All flash and no substance? Your message is doomed.

March 9, 2010

I went to see Tim Burton’s new film, Alice in Wonderland, last weekend. I had been looking forward to seeing it ever since I saw the trailer revealing its stunning visual effects and typically wild, Burton-esque costumes. In the end, it was a very pretty film but not very compelling. With just a thread of a plot to hang onto, the story ended up being kind of, well, boring. The eye candy and A-list actors will be enough to bring out hoards to the theatre but will this film endure? I’m doubtful. The same holds true for the vehicles you use to communicate with your audiences in the corporate or nonprofit sector. If you aim for style over substance, you’re going to fall short of your goals.

A stunningly designed website, newsletter, advertisement, brochure or blog gets your foot in the door to your customer’s consciousness. It’s an absolute must for getting your message across. Equally important, though, is the written message you deliver. If it’s not clear, engaging and structured to deliver results on your established goals, it’s going nowhere.

Many small to medium-sized businesses as well as nonprofits¬† don’t appreciate the value of solid copywriting. Granted, professional design is an easier sell because the difference from bad/amateur design is immediately apparent. The effect of rambling, poorly constructed copy, however, only hits home when you realize people just aren’t reading, or understanding, whatever you’ve produced.

Here are the key indicators of good copywriting:

  • It reflects the audience reading it. This means it takes into consideration the audience’s interests, needs, values and reading ability.
  • It’s tailored to the platform. The medium (e.g., brochure, blog, website, direct mail) dictates writing style, length and structure. (Choosing the right platform for your message is also important.)
  • It engages. Good writing immediately draws your audience into your message and compels its members to act.
  • It’s clear. It doesn’t distract with poor grammar or typographical mistakes.

Small businesses and nonprofits are not always in a financial position to hire a professional copywriter but should make every effort to ensure that their message is being delivered in the most effective way possible.

If you’re the person charged with writing copy for your organization, invest in the time to learn the basics of effective corporate and persuasive writing. In addition to scads of good books that address various writing challenges (The Copyblogger blog includes a “must read” list), there are many free, online resources for improving writing as well. Some of my favourites include:

Bad Language (writing about writing) – blog

Write to Done (Unmissable articles on writing. Twice weekly.) – blog

Coppyblogger (Copywriting tips for online marketing success) – blog

Grammar Girl (Quick and dirty tips for writing better) – podcast/blog

Writing good copy is vital for any business or nonprofit. Without it, you’ll be less competitive and the goals you’ve set for reaching new audiences or engaging and sustaining customer relationships will consistently fall short. Make sure your message is being delivered.

Do you agree or do you think great design can make up for less than stellar content? Weigh in with a comment.

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One Response to “All flash and no substance? Your message is doomed.”


  1. Both design and copy are important; but without the words there is no (commercial) point to design. Whereas writers like me could deliver most of our value without any design.

    To illustrate the point, try looking at any website with the style sheet turned off or in pure text mode. It’s clunky and unattractive but you still get the message.

    This is why I am against using ‘lorem ipsum’ copy during design. Website developers and other designers should work hand in hand with writers to make the site collaboratively.

    In other words, if form follows function; design should follow text.

    (PS Thanks for the link! I hope you keep enjoying Bad Language.)


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