Copywriting Instructions

Back of the Box Cooking Instructions or How to Fail at Copywriting

Solid copywriting employs helpful instructions. Imagine then my frustration as I experienced the antithesis of helpful copywriting not 4 hours ago. I was attempting to cook a nutritious meal of chicken fingers for myself and my sister when it struck me: cooking instructions on the back of frozen chicken boxes everywhere desperately need to take a permanent vacation and hire copywriters. Preferably me. Allow me to explain.

Copywriting involves taking your readers on a journey. Whether that journey is intended to teach something, tell a story or demonstrate value, the journey requires a logical path in order to take your reader from point A to point B.

Logical Instructions

Most tasks I undertake require detailed instructions and my outgoing work reflects this need. For instance, I utilize a logical path in my copy – either a linear structure (the beginning-middle-end approach works great for blog posts such as this one), or a who, what, where, when, why, how scenario (useful in copy for web pages).

There are a lot of tasks in this world that I’m just not great at: buying new computers, being too modest, not losing my keys and ignoring the plight of the oil-soaked baby panda bear. Ridiculously clear and simple instructions are a useful tool for copywriters to remember whether they’re working or reading another writer’s content.

Logical Copywriting

How many times in the early days of your copywriting career did you get super excited about your work only to have the client mutter an unimpressed “meh”? If this has happened to you then it’s a safe bet that you aren’t creating an easy-to-follow path within your copy. Maybe you’re comfortable with the process you’ve created in your article but that could just be because you’ve worked with it so much – your clients haven’t had that luxury. Successful graphic designers define their process clearly and it’s a practice copywriters would be wise to emulate.

Think of your most recent work, maybe a post or a web page, and ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Do you establish a clear beginning with a headline that follows the HUE formula (helpful, urgent, emotional)?
  2. Do you follow your intro with a jam-packed middle that logically outlines your central idea?
  3. Do you crush your ending with a motivational call-to-action?

If your work doesn’t light a fire within your clients and readers even though your perspective indicates a well thought-out piece then perhaps it isn’t your actual content that isn’t meeting expectations; perhaps it’s merely the organization of that content. If you want your readers to take action then you need to show them precisely how to do so.

Completely Illogical Chicken Path

Let’s get back to the instructions that inspired today’s post. Of all my failings listed above, apparently none hold a candle to the tingling angst complete mortal anguish that cripples my very being when I attempt to follow the directions on the back of a box of frozen chicken fingers.

I don’t like to complain, but if actual resolutions and positive energy are created by complaining, well then, I guess it’s got a purpose. Nothing personal here, chicken box, but I have some copywriters and content managers who would really benefit from knowing how not to tell a story.

Step One

Copywriting Instructions

If I read everything here in order as I was taught in junior high school I’d be wasting a lot of time. First, I don’t know what a conventional oven is. Do you? Moreover, what if I JUST bought these chickens? The copywriter in me says I need to freeze them, and then quickly transport these chick-fings straight from the freezer into…um, where?

Ok, not a huge deal, even I can figure out that basically the chickens can’t be running around the kitchen yelling BAWK BAWK BAWK.

Step 2

Ok, this step looks simple enough at first, except what’s the point of the ‘pre’ suffix? Shouldn’t the instructions just tell me to heat the oven at this point instead of referring to what might happen? The time-tested rules of copywriting are really starting to conflict with the logical path this frozen chicken box is trying to create.

Here’s an assumption: you’re enjoying a chuckle because you’re assuming this comparison is going nowhere because I’m exaggerating for effect and I actually know how to cook our dinner.

Wrong. I’m standing here trying to turn the oven to 425°F but nothing is happening. I’m turning dials, I’m pushing the ↑; and nothing happens. What do I do, chicken box? How do I get the oven to make hotness for cooking? Huh? Copywriters need to eat too! WHAT HAPPENS NOW?

In a panic I read on, hoping against hope that the chicken fingers will just magically cook themselves before my eyes, when wait! Hold on…

Step 3

BAKE! Of course! You have to select bake before you can preheat the oven to 425°F! Only an absolute moran would screw that up! Why didn’t I think of that? Wait, I know why – I wasn’t given logical, helpful instructions!

Logical Steps

Copywriting may not always be as simple as providing a bullet list or the classic how-to structure. Emotional reactions and specific client attributes require consideration and sometimes there are pathways that simply don’t adhere to a linear process.

For a helpful example of clear instructions (and to subscribe to an extremely powerful blog for independent thinkers) check out Stanford’s subscription instructions at Pushing Social.

Ignore the excuses presented by difficult-to-structure content and focus on the solutions. Copywriters, content managers, graphic designers and the guys who thought it would be a good idea to tell me to flip these chicken fingers 15 minutes after I thought they were supposed to be done must construct a logical path for their readers.

The only way to do that effectively is to determine that path before you publish it. This isn’t an Ikea, it’s the internet, so attract more readers by incorporating an easy-to-read path in your copywriting.

Time to go, it’s dinner time. I think.

Featured Photo Cred (Traffic): Flickr User Tim Caynes

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