What Shakespeare can teach you about clarity in your sales copy

Summary: Avoid confusion by using everyday words. People’s feedback and their conversations on the streets teach you the right words.

„To be, or not to be.“ These are six words (or 19 characters) from Hamlet.

Without a doubt, this is William Shakespeare’s most famous quote, and probably one of the most well-known quotes ever.

The German translation „Sein oder Nichtsein.“ with 20 characters or 3 words is equally short.

What do we learn from brevity of word count and choice of words?

Conciseness wins. Always.

Good copy is written in a simple, clear and concise manner. Even writing a sales letter that is many pages long you come directly to the point.

Use simple words to write good copy. Don’t try to impress your friends, colleagues, and customers with your intelligence or cleverness. Just try… to communicate. Say it so a five-year old can understand.

Good copywriting uses sufficient sub-headers and paragraphs whereas a paragraph should reflect one idea only. Split a monolith of text into nuggets as an invitation to continue reading after the first sentence.

Break the rules and ignore the grammar you learned in school. You’re not writing to pass the exam. Your duty is to make a text easier to read, clearer and more entertaining. It’s how we talk on street, in other words slang (short language).

You’re also welcome to leave phrases unfinished, use paragraphs with only one sentence, and begin with conjunctions or „compound words“ such as and, but or although. That’s alright, and often even wanted.

Using bold and italic is fine to if you want to emphasize something or make it easier for readers who skim your text.

Write to one person only. Always. Like you do when you send a personal email or talk to a good friend. The ideal reader is in front of you. Now talk to him and give him the feeling that he’s only person in the room.

Oh… and don’t forget lists. People love lists. They attract attention because they are easy to parse.

Harvard shows: Brevity beats Behemoth

In an article published in the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Charles K. Ramond described experiments that should determine the effectiveness of advertising.

The experiments showed, not surprisingly, that advertising is most effective when it is easy to understand. [1]

In other words, you sell more when you write in a clear way.

Sounds easy in theory, right? But if something looks simple there is usually a lot of work behind. Even Hemingway said „It often took me a whole morning of work to write a paragraph.

The aspiration to simplicity even goes as far as to a finding the right single word. David Ogily had written an ad for Dove back then targeted at housewives. One third of them didn’t understand the headline „Dove made soap obsolete.“ So he changed obsolete to „old-fashioned“. In another headline, Ogily used the word „ineffable“ in the copy of 1953 ad he had written for Hathaway shirts a journalist rang him to ask what the word meant. He did not know it himself.

We use short words in conversations because they say exactly the same thing to the speaker and listener. We use „short words“ (shortcuts or metaphors) for thinking as well.

Make the reader absorb your message within milliseconds. Short, simple words are easy and enjoyable because the eye can parse them without much effort.

Conclusion

William Shakespeare’s famous quote „To be or not to be“ is how your copy should be, clear and concise.

Avoid confusion and words that say nothing. Avoid long sentences, clichés, complicated words, technical jargon, specifications, and a bad structure. Get to the point.

Good sales copy is written in a language that people use in everyday conversations. Exotic or esoteric words are probably not the right choice then:

Get on a bus. Go to Iowa. Stay on a farm for a week and talk to the farmer. Come back to New York by train and talk to your fellow passengers in the day-coach. If you still want to use the word, go ahead.” [2]

Simplicity wins, always. That’s why I kept this article brief and used simple words.

Are you writing clearer sentences now?

Footnotes:

  1. ^ Robert W. Bly, The Copywriter’s Handbook (Google Books preview link), 3rd Edition, Henry Holt and Company, 2007 - via John Cole (CopyEngineer)
  2. ^ David Ogilvy, Ogilvy On Advertising, 1983/1985