May 17, 2004

please don't start your copy with a question

I hate copy that begins with a question. It could be the start of a radio ad; it could be the beginning of a Web page. It might be TV; it might be print. Questions that begin the copy drive me crazy.

I don't know whether this is just a personal dislike or if there is actually data to support this as a rule. But my gut tells me that if you begin with a question you're inviting a response - a negative response. Such as, over the radio:

"Do you want to save a $1,000 on your next car?"* (see footnote below)

"No - I want to spend twice as much as anyone else!" (Sarcastic voice accompanied by the sound of a radio being retuned.)

Okay, so maybe not the best example. But I think the idea ia there. And while I don't think everyone is quite this outwardly responsive to a question, I suspect most people do have some internal negative response, especially if the question is as smarmy as this example.

The idea is to get the person hearing or seeing the copy interested in what you are writing about - a product, a service, whatever. I like to assume my audience is 1) harassed by marketing messages and therefore predisposed against me, 2) busy with their lives and thus not willing to give me their time, 3) despite 1 and 2, willing to pay attention to something that is genuinely interesting, acknowledges them and their experience, and is presented in way that contains worthwhile information in an intelligent, not necessarily creative, way (though creative is a big help).

It's not always easy to do, particularly in offline ways (like radio). The conditions under which you write don't allow it. You don't have the time - it has to be written quickly. You have too many things to write (there is only so much good copy you can write in a day). You don't have enough information or, more often, the information you're being asked to convey is excessive, in the wrong medium or both. (Again, like a radio ad. A good example is local car dealer message where you get information that is great for a newspaper ad but not much help for a radio, especially when the client wants a grocery list.)

Yes, it may just be a personal gripe of mine. But I've seldom seen or heard copy that began with a question that didn't elicit a negative response from me, usually something vulgar or profane.

(* This is both badly written and written well. It is incorrect to say " a $1,000 on your next car," because it is read aloud as "... save a thousand dollars on your next car." To be correct, it should say whether it is one thousand, two thousand or whatever. "A thousand" just ain't right. However, the phrase is written well in the sense that this is how people talk. Sometimes, at least in business/commercial writing, it is more correct to be incorrect.)

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