Super experienced journalist and copywriter Kate White explores why in today’s overcrowded world, it is more important than ever to engage with your audience using the power of words. Packed full of helpful tips and advice – listen to her podcast here Why telling stories is so important
Neil Foley: Hello everybody, Neil Foley from the Business Growth Club. Really fortunate today to have Kate White with us from Front Page Media who’s a copywriter extraordinaire and we’re going to talk about all things concerning copy writing and the copywriting and the use of words and being a wordsmith. And hopefully you’ll gain a lot from it. Morning to you Kate, how are you?
Kate White: Hello. Very well, thank you. How are you?
Neil Foley: I’m very well thank you. Looking forward to this.
Kate White: Me too.
Neil Foley: If we think in terms of copywriting Kate, why’s copywriting so important in this age when where actually everything’s digital and you could actually think words are a bit old fashioned, are they?
Kate White: It’s funny actually because communication has never been more important and more used, I suppose, is a terrible way of saying it. We actually communicate via words on social media all day long, these days. Even though there is, obviously a lot of audio and video and all the rest of it. Generally, even that, we’re thinking all the time about the words we use. How we’re presenting ourselves, whether it’s in our business or whether it’s in our day to day personal lives. We’re constantly reinforcing our brands, I guess.
Neil Foley: Yeah. I suppose that’s true, isn’t it, because even if you’re in social media you’re using words or you’ve got a script that you’re doing for a video or for a blog or something like that. So it’s just as important as it ever was?
Kate White: Yeah. Absolutely. I think that people now expect you to have a grasp of words that is very professional. I think people don’t accept poor use of language anymore. It’s certainly something that you have to be fairly consistent with as well, across all ways in which you’re communicating with your customers or potential customers. In emails, people expect them to be well written, with decent grammar. I think we all know how we feel when we receive an email where our name is spelt wrong or words are spelt wrong or it’s boring. You just click delete. That’s the end of it. It’s quite savage. So making those impressions count is really key, I think.
Neil Foley: Yes. And I guess you’ve got grab people’s attention because we’re all distracted. We were talking earlier about when we were younger, there wasn’t necessarily a lot to do, but now there’s so many distractions. If you want grab somebody’s attention, you’ve got to do it pretty quickly, haven’t you?
Kate White: You’ve got to be really quick and I think that you’re competing all the time against so many other forces. We’re all getting so distracted by our phones going off or someone interrupting you. You’ve got to work quite hard to keep people’s attention. I think using words to their best effect, making them engaging, entertaining, informative, is vital in every aspect of your communication.
Neil Foley: And how do you do that because you’re writing for different people aren’t you? It might be an engineering company or somebody who’s in a technical sphere and I know you do it all, the soaps that we’ll talk about later. So how do you determine what’s right for the audience?
Kate White: I think you have to find the voice of your client. For me, that’s one of the things that’s really important to me. From the writing that I do, when I write as I do for the soap magazine, I’m writing as Kate White, the soap pundit. So I know what that voice is because that is obviously my authentic voice. It’s a voice that’s been crafted over many years and I have a very particular way of talking about soaps. So that voice is obviously, constantly there in my head. But when I’m approaching clients and trying to learn about them and their businesses, I really do pay attention to how people speak, how they like to communicate, how they like to present themselves. If anything, I try to work with that and elevate it in any way I can. So finding a voice for people in their business is, I think, the key to doing copywriting as well as possible.
Neil Foley: So is that meaning you’re going to do a fact find on them or interview them and you try to get under their skin to see what they are like? What happens if you try to find their voice and you think their voice isn’t appropriate?
Kate White: Well, that’s always a really interesting one because quite often, I think people do have a voice that is inappropriate for their business. It’s finding ways to give authenticity to a business voice. You may have someone who works in a particular business and maybe they’ve got a mouth like a sailor. I think that happens quite often. That’s fine in day to day life. People find that quite entertaining, but you’re obviously not going to use those kinds of words in any kind of formal communication. Knowing that people have a kind of edge or sense of humour or that kind of aspect to their personality, you can still put that into their brand voice without compromising it.
