Creative Scriptwriting and Copywriting

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We Need To Talk About Phone Systems

In Uncategorized on November 24, 2011 at 7:56 pm

Imitation may be greatest form of flattery, but satire can move it to a whole new level.

Steve Coogan’s Christmas tie-in – the excellent Partridge auto-biography – almost shares the name of Lionel Shriver’s most celebrated novel, and the replacement of “Alan” for “Kevin” is a bit of a masterstroke linguistically. There’s something brilliantly self-regarding about Norwich’s best-loved radio son appropriating the branding of a critically acclaimed story. Not just because it’s far more highbrow than he’ll ever be, but because the original narrative is a high-stakes tale of a murdering sociopath, in contrast to the hilariously banal meanderings of a regional broadcaster who briefly hit the fictional big time.

But I would argue that borrowing a pre-existing sentence fragment is not always such a great idea, or shows you to your best as a writer when you are looking to brand your own screenplay or TV pitch, or create a tagline or strapline in a piece of copy or advertising. In fact, piggy-backing your concept – whether it’s a product (“Phone Systems”), property (“Mywebsite.com”), or the host of Mid-Morning Matters on North Norfolk Digital – into a ready-made and recognisable linguistic pattern like a book title could even be seen as cheating.

(It needn’t be “Phone Systems”, incidentally. It could be Coca-Cola or the Liberal Democrats or Your Wire-style Hardnosed Detective Character , but for the benefit of our commercial sponsors, as explained in the previous blog, we’re going to use the words Phone Systems as our example.)

For a start, there’s the chance that the line you’ve used isn’t quite so famous as you think it is.

There’s a conspiracy documentary available online which posits how Neil Armstrong never really made his one small step – a kind of non-fiction Capricorn One. It’s called  A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Moon. But you surely have to be a certain age or musical inclination these days to get the link to the1966Stephen Sondheim show (where the storyline occurs en route to the Forum). And if the audience doesn’t recognise the reference, then why not give the Apollo film an unforgettable identity all its own? Especially when the “controversial” (i.e. made-up) events didn’t take place on the journey there, but on the lunar surface?

And that’s the second problem: there’s the possibility that your phrase doesn’t fit comfortably in the existing expression anyway.

Raiders of the Lost Phone Systems. The Good, The Bad and The Phone Systems. Close Encounters of the Phone Systems. We can all share the references here, but they still don’t make much sense.

My final objection is that a slogan well-known enough to be borrowed in this manner, is likely to be heading for cliché territory. Watergate has a lot to answer for. After Camillagate, Squidgygate, Contragate, Irangate et al, inventing “Phone Systems Gate” is not a sign of someone who makes the language sparkle.

This column is brought to you with Telephone Systems Direct

So, what phone systems do they use in the Rover’s Return?

In copywriting, scriptwriting, search engine optimization (SEO), writing on November 14, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Is Coronation Street about to be ruined by heavy-handed commercialism? The evergreen ITV soap has recently signed its first agreement under new Ofcom rules allowing branded goods to be shown onscreen in exchange for payment. Until now, commercial logos could never be featured prominently in a drama, comedy or non-fiction programme without the broadcaster facing the wrath of the regulator. But in November2011, the UK’s debut product placement in a primetime show will  occur with the installation of a cash machine by the Nationwide Building Society in Dev Alahan’s corner shop (or Reg Holdsworth’s, or Alf Roberts’, depending on how far into history you go). Purists will feel it’s a slippery slope down which the series will plummet until Webster’s Autos becomes an official Hyundai dealership, and Audrey Robert’s hair salon trades exclusively in the L’Oreal range (because, you have to admit, she’s worth it.)

Deeper than that, these guidelines do speak to the issues of artistic or journalistic integrity.

Let’s say I had been hired to write a number of articles about phone systems for this blog, for instance.

