Reading time: less than 3 minutes
Almost 400 years after the death of William Shakespeare, theatres still regularly perform his plays, children study his work in school and we are still moved by the complexity of his stories and the beauty of his language.
But what’s less well known is that Shakespeare also provided superb advice for writers and corporate communicators. Here are 5 of his best copywriting tips:
1) On brevity
*Since brevity is the soul of wit and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief.
*You cram these words into mine ears against the stomach of my sense.
As a poet, Will understood the value of being succinct. And if this quality was important in 1595, just imagine how crucial it is today. Elizabethans didn’t have to deal with the telephone, television or the Internet. Servants did the cooking and household maintenance and there were no traffic jams when you commuted by horseback. In 2007, however, our society produces hundreds of thousands of words every day and yet we have less time to read than ever before. Will had to face the Plague, but we have to deal with the Blackberry. Take pity on your readers. Be brief.
2) On how difficult it is to find just the right word or phrase
*They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps.
In corporate- and copy-writing, it’s all too easy to slip into cliches and jargon. When everyone around you says things like “walk the talk” and uses words such as “right-sizing” you’ll start writing like that too. Fact is, we swim in a cesspool of boring, unimaginative language. It takes work — and commitment — to find the best words and turns of phrase. (Note: the best words are often the shortest, most concrete ones.)
3) On the importance of reading
* My library was dukedom large enough.
Like all great scribes, Will understood that to write well, you have to read well. This means reading more than your professional journal and daily newspaper. Read fiction; it will inspire you. Read outside your field of employment to gain breadth. Read essays and other forms of persuasive writing. While Will kept up with Christopher Marlowe, you may prefer Christopher Buckley. But read. It is a lifelong apprenticeship in the craft of writing.
4) On interviewing clients or co-workers for brochures or employee publications
*Have more than thou showest; speak less than thou knowest.
*Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.
Much writing depends on interviewing. Through interviews you collect the stories, anecdotes and metaphors that help your writing come to life. But too often writers try to put words in their subject’s mouths. They go into the interview with preconceived notions and ask boring, ho-hum questions. Savvy writers, on the other hand, ask pithy questions — designed to extract anecdotes and feelings from their subjects — and then keep quiet. As a student of human nature, Will knew what our mothers are always telling us: We have two ears and one mouth to remind us that we should listen twice as much as we talk.
5) On writing about what matters
*Words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart.
No effective communications plan in the history of humankind ever hinged on finding “just the right phrase.” True, a good plan or product may be helped by good words. Maybe even helped a lot. But words alone will not save a bad one. Your company or your client needs to be committed to what it is you’re writing about — otherwise you are doomed to be a hack. If you’re trying to communicate a company’s belief in safety, for example, exhorting employees to act safely is not enough. Instead, you need policies and procedures in place that constantly demonstrate the company’s commitment. Without this, you have what we today call a “disconnect.” But I think Will said it better: “I did never know so full a voice issue from so empty a heart: but the saying is true “The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.”