Radio lessons in writing
ONE PIECE OF advice I give to would-be writers: listen to the radio. You can learn a lot about using words well from the ads.
After all, they must grab your interest and communicate information in a shortish amount of time, and in a medium that typically has only part of your attention. Most of us have the radio on as we are doing something else, while both movies and books usually earn more of our focus.
Given all that, a radio ad that works has something, or some things, going for it worth noting. I gleaned reminders of this while listening to the radio on a long car ride, recently, when I noticed that half a dozen ads had the same format.
They were for bras, two brands of men’s underwear, socks, bed sheets, and a photo digitizing service. The common denominator: all featured the founders/owners talking about why and how they came to start their business. Four lessons come to mind from this how-I-did-it radio ad trend:
Be authentic. Voiced by the proprietors rather than celebrities or voice-over specialists, the ads sound a bit amateurish, but that’s part of their appeal. They are real. You connect with the person behind the mic.
I’m not suggesting you don’t need to write well, but don’t try to sound like someone you aren’t, or faux highbrow. Don’t write fancy for the sake of it. Be sincere rather than slick.
Bring conflict. Each ad started with the presenter’s dissatisfaction with something that set them on a quest. Your reason for writing needs to be interesting enough for someone to want to keep reading—ever more so in the age of countless distractions.
They need to be asking themselves, “What happens next?” When they put your book down at the end of a chapter, do they have a reason to pick it up again? You need a strong thread of tension running through your work, like the elastic on those wonder briefs that breathe, don’t ride up, and hug in all the right places.
Offer something. Obviously the radio ads were selling something, but they were also providing a solution to the problem they had presented, which they suggested the listener also shared. What is the takeaway of your writing? What do you want your readers to know, do, feel, think, or wonder as a result of reading? What’s your point? How are you helping?
And after three positive things to consider, one negative.
Watch trends. This is less about your writing and more about the publishing world, but worth keeping in mind. Effective as each radio spot was individually, cumulatively their commonality diminished their impact.
When you’ve heard three similar victory stories, you’re less interested in the fourth and fifth. Publishing trends come and go fairly quickly (coloring books, anyone?) and you want to be on the arc’s rise, not its descent.
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