One of the things I've been doing at my agency job the past couple of months is something we're calling "Copy Warm Ups", where I get our content team together and we do some fun, creative copywriting exercises designed to get us thinking about a specific topic or skill.
Looking around the web, much of this kind of thing is designed for copywriters much more than content writers. Which is a distinction for a whole different blog post.
There's a lot of exercises based around writing ads, writing radio scripts, writing TV commercials, etc. But much less when it comes to writing long form content.
So here are the best ones I've found that have worked for us (some we've done, some we'll be doing soon). Some of these are for writing short copy. Others are for long form.
I hope you find these helpful if you're looking for warm ups to do with your own team. You can probably modify them to work as individual exercises as well.
And if you know of any great writing exercises along these lines, let me know.
1) Stocking Up
Stretch your creativity by finding connections between unrelated concepts.
Start with the About.com link below. It pairs make-believe brands with seemingly random stock photos, with your task being to write headlines that make it all work. The reasoning: clients sometimes fall in love with odd things; designs, stock photos, etc. Sometimes, though it might not make sense, your job is going to be to figure out a way to create a good ad or social post within these constraints.
Describe the brand aloud (Fresh Floor Carpet Cleaning, for example). Then put the stock photo up on the screen. Give everyone 3-5 minutes to write as many headlines or taglines as they can. Have everyone read their favorites aloud at the end and discuss.
Repeat with the next brand/stock photo combination.
Once you work your way through the examples provided by About, split up your team -- have some of them make up fake brands and others pull random stock photos.
Then go nuts.
How did you go about this differently in the first example vs the last?
What did you zero in on at the very beginning to get your first headline ideas?
How would you communicate to a client that there's just no feasible way to make their preferred photo work?
Credit for this exercise: About.com
2) Headline Hunting
Understand what makes a headline worth clicking.
You can never make too big a deal out of writing a great headline. In this exercise, you're going to blow right past the theory and start exploring the web in search of great ones.
When I did this with my team, we started with a general discussion about headlines. What do you think works? What do you think doesn't work? Why are they so hard to write? What kinds of trends are you seeing in the content and articles that pop up in your Facebook feed?
Then, I sent everyone to Medium's Top 100 list from the previous month (here's November 2014). I had them scan through the list (I picked Medium because it's easy to scan) and jot down their 3 favorite and 3 least favorite headlines; doing their best to ignore subject matter.
We talked about these -- there were lots of similarities between us, but a few major ones we all disagreed one.
To finish, we found an article we all agreed had a poor headline, read it, and spent 5 minutes independently brainstorming better options. We then shared those aloud and discussed.
If you do want to inject a little bit of theory...
3) Half & Half
Understand how to achieve concise writing.
This is an old English 101 exercise, but it's still awesome.
We started by looking at a particularly wordy passage. Here's one you can use to get moving. These are purposefully written to be overly verbose, but they get the job done. If you can find a good example out in the wild, that's even better.
Talk about what exactly is wrong with the writing. We know it's wordy, but why? Is it repeating itself? Using overly complex words? Is there an actual progression of thought in the content or is it just going in circles?
Then, give each team member a piece of writing to work with. I used synopses of famous movies pulled from IMDB. Something around 2 paragraphs is perfect.
Have them cut the word count in half while keeping as much of the meaning and plot as possible. Providing a time limit is a nice addition. Go around the table and read them all aloud. You can pause and discuss here if you want, or just continue.
Now do it again. If you started with a 200 word passage, the first task would be to get it to 100. Now 50. Next, 25.
If you want to add a little competition, see who can get their passage to the lowest word count and still have it make sense!
What kinds of stuff did you cut the first time around? Second? Third?
At what point did you have to stop just cutting words and start making structural changes?
Which step was the hardest?
Which of the four pieces (original, halfed, quartered, eighthed) do you think is the strongest piece of writing?
4) Know Your Audience
Emphasize the importance of goals and audience in writing content.
Find an article online -- bonus points if it's a piece of branded content as opposed to something from a major publication. Read it together and discuss: who is this written for? What point is the author trying to get across to this audience? What is the reader supposed to take away?
