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Copywriting: The Fab Five

Who are the Fab Five? Of course, they’re not The Beatles. Paul, John, George and Ringo were the
Fab Four. And I’m not referring to a basketball team, even though there was a “Fab Five” – all freshmen starters – that played for the University of Michigan several years ago. Basketball buffs will know at least three of them who now play in the NBA – Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose.

A clue: One of the Fab Five is in the first sentence. OK, it’s the five W’s — Who, What, When, Where, Why. Oh, them, you say. Inverted pyramid and all that journalism stuff. The five W’s are old-timers, old news.

Well, yes. But there’s a reason they’ve been around a long time. Plus, I’ll let you in on a secret: They’re not just for reporters writing breaking stories or publicists cranking out press releases.
As you will see, the Fab Five are quite versatile. You can apply them to marketing pieces, even advertising. First, a quick return to Journalism 101.

A Strong Foundation

The five W’s are the foundation of news stories and a tenet of journalism. The Newspaper Institute of America says: “The school child can be said to have begun his education only after he has mastered his ‘three R’s’ – ‘Readin’, ‘Ritin’ and ‘Rithmetic. A writer is equipped to begin his quest for stories only after he has mastered his ‘Five W’s’ – Who, What, When, Where, Why:

Who did it; or to whom did it happen?
What happened?
When did it happen?
Where did it happen?
Why did it happen?

Fix those five W’s in your mind because you will be required to find the answer to each for nearly every story you write.”

The 5 W’s Go to Market

The five W’s have long been the mainstay of PR professionals who must write newsworthy press releases to get media attention for their clients. By effectively using the five W’s, they’re speaking the language of journalists and the news business.

However, marketing, advertising and sales promotion is undisguised selling. How do the five W’s apply? Let’s run through them. Think about an ad, brochure or sales letter.

Who – Who is the audience, customer, or prospect? Who are you?
What – What is the product, service, offer?
When – What is the time element? Why is it important or urgent now?
Where – Where is the market(s) or company (yours and/or theirs)?
Why – Why should they respond or buy? What are the reasons or benefits? Why you instead of your competitor?

I’m not suggesting that the five W’s are a marketing cure-all. You still need to stick to marketing basics: presenting products and services as solutions to problems; showcasing features and benefits; providing proof with testimonials, opinions and statistics; and having a strong call to action. Simply use the five W’s to help flesh out all aspects of your message.

Stress-Free Interviewing

In the February issue of Marketing, Larry Coffman discusses the unique privilege of meeting interesting people and writing stories, whether you’re writing for a school newspaper or a global network. But first you must be a reporter, which often means interviewing sources.

Larry writes, “Can the interviewer ask the right questions and quickly grasp and interpret the answers?” Good question.

With a firm grasp of the five W’s, I believe that you can adequately steer your way through most any interview. The five W’s give you the question-asking framework to approach any person, subject and project.

Ideally, you prepare for an interview, considering the focus of your piece, gathering background information, and preparing questions in written form or in your head.

The five W’s are a good starting point, but you’ll find them absolutely indispensable in those instances when you have little or no time to prepare for an interview. The five W’s will help you ask some good questions and come away with what you need to write the piece.

Don’t Forget ‘How’

Not widely publicized because it doesn’t begin with a “W,” “how” is a frequent sidekick of the five W’s and should be given equal consideration when constructing written communications.

How important is “how”? It’s of prime importance in every rags-to-riches story. We all want to know how they did it. It’s critical to new technology, as in how it works. You can probably think of other examples. Lean heavily on ‘how,’ for it can be just as important as the five W’s.

Writing Insurance

Finally, the five W’s are excellent writing insurance. When you’re doing your final edits,
use the five W’s to determine if you’ve covered everything — and, importantly, with the proper emphasis.

The Fab Five has been together a long time, and there’s no sign they’ll ever break up. Don’t just respect the longevity of the five W’s; put them to work. Your writing will benefit.

Neil Sagebiel is a freelance copywriter who has written promotional copy for dozens of national clients. Neil's specialty is B2B, including print and online advertising, marketing collateral, Web, email marketing, direct mail and PR materials. He can be contacted at 540-745-5472 or www.neilsagebiel.com.