way to link into niched knowledge pools (from anywhere in the globe), without having to leave the office. This one was even scheduled as a lunchtime do-able for those on the eastern seaboard (Oz).

Was there a sell-up? Yes, yes there was, but it wasn’t overhyped or intrusive on the main body of the webinar – it was tastefully restricted to the conclusion and a follow-up email.

What did you need to prepare? Very little. Once we’d checked we had the technical stuff covered, we sat back with notepads, pens and large coffees. A very low-key, sustainable (read: zero kilometres travelled) and time-efficient way to learn.

Yes, we webinar rookies are now webinar devotees so hit us hard with your best up and coming webinars.

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Get out of my inbox! Go do something creative

Warning: ranty post following

Who wants to mark Valentine’s Day by buying a new printer cartridge? Or (for feck’s sake) gutter guard?

Not me.

I don’t want to mark Valentine’s Day at all.

Yet, it seems that everyone with something to tout thinks Valentine’s Day is an ideal time to hit my inbox with an offer.

Hell, I even had a pitch for a “Chocolate Sauce-covered Marketing Strategy”.

Unless you’re a florist, a chocolatier or a candle-lit restaurant you have no reason to be here. And I’m not going to engage with you or your offer. How could I possibly sound you out above the white noise of all the everybodies crowding into my (I repeat: MY) space?

Those pulsating love hearts you punctuate your offer with don’t help. Nor do the platitudes about “sharing the love” with me. I don’t even know you. I don’t want to know you. Not now, not at Christmas, not ever.

What lazy marketers put these “holiday” campaigns together? As a freelance copywriter, I work with creative directors planning campaigns, discussing strategies and sorting out new ways to cut through crowded communication channels.

I can’t imagine any of the marketing professionals I work with considering coinciding a marketing campaign with Valentine’s Day unless the product or proposition had a direct link. A genuine and compelling direct link. If they did, I’d surely jump up and down with protest in the creative meeting.

Christmas is just more of the same … unimaginative marketers bundling campaigns up to exploit the holiday frenzy. Why not think smarter and leave holiday advertising to toy retailers, gadget guys, smellies sellers and electronics wizzes. The rest of you aren’t likely to get a look-in anyway. I can’t see you in the crowd.

Instead, hit me mid-March or early July when I’m least expecting it. You’ll stand out, I’ll reward your strategic thinking and we might even do a deal.

But for now … get out of my inbox! Go do something creative.

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You’re worth it! Holding your ground on freelance rates

I’ve been a freelance copywriter for longer than I own up to in fresh company.

Over the years I’ve inched my professional rates up – gradually and mostly at the insistence of my accountant.

I’ve accumulated experience and developed skills that make my current rates fair for the value I offer. I’m not a big-four bank making mega-million profits. I’m just making a living, doing something I love and something I’m good at.

Yet I still feel occasional pressure to discount my rates. My policy is to stand my ground on freelance copywriting rates. Firmly.

At the end of last year I lost a long-term national client when they undertook a joint venture with an overseas entity. They had new blood, innovative ideas and a no-editorial approach to their publication. I wasn’t being replaced; they simply no longer required copywriting services.

A few weeks ago I was contacted by the new editor to discuss helping them fill a gap in the upcoming edition of their magazine. I responded with three industry- and audience-relevant story ideas and estimated costs based on the same deal I had with the previous business.

Their response? That I was too expensive. I had an option to discount, but I didn’t. I remained polite and suggested how they might manage the work in-house.

A few days later, the editor called to say I was back in the picture; they hadn’t been able to produce the content in-house and asked if I could – on short notice.

Of course, I could. That’s what professional copywriters do. That’s why we charge the rates we do. And I did.

The moral of the story: stand your ground, demonstrate value (in this case, I pitched three great article ideas and talked through the in-house process with the potential client) and remain polite.

It does no good pleading an emotional “I’m offended” case for your rates. Trust me, I’ve tried that in the past. A client budget is a client budget is a client budget.

By calmly and professionally showing value, you stay in the game – if not for this project, possibly the next … or the one after that.

If you know your professional copywriting rates are fair, why would you undercut yourself? It’s a desperate way to do business. You de-value your own work and that of other freelance professionals.

