Unknown Origins

Simon Leake on Copywriting

October 13, 2020 Unknown Origins Season 1 Episode 13
Unknown Origins
Simon Leake on Copywriting
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

“I look for a voice and I'm looking for a story. That story might be a very bare bones just kind of a narrative arc, a vague shape or it might be something that feels more like a story. You have to keep your ego in check because you've got to be able to throw things away that you may think are great.”

After immersing himself in the language and craft of Shakespeare at graduate school in Stratford-upon-Avon, Simon Leake joined Amazon.com in its second year of operation where he was part of the team that built the company’s customer service messaging, before joining the editorial department to create content for the books and DVD divisions. Thereafter, becoming a freelance copywriter, creating video scripts for a wide variety of clients, including Microsoft, Nordstrom, HP, the World Bank, and the Gates Foundation.

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Roy Sharples:

Hello, I'm Roy Sharples, and welcome to the unknown origins podcast series, the purpose of which is to deliver inspirational conversations with creative industry experts on entrepreneurship, pop culture, art, music, film and fashion. Today's topic is on copywriting. And I'd like to introduce Simon Leake who is a free freelance copywriter, working primarily on voiceover scripts. After completing a master's degree in Shakespeare studies in Stratford upon even, he moved to Seattle, where he [email protected] in the late 1990s, he was part of the team that built Amazon's customer service messaging, before moving into the editorial department to create content for the books and DVD divisions. Since leaving amazon.com, he has created video scripts for a wide range of clients including Microsoft, Nordstrom, HP, the World Bank and the Gates Foundation. Hello, and welcome, Simon.

Simon Leake:

Hey, right.

Roy Sharples:

So, so who, what, how and why were you inspired and attracted into this profession?

Simon Leake:

Um, I think like, like a, like a lot of the most interesting things in people's lives. It was kind of an accident. Um, yeah. After working at Amazon, I actually ended up freelancing for Amazon for a while. And then a friend who has a video production company drafted me into to work on a script for I think it was a video for Deloitte. And then it just kind of built from that. And um, bit by bit.

Roy Sharples:

Excellent. So I'm is on who back yonder, and when you join them must have been at the real elementary phase of their incredible Kunta, Gianni, and what attracted you to them in the first place?

Simon Leake:

Um, I mean, I think it was noon. Yeah. I mean, honestly, I just arrived in the US, I just got my work permit, and I was looking for a job. And it was something I'd never heard of before. And it was small. At that point, I think I was like, the 95th. employee. So it was it was a chance to experience that bad Starcom bug. And I'm really glad to be in there. And when Jeff Bezos interviewed you, and how it was I was humbled or something he challenged you on?

Roy Sharples:

Yeah. Well, I mean, essentially, he wanted me to describe, describe some of the research I've been doing. So yeah, he asked me about my dissertation. And I had to explain multiple text editorial theory in Shakespeare studies. So, you know, he wanted to give people he was interviewing a chance to show off their expertise in something unusual. And but yeah, that kind of came out of left field. But I guess, like, good, reasonably good answer. Until you the job. Yeah. It did. Yeah. So studying Shakespeare studies and Stratford upon Avon. I must have been a really exciting time for you. It was, yeah, it was it was just wonderful. You know, to be there with a bunch of other students and professors all studying the same thing. And we were a 10 minute walk away from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. So I would go see shows 234 times a week, I saw one production of troilus and gretta 17 times. It was really good. It was directed by Sam Mendez, actually, with Ray signs, but it just is just being able to completely immerse yourself in that world. Yeah, was was just an extraordinary experience. And yeah, one of the things that's helped to recapture later in your life, and it was always like a destination that you would go and study that and, and go into that as a profession. Not Not really, I mean, I, I really liked school. I liked everything in life, and I enjoyed math, I enjoyed languages. So you know, by the time it came to choosing a levels, I need k then you couldn't really mix Humanities and Sciences at a level you kind of had to choose a path. So I sort of reluctantly dropped math and ended up doing English and history and German and I And then by the time I got to the point where I was choosing what I wanted to study at college, and English was was winning out. So I went to Birmingham and did English with with a side order of old Icelandic. Really? Yeah. But uh, boning Have you had to choose a kind of minor? Yeah, you did like once or twice a week. And a whole range of things. And I think there were three of us who did old Icelandic but it was kind of fun. It kept me up a little bit with the things I enjoyed about languages. Yeah. But yeah, so just under General undergraduate English degree. But part of that was a trip down to the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford. And I liked it that and I got a grant to do a Master's. So I took it. Marvelous. And when, when you were studying there, were there any familiar? You mean, you mentioned some Andy's refunds. And an earlier was there others in the your inner circle that can immediate into

