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March 11, 2014

Why Copywriters Need Emotional Intelligence

Forget about copywriting, marketing and the world of business for just one minute.  We live in an age that is mesmerized by success and celebrity.  Actors, sports stars, politicians and, yes, even entrepreneurs — their success intrigues us.

How did they do it?  What type of people are they?  What can we learn from them?  And is there any chance that any of it could rub off on mere mortals like you and me?

Success in so many fields — so we’re told — has everything to do with leaders and leadership.  (You may also be in with a fighting chance if you’re seen as a thought leader.)  Endless tomes have been written about leadership.  Business schools are full to bursting with essays, theses and papers — all analyzing what it is, this timeless thing called leadership.

Given the world’s obsession with success and its many definitions, it may surprise you to learn that one of the most discussed aspects of management and leadership —– Emotional Intelligence (EI) — didn’t find its way into common parlance until the 1990s.

To be more specific, the electrifying concept of EI wasn’t discovered until 1990.  Two eminent American psychologists (John Mayer and Peter Salovey) finally made sense of what most people already knew, but obviously couldn’t put into words.  The whole concept was writ large in 1995 when fellow U.S. psychologist, Daniel Goleman, published his bestseller on the subject.

Until then, we were all left guessing about which keys would open the box of success. We all know of academically brilliant people who aren’t successful in the material sense.  Similarly, the world is full of relatively uneducated people who’ve gone on to achieve great things by dint of their personality and determination to succeed in their chosen field.

EI vs. IQ

Cutting across the world of academe is the oft-maligned yardstick of IQ testing.  A common criticism of the Intelligence Quotient concept is that it only measures how good you are at doing IQ-style puzzles.  In the search for a more broadly-based measure of intelligence, EI was hailed as taking a broader view of an individual’s capabilities that better reflect how well they inter-act with people in the real world.

EI is not without its detractors, it should be said.  In the world of business were those who saw the evaluation by EI of future leaders and executives as embracing the rather limp-wristed attributes of empathy and motivators.  EI did strike a chord, however, in recognizing the role of emotions in the person doing the empathizing — and those on the receiving end.

The year 1995 (and the publication of Daniel Goleman’s bestseller) marked the beginning of an era where sergeant-majors could be stood down in favor of thoughtful Clark Kent types whose potential was likely hiding under a bushel.

Like all the best discoveries, EI was in fact incredibly simple — at first glance anyway.  In short, EI is a specific type of social intelligence which involves monitoring your own — and other people’s emotions. Armed with this information and insight, you will be better placed to control your own actions, or influence those of other people.

Setting the Scene

Are you with me so far?  We’ll get to the copywriting bit shortly.  (I promise.)  EI is so far-reaching in its scope, it’s important to set the scene.  An obvious question, for example, is whether EI is innate, intuitive and one of those God-given gifts?

There certainly appear to be some people who are blessed with higher levels of natural understanding and empathy than others.  They may not have a stellar intellect, but they do have a certain something that plays a crucial role in successful leadership.

Could EI also play a part in thought leadership, intellectual independence and the fearless, trail-blazing creativity that marks out a truly great copywriter?  Think of the big-name copywriters of yesteryear and most fit the bill.

Let’s look at some of the classic components of EI that contribute toward successful leadership.  In the same breath, let’s also consider how far those attributes can be applied to copywriters and the techniques generally acknowledged to lead to outstanding, persuasive and influential work.

Components of EI

Self-awareness would seem to be a personal attribute that is pretty much an intuitive thing.  It’s not something for which you can prepare yourself as part of life’s long journey; nor is it a trait that could easily be learned.  It’s probably easier, in fact, to look at where you’d be without a level of self-awareness.

Perhaps it could be likened to living in a kind of autistic no-man’s land that is, demonstrably, so detrimental to inter-personal communication.  Never has the phrase ‘know thyself’ been more applicable.  Without this important personal attribute, we would end up flailing in a sea of emotional uncertainty.

For a copywriter (put on this earth to persuade people to buy their clients’ goods and services), self-knowledge is a pre-requisite of empathy and understanding vis à vis the consumer.  A lifetime spent developing self-awareness will have drawn on the experiences of putting behavior in a specific social context.  When it comes to tripping sales triggers, having this type of insight is essential to understanding individual and group motivators.

Absorb and Apply

As far as copywriting goes, the EI journey starts from within.  If the individual is fortunate enough to have a naturally high level of EI, that’s great.  If not, levels of self-awareness can always be nurtured — in a sufficiently receptive individual.

In other words, the journey is about absorbing key EI insights.  Complementary to this is applying the skill-set in the real world where the copywriter has a responsibility to persuade.

This is the motivational element of EI that goes beyond working for money or status.  There’s a priority of intent that targets successful persuasion above all else.  This cannot be achieved in an emotional vacuum — which is where empathy comes in…

Of all the aspects of EI, this is the most powerful.  It requires sensitivity – and the appreciation of how to reach out for this in others.  The most successful copywriting achieves this without being overtly cynical or manipulative.

Call it a social skill if you will.  Persuading audiences always requires an independence of spirit — emotional leadership that is imperceptibly creative without any hint of self-consciousness.

The Real-World Application of EI in Copywriting

How easy is it for copywriters to tune in the EI level of their target audience?  Is this dictated by the product or service being sold whose characteristics appeal to specific EI types?  And how important are the chosen media and associated ‘tone of voice’ of the copy?

Assuming the copywriter has an innate (or acquired) ability to apply the principles of EI — and given that the concept of EI is fraught with subjectivity in its appraisal — how easy is it to reach the emotional core of the ‘real’ people whose own EI is being targeted?

In an ideal world, a copywriter would choose to write for individuals with high levels of EI.  To take self-awareness, for example (one of the key tenets of EI):  it would be easier to appeal to their empathetic nature when writing about softer subjects like the environment, medical and social issues.

An audience with lower levels of EI may pose a problem for the copywriter who is selling luxury goods, for instance – although sales messages could be tempered by adjusting the tone of voice and media vehicle selected.  EI cannot always be measured easily but an attempt should be made to take it into account as part of a target audience profile.

The Future?

It’s safe to say that, given its elusive nature, few people nowadays take much notice of EI.  At best, a copywriter who understands its importance will factor it into his or her overall approach to a project (notwithstanding the client brief).

Like so many concepts that are only measurable qualitatively, it would be useful to have some kind of quotient (like IQ) from which we can extract meaning. EI is a powerful force whose potential as an effective tool of business has been greatly overlooked.

There’s no doubting that copywriters as a breed — and copywriting in general — would benefit from a greater significance being attributed to EI.  As an analytical framework for adopting a more structured and insightful approach to campaign planning, a new-dimension EI could be priceless.  For the copywriting process itself, the flexibility of EI lends itself superbly to providing sign-posts along the way to meet the most ambitious of creative and commercial expectations.


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Mike Beeson is a highly experienced UK journalist, financial copywriter and PR consultant. Mike's company, Buzzwords Limited, was established over 20 years ago and is located in Knutsford, Cheshire (south Manchester).

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