How do I write copy? Let me count the ways...

An interesting conversation on LinkedIn in the past couple of days, started by Peter Whent. He posted this headline from MailOnline:

Mail eadlinePeter remarked:

You could have used a copywriter but you chose not to.

The flurry of comments included this from Jonathan Staines:

This headline was written by a journalist in a high-pressured newsroom, not a copywriter. They are two very different types of writing work. A copywriter has more time to compress the message into as few words as possible. News journalists don’t. Trust me, I’m married to one! I’m not suggesting it’s not a very good headline but some poor soul had about 3 minutes to write it.

Which got me thinking. Copywriting and journalism: two very different types of writing work?

Maybe. But we call both 'copy', don't we? And, intriguingly, these two meanings of the word - marketing copy and journalistic copy - arose at roughly the same time.

Rewind to the late nineteenth century.

The telegraph had been invented in 1837. Samuel Morse had developed his famous code in 1838. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. By 1880, journalists were using these new electronic technologies to dictate stories down the line to newspaper offices, where copy-editors would - well - copy them.

The OED lists the first journalistic use of the word 'copy' in 1886, when Oscar Wilde wrote:

Miss Broughton has been attending the meetings of the Psychical Society in search of copy.

And here's George Bernard Shaw, a mere three years later:

Those Socialist speeches which make what the newspapers call ‘good copy'.

Lee Tracy as Hildy Johnson in The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Image from Wikipedia

Very quickly, this meaning of the word ‘copy’ transferred from journalism to advertising. The first OED listing of the word ‘copy’ meaning the text of an ad first appears in 1905, in a book called Modern Advertising:

The design and 'copy' used in the four-inch advertisement may involve just as much time.

Note the scare quotes around the word: obviously still a novel usage at this point.

For the rest of the twentieth century, these two senses of the word 'copy' continued, more or less separately and in parallel. Journalists wrote copy but not, on the whole, advertisements; copywriters wrote marketing copy but not, on the whole, news stories. (Both, of course, wrote headlines.)  David Ogilvy and the Mad Men of the 1950s probably never wrote articles - although Ogilvy's famous long copy for Rolls Royce bears a superficial resemblance to one.

But over the last twenty-five years, electronic media and the internet - the descendants of the telegraph and the telephone - have merged these two streams; the resulting turbulence has generated a whole host of different kinds of copy.

Call it 'content'.

Copywriters now produce press releases and advertorials, instructional guides and case studies, blog posts and thought leadership - all of which demand journalistic skills. They also write social media posts and tags, and even - yes, indeed - ads.

I suspect that journalists are also increasingly having to write copy that draws on the skills of marketing. Who writes the teaser copy on a newspaper's website? The standfirst that invites the reader into an article? The tweets and LinkedIn posts promoting their latest column, or the blurb on the back cover of their latest book?

We're all writers, and we're all doing different kinds of writing work. The top skill required of copywriters in 2024? I'd say: versatility.

I work as a copy editor, proofreader, and training consultant. I run CIM's Copywriting Masterclass.  Book your place here.


Why should you book onto CIM's Copywriting Masterclass?

I'll tell you why.

And you can book a place here.

I always try to take away just one new thing from every course that I attend; I feel that I’ve learned so much on this one. Definitely taking away more than one! Vlatka Lake, Space Station

Your course was extremely helpful and ignited my passion for writing. In fact, you have given me some confidence, which is something that has always been an issue for me. Everything I learned from this course will most definitely be take on board. Thank you very much. Jane Smith [pseudonym], freelance copywriter

I have a new hero. His name is Alan Barker. As the Course Director of  CIM's 'virtual' copywriting masterclass, he has given me the most wonderful writing advice over the past two days. I've thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you, sir. Paul Bingley, Freelance aviation expert

One of the best training courses I ever did - I would highly recommend it to anyone looking to improve their overall communication but also critical thinking skills. A really fun, progressive and insightful few days! Sign up! John McCarrick, Policy & Communication, amfori

I've also written posts about copywriting here, here , and here.


Six patterns of explanation

People-3d-thinking-mind-mapping-497747340-5b31bbec8e1b6e0036ab2793[image: DrAfter123 / Getty Images]

We understand information by pattern-matching. If you can organise information into a simple pattern that your audience or reader can recognise, they'll be better prepared to understand it.

For instance, we can explain in six different ways. I have no idea who first created this list of patterns, but my hunch is that it appeared at some point in the early nineteenth century. The list varies slightly from textbook to textbook; this is the version I've found most useful over the years.




Comparison and contrast

Cause and effect

Chronological or process pattern

Get to know these patterns. They'll help you explain anything more clearly.



Explanation by example, probably the simplest pattern, creates a list. Examples can help make an idea concrete by creating a mental image.

Journey times for passengers are just about keeping to expected levels on all Tube lines. The Metropolitan, East London, Northern and Piccadilly all report additional excess journey time averages. The Bakerloo, Victoria and District Lines showed the most marked improvement during the Christmas period. 

Signal words for explanation by example include:

  • in addition
  • another
  • for example
  • also
  • several
  • a number of

This pattern could be presented graphically as a bullet list. (Like the one above!)



We humans seem to have a natural talent for sorting information into categories.  Categories are created by dividing information into parts. This pattern follows three rules.

  • Every item under consideration should fit into one of your categories.  If you have odd items left over, add other categories or rework your existing categories. 
  • Categories should not overlap.
  • Items should fit into only one category.  If you cannot decide where to put something, ask if it can be eliminated as irrelevant, or whether it needs a category to itself.

Give each category a clear name.  Sub-categories will come under larger categories with more general names.

Put things, people, places, into categories based on their similarities. Alternatively, you could take one thing, person, place and divide it into its components.

Make the purpose of classification clear and interesting. A paper classifying the different areas to study in college is not very interesting. A paper classifying the different types of sexism in the classroom is interesting.

Explain how you have created your categories. Include the rule or principle used to classify items into groups. Use examples, details, and data to help readers distinguish between categories.

Playing fields may be owned by private or public landholders. Private owners include companies, banks, sports clubs, developers, or individual land owners not necessarily associated with any commercial enterprise. Public owners include local authorities, schools, colleges or other public sector bodies such as the Civil Service or National Health Service.

Signal words and phrases or categorising include:

  • include
  • exclude
  • not limited to
  • can be divided into
  • types of
  • sorts of

Categorising could be represented graphically by a pie chart.




A definition identifies something uniquely: an object, a procedure, a term or a concept.  There are three types of definition.

  • A short definition explains by means of a synonymous word or phase, often in brackets or between commas. 
  • A sentence definition is made up of two sections: the class to which the object belongs; and the features which distinguish it from all other items in the class.  A glossary is made up of sentence definitions. 
  • An extended definition can be short as a paragraph or as long as a chapter.  It may include a brief history of the term (the language it came from, its current use, how the use has changed).  An extended definition should also include the object's function.

ROI for tourism is the amount of additional visitor expenditure that campaigns generate compared with the amount of public money invested in these campaigns. 

Explore a subject’s meaning fully. Differences within the definition are fine if they exist within the established boundaries.

Draw clear boundaries around the defined subject to avoid confusion with other subjects. Use examples, details, and anecdotes to strengthen your definition.

Signal words and phrases  for definition include:

  • is defined as
  • means
  • is described as
  • is called
  • refers to
  • term
  • concept

I haven't ever found a good visual or graphic representation of definition. A Venn diagram might be helpful. On the other hand:


Comparison and contrast

Comparisons display the similarities between things; contrasts show the differences.  You can use them separately, or together: comparison before contrast.

In our view, the CEE regional businesses share similar growth drivers, in particular robust regional economic outlooks, high growth advertising markets,operational synergies as part of the MTG group,regulatory changes and the launch of niche channels.

The variance in availability of playing fields between inner and outer London is marked. In theory, there are 227 playing fields available to residents in inner London boroughs, as opposed to 1,202 available to residents in outer London.   We discuss availability in theoretical terms because availability does not necessarily equate to accessibility. There are issues around access for local people, who may find themselves deprived of access for a variety of reasons.

The items under consideration must be comparable.  You would not compare the costs of freight haulage by rail in the UK to container haulage to Australia by ship. Establish the criteria by which you are comparing and contrasting.  Have as many as possible: cost, convenience, prestige, size, security, safety and so on. Rank the criteria in priority order.  This might be a controversial exercise, but unless the criteria are weighted you will not be able to contract them effectively.