Simon Leake:

the stage or films? I mean, you know, not necessarily in my circle, but the actors who were in Stratford, who were the Royal Shakespeare Company at that time. Some of whom I kind of get to know like, it's funny, it's like almost every actor who's been in a Harry Potter movie that I watched with my daughter, it's like, oh, I yeah, I kind of knew him. Because I also used to work. And I also used to work in a pub, next to the theater. So honestly, that was the way to meet and get to know, members of a theatre company. But you know, it's a small town. Like a lot of small towns like that. It's kind of strange. You just you have people who live there and have no interest in theatre, and you have people who are there, for whom theater is just their life. And actually, for me, the prayer, the practical part of a being in a town like that studying, especially Shakespeare. Studying his work as theater was, became hugely important to me. And in odd ways, that is what sort of ripples through the rest of my life, including what I'm doing now in unexpected ways. But the not so much sort of studying the beautiful poetry of Shakespeare, but studying the plays as plays, right? Yes. People working together with a script, you know, yeah, there are echoes in what I do today. Excellent. So

Roy Sharples:

moving, moving on to your profession. What What does copywriting mean to you?

Simon Leake:

Particularly the kind of thing that I spend most of my time doing, it means collaboration. You know, which ties back to what I was just saying about about working in theater with professionals. That is not, you know, working on a script, especially short scripts from voiceover videos. There's plenty of room for individual creativity, but you're working to a brief, you're working with visual animation designers, there are constraints on what you can do that are challenging, but to me, they're one of the most interesting part. Yeah. of the job. Yeah, so collaboration. I think it really feels like the key word.

Roy Sharples:

What typically is your creative process

Simon Leake:

for copy for copywriting?

Roy Sharples:

What's the generally I'll get? I'll get maybe I'll get a brief which you know, would be

Simon Leake:

a description of the subject what they're looking for the audience's and things like that. Often I'll get a pile of documents, PowerPoint presentations, things like that. And and generally what I'm trying to do, there's a lot of condensing that needs to happen because, you know, often I'm working with pretty short, like, one to three minute scripts. Yeah, I'm condensing things. But I'm also I'm looking for, I'm looking for a voice and I'm looking for a story. And that story might be a very bare bones just kind of narrative arc, a vague shape or it might be something that feels more like a story. So I'll be looking at the documents the information and given the conversations they might have had with the client. And then try to sketch out, you know, vocabulary, narrative arc, and things like that, and then take that back to the client. Because often, at least at the beginning, what I find myself trying to do is get get the client to work out what they actually want. Yeah. And that's something that's not always obvious to the client when they submit the brief at the beginning. So there's a, there can be a process where I have to have a kind of a thick skin because I want, you know, I might, I might create a draft. And the client might say, No, that's really not what I want. But to me, that's part of the process. But that's a clarification. So yeah, that's sort of how the process begins, for me is like, looking for a voice and a shape, if that's not in Vegas, and then having some back and forth with the client, being sort of a middle part of the process, to see how they feel about that voice and to see whether things are heading in the direction that they want. Because in the end, you know, what matters is what they want?

Roy Sharples:

Yeah, I think that the two keywords that you can have said there at the, at the beginning, and around voice and story, that that really resonated, and it goes back in my mind that can have triggered the ancient proverb around, tell me a fact, and I'll learn, tell me a truth, and I'll believe, but tell me a story. And it will live in my heart forever. And that that is a challenge, especially if you're getting input from clients that maybe don't have don't maybe approach things from that perspective. And so, you know, when you're gonna given a brief, when, maybe flat or you're trying to make art out of something that's quite mundane, how would How would you typically go about doing that?

