One of the things we preach about the way copy is presented is its very layout.
The text has to be in harmony with the planned visuals. I cannot stress enough how there needs to be a proper harmony between writing and graphics. A huge no-no – which we still commonly see in marketing – is the ‘wall of text’.
Long paragraphs, with no sign of a break, are a massive turn-off for the reader.
You may as well have ‘DO NOT READ THIS’ as a huge flashing animated GIF at the very top of your page.
What’s this got to do with putting fun into copy, I hear you cry?
Well, this is a guiding principle in the shift away from being ‘dry’ and ultimately boring your site visitor. Technology has become so prolific, and with the move to mobile devices and the noise of social media, content has to fight with other content.
Every word is fighting for your time. This is why we recommend having your message crafted to be as attractive as a compelling visual. This also means entertaining the reader.
Obviously, a bunch of words can’t compete with a song or a dance, but a little injection of humour can help retain your audience.
Before you complain that you’re not a comedian, don’t worry. We’re not asking you to write gags worthy of getting a headline slot on Live At The Apollo. You’re here because you’re all about marketing. The prime objective is to sell your product or service, so this is no clown course. Trying to be completely funny carries a huge risk of backfiring.
Gleedom of speech
We’re talking about the importance of being conversationally amusing. For Brits and Americans, conversations naturally carry humour. The odd aside, the private joke about someone you know, a silly pun you’ve immediately thought of on the serious subject you’re talking about.
Conversational copywriting is becoming absolutely enormous right now. It instils a level of engagement that you rarely have with conventional marketing text. The cold facts are, people are tired of those overly ‘sales’ messages. Marketing itself is a much-derided industry. I’m sure you may have heard the negative things outsiders like to say about our profession.
- “All full of hype”
- “It’s way too insincere”
- “Nobody like adverts”
- “You just type BS all day”
Incidentally, I’m sure many comedy fans recognise that marketing is a common piñata that stand-up comedians use in their routines. I dare say you’ve chuckled at the ridicule of the most terribly exaggerated claims about a product or service.
Going from the cheesy infomercial way of writing to the tone of a natural one-to-one conversation, makes your story more positive and very compelling. Be the reader’s friend, not an uninvited salesman. Now, in a social gathering – and do think of your friends here – the person who gets most attention is usually the one with the funny stories, the jaw-dropping anecdotes and, maybe, some of the filthiest jokes that I’m not at liberty to allude to here.
Now, some of you may still be wrestling with the “but I’m not funny” concern. Relax. We have a few exercises here to help you write content that’ll at least raise a smile. That’s pretty much all we need to do, so don’t worry that you’re not a natural joke teller.
Packing a pun
The previous section carried the headline ‘Thrill communication’. I’ve based this on my personal respect for the Beastie Boys. They released a seminal album in 1994, Ill Communication, one of my all-time favourites. (Yes, it’s the one with Sabotage on it.) Now I don’t think all of my readership will be aware of this album, or even the band that is sadly no more.
‘Thrill communication’ works in the context of this blog entry’s subject. It’s a little bonus for those who recognise it but, more importantly, for those who don’t (I reckon it’s more than half of you), it doesn’t jar or confuse you. Well, okay, my explanation up there may have killed what joy there was, but this is another lesson when it comes to humour. Don’t go for anything too convoluted. EB White’s quote still rings true: “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.” You can introduce a pun into just about any subject, and here are your sparks of inspiration.
- Music – lyrics, song titles, album titles and band names
- Films – famous quotes, movie titles and character/actor names
- Books – titles and concepts
- Television – titles, quotes and character/actor names
If you’ve got a keyword that doesn’t easily match with the above, well, you can pick a rhyming one from a rhyme dictionary, which is where I came in with Thrill/Ill. (Okay, let’s not dissect that frog any further.) Don’t just restrict yourself to pop culture. You can certainly widen the ‘accessibility’ by looking up idioms – common sayings that have been part of our language for eons.
