The Word Man
Becoming The Word Man — Lessons in Copywriting with Dave Harland
Copywriting — picking just the right words to inspire just the right actions — is at the heart of marketing. A twist of phrase can make or break a brand.
Sounds exciting and ominous at the same time!
Yet, most companies reside in the copywriting limbo of non-committal claims — just another drop in the ocean of sameness.
Not everything is quite so grim, though. There are voices that stir and disrupt the waters, and one of those voices belongs to The Word Man.
Dave Harland is a freelance copywriter and something of a LinkedIn celebrity known under the moniker “The Word Man.” His fearless writing style, love of creative experiments, and unique sense of humor have compelled many brands, large and small, to employ his services. Emirates, Jaguar, Nespresso, Red Bull, and the BBC are just the tip of the iceberg.
In this week’s episode of Ungated Marketing, Dave Harland shares his lessons in copywriting riddled with a great deal of humor, a healthy dose of common sense as well as challenges and experiences that paved his journey to becoming The Word Man.
Lessons in Copywriting
Lesson 1: Copywriting is…
Before we dig any deeper into the lessons, it’s important to clarify what copywriting actually is. At first glance, this doesn’t seem like something that should be an issue. Still, a shocking amount of people confuse copy and content writing or, better yet, consider it one and the same thing.
Dave agrees this question pops up on his dashboards quite regularly and always tries to answer it as plainly as possible: “Content is stuff that should be there whereas copywriting points people towards it. It persuades people to go and read all that stuff that should be there. So content is your blog post. It's your website. It's all the informative stuff that kind of should exist, whereas copywriting is the little nudge towards it, like persuader. It's the funny thing, the thing that shocks you, that makes you go ‘Wow, I've got to read this!’.”
So, while they’re both made up of words, the content and the copy serve a very different purpose and require a different mindset.
“Copywriters out there are dwarfed by the amount of content writers. You get people who don't really have the knack of persuading or the knack of using a really kinda cheeky tone of voice. What they could write is blog posts and white papers and the informative stuff still with a nice tone of voice, but not really Kenny Griffin, which is one of the best of the best copywriters out there [and it’s them who make you go] Wow, I don't even need the product, but I'm going to go and, you know, really click this link or whatever, and have a look at it straight away. Just because the copy is gripping you.”
Differentiate (On Becoming The Word Man)
One of the copywriting “amendments” Dave is adamant about is standing out, making your claim sound like nothing and no one else, making it scream a little. Of course, not in a way that gets you canceled.
The best example to give some backbone to this lesson is Dave’s beginnings on LinkedIn. When the social network first started pivoting towards Facebook-style feed and user experience, he took the chance: “It was the first time really that people had started changing from just seeing LinkedIn as a place where they put their CV or they connect with old colleagues, to a place where they could market themselves. And one of the first things I noticed when they did that was that no one or nobody at the time was any good at marketing themselves because they made everything about them.”
Seeing the trend of bland posts that didn’t care much about the reader, he adopted a different strategy: “My aim was to stand out, certainly using humor, and entertaining copy and telling stories, which were a lot more engaging than just, you know, Colin talking about his boring day at work, which a lot of them were doing at that time. Very quickly, I devised that my strategy was to really attract people who like consuming that kind of entertaining content, and also to attract those businesses and brands who want to do that type of funny marketing and funny advertising.”
His decision to go down this path led him to make quite a name for himself with businesses approaching him on the channel and (ninety percent of the time) saying: “Look, we’re coming across either really boring or we just sound the same as everybody else here. You seem to be standing out, you know, head and shoulders above other people who are marketing themselves on LinkedIn. Can you do something similar for us? Something funny, something selly, something daft that will gain us traction?”
Dave’s penchant for originality leads us right to the next lesson to be learned.
Creativity is not an exact science. Well, it’s not science at all, though, to succeed at it, you need to become comfortable with the very scientific method of experimentation. Trying things out is the only way to find out what works.
Standing out on LinkedIn and finding his persona took quite a bit of experimentation: “[I was]
running through the different tactics [...] it was coming up with characters, it was doing parodies, it was certainly deep-rooted in satire. You know, surrealism, going over the top exaggerating, hyperrealism… Also, every kind of area of little sketches, every area of comedy that I could kind of really delve into. I tried on, you know, some good, some bad.”