Simon Leake:

Um, yeah, you know, a lot of the time I try to, because of the way lots of clients do their work. I see lots of PowerPoint presentations. Yeah. And, you know, my task to some degree is, is to escape the sort of gravitational pull of the PowerPoint presentation. So, you know, I will read as closely as I can, everything that I get from them, and try to find that register. Like, there's often vocabulary, that's very important. And, and one thing I need to do sometimes is, like, this kind of a tension between the kind of jargon that can exist in the corporate world. And there's a tension between that and like, clear, simple language, yes. But jargon can be a very useful way for professionals to communicate with one another. Yes. So I have to be wary of oversimplifying, you know, as a layman. So I look, you think I look for those points where I can pull words that are important to the client and important to the subject and the message, the messaging, I guess, yeah. But then I need to try to wrap that in language that has flow and rhythm, because one thing is like, most of the time I am, I'm dealing with speech. Yes. So I'm writing down something that someone will be saying. And that's quite, that's different. That's different to writing a PowerPoint slide. It's different to writing an article. Yeah. And so sometimes I find myself like suggesting that the client read the draft out loud. Yeah. Because you need to hear it. So I'm not sure I know the question fully there. But that that process is is of like, shifting the emphasis from the written word to the spoken word. Yes. And working out what you can keep from the brief and, and what needs to change. And that's a sort of middle gradual transformation, that, if it works, we'll help the client understand what the script needs to be. Yes,

Roy Sharples:

yeah. It's fascinating, the the voice side of it, and how much of the, the, the, the real humanity comes through, typically more as human in the personality. And the style comes through, you know, often quite more prominently than it would in the written word or, or even image, you know, so that's, that's fascinating, listen to your technique around that. The other thing that I am detected, from an observation of listening to your process, there was, there's two key things that you really cannot do, and they're dependent on the, the input from your client. One is the skill to be able to take an enormous amount of data often despite it can be, and be able to pull all that together, to kind of go through it. And then the second it into the key narrative, the key message in the key. And then the second part is really the opposite of that, where you're going to go into a situation where this may be limited or no data or minimal input, where you've got to be really creative to make something out of nothing, you know, is that is that kind of fair to say that there was points of tension or input? Or conflicts that you're having to kind of deal with?

Simon Leake:

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, that is sort of creating this Venn diagram of, like, you know, just out of thin air, you know, because often I'll be looking for phrases or rhythms that just make the script flow. And those those are things that tend not to be in the documents. But the other side of it, the first thing he mentioned, taking a lot of information and kind of picking out what's important for the message you want. I mean, that's, that's one of those examples of something that I, when I was reading books and papers to write a seminar paper on Shakespeare, I didn't realize I was training to go through Microsoft PowerPoint presentations to write scripts, but it's very, very similar process. It's a gathering of information, a distillation of that information to pick out the stuff that meets your purpose, and then a reinvention of that material. Yes. In your hopefully, your own voice. Although, you know, in this case, it's a combination of my own voice and the sort of ventriloquism that I do, in trying to create a bit of clients voice. Yes.

Roy Sharples:

That's a good analogy. So although you've touched on it, as we went through that, what what are the key skills needed to be a copy copywriter from your perspective?

Doviak:

Um, I, from my perspective, you need to be a very good writer. But you also, I think, specific to this job, you need to be able to listen, as well. Because, you know, it doesn't work if I decide, oh, yeah, I want to I want to write this script in this style, because it will sound great. And like, there's a certain amount of that, but again, the client is the boss, and you have to listen to what they want. So listening, being able to collaborate again, you know, which is not something that

Simon Leake:

necessarily a lot of it's not something that like a lot of prose writers need to do, like, at least until the process of whatever they've written is being edited. That's more collaborative, but from the beginning, you know, a lot of writers you are sitting there at your desk, typing and being creative. copywriting listening, more fun voiceover stuff. Again, that sense of rhythm. I, I you know, I thank Shakespeare for for giving me Not that I ever had the chance to write in the verse, but it going to the theater a lot gives you an ear for as a sentence that sounds good that flows. I mean, in some ways, it's almost like writing political speeches or something like that. So an ability to think about how things will land on the year is important. strong, strong research skills, just the, as you said, the ability to go through a lot of documents and dissect them and find what's important. And honestly, with a lot of these jobs, the ability to do it quickly. Because, yes, people always expect the scripts in a couple of days. The people who are doing the animation or doing the filming, you know, that end of the project takes a lot of time, so that everybody wants to script block down quickly. Yeah. So being able to iterate quickly, being able to understand what the client or client comments on draft, being able to incorporate those quickly generate another draft, and keep it moving towards, you know, an end result that everyone's happy with, that's important to looking back

Roy Sharples:

in your rearview mirror assignment. And know, what are the key lessons that you've learned in your career thus far?