It may seem an odd request to make. I could probably scribble everything I know about phone systems on the back of a stamp, and still have enough space for the dialogue from next week’s Corrie omnibus.

But this (and every) website appeals to at least two audiences. There is a tiny, but loyal, audience of humans, who come here to ponder my tortuously considered thoughts on words, wording and the writerly art. And then there are the mysterious Google search robots and their spidery pals, who arrive interested only in the density of certain key phrases, seeing my beautiful language as nothing more than a not-so-randomly arranged sequence of letters. For them, a piece sprinkled over-liberally with references to ‘phone systems’ could in fact be about Weatherfield or Albert Square or Emmerdale or anywhere.

I think it’s sometimes too easy to condemn the commercialisation of commercial media. If the cashpoint in Dev’s store remained unbranded, does that really guarantee a purer, better storytelling experience? And, from my own point of view, hackery is a dirty word, but we’re heading for a double-dip recession and my kids need shoes.

And for the jobbing writer, you could argue that the seamless integration of “phone systems” into your output is a example of writing craft in action – the professional job well done. A skilled and versatile search-engine optimised creator would be looking to bury the keywords (“phone systems”, in this case)  into the text so that the casual reader would barely bat an eyelid, anyhow.

So I guess my feeling is, if you do it in a witty and amusing way, you might just get away with it. Fay Weldon famously wrote a novel about a jewel heist sponsored by Bulgari jewellery to some critical acclaim.  But critics lambasted the turn-of-the-century live-action Thunderbirds movie because it pimped itself out to its sponsors so much that even Lady Penelope’s iconic pink Rolls-Royce was replaced in the film by a Ford. Not sure I can remember what phone systems they used on Tracey Island, though…

Full disclosure: this column was kind-of funded by Telephone Systems Direct

Start ’em young

In copywriting, scriptwriting, speechwriting on October 3, 2011 at 7:16 pm

Surprisingly little talk of speeches during this year’s party conferences, save for a flurry of (mostly petty and vindictive) press coverage about a precocious young lad doing his best.

I guess it takes one to know one: I haven’t been involved in the conference season, but in my own small way I have contributed my speechwriting experience to the next generation of political debate.

My nine year old has just run for Class Representative at his primary’s School Council. He had to make a speech and asked me to help. Here’s what we got. It’s all his own work, except for a little guidance from me

I think I should be School Council for Class 4 because I am good at talking to other people.

Obviously, he’s not going to be “School Council” as such, but he insisted that saying “your representative on the School Council” would make him sound odd. Good lesson in using the language of your audience.

In fact I love talking. So I’m confident about talking to adults and children, younger and older than me.

“I love talking” was mine. He talks too much in class. His electorate knows this. Let’s make a virtue of it.

(I love “I love”, as a phrase. If you mean it, there is nothing more powerful and direct. The copywriter’s cliché for the same sentiment is “I am passionate about…”, which is awful and never sounds honest.)

I would make good suggestions to change our school into a better place. We’re having lots of building work at the moment so we’ll have to get used to some of the changes like not having last break. If I was elected I would try and get us some play time in the afternoon.

I suggested changing “I’ll get us some play time in the afternoon” to “try and get us…” Under-promise and over-deliver.

On top of all this, I would listen to what you have to say and I will take your opinions into meetings. Just let me know if you have any suggestions.

But as well as just making Class 4 happy, I would listen to what other class reps have to say and to make the whole of [SCHOOL NAME] happy.

Those bits were all his. Very political, I thought – aspirational. “Ask not what your country can do for you” and all that.

I have been in School Council once before in Year 1 when I was a bit too young to understand what to do. But now, after being deputy for the last two years, I am confident that I will do the job well.

This was a tricky bit. He wanted to directly address what might be Achilles Heel – his previous experience. Would Class 4 respect his years of experience, or demand a fresh new broom? His initial thought was to say that his time as “School Council” in Year One didn’t really count as he never said anything. I thought that sounded unduly negative. But “a bit too young to understand” is humble and relatable. Don’t be scared to address the negative.