State a clear purpose regarding why the subjects are being compared or contrasted at the beginning of the paper. Explaining the differences between summer and winter, however well written or spoken, must also be interesting.

Share enough features to make a comparison valuable. Choose a narrow enough basis for comparing or contrasting, so that all major similarities and differences can be covered.

Signal words and phrases for comparison and contrast include:

  • similar, different
  • on the other hand
  • but
  • however
  • bigger than, smaller than
  • in the same way
  • parallel

Comparison and contrast can be presented graphically as a table.

Compare and contrast[image from]


Cause and effect

Cause and effect explains why something happened. 

The difficulty, of course, is in deciding which is cause and which is effect! A cause is so often the effect of another cause, which may be harder to determine or control.  Look for the immediate cause; the underlying cause; and the ultimate cause.  Your analysis will be circumscribed by the areas of responsibility involved.

The breakdown in communications within the London Ambulance service had an impact on the service’s ability effectively to deploy the necessary vehicles, personnel, equipment and supplies to the incidents.  Survivors told us repeatedly of their surprise at the apparent lack of ambulances at the scenes, even an hour or more after the explosions. 

Cause and effect is a technique fraught with danger.  Determine which type of cause you are searching for: immediate, underlying or ultimate.  What is your purpose in identifying these causes?  Be open-minded.  Try not to rush to conclusions or to allocate blame 'politically'.  Be as logical as you can.  Eliminate coincidence.  Take all factors into account.  Is there more than one cause?  Are there other effects that you have not considered?  Trace all the links.  Go as far back as necessary (or as is expedient!) to the ultimate cause.

The robust advertising growth will be largely driven by demand from both local and multinational advertisers, buoyed by deregulation and relatively stable economic conditions.

Signal words for cause and effect explanation include:

  • for this reason
  • consequently
  • as a result
  • on that account
  • hence
  • because

Cause and effect can be represented graphically by a fishbone or Ishikawa diagram. This is also a useful tool for establishing causes of a problem.




Chronological or process pattern

Items are listed in the order in which they occurred or in a specifically planned order in which they must develop.  In this form of explanation, the order is vital; changing it would change the explanation's meaning.

A process pattern lists all the steps necessary to carry out an operation.  It may take the form of a set of instructions (like a recipe), a quality procedure or a technical specification report.  It proceeds step by step.  The steps must occur in a particular order: if the order is wrong, the operation will fail. 

The proposed timetable is as follows:

Scoping brief to Chair on 7 April;

Project Initiation meeting at 10am on 11 April;

Scoping brief to Members on 12 April;

Despatch call for evidence letters by 21 April;

Written evidence received by 26 May;

Evidence analysed and briefing paper prepared for Members by 5 July;

Evidentiary Hearing 13 July;

Formal approval of scrutiny report at 12 October Committee meeting

Process analysis usually tells the reader about a process or how to do it. 

In calculating the cost of capital, we compute the split of earnings between domestic and international operations, which after the deconsolidation of the Argentinean subsidiaries comprise mainly Brazil. To calculate the cost of capital of the domestic operations, we add the eurobond yield of 3.64% to the Italian equity risk premium of 4.0%. To calculate the cost of capital of the international operations, we add the Brazil short term interest rate of 30% to the country risk premium of 6%. Lastly, we calculate the weighted capital obtained on a earnings basis.

Instructions tend to be far more detailed explanations.

Signal words and phrases for chronological or process explanation include:

  • first, second, third
  • first, secondly, thirdly
  • next
  • before
  • after
  • when
  • later
  • until
  • at last

Chronological explanation could be presented graphically as a timetable -

2019_Red_Timetable- or as a timeline:


A set of instructions will be laid out as a numbered list - like a recipe:

RecipeNote that the list of ingredients here is explanation by example. The method is organised as a process. The distinction between the two is made even clearer by the use of bullets for the list of examples, and of numbers for the process. 

Notice also that lists of instructions are not necessarily in process order.


(And please do not try to iron your backside, even on a low heat.)

I run training courses on effective writing email and letter writing, report writing and grammar. Contact me to find out more.



7 ways to produce powerful paragraphs



This is a pilcrow. It's the symbol used to mark paragraph breaks in old books and other documents. According to this article, the word comes from the Greek paragraphos (para, “beside” and graphein, “to write”), which led to the Old French paragraph. Somehow, the word transformed into the Middle English pylcrafte and eventually became the “pilcrow.”

You can find pilcrows on Word and other wordprocessing programs, if you know where to look - or if you press the wrong button.  But these days, the pilcrow itself tends to be rather shy.

Paragraphs, on the other hand, need to be easy to see. They show your reader that you've organised your thoughts - or at least, they give the visual promise of organised thinking. Faced with a page lacking any paragraph breaks, we're likely to give up reading before we even start. Make sure your paragraphs have plenty of white space around them.

Of course, you have to fulfil the visual promise. You should organise your thoughts into paragraphs. And the basic way to do that is to allocate one thought to each paragraph.

All the seven techniques we'll look at in this post develop that idea.

(The example paragraphs all come from reports written by the Scrutiny Team of the Greater London Authority. All of them are available publicly and they are all at least ten years old.)


1. Begin your paragraph with a topic sentence.

Topic sentences are the most powerful editing technique I know. They achieve so much with so little. Pay attention to your topic sentences and your writing will improve fast.

A topic sentence expresses the point you want to make in the paragraph. Everything in the paragraph must support or expand what you say in your topic sentence. Think of it as a signpost, telling your reader what you want to say at this point.


London controls little of its own money for spending on public services. Of the £57 billion that came into London’s public services in 2004-5, just £2.5 billion (4.4% of the total) was raised locally.  Between them, the boroughs and the Mayor spend some £20 billion annually, but around two-thirds of the total spent in London on public services is spent outside the scope and influence of local control.  A virtual ‘secret state’ provides the bulk of London’s public services.


2. Check that topic sentences make sense in order, and that they summarize the sequence.

Topic sentences outline the most important points in your text; when read in sequence, they should summarise the whole piece. As well as helping to keep your reader on track, topic sentences help you improve your text by forcing you to clarify what you want to say - and in what order.


All public spaces require some form of management.  If a space is to fulfil its role and remain accessible and inclusive, a management body must coordinate a number of tasks.  It must find sources of financial investment for the space, maintain the space physically, regulate its use and mediate conflicts of interest.  In the past, land owned or controlled by local councils, like parks or streets, was understood to be public, unlike private sites which were usually considered private property and not accessible to the general public (unless there was an actual public right of way).

Increasingly there is a blurring of once clear-cut lines between public and private areas of the city. Some commentators believe that the growth of ‘private-public’ space produces over-controlled, sterile places which tend to look the same and fail to connect with the local environment and community. They also raise questions about democracy and accountability and the displacement of social problems into neighbouring districts.

The main focus of the investigation is therefore on management and recognising the needs of different stakeholders. On land that is privately owned all powers lie, in principle, in private hands. Through the planning system the local authority can create and maintain a level of influence on any ’public’ space proposed on that land when dealt with at the outset, or ensure that it is managed in an acceptable way.


3. Identify the function of the paragraph.

Nearly all paragraphs in business writing do one of two things. They either persuade or explain. (Occasionally you may want to describe something - to paint a picture in words - or narrate a story.)

We can organise arguments in two main ways.

A deductive argument takes two (usually two) statements called premises and derives a conclusion from them. When you use a deductive pattern, the concluding sentence will restate your topic sentence, perhaps with some added detail.


[Topic sentence] The overriding challenge in inner London will be to improve recycling rates in flats and on estates. [Why?] [Premise 1] Flats account for around half of London’s housing stock. Most of these can be found in inner London boroughs. [Premise 2] Recycling and composting in flats and estates is low, typically around 10 per cent. [Conclusion] Increasing recycling in these properties is imperative if London’s average recycling rate is to improve.


An inductive argument states its conclusion up front and offers a range of different reasons to support it.In this example, the writer has signalled the different supporting reasons for the argument with bullet points.


There is a strong case for the Mayor to intervene in his role as the head of a strategic, city-wide authority, to reduce childhood obesity. [Why?]