Simon Leake:

Um, I think, um, pitfall to avoid, I mean, a pitfall to avoid would probably be ego, yes, or too much of it comp, confidence is good. The, the ability to politely push your case, if you are dealing with somebody who, you know, hasn't necessarily thought about the way something sounds, you know, things like that. So, so but but also you, you come up, you've got to be able to throw away things that you might think are great and awesome. And because you're not, you know, you're not writing a short story or slim book of poetry, you're doing a job. Again, I it makes me think of the theater stuff. It's, it's more of a craft.

Roy Sharples:

Yes.

Simon Leake:

And, and, to me, a lot of the time a craft is, you know, it's a collaborative process. It's a making process. Yeah. So, you know, if it was something that you were interested in pursuing other advice, could I give I mean, read very widely watch lots of movies, listen to radio plays, pay attention to, and I mean, just really develop a feel for the language. But then also make sure that you you're you learn to be a good communicator yourself. When you're talking to clients, who may not be the best at expressing what they actually want. They may not have time they, you know,

Doviak:

because I definitely do see a difference between clients who are really good at explaining what they want, and really good at giving clear feedback. And then you sometimes get clients who just say, like, Can you make it better? Yeah. And you know, that that can be a hard process, sometimes, but you can know that they are your employer. And you have to listen to them and adapt. So this is a sort of a balancing act aspect, which to me is one of the most interesting parts of that is balancing that pure creativity of having a blank page and yet needing to write something. And the fact that you're writing for someone to someone in a way that other kinds of creative writing. Don't. You don't do it, you're not doing that.

Roy Sharples:

What's your vision for the future a copyright and copywriting and what are some of the key forces Is this really driving change within the industry?

Simon Leake:

The future, I mean, I'm starting to see this on a very basic level. Like that the influence of social media is kind of shaping the way that content is envisioned and produced. And as that starts to have an impact, I'm beginning to see, you know, a desire to be able to take a two minute video and pull from it, no two, or 320 to 30 seconds, Instagram clips, things like that. And it hasn't had a huge impact on the kind of things that I tend to be asked to do. But a couple of times, that has been part of it. So you know, you have to think about well, how can I? How can I pull? How can I construct this, so that it works as a whole, but so that it can also be sort of cut apart into units that also work as a whole? So, I mean, that is one thing. I'm trying to think whatever current pandemic has had any impact? I can't I don't think particularly I mean, this. I think clients have been looking towards different kinds of video products to replace some of the live things they might have done. Yes, folks, and conferences and things like that. So, you know, there may be there may be more of that. But, you know, animals in lots of ways. It's, it's hard to see how kind of a foundation of the job would change. Yeah, too much. Because a lot of the time, you know, what you're doing is you're taking a brief, and you're turning it into a script. And that, that is a sort of foundational, I think there are lots of changes in terms of, you know, being able to film stuff and motion graphics and animation that's becoming more and more and more sophisticated. And, but it doesn't quite touch the, the heart of what I do yet. I'm not. I suppose one thing has happened to as as things like motion graphics and animation have become simultaneously more sophisticated and easier to do is that you sometimes have projects where you're dealing not just with voiceover, but you're dealing with the interaction between voiceover and potentially like, text on screen. Yes. And that can be very interesting. So there's a sort of information design aspect, which is, I haven't had a ton of opportunities to do but I could see that as being a very interesting, new, newish like creative outlet, sort of combination of the written and the spoken word. But it will be Yeah, it would be fun to get the chance to experiment with that.

Roy Sharples:

For more inspirational conversations with creative industry experts on entrepreneurship, pop culture, art, music, film and fashion, please go to the unknown origins website at unknownorigins.com

What inspired and attracted you to be a Copywriter?
What is your Creative Process?
What are the key skills needed?
What are your lessons learned: pitfalls to avoid and keys to success?
What is your vision for the future?