I sometimes struggle to think of topics for the Browser Media blog, but this one came to me on Christmas Day on the A2. I was listening to Peter Serafinowicz promote his Brian Butterfield tour on Talksport on the way to see the other half’s family, and as ridiculous as the conversation was, it struck me that the best comedians practice and refine certain skills that cross over very well into copywriting.
This is not a blog about how to make your writing funny. Humour is subjective and even trickier to master / interpret in the written word, so unfortunately you won’t be getting any tips on that here.
Instead it’s more about what you can learn and apply to your own work:
Grab their attention quickly – we all know people online have a short attention span and you’ve only got a matter of seconds before you lose someone’s focus, but unfortunately it’s also very easy to know that, and still write crap titles and introductions anyway. Hidden behind screens, we’re so far removed from people’s reactions to our content, there’s less incentive to get it right. I guarantee you if I had to get on stage each night, look into people’s eyes and watch them yawning, booing or heckling me I’d make much more of an effort to start strong! (I’d also probably cry).
Test out new material – you always hear about comedians testing out new material at smaller gigs or even with family and friends to gauge their reactions first. This should happen more with copywriting. Naturally, this needs to be in the right setting – if I started slipping in SEO facts at parties or down the pub, I would fully expect to stop getting invited and rightly so – but there are different ways to get into the habit of this, from A/B testing email subject lines, to just sharing your work with a colleague to get feedback before publishing.
The power of observation – in my opinion the best comedians are those who absolutely master the art of observation (and at the risk of dedicating this blog to the man, this is one of the many reasons I love Peter Serafinowicz). They pick up on the most minute habits and behaviours of their audience that these people may not have even been aware of themselves but recognise instantly in the joke. If in your written content you can demonstrate that you understand your audience that well, you’re halfway there. And the best way to understand them that well is through observing them.
Read it aloud to yourself – now obviously people will be reading your content in their heads (we would hope), but I still think reading your work out loud forces you to really pay attention to your writing. It’s also quite uncomfortable – I challenge you to get to the end and fight the urge to delete everything you’ve written, but that’s a good thing because you’re setting the bar higher. (Full disclaimer, I have not read this aloud. It’s 8am on a Tuesday morning and I’m nothing if not a hypocrite).
Get brutal with editing – stand up comedians often talk about how long the editing process takes them, and how unrecognisable the end routine is from their initial drafts. Obviously we don’t always have the luxury of spending that long on each individual piece of copy, but I think the general premise is a good one to remember – editing should be about more than just proofreading, but questioning what every sentence adds to the piece.
Refer back – one of my favourite things comedians do, and it’s fairly simple, is just to refer back to an earlier joke. When it comes to copywriting, this doesn’t have to necessarily be a joke, but extending a reference and keeping it going throughout the piece can be very effective.
Welcome hecklers – some comedians are as famous for their interactions with hecklers as their planned material, and online content can be viewed in a similar way. The comments left on your blog, or the replies on social media can keep the conversation going and attract as much interest and visibility as the original piece of content itself. Unlike with actual hecklers, you don’t have to come up with a reply on the spot either, and it’s generally less humiliating.
It’s funny just how different two jobs can be whilst sharing similar skills and methods. Copywriting might not come with the fame or the accompanying bank balance of being a comedian but you’re also spared the agonising self doubt and cold sweats, which is nice.
Just for fun, here’s a link to (you guessed it), Peter Serafinowicz as Terry Wogan getting stoned. RIP Tel.