  • Childhood obesity is a significant problem for London, occurring in every borough, with little evidence that the problem is being alleviated. High costs are incurred as a result of this, with a detrimental impact on the city’s economic development.
  • The Mayor has control of some important policy levers – and associated funding – that could be used to address obesity. These include his powers in relation to Transport for London, the Metropolitan Police Service and potentially the Royal Parks, his planning powers and strategic responsibility for health inequality.  It is anticipated the Mayor will chair the proposed London Health Improvement Board, which will oversee public health policy.
  • Some key obesity-reduction interventions – or elements of them – may be more effectively delivered at a city-wide rather than borough level. For instance, social marketing aimed at improving health may have more impact if it is applied throughout London.
  • The Mayor and GLA are well placed to influence negotiations with major private companies and other organizations that operate across London.
  • The Greater London Authority is well placed to evaluate any obesity-reduction interventions introduced in different parts of the city, and share best practice among partner organisations including boroughs and NHS commissioners.

We can use six patterns of explanation. If you can identify which pattern you want to use, you'll be able to organize your material more efficiently and effectively.



Journey times for passengers are just about keeping to expected levels on all Tube lines. The Metropolitan, East London, Northern and Piccadilly all report additional excess journey time averages. The Bakerloo, Victoria and District Lines showed the most marked improvement during the Christmas period. 


Playing fields may be owned by private or public landholders. Private owners include companies, banks, sports clubs, developers, or individual land owners not necessarily associated with any commercial enterprise. Public owners include local authorities, schools, colleges or other public sector bodies such as the Civil Service or National Health Service.

Cause and effect

The breakdown in communications within the London Ambulance service had an impact on the service’s ability effectively to deploy the necessary vehicles, personnel, equipment and supplies to the incidents.  Survivors told us repeatedly of their surprise at the apparent lack of ambulances at the scenes, even an hour or more after the explosions. 


The proposed timetable is as follows:

  • Scoping brief to Chair on 7 April
  • Project Initiation meeting at 10am on 11 April
  • Scoping brief to Members on 12 April
  • Despatch call for evidence letters by 21 April
  • Written evidence received by 26 May
  • Evidence analysed and briefing prepared for Members by 5 July
  • Evidentiary Hearing 13 July
  • Formal approval of scrutiny report at 12 October Committee meeting


Obesity is defined, for adults, as having a body mass index (BMI) of higher than 30kg/m2, and overweight is having a BMI over 25.  For children, BMI is used differently.  A child is considered to be obese if they are in the 95th centile (the highest 5%) of the BMI scale, and overweight if they are in the 85th centile (the highest 15%).

Comparison and contrast

The variance in availability of playing fields between inner and outer London is marked. In theory, there are 227 playing fields available to residents in inner London boroughs, as opposed to 1,202 available to residents in outer London.   Availability does not necessarily equate to accessibility. Some local people may not be able to access playing fields for a variety of reasons.


4.    Put at the start of the topic sentence an element from the previous paragraph; place at the end of the topic sentence the new element or information that you will become the theme of the paragraph.



5. Within the paragraph, identify the subjects and verbs of all sentences (and other clauses).

The most effective subjects act like characters in a story. (Imagine trying to draw a cartoon character of the noun you have chosen as the subject of a sentence.) The best main verbs express what those characters are doing in the story of the sentence.

In this example, the subjects are printed in bold and the verbs in italics. Some subjects work better than others as characters. The sentences in green are the least effective.


For the purpose of this investigation, the Committee has defined people with reduced mobility as people of all ages who use wheelchairs, have other disabilities or walking-related difficulties or travel with young children using buggies and prams.  It can be difficult to determine the exact number of people with reduced mobility.  The Committee has made the best estimate possible, in conjunction with the GLA Intelligence Unit, on information available.  The GLA Intelligence Unit has applied TfL findings on the percentages of people with a travel-related disability from 5 years old upwards to current and future population estimates to produce the data in this report. This also reflects the numbers of 0-1 year olds to provide for the number of Londoners using buggies and prams.  Further details about the data can be found at Appendix 1 of this report.


6.    Remove all references to the fact that you are writing.

I call this kind of writing ‘scaffolding’. I've marked it here in green.


This chapter considers the key challenges the London Ambulance Service needs to overcome in the near future.  The two overarching challenges we have identified are the increases in demand the LAS has experienced over recent years, which are expected to continue, and the need to become more efficient.

Remove the scaffolding and the text suddenly comes alive. You are now saying what you want to say to the reader.

In our view, the London Ambulance Service needs to overcome two major challenges in the near future.  On the one hand, the service, like the rest of the NHS, needs to deliver substantial increases in efficiency in the coming years.  On the other hand, demand for the service has increased in recent years, and will undoubtedly continue to increase.


Here's another example. The writer took two steps to remove the scaffolding completely.

It is important to note here the inclusion of both physical activity and diet in the explanation of obesity. 

Both physical activity and diet need to be considered to explain obesity.

Both physical activity and diet contribute to obesity.


Exception: at the end of an introduction, give a guided tour of the chapters to follow.

The next chapter of this report provides an overview of the performance of the LAS, based on targets the service is required to meet.  Chapter 3 then discusses the strategic challenges facing the service as it tries to maintain and improve its performance: managing increasing demand and generating efficiencies.  The following chapters then explore the relationships between the LAS and other parts of the health and emergency services.  Chapter 4 focuses on how the LAS works with partners within the NHS, and Chapter 5 does the same for the organisations in the GLA Group; both chapters seek to identify what the Mayor can do to support the LAS in strengthening these relationships, in order to meet strategic challenges the service faces.


7. Exploit opportunities to construct patterns within paragraphs.

One way to do so is to construct sequences of sentences in parallel.


This belief in “working long” strongly affects the economy and individual businesses.  Why do we have a “jobless recovery”?  Because, in part, employers are using record levels of overtime instead of hiring new workers.  Why are many companies – both failing and profitable – slashing their work forces by thousands?  Because, in part, they believe the road to profit is to be lean and mean, to push their employees harder and longer.


People often ask me how long a paragraph should be. There's no simple answer. Obviously, you could make your paragraphs too short or too long, but the circumstances will always be different.

In principle, I'd say that most paragraphs should include at least three sentences. The topic sentence summarizes, and it will do so more effectively if it is summarizing two other points (it doesn't make a great deal of sense for one idea to summarize one other idea.). And a working maximum might be six or seven sentences.

Look also at the length of your sentences. As a very rough guide, sentence length should increase as the paragraph goes on. So your topic sentence will probably be the shortest and the final sentence might be your longest. You could vary this pattern by closing with a short, punchy sentence.

If you find that a paragraph is too long, try splitting it up. Check that the paragraphs still make sense in order. Try to vary the length of paragraphs.

If a paragraph is too short, it may be because the initial idea has not been developed sufficiently. If you think that you need to develop an idea further, identify the pattern of explanation you might be using and develop it.

  • Use examples and illustrations
  • Cite data (facts, statistics, evidence, details, and others)
  • Examine testimony (what other people say such as quotes and paraphrases)
  • Use an anecdote or story
  • Define terms in the paragraph
  • Compare and contrast
  • Evaluate causes and reasons
  • Examine effects and consequences

I run The Grammar Roadshow, a workshop exploring issues of grammar, punctuation and style. You can find an outline here.

Direct mail for fundraising: how to write a great letter #3

In this last post, we look at the skills of using words to fill out the plan of your fundraising letter.

We’ll start where we left off at the end of the second post: looking at narratives.


How to use stories

Storytelling is trendy. But a lot of talk about storytelling isn’t really about narrative; it’s about vivid writing. I think stories deserve more detailed attention.

Stories are special because they follow a particular structure. That structure is often called a narrative arc.

The narrative arc has a single function: to keep the reader reading. All stories – all stories – follow a similar basic structure.

  1. Once upon a time: set up a situation.
  2. Complication or problem that makes the situation more tense or gripping
  3. Climax or crisis: the breaking point where something has to change
  4. Resolution: if it’s a comedy, everyone lives happily ever after. If it’s a tragedy, everyone dies.

Let’s set up an example.

Suppose you work for a women’s shelter. You might start with a particular client. Let’s call her Judith. Once upon a time, she arrived at the shelter after suffering years of abuse from her partner.

(You could put an Ask statement at this point.)

Zoom out to show how significant a problem domestic abuse is in your area, your city, the country – show your reader a bigger picture.

(Include another, differently worded Ask.)

Now set up the crisis. Talk about the lack of shelters for people like Judith. Talk about the danger such women face with no shelter to support them. Raise alarm and compassion in your reader’s mind.

