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Great B2B copywriters are made, not born

January 3, 2018

I have my father to thank for putting me on the path to becoming a B2B copywriter. An ex-police clerk turned entrepreneur (now retired), he had the curious notion back in 1969 that English would be his kids’ ticket to success. As a result, my home shelves groaned with the weight of hundreds of Enid Blyton and Ladybird books by the time I was seven. My reward for good behaviour was a trip with Dad to the nearest MPH bookstore (score!). And a lot of my free time in primary school was spent in libraries and at the British Council where I pored through books from Tolkien, Asimov, Clark, Anthony and Price. Adventure, fantasy and science fiction were my earliest true friends. They still are.

“The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought, this in turn makes us think more deeply about life, which helps us regain our equilibrium.”  – Norbet Platt

So now that I actually write – and run a B2B communications agency – for a living, what have I learnt? For one, I know now that ‘talent’ is overrated. It’s never about DNA: it’s how you take advantage of the opportunities you get in life. (It’s also the idea du jour, given the slew of books with titles like “The Myth of Talent”, “Outliers” and “The Social Animal”). There were no literary geniuses in my ancestry: my grandparents were in the food business. One sold great Hainanese coffee, the other amazing Cantonese roast pork – but not one writer among the lot.

But I was given innumerable opportunities to appreciate – and express – the power of the written word. I felt a stirring in my blood when the King of the Rohirrim cried “Arise, arise, riders of Theoden!”  I was devastated to learn that “…the road to the stars was a road that forked in two directions, and neither led to a goal that took any account of human hopes or fears.” And I was greatly saddened when Giskard stopped speaking, leaving the care of the universe to Daneel.

But what else do Tolkien and Asimov’s works have to do with B2B copywriting? Plenty.

1. Great B2B copywriters sell ideas, not copy.

Any B2B copywriter can string words together. But the ability to think creatively about the challenge and coming up with unexpected solutions: that’s a skill that’s much harder to find. Tolkien could have written about the decline of the English countryside and the encroachment of industrialization – a topic that was dear to his heart. But an idea, coupled with the ability to express it through powerful prose and verse, gave the world his magnum opus. Anybody can learn the rules of writing. Not everyone has great ideas.

2. Great B2B copywriters have the ability to see in pictures.

If you’re a fan of the Robot series by Asimov, you’ll probably have a mental image of Elijah Bailey looked like, even if Asimov never described him through any medium but words. In B2B, being able to visualize what you’re writing is an invaluable gift. Printed materials and websites have to convey a ‘brand personality’ and a ‘human face’ through words. Radio or podcast copy should paint pictures in listeners’ heads. If you’re writing a speech for your client’s executives, the right turn of phrase and the use of ‘visual heft’ can make all the difference between inspiration and boredom.  And when you’re scripting for a corporate video, you have to be able to see the scene in your mind even as you write.

3. Great B2B copywriters are versatile.

What do B2B copywriters have to write for the industries they serve? Everything. We have written white papers, technical guides, op-eds, e-books, websites, speeches, videos, commercials, brochures, tweets, mailers, mousepads, posters, catalogs, articles, Facebook posts, internal memos, call scripts, inspirational sticky notes – if there are words in it, we’ve done it. We’ve written for small businesses, large multinational corporations, enterprise tech vendors, textile dye producers, food additive suppliers, banks, commodity traders – the list keeps growing every year. Want to have a great career in copywriting? Stay open, read widely, learn-learn-learn and make words do your bidding, for whatever challenge comes along.

4. Great B2B copywriters show restraint.

A friend reminded me of a lovely verse from one of the most-read books in the world: “I saw that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to the men of skill. But time and chance happen to them all.” George Orwell wanted to make a point of how terrible obscure language can be. He took the same verse and wrote: “Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.” It’s a magnificent lesson in writing. Yes, even for B2B.

POSTED BY: Allan Tan

Allan Tan