Thursday, April 26, 2007

Long, long ago in a galaxy far away . . .

Well, actually, it was London and the year was 1979, and all I wanted in the world was a job as a junior copywriter in a big ad agency. I had no experience, and not much else to offer, so I spent a lot of time writing long and immensely witty letters to creative directors, in the hope that my verbal pyrotechnics would dazzle them into offering me a job.

Nobody did, and pretty soon I started to get quite despondent. (I've never been much good at that "try, try again" approach to the pursuit of success.) In fact, my spirits sank so low that I did a dreadful thing. I abandoned all my efforts to demonstrate my vast creative talents, and fired off a simple three line note to Tony Brignull at CDP.

(Pause briefly to establish context: at that time, CDP was widely regarded as the most creative ad agency in the world, and its creative director Tony Brignull as the joint best copywriter, with David Abbott.)

I don't remember what I said, but I know that my letter was concise to the point of terseness: desperate to be a copywriter, no experience but loads of enthusiasm, any chance you could do anything at all to help me . . . or words to that effect. But I do remember the reply I received just a few days later; or, at least, the first sentence, which began, "I liked your letter so much that I've decided to offer you a month's work experience at CDP".

When I met the great man, I couldn't resist asking what he'd liked about my letter, the unadorned simplicity of which I was now feeling rather embarrassed about.

You've guessed: what he liked was the unadorned simplicity. Every day, he told me, he received a sack full of immensely witty letters, and other more elaborate types of communication from young hopefuls like myself, desperate to impress him their creative potential: a hollowed out pineapple with a flashing lightbulb inside; an arrow with a message wrapped round the shaft, fired through his window; a fake terrorist bomb, complete with lifelike detonator, and so on.

A short, simple letter, written from the heart, stood out - and made a nice change, he told me.

Sadly, the ending of this story is a bit anti-climactic. I did my month's work experience, and learned a lot from it. But Tony Brignull didn't anoint me as his chosen successor, or even offer me a job. He just shook my hand and wished me luck with my future career.

But there is a reason why this episode has stuck in my mind for almost 30 years. And it may not be exactly the one you're expecting. Because I'm not saying that short and to-the-point is always better.I'm saying that it pays to think very hard about the competitive landscape. If everyone else is having a hernia trying to look creative, be simple-verging-on-dumb. If everyone else is telling the story in six bullet points, write joined-up prose. If everyone else is writing joined-up prose, consider rhyming couplets.

In short, if everyone else is zigging . . . zag.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

My favourite sign

If you read the Independent from cover to cover, you'll have come across a slightly shorter version of the piece below on today's Letters page. But since you probably don't . . .

My favourite sign is next to the motorway, on the way out of Bristol. It reads:


Surreal, or what? A sign confidently denying its own existence. On closer inspection, the sign is attached to the base of a much larger electronic traffic information sign . . . which isn't in use yet.

But never mind. I've still enjoyed the philosophical paradox, even if it wasn't what the writer intended to communicate.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Ugly words wanted

In the book, I talk about beautiful words; the kind that, completely independent of their meaning, are delightful simply as a combination of syllables. Archipelago, mesmerising, incandescent, peripatetic, willow, lapidary, pergola, febrile, vilify, serendipity, daffodil . . . it's easy to think of them.

But ugly words, I'm finding, are much harder to come by. In fact, so far I've only come up with three that are really offensive to my ear: bursary, mollusc and orgasm (or worse still, in verb form, orgasmed).

That last one, I realise, is a bit of a risk - since the chances are, you'll attribute my distaste to some weird sexual dysfunction on my part. But I'm standing by it: say it aloud a couple of times. Sounds horrible, doesn't it?

And please do let me know if you have any other suggestions for inclusion in my collection of verbal mingers.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Conclusive proof that persuasive writing doesn't work?

It should, in theory, be the most compelling piece of persuasive writing ever produced. It's based on hard, factual information, uncontested by any serious authority. It alerts the reader to a terrifying danger. And it's only two words long.

Yet it doesn't work. Every day in the UK, thousands of people hand over their money, and thumbnail open a pack bearing this stark message, without a second thought.

Just pause for a moment to think how ineffably weird that is. Imagine if there was a shampoo with a label that warned: "May cause permanent blindness". Or even a breakfast cereal which alerted you to the possibility of piles or vomiting attacks.

Nobody would buy them. And yet here's a product that makes absolutely no bones about the fact that it kills you - dead, so that your life insurance pays out, and your family has to face the future with only memories of you - without it apparently having any impact at all on sales.

What are we to make of this? I can see that, for a sceptic, it would be tempting to conclude it proves that this persuasive writing malarkey doesn't work. After all, if "buy this and die" doesn't get results, what possibly could?

But, not surprisingly, I have a counter-suggestion. Every day, I'd guess, a few smokers - perhaps just a dozen or so - do indeed pick a packet of fags, read "Smoking kills" and think, "OK, this is it. Today's the day I quit for good . . . "

Good persuasive writing can get results, but not until the reader is ready.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Hello, Laura and Ollie!

I was pleased and fairly amazed to learn recently that my daughter and her boyfriend have been reading this blog semi-regularly at university.
On my daughter's part, there's obviously a bit of familial bias involved. But, actually, not that much: if you have children, you'll know that, after the age of about seven, they show very little interest in anything their parents say or do, unless it's of direct relevance to them.

So I guess Laura and Ollie must have found that at least some of what I've written here has a bearing, however minimal, on their lives as hard-working students of classics and philosophy respectively.

Why should that surprise me? It shouldn't really: I'm always saying that the principles of persuasive communication are relevant to just about anyone, regardless of what kind of work they do. But after roughly five years when it has often felt as if I've been talking to myself - or, perhaps, shouting into a hurricane-swept chasm - it's very good to hear a few faint echoes returning.