Remind the reader of Judith. Tell the reader about the problems she would face if she had to leave the shelter. Tell the reader that you can guarantee only a place only for a certain number of nights. Keep the information specific; don’t skimp on the details.

(Add another Ask.)

Present your plan to resolve the crisis. You plan to open a new shelter, which will help dozens more women just like Judith.

And: ask.

A variation on this method is to write your letter in the voice of someone who has been helped by your organisation, or who works there. Maybe Judith could ‘write’ the letter. Better still, interview Judith and use her testimony.

Testimony increases credibility, but it also brings a few problems. Alan Sharpe, of, makes several important points about first-person storytelling.

First, the advantages. A story told in the first-person is invariably more dramatic and interesting than when the same story is related second-hand by a staff member. It’s also more personal. And client testimony makes your claims more credible – these days, we might call this the TripAdvisor effect.

Now, the disadvantages. First-person testimony from a client lacks institutional authority. (Remember Aristotle’s credibility quotient in my previous post…) A letter written by or on behalf of your CEO will have wider authority than a story told by a person who’s benefited from your work. And a first-person storyteller can’t speak directly to your reader – so you lose out on the opportunity to exploit segmentation and personalisation.

Alan concludes that first-person narratives are likely to be the strongest letters you write, emotionally. But not all your letters can or should be written in this style.


Integrate your narrative with your key points

As well as telling stories, you will want to remind your reader of key campaigning points. Create an outline of these points as another part of your plan.

Go back to my first two blog posts. Look at the three modes of appeal: credibility, logic, feelings. Each one can give you key campaigning points. Look back at Robert Cialdini’s six patterns of influence. They, too, can give you key campaigning points.

For example, you might write down:

We have been providing safe shelters for women in the city since 1985. (Credibility, authority.)

We want to open a new shelter every three years. You helped us three years ago; with your help now, we’ll meet our goal. (Consistency.)

If you respond by January 15, your gift will be matched pound for pound by our leading trustee. (Absence or scarcity.)

Having found these key points, you can weave them into your narrative. Pick them out in bold so that the reader’s eye falls on them. Don’t put too many on each page: they need to stand out from the text around them.

And put whole sentences into bold, not individual words or phrases.


Work on your first line

Otherwise known in the business as ‘the lead’.  How are you going to catch your reader’s attention? You have other ways to do that, of course: a teaser on the envelope; a heading in the letter itself.

You might consider making a unique first impression by asking a bold rhetorical question. (Appealing to your reader’s core values, perhaps.)

Or perhaps you can give an example of recent positive outcomes. (Thus enhancing your credibility.)

If your letter is going to a current or lapsed donor, this is the perfect opportunity to share the impact that the donor’s previous gifts had for your organization. (And it uses Cialdini’s consistency pattern of influence.)

Everyone wants to know when they’ve made a difference.

Writing the lead might help you also write the close of the letter. If the close relates to the lead, it will close the circle, and give the reader a pleasing sense of completion.  Just as the lead should probably connect directly to the envelope teaser, so the close should relate to the lead.

If your lead asked a question, don’t answer it till you get to the close. (That’s suspense at work, a key storytelling technique.) If you opened by challenging the reader, come back to that challenge and show how their action will respond meaningfully to it.  



It’s another point of entry. (Remember points of entry in our second blog post?) Another point where the reader’s eye might fall – even, perhaps, before they read the rest of the letter. Don’t waste this opportunity. Use it to build on your ask and maybe to add urgency.

P.S. We’ll match your donation pound for pound – but only if we receive it by 20 March. Give now and your gift will be doubled – automatically!


Choose the right words

The right words are the words that speak most directly to your reader. Notice that I say ‘speak’: the reader should ‘hear’ your voice as they read your letter. Aim to balance a spoken style with correct grammar and punctuation.

Great letters feel conversational and look professional. It’s ok to use idioms. Or elisions (can’t, won’t…) Or sentence fragments. Or punctuation that indicates how to read the letter. But your writing shouldn’t be sloppy. And typos are completely unacceptable.

Craft your sentences so that they take your reader on a journey. Keep the structure simple. For each sentence, focus on the very start and the very end – and put strong words in each position.

Here are four ways to make your fundraising letter truly zing.

Use personal words

Always write the letter in the voice of an individual. It might be you; it might be someone else. Talk about I and me and we and us.

More importantly, use the word you. Talk about ‘your support in the past’, ‘your concern for homeless people’, ‘your help with our project’, ‘the difference you have made and can make’.

You are helping us provide lifelong care for our feline residents – and your dedication makes all the difference.

Use names. Talk about people doing things. Which reminds me:

Use verbs

Avoid all those long words ending in –ion, -ment and –ity. Charities use these words far too often, perhaps to try to sound more authoritative. How’s this, for example?

Our multi-disciplinary team-based approach to forensic interviewing…

Most of the time, these words are simple turn-offs. Find the action in the sentence – sorry, find what’s happening in the sentence! And use a verb to express it. In this case, perhaps:

We interview clients in teams, made up of experts from different disciplines…

Use power words

Power words are words that do more than express a dictionary meaning. They have a poetic power that flies directly past the reader’s intellect and into their imagination.

Power words include:

  • single-syllable words
  • human words
  • action words
  • feeling words
  • concrete words
  • onomatopoeic words (chop, fizz, crash, scrape)
  • words that stimulate the senses

Here’s a good example of power words at work.

It can start with nothing more than a twitching in your arm. A numbness in your leg.

You might think it’s nothing. That it will pass.

But over time, slowly, inexorably, your muscles weaken. You lose your ability to move…to talk… to swallow…or even to breathe….

Here’s another example, adapted from Jeff Brooks. Imagine you work for a charity that combats illegal dog-fighting. You might write:

The dog sat on its haunches, bleeding from its injured mouth.

Now add more detail.

The dog collapsed onto its haunches, rocking back and forth, blood clotting the sand. Its jaw was torn and hanging loose, exposing the teeth; saliva and blood soaked into its matted and ripped fur.

Give your reader that imaginative experience, and they’ll be hooked. Once hooked, they are more likely to consider donating.


Be positive

I mean this purely in technical linguistic terms. I’m not talking about the power of positive thinking; I mean, quite simply, that you should aim to express your ideas using positive verbs and not negative ones.

Don’t say: “if we don’t achieve our target, more donkeys will die.”

Say: “If we achieve our target, 300 more donkeys will live a long, happy life.”

Look over your draft letter and do these simple checks.

  • How does the letter move from start to finish?

How does it take your reader on a journey towards giving or otherwise taking action?

  • Check the last word of each sentence.

Do your sentences land on strong words?

  • Check your verbs.

Are they varied, specific and interesting?

  • Check your adverbs.

Do you actually need absolutely every one? Really?

  • Check your adjectives.

Which adjectives arouse the senses or emotions? Which describe benefits to the donor?


Format the letter

Finally, think about how the letter looks. It should look easy to read, even before the reader starts to read. Busyness is bad news.

It should look like a letter. Not a brochure or a leaflet. Cut down on photos and other fancy design features. Focus on the text, and making it look good. And, no: picking random bits of text in bold doesn’t help either.

People don’t read letters that look messy, boring or tedious to read.  Think about it — when you pick up your mail, do you read text-heavy updates from organizations you support, written in 12 point type with no pictures or headlines?  Of course not — these types of letters look like a chore to read. 

If you want donors to read your letter, it should look good: interesting, exciting, and enticing. Too interesting, in fact, to put down. 

Use a headline

A compelling headline in your letter can grab your reader's attention and hook them into reading on. Think of the headline as an ad for your letter.

Use a compelling, bolded first line

Headlines aren't right for every letter. If you want the letter to look and read as more personal, you might not use a headline. Focus instead on the lead: the first line. Make it compelling. Make it a one-sentence paragraph.

I need your help.

Brenda Smith is dying. Her kids need your help.

The eye needs to rest, so leave plenty of white space around your copy.

  • Indent each paragraph.
  • Avoid paragraphs that are more than seven lines long. But do vary their length.
  • Use bullets to clarify lists – but only lists.
  • Use subheads. If the letter is long.
  • Try centering the subheads.
  • Use italics to signal how the reader might read the text aloud. Italics can help your letter feel more spoken.
  • Never underline. Anything. Ever.

I run courses for not-for-profits and other organisations exploring the skills discussed in these posts. We can tailor any course to your needs. Here are a couple of sample outlines.

Email and Letter Writing focuses on correspondence - our written ambassadors. Make the best impression and get the results you want.

Download Alan_Barker_CO_Email_and_Letter_Writing

Copywriting uncovers the secrets of producing copy that sells. Capture your prospect's attention and convert them into customers.

Download Alan_Barker_CO_Copywriting

This series of posts draws, with thanks, on material from Mal Warwick, Jeff Brooks, Alan Sharpe, Andy Maslen, and others.  Here are links to the material I’ve used in my research.



Direct mail for fundraising: how to write a great letter #2


In my first post in this series, I covered the initial stages of preparing a fundraising letter. In this post, we’ll look at planning the letter’s structure.


Long or short?

Let’s begin with a surprising fact about fundraising letters.

Long letters work better than short ones.

This might seem counter-intuitive. We’re in the age of the text and the tweet, yes? When the attention span of the average human is now notoriously shorter than that of the average goldfish. Surely people are simply not sitting down and reading multi-page letters?

Well, in fact, donors do respond more often to long letters than to short ones.

AndyAccording to Andy Maslen, a commercial copywriter whose work I greatly respect, long copy outscores short copy in many cases. And Jeff Brooks, creative director at TrueSense Marketing, suggests that the same holds true in the not-for-profit sector. Long letters are more likely to get a response than short ones; and they can often generate higher average donations.

Apparently, the principle also holds for email. Brooks suggests that a longer e-mail outperforms a shorter one by about 60%.

Why should this be?

Let’s begin by reiterating a point I made in my previous post.

Your reader is most interested in themselves. I can think of three reasons why donors may prefer long fundraising letters. And they’re all to do with the donor.

First, many donors simply like to read their mail. For them, the postal delivery can be a high point in the day. (As, I’m sure, it can be for you.) A longer letter means more pleasurable reading.

Secondly, your reader may already be a donor. (We noted in the previous post that direct mailing nearly always goes to established donors.) That means they’re interested in you and your cause. Imagine: they may actually want to hear from you. In fact, short letters are an impolite response to that interest. They might come across as downright insulting. A long letter, in contrast, creates a stronger connection with the donor.

The broad marketing principle here (thanks, Andy Maslen) is that long copy works with readers who already want to know more about what you’re marketing. Readers with little or no interest are unlikely to read any letter from you, long or short.

Thirdly, a letter gives the donor complete control over the transaction. It’s less invasive, less irritating and potentially less distressing than being called on the phone. (Or being accosted by a chugger on the street.) And that sense of having control may lead your reader to give you more attention, for longer.

(Incidentally, it’s probably a bad idea to include photos or other fancy design features in your letter. This is a letter; not a brochure. Photos will make the letter look more informational and – crucially – less urgent.)

Now think about the letter itself. A long letter also gives you the opportunity to hit more triggers in your reader. (Jeff Brooks calls this the Multiple-Triggers Theory. Thanks, Jeff.)

How do we exploit this feature? How do we make a longer letter more interesting and effective? Indeed, how do we make it longer?


Using patterns of influence

In the first post, we talked about identifying your Ask: what it is, precisely, that you are going to ask your donor to give. We also looked at three broad modes of appeal that you can use to support your Ask: credibility, logic and feelings.


At thiInfluences stage, we can develop our thinking about influence in more detailed ways.

Robert Cialdini and Steve Martin have studied the ways we can be influenced without being aware of it. Cialdini calls this the psychology of compliance. What makes us say ‘yes’?

Cialdini bases his ideas on experiments (in labs and in the field), and on real-life examples of systematic compliance. Cialdini suggests that most ‘weapons of influence’ can be grouped under six headings:

  • reciprocity
  • authority
  • social proof
  • consistency,
  • absence (Cialdini uses the word ‘scarcity’)
  • liking

(Think ‘RASCAL’.)

All six patterns of influence operate unconsciously. That’s why we talk about them in terms of ‘influence’ rather than persuasion: they affect us ‘under the radar’. They make us comply with requests unthinkingly. 

Does this sound unprincipled and unethical? I don’t think so. You want to encourage someone to donate to a famine appeal? Show them a picture of a starving child. The image hits us immediately, unconsciously, and irrationally. And we give. Providing your cause is a good one, any means of influencing – any means that doesn’t involve outright lying – is worth considering.

Reciprocity: the old give and take (and take)

We feel a strong urge to repay a favour.  Do something for the donor and they may do something for you.  Better still, tell the donor that you’ve already done something for them, and they might feel even more inclined to respond.

Authority: directed deference

We are extraordinarily compliant to the requests of people we see as authority figures.  What can you do to increase your authority with your donor? (Back to credibility.)

Social proof: Truths Are Us

We are strongly influenced to feel and do what we see others feeling and doing. (Think of canned laughter on the television.)  Showing how other donors have acted may influence the donor you’re writing to – especially if you can show that the other donors are similar to the reader in some way.

Consistency: I Am What I Say

We all want our behaviour and views to be consistent with what we have presented in the past.  This is more than making a show of consistency; we actually want to be consistent with our past self-image.  It’s in our own self-interest to be seen by others to be reliable and consistent. (Think of promising your child to take them to Disneyland. And then not taking them. How would you feel?)

Making a public statement of commitment to action – either spoken or in writing (even if only we read it) – increases the chances that we will do it.  Get your donor to do something that’s consistent with a later ask, and they may feel influenced to act. Remind them how they donated last year, for example.

Absence: Scarcity Breeds Desire

The scarcer a resource, the more value we attach to it.  We are also more motivated by the prospect of losing something than by the hope of gaining something. Making the benefits of a donation time-limited, for instance, might inject an effective note of urgency. Or emphasize the dangers of not donating – or donating too late.

Liking: I Like You, You’re Like Me

This is two patterns. We are influenced by people we like, and by people we consider to be like us. Can you make yourself more likeable in your reader’s eyes? (You might write in the voice of another person, for example: a beneficiary, perhaps, of the campaign you’re promoting.) Or can you emphasize how you and your ask are similar to some aspect of your reader’s life that you already know about: their love of animals, their experience in a caring profession…


Creating a structure

This is not a great piece of literature we’re writing. It’s not an essay looking for a mark from a teacher. Your fundraising letter has to do only one thing.

It has to work.

So think about how the reader encounters your letter and how they will react to it.

Repetition: creating points of entry

One of the key elements of effective fundraising letters – and of long copy more generally – is repetition.

What’s the first thing the reader sees as they look at the envelope? As they pull the letter out of the envelope? As they unfold it?

Some people will read everything you’ve written. Others will skim. The trick is to write for both groups.

As they unfold your letter, your reader will start to read wherever their eyes land. The eyes bounce around, leaping forward and backward, skipping entire sections, reading other parts more than once. Your letter should therefore contain multiple points of entry and multiple calls to action. And the more boldly you present those points of entry and CTAs, the more likely the reader’s eyes will land on them.

Don't worry about annoying your long-term donors. Most active donors apparently remember little about the organisations they support; there’s no harm in repeating important information. Use your letter to re-educate your donor.

Jeff Brooks suggests outlining your letter something like this:

  • Introduction: Why I'm writing to you.
  • Ask.
  • Why your gift is so important today.
  • Ask.
  • How much impact your gift will have.
  • Ask.
  • Story that demonstrates the need.
  • Ask.
  • Remind the donor of his values and connection with the cause.
  • Ask.
  • Another story.
  • Ask.
  • Help the donor visualize what will happen when she gives.
  • Ask.
  • Conclusion: Thank the donor for caring. Ask again.

As we’ve said, one way to hold all that repetition together is in a narrative sequence – otherwise known as a story. That’s where we’ll start the third and final blog post.

I run courses for not-for-profit organisations on letter writing, copywriting and a range of other topics. Here are two of my standard courses, which can be adapted to your needs.

Email and Letter Writing focuses on correspondence - our written ambassadors. Make the best impression and get the results you want.

Download Alan_Barker_CO_Email_and_Letter_Writing

Copywriting uncovers the secrets of producing copy that sells. Capture your prospect's attention and convert them into customers.

Download Alan_Barker_CO_Copywriting

This series of posts draws, with thanks, on material from Mal Warwick, Jeff Brooks, Alan Sharpe, Andy Maslen, and others.  Here are links to the material I’ve used in my research.

Direct mail for fundraising: how to write a great letter #1


This is the first of three posts. If you work for a charity, a not-for-profit or any organisation that relies on donors for funds, these posts will be essential reading.


Direct mail? Really?

It’s time to rethink direct mail. Yes, GDPR has made a big difference. The regulatory landscape has changed and legal departments are being ultra-cautious. But, as Suzanne Lewis writes in a useful post, people still like direct mail: according to Royal Mail’s MarketReach, 87% of the public trust a letter, compared to 48% for email.

Fundraising letters build relationships – and sustain them. If you rely on donors or members, grant them the privilege of sending a letter. What’s more, letters – and not emails – remain, by far, the biggest single means of recruiting new donors. Surveys reveal that most donors make their first gift after reading a letter that’s arrived on their door mat. And letters are also the best way to retain support. You can only say so much face-to-face; and you may not meet many of your most loyal supporters.  

Direct mail is cost-effective. Sure, writing effective letters is time-consuming and demands an almost fanatical attention to detail. But the rewards come over time. One donor in a hundred may respond to your repeated, thoughtful correspondence with a hefty bequest. That’s worth working for.

Think of direct mail as a strategy: a process, not an event. It’s a virtuous circle. The more you write, the more loyal your supporters will become. The more loyal they are, the more likely it is that they’ll read your letters.

To start, let’s summarise three key features of an effective fundraising letter.

  1. The letter is written by you: a named individual. You sign the letter. And you are a real person, with experience, expertise and strongly held convictions. Write about them.
  2. You’re writing to one person – the addressee – who has an interest in your cause and wants to know more about it, as well as wanting to contribute to it. Address those interests.
  3. The letter should talk about the needs your organisation addresses: practical and emotional, social and concrete.

As you begin, you need to answer two key questions.

  • Who’s your reader?
  • What’s the Ask?

In this post, we’ll address those two questions. In the next post, we’ll plan the letter in detail. And in the third post, we’ll draft and edit.


Thinking about your reader

What’s your reader most interested in?


Everything you say in your letter must relate to the reader: their values, beliefs, feelings, and behaviour. Use whatever information you have to identify those values and behaviours.

(GDPR is of course critically important; you shouldn’t be keeping or using information about your supporters that they haven’t agreed to share with you.)

The key to dealing with your list is to segment it. Segmenting allows you to decide who to include in a particular mailing, and how to treat them.

It’s worth spending time identifying the members of different segments. Personalise! If you keep accurate records, you can exploit all the advantages of direct mail:

  • You can vary the copy of your letters – rather than writing dull, standardised copy.
  • You can generate more data about your supporters.
  • You can measure the results of your campaigns more accurately.

All of which means that your fundraising will improve, steadily, over time.

The main criteria for profiling your readers are probably:

  • recency (how recently they last contacted you, or you contacted them);
  • frequency (how frequently ditto);
  • previous donation amounts; or
  • how the donor originally came to you.

Many fundraising campaigns are based on a membership scheme, or on a system of regular giving (Direct Debits, for example). With this segment, fundraising’s major aim is to achieve renewals. You might contact them twice a year, or even more often. If you want to sustain the interest of these loyal donors, you can include:

  • news updates;
  • new campaigns;
  • yearly achievements; or
  • external events affecting your organisation.


The Ask

The second key question is: what’s the Ask? Donors won’t give unless they’re asked.

There are four steps in writing a great Ask.

  1. Identify the need.
  2. Ask for help.
  3. Justify the Ask emotionally.
  4. Show how the donation will make a difference.

And you should be able to state your Ask in no more than 20 words. (It’s what the Greek rhetoricians called a ‘colon’: the length of a sentence that you could utter in one breath.)


Identify the need [nine words]

Use the first sentence to identify the Ask. And don't use the words donate or support. Instead, name the person or group that’s in need of assistance. Paint as powerful a picture as you can in nine words.

Our foodbank stops families from going hungry.

Without a transplant, Jenny will die.

Too many organisations include nebulous Asks in their letters. Maybe they feel apologetic, or embarrassed, to ask for money! Hence, perhaps, that bland, vague word ‘support’.  It sounds as if you don’t know the value of a donation. The clearer and more specific your Ask – and the more assertively you ask it – the more likely your donors will be to respond.

What, in fact, are you asking for? Money, probably. How much? Why?

Will you donate £25 to change a child’s life forever?

Maybe the money is actually a commitment to a project. For instance, a local food bank asked for a pledge to feed children during the school holidays.

Join us this summer with a special three-month commitment that will help to give these kids three square meals a day during the school holidays. You can send a gift today and pledge to do the same in July and August. Or you could make a single gift that stretches across the entire summer. Better still, sign up for monthly giving and make a difference all year long!

The Ask is the core reason for writing the letter. Clarify it early. You might develop your Ask into a more sophisticated marketing concept. (We might even make it look even more sophisticated and call it a Marketing Concept.) For example:

As Chief Executive of Home from Home, I’ve often written to you about the challenges faced by homeless people in our city.

You’re one of our most generous and loyal supporters. That’s why I’m telling you now about a wonderful opportunity for you to help us again. We urgently need £40,000 to refit our three shelters, so that more homeless families can find a warm, secure place to sleep.

Because we need to finish the job before the winter sets in, three members of our Board of Trustees have volunteered to match your gift, pound for pound, if we receive it before 15 September – up to a total of £10,000.


Ask For Their Help [five words]

Can you help us out?

Why these words? Because it’s a direct question that demands a direct response.

The word help is also powerful. We’re programmed from infancy to give help when asked; asking for help is a strong emotional trigger.

Which leads us to the next step.


Justify the Ask emotionally [one word]

And that one word is:


The word ‘because’ satisfies the reader’s (often unconscious) need for a reason to accept your case.


If we’re looking for ways to justify our ask, we can take inspiration from Aristotle.

Yes, really.

In his book Rhetoric, Aristotle suggests that we persuade each other in three ways.




We tend to believe people and organisations that we trust. If your organisation is well respected, people are more likely to listen to you. Respect begins with having a high profile. If your reader has never heard of you, you will have to build that reputation from the bottom up.

Credibility is based on three key elements.

Shared values: if you can demonstrate that you share the reader’s values, they will grant you more authority. The best fundraising letters appeal to their readers’ deepest desires and values: things like faith, their worldview and beliefs about humanity, and so on. (Remember: your reader is most interested in themselves.)

Common sense: otherwise known as practical wisdom. If you can show that you get things done, and that you’re not extremists, your reader will respect you more.

Commitment: demonstrate that you do more, go further, or sacrifice more to achieve your goals.

Find examples that illustrate all three of these elements and add them to your ideas for your letter.


Argue a case, rationally and reasonably. But remember that all arguments start with assumptions; and the arguments that will persuade your reader must be based on assumptions that they hold. Argue from your reader’s values and beliefs.


Everyone knows that giving decisions, like buying decisions, are based hugely on emotion. And we all know that charities and other not-for-profits do everything they can to tug on the heartstrings, in order to pull the reader’s purse-strings.

The danger when you’re writing is that you might use too much emotional language. The mantra here comes from drama and novel-writing:

Show, don’t tell.

Evoke the feelings in your reader using stories, pictures, examples of people doing things. Show the concrete difference your organization is making in the world. Use facts and figures by all means; but make the statistics meaningful by presenting them in concrete terms.

Numbers, by themselves, usually mean very little.

Credibility, logic and emotion are broad modes of appeal. In a specific letter, the trick is to relate those principles to the specific ask we’re making.


Show how the donation will make a difference [six words]

Here’s a marketing mantra that will serve you well.

Benefits, not needs. 

This is a variation on the commercial marketing mantra, ‘benefits, not features’. If you’re selling a washing machine, don’t talk about everything it does; tell the customer how their life will be improved by owning it. If you’re fundraising, don’t talk about what you need money for – your projects, your annual strategy, your budget deficits – tell your donor how they will benefit from giving money.

And the benefit will be seeing that their donation is used directly to do something concrete.

So, if you’re talking about donations to help feed people, say '£10 will provide x meals for a family of four.’

Benefits to the donor could be direct or indirect. A direct benefit might be a pair of tickets to an event; an indirect benefit would be the warm glow of knowing that we are saving a life or rescuing an animal.

For as little as £30, you could pay to save a child’s sight right now. That’s a lifetime of glorious sunsets, entirely because of your gift.

