Writing lessons from tire commercials and Grumpy Cat

When I was 18 — Reagan was still President, the Dodgers were champions, and the Internet wasn’t born yet, though WarGames had the coolest hacking scene — I wanted to be a DJ. It was exactly the sort of job an 18 year old should want to have — creative and rebellious, but not in the sort of way that would land anyone in jail (except for Alan Freed, that is).

So with my hair in a mullet (IT WAS 1988, LEAVE ME ALONE!), I went off to a junior college armed with a handful of records and a copy of Lester Bangs’ Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, and learned the ways of the airwaves.

When I got there though, I learned that there was more to radio than a rock and roll record and morning zoo catchphrase. Much of the radio is scripted — seems obvious now, but I was a kid. Where there are scripts, there are writers, and it was in radio class that I learned my first real lessons on writing.

Many of these lessons have long been forgotten. My writing style has matured and developed. I owe a lot of what I like about my writing to the fact that I am willing to break some rules here and there.

But there is one rule I took very much to heart, and it still absolutely applies to writing on the internet, particularly for marketing.

We were in class, working on writing the 30 second spot, the bread and butter commercial of every radio station in America. Each of us was given a business to write an ad for — I drew a mattress store, as I recall. A friend of mine drew a tire store. We took turns reading our scripts. My friend went first, clearing his throat and standing to read out loud, “Are you looking for a great set of tires and a bargain price?

“No,” said my professor.

“What?” said my friend, the interrupted tire store adman.

“You led off with a question, and the answer is no. I’m not looking for tires, and frankly, I’d rather not die in a horrible accident, so I’m not going to go cheap on them either.”

My professor then drove home her point — “Never lead off with a question, because sometimes the answer is no, and then your listener changes the station.

This basic lesson is true with writing for Internet content. Consider the following SEO oriented blog pieces, each of which has a question as either the title or the opening line:

Are you looking for fun ways to get your Facebook fans engaged? No.

Are you looking for a video conferencing solution? Nope.

Are you looking for the perfect conference venue in Pretoria? Negative, Ghost Rider, the pattern is full.

Here’s a triple whammy — the title and first two sentences are all questions! Are you looking for a large corporate marquee? Are you planning the perfect party? Do you need help? No, no, and, well, if I’m honest… probably.

Leading off with a yes or no question seems like an easy way to hook your reader, but it’s also an easy way to distance yourself from them. The answer could be no, and then your audience has changed the station — in Internet terms, they’ve gone off to look at funny cat pictures.

Seriously, Pretoria?

Seriously, Pretoria?

There is a way to lead off with a question that keeps the funny cat pictures at bay, and that will be the subject of my next post.