A Copywriting Lesson From Coach Strong

23 Jun 2016 Photo Credit: Tim Heitman/USA Today

Charlie Strong can teach us a thing or two about our website’s copy and content—and why we should dip it in concrete. 

Strong is the head coach of the University of Texas football team. When he arrived on campus in Austin two years ago, he quickly installed his team’s six “Core Values,” which are:

  1. No drugs
  2. No stealing
  3. No guns
  4. No earrings
  5. Treat women with respect
  6. Attend class

And while “values” isn’t precisely the correct word—these are more like “rules” or “expectations”—Strong’s list is unambivalent. There’s no fuzzy interpretation to be made, no wiggle room. You either get it or you don’t. 

Compare Strong’s list to the lists of core values of other major football programs and you begin to see the lesson for your website’s content. Famous college teams often list their team values as:

  • Teamwork
  • Attitude
  • Leadership
  • Discipline
  • Honesty

These terms are, essentially, meaningless. 

For starters— much like the concept of “love”—these words mean different things to different people. One person may think “honesty” means never lying; while another thinks “honesty” means speaking his authentic opinion at every opportunity. One person thinks that leadership means berating subordinates; another person takes a positive-reinforcement approach. 

And even if two people agree on what a term like “discipline” means, the vagueness of the word makes it difficult to put into practice. How exactly does one display discipline? What the heck do I do to illustrate my “attitude”?

The Key Word: Concrete

The difference between Coach Strong’s list and the lists of thousands of other coaches is concreteness

Dan and Chip Heath, in their seminal book Made to Stick, put it this way:

What makes something 'concrete'? If you can examine something with your senses, it’s concrete. A V8 engine is concrete. 'High-performance' is abstract. Most of the time, concreteness boils down to specific people doing specific things. 

The Heath brothers go on to explain how concrete language helps people, especially novices, understand new concepts. “Abstraction is the luxury of the expert,” they say. 

Coach Strong intuitively understood this maxim when he composed his Core Values. Telling his players that guns, drugs, and earrings are 100% off limits leaves no space for discussion. And his players—young men without a ton of life experience—can instantly seize it and make it a part of their lives. 

Imagine being told when you were 18 that you had to display “leadership” and “attitude” and “discipline.” Even if you did manage to approach those lofty standards, how would you know? And how would the person judging your performance know? The goal line keeps moving and shifting. It would all be an abstract judgment call.

Dip Your Web Copy in Concrete

Too many organizations, in an attempt to speak to as wide an audience as possible, write vague websites—copy that is equivalent to the bland "values" of those other college football teams. These websites rely on industry buzzwords, vanilla marketing lingo, and hold-overs from ancient business dictionaries. 

It’s why you see homepages that claim things like: 

  • “Remaining Customer-Focused Since 1993” or 

  • “Creating Innovative Solutions to Common Operations Challenges” or

  • “Quickly Building Pipelines Between Strategic Planning and Member Data”

Huh?

Sure, these sentences might mean something to some users. But to the vast majority of users, it’s limp, lifeless, irrelevant copy. For the experts, it’s ignorable marketing vernacular. For novices, it’s nebulous and difficult to relate to.

Your most important job as a website copywriter is to engage your user. If you don’t capture—and hold—their attention, nothing else you do on your website matters, because your user won’t be there. They’ll be long gone.

(Note: The title of this section isn't to suggest you shouldn't change your website's copy often. You shoud. You absolutely should.) 

What You Can Do

Take the Coach Strong approach to your Web copy, your e-newsletters, your social media posts: Communicate concretely. 

  • Talk about things—actual, tangible things. 
  • Talk about people—actual, tangible people. 
  • Use metaphors. 
  • Err on the side of assuming your users are more novice than expert—and don’t be afraid to speak to them as such. 
  • Give examples. 
  • Reference popular culture, history, the news. 
  • Look for, and eliminate, meaningless, fuzzy phrases that say nothing much at all. 
  • Avoid lingo when possible. 

The advantage of going concrete with your copy? You’ll surprise your readers, who are accustomed to seeing the same dull, overly-long copywriting on every website. And you’ll engage them—you’ll spark in them a recognition, a sense that they understand, more or less, what you’re trying to say. 

Or Just Get Someone to Write For You

Of course, you may not have the time or inclination to write this way. Fortunately, TradeMark Media offers professional copywriting services for your digital identity. We’ll identify your audiences, uncover your business goals, and turn them into sticky, compelling online content. Just ask us how

Andrew Buck

Content Marketing Manager

Andrew is obsessed with words, language, and readability.

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