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“Commercial Writing” Has Many Faces (as these Unusual Projects Prove…)

So, I’ve been working on an interesting commercial freelancing project lately, one that doesn’t fit the typical list I (and others) rattle off to explain the kinds of things we commercial writers do: “marketing brochures, ad copy, newsletters, web content, direct mail, case studies, etc.” Here’s the deal…

Every year, a group of folks from numerous foundations go to Washington to meet with their legislators to talk about foundation activity in their districts at home, and the positive difference it’s making. All with an eye toward heading off possible deleterious budget cuts or legislation that could harm their efforts.

Each group (11 states are represented) is armed with one double-sided-page synopsis outlining their home state’s foundation activity, mostly facts and figures showcasing that impact in black and white. But they also wanted one short story that would appear at the top of the first page.

To gather the info for those 11 stories, they originally wanted me to interview all the state “captains,” but as the deadline hurtled toward them, they decided to just send a questionnaire to the captains and let them fill it out.

I created the cover letter and questionnaire, they sent it out, and the responses they’ve received back are my source material to write the mini-stories (we’re talking ~100 words, total).

P.S. Because so many of the players involved in making this happen are crazy-busy, they’ve appreciated the fact that I’ve taken ownership of the project: suggesting and then writing the letter/questionnaire; proactively hunting on a foundation’s web site for story fodder when my source got tied up elsewhere and couldn’t write his story, or the info they provided didn’t include all the salient details, etc.; writing well and quickly, and generally making it easier on everyone (the goal, after all).

Don’t even know how you’d classify this project, except to say it looks very different from most of what we do. And that’s kind of the point here: While a lot of what we do as freelance commercial writers looks familiar and falls into one of categories listed above, a ton more doesn’t and doesn’t.

Meaning, freelance commercial writing can be anything that helps any enterprise (for-profit or non-profit) communicate more powerfully to their target audience, regardless of the form it takes. So, keep your radar up, and don’t be afraid to suggest something you haven’t seen before, if it indeed will help a client speak to their audience more effectively.

In case you’re wondering how I even landed this project… I cold-called a graphic designer last fall, made a relaxed, un-pushy pitch to help out when needed, and we started talking. He first hired me (another atypical project) to rework a two-page white paper he was posting on his site as a credibility-builder for his design business (focusing on non-profits). Think about that for a sec: designers (or any business-owner, for that matter) want to raise their profile and credibility, and writing “reports” on various subjects showcasing their expertise, is one way to do it.

But how many have the time to do them? Or, in his case, how many are confident enough in their own writing ability to post what they’ve written? As it turned out, he was delighted at the results of my rework, and now knows he can bang something out, and for a very reasonable fee (far less than if I’d written for him from scratch), I’ll get it ready for Prime Time. Getting your wheels turning?

So, when he was brought in to design these one-page synopses, he naturally thought of me to help write the stories, and brought me in.

Then there’s my book-titling business (“The Title Tailor”), another unusual specialty, but certainly one that fits the criterion above: “Helping any enterprise communicate more powerfully to their target audience.”

So, expand your field of vision. Know that the project types we typically talk about in forums like these are a starting point, and they can go in a lot of cool directions.

Do you usually think of commercial writing in terms of a fairly strict set of project types?

Can you share examples of some unusual projects you’ve worked on?

Any stories of successfully suggesting unusual projects to clients?

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Be a Good Storyteller, Be a Better Copywriter

I was sitting with a client the other day in a marathon on-site session. We were putting together a high-level presentation for a major executive pitch coming up in a few days. They’d brought me in because the presentation, in its current form – for the most part cut-‘n-pasted from an earlier version – just felt choppy and disjointed.

His goal was to build the case for his company to this audience, and knew from experience that I’m good at doing that kind of thing. It was a lot of data, information about the company and how they do what they do, but as he reminded, “It’s still a story. You have to tell a good story…”

How true. You have to tell a good story. As kids, it was our mantra to our parents, “Tell me a story!” But no matter how old we get, we never tire of hearing stories. And that’s never truer than with the audiences for the commercial writing projects we create for our clients. It’s something magazine and newspaper journalists have been doing forever (so if you hail from those arenas, put those chops to work here…).

Proposals and presentations – like the one described above – if they’re going to hit home, MUST tell a good story, must lay out a rational step-by-step case for what’s being “sold.” That doesn’t mean boring and linear – hardly. The good ones are exceptionally creative and will jump around, while always knowing exactly where they’re going and the most effective path to get there.

Marketing brochures – from simple tri-folds to lofty corporate image pieces – can tell the story of a company’s history and evolution, complete with testimonials from satisfied buyers. They can give a prospective customer a compelling narrative, which, when done well, can more expeditiously move that prospect along the sales cycle.

Every description of a product or service within a brochure, sales sheet or newsletter can be enhanced by creating a one-paragraph mini-story that showcases the experience of someone (even if fictitious) actually using the product. And in the process, demonstrating its features and benefits. An example…

In a newsletter for UPS I worked on years back, instead of just describing the features of one of their services, I told the story below. And I put it together simply by asking my client who might use the service and for what reason:

It’s late morning. One of your best customers calls – frantic. A key machine on his 24-hour production line just threw a part. With no spares on-site, he’s dead in the water. Overnight me a replacement, he says. I can do even better than that, you reply. Thanks to UPS “next-flight-out” Sonic Air service, the part’s on its way within an hour, and by mid-afternoon, it’s been installed. Production is restored at 4:00 P.M., not 10:00 A.M. tomorrow, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. Think he’ll remember you the next time the competition comes to call?

Using characters and a dramatic story line (where possible, and as dramatic as such a subject can be, of course…) makes far more interesting and credible writing than straight marketing copy. Stories draw in readers, and make it more likely a piece will actually get read (i.e., The Goal, in case you forgot…).

Course, the above (and other story-telling strategies) could be used in web content, white papers (a story as well – one that leads a reader along a very specifically-plotted path), trade articles, direct mail (especially the long-letter type…) – even ads. And what about a case study? It’s the quintessential story.

Before starting ANY project, always ask yourself, “How could I make this more interesting to read?” Be a storyteller and you’ll be a better copywriter. AND people will notice, and that can only be a good thing.

How have you used storytelling in your commercial writing practice?

What specific story-telling techniques have you used effectively in your writing?

Can you give some examples of how being a storyteller improved the effectiveness of a piece?

What kind of feedback have you gotten from clients when you’ve suggested or implemented storytelling in your marketing copy?