When it comes to writing good sales and marketing copy the most important lesson is to engage the reader. That goes without saying. So often we hear people say ‘tell a story’. Telling a story is all well and good, but how do you ensure that your story is actually worth reading?

Well, you could do a lot worse than taking a leaf directly out of the storytellers’ book. In particular children’s story books offer inspiration because in many ways they are bound by the same rules as copywriting. So, put the sales and marketing copy manual aside for now. Let’s talk about great kids’ literature.

Like so many other children, I was an enormous fan of Roald Dahl’s stories growing up. I still am to be honest and I look forward to the day when my son is old enough for me to read them all to him. But Roald Dahl also has a huge amount to offer copywriters wishing to hone their skills.

Take a look at this extract below from James and the Giant Peach in which he introduces the character Aunt Sponge:

Aunt Sponge was enormously fat and very short. She had small piggy eyes, a sunken mouth and one of those white flabby faces that looked exactly as though it had been boiled. She was like a great white soggy overboiled cabbage

Chances are, reading this will have made you smile. But let’s break it down to see what makes this text so compelling:

For starters, it’s funny. We are instantly drawn into a joke. The reader and the author are united in poking fun at Aunt Sponge. What is more, it’s mischievous. It’s not the way we are brought up to speak of relatives. The joke is clandestine and we feel as though we are in on something.

One of the best ways sales and marketing copy can be memorable is by being funny. Elicit a smile or a laugh and you have automatically got your reader engaged. The great thing about writing copy that is funny is that it also lets the audience know your brand is not afraid of being silly and does not take itself too seriously. For industries like banking or utilities – typically seen as uninteresting necessities of life – this can be an excellent way to deliver a refreshing message.

Since James and the Giant Peach is a book aimed at children, it uses simple and accessible language. It uses short sentences and it avoids long Latinate words, which means it avoids jargon text. How often do you read the words ‘innovative’, or ‘cutting edge’ in sales and marketing copy and find yourself numb to it? Those words are overused for starters, but all too often we, as the reader, are left guessing what exactly makes the product ‘innovative’ or ‘cutting edge’.

Short punchy sentences filled with short punchy words are much more impactful. Ever wondered why the most popular swear words in the English language are just four letters long? A good rule of thumb here is, if you can use a short word in place of a long word without compromising the meaning or quality of the text, then do so. That is not to say there is no room for technical language. For certain topics it is essential, but generally text written in vernacular rather than technical English will seem more readable. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking long words makes you and your text sound more authoritative –they almost invariably do not. Good writing will shine through no matter how short and commonplace the words are.

The last important thing to note of the Roald Dahl passage is that the language is evocative. It is descriptive without being generalized. In the extract above we can imagine Aunt Sponge’s eyes easily, because we know very well what a pig’s eyes look like, and we can imagine the sorry state of her face, because Roald Dahl offers the great simile of it looking like a boiled cabbage. This is an important lesson in creative literature which should be equally applied to sales and marketing copy, and that is, if you are to use general adjectives such as ‘long’, ‘round’, ‘tall’ then the reader is only ever going to have a vague understanding of what you mean. Good similes on the other hand give a precise reference point as well as helping to create a certain mood for the piece.

Good copy must also make careful use of its adjectives to amplify meaning and to draw out the correct emotional response from the reader. Take this example below from another children’s classic, Peter and the Wolf:

“The wolf slunk out from the woods” – original version

“The wolf walked out from the woods” – my version

Now, which is those is the more evocative? The first, of course. ‘Walk’ in this instance is a waste of a word. It conveys movement and nothing more. ‘Slunk’ on the other hand connotes the stealthy prowl of an animal – a threatening animal. Marketing and sales copy must be short, so it’s essential to find the right words to convey the meaning with economy. Choosing the right adjective makes all the difference.

So, to conclude, Roald Dahl and other children’s literature can offer a lot to the copywriter. Writing engaging, oftentimes comical, concise and simple language is in the form of a story is as important to them as it is to the copywriter. Next time you are seeking a bit inspiration for a copy writing project, you could do a lot worse than pluck a book from the children’s bookshelf. You might be surprised what you learn.