Just like love, the idea of Christmas has inspired many a song rejoicing in it, wishing upon it, rockin’ to it, and making merry about it. The fact that there are over a million Christmas songs tells us this is a special time of year. A time that makes us slow down and muse upon humanity’s loves and joys and wishes. While we mostly connect with contemplation and community in the yuletide season, Megg Evans, who does the copywriting for Bennetts Jazz Club, reminds us of it every month of the year in her eDMs. As a subscriber, I receive her fortnightly emails and, unlike everything else that comes into my in-box, hers are always received with the same joy of seeing a friend at my front door. So I decided to meet with her and find out what makes her tick that makes her ideas so intriguing, the writing so musical and its content so experiential, elevating the intrusive eDM to an intriguing discourse on life, living and, of course, music. Unlike my usual didactic pieces on how to write great copy, this one shines a light on a unique writer of content marketing copy. And through Megg’s writings, I hope that you too can see and celebrate the potential beauty within the craft of copywriting.
But first a little back story. Megg Evans has been managing Bennetts Lane Jazz Club since its birth in 1993 — doing everything from creating the programming, being the security person known as Madam Spankalot, liaising with artists, taking the admission fees and writing all the copy promoting local and international artists performing at the club. She has a BA in Interior Design with Honours, not to mention a Masters too, and would finish her PhD in Architecture if she didn’t have enough on her plate as it is. I spoke with her recently over coffee at The Moat (the café below the beating heart of Melbourne’s books, writing and ideas community: The Wheeler Centre). The slider showcases samples of her eDMs — just hover your curser over the image to hold it still and take some time to read the copy (don’t be surprised if you want to read all eleven eDMs). Then scroll down past the images to our conversation about the art and music and sociology and psychology and so-on-ology behind her writing style.
NIC: From headline to end-line, your copy shows a special gift for entrancing the reader with your every word. How did you learn to write like that?
MEGG: I never learned to write. So I’m not sure that I did learn to write like that. It comes from a kind agency, from a voice that says I want to care about this person I’m talking to. Words are the first contact.
NIC: It’s like a friend has popped in for a cup of tea and a philosophical chat.
MEGG: Yes, a slightly vulnerable, slightly self-inquisitive visitor.
NIC: Your ideas also have a freedom about them, where do they come from?
MEGG: There’ll be one thing that tickles me every couple of weeks (before the next story) and I use writing as a way of thinking it through. The idea finds itself by giving it somewhere to start. Usually it’s a concern for irony, but not everything is innately ironic. Sometimes it’s a shift in point-of-view that you see around the thing. I see it more in a spatial sense — I always like peripeteia, being able to come again and see it anew. And I think my way of writing is a small form of that. But once I see what’s on the other side, over the repetition of that, it ends up being what I have written. Sometimes I have something more necessary to say, other times it’s more a meditation on a small theme with a twist. Once I’ve caught the whisper, it gives me a safe space to … sing.
NIC: The whisper being the idea?
MEGG: For me the whisper is the shadow of the auditive idea … it never comes completely full … it comes as a whisper, or an echo … and giving that a safe space to refine itself.
NIC: And that safe space is?
MEGG: That space will be the eDM.
NIC: And from that, you’ve created a distinctive voice for Bennetts Lane. A quietly thoughtful voice that helps us see the extraordinary in ordinary life. Do you get a brief by the club’s owner or are you free to run with your own ideas?
MEGG: I started the emails and developed the data base. All of what happens at the club (including the eDMs) is an extension of a mindset, of a kind of principle, and that’s only going to come out of being able to give it a persona — which is independent mindfulness. And the pinnacle of that is that the musicians come first. Every thought and every decision is made with that justification.
NIC: And that is the strategic thinking behind Bennetts fortnightly eDMs?
MEGG: Sometimes. But I don’t see it as a writing job. When you told me I’m doing copywriting, that blew me away. I’ve never thought of myself as a copywriter.
NIC: That’s what makes it all the more interesting, you’re outside the construct of a “copywriter”. The secret to great copywriting is to sell without selling out. You’re doing just that.
