Alfred Hitchcock's Secret to Copywriting Success


Will Newman

Okay, I admit it. I'm an old-timer. As such, I reserve the right to complain about the younger generation.

If you know me very well, you know I don't complain about youngsters often. I think today’s youth are remarkable and deal with many challenges I didn’t have. That's why I love working with them.

However, it astounds me that when I ask sixth, seventh, and eighth graders about Laurel and Hardy, they stare at me blankly. Same when I talk about Abbott and Costello. And if it weren't for a recent, very bad movie, they wouldn't know who The Three Stooges were.

So I was surprised recently when I was volunteering in my elementary school's seventh and eighth grade Language Arts class.

As part of their new curriculum, the students are learning at much greater depth in all subject areas than they had just a couple of years ago.

So rather than just reading an essay and answering multiple-choice questions, these students dig deeply into what they're reading.

Analyze it. Answer questions about it. Write about it.

What were they writing about? An essay from Alfred Hitchcock dating back to 1948, published in The Hollywood Reporter.

The essay, entitled "Let 'Em Play God,” described Hitchcock's philosophy on creating suspense in writing.

What surprised me about the students and this essay was that every single kid in this class knew about Alfred Hitchcock and knew many of his movies.

There's a great deal in Hitchcock's essay of interest to all writers, even us copywriters. (I recommend you read it. I'll give you a link to the essay at the end of this article.)

Hitchcock’s lesson for middle school students …
 … and successful copywriters

There was one very important secret to copywriting success for us in Hitchcock's essay. It’s a subtle lesson the students learned in one of the questions that followed their third or fourth in-depth reading of the essay.

Paraphrasing here: “Did Alfred Hitchcock use general language or technical language in this essay? And why?”

Interesting question for 12 to 14-year-olds to have to answer.

The classroom teacher had me correct the students’ responses and then talk to them individually about their answers. Most students came close to the answer to this question. One 12-year-old got it right on the nose.

The answer?

Hitchcock didn’t use technical language in the article. He used language anybody could understand.

And why? This was harder for the students to answer. But, as a copywriter learning AWAI copywriting strategies, you probably have a good sense of the answer.

Hitchcock wrote so his readers could understand easily. Even though other directors would read the article, Hitchcock intended it for the general public. If he’d used jargon like POV, establishing shot, extreme close-up, or the like, he would have made it hard for his general readers to understand.

But he kept all that jargon out of the article. He ensured the largest readership possible by keeping his words simple.

When we write any type of copy, it's tempting to throw in jargon and technical words to impress our readers that we know what we’re talking about.

And sometimes we need to use some of that jargon. But …

 … Too much jargon deadens your reader's interest.

So, learn a secret to copywriting success from Alfred Hitchcock. Keep your writing direct. And keep your language appropriate for your readers.

Here’s the link to Mr. Hitchcock’s article, "Let 'Em Play God." But before you leave, tell me what you're thinking about this article today. Comment below and let us all know.

I hope to see you back tomorrow when we’re going to be discussing two crucial strategies for following Hitchcock's example.

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Published: September 19, 2016

27 Responses to “Alfred Hitchcock's Secret to Copywriting Success”

  1. My comment boils down to the sentence saying "too much jargon deadens interest."For me too much jargon is like having someone hand you a book or article written in a foreign language I have never heard of. I will put it down and never look at it again.

    Chris KaberSeptember 19, 2016 at 1:32 pm

  2. Great point, Will. I have recently titled that exact issue "The Porcine Principle". Why that name?

    My dad recently passed away. I wrote a eulogy for my brother to read at the funeral. My father had a heart valve. One recollection my brother would read talked of his decision to use a mechanical valve instead of one from swine tissue, routinely called a pig valve.

    My brother changed 'pig' to 'porcine' in his reading. Listeners knew Dad had declined the pig valve. What was a 'porcine valve'? They were not expecting to translate during a eulogy!

    Simple question: If no one understands, is it still communication?

    Thanks for your excellent posts, Will, looking forward to seeing you at boot camp! Mark

    Mark MehlingSeptember 19, 2016 at 1:45 pm

  3. Will, "Old-fashioned" is probably why you are a superb writer! Heck, I talk to young folks recently who have no idea who Jackie Gleason is, let alone Bob and Bing...
    FORSOOTH! (a little Shakespearean humor there), I have to get someone to help me understand the SIMPLIFIED instructions of how to navigate a website. Get this: my son is tired of Facebook and Twitter, and I am struggling to learn about them...Ho hum--now (at my age) I finally know how a steam engine mechanic must feel...
    Keep up the good work.