I recommend The Free Dictionary’s Idioms search engine. It’s how I came up with the ‘Packing a pun’ headline for this section, but hey, I promised no more frog dissection – my apologies. Just a few rules about your puns…
- Keep it brief. Too long and it’s a ‘content pothole’ for those who don’t get the reference.
- Think of accessibility. Your pun’s based on a 1984 B-side from a Belgian industrial techno-metal outfit that never got above number 72 in the charts? You might want to think about Taylor Swift or Beyonce. Or if you’re not familiar with them, try the evergreen hits from the likes of Queen and the Rolling Stones.
- Ensure it’s not shoehorned in. Don’t write a pun for the sake of it. Read your copy back and ask yourself if it really belongs there.
Talk about… Pop culture
Puns are all well and good, but most people see them as being far from the pinnacle of humour. How do we go to being generally amusing? Even if you’re not a natural gagsmith, you probably have a view on something in popular culture.
We touched on TV, film, music and books in the previous section. These are strong areas to return to. Just about every Game Of Thrones viewer has their own take on the happenings in Westeros. Don’t be afraid to refer to it, there could be something that relates to what you’re writing about, but do remember the rules we brought up.
Make sure it’s brief, ‘accessible’ and doesn’t interrupt the flow of your copy. Of course, pop culture is a double-edged sword.
Topical references work well for social and email campaigns.
If you’re writing for the long-term, you may want to consider pop culture references that have stood the test of time. This is why hardly anybody these days touches upon Gangnam Style or Harlem Shake – that’s ancient news!
Game Of Tones
Are you feeling the fun yet?
Don’t worry if you’re still not confident.
This final exercise should push you into the humour zone. I want you to think about the worst holiday you’ve ever had. Absolutely the worst one, I want to know about it, warts and all. Don’t even consider that really cool time you had, that’s not funny. Nobody laughs at someone having a great time.
Write down what happened on that awful holiday. Forget about marketing for a bit, this is simply going to be a story about how a dream vacation turned out to be truly dismal. Make the tone conversational, think about this as something you’d actually say as an anecdote at a party. If the journey there was bad, we want to know. How much did your hotel room suck? How bad did the staff treat you? Can you look back on how things failed and grin about how they went wrong? If my suspicions are correct, you’ve probably exaggerated a little bit here and there for comic effect. (And if you haven’t, what’s wrong with you?)
You may not be a grade-A stand-up performer, but you’ve delved into an area that actual comedians go into for writing practice.
Many famous routines have been crafted this way. The funniest ones will of course veer away from the truth, but nearly all of them have been inspired by a real life incident. Now you’ve had a feel for the dynamics of writing pain points combined with a level of humour.
All copywriters know that touching upon challenges and fears is a delicate issue. This exercise should have taught you how to better engage the reader at the start of your copy, carefully handling the negativity and ‘sugar coating’ it with humour – whether it’s gentle whimsy or at a laugh-out-loud level.
The Jest Wing
Okay, if nothing else, we’ve given you an icebreaker to use at your next party.
You weren’t going to be the next Chris Rock or gain a late-night talk show from the ten minutes you spent reading this. Yet what you should now have is a basic understanding of comic writing from the techniques I’ve shown you.
Introduce humour very carefully into your marketing. Don’t try and go full on, we don’t want your marketing message diluted by your nascent attempts at being Louis CK. What humour does is make exaggeration acceptable to the everyday reader. People like Jeremy Clarkson can say some outrageous things but with a smile-inducing level of absurdity. That’s so much more refreshing than people’s perception of advertisement copy, where the exaggerations are very much unwelcome.
I believe humour helps build a relationship. One of the toughest obstacles we have as copywriters is that we don’t really meet our audience face-to-face.
Friends use humour every day with each other and a rarely cited goal of copywriting is to make friends with the reader. Injecting a bit of comedy into what you say, instils a sense of positivity and honesty.
Those are solid factors for building a relationship with a potential customer. By following my advice, you can smash the perception that marketing is toe-curling insincere hype. It’s never been more essential to bring in the fun with a pun. Go the extra mile for a smile. Throw in a dollop of wit instead of the bull… er, you get the idea.
This article was contributed by Peter Thomas.