His experiments led to the creation of some of his beloved characters, including Uncle Tony.
Don’t Be Afraid to Fight your Battles: The Tale of Uncle Tony
Speaking of Uncle Tony, we can’t forgo the important marketing lesson which is the value of good-natured controversy. Its marketing effect doubles as it entertains those who agree with you and nettles reactions from those who do not.
Uncle Tony is one of Dave’s humorous fictional characters he uses to troll Simon Sinek, though Simon’s inspiration post is not exactly how it all started.
When asked about it, Dave explains: “I started that [Uncle Tony] a couple of years ago debunking what other so-called LinkedIn celebrities were saying… the likes of Oleg Vishnepolsky or other kinds of recruitment bigwigs who were just putting out this vanilla stuff, vanilla quotes, vanilla content, which ninety-nine percent of it is just common sense. There's nothing really game-changing. [It’s] really obvious stuff, and they’re tending to get like, 2000-3000 likes off the back of it.”
The bland content getting so much attention is what triggered his need to respond in a way that’s also a showcase of his copywriting style: “I think it was back in 2019, I saw one post and thought I'm just gonna write the antithesis of what that post all about. So, I just said: ‘No, I don't think that's true because as my uncle Tony once told me…’ and then I just made up some daft quote.”
While the original post earned around 3000 likes, his comment inspired around 40 as well as many reactions from people who found it funny and asked to hear more of what uncle Tony had to say. Dave realized that not all people following Oleg Vishnepolsky’s posts viewed them positively: “[I thought] there might be some people out there who were exactly like me thinking ‘That’s a load of crap, come on!’ You can't get away with posts and stuff like that.”
While, lately, you can see uncle Tony trolling Simon Sinek, Dave explains: “It's nothing really about him as such. I'm poking fun more at the world of vacuous, inspirational bullshit, that brands and certainly — you know, we’re in the age of personal branding now — a lot of people put these inspirational quotes out thinking that that's valuable content and that they're inspiring people.”
Uncle Tony enables Dave to do two things:
- Firstly, express his opinion about and frustration with “successful” content that is more an echo of a trend than any source of value;
- Secondly, express an opinion in a way that highlights his copywriting skills, showcases his brand of humor, and attracts more similarly thinking people to consume his content or hire his services.
Standing up for what you believe in, standing up to “fight the battles” (the worthy ones) in a way that helps promote your brand, can boost your reach without much effort: “I'm 100% piggybacking on the LinkedIn celebrities’ popularity, and if Oleg wasn't around and Simon Sinek wasn't around I would end up just having to kind of pedal those stories on my own as part of my own daily posts, my own content calendar, I suppose. And because I wouldn't necessarily be debunking anybody directly on it, I certainly wouldn't have, you know, the followers of the celebrity biting back and come back with a counter-argument [...] So yeah, I would kind of be lost without them.”
Be Mindful of your Audience
Dave doesn’t just have a large following on LinkedIn but also the (in)famous Twitter. While his writing and comedy styles are palpable on both platforms, he doesn’t treat them the same because the audience is vastly different: “I see Twitter as more of my kind of creative pals. So it's all the copywriters, other designers, other creatives, other people working within marketing and advertising, and the creative industry. Whereas on LinkedIn, it tends to be businesses looking to learn how to market themselves better to people, looking to learn those types of skills that everybody on Twitter possesses already.”
He elaborates: “Twitter's more, you know, hanging out at the water-cooler with all my creative mates whereas LinkedIn is where I do [...] more of my kind of business pitching… although I never do any outbound.”
Regardless of your style, you should never put it above your audience.
Create for the Future
Not everything you write, create and put out there needs to produce immediate results.
Sometimes simply entertaining or offering a helping hand is enough because what really counts is the community that grows from and around those moments.
For instance, Dave is working on creating his email list without any direct return on the investment of his time and skill: “I've got just under 11,000 subscribers now. So, I’ve started that about a year ago. [...] And yet, there's zero selling on that email whatsoever. It's all just free advice. [...] So, at the moment [...] I'm probably paying MailChimp fees, not seeing any return at the end of every month.”