By now, you should have lots of ideas to feed into your letter. We’re ready to start planning it!

On to the next blog post.

I run courses for not-for-profit organisations on letter writing, copywriting and a range of other topics. Here are two of my standard courses, which can be adapted to your needs.

Email and Letter Writing focuses on correspondence - our written ambassadors. Make the best impression and get the results you want.

Download Alan_Barker_CO_Email_and_Letter_Writing

Copywriting uncovers the secrets of producing copy that sells. Capture your prospect's attention and convert them into customers.

Download Alan_Barker_CO_Copywriting

This series of posts draws with thanks on material from Suzanne Lewis, Mal Warwick, Jeff Brooks, Alan Sharpe, Andy Maslen, and others.  Here are links to the material I’ve used in my research.

How to produce the best copy

Five ways post
Is it magic? Do you have to pay an outsider good money to get great copy? Well, maybe. But you can also build your own skills. The key is being adaptable: daring to go beyond your first draft. Here are five tips to help you.

Focus on the reader

Don’t talk about stuff; talk to your reader. Address them directly. Imagine speaking to them, and write down exactly what you would say.

Then edit the copy – ruthlessly.

Think benefits, not features. Why should your reader care about what you have to say? A colleague of mine talks about ‘tuning in to Radio WIIFM: What’s In It For Me?’ What matters to your reader? Corporates and business partners have quite different values and priorities to individual customers.

Think also about how the reader will encounter your copy: project proposals command quite different levels of attention from campaigning emails. How committed is your reader to reading? Are they sitting at a desk or scrolling on their smartphone? How can you capture – and hold – their attention?

Keep it simple

Two messages is one too many. Decide what you want your reader to do as a result of reading your copy and say what you need to say to achieve that action. Make the ‘ask’ specific.

Persuade in three dimensions

Great copy seduces. The reader feels that they’ve decided what to do, rather than being persuaded by you. You can seduce your reader in three ways: through reasoned argument; through credibility and reputation (why should we respect your organisation more than others?); and through emotion.

Most buying decisions are based on feeling rather than logic. And that’s as much about stimulating the imagination as about arousing emotion. Show, don’t tell: avoid emotive language that tells the reader what to feel or what you feel. The feelings should occur in the reader – not in the text. Use stories and examples and let them do the work.

Make it zing

You can bring your copy to life in (at least) four ways.

First, use power words: single-syllable words, human words, action words, feeling words, concrete words, words that stimulate the senses, and onomatopoeic words (chop, fizz, crash, scrape).

Second, use personal words: words like ‘you’ and ‘we’, but also words that name the people (and non-humans) that are doing things in your copy.

Third, use strong, specific verbs, and avoid abstract words (recognition, awareness, opportunity).

Finally, express your ideas as positives. Don’t write about what isn’t happening, or won’t happen; tell your reader what is happening, what they can do, and how the world will be a better place as a result.

Integrate your copy with design

All copy has some sort of design element. It might be no more than a paragraph break. Email newsletters can include colour and pictures; flyers have fronts and backs; brochures have covers and inside pages. Blog posts can include cross-line headlines (like the ones breaking up the text here) and standfirsts (short paragraphs sitting between the main headline and the body text – just like the copy in italics at the head of this post).

Make your copy work with the design, not against it.

Oh – and one final hint: work at least four times as hard on your headline as you do on your copy. After all, four times as many people will read the headline – or the subject line of your email – as read the body copy. Don’t try to make your headlines cute or clever. If you’re stuck for ideas, start your headline with ‘how’, ‘why’ or a number.

(Yup, that's what I did. Actually, I also used CoSchedule's free headline analyser. It doesn't entirely convince me, but it's great fun.)

If the headline works, chances are that they’ll read your copy. And all your hard work will not be in vain.

My copywriting course reveals more secrets of the copywriter’s craft. Take a look at the outline and contact me to find out more.

Why every good cause deserves good copy

If you work in a not-for-profit, you don’t need me to tell you that effective copy is at the heart of effective campaigning.

You know, to use the buzz words of the moment, that the third sector marketing space is increasingly crowded. You know that your organisation’s key messages need to cut through the noise. And you probably also know that charity communication is coming under increasing scrutiny: targeting your supporters must not become harassment. New data protection legislation, and the Fundraising Preference Service instituted by the Fundraising Regulator, quite rightly help people manage their communication with charities more easily – but they’ll also make campaigning more challenging.

The only copy that will work will be smart copy.

Many not-for-profits enjoy a productive relationship with copywriting agencies. But not every agency delivers what a charity wants or needs; and many charities simply lack the budget to go outside. Growing your internal skills is often preferable – and sometimes it’s the only option.

Where to start? How can you catch and hold your reader’s attention?  Get inside their heads and tug their heart strings?  How can you nudge them to act, donate or simply open the email?

And how can you convince your manager that your copy will do the job better?

The Directory of Social Change one-day copywriting course reveals some of the secrets of the copywriter’s craft.  If you produce marketing or promotional copy – from flyers to blog posts, from newsletters to direct mail – this course is essential. You’ll explore a range of copywriting techniques and have the chance to apply them immediately to some of your own copy. You’ll generate new ideas, organise them persuasively, and make your copy zing.  You’ll have a lot of fun.  And you’ll leave brimming with confidence. 

(OK. Full declaration of interest. I run this course.)

To find out more, take a look at the course outline. And then book your place.

Because good causes deserve good copy.

(About) 630 amazing power words that will astound your reader!


“For beginning writers,” writes Jon Morrow of Smartblogger, “power words are one of the easiest tools to master. Unlike many storytelling strategies, which can take years of practice to master, you can start sprinkling power words into your writing, and you’ll notice an immediate lift in the quality of your prose.”

A power word, according to Morrow, “is defined by its ability to make you feel.” It derives its power from the emotional reaction you have to it. Because that reaction, like all emotional reactions, is unconscious – at the edge of rational control – power words promise to sneak under the reader’s cognitive radar and influence them to buy or click.

Beyond emotion, power words probably tap into other sub- or unconscious responses to language. Connotations, for example, generate power. Kevan Lee, in a useful post, gives a good example. “The difference between ‘joining’ and ‘signing up’,” he writes, “is the difference between fellowship and enlisting. A word changes the meaning, the mood, and the motivation.”


Lee also references another source of verbal power: the so-called ‘bouba-kiki’ effect, which suggests that our brains somehow attach abstract meaning to the actual sounds of words in a consistent way. (A ‘bouba’, for example, is probably rounded or soft, while a ‘kiki’ is probably sharp and jagged.)

Don’t ignore the poetic or musical power of your copy.

I’m grateful to Kevan Lee for a lot of the material here. Let’s follow him and consider a few lists of power words – from short to long.

To begin: he lists these as the five ‘most persuasive words in the English language’. Well, maybe. Sometimes. 

  • You
  • Free
  • Because
  • Instantly
  • New

Moving on, we come to David Ogilvy’s famous list of the twenty most influential marketing words.  Ogilvy2

  • Suddenly
  • Now
  • Announcing
  • Introducing
  • Improvement
  • Amazing
  • Sensational
  • Remarkable
  • Revolutionary
  • Startling
  • Miracle
  • Magic
  • Offer
  • Quick
  • Easy
  • Wanted
  • Challenge
  • Compare
  • Bargain
  • Hurry

(This is an interesting piece on the origin of the list.)

From twenty to forty-eight. And I feel a need to start listing alphabetically. This list apparently derives from a study of best-selling magazine covers. It will probably serve you well in promotional copy and email subject lines.

  • Amazing
  • Anniversary
  • Basic
  • Best
  • Big
  • Bonus
  • Complete
  • Create
  • Discover
  • Easy
  • Exclusive
  • Extra
  • Extraordinary
  • First
  • Free
  • Guarantee
  • Health
  • Help
  • Hot
  • Hot Special
  • How to
  • Immediately
  • Improve
  • Know
  • Latest
  • Learn
  • Money
  • More
  • New
  • Now
  • Plus!
  • Powerful
  • Premiere
  • Profit
  • Protect
  • Proven
  • Results
  • Safety
  • Save
  • Today
  • Trust
  • Ultimate
  • Understand
  • Win
  • Worst
  • You

Now for two, longer lists. Each, intriguingly, is exactly 120 words long.

