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Can screenwriters teach copywriters any tricks?

So what if the average company’s marketing budget falls short of Lindsay Lohan’s nightly bar tab? Scrub away the stardust and screenwriting and copywriting are more alike than you might think. In fact, many of the Hollywood tricks used to script a compelling viewing experience are transferable to your communications...

‘Show don’t tell’ is the ultimate screenwriting mantra. Audiences believe what they see characters do. So if you want to portray a boy’s love for a girl, show him making a sacrifice. Think Leo in Titanic or Hugh in Four Weddings.

Great copywriting is demonstrative too. Readers are suspicious of claims because they know you’re commissioning the communications. Evidence is vital. So by all means, make your claim -- but you better follow it up with proof. Our CSR report for Land Securities shows you how this works in practice.

Keep it to yourself, Heisenberg On-the-nose dialogue is the antithesis of demonstrating an emotion. Imagine if Breaking Bad’s Walter White went around declaring: ‘I’m really enjoying becoming a drug lord’. Revealing too much of the character’s interior leaves the viewer with nothing to do and no incentive to invest any emotion in the show.

It’s similar with copywriting. Don’t tell the reader what to think. Instead, give them enough information to draw their own conclusions. Spell it all out for them and they’ll have no reason to carry on reading.

It’s a horror rom-com, set in space Understanding the audience is imperative for both disciplines. But screenwriters have it easier here. Networks and studios know they can’t appeal to everyone. So films and shows are targeted accordingly. Corporate clients often want to satisfy everybody. Unfortunately, when your copy addresses, say, shareholders and employees, you inevitably end up discussing topics both groups aren’t interested in. More targeted communications are the answer. These allow your content to be more evocative, passionate and focused – like good screenwriting.

And they all continued to live happily ever after Screenwriters ‘embrace the negative’. Copywriters should too. TV shows and films begin by establishing problems. We see the predicament and wonder how, or if, the protagonist will escape. Will the Wolfpack find their missing pal? (The Hangover) Will the Sheriff’s team slay the shark? (Come on, you know that one). These questions are what hook us into the story. Character flaws make it richer still.

Unfortunately, many companies are terrified of acknowledging anything remotely negative. The result? There’s no progress from problem to solution. It’s all solution. This robs the copy of narrative drive and doesn’t appeal to the reader’s innate desire for a story. Copywriters must urge clients to be more frank with the challenges they’re facing. By doing so they'll deliver more fulfilling communications and better showcase their achievements.

You might be thinking: of course corporate comms are more risk-averse; they have stakeholders to answer to! But so do film studios. Behind the glitz, they’re big businesses too. It’s just they know that to engage people you need to give them something fresh. Brands can learn from that. Creativity should be fostered.

It was all a dream?! Like corporate communications, screenwriting is a very structured process. Fundamentally it’s about raising questions in the viewer’s minds, piquing their interest enough to keep them watching. Then it’s about bringing everything together in a satisfying resolution. Fail to do so and the viewer feels cheated.

It’s the same when writing a brochure or website. As with screenwriting, you need to keep setting up the desire to know more. It’s also important to have a view on the end message. While screenplays have their boy-gets-girl happy endings, effective copywriting needs a big, single-minded message to leave with the reader. We try and implement one in all of our work: The Royal British Legion's Annual Report 2012: we’re at it 24/7. Mail.RU, Russia’s answer to Google: we’re big and getting bigger. SThree’s recruitment site: we’re a dynamic place to work. Good copy, like a good script, needs a definitive theme.

Best supporting brochure Make use of these techniques and your copywriting might just be recognised come Oscar time. But it will give you a fighting chance of making people feel something. And, as brands are more about emotion and than rationale, that’s definitely worth aiming for.


Barnaby Benson


Date posted: 03/12/2012


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