AD NAUSEAM: a copywriter's life

Slideshow of my Brookstone work

Posted in Uncategorized by CopyBlogger on the March 26th, 2013

Brookstone PRsheet2

CATALOGS, PR SHEETS, EMAIL, WEB PAGES, SEO COPY … I did a little of everything at Brookstone as a freelancer and staff copywriter. Plus a lot of copy editing and troubleshooting for products that arrived from overseas with nearly incomprehensible text. Here’s a quick slideshow I’ve put together on Flickr, showing some of my work between 2011 and January 2013.

Cutting remarks

Posted in Uncategorized by CopyBlogger on the March 22nd, 2013

I EDIT MY COPY TOO MUCH. There, I’ve said it. It isn’t fashionable for a copywriter to admit, but I must unburden myself at long last.

Let others sweat the big stuff, feverishly seeking bolder and ballsier concepts as they pace around war rooms with a similarly engorged creative partner. Me, I agonize over widows and orphans and line breaks. I sneak my submitted copy off the traffic manager’s desk for another look. After a quarter-century I still try to find short sharp words that can evict longer, more passive ones.

Yet I am still amazed by how much fat can linger in a piece of obsessively edited text.

The other day I saw this echoed by Calvin Trillin, as he blogged about the challenges of working at Time Magazine:

It was largely because of the constant pressure to compress that Time prose struck me as more difficult to write than to parody …. At the end of the week (or “at week’s end,” as we would have put it, in order to save three words), the makeup people would invariably inform us that the story had to be shortened to fit into the section. Since words or passages cut for space were marked with a green pencil—changes that had to be made because of something like factual error were in red—the process was called greening. The instructions were expressed as how many lines had to be greened—“Green seven” or “Green twelve.” I loved greening. I don’t have any interest in word games—I don’t think I’ve ever done a crossword or played Scrabble—but I found greening a thoroughly enjoyable puzzle. I was surprised that what I had thought of as a tightly constructed seventy-line story—a story so tightly constructed that it had resisted the inclusion of that maddening leftover fact—was unharmed, or even improved, by greening ten per cent of it. The greening I did in Time Edit convinced me that just about any piece I write could be improved if, when it was supposedly ready to hand in, I looked in the mirror and said sternly to myself “Green fourteen” or “Green eight.” And one of these days I’m going to begin doing that.

Preach on, brother. It just never seems to be enough.

Over the years I have tried to fight my windbag tendencies with a personal “25 percent rule.” It always seems like I write four sentences or four bullets, when experience and the great speeches of history show that three is a far better number. Hell, three is magic. In rhetoric, it’s called a tricolon. You know — of the people, by the people, for the people. So I often run a quick check of my copy for that fourth thing, sprouting up like crabgrass, then prune it away with a certain reluctance.

Sometimes the victory is pyrrhic. I look at the copy and lament the loss of flow, of spontaneity, of the sloppy creative abandon that is endearing in a lot of work these days. But there are always trade-offs … and they are unrelenting. Writing is like that.

Small wonder that Hemingway once took a long look at a blank page and gave it a warrior’s tribute. He called it The White Bull — paper that has no words on it. As for paper with too many words? I guess I’d call it The Black Hydra. You can never cut ‘em away very easily.

Tales from the copy crypt – vol. 3

Posted in Uncategorized by CopyBlogger on the March 14th, 2013



I HAVEN’T DONE MUCH SPEECHWRITING, but here’s a rare departure from the written word, scripted at OGBE Communications (Manchester, NH) for Citizens Bank CEO Bob Gormley.

I had already written one speech on corporate leadership for Gormley, and this time he was scheduled to speak at Daniel Webster College. The brief was to expand the first speech to 20 minutes, with more emphasis on community values. I received a couple of newspaper articles about Gormley for biography and background, and the rest was digging up quotes and thoughts from my handy quotation almanac.

Bob was an easy guy to write for, and it proved to be a lot of fun. There are so many wonderful rhetorical devices available in speech, and you don’t need an art director to get them across. Here’s how it went:

Good evening! Earlier tonight, I had the great privilege of speaking to a class of students here at Daniel Webster College. It was a little daunting to find myself back in the classroom again after all these years, but it was also a real pleasure to exchange ideas with students of such a high caliber.

So before I begin in earnest, let me congratulate all of you here in Nashua. You support a truly first-class institution, and you have much to be proud of. I’d also like to thank President Hannah McCarthy and Dr. Doris Jafferian, two terrific individuals who were kind enough to invite me here. I only hope your students learned as much from my answers as I did from their questions!

What I want to do now is expand on the subject we covered in the classroom … leadership. Specifically, community leadership: what it means, why it’s so important, and how we can all be leaders where it counts most … in the places where we live and work.

Where do we start? Well, there is no shortage of great quotations about leadership­­ — often from famous generals, legendary statesmen, big-name CEOs. And I intend to share some of their thoughts with you tonight. But first I want to do something a little different … and quote a grocery store manager.

