Since this past Monday, I’ve been attending a pretty cool conference in Atlanta called “An Event Apart.” (http://aneventapart.com/2011/atlanta/) It’s pretty heavy on web design, coding, CSS and the like, but we dive into content today for a full day. As a writer, I’ve been pretty lost with a lot of the language – and it’s a whole new vocabulary to me. But a lot of what I’ve seen and learned so far is very similar to advertising and marketing. Express your information simply and put it where your consumers can get to it easily.
I’m really looking forward to spending the day on content, just to see the similarities and differences between writing for the web and writing for traditional media. I would bet the two are a lot alike in terms of keeping it short, to the point, engaging and easy to understand, which is what I was taught in school and what I’ve tried to do now for 25+ years. It’s also what I teach my students at UNC.
We’re at a crossroads in communication right now. On one hand, we have a generation that’s grown up communicating in short bursts. Twitter. Facebook posts. Texting. What’s being lost is the art of writing. Of expressing yourself and your ideas and having the ability to tell an engaging story that stretches beyond 100 characters. One of the things I ask my students to do right at the start of the semester is get out a piece of paper and a pen and write a personal letter to a good friend telling them about “product X.” (This is one of Tom Monahan’s Boot Camp exercises I’ve remembered over the years.) They look at me like I’ve got three heads. “Write a letter? Handwrite a letter?” Seriously? Yep. Seriously. If you can’t express yourself on a sheet of paper – it you can’t make your point and keep your reader engaged in 200-300 words, you have no business being a writer. Folks, that what we do.
I remember going to a VCU Adcenter portfolio review a few years back and looking at the copywriter books. Almost to a person, nobody had any body copy in their ads. And only a couple had actual headlines. It was all visual and a logo stuck on the bottom. After about 4 or 5 of these copyless portfolios, I asked one of the students, “Doesn’t anyone write copy anymore?” He looked at me and said, “No, nobody really reads it.”
That’s a sad view of consumers. That’s dumbing them down to the level of single-celled organisms. The fact is, people do read. And as Howard Gossage once said, sometimes they read ads. And when they do, they’re reading because a headline or visual caught their eye. And they’re reading because they may truly be interested in what you have to say. And what you’re trying to sell.
And when they are interested, and their eyes roam down to the “gray space” that a lot of designers call the area where the copy goes on the site or page, you better damn sure be able to inform, entertain and sell in a paragraph or two.
So let’s tweet, post, IM and whatever else we do to keep in touch until our hearts’ desire. But as writers, advertisers and marketers, let’s not lose the ability to engage, inform and entertain.