    Ron

    HARRISONSeptember 19, 2016 at 2:48 pm

  4. For any communication to be successful there must be a mutual understanding between the two parties. If the person reading (or listening) does not posses the same basic language, jargon, and concepts of the writer, then there is a gap in the understanding, and the communication has failed.

    Jerrie KalendaSeptember 19, 2016 at 2:50 pm

  5. Although I had wonderful teachers, after reading Mr. Newman's article I thought how great it would have been to have him read my responses and be able to hear his discussion on the topics.crave

    Guest (Great Article)September 19, 2016 at 2:57 pm

  6. About Hitchcock telling writers to write simply.

    I never hear you speak about Rudolph Flesch (sp?) who is my personal guru. He wrote a book called, " The Art of Readable Writing.) Seems to me it was written the 30's or maybe earlier. (Looking back over the above I've forgotten his comments about punctuation.)

    This is my short comment on your latest. I'm on total agreement and would ask for your thoughts on his thesis that you should " write like you talk.

    [FROM WILL: Flesch is one of the "inventors" of a readability tool I use every time I write: The Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test. The FK is essential for good writing that communicates. However, far more people recognize Hitchcock's name, so I used his name to attract attention. Thanks for the comment.]

    Guest (James Huebner)September 19, 2016 at 3:35 pm

  7. Thank you for your explanation of Mr. Hitchcock's writings. It makes good, common, sense.

    Guest (PBrown)September 19, 2016 at 5:19 pm

  8. Thank you, Will.

    I've been teaching High Schoolers and community groups the U S Constitution for 25 years and I'm delighted your kids knew Hitchcock. They so rarely know anything prior to last week.

    It may well be that the REASON they knew Hitchcock is that he did avoid technical jargon. Any technical subject (like Constitution) needs to be taught in everyday language.

    Knowledge is for everyone, not just the elite few.

    John Chambers OregonSeptember 19, 2016 at 5:27 pm

  9. Mr. Newman your article was clear, clean and simple about a person who I avidly watched when I was younger. Alfred Hitchcock. He had a twist to his stories that made you think who the villain was. Audience engagement. He was one of the best actors and producer of all times. His excellent example in writing scripts easy to understand makes reading enjoyable. I loved that gentleman. Thank You.

    Guest (Eleanor Lynar Self Publisher)September 19, 2016 at 5:28 pm

  10. Oh, please do excuse me. Near the end of his article is this gem I have heard over and over:

    "style, no matter what art it is concerned with, cannot be superimposed consciously on any work. It must be the result of growth and patient experimentation with the materials of the trade, the style itself emerging eventually almost unconsciously."

    Whereas it IS possible to write in the style of bad Hemingway, or good Flaubert (I've done them both), one's own style is exactly as above.

    John Chambers OregonSeptember 19, 2016 at 5:39 pm

  11. Hello Mr. Newman, I truly enjoy your writing and thoughts you share through these articles/emails. Thank you for sharing this essay by Alfred Hitchcock. It is very insightfull and the next to last paragraph a great way to sum it up. It reminded me of something a guitar was said, give Ace Frehley and Eddie Van Halen the same piece of music, have them play it the same way and you will know whichow is which. Style is a personal thing that shows when doing something truly enjoyed. Thank you again.

    Guest (James)September 19, 2016 at 6:00 pm

  12. Apparently Hitchcock does not want you to reference his article as the site has been readdressed.

    [FROM WILL: I checked the link in the article. It is still active. Please try again.]

    Guest (Sunny in California)September 19, 2016 at 6:46 pm

  13. Thoroughly enjoyed your article on Hitchcock's article. My father was an English professor at a Christian University for many years. He was a minister also. Words were important in our household. His favorite line to me and my siblings when doing a paper or writing for fun, was "keep it simple and clear enough so a child can understand." I call it, keeping a person's interest.

    Guest (P Torres)September 19, 2016 at 7:04 pm

  14. I like articles which proffer a challenge or in this case a question. This question regarding Hitch' was interesting. I got it correct (Although with movies you can use common dialogue to describe the technological imagery then give it a jargon-ish name for a combined effect.)

    Not enough room for my pithy additions, but suffice it to say for some of us turning a phrase comes easy. It's the discipline to power through the hard part of completing the work that brings the pain. Or am I alone?

    Guest (JOEL WS)September 19, 2016 at 9:01 pm

  15. This paragraph on niches is great for any artist or copywriter.
    "Within its framework I can tell any story under the sun but on the screen it will have a definitely recognizable style. I suppose it should be remarked in passing that style, no matter what art it is concerned with, cannot be superimposed consciously on any work. It must be the result of growth and patient experimentation with the materials of the trade, the style itself emerging eventually almost unconsciously."

