OK. So you’ve been meddling with your marketing message. Maybe something’s set you off; a knock-back, a remark. Now you’re worried your marketing copy doesn’t quite ring true with the people you need to reach. Anxiety tells you you’re not presenting an accurate portrayal of yourself.  

To allay your fears, I’ve pulled together a copy messaging checklist of sorts. Something you can benchmark against, to gauge whether you’re following best practice in getting your message across in an engaging way.

First, a broader point to put us all in a good mood.

For marketing messages that cut through the noise and endure, our goal is authenticity. By that I mean transcending mere honesty and clarity. I mean expressing what you truly stand for (your lived experience), in contexts and perspectives that the people you serve will recognise. 

Because that’s where distinctiveness and resonance live. And this is especially crucial for independent creatives. 

If you’ve put any amount of thought, even just five minutes, into consideration for your clients’ worldview in your messaging, then well done. 

I mean that. 

You’ve already got an enormous head-start over most businesses. So the style in which you write is now academic.

I’ve seen every sized company, from blue-chip to lone-wolf, give not a moment’s thought to who they’re writing about. It’s all me me me. History lessons. Empty lists of generic values.

But you’re better than that. You care about your readers. So you have my permission to feel good about yourself.

Now, on to the checklist. I’ve based this on the most common slip-ups I’ve remedied in almost 15 years as a copywriter.

To help illustrate my point I’m going to use a fictitious example. 

Let’s suppose we know an experienced software engineer. She’s spent decades suffering in dysfunctional programming teams. Eventually, she grew tired of bearing witness to the same old mistakes and mismanagement. So she made it her life’s work to help her clients (software agencies) forge healthier, supportive, more collaborative and effective teams of programmers, through consultancy.

#1: Are you speaking my language?

If Phyllis wrote:

“I create high-performing, supportive teams of programmers. So you produce more stable, cost-effective and innovative software for your client, faster”

That’s fine. It’s not wrong and it works acceptably for most people. But to stand out we really need to focus on what really matters. Remember: authenticity. We want to resonate. Yes, this is partly about the diction you use but it’s more about the themes and nods to a particular worldview.

So how about our creative Phyllis tries this instead:

“Look at your dev team now. Are they doing what they’re told? Heads down, getting on with it until close of play? How about the chemistry? Could you always use some extra talent to help everyone raise their game?  

“You and I both know there’s more to engineering than this. And it has very little to do with recruitment and competition. In two decades, I’ve yet to find an agency that doesn’t already employ the ambition and talent they so desperately crave. The secret is how you engage and unleash it.”

See how that’s different? We described familiar symptoms and gave the reader a bit of a lightbulb moment in terms they’ll recognise. There’s the kernel of a story here too. 

People are preoccupied by their pain, pesky symptoms and tangled problems. To this end, have you stepped into that world? Are you talking about obstacles they know, situations they recognise, and phrases they use to describe them?

One more thing. If someone is curious about what you do then they it’s safe to assume they’re open to the idea of a journey towards relieving it. Copy should be a journey in itself – you’re the guide here. Talk them through this, let things unfold with pace and intention. More on that later.

#2: Are there outcomes or only products and services?

Sure, Phyllis could talk about what she does: team-building, engagement and empowerment, leadership coaching. But the problem is, everyone else in her arena says that too.

So instead, Phyllis talks in terms of real-world outcomes, with feeling:

“Our dream is of highly adaptive, truly agile teams of specialists. We’ll make your people a joy to hire. They’re always fresh-faced and ready on a Monday morning – tackling problems alongside your people. Ideas are what justify your price-tag now, not capacity.

“Speaking of clients – imagine they can’t help but feel curious about the way you coax such game-changing results out of your team. They’re in love with how you do what you do – that’s your edge. That’s why they keep coming back to you – not because you’re entrenched like every other software consultancy. Because you’re you.”

Phyllis demonstrates that she wants the same things as her readers. That her values are consistent with theirs. She knows that her clients don’t really care what vehicles she uses to get there, it’s all about outcomes, described in a familiar context.

#3: Is there a consistent thread that runs all the way through your message?

There are countless systems and techniques out there for organising your copy, and giving it structure. What the best ones all have in common is they start in one place and move the reader to another.

You’ll hear this called narrative, or occasionally, arc. And over a decade in copywriting leads me to believe that stories are still the original and best, indeed most emotive, way to create that thread your copy needs. 

I know storytelling sounds like another wanky concept that marketing people go on about. But it really does work. And the best thing is they’re totally native to the way our minds work. Whether you like it or not, you’re already telling stories to yourself and your clients. You just have to become more aware of that instinctive way you make sense of the world.

