Why the Best Copywriting is Simple

Categories
Copywriting

Find out why the best copywriting uses simple words and short sentences – and how you can do the same.

If you’re looking to improve your copywriting skills, you’ve probably already done a fair bit of work.

You’ve Googled ‘how to’ articles.  You’ve followed the right influencers on LinkedIn.  Maybe you’ve even invested in a copywriting course.

Confusingly, though, you keep coming across the same piece of advice: keep your copy simple.  That’s a bit counterintuitive, isn’t it?  After all, the smarter you are, the bigger words you know and use, so big words should equal smart copy, right?

Well, as it turns out, all those influencers and marketing professionals were right.  The best copy is simple.

I’m going to explain the five principles behind the concept of ‘simple copy’ (including lots of examples).  By the time you finish reading, you’ll be able to explain to your colleagues and managers why a phrase like “get in the driver’s seat and get paid” works so much more effectively “improve your financial situation by doing nothing other than driving”.

1. Simplicity Reduces Cognitive Load

One of the biggest concepts in marketing is cognitive load theory, which posits that our working memories (short-term memories) can only hold about four pieces of information at a time.  Working memory is roughly equivalent to what we are conscious of at one time.  Long-term memory, on the other hand, stores large amounts of information semi-permanently.

The exact mechanics behind information storage in the human brain are complex, but the key takeaway is that we can’t be conscious of a huge amount of information at once.  If we try to hold more than four pieces of information in our working memories, we’re much more likely to misunderstand the information, mix it up, or forget it altogether.

Marketers need to do three main things:

  • Get people to understand what you’re selling.
  • Differentiate yourself from your competitors.
  • Get people to remember your brand when it’s time to buy.

Now, let’s take that back to copywriting.  If you’re using larger words, writing complex sentences, or including unnecessary information, you’re increasing the cognitive load of your readers.  In other words, the more information they get from your writing, the harder it is for them to understand, process, and remember.

That’s why simple copywriting works so well.  It has nothing to do with intelligence – it’s about the limitations of human cognitive abilities.

Let’s look at the example I gave earlier.  “Get in the driver’s seat and get paid” is a piece of copy from Uber’s website.  Now, imagine if they’d written “improve your financial situation by doing nothing other than driving” instead.

In the second example, there are more words to process – your brain has to work harder just to absorb the actual writing.  The concept is also very complex.

In the first example, all you have to do is get into your car, and you’ll earn money.  They’re two ideas that we’re intimately familiar with, so they don’t take much for our brains to process.

The second example, though, introduces a few curveballs – your financial situation (a really complex concept), improving that situation (another very complex concept), and ‘nothing other than driving’, where the negative phrasing is harder to understand than ‘just driving’.

Think about it.  Which example is easier to remember?  Which one makes more sense right away?

Practical Tips

  • Include as few concepts as possible.
  • Make those concepts as basic and familiar as possible.
  • Use easy-to-understand words that your target audience is familiar with.
  • Cut out any unnecessary words.
  • Make your sentences simple and short.

2. Simplicity Leverages Connotations

All words have denotations (their literal definitions) and connotations (the emotions or associations they invoke).  Both are equally important.  Here’s an example.

‘Smell’ and ‘scent’ mean almost exactly the same thing, but ‘scent’ has positive connotations – if you had to choose between the two when marketing, say, perfume, you’d be much better off using ‘scent’.

Consider Drift’s ‘revenue acceleration’.  They could have called it ‘revenue augmentation’, ‘revenue amplification’, or ‘revenue enhancement’.

‘Acceleration’, though, has very specific connotations for most people – we associate acceleration with driving, with speed, with power, with performance.  Years of car advertising have conditioned us to associate acceleration with all the good things about motor vehicles, and Drift leverages those associations to create a memorable phrase that effectively positions their offering.

So, in relation to simplicity: simple words have more connotations.  They’re more commonly used, so they have a larger raft of attached associations that you can leverage in your marketing.  From a scientific perspective, words with more connotations draw upon schemas, which essentially shortcuts processing and information retention.

