Insights from the Professional Copywriters’ Network Conference

It must be somewhat terrifying to present at an event like the Professional Copywriters’ Network Conference. Can you imagine how many times you’d have to proofread and then rewrite your slides if you knew you were placing them under the scrutiny of a room full of people who can spot a misplaced apostrophe from 50 yards!?

Aside from striking fear into its speakers, though, the PCN conference offers us copywriters the opportunity to network with our own as well as get pointers and insights from industry leaders.

Here are my highlights from the day — all spelling and grammar judgements aside. (And, obviously, I’m hoping that any fellow conference-goers who read this will do me the same courtesy… Thanks ever so.)

1. Redressing the storytelling stereotype

“The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.” – John le Carré

We’re probably all aware that ‘storytelling’ has fast become one of the most overused (as well as misapplied) terms in our industry, something Tim Rich addressed in his talk ‘The serious business of stories’.

Well-thought-out, properly structured stories can stick with us for years to come; for example, when Tim flashed up an image of the famous 1983 Yellow Pages ad, 95% of the room instantly recognised the main character, ‘J.R. Hartley’.

But increasingly brands are giving the concept a bad name by rolling out lots of stuff labelled ‘stories’ that aren’t actually stories at all…

Tim stated that a story needs three elements in order to be classed as such: challenge, action and transformation. It’s our responsibility as copywriters to apply this formula properly (even though clients don’t often want to focus on the challenge part) and revive the concept of storytelling in its truest form before the backlash begins in earnest.

2. Being less ‘George’ and more ‘Zippy’

Tim also noted that many clients seem to have lost confidence, and so would rather fall back on jargon and generic phrases to avoid any perceived risks when it comes to copy.

He reminded us that, rather than just blindly serving up whatever the client asks for, copywriters need to inhabit the middle ground between the client and the consumer and push for what’s best. (And here comes the best analogy of the conference… )

Rather than being like George from Rainbow (passive, shy and eager to please) we need to be more like Zippy (brash, forthright and enthusiastic). Brilliant.

3. Learning that the simplest copy changes can have the biggest impact

In amongst his entertaining anecdotes and infinitely quotable sound bites (my favourite being that nowadays “shallow rationality is allowed to run rampant” in the marketing industry), legendary copywriter Rory Sutherland cited some powerful examples of the effectiveness of copy.

Alka-Seltzer’s ‘plink plink fizz’ slogan led to a huge increase in sales because it set a clear expectation the consumers were supposed to use two tablets instead of one. Clever, eh?

And Best Buy apparently increased their profits by $300 million by replacing the ‘Register’ button on their website with one that simply read ‘Continue’.](

A nice reminder that, when they’re driven by genuine insight, even the smallest copy changes can have a massive effect on consumer behaviour.

4. Discovering some statistics behind tone of voice success

Leading on from Rory’s exploration of behaviour economics, [Bill Hilton and some of the team from the Wales Centre for Behaviour Change presented a fascinating case study of their work with Bangor University in ‘The psychology of copywriting’ breakout session.

Together, they helped the university’s library to vastly improve the email it sent out to the students who hadn’t returned outstanding books and/or paid their fines by the end of the academic year — and consequently saved the university a huge amount of money.

Bill explained how informative copy like this aims for a rational, practical response from the reader. Jargon and scare tactics only alienate and panic people, so it’s in situations like this is where the importance of applying a ‘human’ tone of voice really comes into play.

To prove the effectiveness of applying this ‘human’ tone, the Wales Centre for Behaviour Change tested both a ‘businessy’ and ‘warm’ style of email copy to see which got the better response; half the students were sent the first email, half the latter.

The results were impressive: 65% of the students who received the ‘warm’ email took action (compared to only 53% who were sent the ‘businessy’ email), and they also responded quicker too.

The lesson? That being nice works.

5. Confirming the content writers should be involved from the very beginning

Non-too-surprisingly, one theme that was echoed throughout the day, and especially during the panel Q&A session, was the vital role that the copywriter has to play in ensuring a project’s success.

There is sometimes a tendency for copy to be considered, as Tim Rich put it, “one step up from lorum ipsum”. But it’s so much more vital than it’s often given credit for; as such, writers should be brought in at the conception stage, not hurriedly briefed just before the final deadline.

No matter what medium you work in, your end product in a communication — and, given this, surely nothing’s more important than the language you use.