In the age of visual brilliance and short-lived attention spans, sometimes we wonder if content really counts. But no matter how glamorous the graphics, they simply cannot stand alone. (Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto, right?) Today, we’re looking at part three of this question: How do you write exceptional copy? Content that commands attention, arouses interest, or compels people to action? Last week, we discussed slogans and sensory appeal. Today we’ll consider one final, fun technique.
4. Jaw-Dropping Surprises
Remember the “no way!” stunner at the end of The Usual Suspects? Kevin Spacey shakes off his signature limp and strides to freedom as his police interrogator gradually realizes Spacey is a mastermind killer who lied brilliantly for hours. Or remember how your jaw dropped when Darth Vader revealed he was Luke’s father? While these movie plots were phenomenal, the surprise factor was what drove them home.
That same principle applies in writing. As Chip and Dan Heath discuss in their book “Made to Stick,” our brains filter out consistency to focus on differences. Marketing “surprises” may include splashy headlines, shocking graphics that bring your message to life, or a story that encapsulates a core message.
In 2009, copywriter James Chartrand of a prominent website design company “Men with Pens,” dropped a bombshell on the writing world with this plot twist:
“Why James Chartrand Wears Women’s Underpants.”
Chartrand went on to reveal that SHE was actually a (literal) woman, a woman who had previously struggled as a freelance writer and single mom. As she labored to gain credibility, she decided to experiment with a male pseudonym, and quickly found her blog in Micheal Stelzner’s list of the Top Ten Blogs for Writers. Chartrand’s biography post was brilliant, authentic, and fun. But the surprise factor (that “he” was really a “she”) was the kicker that kept people talking about the company for years.
While you may not be able to drop a bombshell in all your copy, you can upend reader expectations in three other ways:
First, break the norm whenever you can. Offer unconventional advice, provide simple techniques or little-known shortcuts, or use angles you would normally avoid (like blatant typos in upscale literary magazines like we mentioned in part one). In life, and especially in art, people crave the unexpected. Surprise people consistently and you will be rewarded!
Second, defy expectations. Writers can do this is with odd pairings or disrupted patterns. For example, serene words like spa, relax, and peace can be disrupted by words like devastate or scandalize. Avoid traditional clichés (knight in shining armor, white as snow) in favor of words that overhaul expectations. A spa ad could feature odd word combinations like scandalizing serenity, gluttonous, self-gratification, or services that are devastatingly delicious. Surprise them as you shatter clichés or use tonal dissonance that is abrasive to the ears.
Finally, build a logical flow and then intentionally disrupt it. Check out these “surprise factor” car advertisements that perfectly illustrate the point. A romance spoiled. A hero thwarted. Ridiculous ideas grab us as things are placed out of context (like dogs driving a car). As you watch these clips, consider what you thought was going to happen versus what actually happened. Pay attention to the emotion you experienced when the surprise was unveiled. Did you enjoy it? Of course you did! And you’ll remember it longer as a result.
Whether it’s a plot twist, shattered clichés, or unexpected humor, readers crave fresh content and they will thank you for providing it. Now go create some surprises of your own!