Practical Tips

  • Use simple or commonly used words instead of complex or unusual words.

3. Simplicity Sounds Better

Let’s be honest: the best marketing sounds good.  Memorable slogans, taglines, and other copy types are almost always punchy, catchy, and easy to remember.

Words over three syllables or more are veering into ‘not catchy’ territory.  As such, it’s generally a good idea to keep advertising language short and punchy, both for practical purposes (space) and the way it sounds.

Below, I’ve included a few examples from big brands.  There are plenty of ways to construct memorable copy – repetition, alliteration, rhyme, tricolon – but keeping things simple is definitely a good start.

toyota ad copy
An ad from Toyota.

 
 

l'oreal ad copywriting
An ad from L’Oréal.

 
 

magnum ad copywriting
An ad from Magnum.

 
 

apple ad copywriting
An ad from Apple.

4. Simplicity Builds Trust

The style of copywriting that’s currently in vogue is ‘conversational copy’ – writing as though the reader is an old friend that you’re chatting with.  It’s informal, direct, and feels personalised, which makes it much more effective than company-centric copy that talks at prospects.

Lots of people will tell you “write as you talk”, which, taken literally, is terrible advice for a number of reasons.  What they generally mean is that you should write conversationally.  Use contractions.  Use idioms.  Use the words that you’d use if you were having a real-life conversation with your readers.

For the most part, this includes using simple, direct language.  Most people don’t naturally use complex, academic words, so don’t include those words in your copywriting either.  If you do use big words, there’s a risk your brand will come across as inauthentic and corporate, neither of which is conducive to good conversion rates.

Build trust through simplicity.  Use the language of your audience, and watch the effectiveness of your copy skyrocket.

Practical Tips

  • If you wouldn’t use a word in a conversation with a prospect, don’t use it in your copy.

5. Simplicity Equals Clarity

It’s usual for fledgling copywriters and clients alike to misunderstand the point of copywriting.  Copywriting isn’t about having ‘professional-sounding’ words on a page.  The point is to convey a message, and for that message to lead to action.

The words are just a capsule – you, as the copywriter, are an asynchronous salesperson, using a specific medium to sell to customers at different times and places.

The most important part of copy, therefore, is the messaging.  What are you trying to tell your readers?  If your target audience has difficulty understanding what you’re saying to them, you’ve failed.

The easiest way to ensure your message gets through is to use simple language, simple sentences, and a simple text structure.

Here’s an example from Apple’s website.

copywriting on apple's website

Now, here’s a version that says the same thing in a complicated way.

fake copywriting example from apple's website

It’s definitely ‘clearer’, in the sense that everything has been made explicit, but the actual message is obscured by too much text.  The core feature – the screen – is lost in a wash of words, and so the copy fails.

By keeping copy simple, you pull the important messaging to the surface and make it more accessible for readers.  Remember, you need to trust your readers.  You don’t need to call out every feature or explicitly state everything; leverage their intelligence and experience and let them make connections.

Complex copy obscures.  Simple copy highlights.

Practical Tips

  • Get your message across in the least number of words possible.
  • Copy never works in isolation – use visuals and web elements like buttons and headers to help clarify meaning.

Summary

Copywriting is not normal writing.  You can write an engaging blog post, be an excellent academic, or craft bestselling novels, and still be a terrible copywriter.

The success of copywriting is measured in the actions taken by readers – and research, science, and industry experience all agree that simple copy converts better.

Of course, exceptions exist to the ‘simple is best’ rule, as they do for all generalisations.  On the whole, though, the less complex your copy is, the better it will be.

If you’re still in the process of mastering a simple writing style, copy editing is your friend.  Edit your work yourself, get a colleague to give you a hand, or, for important marketing collateral, retain an experienced editor to help you improve your words.  Cutting out extraneous words, condensing sentences, and ruthlessly eliminating unnecessary concepts will instantly elevate the level of your writing.

Try it.  I’d love to know how you go.

By Duncan Croker

Duncan is a copywriter with a background in editing and storytelling. He loves collaborating with brands big and small, and thrives on the challenges of hard marketing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.