The Roald Dahl guide to persuasive copywriting

I have just started reading Roald Dahl’s books. I don’t mean for the first time. But my daughter is upgrading her reading preferences from That’s Not My Duck to stories like The Giraffe and The Pelly and Me. Hurrah!

I bought the entire Roald Dahl collection before she was born, and I’m excited that she’s (almost) old enough for us to enjoy them together.

But, I have a confession.

A lot of the stories are new to me.

I mean, I’ve read many of them. The BFG, The Twits, James and the Giant Peach and The Witches for example. But, there are a bunch of Roald Dahl books that I’ve never even heard of. Esio Trot*? It means that when I’m reading the stories aloud, it’s the first time my eyes have traversed those words.

And you know what? Reading these books is so damned easy. I never stumble. I’m not stuttering or taking a moment to read ahead. The words jump off the page and out of my mouth.

That’s brilliant writing if you ask me, and exactly what we should be striving for in our business copywriting. So, this is the Roald Dahl Guide to persuasive copywriting.

He writes for his audience

His children’s books are for… children. Surprise! More often than not, kids are the main characters, the smart ones and the heroes. Grown-ups are often the villains or just plain stupid. His stories aren’t patronising or preachy. He speaks the language of his readers, in all its silly, wonderful glory.

Copywriting rule

Speak to your target customers in the language they use. If your audience uses specific jargon, use it too! If they don’t, then don’t. If you’re not sure how they talk, pay attention to the words they use on social media and in online forums. Note the language they use to express their pain and their joys.

It’s important that the copywriting tone of voice connects the brand voice and the customers’ voice. And be sure it’s consistent.

He uses simple language

One of the biggest misconceptions about simple language is that it’s dumb. I’m not talking about dumbing down. Even though Dahl’s books are for children, he treats his readers with respect. He just doesn’t use overly complex language because he doesn’t need to!

Copywriting rule

Simple does not mean dumb. It means straight-forward and easy to follow. Ten-dollar words do not make your copy sound more ‘professional’. Unnecessarily complicated language alienates readers. No one likes to admit that they don’t really understand a word or sentence. They just quietly click away, never to return.

The big challenge you have as a copywriter is convincing clients to leave that kind of language out of the copy you’re writing. How? Simply explain that your goal is to make the copy as easy to read and understandable as possible. No more, and no less. When you do that, the words flow into the customer’s brain without a second thought.

His tone is very conversational

Dahl’s stories are written to be read aloud. Even when you’re reading them to yourself, you can hear a story being read to you.

A conversational tone of voice uses short sentences, contractions, exclamations and real language. It’s easy to read and understand, and it strikes a more intimate chord because it feels like a real person is talking.

Copywriting rule

A conversational tone of voice isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to copywriting. There is a lot of range, just like our own styles of talking. At one end of the spectrum, you have hyper-conversational and chatty. At the other end, you have a slightly more formal and deliberate tone.

The key to nailing it is imagining the right person talking.

He doesn’t shy away from bad stuff

One of the things I had forgotten about Dahl’s stories is that horrible things sometimes happen in them. Parents die and kids are sent to live with scary relatives. People are not who they appear to be, and uncertainty is common. But without these things, great endings aren’t possible.

Copywriting rule

One of the many reasons the Pain-Agitate-Solve (PAS) copywriting formula is so effective is that we pay more attention to negatives than positives. The more vividly you can paint the pain, the more you demonstrate that you understand. As people read your description, they feel like you’re tapping into the conversation going on in their head. And that’s a fast track to trusting you.

He empowers his readers

In Dahl’s stories, the kids are usually the heroes. They figure out what’s really going on and save the day with their smarts and their hearts. And, we root for them! When children read those stories, they believe they too have the power to save the day.

I know that because that’s how I felt when I read these stories as a child.

Copywriting rule

Whether you’re writing for a financial advisor, a software provider or an events company, try to empower the audience to feel in control of the decision they’re making. Let your copywriting be a helpful guide along their journey to meeting their challenge.

Here we are at the end. I’d love to know your thoughts. And your favourite Roald Dahl story. I’m reserving judgement on my favourite until my daughter and I have worked our way through them all again.

Belinda

*An awesome story about a pet tortoise. And love.

26 Responses

  1. Hi Belinda,
    You’re absolutely right, Roald Dahl really knew his audience.
    I love them when I was a kid, they were so different from regular children’s books. He wrote about what we thought and felt, he was a grown-up on our wavelength (what kid wouldn’t want to win a chocolate factory? Or blow-up their mean granny?)
    I’ve recently been reading his books with my daughters, too. Fantastic Mr Fox and George’s Marvellous Medicine are my faves.
    Hope you enjoy re-reading the rest of them!