Then, give everyone a short written piece to work with. Again, better if it's branded content marketing as opposed to journalism or creative writing, but either will do.
If you need a place to start, here's a branded piece about how to use superglue for cuts. Try to find stuff like this.
Next, define a couple of different audience segments. Say, Children. Teens. Seniors. Get more specific if you want. Med Students. Skiiers and Snowboarders. Get creative.
Have everyone rewrite their piece for one of these specific audiences, then discuss what they changed and why. Repeat with a different audience if you'd like.
How did you approach the rewrite? What did you look for right off the bat?
Did you encounter a scenario where you couldn't make the topic fit for a certain audience? Why or why not?
5) Simile Destruction
Eliminate cliches from your content.
Create a list of tired cliches (usually they take the form of similes). Strong as an ox. Working like a dog. Happy as a clam. You know the type. See the links below for ideas.
Create this list together with your team or prepare it beforehand.
Work your way through the list, taking 30 seconds, a minute, two minutes, whatever, to come up with better and more creative ways of getting the same point across.
Strong as a sip of moonshine. Happier than windshield wipers in a heavy rain.
Or, you know, something better.
6) Content Strategy Bonanza
Train your creative brain and understand the unique goals of different kinds of content.
Pick a company (or product) or make one up. Ideally, pick something fun that will bring a little laughter to the exercise. When my team did this, we used the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer, which is an absolute goldmine.
Talk aloud briefly about whom the audience for this brand or product might be. It doesn’t have to be 100% correct – you’re not actually doing any research for this – it just needs to make sense. For the Banana Slicer, the audience could be moms making lunches for their kids, health nuts, single dads that don’t know how to do anything in the kitchen, or even athletes that need a quick nutrient boost.
Then, take 5 minutes to silently brainstorm as many content ideas as you can for potential customers in the Discovery or Awareness phase. Content that speaks to people who have a problem or question related to the product, but aren’t necessarily in a buying mentality yet. Discuss your ideas aloud. Some of our Discovery ideas for the Banana Slicer:
- Creative Ways to Add Fruit to Every Meal
- 9 Tips for Saving Time in the Kitchen
- How the Banana Became America’s Breakfast Sweetheart
Repeat this process for Consideration phase content (for people that may be interested in the brand or product, but need to know more before buying). We came up with:
- Banana Slicer Case Studies: The ROI of Banana Slicers
- How & When to Give a Banana Slicer as a Gift
- Banana Slicer vs Knife: Speed, Safety & Cost Breakdown
Repeat for Broad Appeal content -- stuff that is related to the brand in theme and message, but extends far beyond just the target audience. This kind of content is designed to be interesting to almost everyone, get shared, attract links, social mentions, and other positive attention. We came up with:
- 8 Times Eating a Banana Saved Someone's Life
- 11 Ways to Optimize Your Kitchen Workspace
- 5 Fruity Facts the FDA Doesn't Want You to Know
Bonus: Repeat this again for Post-Purchase or Retention content... or anything that adds value or solves problems for existing customers.
7) Social Share Showdown
Identify commonalities and core elements of high-performing content.
Create a list of active brand blogs that seem to create both a reasonable quality and quantity of posts. Some good ones to get you started:
There are tons out there to choose from. Seven to ten is perfect for this exercise. Ideally you want to find blogs that do NOT outwardly display how many social shares each post has without clicking through to the post.
Because you're going to guess!
Start on blog #1 and silently peruse the front page. It's up to you if you want to dig deeper into the site, but sticking to the front page keeps things moving along quickly. Browse the headlines, imagery, and subject matter. Then write down the piece of content you think has the most social shares.
Once everyone on the team has their answer, use a tool like Like Explorer to determine the winner.
Rinse and repeat for the rest of the brand blogs you chose.
- Were there any common themes or elements between the top performing pieces of content?
- Was this exercise easier or harder than you thought (ie, how often were you wrong?)? Why do you think that is?
- What were some of the broad content strategies and approaches you saw many brands taking?
Bonus: Keep score along the way by tallying total social shares for each person's chosen content. Then name an ultimate winner at the end!
What are your favorite creative copywriting exercises?
I'd love to hear them. Hit me up in the comments.