MEGG: I had a wonderful lady who came in to do the marketing and she said you need to change your voice, you need to say what’s great about Bennetts Lane, and you need to be loud about it. And I’m doing this to a certain extent — trying to share the wonder of jazz, the amazing work these artists are doing — and I said to her, “No, the first thing you need to understand about Bennetts Lane is we don’t sell jazz”. As soon as you do that there’s a use-by date. Buying a CD is like buying a painting, this is an art form, not a cage. The musicians see Bennetts Lane as a kind of host to a home for them — a home to “the them” they really enjoy being. A home that’s not in their house, it’s not in their studio, but in the performance. So you don’t market your home. Part of the voice in the emails is supposed to be friendly, it’s supposed to be a sense of come and have a cup of tea in the home of these particular artists. I actually just want to open the door and make the rest of the world seem a lot better because of this.
NIC: What was the marketing person’s response to that?
MEGG: I think she was a little bit frustrated with me and I completely understand. She’s an incredible young woman and I have the utmost respect for her. Maybe I’m the problem.
NIC: You really know your target audience and that shows in the copy. Has any of your readers given you feedback on the writing?
MEGG: Oh yes! Most people say “I love your writing” and say “Oh, you’re Megg! You’re the face to the words!” And I find that I get more response from the one’s where I’m telling you something than all the “mind moments”, but it’s those that set people’s security — sense of I know this person — that when I tell them something it is just as important to them as it was to me; so it’s a community of mind that I’ve developed.
NIC: A community of mind — that sums up perfectly the effect of your copy. It’s not so much selling as inviting us into the story and making it our own.
MEGG: And that’s what a musician is trying to do. They’re not trying to sell a piece of music, they’re trying to give you an experience. Musically, it’s hard to have a conversation, but it’s doubled in an email (conversation and experience). When you listen to a piece of music, it takes you somewhere. Sometimes at the end of a set, a person will come up to me and ask what was the second song in the second set because that reminded me of something really personal; and they come back and see the band over and over again. That song somehow becomes theirs. That’s precisely what for me the ideal the club needs to become — it’s not just the musicians’ home, but for the audience, it’s theirs as well. It’s a community investment. Like the ABC, it’s a social institution.
NIC: The tone, imagery and rhythm of your copy is like a piece of music. Is that a conscious process in your writing?
MEGG: There is a single idea that needs to find its feet, I think for musicians when they’re coming to compose, often it comes from the very faintest of an idea. Usually I have a whisper of an inspiration, some sort of a thing that itches me. So I need to follow this butterfly and see where it takes me. But there is a structure to it and synthesis — Howard Bloom’s idea that everything starts with irony and how you break it apart. So for me, the first clause is usually quite concrete; it tries to say something that we’ve all heard many times, so it’s not foreign. To undo it is supposed to seem radical, but it isn’t, you’re just returning to the idea and it changes the way you came to it the first time, you start to hear that oscillation which you hear in music — where the main motif and the bridge … how do you reconcile their differences is when you get to see the mind being beautiful.
NIC: Musically, your copy reminds me of Keith Jarrett, particularly his Koln concert, your writing has a similar meditative flow and depth of feeling about it.
MEGG: He lulls you into a safe sense of thinking then launches from there and takes you off into this wonderful space; and then how he reconciles it at the end is probably the most radical and yet the most natural part of the Koln concert.
NIC: That process you’re describing is beginning with a familiar idea and working your way through all the usual suspects of cliches, puns, bon mots et cetera until you clear the mind for something to arise that’s more interesting, perhaps even more original …
MEGG: And more yours.
NIC: Yeah! For me it comes as an “ah ha!” moment; for you it comes as a whisper. What does that look like?
MEGG: I can look around and it can be hinted in the shadows. Or sometimes, when I’m really lost, I think of it more like a knock on the door of inspiration, where I might look up a jazz quote or some weird thing …
NIC: You do the research.
MEGG: Yes, but a light one because I don’t want to be inundated with too much information. It comes out of something little and grows into something … I just give it some space to grow. You only need one small piece for the words to find the place they want to take.
