Before I started at Ample, I worked as an assistant English teacher in rural Japan. Every day was a challenge. Although I’d taken a year of Japanese as preparation for the move, I was in over my head. I had expected levels of English comparable to what I’d experienced after traveling in Southeast Asia, where the economy relies on tourism and English seems to be rampant.
In Japan, however, I was not in a tourism hot spot. I got randomly placed in Fukui — notorious for being the number one least-visited prefecture in the country. Without a tangible need for English, I had more trouble communicating than I imagined I would. That, combined with a lack of real teaching experience, made for 15 months of… learning experiences.
When I ultimately moved back to Cincinnati and applied for copywriting jobs at advertising and web development agencies, it seemed I was doing a 180. But it wasn’t until I really began digging deep into my work that I realized just how much I’d actually learned about copywriting while navigating through rural Japan. Here are three things that, as a result of my time in Japan, I regularly think about when copywriting today:
On a typical work day, a Japanese-English teacher would come to me with a grammar point in the junior high textbook and say something like, “Here’s the unit we’re on. Will you come to class in an hour with a fun activity?” and that was about all the direction that I’d get.
On a time crunch, I had to fill in the blanks on my own and think creatively. It was clear when students were tired of me coming to class with grammar-point-bingo. On my slower days, I’d brainstorm activity ideas so I had a mini database of ideas I could turn to in a pinch. This included everything from fill-in comics to personality quizzes to illustrating original stories.
In a copywriter’s ideal scenario, we get a plethora of information from the client. We comb through the detailed info and pin down a few key points. In a not ideal (but more common) situation, background info is sparse. It’s hard to write the benefits of a product when you don’t know the key selling proposition. But at the end of the day, that’s a copywriter’s job — to be the creative mind brainstorming ways to fill in those blanks and help them stand out from the pack.
Further, it’s always helpful for copywriters to have their own personal toolkit of information, ideas and tactics to turn to. That’s why I make my own word banks for the industries we work with, and I turn to them when they need a new name or catch phrase. Whenever possible, I try to stay a couple steps ahead of our clients. Will they ask about SEO when we pitch a content strategy? How can I be better prepared to take on a request for keyword-centric content? That’s why I set aside time to attend webinars about Google Search Console and LinkedIn, work my way through the Moz Keyword Explorer, or read a chapter in a book about copywriting.
My first day as a teacher, I perfected my self-introduction presentation, spending a good 15 minutes showing pictures of every country I had traveled to and talking about what I’d studied in college. After a minute or two, eyes glazed over, chatters filled the room, and I was met with blank stares. Yikes.
When students had a chance to huddle up and ask me questions, they’d usually ask me things they were interested in. What was my favorite Japanese character? Did I like KPOP? What kind of club activity did I do when I was in junior high?
Once I could anticipate what my students were actually interested in, I was able to craft my powerpoints with them in mind. A few months in, when working on one grammar point (Do you like ___ or ____?), I thought sure the kids would have fun debating pizza vs. burgers. Instead, they looked unamused. But when I switched the question to Do you like ramen or sushi? The class exploded with a friendly debate. The more I learned from my audience, the more I was able to turn my lessons into a part of their day they actually looked forward to.
When writing copy, always remember that the copy you respond well to, or the copy you think will work for a client, isn’t always going to produce the best outcome. Great copy is a result of a carefully crafted content strategy backed up by research about your customer. And your client is as much your customer as the actual customer you want to reach. The better you know and understand what a company’s marketing director envisions, the easier it is to help them craft the right message for their audience.
The more wordy I was when communicating with people who spoke English as a second or third language, the more difficult it was for them to discern what I was saying. Perhaps the most important aspect of my job was minimizing my extra words to make it short and simple for children learning English as a second language.
This was helpful outside the classroom, too (particularly with the elderly lady I ran into on our bikes at 7/11 every morning). When it was clear that neither of us had a strong grasp on the other’s native language, we’d use our limited vocabulary from the other’s language. I noticed, and appreciated, when they’d oversimplify their Japanese and use gestures to help me better understand. When we communicated in English, I did the same for them when appropriate.
For example, instead of using colloquialisms like “I had a blast this weekend! What were you up to?” I’d instead say something like “I had a very good weekend. How was your weekend?” In these instances, it was absolutely crucial that we keep our exchanges brief and to the point. I had to think: what is the most important thing I am trying to say? Can I cut out any extra words that don’t help get my point across?
The web is a whole other monster. Our brains like shortcuts.
Although my post-grad experience wasn’t exactly a clear path to copywriting, I gained countless copywriting tactics from my time abroad. So the main takeaway… if you want great copy for your website, I guess you’ll just have to move to Japan for a year. It’s the only way.
However, due to recent travel restrictions, you should instead keep an eye out for more of our copywriting tips on our blog. Or, hire a copywriting team that’ll do the work for you. At Ample, we have content marketing packages that can be customized to fit your needs. Contact us to chat today.