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1708, 2015

The hidden cost of bricks and mortar

By |August 17th, 2015|

I was once called in to do some copywriting for one of the chief scientists at an international oil company.

His first question was, ‘What do you know about two-stroke motorbike engines?’

Now, I’d once had a Lambretta, and knew how to unscrew the cap and fill it with petrol/oil mix. But I suspected, that wasn’t too impressive, so I went for broke.

‘Nothing,’ I replied.

‘Good,’ he said, ‘because I know everything there is to know about two-stroke motorcycle engines, and I’ve written a 64-page guide for our sales team in South America, and they’ve just told me they can’t understand a word.’

The problem with expertise

He handed me the brochure, and no wonder it got the thumbs down.

Here was a perfect example of how difficult it is to write simply about a subject in which you’re an expert. This guy used to go to Daytona to give the bikes a final tune. And here he was, tasked with producing a simple introduction to two-stroke motorcycle lubrication technology.

He seemed to have started at the centre, using information about his current line in lubricant research, then spiralled outwards.

When experts write about something, they often make assumptions about the knowledge levels of their target audience. Particularly about the very first steps in the communication.

I’ve been copywriting for over 20 years, and I’ve seen this problem, time and time again.

Here’s just one small, non-technical example. A recent copywriting project involved getting to the Google Adwords Keywords page. I was having problems. I just couldn’t find it. I clicked on a likely looking article which started, ‘When you’re on Google Adwords Keywords page, go to etc etc.’

It never occurred to the writer to start at the very beginning. He had entered Google Adwords Keywords page so many times, he couldn’t see how anyone would have a problem. To him, it was unimportant, ‘Mickey Mouse’ information; but to me, its omission was a brick wall.

The original two-stroke motorcycle oil brochure was full of brick walls. But because I don’t mind asking questions that may make me look stupid, and the fact that the company scientist was highly co-operative, we managed to re-write a brochure which was well received by the South American sales teams.

A simple solution

I’ve always maintained that any piece of writing, particularly if it’s technical, should have three people involved – the expert, a copywriter and someone who represents the target audience. And if everyone signs it off, then you should have a winner.

Of course, I know that having three people on a copywriting project is not always possible, but in the end, it can prove a lot less expensive than paying for the removal of truck loads of bricks and mortar.