Why Toning Down Means Sharpening Up

By Ben Mifsud Joslin, Content Executive

Man holding mug with words around head

Gregarious. Opulent. Combobulated. All great words, but you’d probably never want to use them in your online ad copy.

We’ve probably all been guilty of certain stylistic sins: Big words that you checked the meaning of first; two adjectives when one would have been enough; complex sentence structures held together by a web of commas and semi-colons and using metaphors instead of direct language.

Like most aspiring writers, I once misunderstood what “good writing” meant, especially in relation to digital marketing. I believed that to be an effective writer, you had to showcase your skills to make your message more convincing.

You could call it a kind of writer’s ego, though it comes from an innocent place.

And it’s easy to see why writers fall into these traps, because they learn vocabulary, grammar and syntax through dense piles of literature.

But here’s the thing. Most of those creating marketing copy don’t actually consume language in the same way their target audience does.

So, this was my problem. I was the guitarist who thought overplaying meant quality songwriting. I was the baker who thought sprinkles made a good cupcake. I was the writer using, well, too many words.


I would eventually discover through my university studies that the solution (like most other things in life) goes back all the way to the Ancient Greeks.

Hang on a minute, I hear you tell me. The Greeks didn’t even have computers or digital advertising.

But they did have an art called oratory, and that uses the same principles as marketing.

Oratory is the art of speaking with eloquence in front of an audience. This has close ties with another ancient practice called rhetoric – the art of persuasion.

Its basic principles are a goldmine for a copywriter, from the types of rhetoric (ethos, logos and pathos) which explain how to connect with your audience on a cultural, intellectual and emotional level, to the canons of rhetoric (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery) which guide how to craft your argument. And there’s others too, so the more you research this, the more tools you’ll add to your writing box of tricks.

You may think that’s an awful lot of homework when my first point was that writers can be too complicated. Besides, doesn’t this relate to public speaking? How is it relevant to text?

Actually, the principles of rhetoric can be applied to any form of communication. Oratory is just where it all began. Public speaking was the dominant method back in the day, but rhetoric truly is everywhere. It’s in your books, in your television ads, on the radio and even on your cereal boxes.

male hands typing

But there is a reason why I specifically bring up oratory, and not just rhetoric. Online copy should be written with an orator’s mindset. The internet is so full of information and sales pitches that your audience needs to instantly feel like you are not just flexing words, but actually communicating with them. As weird as it sounds, people need to feel the presence of what can loosely be described as a voice.

What I mean by all this is that a writer should create a message with eloquence. And eloquence is about engagement, not technique.

It is far more important that you know what kind of tone and language your target audience will respond to than knowing synonyms, and more significant that you know how to address your user’s concerns than whether or not to use an Oxford comma.

So when you work on your next piece, do ask yourself whether you’re using the correct word or idiom, and whether the commas are in the right places.

But your first questions should be: Is this the tone that works best with my target audience? Am I arranging my language in the most consumable, convincing way? Have I hooked my readers from the first line? Am I addressing all my user’s concerns, making them feel like I understand their needs? Will my reader feel like I am really communicating with them?

When you ask yourself these questions, working with written words starts to mean something very different.

You’ll be more than just a good writer. You’ll be a good communicator.