Thursday, April 1, 2010

David Ogilvy on how to write with empathy

Here’s a famous passage on how to write with empathy, from the “The Father of Advertising,” David Ogilvy (1911-1999). The passage appears in his 1963 classic, Confessions of an Advertising Man.* It begins with a simple, powerful technique for increasing your empathy:

When you sit down to write your body copy, pretend that you are talking to the woman on your right at a dinner party. She has asked you, “I am thinking of buying a new car. Which would you recommend?” Write your copy as if you were answering that question.

(1) Don’t beat about the bush – go straight to the point. Avoid analogies of the “just as, so too” variety. Dr. Gallup [bio] has demonstrated that these two-stage arguments are generally misunderstood.

(2) Avoid superlatives, generalizations, and platitudes. Be specific and factual. Be enthusiastic, friendly, and memorable. Don’t be a bore. Tell the truth, but make the truth fascinating.

Although Mr. Ogilvy’s advice was intended specifically for advertising copywriters, it is useful to anyone who is writing to persuade.

The Takeaway: When writing to persuade, write as you would speak to an interested, intelligent stranger.

Previous posts that involve empathy:
Avoid being too academic – even if you’re an academic
If you want to build trust, don’t use jargon
Readers can't help judging you by your writing
“The Gobbledygook Manifesto,” by David Meerman Scott
When a reader says your writing is not clear
Empathy for the non-technical reader
Writing can make or break the sale
Empathy always matters – sometimes a lot
The greatest error: failure to empathize

*David Ogilvy. Confessions of an Advertising Man. Paperback. Atheneum, 1988, Page 108.

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