Language can be sexist, and other interesting points of view

Photograph courtesy of  Copy Cabana

Photograph courtesy of Copy Cabana


Last week, I attended a fantastic copywriting conference called Copy Cabana (yes, we copywriters love a good pun). The name set the tone for the whole event, which was lively, fun and full of laughter - not to mention Hawaiian shirts and brightly coloured loafers.

But the festivities didn’t come at the expense of some absolutely fantastic content. Organisers Andy Maslen, Vikki Ross and Matt Desmier brought together an incredible line up of speakers who inspired, informed and challenged us all as much as they entertained us.

Here are some of the key messages I brought home along with a fistful of business cards, an impressive goody bag and some wonderful memories.

The robots are coming

I have to put my hand up and admit that I find the whole notion of artificial intelligence a little terrifying. Maybe I’ve watched The Matrix too many times, but the idea of giving machines so much control just gives me the jitters. As a copywriter, however, I can’t afford to ignore the fact that people are developing bots that can write website content, as Glenn Sturgess and Peter Stephen of OgilvyOneBusiness discussed in their talk.

Thankfully, their message was not to give up the day job and retrain as a plumber, but to think about how we in the creative industries can work alongside technology. Human beings are skilled in things like common sense, abstract thinking, imagination and poetry in a way that computers will almost certainly never be. By developing these skills and using advances in technology to provide us with extra data and support, we can protect our profession for the future and provide even better copywriting services than we do now.

It’s easy to get lost in the Marshes of the Ill-Prepared

I loved the talk given by fellow Bristolians Sonja Jefferson and Sharon Tanton of Valuable Content. In it they used a very clever - and beautifully illustrated - map of the 'Land of Content' to show why so many businesses fail to reach their content marketing goals.

Sometimes they get stuck in Foggy Bottom, for example, not knowing which way to turn. Other times they end up in the Marshes of the Ill-Prepared, generating leads but not having the resources to deal with them. The secret to success? Spend some time in Pow-Wow Plain getting your strategy sorted, head down Wisdom Way (learning as you go), and you’ll soon come to Bountiful Bay, where your pipeline - and your bank account - is full.

Language can be sexist

And it can also play a huge role in tackling not only sexism but inequality of all kinds. In this momentary break from the all-out humorous, Elle Graham-Dixon, Strategy Director Partner at BBH, gave a very thought-provoking talk in which she challenged the lazy way we can use words to inadvertently further inequality. What really stood out for me was this riddle that she shared:

“A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, ‘I can’t operate - that boy is my son!’ Explain.”

I’m ashamed to say that it didn’t occur to me that the surgeon could be the boy’s mother. But it turns out, I needn’t have berated myself quite as strongly. The riddle itself is full of masculine words, Elle explained - by changing the child to a girl, studies have shown that people are much more likely to guess that the surgeon was a woman. So sometimes it’s less about the reader being prejudiced than the writing itself!

Brand voice is not bullshit

Sorry, turns out copywriters are a sweary bunch too. This was the subject of language strategist Nick Parker’s talk, in which he addressed an issue faced by many copywriting agencies, namely clients saying, “Tone of voice is all bullshit, isn’t it?”

Unsurprisingly, his conclusion was, “No.” Tone of voice is an essential part of creating a consistent brand across all marketing materials and channels. If you don’t think about it then you’re likely to end up either with some wishy-washy business writing that doesn’t really stand for anything, or you’ll end up defaulting to a popular trend, like the warm and fuzzy Innocent Smoothies tone.

There’s an art to writing a strapline

Steve Harrison has won more Cannes Lions awards in his discipline than any creative director in the world, so it was a real privilege to hear him talk about how to write "something that’s interesting". One of his key messages was the importance of using headlines to arouse the reader’s curiosity. He also talked about the need to understand your reader’s problem. Great copy isn’t about selling stuff, after all, it’s about problem solving.

Steve then went on to reduce the entire audience to helpless mirth with a series of magazine ad clippings showing the overuse of “The art of…”. There was the art of tailoring (M&S), the art of coffee (Lavazza), the art of writing your life (Mont Blanc), even the art of outdoor catering (Curries). Suffice to say, you won’t be seeing that line in any of Rin Hamburgh & Co’s copy any time soon!

So there we have it - just a few highlights from a day that was practically all highlight. You can see why I’m already looking forward to next year, can’t you?


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