Words as Weapons: Copywriting Lessons from Frank Underwood

White House

While others gather copywriting tips, ideas and inspiration from all sorts of places, I find the best place to start is with those words around us. 

As a copywriter, I spend a lot of time reading and listening. I often find myself jotting down snippets of amusing conversations I’ve overheard by chance or taking photos of witty signs or packaging for inspiration.

We’re surrounded by words all day, every day, and it’s these words that influence our thoughts, behaviour, and movement. This is where Frank Underwood comes in…

Introducing Mr. Underwood

With writing comes inevitable bouts of procrastination, and I’ve read enough blogs to know that many copywriters turn to their tellies in these times of need. During one such bout, I had the pleasure of meeting one of TV’s grisliest and most calculated megalomaniacs, Frances J. Underwood – Frank for short. 

(For those yet to watch the Netflix series House of Cards, you can read on safe in the knowledge that I won’t be revealing any spoilers. Promise!)

A captivating and utterly refreshing addition to the usual drivel on TV, House of Cards depicts the deviousness and underhanded scheming that occurs behind the scenes at the White House as the protagonist, Frank climbs the ever-thorny political ladder from his role as Majority Whip. While this may sound like any other standard political drama, it’s Frank’s words that make the difference. Conspiring, manipulative, and brutal, yes, but they are also elegant, sharp, and almost poetic. His words are his weapon.

What can we learn from Frank?

As irrelevant as it may sound, I feel that Frank can teach us writers a thing or two about language – particularly those of us in the continual pursuit of web-based audiences. While I’m in no way suggesting that you shamelessly tarnish competing brands or bump off your client’s competition, there is certainly a method in Frank’s madness that gets him what he wants. To follow are notable lessons we can take from the double-crossing genius and put into practice in our own writing:

1) Cut the bullshit

“There’s no better way to over power a trickle of doubt then with a flood of naked truth”.

As copywriters, we’re warned time and time again of the short attention span of consumers – especially those online. We don’t have much time to sustain a reader’s interest, so it’s essential to cut the bullshit and tell it as it is.

While evidently, I’ve ignored this first lesson in writing this post, the beauty in Frank’s prose is in its conciseness and simplicity. He never bores his audience with excessive detail unless it‘s asked of him. Always weigh up what your reader wants to know against what you think they need to know.

2) Draw in your reader with a secret

“After all, we are nothing more or less than what we choose to reveal”.

You need to strike a deal with your reader – if they’re going to commit to reading your work, you need to give them something in return. When Frank smirks knowingly and turns to the camera, you know you’re in for something juicy: a personal reflection; another piece of the jigsaw; a scandalous secret.

Gain your reader’s trust by letting them in on your secret from the word go: make them feel that they’re part of something exclusive and classified, and suggest that there’s more to come.

3) Idioms, metaphors and similes

“The President is like a lone tree in an empty field. He leans whichever way the wind is blowing”.

While it might seem that we’re revisiting high-school grammar here, Frank is the king of slick metaphors, eloquent idioms, and rather funny similes. He’s a man who believes that the road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and loves his woman more than sharks love blood. 

Make sure that your comparisons and idioms are appropriate to your reader and subject matter. 

Don’t try being too clever – keep it relevant and it will work.

4) Be playful

“The best thing about human beings is that they stack so neatly”.

Being playful is all part of Frank’s game, and he certainly does it in style. Whether he’s seducing  a rival or sweet talking an old business associate, his playfulness is what makes his propositions more attractive. 

Being imaginative with words can help you achieve a more playful tone and make your copy more alluring to your reader. Is there a more creative way to say what you intend to write? 

5) Make your last words memorable

“I never make such big decisions so long after sunset and so far from dawn”.

More often than not, Frank gets the last word as he masterfully interrupts his opponents delivering a priceless quip, stopping conversations dead in their tracks.

Many writers rush their endings, often producing an anticlimactic conclusion at which they part ways with their reader. Take a page from Frank’s book – if you’re going to have the last word, make it memorable. Leave your reader wanting more. 

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