What has teaching taught me about copywriting?

6 min read

There I stood. A thatch of straw-coloured hair, reams of poetic language up my sleeve, and a vintage tweed blazer complete with faux leather elbow patches. I was ready to teach my first-ever class.

Twenty-seven pairs of judging eyes followed me as I took centre stage in the classroom.

For a moment I felt like Eminem in 8 Mile, choking in front of a pitiless audience.

What do I say? How do I get their attention? How do I keep them engaged?

Do you know the feeling? You probably do if you’re a copywriter. How on earth do we seize the moment with the power of words?

Here are some nifty little skills learnt through teaching I use everyday as a freelance copywriter…

Communicate to address everyone

Any teacher will tell you that knowing your students is the key to any successful lesson. It’s your passport to understand their history, how they learn, where they need support, and what motivates them to stretch their knowledge.

In the world of copywriting, these values have served me just as well. It’s the idea that language – whether spoken or written – is tailored to its audience and can present any concept with clarity, passion, and persuasion.

It’s about choosing the right words to get the desired response, whether that means engaging students in an English lesson or persuading an online customer to click the ‘buy now’ button.

And from my experience, this is only possible by doing your homework on who’s in front of you.

Creativity can be a risky business

If I’m honest, there’s been more than one occasion where my ideas have got the better of me.

Maybe it’s happened to you, too? You wake up at 2.37am to a supernova of creativity, and franticly scribble every detail on your bedside notepad before it’s gone. You think it’s the best idea ever, everyone will love it, and then, when it’s finally called to action, it doesn’t work. I mean, it really doesn’t work.

Creativity took you for a ride, and now it’s laughing at your demise.

For a teacher, this can be disastrous…soul-destroying, if you will. Because if students don’t like your creative ideas, they will let you know about it without any filter, the monsters.

Before you know it, you’ll probably find yourself bent like a hairpin underneath your classroom desk, fearing for your life as glue sticks, class books and rubbers take flight and hurtle in your direction.

All you wanted was to add some creativity to the lesson, and now you find yourself performing a stealthy commando crawl towards the classroom exit, hoping you won’t get detected.

What happened? How did you get it so wrong?

It’s all too obvious, isn’t it.

When raw creativity is our starting point, we blur the clarity of our message. We are seduced by creativity and turn a blind eye to its complexity. We forget our loyalty to purpose and simplicity and end up with something incompatible.

This is the mistake I made.

In a moment of naivety, I was whisked away by creative thoughts and waved goodbye to my loyal friend, simplicity. It almost cost me my life in the classroom!

This isn’t to say creativity doesn’t exist in teaching or copywriting (of course it does – the world would be dull without it). But what I’ve learnt the hard way is creativity follows clarity, and not the other way round.

As Tom Albrighton puts it: “there’s no point choosing the curtains if the foundations aren’t sound.”

Put it down. Pick it up later

Do you remember the scene in Return to Oz where Dorothy enters Princess Mombi’s castle and is shocked to see halls of decapitated heads? For teachers and copywriters this is all too familiar – choosing the right head to get the job done (I don’t mean having corridors of decapitated heads).

When I signed up to be a teacher, I thought my only responsibility was to teach. But there’s a lot more to it – student profiles, marking, CPD courses, tracking, chasing attendance, meetings, more meetings, even more meetings, and dreaded parents’ evening. The list goes on…

We wear enough hats to fill an entire cloakroom.

Copywriting is a similar story because we’re not just writers. In fact, the writing part of our job isn’t where we spend most of our time.

Instead, it’s the researching, chasing invoices, sending proposals, interviewing, editing, marketing, networking, social media-ing. You get the idea.

So, how do we always manage to get the job done? What has teaching taught me about multi-tasking?

It’s taught me that sometimes it’s faster to stop.

It’s tough to do, but I often find if I hit a wall with a task, it’s best to put it to one side and let it simmer. Writing a lesson plan from start to finish or designing a scheme of work in one sitting, for example, rarely ends well.

Ideas and projects are sometimes the most successful if they have time to marinate. It gives you a chance to take a breather and come back with a new perspective and a new energy.

At the time of writing this sentence, this blog has been put on the backburner at least five times. And it’ll probably be put there again before it’s finished.

If you need a little more convincing this rule works, Tim Harford, author of several critical thinking books, calls it slow motion multi-tasking.

It’s the idea that frequently switching from one task to another will cross-fertilise projects with new thoughts and ideas. You suddenly find yourself armed with Thor’s hammer, ready to demolish that wall you didn’t know how to overcome.

Give it a go.

Finishing up…

Teaching and copywriting have many parallels. More so than I originally thought.

Becoming a freelance copywriter with another profession already under your belt can be a real advantage – you have a bank of transferable skills and another perspective to apply to your work.

Tom Davies is a freelance copywriter based in Brighton.

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