Copywriting: acting without the stage fright

It’s often occurred to me that copywriting is like acting.

Think about what actors do. They portray a believable persona that is entirely separate from themselves. The characters engage the audience and play out the story. The actors must sustain this ‘voice’ and congruent body behaviours for every second they’re on stage, from their eyebrows to their toes. The audience isn’t thinking about the actors, per se; they’re too absorbed in the action. But if the actor slips out of character, the audience feels as though a spell has been broken and the story feels diminished. I watched a performance of The Crucible last year at Edinburgh’s Bedlam Theatre. The lead actor (a friend of mine) and one or two others were fabulous and totally believable but the rest weren’t quite as skilled, so the performance was patchy and felt less satisfying. By comparison, I watched the same play years before at The Gielgud Theatre in London – a performance with 5* reviews – and I was bewitched (pardon the pun).

Likewise for copywriting: I think the process is the same. You adopt a persona that is entirely separate from the self, speaking with a voice that’s true to the brand/ organisation and which makes it effortless for the target audience to believe, understand and follow the story.

If the voice slips or never sounded true in the first place, it won’t work.

When a client has brand guidelines, you slip into character to write the copy. It means that, no matter however many different writers are involved over time and in different media, the brand feels the same to the public.

Like a fully workshopped and developed play, brand guidelines mean the character has been thoroughly explored and all the dynamics are known. Some of the best guidelines I have come across include those for Coca-Cola. So, it was a straightforward process to adopt the cheery-cheeky-happy-sassy-bouncy tone of voice expected by their target audience. (The “- – - – ” weren’t their guidelines, by the way.)

I’ve just been writing the website (not yet live, confidentiality agreement in place) for a fabulous, very expensive brand which has moved into hotels. I was given brand guidelines and while writing the copy I constantly referred to their parent brand website to keep it pitch-perfect (although the products were different). The copy is more conventionally ‘5 star’ in that it goes further than 3rd person with a slightly detached feel (unlike the RTL hotel websites, see below, which needed to be written in different shades of friendly 1st person to express their brand personalities), yet the copy also feels incredibly rich and silky to evoke a sense of the experience guests will encounter when they stay. The diction (choice of words) is quite elevated to appeal to their target audience. I very much hope that I’ll be given permission to name the name and link to the site when it goes live in late May/ June when the hotel opens.

When brand guidelines don’t exist, it’s a play without a script or characters but the theatre and dates have been booked. Many writers descend into impro – and this can work. But this is the scenario in which I’d recommend brand language consultancy. The process creates a believable tone of voice that is true to your brand/ organisation/ business. Often it also involves identifying the key brand messages that need to be expressed to convey who you truly are and what you are offering.

I’ve carried out this process for clients such as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and each of the hotels in the RTL group (The Athenauem, The Grove, Runnymede-on-Thames and Greengarden House).

I hope this acting analogy also helps to illuminate why writing copy is completely different from any other kind of business writing. More about that, another time.




By Liz Holt