Learn to love (and hate) the right things for copy that sells

By Carl Carter, APR

No matter what you sell, you have to tell people about it. That means we have to do something we call “writing.”

I wish we could do away with the word. It seems to either freeze our brains or inspire us to get clever. Both lead to bad writing that fails to sell.

The best writing tip I ever got came from my old city editor at The Birmingham News. I’d written a really clever story and was proud of it. It was full of fancy words and elaborate, well-turned phrases. He glared at me over the desk and said, “Pretend I’m your mama. Now tell me what happened.”

I did. It sounded nothing like the story in his hand. (We still used paper in those days.)

“Good,” he said, “now go write that, and don’t ever give me any (stuff) like that again.”

Only he didn’t say stuff. You get the idea.

Few Auctioneers have had a mentor who knew how to write well. That leads to brochures, ads and websites that are confusing and lifeless. Here are some of the best principles I’ve learned. I promise they’ll help you sell more.

Learn to love

Facts. Channel Dragnet’s Joe Friday and stick with “Just the Facts, Ma’am.” With all due respect to the sales experts who tell you to “sell the sizzle,” just remember that the bidder’s buying the steak. (He assumes it’ll be sizzling.) What he wants to know is whether he’s getting a ribeye or a sirloin and whether it’s Prime or Choice.

Details. As you learn to stick to the facts and eliminate the fluff, use that space to give the reader more specifics. Instead of just saying a house has hardwood flooring, point out that it uses planks of two-inch-thick, six-inch-wide oak reclaimed from a colonial mansion.

Nouns and verbs. These are the guts of good writing. “We sold” is a complete sentence all by itself. Start with these and build around them.

Your reader. Be kind to him. Make his job easier. Never make him cut through a bunch of clutter to get to what he needs.

Bullets. The simple bullet frees you from the compulsion to write in complete sentences. It lets you cram a lot of details into a little space, without waste.

The delete button. Don’t be afraid. I’ve wasted hundreds of hours trying to fix bad sentences when I needed to just start over. Just take a deep breath, highlight and delete. There. Now you’re free to write something good.

Learn to hate

Passive voice. Never say, “the home was built” when you can say, “he built the home.” For starters, active sentences are more specific because they tell the reader who built the home. Active verbs keep people reading.

Adjectives. OK, they’re a necessary evil. Just remember that worlds like beautiful, elegant and lovingly hand crafted are there mostly to make the seller happy. They rarely help sell anything because readers breeze past them looking for the stuff that actually tells them what you’re selling.

Long sentences. I can’t tell you how long is too long. Just set a tripwire in your brain that alerts you when you’ve gone a while without using the period key. You don’t have to buy into the Twitter limit of 140 characters, but keeping it in mind can actually help you set a rhythm.

Verbs derived from “to be.” You can’t get away from words like is, are, am, was and were, but try to at least keep them corralled. Pairing them with “not” gets you extra points off. (Contractions like “can’t” and “don’t” seem OK. I have no idea why. They just do.)

Needless words. Make it a game to see how much you can cut out without actually removing any real information. My first draft tends to be much longer than the last one.
We’ve all written bad stuff. It’s OK. The blank screen in front of you is an invitation to do it better.

Carl Carter, APR, is President of NewMediaRules Communications, which has provided Auctioneers with public relations, copywriting and design services since 1994. He offers free communications tips through his blog, http://www.newmediarules.net. E-mail him at carl@newmediarules.com.

Carter is a regular contributor to Auctioneer magazine. Read 2011 and 2012 issues to pick up more marketing and public relations tips.

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