A version of this blog was published in Leading Note – the magazine of the British Association of Music Therapy in May 2022.
As someone involved in music education, community music, youth music or music therapy, you’ll understand the power of communication and connection. You’ll also have a deep appreciation of how music connects, beyond words. In this article, Anita Holford shares some insights and advice to help you consider the place of words – and copywriting skills – in winning hearts and minds for the work you do in music.
Why do words matter?
There are times when we all need to write for a purpose, to prompt a reader to think, feel or act in a particular way. You may use writing in an article, for a presentation, on a website or social media, or as a basis for what you say to someone when you meet face-to-face. In any of those situations and beyond, writing can help us to win hearts and minds for our work by:
- attracting people’s attention – making what we say relevant to people who perhaps haven’t heard of us or our discipline/practice
- increasing understanding and advocating our cause – helping people understand WHY we do what we do, the impact it has, and what that means for them
- keeping people informed and engaged – so they begin to value our communications and stay open to hearing more from us
- building relationships – shaping people’s understanding of and interaction with you, so they gradually know, like and trust you
- and finally, writing is critical to making our services appealing: selling what we do and bringing in income and customers
Below are three key skills used by copywriters, which could improve how you communicate about your work.
See things from your reader’s point of view
As someone using music for a social, educational or therapeutic purpose, you already have a head start in seeing things from another person’s point of view. Empathy is a skill that you use every day in your work. Yet in life, as in music, we often can’t ‘unknow the song that’s in our heads’. I’ll explain this a little more by describing an exercise I use in communications workshops.
I ask people to group themselves in pairs, and give one person in each pair a short, familiar tune to tap out with a pen on a table. The other person has to listen to guess what that tune is. Sounds simple? Yet every time I run this exercise, it’s rare for more than a quarter of people to get it right (and that’s quite high, because I’m often working with musicians). It always surprises people how hard it is to guess. The tappers often say things like, “It’s so easy, I just couldn’t understand how they couldn’t get it”. The listeners often say they were frustrated that they couldn’t get it, and felt a bit stupid.
The activity is based on carried out in the ‘90s by a psychology student at Stanford University*. It’s a handy way to illustrate ‘The Curse of Knowledge’**, the difficulty that we all have in stepping outside our own knowledge and world views, and the way we assume everyone knows what we know. The ‘Curse of Knowledge’ is a psychological trait called a ‘’ that is an error in thinking that occurs because we have limited attention spans and are naturally predisposed to try to make sense of the world and reach decisions quickly.
This means we don’t explain things fully, we use jargon, and we prioritise what we think’s important without thinking about how it will be received. Here are some questions that you might want to ask yourself when you’re writing, to avoid the curse of knowledge:
- How much do they know about what I’m writing about?
- What questions might they have about the topic?
- Are there any terms or words I’m using that they might not understand?
- Is there anything I’m assuming they’ll understand?
- What aspect will they be most interested in and how can I bring that out and make it more prominent?
- Where might they be reading this, and how carefully? They may be on a train or on a bus, so do I need to make sure they can skim read and get to the important points quickly?
- Is it crystal clear what I’m asking them to do, will they be able to find that and take action easily?
Turn features into benefits
Features are facts. For example, Zoom allows us to have video meetings online.
Benefits are what a person gains as a result of the feature. For example, Zoom means I can meet people who live far away; it saves me time because I don’t have to travel; it means we can share screens and do things together on screen.
It may seem obvious and you may automatically think of benefits when you’re writing, but sometimes, they may not make it to the page. We may think they’re obvious (that curse of knowledge again, or an unconscious bias) or they may be unimportant to us – but not necessarily to the reader.
One handy way of creating a benefit from a feature is to ask ‘so what?’ for each feature that you can think of. This is what begins to turn information into communication or persuasion.
Write the way you speak
Often when we’re faced with a blank page, we write in a strange, formal style that we’d never speak out loud. That’s often because we’ve been taught in school, college or university, that formal writing is good writing. Throughout our education, most of us have been judged and rewarded by those standards. Yet writing the way you speak immediately draws people to you as it seems more human and authentic, and so it helps people to feel they know, like and trust you.
I’m sure we’ve all received communications that include sentences like this:
Should you wish to enquire further please do not hesitate to contact the admin team
But wouldn’t it sound better phrased like this?:
If you have any questions, please call me
There’s nothing wrong with the first sentence, but it feels faceless, as though someone is hiding behind the formality of the language.
Here’s another very typical one from an insurer:
The Insurer will indemnify the Insured for Damage to Contents whilst temporarily removed for cleaning renovation repair or similar purposes
Which, if they wrote in the way they spoke, would probably just say:
We’ll cover damage to contents while they’re being cleaned, repaired, or renovated.
Here are a few tips that will help you to put this into practice:
a) Ask yourself, ‘Would I say that out loud?’ Even better, read it out loud. You’ll trip up over the stuff that doesn’t sound right.
b) Use active language not passive language.
I’ll write to you instead of A letter will be sent
The second version is active because the action is clearly related to someone who’s doing it, the ‘I’. Always make sure there’s a ‘doer’ in your sentence – otherwise it can seem like you aren’t taking responsibility for something.
Describe the organisation/you as you, me, us and we – this makes the communication feel more personal and conversational.
c) Write as if you’re writing for one person, not a mass.
‘Dear Helen, I wanted to let you know that …’ rather than
‘Dear customers, we’d like to let you all know that …’
d) Split long sentences into short sentences – this gives momentum and pace to your writing and makes it easier for people to read and stay engaged.
e) Break up long chunks of text with subheadings or other devices (like a quote or bullet points) – again this makes it easier for people to read.
Follow these tips and your writing is more likely to achieve the results you want, and win hearts and minds for your practice and for music therapy in general. If you’re interested in learning more about writing for impact, take a look at this short online course called How to win hearts and minds with your writing.
Anita Holford is a freelance communications practitioner and copywriter. She specialises in working with music organisations with a social, wellbeing or educational purpose, helping them to communicate the value and impact of what they do, explain their work and sell their services. She also runs the Music for Education & Wellbeing podcast, and the Music Education Works website, and has three online courses for people working in music for wellbeing, education or social purpose, including How to win hearts and minds with your writing.
* Cursed by knowledge | The Psychologist.
** Cherry, K. (2020). How Cognitive Biases Influence How You Think and Act | Verywell Mind.
First published in 2022