A grocery store manager, by the way, who happened to be my father.

You see, my dad worked with people all his life. Long before there were consultants and management gurus, he said something that I have never forgotten:

“It is the customers,” he said, “who turn on the lights.”

That line always stayed with me. And it has served me well in my profession. Because, in the life of a bank, everyone is a customer. Every single one of us has economic needs. Financial challenges. Dreams and futures that depend on taking care of our money. Whether it is a young couple proudly opening an account for their newborn child, or a senior pondering investments for retirement, bankers are privileged to a wider view of their customers’ lives than all but a handful of professions.

So the people who turn on the lights in my bank are the very same people who turn on the lights in my community. In a word, everybody. At Citizens Bank, our success is only possible if we help individuals and businesses alike do well financially. That means reaching beyond the walls of the bank, into the community.

And what are the interests of that community? It must be vibrant. It must grow. It must have good schools and low crime. The community needs widespread citizen involvement. As the great French political observer Alexis de Tocqueville once said in his study of America, the health of a community can be measured by the public functions performed by private citizens.

You can argue, then, that a community leader is simply a private citizen working in the public interest. I would not argue very much with that definition. But I believe it has to be broadened a bit, by asking, “What is leadership?” And what is a leader?

Those are big questions, much in vogue among students of business and politics. Everywhere we turn, there are books on leadership … books by CEOs, consultants, ex military commandos, even a very successful book on the leadership secrets of Attila the Hun!

Go to a Barnes & Noble, and you’ll find that books on leadership not only fill shelves; they fill entire sections. Whole industries have grown up around leadership books and training.

If you’re interested, by the way, two books that offer a good starting point are Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders by Garry Wills, and Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership by Howard Gardner. Both books feature a series of portraits on famous leaders and the traits that made them effective.

Wills is a Pulitzer Prize winning historian who is interested not only by well known leaders like Napoleon, Churchill and Lincoln, but offbeat choices such as movie director John Ford and tightrope walker Karl Wallenda.

Gardner, in contrast, is a Harvard psychologist who uses his study in the workings of the mind to identify how leaders actually think and communicate. To him, leadership is a creative, even artistic act. It is either direct or indirect. Direct leaders are traditional, influencing by who they are­­ — their drives, ethics, goals. Indirect leaders influence by what they do; solitary figures like Einstein or Newton.

Back to the subject at hand, what makes a good leader? I think the following characteristics hold true­­ — not just for individuals leading businesses, but for businesses that hope to lead within their communities. A little later we will have a questions and answers session, so if you care to discuss these characteristics in greater detail, I’ll be happy to do so.

First, I believe effective leaders lead by example. They roll up their sleeves and get the job done. As Albert Einstein once said, “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others; it is the only means.” It also helps establish a sense among your people that “we’re all in it together.”

Second, I believe leadership is based on a consistent set of actions. Because leadership is a process of definition: defining values, norms, priorities within an organization or community. So when we talk about “company culture,” it’s not artwork hanging in the hallways or fancy coffee blends in the cafeteria; it’s a way of taking an abstract notion such as ethics or employee empowerment and making it a concrete, believable reality — ­­not just a topic of conversation.

We live and work with those core values, and they always remain intact. Even in times of change, or when times are tough.

But even when times are tough, a true leader, in my opinion, does not rely on intimidation. As General Dwight Eisenhower once said, “You do not lead by hitting people over the head­­ — that’s assault, not leadership.”

Here’s another Eisenhower story: one day, the General placed a piece of string on a table. He began pulling it across a table, going in every direction. Then he looked at his audience with that famous smile and said, “Try and push it, though, and it won’t go anywhere. It’s just that way when it comes to leading people.”

That brings me to my third point: a true leader helps people believe. Whether it is belief in a cause, belief in a common purpose, belief in the good of a company.

In the same way, a community leader gives people faith in that community. Because, as Napoleon once said, ” A leader is a dealer in hope.”

Fourth, leaders help create more leaders. The growth and development of people, as Harvey Firestone said, is the highest calling of leadership.

That is why, for example, I empower my managers by delegating. Where others “micro manage,” I prefer to macro manage­ — focusing on the big picture, only stepping in when one of my people really needs my help.

For me, these are the attributes that guide my own work. Not only within Citizens Bank, but within a larger picture­­ … as part of the community. And perhaps the best way to illustrate what community leadership really means is to tell you a little story.

So I’d like to take you back in time … three short years ago.

The year was 1996. It was January, just as it is now. But the time was a very different one.

You remember it, I’m sure: New Hampshire was coming off the worst banking decline since The Great Depression. Money was tight; the lack of it was choking many of the small businesses in our communities. Even as more banks merged and consolidated, and issued proud announcements of record profits, our industry was widely criticized. People saw us as being slow to support small business development and growth when it was needed most.