However, that doesn’t mean the work is for nothing: “I've got to just close my eyes and think longer term. I know that when the time comes for me to release that book, or have that array of courses, or, of those instant downloads, I've probably got a captive audience of email subscribers there, who have already subscribed to the style, and they like the way I present things and teach things and tell stories.”
Pick Words like a Customer
When it comes to copywriting, Dave is an unshakable supporter of writing like you speak and how your customers speak.
While, at first sight, that might seem like a contradiction, Dave explains: “[By] ‘Write how we speak.’, I mean, just write how humans speak. Whereas ‘Write how customers speak.’, is more [about] the language and the phrases they might use.”
It’s one of the key rules defining the way he approaches any assignment: “One of the first things I do whenever I work for any brand, I don't sift through their copy brief or their tone of voice documents. I go and have a look at their forums where their customers are. I’m gonna go and have a look at the reviews of what people are writing about them. Look at the phrases that they're using, straightaway. If you can replicate some of those phrases, some of that tone, the way people are talking about your brand…” If you can implement some of that language into your copy, you are far more likely to reach your audience and convey what you need in a way they will understand.
Remember the “Old School Stuff” is Still Relevant
As much as being trendy and following the latest hype might be exciting, some truths don’t change with time. There are copywriting lessons that rang true fifty years ago, still do so today, and will continue doing so fifty years from now.
For instance, one of such lessons is focusing on benefits over features, a rule no copywriter should ignore: “It's as true as it was back in the days of Ogilvy and [even] before him. So that's talking about why a product, why a service is good for you or going to change your life before you go into bullet points about ‘selling the sizzle, not the sausage.’”
Another example of an evergreen truth that resonates through Dave’s work and philosophy is putting the reader first. He argues: Write ‘you’ more than ‘I’ or ‘we.’ [Often] you see, certainly on LinkedIn ‘I'm delighted to announce…’ ‘We're delighted to reveal…’ Like, no one cares, mate! You just tell me what's in it for me. [...] If you're, announcing some award that you've won, you say ‘We're delighted to announce we've just won this award.’ No one's reading that as much as if you flip it on its head and say ‘You'll be pleased to know you're now part of an award-winning company of dadadada.’ So you’re inviting them in a little bit more. You start the conversation.’
The same goes for addressing a group when your message is received by an individual: “I get emails all the time: ‘Hi guys!’ It's like… Hang on! [...] Don't say ‘hi guys,’ I don't speak to a collective group because I'm not sitting in a room with 80 people reading your email. It's just me, so speak to me like it's just me.’
Stay Up-To-Date with the Language
If you are looking to stay up-to-date with the latest copywriting “hacks,” Dave advises focusing on the language: “Evolve as the audience evolves. [Focus on] the language that you'll use now, which probably wasn't around 50 years ago. Certainly no emojis around back then! So, incorporate those new things within your language. I write quite a lot for Gen Z audiences. And it's a kind of street language, which, no doubt they were trying to do back in the day with those really, kind of smart car ads. I'm sure there was some language in there that was probably seen to be quite bold and adventurous. That wouldn't be in, you know, the Queen's English, back then.”
Don’t Forget to Laugh
While using humor might be more Dave’s personal style than a general rule, there’s a good case for relying on comedy to break people from their routine and grab their attention.
The Word Man says advertising “could be a lot funnier” yet the biggest dose of it we get is during Super Bowl commercials.
Why stop there, though?
Everyone loves to laugh: : “It's such a connector. And it kind of gives you such a nice warm feeling. And it makes you remember something when you laugh about [it]. Okay, it's different when you go to a comedy gig, and they just reel enough jokes, and you get to the very end, and you can't remember a single one. Whereas with an ad, it’s something that just sticks in the memory, and you think… you just can't take your mind off of whatever it is, whether it's the brand the product, when it's funny.”
If you want to know more about how Dave’s sees the role of humor in marketing, hear more stories about Uncle Tony or find out about his self-inflicted toilet humor challenges, listen to this week’s episode below or tune in on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts.