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Is a copywriter the professional fool?

Fool in harlequin costume
Any fool could do that

‘Every leader needs a fool’, said Manfred Kets de Vries, the 78 year old INSEAD management professor who has made a career of applying psychiatric insight to management. Why? Because the fool solves what Kets de Vries describes as leadership’s most difficult problem:

‘As soon as you become a leader, you are surrounded by liars. People tell you what you want to hear… You get into this echo chamber.’

Copywriters deal in truth, partly out of principle. But mainly out of necessity. If the message doesn’t ring true the audience won't buy it, no matter how we write it. So we spend a lot of time digging out the essential messages from any abstract phrasing that obscures them. We're looking for the stuff that the audience can identify with.

This often means, in the most unchallenging way possible, asking awkward questions. Things like:

‘What does that mean?’
‘Why do you believe that?’
‘Why did you do it that way?’
‘Why’s that important?’
‘But what about… ‘

This, along with providing comic entertainment through ironic jibes and wordplay, is the role of the fool in Renaissance drama. To probe, to challenge, to play devil’s advocate. To act dumb so the complicated can be made simple, and assumptions are revealed and justified. In Kets de Vries’ words, the fool has to ‘tell you you’re full of shit, on a regular basis’. Us copywriters don’t go quite that far when sitting opposite our CEO and marketing director clients. But scepticism is useful.

A recent example. We were asked to edit the Diversity and Inclusion report for a FTSE 100 company. Normal, well-meaning messages. They were doing many commendable things. A bit of HR speak to unpack. All good. Except for one omission: age discrimination. It wasn’t mentioned at all. No targets. No measurement. No data. Nothing.

Often, the copywriter-fool has to point out when something sounds vague or unconvincing. We represent the alert reader, critically scrutinising the text for what we used to call on my English degree, 'truth value'. (We were studying the evasive language used by defendants in the Watergate trials.)

Obscurity is a warning sign. It often reveals lack of substance. An overload of good intentions and little action, perhaps. Contradictory actions that haven't been resolved. Problems that haven't been dealt with.

‘The great enemy of clear language is insincerity’, wrote George Orwell. ‘When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.’

This is too harsh an accusation for accurately describing most corporate communicators. Most believe what they say to be right and true. Most have evidence to back it up. Usually, they’re grateful to the copywriter-fool for flagging up any vagueness, omission, confusion, contradiction or just an overflow of meaningless positivity or management-speak abstractions that are obscuring their message.

So, if you want to keep it simple, say it like it is, and bring people round to your way of thinking. Don’t hire someone who’ll agree with everything you say, hire a copywriter-fool. They'll ask you lots of really stupid questions but the answers you give will make your messages strong and clear.

Sources and other useful blogs:


Barnaby Benson


Date posted: 11/05/2021


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