So how do you know if there’s a consistent thread in your message? Here’s what to look out for:

  • Does every sentence and paragraph flow together, or could they be shifted around with little impact on the quality of your message?
  • Are there characters? Plot? Is anything at stake? Is there an ending? Do you describe transformation? Setbacks? You don’t have to describe them all, even just simple allusions to these elements are enough.
  • Does it feel like you’ve taken the reader on a journey from where they are now to where they want to be?
  • Who is the hero in your story? If it’s you it shouldn’t be. You’re just the guide who bestows your client (the real hero) with some magic power to overcome their challenges.
  • Will this story move or otherwise emotionally affect people?

Here’s how Phyllis might expand her stories:

“Larry’s felt down about work for months. This isn’t the first job he’s lost his appetite for. Sometimes it just happens. But this is the first time he’s fallen out of love with programming. Now he doubts his own ability. Ever since his team leader demanded extra peer reviews of his code.

“So he keeps his head down, does what’s asked of him and no more. Meanwhile, he quietly trawls job sites on his lunch breaks (if he gets them at all). To him it makes no sense, considering he was hired for his first in algorithmic intelligence.

“One day though, everything changed. The day a vigilant manager intervened, and tested his new active listening skills. He took him aside and gave Larry space to tell all. In time, Larry got to know his team leader better in much the same way. It turned out they all felt the same pressure from above. And a culture of endless uncertainty was sucking joy out of the room, crippling trust in one another.”

It’s a bit lengthy, but Phyllis has the beginnings of another story here. With quotes it could even be a case study. Yet again, it’s a situation already familiar to her audience, one that develops in a way that presents possibility and hope in the reader. 

You can tell it comes from somewhere personal too, through empathy and vulnerability. Guess who Larry is based on?

#4: Does this sound like everyone else in your industry?

Step back from your message for a moment. Depersonalise it from you. Could what you’re saying be said by someone else who does what you do? 

I don’t mean the entirety of your copy. There are bound to be overlaps. What I mean is – are there enough glimmers of your own spin on things. Your values demonstrated through experience. The odd industry buzzword is fine, but where are the flashes of personality?

“I do this because I’ve lived your problem many times over. I’m that programmer, the one you’re thinking about right now. Dual monitors my shield against toxic culture. Just getting on with it. Work’s OK. It pays the bills. It could be so much more than a job but at least it’s not unbearable.

“When capable team members accept good enough as the best. Guess what kind of software you produce for clients? But when they’re thinking ‘what if… That’s when things get exciting. That’s when you unleash the true potential of your teams.

“I don’t have all the answers. Your people do. I’m just there to reveal what you already hold true. I, we, learn from them. So you tune into what’s really going on.”

Wherever you can, tap into your vulnerability. Because it’s strength, belonging and connectedness – never weakness. I’m fascinated to see more of this in copywriting. 

As creatives, we’re expected to know everything and deliver flawless outcomes. There’s a lot of pressure to put up an even more flawless front – someone with everything under control. 

Wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear you’re only human after all? That you’ll arrive with an open mind, and concern yourself solely with listening. That working together doesn’t mean being a supplier or service provider, it means growing together. Learning. 

What do you really stand for? What does that look like? How does that work? Be unafraid to describe it with energy.

Why? It’s that authenticity again.

#5: Show me your plan

In your eagerness, did you rush into writing (or editing) without an objective, and a step-by-step plan of things to write? Or can you show me how your copy follows a structure? Be it a story, AIDCA or whatever technique you followed.

Sadly, most people plan while they write. It’s not just the origin of writer’s block. It’s why messages meander into dead-ends. It’s why copy doesn’t sound like a story, an argument or an exercise in bonding or persuasion. It’s why only at the very end do we finally discover what the writer was going on about all this time.

At the bare minimum, your plan should unambiguously state your intentions: what you’re saying and to whom. Then everything that appears in your simple, enumerated list of points to make or ideas to explore, should be in pursuit of that intention.

If you gave your message lots of careful thought and planning beforehand, chances are it’s probably good enough for now. It’s just version 1.0. Which leads on to my final bit of advice…

#BONUS: Have you really had enough real-world feedback?

When we doubt ourselves, we often exert control over the controllable, rather than making peace with inevitable uncertainty.

I should know, I’ve been wrestling this for most of my professional life. Tinkering around the edges instead of tackling the hard stuff. In this case that might mean exposing your message to scrutiny, and getting feedback firsthand.

So, all this useful advice aside. Ask yourself this: has your message had a chance to live and breathe yet?

If your message is still fledgling – let it fly a bit longer. Make peace with feeling unsettled. Expose it to more scrutiny (and congratulation) first, before you start worrying whether it’s completely ‘wrong’. 

Maybe it’s just not quite there yet but it gets enough meaning over the fence. Like all things business, your message is just an ongoing experiment, a developing work-in-progress.