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What the Dalai Lama and da Vinci can teach you about killer copywriting

Below I discuss quotes from four of the worlds’ greatest minds. These pearls of wisdom might inspire you as a human being. And they may help you as a copywriter too.

“Worry not that no one knows of you; seek to be worth knowing.”
Confucius

How many businesses in your local area offer the same service as you?

If you are an accountant, builder, printer, designer, copywriter, IT consultant or personal trainer, probably hundreds.So how do you compete in an industry that’s inundated with options?

When it comes to attracting new prospects, you first need to be found. And if you’re a small business, Google may be your only affordable advertising option.

But if you don’t manage to convince people you are worth knowing once they do find you, your advertising dollars will be wasted.

So if you’re not getting as many online enquiries as you’d like, don’t automatically assume you need to increase your AdWords spend. Instead, invest more time into uncovering – and communicating – your unique and tangible point of difference.

That’s the one thing about you or your business that makes you worth knowing. You already have a point of difference. The challenge is in figuring out out what it is. And once you figure it out, make sure you articulate it clearly, simply – and persuasively.

“Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Oscar Wilde

When you write, are you being yourself – or are you emulating someone else? Or perhaps your formal, stuffy writing style represents how you think your employer or client expects you to write.

But did you know that when you write more naturally, you’re more likeable – and a much more engaging writer? Being yourself is about writing with more humanity. It’s about writing more like how you talk – and only using words and phrases that you would use comfortably in actual conversation.

So if you’re not the kind of person who says ‘Notwithstanding the fact that…’ when you talk to someone, then don’t write it.

I often share Wilde’s quote with clients who ask me to review their competitors’ websites before I embark on theirs. Their brief to me? ‘Just write our site more or less like [Competitor X].’  But it makes far more sense for me to learn more about the distinctive personality and positioning of my client’s business.

(I happily review competitor sites once I complete the first draft. But this is only to ensure that my client’s selling propostion is in fact, unique.)

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Leonardo da Vinci  

Think for a moment about how much time you waste at work trying to decipher other people’s poorly written, wordy messages.

Businesspeople are conditioned to bury their messages in puffery and verbosity. This might come as a surprise to you, but you don’t have to write that way. You really don’t.

When you strip the clutter from your writing, your messages will be clearer and quicker for your audience to read. Your colleagues and clients will start to welcome your emails and reports with a smile.

I believe most organisations would be a lot more productive if their staff could just write more simply.

Are you ready to prove to your business associates that simplicity is in fact the ultimate sophistication? If so, here are three quick tips to get you going.

  • Replace big words with simpler alternatives: Use every day words your reader understands. Your objective is to communicate, not to impress your reader with your vocabulary. So don’t write ‘purchase’ if you can write ‘buy’. And don’t write ‘endeavour’ if you can write ‘try’.
  • Purge the jargon and pompous frills: Phrases like ‘at the end of the day’, ‘core competency’, ‘moving forward’ are mostly meaningless and unnecessary. Avoid them.
  • Never use two words when one will do: Mutual agreement’ is just ‘agreement’. ‘Major breakthrough’ is just ‘breakthrough’. And ‘added bonus’ is just ‘bonus’.  Got it? Good.

“Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”

Dalai Lama XIV

Having worked as a university lecturer and writing skills trainer for several years now, I am constantly amazed at how little people know about grammar.

If you don’t know your grammar, your readers will believe you are unprofessional and inarticulate. And all they will remember about you is your mistakes. Not your message. But knowing and understanding grammatical rules doesn’t necessarily mean you should always follow them.

As I explain to my writing skills training delegates, it’s okay to break the rules. Sometimes. (Just be sure you know the rules before you break them.)

Here are examples where it may make sense to ignore grammatical correctness.

  • Conjunctions at the beginning of sentences: For most audiences, it’s fine to use words like and, but and so at the beginning of a sentence. It’s a great way to grab attention and emphasise a point. But do it in moderation.
  • Word selection and spelling: Write formulas even though the plural of formula is formulae. Write focusses even though the plural of focus is foci. And although data is strictly the plural of datum, go with data for singular and plural.
  • Prepositions at the end of sentences: In the interest of clarity and readability, it’s fine to place words like with, to and from at the end of a sentence. Otherwise, sentences often end up sounding awkward and unnatural.

And with that, I’ll leave you with one last quote. This time from a revered world leader:

“From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I shall not put.” – Winston Churchill