NIC: Do you write within the three-part structure — introduction, substantiation, conclusion?
MEGG: I’ve noticed form from the repetition of writing — that a structure naturally forms and it’s what keeps it short. Usually only three paragraphs. So as far as structure, the greatest structure is trying to form a way of thinking — a community that cares for the same sort of things we care about.
NIC: Do you visualise the person you’re writing too?
MEGG: I probably have a composite, so it’s not any one person. Mal Stanley from the ABC who runs Jazz Track once said something that stuck with me when I was starting to do radio shows on PBS — he said it’s a big problem when you say “all of you out there”; he said people don’t hear radio with the concept that there are so many other people out there listening in; when you’re coming out of a radio, you’re coming direct to that person; so you speak to that person. And in that sense of being Megg @ Bennetts Lane, Bennetts has a persona larger than me, but me is within it — that little scared person telling you about something. And the audience is that one who cares.
NIC: Because I now know you, I would visualise you as I’m writing if you happen to be my target audience. This helps me know what your response back to my words could be and so, in this way, you help inform me as I write away. But what you’re doing is something more abstract.
MEGG: I feel far safer writing to an ideal, than I do to a real person. You have the noumenal and phenomenal. The noumenal is that world not open to the senses, you can’t see, smell, taste, touch or hear. Most writers are very phenomenally based, and their writing is clad with phenomenal creatures, and they use all the words that describe sensorial things. Whereas I can’t seem to do that very well — jazz isn’t blue or green or pink to me.
NIC: Piaget found that 80% of the population were concrete thinkers and the other 20% were abstract thinkers. You would be one of the 20%. So you’d know better than me how an abstract thinker engages with text.
MEGG: When you’re reading, do you hear the words in your mind?
MEGG: Because I notice in your writing you write as if you’re reading them to me, as if it’s speech.
NIC: For me it’s both speech (persuasion) and poetics (brevity).
MEGG: I can see that in there. Mine isn’t. I do read it to myself before I send it, to make sure it doesn’t hurt for people who have a more phenomenal sense.
NIC: And you read it out aloud?
MEGG: Yes. I can hear its beats, its music a lot better that way. But I also know I am speaking to a figure in your mind; and for me, they’re neither female or male; they don’t come with all the bias of the phenomenal world; and that’s precisely where I want you to hear about the jazz club. I don’t care about the demographic, I care about the principled person and that’s who I write to. Leunig does that.
NIC: The principled person, for me, that’s a whole new way of seeing it.
MEGG: I would never have thought of it without your questions either. It’s only by using you as an example that I can see the other side.
NIC: And I’ve just come to realise that I keep telling my students they need to be able to visualise who they’re writing to without ever stopping to think of the abstract thinkers in the room. So it’s quite possible that the principled person is a workable model for them too. I love the idea you said earlier about making your copy sing. How do you make the sentences do that?
MEGG: I recognise that I tend to have this beat of three – so there tends to be three adjectives to describe it.
NIC: Here’s one from The Tide of Time eDM, “time has been turbulent, space has been perforated, and the wounds that form from their contortions seem hard to heal”. That’s a great example of the three beats in the form of three phrases. Do you write with rhetorical devices in mind?
MEGG: I’m not consciously using them, I only recognise it afterwards. I read a lot, so I’ve taken from that. It’s quite musical though. It’s nice to come from the natural point-of-view rather than trying to force a method. I don’t know what it is that I’m doing; I don’t know my rhetorical devices.
NIC: You can always learn the craft and then gain more control over the writing, but when it’s naturally in you, you’re already miles ahead.
MEGG: Control is the expression of the lack of security. You only need control when you feel insecure. So when you’re looking at the page and it’s obviously white … the blank canvas is always nerve wracking.
NIC: We all experience fear when we face a blank page. But your writing is a great example of thinking outside the box. It adds some beauty to the world of communications, and we all like a little beauty in our lives.
MEGG: I hate the idea that I’m sending someone something they don’t want.
NIC: Your Principled Person will make sure you only send what is wanted. Many thanks for taking time for this interview Megg.
MEGG: It’s a pleasure, thank you.