First, ExpressWriters offers this list that, they claim, “can boost your headlines and power up your content for better click-through’s [sic] and results.” And they throw in 10 “compelling call-to-action phrases” for good measure.

(Pity about the wandering apostrophe.)


The second list derives from a recent webinar at Leanplum about push notifications: messages sent from an app directly to someone’s mobile device. The message appears even if the device is locked or if the person is inside a different app. Push notifications, say Leanplum ingenuously, “are useful for sending information to app users in real time.” 

According to Stefan Bhagwandin, “effective mobile messaging is a huge challenge for mobile marketers. Not only will these “power words” amplify your creativity and app engagement, but they will increase your open rates, retention, and revenue.”

Leanplum examined more than 2.6 billion mobile push notifications sent by brands between January 1 and December 31, 2016. Each word in the dataset was isolated and assigned an engagement score based on how it affected open rates across different campaigns. The researchers found that the words with the highest engagement scores fell into four main groupings:

  • words that convey urgency (alert, pending, critical);
  • words that convey exclusivity (accepted, eligible, limited);
  • words that convey emotion (dream, epic, warning); and
  • words that convey value (bargains, deals, sale).

The list has its eccentricities. I’d guess that ‘tick-tock’, ‘inventory’ and ‘forfeiture’ (really?) are unlikely to appear on any other list of power words. But in the new world of mobile apps, power presumably shifts.


And finally, this ‘monster list of power words’ comes from Jon Morrow of Smartblogger. Morrow offers no fewer than 317 “Emotion-Packed Words and Phrases That’ll Instantly Make You a Better Writer”.

Morrow helpfully categorizes his list: ‘words to provoke fear’, ‘words to encourage and energize’ and so on. And, generously, he offers his list free. Download a copy here.

Download Sb-power-words

For me, all of these lists can act like oracles. Use them to stimulate new ideas.

And then test them.

Six ways to connect with Generation Z


Picture source:

This post is based on research conducted by George Beall, Altitude (check out this post), Deep Patel  and Cory Munchbach. Many thanks to all of them. Very few ideas here are my own.

I do, however, have a question. How genuine is this category? Discussions of Generation Z seem to be distinctly US-biased. Nothing wrong with that. But to what extent does a Chinese, or a Sudanese, or a Bolivian Gen Z kid fit the category? Maybe the technology is creating a global phenomenon (see below). But I think we need to ask the question.

Who are Generation Z?

These are children born between 1995 and 2012. They’re coming of age right now, becoming eligible to vote, serve in the armed forces, enter higher education, and earn money. They face many of the challenges that teenagers have faced in the past: managing the change from education to employment, forming their own identities and finding social groups to belong to.

But they’re doing all this in an ultra-connected, fast-moving technological world.

This is the first generation in the history of humanity that has never been without mobile devices. And yes, this fact is global. According to Ericsson, as reported by The Daily Telegraph, by 2020 around 70% of the world’s population will be using a smartphone, and 90% of people over the age of six will own a mobile.

What defines Generation Z?

So, apart from being networked, what characterises this generation? From what I’ve read, I think we can render it down to three key features.

  1. They are technologically agile.

Their inseparability from their devices is what marks Generation Z out for most older people. According to recent research, a full 40% of Gen Z are self-identified digital device addicts.

Gen Z seemingly uses five devices per day. At school, they create documents on the school computer, research topics on their tablet or phone, take notes on a notepad and write essays on a laptop – while watching TV (or YouTube – see below) – often with the sound off. And they spend 41 percent of their non-school time looking at a screen.

The effects of such prolonged exposure to screens is not yet fully understood. This article, though, does offer some sobering up-to-date information.

Their technological agility makes Generation Z capable of genuine multi-tasking. They shift seamlessly from work to play, with multiple distractions playing in the background (much as Millennials work on computers with the TV flickering in the corner of the screen...)

  1. They are expert information managers.

Generation Z, then, lives in a world of continuous updates. As a result, these young people use Snapchat, Instagram and Vine to process information faster than previous generations. YouTube is Gen Z’s favorite website.

But we’re not describing attention deficit disorder. Altitude’s study suggests that these youngsters have developed what Jeremy Finch calls ‘highly evolved “eight-second filters.”’ Their options are infinite but their time is limited. They've adapted techniques to sort and collate vast amounts of information. They rely on trends – and trending on social media – to filter content. And they turn to trusted authorities (Finch calls them ‘curators’) to help them pick what’s relevant. Nothing especially novel in that practice, but the names are new (to me, at least): Philip DeFranco, for example, who has well over 5 million subscribers on YouTube, and Bethany Mota, who manages a cool 10 million.



  1. They're looking for security.

And what are Gen Z doing with all the information they hoard? Well, like all young people before them, they're almost certainly looking for two things: identity and belonging.

Gen Z certainly knows the value of independence, but they also know its dangers. Many are opting out of formal education, the traditional way to make a life for yourself. Why invest thousands and take on years of debt? With more affordable and accessible online alternatives, why go to university or college?

Others are opting to go straight to work, or to start their own enterprise. Perhaps they’ve been influenced by their individualistic, self-reliant Gen X parents and warned off the mistakes that their millennial elders have made. 72% of teens apparently say they want to start a business. But this entrepreneurialism seems more like a survival strategy than a drive to innovate or succeed. Generation Z is also characterised by a determination to plan ahead and persevere.

And all this chimes with another finding: that Generation Z is more frugal than the Millennials, and – interestingly – more risk-averse, practical and pragmatic.

This generation, then, is conflicted. They're big on individuality and big on being social. The insecurity about identity that’s natural to this age group has become amplified by technology. Their presence on social media (nearly 92% of Gen Z has a digital footprint) makes them intensely aware of the impression they make on their social network. They seek immediate acceptance through social media, where their friends live and where they find all the important conversations. There’s some evidence, in fact, that youngsters are developing different social media personas to please different social groups – and to minimize conflict or controversy.

What does all this mean for copywriters and marketers?

Six points here:

Create a conversation.

Focus more than ever on words.

Move fast.

Make it digital.

Be genuine.

GenZ wordcloud

Create a conversation.

Generation Z has little interest in being advertised to. Marketing will need to be based on creating a sense of loyalty and community. It will need to contribute to a conversation.

And, like all conversations, it will need to be based on a sense of rapport. According to Marcie Merriman, executive director of growth strategy at Ernst & Young, these youngsters “expect businesses, brands and retailers to be loyal to them. If they don’t feel appreciated, they’re going to move on. It’s not about them being loyal to the business.”

The flip side, perhaps, is that, once a conversation has demonstrated attention-worthiness, Gen Z can become intensely committed and focused.

Words matter even more than in the past.

Take YouTube.

Ad tech firm Sharethrough found that, since many were watching video content outside the home, they turned the sound down. Two thirds (67%) liked to watch a video silently. As a result, headlines and descriptions become crucial in communicating a message, marketing or otherwise. 84% reported that the headline was a major factor in deciding whether or not to watch an in-feed video ad.

"It's like the rebirth of copywriting," notes Chris Schreiber, vice president of marketing and communications at Sharethrough. He adds that simply putting TV ads online had never been the key to a successful strategy. Indeed, in-feed autoplay has introduced the notion of what he calls the "attention audition".

"One of the key pieces here is the role of headlines and reading and the inter-relationship between copywriting and the likelihood for video engagement," he said. "You have the ability to get people to read your stuff now probably more than ever. Reading was maybe a billboard strategy, but now you have the ability to get this generation to read your copy throughout the day."

Cory Munchbach offers these further words of advice (I’ve paraphrased – you can see her original text here).

Move fast.

You must be as deft and agile as your audience. Tailor your material to fit on many platforms. Focus less on messaging and more on tailored, interactive experiences. Give them a reason to connect with you.

Start and end with a digital experience.

Companies – not just marketers – have to think digital-first for the entire brand experience: the messaging, the products themselves, the shopping experience and how they support the purchase. And don’t think of each experience separately: digital blurs the lines between product, marketing and service. Think digital, think connectivity, think big.

Be genuine.

Generation Z, for all their novelty, are still young people. They place a premium on authenticity. Speak in a voice that communicates the core pillars of your brand and that speaks to the beliefs, values and – yes – fears of these people. But don’t try to be hip. And generic repurposing of existing marketing assets won’t connect with Generation Z. (Does it connect to anyone?) You must have a dedicated library of assets for the different channels that you use, based on the customer’s context when they engage.