3 questions every copywriter should ask

Note from Dragonfly president Sam Enslen: I was talking with writer Jill Davis, and she mentioned in passing that there are really only three questions you need to ask when approaching a writing assignment: “Who am I talking to? What do they think now? And what do we want them to think?”

There seemed to be some simple brilliance in Jill’s words, so I asked her to elaborate.

Sam: So, Jill, you need answers to just three questions to write a marketing piece. Tell me more!

Jill: On the way to crafting a marketing message, a client’s first inclination is often to declare superiority in service or product. But shouting, “We’re the best!” “We’re the right choice!” actually isn’t persuasive. It takes a combination of information and empathy to be persuasive.

As a copywriting apprentice, I’d often come away from a kickoff meeting with a weak direction that resulted in weak ads. I realized the onus was on me to direct the client’s thinking.

And as a student of dramatic structure and playwriting, I tend to imagine conversations and interactions between people. I’m not just putting words on a page, I’m adopting the character of my client and talking to someone about something important to them. Who is that person? What’s important to them? What do they think?

And the natural follow-on question: What do we want them to think?

I also dug into texts of notable copywriters who had developed their own versions of the same questions, so I knew I was on the right track.

Sam: You also mentioned that you take these three questions and “build on them” during an interview. Can you talk about how that happens?

Jill: The “who” question prompts the marketing team to tell stories about recent encounters and challenges with customers.

My follow-up questions come naturally, such as, “Why did that customer come to you? What were they expecting from you?” “How did you address their problem?” I usually get some great anecdotes to draw from. The stories help me understand their target customer and how we should speak to their pain points.

Sam: As great as these questions are, is it ever hard to get your interviewees to answer them?

Jill: It usually isn’t difficult. One tough part can be getting them to talk about their competitive strategy. They might have hired the writer without having created one.

In that case, you need to find out what makes your client truly unique in their market. Or, they may be in parity with everyone else. In that case, you have to help them say something the competition isn’t saying, and say it in a unique voice.

Sam: Final question. Do you ever get stuck having to write without all the information you’d like to have? If so, what do you do?

Jill: Very frequently, clients hire a writer simply to make them “sound like Apple” or to imitate the voice of the “it” company of the moment. And that’s all the direction you get. Your work is rated on how well you do that, not how well you address customer needs.
Clients rarely have the luxury of time to look into their hearts to see what their own brand is really all about. And your contact probably doesn’t have the authority to push back on that. It has to come from the corner office.

So you do your best for the client. Your writing can make a tired brand sound fresh. But of course ideally you want to sound authentic, empathetic, really connected — all that good stuff that writing has the power to do.

Sam: Thanks, Jill. It seems to me your advice can be applied to any type of persuasive writing — case studies, web content, white papers — not just ads. In fact, I think I’ll use it on a project this week!

Jill: Thanks, Sam. Go for it and good luck.

Jill Davis is a copywriter with extensive experience in marketing, branding, and retail sales. This post was originally published in  2011 and has since been updated. 

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