Sometimes copywriting is so functional it loses its magic. If you’re writing a web page, the wisdom is to front-load content because people read in an F shape. But by cramming in the important details, have we lost some of the natural flow?
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.
J.K. Rowling did the unthinkable. She made millions of children actually read a book. And she did it without stuffing the intro full of keywords and background content.
Mr and Mrs Dursely were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange. But I bet you can guess what’s going to happen? Of course, you already know what’s going to happen because everybody’s read it, but still.
That’s the beauty of these first few lines. They leave everything up to the reader to work out. They’re not even about Harry. And they still draw us in.
Let’s compare this to the other end of the scale. We need a notoriously badly written book full of pointless detail – The Da Vinci Code.
As linguistics professor Geoffrey Pullum points out, “Brown’s writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad.” In the Language Log, Pullum analyses the opening lines:
Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.
You’ll have to read the post for the full scathing report, but it mostly boils down to excessive detail. Even the first word is wasted – the fact that Jacques is a curator at the Louvre means we can guess he’s renowned in his field.
Getting someone to read a novel is a very different challenge to crafting a persuasive email or informative webpage. But there’s still plenty we can learn from the ways authors hook their readers.
Intrigue is a good thing
If all the important information comes first, why bother writing anything else? Imagine if these famous first lines weren’t quite so captivating:
All children, except one, grow up.
Peter Pan was a flying child who never grew up because he lived on a fantastical island called Neverland.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
In April, in what was once Great Britain, a Ministry of Truth worker heard the clocks strike thirteen, because the government was running a misinformation campaign.
Call me Ishmael.
I’m Ishmael, the only survivor of the Pequod, which was captained by the vengeful Ahab on his mission to catch an elusive whale.
The mystery is what makes us want to read on. We want to know who the child is that never grows up. Or what’s wrong with the clocks. Or what this obviously personal account is about to reveal.
The lesson? Don’t try to tick every box at once. If you can provide enough interesting detail to keep people engaged, they’ll want to read on anyway.
Pace yourself or else…
Newspapers invented front-loading. It usually works. But when your copy is too descriptive and matter-of-fact, you get crap that nobody wants to read.
This cracker was featured on Buzzfeed’s 47 Hilariously Underwhelming Local News Headlines.
We’d struggle to make this story interesting, but the straight-to-the-point headline really isn’t helping. If, for some reason, you actually want to read the story, you probably just want the facts as quickly as possible.
It’s a far cry from annoyingly successful clickbait ads.
We all hate them. But they work. Because people are curious, and that curiosity gap is a powerful tool.
Now the big reveal… intriguing examples of copy
You’re probably not reading this for tips on your next novel, or your latest article for The Guardian. So how do we apply curiosity to copywriting?
Shocking the reader
This anti-gun ad instantly grabs you. The unexpected image is the first thing you notice. Then the headline makes you really stop and think.
One child is holding something that’s been banned in America to protect them. Guess which one?
It’s obvious what the answer is because we know the ad is meant to be contrary. But the copy wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective if the headline didn’t invite us to think about it.
Messing about with syntax arouses curiosity too. Your first reaction to this Swiss Life headline is ‘Eh?’ until you realise that they’ve deliberately confused two life stages in one headline. Messing with the alleged ‘rules’ of grammar adds dramatic impact.
Make them think twice
Another line that makes you stop and think. After reading it, you can’t help but want to know who the ad’s for. They’ve kept it simple with just a logo, but an intriguing line like this would work just as well to make you read some more copy.
The slow reveal
On a beautiful late spring afternoon, twenty-five years ago, two young men graduated from the same college. They were very much alike, these two young men. Both had been better than average students, both were personable and both – as young college graduates are – were filled with ambitious dreams for the future.
Recently, these two men returned to college for their 25th reunion.
They were still very much alike. Both were happily married. Both had three children. And both, it turned out, had gone to work for the same Midwestern manufacturing company after graduation, and were still there.
But there was a difference. One of the men was manager of a small department of that company. The other was its president.
Curiosity isn’t just for headlines. This is one of the most successful direct mail letters of all time, running for decades and generating $2 billion of Wall Street Journal subscriptions.
It works so well because each bit of the story draws you further into the copy. It takes another three paragraphs before the Journal is even mentioned.
The surprising word
Old school clickbait shows that curiosity is nothing new. The reader wants to know the inside information, but it’s the colloquial “feel rotten” that really makes you stop and take notice.
There was a variation of this ad saying “when doctors don’t feel up to par”. It only got half the number of responses.
An intriguing word here or there can have a huge impact.
Just one more weapon in your copy arsenal
Curiosity isn’t always the best way to get people to read your writing. It wouldn’t be appropriate on a ‘how to’ page or a customer service letter, for example.
But whenever you need to persuade people to keep reading or discover more about your product, curiosity is one of copywriting’s best tools.
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See what I did there?
By the way, the cat belongs to Richard. It has nothing to do with copywriting.
This post was written by Chris Silberston