Writing about teaching a course in advertising at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights back in the 80's got me thinking. I know, that's dangerous, but I do it from time to time.
Specifically, I'm thinking about teaching copywriting, and while I can teach the rules and the tricks and the jargon, I don't think it can be taught. It can be learned, however.
Here's a bit of how I learned. First, I grew up watching my father. He was a master at engaging people in conversation, mostly because he got them talking about themselves. He was genuinely interested in what they had to say, and think, and why they did the things they did.
That caught my attention, because of something else the grownups around me did. Since they were first and second generation Italian-Americans, they had a basic knowledge of the Italian language, and used it often. But not to communicate with this new third generation crop they were breeding. On the contrary – they used it to not communicate with us.
I knew that what they were saying in Italian was important stuff, because they were either serious when they used it, or they laughed the unique kind of laugh you laugh at adult humor.
So, my father's interest in other people, and the fact that the important stuff was in "code" led me to a strange conclusion for a child – that there were secrets to being a human that they were concealing from me. It left me with a determination to pay attention to everything around me, in order to discover those secrets and become a “real boy,” like Pinocchio in the first movie I remember seeing. (My mother always said that when Disney's Pinocchio became a real boy, he looked like me. More reinforcement for my idea.)
So I tried to retain everything. That made me a generalist, a word a pr writer used to describe me in an article she wrote when I created my first million dollar ad campaign, back in the late 60's.
And that, being a generalist with a wide range of interest and a self-trained ability to hold as many different facts, figures, opinions and trivia as possible, is the first secret of a successful copywriter.
It allows you to write in the “voice” of whatever client you're working for at the time. Every trade has its own jargon, and to use it correctly puts you one up on someone who writes the same way for every client.
Examples: using “stat” instead of “immediately” for a medical-related client; using the symbol for sulphuric acid instead of the term in a headline to engineers.
Having lots of seemingly useless stuff in your head also leads to smashing two seemingly dissimilar thoughts or phrases together to create something new.
I'll talk about that next time.