    Guest (Tony B)September 19, 2016 at 10:05 pm

  16. Really enjoyed your article, but "Let 'Em Play God" really is insightful. I am posting one particular paragraph on niches. However, I encourage everyone to read the entire Hitchcock article.

    Guest (Tony B)September 19, 2016 at 10:11 pm

  17. Hitchcock's essay effectively communicates that the essence, voice and style of each and every individual creator evolves over the course of time. Technique, voice and delivery are tweaked and revised through experiential growth and the evolution of the creator. Patterns develop and audiences discern and interpret meaning and impressions naturally without the need for blatant or direct explanations.

    TerriRLockeSeptember 19, 2016 at 10:53 pm

  18. Can someone recommend where to start with all the programs I've purchased over the last few months. I love the promises of a better life from the daily grind but things always seem to snap back to normal once I'm done buying something. That would be, "Now what"?

    [FROM WILL: Start with the Accelerated Program. Once you have learned the foundation of strong copywriting, decide the one niche that interests you most then study those programs related to that niche. I hope this helps.]

    rico72September 19, 2016 at 11:02 pm

  19. I found this article very interesting and so true. Some things just stay the same through generations. I was intrigued enough that I went to the link to read the original article. Thanks, for making us think inside as well as outside the proverbial box.

    JMEConsultSeptember 20, 2016 at 12:07 am

  20. Great tips. Thank you. This is how I like to write. Keep it simple has been a good rule for me as I worked in a technical field. I'm starting out in freelance and a bit nervous how to present myself.

    Guest (Ellen A Tintner)September 20, 2016 at 7:43 am

  21. Surprise! Mr. Hitchcock wrote copy! Wow, I never imagined. Smart move to choose this cool guy and include him in something as snoozy as copy writing. Thank you.

    sdailSeptember 20, 2016 at 10:18 am

  22. Will, Another down to earth article, thank you for posting. I enjoy your articles because they contain practical stories that the reader can understand.
    Thus, one is able to learn and remember your advice when facing the blank computer screen.
    Thank you,

    Richard SmithSeptember 20, 2016 at 12:16 pm

  23. I suppose all of us struggle with challenges that not only tempt, but dare us to quit. Sometimes I am tempted to worry about what others might think if I ask a question that reveals some lack. But thankfully I've inherited enough ornriness from my forbears that I just don't give two hoots in wherever what anyone thinks, if I need to ask a question of Will, or anyone at AWAI. I admire the one who asked about needing to start over again and again. And thanks for your answer. Will.

    [FROM WILL: I remind COS members in Targeted Learning Program sessions that if one member has a question, then 5 other members probably have it as well.]

    HARRISONSeptember 20, 2016 at 1:17 pm

  24. As a college graduate of Literature classes I find this very informative. Thank you. I appreciate Hitchcock and Christie. I also think that Spillane used short active sentences to his advantage.

    [FROM WILL: If you want to read a master of short sentences, read Cormack McCarthy, particularly *The Road.*]

    Guest (Patricia)September 21, 2016 at 8:40 pm

  25. I'm great and amazing you will see my creativity

    Guest (John)September 21, 2016 at 9:22 pm

  26. Hello Will

    Excellent article - Being what you might term a Hitchcock buff, this was right up my alley. Interesting your revelation of the young being engrossed in his films, although of course, unlike the other icons you mentioned, he has never gone out of fashion, has he?

    Have to confess I use POV quite a bit, so thanks for pointing out this fault. I haven't read Hitch's article yet (and thanks for that) but will do so later today.

    All the best

    Dave

    ps Wish I could grow a muff like yours.

    Guest (Dave Sweet)September 22, 2016 at 4:17 am

  27. I enjoyed the article for several reasons. For one, it is short, yet covers a lot of aspects of writing and film suspense. Second, words are simple and pleasantly flowing for the reader. The presentation expresses knowledge, self confidence and an internal grandfatherly smile. To paraphrase the last sentence: "[Do not superimpose] consciously on any work. It must be the result of growth and patient experimentation with the materials of the trade, the style itself emerging eventually almost unconsciously".

    [FROM WILL: Thank you for the kind words. Shanti. Periodically I will get readers who ask why I didn't include this, that, or the other bit of information. You hit on my reason perfectly. These articles are meant to be between 500 and 700 words. Take care.]

    ShantiOctober 1, 2016 at 3:54 pm


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