Why ‘what don’t you want?’ is the most important question

I was chatting to a nice chap at a networking do the other night, explaining that part of my work is copywriting for a wide range of clients - from designers and recruiters to churches and charities. He asked me how I know what to write for each client.

And without a second's thought I said, 'I ask them what they want.'

Seems obvious perhaps. But what is less obvious, but maybe even more important, is spending time finding out what your client doesn't want.

Ask a person what they like and they'll shrug their shoulders and say, 'er, well, y'know, anything really.'

But ask them what they don't like and it all comes tumbling out:

'oh, I hate shouty salesy stuff'...
'I can't bear trendy slogans'...
'I don't like having to scroll down and down to find the information I need'...
'it makes me laugh when companies say 'we' like they're a global corporation when we all know it's just one bloke working from home'...
'I just loathe the word bespoke/ deliver/ concept/ enhance/ leverage' [delete as required]...

Listening to the client's dislikes can tell you so much about the tone they're after, giving you both something concrete to go on. If they knew exactly what wanted they would just write it themselves and you'd be out of a job!

These three questions act as a useful springboard for writing the right copy for your client.

What do you think of your competitors' sites?
They certainly won't hold back in telling you what their rivals are doing wrong. Equally, if they think their competitors have a great presence on the web it gives you an indication of the client's aspirations and what you can do that's similar...but better.

What do people get wrong about your business?
Maybe they're tired of phonecalls about opening hours, maybe customers don't realise their product is a luxury item rather than low-budget or perhaps people are always getting lost trying to find their offices. This gives you some clear ideas about what content you should be including and where.

What are your pet hates on the web?
Even comments about design can give you a hint as to the copy. So if someone doesn't like lengthy Flash intros it's likely they don't want highly conceptual slogans. Comments about too much clutter suggest that they like the copy to be kept simple. And if someone finds navigation is never intuitive enough then suggest clearly-written index pages to help their own customers find their way round the site.