Convey your value. Hold your ground. You know you’re worth it.

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Superb verbs: what “doing” words do for your copywriting

Some days I’d surrender my first-born for a superb verb.

Clever verbs trump nouns or adjectives any day. They overshadow pronouns and decimate adverbs (absolutely).

A verb can tell your audience so much more than a string of wimpy, overused adjectives. Used well, they paint masterful word-pictures and require minimal punctuation so are less likely to slow down your reader.

Creative writers know well the value of verbs. Copywriters know the principle is just as relevant to business communications.

Headlines and taglines

In short copy, especially in headlines, where every word must heave its weight, verbs are champion power-lifters.

Some examples from today’s newspaper:

“Serena wobbles her way to 500th win”

“Racism still shadows our history”

“Rescuers race against the odds”

In each case, the verb narrates a big part of the action … before the reader has even reached the story.

Check out the superb verbs in these taglines:

Obey your thirst – Sprite

Lifts and separates – Playtex Cross-your-heart Bra

Connecting people – Nokia

Catch our smile – Southwest Airlines

Relax, it’s FedEx – FedEx

Play. Laugh. Grow. – Fisher Price

Look sharp. Feel sharp. – Gillette

Invent – Hewlett Packard

Or one I developed for Ladybird Organicscrawling with natural goodness.

Descriptive copy

Even in longer descriptive copywriting, a strong verb fizzes up the action and elevates your business content from blah to brilliant.

Let’s look at home page content I recently developed for Steampocket, a diminutive café within a couple of blocks of my home office:

“Steampocket is a tiny pocket of culinary heaven dovetailed into Pakington Street’s Paris end, right in the heart of Newtown’s famous foodie-come-retail precinct.”

I chose “dovetailed” here for a couple of reasons. It gives a sense of purpose, that this venue fits perfectly into the surrounding streetscape – that it’s not there by accident. There’s also that pleasing word-link between heaven and dove, which helps engender atmosphere.

“We’re all about artisan food – fresh, wholesome, house-made fare. All created with love. Think: brilliant breakfasts, lip-smacking lunches and pizzas worth dying for.”

I could have used prepared, cooked, baked or made but I chose “created” for its connection to “artisan” and it’s capacity to build a sense that something special is going on in this kitchen.

“Dining takes on a new meaning in our laid-back courtyard. Friends mingle. Conversation flows (as does the barista coffee). Find a cosy corner or get amongst the action – either way you’ll love our no-fuss service.”

“Mingle” is emotional and connective and a natural with conversation that “flows”. Together they create an aspirational experience, a notion that the reader would enjoy being here.

“We punch well above our size, with divine catering and sublime take-home meal options that spread our foodie love far beyond Steampocket into special occasions and family homes.”

“Punch” is unexpected in this setting so demands attention for the information that follows. It’s a short word that conveys strength and capacity.

Calls to action

Verbs are natural motivators because they generate emotion and drama. They galvanise thought into action. Think: discover, learn, save, indulge, explore, experience, create.

With calls to action, you want things to happen fast so active verbs are the key. Passive verbs just don’t cut it. They’re weak, insipid and totally non-persuasive.

Compare passive:

More can be discovered at www…

with active:

Discover more at www…

Again, passive:

Your renovation project could be rescued with our …

with active:

Rescue your renovation project with our …

Active verbs energise these calls to action, amplifying their effectiveness.

Next time you’re reaching for an adjective (or worse, an adverb), consider a superb verb and what it can do to vitalise your message. Hopefully, you won’t have to surrender your first-born in return.

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I, we or they? Finding your voice in copywriting

I’m often asked about the right “voice” for business communications? There is no absolute answer. It all depends.

Whether you’re writing for email, your website, print marketing collateral or your blog, choosing the appropriate voice for your piece depends on your objective, your audience and your business.

Connect and emote with “I”

The first person “I” is the most personal and connective of the pronouns. It puts you, your reputation and (sometimes) your heart on the line. It’s a bit brave and a tad risky, but “I” makes the strongest emotional link to your audience. It says you’re human and you care. It’s particularly potent for female audiences.

If you’re building a personal brand based on your own expertise, skills and/or personality, the “I” voice may be the most effective for you. Your audience wants to know your personal perspectives and feel privileged that you share with them on an individual level. It’s as if you’re speaking directly to them.

