We’re in a boardroom. Two directors are giving me the lowdown on what they do as a company. Fairly standard stuff for any kick-off meeting on a new copywriting project in Leeds. I listen, ask questions and jot down notes. Nothing new there either.

Yet there’s another essential skill to getting the most out of this kind of analysis. One that’s often underused yet incredibly powerful for digging beyond the ‘what’ and ‘how’, into the precious ‘why’.

It’s paraphrasing – but be warned, it can make you sound a bit weird.

I learned about paraphrasing in one of my favourite books, Non-violent Communication. The theory goes that when someone tells you something important, the information risks being skewed by mishearing or personal bias (like our worldview or present mood).

To overcome that limitation, the best thing is to ask the listener to repeat back what they heard, to make sure they got the message right. Try it next time you have a confrontation; it’s surprising how often they don’t.

What I’ve done is take it one step further and integrate it into my freelance copywriting process.

I do away with the request and proceed directly to paraphrasing when someone says something I suspect is important. It’s a judgement call of course, what is or isn’t important, but I like to think my decade or so in analytical copywriting bestowed a little intuition.

Let’s look at an example, back in our copywriting kick-off meeting in Leeds.

The client says:

“Our teams are the kind of people you want to see on a Monday morning. In fact we’ve been told that by our clients.”

OK. I suspect there’s more to this. I’m interested in the sentiment – the value behind why these people are a joy to be around.

Here’s my paraphrase through inference:

“So you give your clients a lift by just being there, being keen and helpful first thing when they get into the office? Why is that? Is it because they can see real progress? Are you saying your people have a can-do attitude?”

Here I’m clawing at the outcome – what does it feel like, that experience of working with these people? This tacit information forms the bedrock of effective copywriting.

“Well no one wants a team who doesn’t mesh with their own people. You want to see cooperation and knowledge passing around, problems getting solved. Some consultants just sit there, keep their head down, trying to make themselves indispensable.”

Ah ha. So we’ve discovered something important about our reader – what they value. Let’s dig deeper:

I ask:

“And your clients like feeling reassured that their own in-house teams are getting up-skilled in some way?”

I’m not far off the mark but my client puts me on the right track:

“That too, but coming back to the Monday morning thing, we like to think our people transfer a bit of our office culture into theirs – that positive ethic, talented people enjoying their work, being friendly and open-minded – all that. It’s taken us years to build that kind of mentality here and we’re really proud of it and the effect it has on our clients’ projects.”

See what happened? We’ve got 2-4-1 here on insight. Not only have we discovered something important about what the reader wants to hear, we’ve uncovered a gem about what makes my client truly unique.

The discussion went on for a couple of hours but this segment gets neatly wrapped up with another paraphrase, this time testing the water with an idea for a bit of copy. This is getting closer to what I’ll actually write so it’s kind of like an early draft of the copy.

“So these values – that attitude and culture you’ve built here is actually pretty difficult to copy – that’s what you really buy into when you hire your people. It’s productive, positive – all those things, and we can say that rubs off on other people, making them more productive too. So when your people leave they can pick up the reins and make this project their own.”

Naturally, this is an oversimplification of dialogue from three people – embellished only slightly to make me sound like an expert and masterful freelance copywriter.

The takeaway I wanted to leave you with here is that there’s a right way to do analysis when you’re copywriting. It’s a form of active listening – making sure meaning is conveyed accurately without loss or error.

But there’s also an element of delving investigation. Too often, what people say in conversation is superficial or assumed too obvious to mention, and that leaves a lot unspoken. And it’s in these unspoken snippets – the sentiment and inference between the lines – where copywriting gold is buried.

It might sound tiresome and repetitive, or just plain weird when someone keeps echoing back to you what you’ve just said. Yet done correctly through paraphrasing, it can actually be quite engaging, and lead to new, more creative lines of inquiry in copywriting.