I had just arrived in New Hampshire, the new president and CEO of Citizens Bank. As our team came together and looked at the community around us, it was clear that someone had to take the first step­­ — to think less about institutional risk, and more about community reward.

In retrospect, the decisions we made now seem deceptively simple. Our lending process? Streamline it. Our red tape and lengthy loan reviews? Eliminate them. Small businesses starving for capital? Reach out to them.

These decisions, however, were not so simple to carry out. Untold hours of work and study went into them. Yet we discovered a great source of strength: our 1200 employees and the community shared a common sense­­ — that this was necessary, that it was a goal worth pursuing.

So we brought together virtually every segment of our community: small businesses, individuals with low or moderate incomes, first-time home buyers, municipalities across New Hampshire. Where there had been no leaders, there were now many leaders … all working together.

To paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, our community couldn’t be a good place for any of us to live in, until we made it a good place for all of us to live in.

The result? A resurgence that has helped make New Hampshire communities some of the country’s most highly ranked areas for quality of life and commerce.

Today, Citizens Bank is not only the state’s #1 lender to small businesses, but the region’s #1 small-business lender. Individual citizens come to us each month for loans totalling 55-60 million dollars. We provide financial services to more than 60 percent of New Hampshire’s town and city governments. And to more than half of all school districts.

These are the statistics we’re proudest of. Other banks can publicize how large they’ve grown … how many hundreds or thousands of their branches dot the country, how cutting-edge their technology is. But at Citizens Bank? The difference we make walks through school doors. It protects and preserves city streets. It lives in thriving neighborhoods. It provides vital local jobs and services.

This same belief in our community guides us today. Our definition of success is based on the concept of a community banker­­ — one who understands the unique needs around him or her. One who leads by helping others lead, who succeeds by helping everyone else succeed.

Emerson once said, “Make yourself necessary to someone.” At Citizens Bank, we try to make ourselves necessary to everyone.

You might ask, how does the bank measure its contributions to the community? Is it more customers? More favorable stories in the newspaper? Or something less tangible, what we might call “goodwill”?

Citizens’ approach is far more substantial than that. Our goal is to get involved with our schools and community groups … providing assistance and support in the towns and cities where we do business. And in the process, we have been fortunate enough to employ a great many people who volunteer their time, money, and hearts to the idea of making a difference.

You can now see this same trend in many businesses. Corporations are being asked to carry out social responsibilities, through charitable contributions and employee involvement.

And guess what? That expectation comes not just from the community, but also from employees.

    • For instance, many of our 1200 employees freely volunteer their own time — ­­raising over $75,000 this past year for communities statewide. At the risk of blowing our own horn, let me offer a few more examples:
    • Our employees hold hundreds of offices and positions with civic, cultural and charitable groups statewide … including 38 chamber memberships;
    • We’ve committed tens of thousands of dollars to revitalizing main streets in Berlin, Milford, Derry and Plymouth;
    • You’ll find us in 8 housing programs statewide­­ — providing education, underwriting low-income mortgages, even swinging a hammer as volunteers in Habitat for Humanity;
    • Our $5 million loan fund for women-owned businesses was the first in the state;
    • And our volunteers raise money, support underprivileged kids, help out in soup kitchens … for the likes of the Salvation Army, New Horizons, and French Hill Neighborhood Housing Services.

To me, the sheer energy of our people is their biggest contribution. I have seen it at work in our bank, and in our community. Theirs is the kind of leadership that really makes New Hampshire a better place to live.

So as you can see, Citizens Bank takes a leadership role in the community for two reasons: because we want to do our part as good corporate citizens … and because it simply makes good business sense. A stronger economy means greater prosperity for everyone, whether you own and operate a local sandwich shop or run a statewide company.

And what of the future, here in New Hampshire?

I believe it is a bright future. Economic development and community growth are really just symptoms of underlying leadership, vision and teamwork. Those qualities exist here in abundance.

Our state has proven that it can support business and help our communities prosper, while retaining the special qualities that make us the Granite State.

That is why Citizens Bank is committed to helping make New Hampshire a good place to live, work, and raise a family. For many generations to come.

Community leadership, then, is about making connections. Connections with a family that needs financial and emotional support. Connections with the individual struggling to get his life back on track. Connections with the people who are like us and not like us, throughout the community. Because we have a harder job to do than just choosing sides; we must bring sides together.

That, to me, is community leadership. It is a recognition, to borrow from John Le Carre, that the corner office is a dangerous place from which to view the world. Instead we must reach out … and recognize, as my father did, that the customers who turn the lights on in our businesses are the very same people who keep the lights from going out in our community.

Thank you very much.

TALES FROM THE COPY CRYPT is a look back at lesser-known projects from Dave Conley’s 25-year career as copywriter, editor and marketing strategist. To see other samples, visit