Want to write great copy? Read a novel.

Okay, hands up. Who loves reading? That books can take you to other worlds, make you laugh, make you cry, is some kind of magic.

Except it’s not. Readers don’t respond to things because of mystical forces. They respond to things because of details and images that, when combined, elicit an emotion.

Yet so often these days, reading is branded as being too time-consuming. Yes, everyone is busy. But a novel that makes us laugh or cry can teach us something valuable about communication and copywriting.

And communication, whether you’re telling a story or selling a car, is all about getting a response. Something. Anything.

I want to tell you a story.

Legend attributes this story to Ernest Hemingway, although no one knows if he really did write it. Here goes:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
Feeling sad? Fair enough. The story is unquestionably tragic. But isn’t it amazing that just six words stir those feelings?

The reader gets a sense of not only something incredibly sad, but the wasted potential of what could have been. Time has left the seller of those shoes numb.

Even though this story is fiction, is has something valuable to teach copywriters. It’s the ruthlessly deft yet expansive expression of emotion for which every brand should aim. I’m not suggesting that a brand should instil feelings of tragedy in their audience, but wouldn’t it be great if our copy could elicit a response of that magnitude?


My grand theory of what makes people connect with stories boils down to something simple: 1+1=2
Let me explain. 2 = the feeling a storyteller wants their audience to feel.

If there were a device that made people feel great about a brand, there would be a lot of happy executives (and a lot of redundant marketers). But here’s the rub: you can’t tell a person what to feel. You can’t give them 2. You’ve got to give them 1+1.

By giving your audience emotive details and images, they can connect the dots in their head and come to an emotional response on their own account. You’re earning their response, rather than presupposing it.

So how does any of this relate to copywriting? Let’s consider a dynamite slogan.

Nike are saying a lot with those three words. They’re challenging people. They’re removing the excuse for inaction. They’re saying, albeit far more elegantly, if you’re not going to step up to the challenge, then get out of our way. We can’t help you. It’s speaking to an ambition they want people to associate with their brand. And with all that confidence, it’s hard not to take notice.

The reason Nike – or more accurately Wieden+Kennedy, their advertising agency – can pack so much meaning into Just do it is because they know which dots to connect. They know people will respond to the challenge, to the tone, to the grammatical mic drop that is the full stop. They can’t just come out and say Be ambitious and buy Nike, because an audience doesn’t like being told directly what to feel. They’re letting their audience come to “2” by giving them “1+1”.

The same goes for Hemingway. By giving us the image of the never-worn baby shoes and presenting it as a newspaper ad, he’s saying something far more powerful than if he had just written Something very sad happened. If Nike’s slogan was You’ll love our shoes, I wouldn’t be wearing Nikes right now.

So next time you read a book that makes you laugh or cry, think about how it achieved that response. It could be more useful than any marketing textbook you’ll read.

Published on 3rd June, 2016.