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The force of a word: what the ‘power of sound’ means to copywriters

Andrew Boulton is a senior lecturer on copywriting and creative advertising at the University of Lincoln. He’s also a copywriter with over a decade of scribbling experience at top creative agencies in the Midlands and once for a man who carved dolphins out of cheese.

He was nominated for the Professional Publishers Association Award for Business Media Columnist of the Year despite having little or no grasp of the semi colon. You can follow him on Twitter @Boultini.

If I were a more scientific – and less lazy – individual, I’d carry out an experiment into the ‘hit rate’ of the average copywriter. In other words, how many terrible lines are written in order to liberate a good one.

My own tally would be, I suspect, embarrassingly lopsided. My typical performance is a little like a hitman missing the target with hundreds of machine gun rounds, only for my victim to eventually drop dead from gunpowder-induced asthma.

You can imagine how irritating it then is to discover a book where the first 150 words (of the preface, mind) are some of the most influential and enduring you ever read. In hitman terms, it’s the equivalent of bumping off your entire hitlist with nothing more than a well-vinegared conker.

The book in question is a (sort-of) autobiography by Joseph Conrad, called ‘A Personal Record’ – whose opening thoughts are an abiding hymn to the ‘force of a word’.

While most of it is repulsively good, the most famous passage (and one which you may see dubiously plucked and stuffed into bad public speaking ‘guides’) is ‘He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense’.

The selection of ‘the right word’ is fundamentally why we copywriters exist. But, I’d argue the second part of the passage is both more neglected and more relevant to our success in the industry.

‘The power of sound’ to Conrad was the idea of a novel’s character speaking so vividly and familiarly that the reader would have very little to do in order to bring that character to life.

In copywriting, ‘the power of sound’ plays a similar role – forcing us to consider not only what each word says but how each one is heard.

It’s a task that requires prodigious empathy and the ability to extract yourself from the habitually insular agency environment to ‘hear’ your message from the other end of the conversation.

In other words, fashioning a voice for our copy is the first bit of the job. The second, and most important, bit is ensuring you actually sound like an expert, a sympathiser, an ally, a protector, an inspiration… basically anything other than a copywriter.

Conrad, though not himself in the business of, say, flogging lawnmowers or describing why peach-flavoured cola isn’t as appalling as it sounds, is a useful guide in terms of how a copywriter may and may not persuade.

In its naked form, the ‘argument’ in a copywriting brief is generally unchanging – tea bags make tea, spades dig holes, golf balls are little and round. But the words we use, and how those words are received in the minds of our audience, are what determines whether ‘our’ tea bag/spade/golf ball/disgusting cola are chosen ahead of the alternatives.

Ultimately, Conrad’s thoughts are an excellent reminder to every copywriter who has reduced words to mere shapes and symbols – mistaking a satisfying headline for a meaningful argument.

(Oh, and if you’ve found this piece a bit loftier than usual, let me reassure you that I’ve broken off from writing several times to watch ‘Tipping Point’ and eat dry Coco Pops from an unwashed mug. Which, for a copywriter, is actually still rather lofty.)

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