In a previous life, I worked as senior welfare adviser for the brilliant Edinburgh University Students’ Association. I loved the variety. I never knew who was going to walk through the door that day and what their story would be. I helped students navigate crises from homelessness to homesickness – and everything in between.
After more years than I care to dwell on (don’t want to ruin my young hip image), it was time for a change. I was blogging about my ‘intrepid’ campervan adventures and copywriting part-time alongside my job, but it wasn’t enough. I loved the creativity of writing and that wasn’t going away. So I re-trained and took the plunge into the world of freelance copywriting. That might seem like a slightly crazy tangent but it turns out that the two careers are linked in a lot of ways.
I learnt some really important lessons during my time as an adviser that make me a better copywriter today.
MAKE THE COMPLEX SIMPLE
Part of being a great welfare adviser was being able to read reams and reams of fascinating legal documents and condense them into easy-to-understand points. Whether it was finding a way to explain the relevant parts of housing law to a room full of Freshers or write a student-friendly guide to money and funding, I had to make sure that the important information was clear. Basically, I had to get to the point. And it’s the same in copywriting. Unnecessary waffle distracts from your message and confuses your readers.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
Trying to make budgeting tips interesting to students is a challenge that anyone would struggle with, believe me. Let’s be honest, there’s far more interesting things to be doing than budgeting at any age. After many attempts, I learned that the key was to try and inhabit the world of a student, understand their worries and priorities, and pitch the ways budgeting could benefit them in a way that didn’t sound like a nagging parent. Not easy, but being able to put yourself inside the minds of your audience is a key part of the copywriting process.
THE ART OF SUBTLE PERSUASION
Brash, direct advice had its place in certain tough-love welfare adviser situations, but I usually found it more effective to subtly bring people around to the idea that the action I was suggesting made sense for them. They were then able to feel they had played a part in coming up with the solution to their own problem. It’s the same with marketing – try and ram your message home too hard and people switch off. No-one likes being told what to do so it makes much more sense to sell the benefits of your idea or product in a subtle but persuasive way.
LISTEN, LISTEN – THEN LISTEN SOME MORE
I loved training our teams of amazing student volunteers to be advisers. One of the skills I used to teach was the importance of listening purely to understand, not to respond. To listen and only listen. Try it next time someone is telling you something, it’s harder than you think! You tend to start planning how you’re going to respond or wandering off into your own thoughts and memories triggered by what they’re saying. Listening properly is the only way to really understand where a person is coming from though, and in turn be able to find a way to help them. And guess what? It’s the same with writing – you’ve sussed out my theme haven’t you? Whether it’s understanding the messages and tone a copywriting client wants me to convey or soaking up language by listening to people chatting on the bus, listening is a massive part of being a good writer.
I learnt tons of other things from the Edinburgh students and the amazing people I worked with, including how to exist on a diet consisting mainly of cake, how to be awesome at social media, and how to keep your cool during the craziness that is Freshers’ Week. I have a very different career now, but I love the thought that I’ve taken a bit of my old world along with me for the ride.