The “I” voice provides a sense of confidence and authenticity to risk-averse prospects who fear the anonymity of the online marketplace.

Impress and amplify with “we”

If you’re growing a business brand and seeking to emphasise your capacity, the “we” voice is not so wee.

Even if you’re a soloist spinning smoke and mirrors about your team (existing or not), communicating in a plural voice can help convey a sense of strength and capability.

When you say “we” your audience may fill in the gaps and assume you have an army of professionals poised ready to deliver services or products, or that you have access to a pool of wisdom that will help solve their problem or need. It’s a hefty value proposition … if you have the resources to back it up when needed.

Beat your chest with “they”

In the late 1990s, it was rare for businesses to communicate in first person “I” or “we” voices – it was simply considered unprofessional. Corporate-speak and wordiness were enjoying their heyday.

Over the last decade or so we’ve seen some (perhaps most) of the biggies move towards a first person voice in most of their communications, most of the time. Why? Because in the digital age, credibility and authenticity are key, both for big brands and littlies.

Still, there are times when a third person “they” voice comes in handy for business communications. When your business has something big to brag about, talking as if you are a third party gives you more license to boast, thump your chest and tell the world what a great job you’ve done. Think of it as the testimonial voice, the one you use to brag about the things you’re too humble to say using the “I” voice. The tone is reportage, like a press release.

So, how do you choose? Put yourself in the shoes of your target customer group – do they see you as an I, we or they? Then ask yourself this question: how do I want them to perceive me/my business?

Still stuck? Ask a friendly copywriter. We don’t bite.

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Prepare to be interviewed!

Today, I had the tables turned, the shoe slipped on the other foot, the roles reversed. Instead of being the interviewer, I was the interviewee.

And I was nervous as all get out. You see, I generally tackle interview anxiety by reverting to clichés (refer previous paragraph) – not a good look for a copywriter.

How did I get myself into this predicament? I engineered it. Yesterday, I answered a callout on one of my favourite websites SourceBottle where I generally go to source interviewees for editorial articles. This time I responded … to a callout from Luke of Nett Magazine for some expert comments about making online content customer-focussed. Right up my alley (there I go again).

I emailed off some “expert comments” hoping to get a mention in the magazine (read as: free publicity). Before long, I had an interview request for 9.15am. Gulp.

As a copywriter I interview others regularly (for articles, testimonials, case studies and more). I know the difference a prepared interviewee can make to the quality of the finished article. I needed to get organised to make the most of this opportunity. Here’s what I did.

1. I reviewed the magazine’s website, read through some of the articles (making sure some of them were Luke’s work) and got a handle on the purpose and tone of the content. I especially checked for level of detail, whether information was general/specific, serious/light-hearted or management/outsource focussed.

2. I re-read Luke’s callout post to understand the gist of the article he was planning. I knew that he would already have a framework (and likely a contention) for his article and I wanted my comments to fit like a glove. (Ooops.)

3. I re-read the comments I had already emailed, believing that they must have appealed to Luke. I went through each of my main points (there were only three) and phrased some expansion points and examples. All in simple, unfussed language to match the tone already identified in step 2.

4. I reminded myself that it’s OK to say “I don’t know” if I don’t know. Much safer ground than trying to bluff my way through. An experienced interviewer would never be fooled anyway.

5. I reminded myself that this was a for-publication interview, not a live recording, so it would be OK to take some thinking time, frame my answers well and not get flustered if I drop an occasional “um” into the mix.

6. I took a personal vow to stay on topic – no chit chat, small talk or (God forbid) gossip.

7. I set myself up with my on-topic notes, a note-pad, a working pen and a strong coffee.

8. I checked my phone line was clear (three times).

9. I took several deep calming breaths and waited for the call.

 How did it go? I’m not sure. There were more “ums” than I expected, a clutch of clichés and a couple of curly questions. I’m almost certain I referred to the “holy grail” of online content. It was far from perfect but much smoother than it would have been had I not prepared.

 Time will tell if my “expert comments” end up in the editor’s round file. Watch this space.

 Do you have any tips for interview preparation or do you prefer to wing it?

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