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The Copywriter’s Dilemma: Storytelling in the age of the diminishing attention span

3 Nov, 2017 Alex Naylor

STATISTIC: Eight seconds.

That’s how long the average attention span is. So by the time you reach the end of this sentence, you’ll already be moving on to somethi…

Ok, now for the few of you who are still with me and not off watching cat videos on YouTube, give yourself a pat on the back for having more focus than a goldfish (average attention span: nine seconds). As a reward, here’s a small preview of what you’re missing:

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s dive in to what I like to call the copywriter’s dilemma. All right, here we go.

First, let’s establish these two competing ideas:

1. As previously noted, we are living in the age of the diminishing attention span. Today it’s eight seconds. In 2000, before the digital device explosion, it was 12 seconds. In 1970? I’m willing to bet it was at least a full minute. Thanks, technology.

2. Great advertising is about storytelling. At least, that’s the party line you’ll hear when you walk into most advertising agencies. And storytelling — well, it can take some time. More than eight seconds for sure.

DILEMMA: How are us copywriters supposed to succeed in this oxymoron of a situation? How are we supposed to tell compelling stories in less than eight seconds?

SOLUTION 1: Write shorter.

The first thought that comes to mind for many marketers (probably because it’s the path of least resistance) is to forego storytelling in favor of quick, concise messages that get the point across without requiring much attention or work on the consumer’s part. While catering to and coddling your target audience seems like a simple solution, in reality it usually results in advertising that’s forgotten as quickly as it’s read. Because when we lose storytelling in our copywriting, we lose the ability to activate our readers’ minds and inspire action.

SOLUTION 2: Write better.

This is the idealist’s go-to. If we just sit in front of the computer, poring over every word we write, rewriting it all again and again until it’s absolutely perfect, then consumers will have to read it. As much as I (an idealist myself) would like to believe that compelling copy always gets read, the fact of the matter is that people do judge a book by its cover. They arrive at your page in a magazine or on a website and the first thing they do when looking at the copy is evaluate the amount of time and energy they’ll have to exert and whether or not it’s worth it — before even actually reading a word. So it doesn’t necessarily matter how perfect your prose and compelling your story is to a modern, distracted, time-crunched consumer that doesn’t want to do any more work than they absolutely have to.

SOLUTION 3: Let the design do all the work.

Here we have the popular solution for the moment. And it’s the logical next step. If solutions one and two don’t work, and copywriters are doomed from the start, then let’s just allow our design team to pick up the slack. Everybody seems to be doing it these days. Just add some arresting imagery and the right pop of color and you’re sure to grab your audience’s attention — no matter what words we put with it, right? Not exactly. Because while design is great at capturing our attention, it’s the copywriter’s job to keep it. When the writing isn’t up to snuff and doesn’t add anything to the design, your ad will lack the substance and meaning it needs to stick.

SOLUTION 4: Change the rules.

When the established rules don’t allow us to succeed, we have every right to change those rules to our liking. It’s in the Declaration of Independence somewhere, so it has to be true. To start, stop thinking of advertising as storytelling — and think of it more as game-playing. So instead of taking them on a well-crafted climactic journey with your brand, simply give them the pieces to create their own journey and allow them to fill in the blanks themselves. It takes a lot less time, and it will allow your consumers to have an experience with your brand rather than simply encountering it and passing it by. By doing so, you’re also secretly breaking past the eight-second barrier, and earning more of their time and attention. You’re giving them something to keep coming back to, like a catchy pop tune that they just can’t get out of their head.

You may or may not have realized it, but some brands are already doing this, and have been for some time. Take a look at some of the ads below where the copy is neither written in story form, doesn’t try too hard to be perfect and doesn’t rely on design (but rather adds to it):

There are elements of play in all these ads where the consumer is invited to put together missing pieces, finish the thought, place themselves in the story or imagine their own story all together. And for an added bonus, they can all be read in well under eight seconds.

MORAL OF THE STORY: Stop writing. Start playing.

Now, back to the cat videos.

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