So, I am a good talker, I have good ideas and good experience. I was going to say ‘thumbs up for me’, but I sprained my hand playing football, but please vote for me.

The sum-up. Not just the rule of three to cover what he’s said already – good at this, good at that, good at the other – but a memorable visual to end on as he’s sporting a heavily-strapped thumb.

I must have forced that bit on him – I thought it would make him stand out (the equivalent to being the primary school war hero) – but he admitted that he skipped it when he gave the speech. That’s another good lesson – don’t write anything for your subject that they’re not happy to deliver. It’s the way towards fluffed jokes and embarrassed pauses.

Anyway, he won. By way of congratulations, I made sure I charged him a special discount day-rate.

And the winner is…

In copywriting, scriptwriting, writing on January 17, 2011 at 10:50 pm

Ricky Gervais’s performance at last night’s Golden Globes shook Hollywood to the core. His crime? To make the kind of near-the-knuckle jibes that Hollywood talk shows and gossip sites thrive on, but to make them when the A-listers he was skewering were sitting right there in front of him.

Cheeky and irreverent? Downright rude?

Or just, as I suspect, simply an attempt to inject some zip into one out of far too many award ceremonies.

Awards are something where I have more than my fair share of first-hand experience. OK, maybe not quite on the scale of the Golden Globes or the BAFTAs. (Although a show I wrote some episodes for was once nominated for a BAFTA, which must surely make me a BAFTA-nominated writer. Surely. No?) But I’ve written enough scripts, speeches and gags for corporate award presentations to really share Ricky’s pain.

The trick, for me, is to always retain a certain respect for your subject, but never forget that even the most prestigious award ceremonies shouldn’t be taken that seriously.

Some times, of course, that’s easier than others.

I once wrote the script for a corporate ceremony that took place on the same night as the Academy Awards. The BBC’s ritzy live Oscar coverage was being presented by Jonathan Ross. Our own more modest bash celebrating the achievements of the UK’s finest photocopier sales personnel was hosted by his brother, Paul. Cue lots of self-deprecating  jokes about the differences between Xerox reps and movie stars, and between the respective career paths of Jonathan and Paul. (To be fair to Ross Snr, he had plenty of his own to add to the script).

Right now. I’m working on material for the annual awards of two motor companies, and a waste management firm.  (Who will be crowned Bin Man of the Year 2011, you ask? I am afraid I am sworn to secrecy at this stage…)

With all of them, I’m trying to move as far away from the kind of bland formality some awards ceremonies can descend into, without ever quite threatening a Gervais-style car crash.  The client, of course, wants a swift, clean professional show, but the audience surely deserves something more than the dry, interminable, humourless evening that I think some clients envisage. It’s supposed to be a celebration, after all. Awards ceremonies should be boozy, breezy and entertaining.

Luckily, I don’t think it’s too difficult for a good writer to create a night that might not be as glamorous as the Oscars or the Globes, but is at least way more fun for the participants than the  stuck-ups at those events seem to find it.  The difference, for me, is in the make-up of the audience. For most of us, a free four course meal in a swanky hotel, and a chance to dress up in fancy clothes whilst your bosses say nice things about you doesn’t happen every day. For Hollywood icons, fine dining, free apparel and non-stop sycophancy come with the contract.

So really, it’s all a question of context. Brickbats of the Gervais kind might bruise the egos of sensitive flowers like Charlie Sheen, Bruce Willis or Robert Downey Jr . But for the rest of us, they’re probably no worse than the sort of banter that’s dished out daily in the office canteen.  Toughen up, celebs!

(All of which is really only a roundabout way to say that the short film I helped make last year has been nominated for a prize of its own. Off to the Odeon Leicester Square in March to see if we win a First Light Award. Will shine my shoes and keep you posted!)