Copyspeaking – why copywriters need to perform their page

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.

Imagine, dear reader, that you were a zookeeper. Imagine you excelled in every aspect of zookeepery, from expert krill distribution to legendary iguana management.

Now imagine, for all your majesty in zoo coordination, you scream like a gazelle and sweat pure, liquid meat the second you step into the wolf enclosure.

In other words, no matter how excellent you are at one half of your job, it’s your shortcomings in the second half that will get you gobbled down.

Unless you suffer from a rare case of metaphor blindness, you can probably see where this is going.

In copywriting, there is a part of the job that doesn’t require you to write, or think, or even deal confidently with commas. It requires you to speak.

You may have been in presentations where a client has graciously volunteered to read your copy from the page, while you gaze out of the window in silent contemplation.

But mostly we are expected to read aloud what we have written.

And here is the problem. Many of us feel safest, smartest and most invincible when dealing with words on a page. But, as it is with anyone who expresses themselves best in writing, being asked to read those words out loud – to actual people – can easily strip off the top three layers of self-possession.

I have no idea why this is, although you could hypothesise there is a certain pressure attached to verbalising something that you know works so well on paper.

Naturally, this doesn’t apply to every copywriter, and I have seen writers liquefy a room with the assuredness of their delivery.

But, like most things in our business, Don Draper is to blame. There is an expectation, on both sides, that we do not merely articulate what we have written, but dramatise it. And while there are many reasons you and I got into copywriting – the sex, the glory, the knitwear – I doubt many of us signed up for the performance.

Unfortunately, no matter how quickly your genitals miniaturise at the prospect of ‘a reading’, it is an essential part of the role.

Call me proprietorial (or just plain ball-greedy) but I believe no one can do a better job of selling in their copy than the copywriter.

Equally, I’ve been in enough presentations where stunning writing has been dismissed because the delivery only managed to strangle and subdue its merits.

We should all be reading our copy out loud anyway, unless of course we’re blessed with a rare, internal instrument for rhythm.

But it’s a different beast when we’re reading it to the people paying (big/good/adequate) money for our ability as a writer.

So what do we do? Hire actors who have played four different minor villains in The Bill? Fake a serious bee sting seconds before it’s our turn to talk?

Here’s the twist. I have no advice. And even if I did, no one can tell you how to best train your voice to do justice to your words.

But whatever your method for making your copy do to the ear what it does to the eye, we all need to put our mouth where the money is.

Otherwise all we are is bones in a wolf’s belly.

Andrew Boulton is a senior lecturer in creative advertising at the University of Lincoln. Follow Andrew on Twitter @Boultini

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