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July 6, 2011

What Is No-Hype Copywriting? A Guide to Excellence Without Excess

Whether you’re a business owner or nonprofit head who wants to promote your offerings with dignity or a copywriter troubled by the prevalence of exaggerated, over-the-top writing on the Web, you’re wondering whether it’s possible for marketing copy to nail the sale without a carnival-barker tone, without overheated language and without stretching of the truth.

The answer is yes.

When people talk critically about hype, or say they don’t want to use it, they are referring to techniques like these:

* An emotional pitch that tries to rev up the reader into a buying frenzy by appealing to greed, envy, scarcity, laziness or hatred.

* Strong, hard-to-believe claims without proof, such as “With a Flick of Your Pen, Get Tens of Thousands of Dollars From the Government, Tomorrow” or “You’ll Never Have to Pay the Asking Price For Groceries Again” or “Publish a Book Even if You Don’t Even Know How to Write Your Own Name”.

* Typography that’s heavy with bold colors, exclamation points, capital letters and underlining, making for a fast-talking pace and a breathless tone.

* Puffing up of the value of what’s being sold way beyond what’s reasonable.

* Vague references to “secrets”.

* Lots of fluffy, non-descriptive adjectives, such as “amazing,” “awesome” or “killer”.

* Outright or subtle lying.

If that style of writing turns your stomach or would make you ashamed to use it, do reject it. There are plenty of honest, effective copywriting techniques left over with which to stock up your promotional toolbox. Here are five no-hype techniques that perk up your marketing while keeping you out of the gutter.

1. Story Telling

A true tale with dramatic happenings attracts and holds a reader’s attention and can illustrate a general point vividly. For example, I might describe receiving tubs full of envelopes at the Back Bay post office in Boston and opening them with my husband on the floor of our apartment. Each envelope contained either a $2 check or two $1 bills, which we stacked in piles that got so high that they tipped over. (This happened in the early 1990s.)

Anecdotes with this kind of specific detail brings reality to life for readers, more so than an abstract summary like “It’s fun to make money” or ungrounded promises like “Your neighbors will gossip that you must have won the lottery.” A story can be about you, about someone who experienced what you’re selling or even about a historical figure.

2. Before and After

For greater impact, writing teachers have always advised, “Show, don’t tell.” Hardly anything convinces more than using words or pictures (or both) to show the situation prior to the application of the service or product you’re selling, then the situation afterwards. In using photos, realize that you may also need verbal description, because without commentary, the uneducated eye may not see the dramatic differences that a professional notices immediately.

3. Creative Touches

Whereas hypesters use outlandish and inflammatory metaphors, you can spice up your presentation with the same techniques, but used sparingly and gracefully as an aid to the imagination and understanding rather than as extreme promises. For instance, an executive coach pitched his services for corporate leaders as helping them “navigate the seas of change”: “organizations need leaders who know how to survive stormy seas and avoid hidden reefs and icebergs.” The design also accentuated the nautical theme with images of compasses, and the overall tone was restrained and professional.

4. Skillful Use of Language

Did you notice the wordplay above in “techniques that perk up your marketing while keeping you out of the gutter”? The words “perk” and “keep” contain the same pair of consonants, but in reverse order, which pleases the reader’s ear.

Another guideline: Never use an abstract expression when you can instead create an image in the reader’s mind. Reach especially for language that gives readers something to hear, see or touch in their mind. For instance, my bio doesn’t say I was published often in magazines but rather, “her bylines in national magazines on journalistic and opinion pieces began piling up.” Such concrete wording imparts vigor and energy to your marketing.

Orchestrating phrases the way expert speechwriters do (as in “of the people, by the people, for the people”) is one more way to give your presentation balance and finesse.

5. Proof

This element can set you most decisively apart from those relying on hype. Provide evidence that what you are selling does what it promises to do, and more. Your evidence might consist of client testimonials, third-party endorsements, media coverage, scientific research results, credentials, case studies, client surveys, referral statistics, descriptive details that only someone immersed in your work would have and why-it-works explanations. All of these persuade to the extent that they are firmly and frankly grounded in reality.

To avoid hype, be truthful and vivid. You’ll thereby keep the reader awake, connect with the reader’s imagination, quash skepticism and arouse the reader’s desire to buy.

Veteran copywriter and marketing consultant Marcia Yudkin is the author of Persuading on Paper, Meatier Marketing Copy and 13 other books. Besides writing for selected clients and mentoring marketing departments in copywriting skills, she runs a one-on-one mentoring program that trains copywriters and marketing consultants. In 10 weeks, participants learn no-hype marketing writing skills and business savvy. For more information, go to