Storytelling with your copywriting

When my sister and I were kids, we were forbidden to swear.  So, being resourceful young spirits, we developed a new word – bulltwang.

This was the (non-profane) label we applied in situations where we knew that someone was spinning us a story. When we were being told something that was…not exactly lies, but certainly not the truth. Kindly uncles with long stories about youthful acts of heroism were the worst culprits.  Even as eight and eleven year-olds, our bulltwang detectors were finely tuned.

Decades have now passed, but the bulltwang is still out there. As a writer and editor, I spend a lot of time immersed in business websites, and often I’m up to my watering eyeballs in the stuff.

Your website is your opportunity to tell the world who you are, what you do and why someone should part with their hard earned cash to experience it. When it’s done well, it can be an immensely powerful tool.

The problem is, writing about yourself or your own business is challenging. People feel enormous pressure to make a spectacular first impression that will convince people to support them, buy their product or use their service. Unfortunately, that pressure can get in the way of telling the story that really needs to be told. It can be terrifying, and sometimes, it can go a little pear shaped.

Here are some of the more common mistakes I encounter in websites:

  • People tell too much of the story. Can you back up the claims you make about your business, or are you exaggerating things, just a wee bit? Does your audience really need to know the full, extended history of your business, right upfront on the home page? Overstating your offering or including too much information will make your readers switch off. You need to find the essence of your story and tell that in the most elegant, honest and engaging way possible.
  • People tell the wrong story. It’s great to be inspired by something that works well, and it’s true that there is nothing new under the sun. But don’t make the mistake of relying on overused, exhausted phrases or ideas, no matter how successfully they’ve been applied in the past. (Think pristine wilderness or, God help us, jewel in the crown). You have a story that is like no other. Tell that story.
  • People give up altogether, and don’t tell a story at all. Some websites skip the romantic dinner and jump straight to the bill. Here are some pretty pictures. Here’s the booking button. Please like me. Most people like to be courted just a little before they commit. I’m all for economy of words, but you also need to connect with your market.
  • People tell a great story, but it’s full of mistakes. Okay, so I’m an editor and I acknowledge that I can be a little OCD about this. But the most beautiful websites that tell the greatest story about the most fantastic business will always be undermined by spelling mistakes, bad grammar and poor punctuation. Attention to that kind of detail makes your website look professional, which makes you look credible.

So, the trick is to know your story, tell it well, keep it honest but infuse it with all the passion you feel for what you do.  So how do you do that?

The first thing to remember is that you don’t have to write your website content, perfectly, all by yourself. There are plenty of talented copywriters and editors out there who can sculpt your ideas into beautiful copy. But you are the person who knows your business best, so only you can really know what that story is.

You’ll need to go a little analog here. Uncovering the heart of your story is a creative exercise and you need to engage the right part of your brain to do it well. So, move away from your desk, your screen, your phone, the umbilical cord of the internet and find a pencil and paper (or coloured markers, or charcoal or whatever you fancy – but make sure it’s something tactile. It’s important that you physically write things down in this exercise).

Go outside or find a quiet place where won’t be disturbed. Close your eyes and think about what you do. Why does it matter? Why do you do it? Why do you think people need to know about it? Write down everything that comes to your mind in whatever form it comes to you – sentences, random words, drawings, symbols—it doesn’t really matter, just get it all down. Once you’ve done that, go for a walk.

I do most of my creative thinking on the beach (except for the bit that I do in the shower—waterproof crayons have become an essential stationery item for my business). It took me a long time to stop feeling guilty about leaving my office to go and get the sand between my toes for an hour or so, but the difference that hour makes to my writing, my thinking and my productivity is huge. I always return with clarity and direction. So the beach has now legitimately become an extension to my office. Yes, lucky me.

After your walk, come back to your notes and read them again. You may find that the essence of your story is already there on the page. Or at the very least, you’ll be on your way to discovering it.

At this point it might be really helpful to engage some other people in your process. Close, trusted friends or colleagues can reflect what they think your business is about and what is special about your offering. Brand and marketing specialists can cut to the core of your story or help you to tease out your ideas and identify what lies at the heart of your business. The insights of others can be revelatory.

Writing about yourself or your business can be difficult, and it does require a shift in thinking. But finding the essence of your story is a crucial first step to building successful marketing communications and online content. Without the bulltwang.

And so, onward!

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