I think people buy from people. If I did a piece of copy for someone and the copy was incredibly formal and static and didn’t have any personality but then they met someone who’s very jocular and who is full of life and a bit of a character, it wouldn’t match up at all. It would feel really unauthentic. I think it’s about finding a way to marry up the person to the business voice. That’s probably easier when you dealing with business where it’s say a solopreneur or an entrepreneur. They’re very much dictating the voice of the business. Whereas I think for a large corporate company, it almost has to be a decision about what direction the company communications want to go in. Then you can’t make it that specific.
Neil Foley: So it’s much harder in some ways for a bigger corporate than, as you say, a sole trader or a partnership. For a bigger firm it’s harder, isn’t it?
Kate White: I think for the bigger firms, they’ve got to be much more strategic about it because it may be for some of the bigger firms, they started off real small. You kind of think about, I suppose Apple is the one that everybody thinks about. You think about the vision of Steve Jobs and Steve was in fact, running the shop out of their garage. But then if you think about the famous stories that exist around Apple as a brand, they all really hark back to this kind of idea of these scrappy young people, trying to make a dent in the world. Even now their messaging all goes back to that. So, it is still fairly authentic despite the way it’s evolved.
Neil Foley: Yes. That’s really true actually, isn’t it? And the stories you all remember and the copy that you remember, have all told quite extraordinary stories. Is there a theme in term of, is it a hardship or is it a struggle to start with, and you look like you might fail and then you make it? Are there themes that you find that you’re writing?
Kate White: I think that the idea of the hero’s journey, which is a very traditional story telling narrative, that comes up time and time again. Everyone now really understands that because of things like Star Wars. Pick up any story really, and it’s going to have some kind of a hero’s journey arc. I think that we understand how a story works effectively and emotionally when there’s a struggle or there’s a desire for something and then there’s got to be a journey before that goal is realised. Those stories, I think, compel all of us. It’s programmed into us. Anything where you can tap into that is great. The reality of day to day life of a normal business isn’t Luke Skywalker, is it?
Neil Foley: No. It’s a tad more boring.
Kate White: Yeah, unfortunately but that’s not to say that there won’t be stories within the business. It just means you maybe don’t need a 500 million budget to tell it.
Neil Foley: Obviously you’re looking at what’s the audience, who’s the audience you’re aiming for and the rest of it. I’ve often thought that must be quite hard because quite often the business won’t necessarily know who the audience is. They’re often not that focused, are they? Just to say my target market is X. So how do you get around that one?
Kate White: I think you have to be very clear about directing people. I think the people that don’t quite get that they need to be addressing their customer’s needs, rather than their own. I think people say it all the time in blogs. Quite often it can be me, me, me, about the company or we do this or we do that. That doesn’t necessarily become compelling for the reader. The reader wants to know about them. They want to know what they can learn, how they can get value. I think the most effective stories are ones that have some sort of fable or tale to tell or a piece of advice or some instruction. I encourage people to think about what their customers need from them, what they ask of them and try and work with that, because without that you’re just being very introverted and insular looking. I think that’s very unhelpful with any communication.
Neil Foley: I’ve tried newsletters in the past and I think traditionally what would happen is, the first newsletter would be really good because I’ve dumped all my good ideas into it. The second one, a little bit harder. By the time you’ve come to the third one, you’re thinking, “Why on earth did I ever think I was going to do these bloody newsletters.” Do you map out a story line for maybe a years worth of work and then block it into segments and say “We’ll do this now and then we’ll lead onto that.” Are there story lines that you do all the way through?
Kate White: There are actually but the way I sort of approach it, because this happens most regularly with people who want to retain a blog. So say they want one or two blog posts every month and they’re looking for that content and that consistency of content. What we’ll tend to do is we’ll sit down, and plan out six months. It’s taking notice of not just the messages you want to put out but other things that will happen throughout that time. For example, if there’s a general election, if there’s a day of note’s or something within your industry that’s going to be seismic. If there’s a new government ruling on something, and you know that’s coming up and that’s going to really affect your customers or how you do your business. That’s something that’s really important to talk about because it shows you’re engaged.