  2. Hi Belinda,

    I can’t remember the last time I read a Roald Dahl book but your superb analysis of his style certainly conjures up a number of his stories in my mind. And what a great way to remind copywriters of some fundamental rules to apply when trying to write a persuasive message that connects with your reader.

    It also want me to dig out one of his books to read!!

    Paul

    1. I was the same Paul. It had been years and I love the chance to read them again. Especially as I’m getting to discover new stories for the first time!

      Thanks for stopping and leaving your thoughts.

  3. Great idea for a post. I too enjoyed discovering some of Dahl’s lesser known works when reading them with my two boys a few years back. The two that stand out for me in terms of good conquering evil are Mathilda and The Witches.

  4. Great post – such an imaginative way to look at copywriting. I suppose that was also the beauty of Roald Dhal for me – his inventiveness. A handy reminder to all of us that you need to be able to imagine the audience’s world in order to understand their problems and needs. Monitoring relevant social media conversations can provide valuable insights into the way people speak and the worlds they inhabit, but Roald Dahl teaches us that a copywriter will always need to apply a big, juicy dollop of imagination, too!

  5. Awesome! Reflecting how Roald DAhl wrote his books to copywriting. This is a nice article. Using the simple language is really not dumb, it is what you called being humble, I mean Who on earth would use mandarin when having a conversation with an Italian. I actually didn’t read the books but because of this I will read it to my kids.

  6. We are also reading Roald Dahl (just purchased the series) ! They are absolutely phenomenal-the characters leap off the pages and into our minds. What I love the most is that somehow his magic transverses across gender and ages. It’s storytelling at its absolute best. I do have a soft spot for Matilda but honestly, it was hard to pick just one favourite.

  7. Hey Belinda,
    I agree with what you say about simplifying your copy so that it is simple to read.
    I like to use casual copy when I am writing blog posts or comments (like this) and one strategy that really works well for me (and apparently world-class copywriters) is just talking out loud and using the exact words to help make your writing clear.

  8. A great post, Belinda. You do know how to write and I am learning so much from you. Never heard of Roald Gahl but I can imagine so much about his stories from your post. Thanks so much for sharing.

  9. Belinda this list is amazing. It’s so simple. In our house we are also moving towards bigger and better books and had not thought to add some Rahl Dahl to the collection – thank you.
    Oh it’s such a godsend when you can read something so easily.

    1. It is a godsend! We also started listening to some of the same stories on Audible. I’ve found the kids are hooking into the stories a little more when you have someone like Kate Winslet doing incredible voices for the characters!

  10. Loved reading this.

    Recently I’ve been noticing copywriting principles other successful books/movies also (J.k Rowling for example). And similarly the lack thereof in books aren’t quite as well loved and famous…

  11. A good writer is a good re-writer. Your first draft will always suck. Don’t be afraid to throw it out and start over.

    A good writer is a team player. If you write to publish, you’re going to have an editor. There is going to be give and take in this relationship, and it can be hard to have your work torn apart. You spend countless hours alone with your work, alone in your head with your story. When you write to publish, you let other people into this space. Now you are part of a team.

  12. I love Roald Dahls books and I love your analysis of why they are so relatable, easy to read, engaging and good inspiration for copy writing language. I highly recommend you read Roald Dahls books about his own life and the books he wrote for adults. They’re fabulous! My favourites are ‘Going Solo’ and ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’. Enjoy!

  13. I really enjoyed this post, Belinda! Not least because I’m trying to encourage my own kids to read more Roald Dahl! We live in Belgium and after seeing the BBC film version of Esio Trot (with Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman) last year some time, I bought it for us in English, Dutch and French!

    I love your point about there being no ‘one-size-fits-all’ conversational tone, and that trying to imagine WHO is doing the talking (and listening/reading) can really help. A lightbulb and a doh moment rolled into one there, so thanks!

    1. Brilliant Siobhan! I do love me a lightbulb moment. I am jealous you get access to that version of Esio Trot. We can’t get it here in the US! We have read a few of the books but a few have been deemed “a little too scary”. I love that connection to a story, so young. I’m not sure I could handle The Witches until I was much older!

  14. Sometimes is difficult to convince clients to use simple language, but I’ll keep trying. The books or blogs I enjoy the most are the ones that are very easy to read and understand. Thank you so much, Belinda!

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