Traffic-lighting the way to better writing

Nothing to do with platforms this time.

I’m writing this out of frustration with copy and presentations I’ve either worked on or sat through recently. Maybe it’ll be of use to someone.

Ever been to a presentation or read a piece of sales copy which starts something like this?

  • We’re living in a time of unprecedented change…
  • Since year, XYZ has provided customers with strategic solutions…
  • If you Google the word “platform”, you get 850 gazillion results…
  • If you look up the word “anodyne” in the dictionary, it says…

What’s happening when you read or hear this is that the individual is warming up as they write. I think of writing like a muscle; you’ve got to warm it up. Those who don’t polish their writing guns regularly (ahem) will sit there with blank paper syndrome and eventually write something safe to get them going. That’s OK, but you need to edit it all back later on. Here’s one way to do it.

This works best for press articles and sales copy – brochures, letters and all that – but you can adapt it for presentations and web copy too.

Write your piece. Now get 3 pens – highlighters or nick felt tips from your (or someone else’s) kids – one red, one yellow (amber) and one green. Even better, highlight the text in these colours on your pooter.

Now we’re going to play FAB. That’s Features, Advantages and Benefits. Highlight or underline features in red, advantages in amber and benefits in green. Odds on your copy will have a F:A:B ratio of about 6:1:1. You want it to be about 1:2:2 or better, but that doesn’t matter today.

When you’re done, you’ll find some text doesn’t fit any of those categories. This is ‘white’ text. It’s the equivalent of throat-clearing in the theatre. A little is fine, but if it’s happening every minute during the play, you’ll end up going mad. Again, odds on your first paragraph / half a page will all be white text. Delete it. Don’t read it again (you can always undo). Just delete it. Done that? Now read your piece back. In about 85% of cases the piece will still make sense, and you’ve saved your reader valuable time and energy. If you’re working to a word limit, you also get a couple hundred more words to make your point.

If that worked, go through your piece looking for white text and see what else you can delete. Do this a few times and it’ll soon be second nature.

This is called ‘traffic-lighting’ and it’s a simple route to better copy (ha, traffic lights, route, see what I did there?). Add that in to a smidge of decent proofing for grammar and spelling – its, it’s, their, they’re, there and all that – and you’re on the road of copywriting righteousness.

Anyone else got any copy tips?

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5 thoughts on “Traffic-lighting the way to better writing

  • I really like that, Mark. Something I do when reviewing my own writing is to read every para with the attitude ‘how is this moving the story forward’. If a presentation, it might be ‘how is this slide building towards my conclusion’.

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  • It’s a great article. I will definitely attempt to put theory in to practise.

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  • All true, Mark. Just because you know everything there is to know about a subject, doesn’t make you the best person to share that information.

    In this market, that means ditching the jargon, and talking sense, not bollo.

    Restrict yourself to those points which really do tell the story, not those you’d like to include for yourself, marketing, your manager or compliance will expect you to.

    Keep it short – it will be the sweeter for it, especially if a presentation –  and leave more time for questions. If you can’t fill the time left, that is the fault of YOUR presentation, not the quality of your delegates.

    Well, not usually, in any case, even among IFAs…

    You’ll be glad to know, however, it is a skill you can learn. But don’t all try to do it, or I’ll have to become an adviser in order to compete…

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