I did a blog for a company. I won’t name them but they would have never of thought to look at podcasts as a source for inspiration but there was a podcast that was called S Town, which was the best selling podcast, I think of this year, or the most downloaded podcast from the makers of this American Life. There was something within that podcast that was pertinent to their business. So we pulled that out and we said this podcast is amazing and loads of people have been listening to it. Here’s a question that’s come up from that podcast and let’s answer it for you. It did really well. It did really well for them because it made them look like they were culturally engaged as well as being experts in their field. It had a double focus in that sense.
Neil Foley: I can see it. That would be very powerful, wouldn’t it?
Kate White: And it was fun for me to write because I loved that podcast. Being able to kind of bring in the fact that I’m sort of a voracious podcast listener was super useful for that and it gave me a chance to write about something I like. I like nothing better than writing about things I love.
Neil Foley: Podcasts, I mean we’re doing one now, but I’ve been listening to more and more podcasts. The bit that surprises me, and you might disagree, is the music that often accompanies the podcast. Do you think that enhances or is that sort of take way from the experience, in your view?
Kate White: It depends because if we go back to S Town, I think the use of music in that is really powerful. It feels like it’s sort of a Southern American Gothic tale and having the music puts you in that mindset, atmospheric. But there’s a lot of podcasts I listen to. I listen to a lot about television and reviewing television shows because I’m obsessed with things like The Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. In all of that, the music is rubbish, but I don’t care because I just want to hear what people think about Walking Dead that week.
Neil Foley: That’s the bit that gets me. Quite often I’ll listen and they’ll have music. And you’ll see it more on television now as well, you can’t seem to have a scene without some frigging music in the back ground. Some times it really, I know it should be subtle but actually often it isn’t and it can be desperately annoying.
Kate White: I can be but I think it’s often annoying for people who are really, really engaged and focused, so they don’t need a musical cue to tell them how to feel. I think that’s why people use music in those contexts, to add in a layer of direction for the audience.
Neil Foley: Seems like. Sound like you failed. It’s a bit like the old audiences you have on the old television shows, with the clapping, which is quite often a US thing. If you need to tell me it’s funny, then probably you need to rewrite it.
Kate White: Yes. Absolutely true. Although, I think sometimes music can be incredibly powerful because I went and saw the London Philharmonic play all the John Williams themes. Sitting in an outdoor concert and hearing the Star Wars theme. I don’t think there’s anything quite like it. It puts you straight back in that childhood place, doesn’t it?
Neil Foley: Music has that ability, doesn’t it?
Kate White: Definitely.
Neil Foley: So how did you end up being a copywriter because I know you’ve got a journalistic back ground?
Kate White: Yeah. It was a funny thing, really, because I decided early on that I wanted to write for a living. I did my journalism qualification after I did my degree, which was a good excuse to have another year at uni. I thought this was going to be a doss. How wrong I was.
Neil Foley: It was hard work?
Kate White: It was just like having a job. It was nine to five every day and homework, which was fantastic because, my goodness, it was the best training you could get. I was very fortunate. I went to the best school for journalists in the country and did the top course for magazine journalists. A shout out to City University and their Empirical Journalism course. Doing that really gave me a solid foundation. When I did that, I did a module on entertainment because my focus was always that I was going to be writing about films. That’s all I cared about was can I write about films or be involved in films in some way. Throughout the course of my initial couple of years in journalism, I just ended up getting redirected into television.
In terms of becoming a copywriter, after doing 13 years in entertainment journalism, I want to move to Norwich. I didn’t want to work for the local press. I didn’t want to do the kind of traditional journalistic jobs that were available here and I couldn’t do the job I was doing then remotely. I had to make a decision and take a gamble. I thought it’s now or never. I did that and thankfully, touch wood, it’s paid off. But, yeah, it was a real chance to take to try and apply those skills of writing engaging informative copy and very silly copy in many ways for the stuff I was writing, finding a way to use that in business and doing that properly.
Neil Foley: But you’ve kept going with the TV stuff, haven’t you?
Kate White: Yeah, I have. I’d had a year off, after I left my job and then they came and asked me back, which was very nice. Now I do two days a week for them, so I keep my hand in.
Neil Foley: And this is short copy. I know we’ve talked about this before. The short copy is actually really hard to write, isn’t it?
Kate White: It is, yeah.
