Short copy: small but mighty

short-stackThere are days when I wonder if words like to mess with people. Sometimes the mischief is obvious, like “its” vs. “it’s.” Words with multiple sounds or meanings are a bit sneakier (think “read,” “dove,” or “wind”).

But words are most devious in short copy.

Shouldn’t a quick headline or three-sentence “copy byte” be easier to write than a 20-page letter? After all, it’s easier to make a short stack of pancakes than to feed a roomful. Don’t words work the same way?


Fact is, words distribute the workload. Fewer words mean each one has to work harder. That’s why the cost per word often goes up when writers have fewer words to work with.

Of course, hard-working words have a better chance of grabbing attention when readers have a short attention span. Which is most of the time.

Ten words or less? That’s power.


  Park where you like

noparkingEarly in my first job as a magazine editor, I learned a great lesson about customer service.

At that time, part of my routine when each issue went to press was to stop by the printing company at any hour of the day or night for press approvals. Computer-driven makeready technology hadn’t revolutionized the industry yet, and in those days the difference between great color and something that looked like it was meant to be viewed with 3-D glasses could be just a few twists of a press operator’s wrench.

After one such night of waking up every four hours or so for moonlit jaunts to the printer, I pulled into the parking lot shortly after dawn to approve one of the final signatures. In my sleep-deprived state, I inadvertently parked in a spot that was marked reserved for a key employee.

I didn’t notice my mistake until I was out of the car and headed into the pressroom door. I knew from experience that my press check might take a while, so after saying “good morning” to Jeff, the first shift foreman, I mentioned my mistake and asked if I should move my car.

Jeff simply chuckled and said: “Buddy, you’re the client. You park wherever you want to.”

That’s customer service in a nutshell for you. Policies and procedures have their place, but ultimately the customer is the one signing the checks. It pays to keep ’em happy.


  Are you a crusader or an ambassador?

Crusader_AmbassadorOn a cold January evening in 1991, I marched through the streets of Athens, Ohio with several hundred student protesters. Operation Desert Storm had been declared a few days earlier and our passions were running high. As a discrete police escort followed us from the shadows, we shouted slogans like “One, two, three, four, we don’t want no oil war!” and “H#ll no, we won’t go! We won’t fight for Amoco!”

I had never done anything like this before, and had never felt so compelled to speak out about anything. I thought I would feel empowered, righteous, and proud to take a stand for a good cause. But there was a problem.

The entire experience felt completely, totally, and utterly wrong.

As strongly as I felt about the cause that night, I couldn’t make the “Crusader” persona work for me. At the time I felt guilty and ashamed, and wondered if I was just doing it to score points with my left-leaning girlfriend. Today I cut myself more slack because I know there’s more than one way to make positive change happen. I’ve dubbed the two poles of the spectrum “the Crusader” and “the Ambassador.”

The Crusader is the stereotype many people think of when they hear the word “green.” They want big change, and they want it NOW. They’re not afraid to get in your face, marching with megaphones, arranging sit-ins downtown, chaining themselves to endangered trees, and doing other things to jolt you out of complacency with the status quo. They’re blunt, loud, agressive, and eager to shine spotlights on corruption and injustice. The truth is very clear to Crusaders, and many of them think compromise isn’t an option because they hold the moral high ground. Protestors, advocacy groups like the Vote Solar initiative, investigative journalists, and some entrepreneurs are good examples of the Crusader archetype.

While Ambassadors are no less committed to their cause, their methods are poles apart from the Crusader. Ambassadors offer the carrot rather than the stick, winning people over gradually by encouraging them to see the benefits of doing things a better way. Sometimes they simply lead by example, providing models that demonstrate ideas previously thought to be “impossible.” More active Ambassadors get their foot in the door with a small idea, then work for incremental change. They’re more likely to negotiate and compromise, reassuring business interests that it’s okay to make a profit while they’re fixing the world. The growing influence of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building standards are a classic example of Ambassadors at work. Changing trends in consumer products such as energy-efficient detergents, greener packaging, and supply-chain changes to reduce energy use, are also driven by gradual shifts in consumer, retailer, and even manufacturer demand.

So which approach is best? The answer, as it so often is when values evolve, is “it depends.”

The Crusader shines when public awareness is low or fast action is needed. They excel at giving a voice to the unheard, exposing entrenched interests, and lobbying for government regulation. They’ve also become more sophisticated: today’s Crusaders don’t just march in the streets, they use advertising, e-mail, and social media to rally support when key issues are on the line. Just ask the Susan G. Komen Foundation how effective that can be.

While these methods can get the quickest action, they come with a price. Crusaders can turn people off, especially when they use more disruptive techniques. Responses are often designed to do as little as possible to “shut those crazy people up.” The Crusader tendency to get impatient with non-Crusaders also discourages participation and support from more moderate people who might otherwise aid a good cause.

Ambassadors typically don’t get results as quickly as Crusaders, but they’re more likely to achieve sustainable long-term change. They’re better at getting moderate and even reluctant people to buy in by introducing new ideas gradually, identifying economic benefits, and advocating for consensus-based practices. They look for ways to educate and inspire, favoring a “look how great this could be” approach rather than highlighting doom and gloom. They patiently adapt to changing times and conditions, taking advantage of opportunities as they come, but never forgetting the goals they’re working toward.

The Ambassador’s natural desire for everyone to get along is a noble one, but it can turn them into people pleasers if they lack authority or confidence. Their approach is also less effective against an entrenched or corrupt opposition that isn’t willing to negotiate. When you hit that wall, it’s time to call in the Crusaders.

There are very few “pure” Crusaders or Ambassadors. Most of us are somewhere in between, and where you are on the spectrum may change over time. One isn’t necessarily better than the other. It’s like the difference between breaking up a stone with a pickaxe or wearing it away with erosion. Both get the job done in different ways, and which you use depends on the results you want.

While we need both types in the final analysis, there’s a good chance the target audience for any green marketing initiative leans one way or the other. If your readers are hard-core greens hot for revolution, unleash the Crusader. If you’re trying to persuade an industry reluctant to change or a consumer on a limited budget, you’ll need an Ambassador who understands their culture and speaks the native tongue. Either way, identifying the right approach will be critical to your success.