Neil Foley: Is this short copy that you’re tending to do? Is that where your skills really got honed?
Kate White: I think the great thing about the magazine, the magazine I write for is called Inside Soap, and the great thing about that magazine is that there are very distinct sections. I still write interviews that are like 1000, 1500 words long. But I also write short pieces of copy that are 250 words long. The first thing you get taught at journalism school is that it’s harder to write for the Sun then it is to write for the Guardian because crafting really hard hitting type copy is much tougher than having room to manoeuvre. I’m not suggesting that what you read in the Sun is better than what you read in the Guardian at all. I’m just saying that there is an art form to short, concise copy. It’s a skill. One that I think I’m always trying to better. I think it’s very rare to feel that you’ve really cracked it. It’s always a work in progress.
Neil Foley: Do you do the same thing as I guess most of us do? If I write something, say an email, and I know it’s a difficult email or a difficult piece of work, I’ve got into the habit of not trying send it straight away, but leave it, walk away and then review it. And nearly always, you think oh my goodness, that’s not what I meant to say or there’s a spelling mistake and I hadn’t noticed. What sort of process do you use?
Kate White: I have my husband, Ian, who works with me in the business. He is the person who I run everything by because I always believe that the combination of the two of us, is a winning one, really. I wouldn’t say that with emails. I don’t actually really ever review stuff in that sense. I tend to know what I want to say, get it done and send it. I’m a bit of a no nonsense like that, if honest. I think that comes from working in newsrooms where you’ve got to turn copy around real fast and you can’t really think about it too long because it needs to go out.
Neil Foley: Deadlines I guess. So you and Ian review each others work?
Kate White: Yes. I’ll write something. Send it to Ian. He’ll have a look at it, give me his suggestions. I’ll take those and phone up and argue with him and then the copy will go to the client. There will always be a few little tweaks and changes that will need to be made along the way, but generally it tends to be that we get it pretty much right, first time, and then it’s only little bits and pieces to change. It never tends to be that we’ve gone way off track and they’re horrified. Again, I put that down to my journalistic career because I’m used to editors going, I want this and I want this and I want this and I’ve got to go in and interpret that and bring it back to them. You learn how to get that right.
Neil Foley: The stereo typical image of an editor, is that true in terms of them being very direct and bolshie and demanding and male mainly?
Kate White: Definitely find that it tends to be men. It has been for me in the titles I’ve written for. Certainly not the kind of stereo type at all. I mean the editor of Inside Soap is very far from the stereo type. But then that publication is quite unique. It’s a very friendly lovely environment. For the friends of mine that work in tabloids and those kind of newsrooms, it is very much the stereo type and it is a very tough environment, which is one of the reasons why I decided to keep quite clear of that environment. I didn’t think I would enjoy that very much.
Neil Foley: Deadlines must get in the way of creativity. There must be times where you thinking, actually for whatever reason, I’m not focused, my minds on other things, and you need to walk away from it. I guess if you’re on a tabloid or a deadline situation, it must be a nightmare, where you think I’ve got to write something.
Kate White: Actually, you know what, funnily enough that has kept me really productive. Even though I would say it could stifle creativity, because I am a slave to deadlines, I never miss a deadline. God that’s suicide in my industry. It helps me not to waffle and not to give myself too much time to talk myself out of things because I know this has got to be delivered and it needs to be there by this time. It keeps me really focused. But then with my husband, he has done journalistic work, but he’s worked in other creative writing fields. Because of that, he very much has that opinion that sometimes you need to put it down, walk away and come back to it fresh. For me, I’m like no, no, no, get on with it.
Neil Foley: Get it done.
Kate White: Yeah.
Neil Foley: So can you run multiple projects at the same time, where you’re writing about different things? You’re able to do that?
Kate White: I am. I think sometimes I’ll get to the end of the day, and I’ll feel really drained because, I’ve basically been jumping in my head from one place to the next. It’s a lot easier to sit there and write about soaps all day, then it is to write about hairdressing and then investment banking and then networking and then this. Suddenly, you feel a little bit schizophrenic, really with all these different voices in your head.
Neil Foley: That’s quite difficult isn’t it?
Kate White: Really, really tricky. It’s certainly something that has been a real challenge for me, actually, in building my business, is learning how to jump between those subjects and maintain my focus.
Neil Foley: I know the other day, I think you met somebody who needed some help with their son. What would you say to people who are thinking actually, they love the use of language, they love words and they like to make a career out of it? What sort of advice is there that you would give to somebody young?
Kate White: I would say, you must write and often. The advice I gave to that particular boy was, have you got a blog, are you writing? It doesn’t matter what you’re writing about. If you love football, start writing about football. What are five reasons that that manager should be sacked? Why is it that you love this player? From a young age, you can really start to build your voice through just writing about the stuff you love. When else are you going to have the opportunity to have a roof over your head and food in your belly and write about what you love? Take advantage of it. It’s a real privilege. God, I would love to be sitting there writing about the films of Woody Allen every day but just don’t think I’m going to be able to pay the mortgage with it, unfortunately.
Neil Foley: Did he take that advice on board?
Kate White: Yeah, he seemed to be really pleased by that actually, because I think when you are really are interested in getting into journalism, you’re kind of frustrated. You want to write. So having someone say write loads, go and do it, it’s hopefully quite a liberating thing.
Neil Foley: This just popped into my head. Would ever advocate recording and having that transcribed or is something that’s a bit of a no, no? You couldn’t just work that way.
Kate White: I think you can do that. I would find that very difficult to do myself, because I’m better at writing something down than I am at speaking.
Neil Foley: And you’re a touch typist. Presumably you can touch type really quickly.
Kate White: Yes. I can, yeah. Again, I think years and years of writing, I never leart to touch type formally. I just picked it up and now I could sit and talk to you and type and make something relatively coherent. I wouldn’t like to then send that draft straight off to someone but I am quick at typing and that’s certainly an advantage. Again, for people that are young, I think people now, they’re using keyboards all the time. I think you build up that resilience.
Neil Foley: They can be astonishingly quick, even if they’re not using all their fingers. They’re just very dexterous at it, aren’t they?
Kate White: They are. I think it’s just going to improve and improve. It’s interesting to me that people say at the moment, “It’s all going to be about video. It’s all going to be about video.” I think, is it though because we still primarily communicate through the written word. Now, can you imagine picking up a phone to talk to someone who you could just text that message to. You wouldn’t do it would you?
Neil Foley: No you wouldn’t.
Kate White: So you’re still using words.
Neil Foley: And even as I’ve done a fair bit of video, you try it when you first start and you ad lib. I know what I’m going to say and then you do loads of umms and ahhs and your brain wanders away and says “Oh, there’s a spider.” It’s just amazing what your brain does.
Kate White: Yeah.
Neil Foley: So actually you have to write it down, don’t you? Because you’ve got to get your message over still in a short succinct fashion. So it actually has to be transcribed and you have to read it. I agree with you, word wise. In terms of a final question, Kate. If you were yourself but twenty years younger, so you were a young person setting out in the world, knowing what you know now, what advice would you give yourself?
Kate White: In terms of writing?
Neil Foley: Just life in general.
Kate White: Just life in general. Oh my goodness. First of all I would spend a lot less time worrying about boys.
Neil Foley: Fair comment.
Kate White: Yeah. It’s one of those things I think about. All the very talented women that are in my life and the amount of hours wasted over silly boys.
Neil Foley: They’re all silly boys who then become silly men.
Kate White: Yes. Exactly. We could probably redefine the world with those wasted hours. In all seriousness, I’d say trust your instincts and be confident in your abilities because I think that people analyse themselves to death and worry all the time about how they’re presenting themselves to the world. You instinctively know the things that you’re good at and your strengths. Trust in them and following where they take you is really important to happiness. It’s certainly been for me. Being able to identify that I love books. I love words. And then making a career out that has brought me a lot of happiness. So I’d encourage other people to do that.
Neil Foley: Sounds like good advice. Well, thank you very much indeed Kate. What we’ll do, the bottom of the transcript will have Kate’s email address and contact details so if people wanted to talk to Kate, she’s very open and very willing to help. Thank you very much indeed, Kate. And see you soon.
Kate White: Thank you very much Neil.
Kate White can be contacted by email on: firstname.lastname@example.org