Copywriting Advice from Bruce Lee – ‘Be Like Water’

Bruce Lee is probably the most well known martial artist of all time. His work in both Hong Kong and Hollywood started a craze for a number of different Asian inspired fighting styles which swept the world during the 70’s and 80’s. His influence on popular culture has been almost without equal.

Today, almost exactly 40 years after his death his likeness can still be seen on t-shirts, coffee mugs and merchandise of all types, including numerous action figure and desktop figurines. His movies still remain incredibly popular all over the world.

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Lee, born Lee Jun-fan on the 27th of November 1940 in Chinatown San Francisco (but raised in Kowloon) traveled a long road toward fame, starring in a number of low budget Chinese language films prior to filming and releasing the first English language martial arts film, Enter the Dragon.

The success of Enter the Dragon propelled Lee to the very top of the Hollywood elite, where he remained until his death in Kowloon Tong in 1973 at the age of 32.

What many people do not realise is that Bruce Lee’s dissatisfaction with many of the martial arts styles he encountered led him to develop his own, called Jeet Kune Do (The Way of the Intercepting Fist). With the development of this fighting style came a new philosophy, based to a large extent on Taoism.

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But what does that have to do with copywriting? Reading Bruce Lee’s books on Philosophy and examining various quotes attributed to him gives us an insight into not only a restless mind, but also provides a framework for a new type of approach to business, online and creative copywriting.

Let’s take a closer look at how the philosophy of Mr Lee can guide our thoughts on developing quality copy.

“All types of knowledge, ultimately mean self knowledge.”

Bruce Lee: The Lost Interview (1971)

Good writers have an absolute thirst for knowledge. When asked about how to become a better writer Stephen King’s advice to a fan was to read as much as possible.

Today you don’t even have to turn the first page (although we would strongly suggest that you pick up an ink and paper book now and then) you have access to the quite magical world of the Internet. Every topic that you can think of (and some that don’t bear thinking about) can be researched on the Internet. After doing the research all you have to do is put the words in order and hey presto, your job is complete.

Of course writing doesn’t really work like that. It’s not an easy way to achieve fame and fortune, but done well writing can make communication into one of the cornerstones of business success.

One of the best approaches is to find a topic that is relevant to your business and interesting to you personally. You’d be surprised how often this is not the case. The result is copy that really doesn’t sing to the reader, or engage them in any way and engagement is the way writers get consumers and readers to take action. This action can be related to building brand loyalty, starting a conversation, promoting the sharing of content across social media platforms or even directly feeding a sales funnel.

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So how does the above Bruce Lee quote help us write better copy?

Know yourself, know what you are capable of and leverage this knowledge to find subject matter that that you enjoy. The only way that you will add value to a business as a copywriter is to be comfortable and happy with your subject matter.

“Don’t think, feel….it is like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory!”

Bruce Lee: Enter the Dragon (1973); In a training session with one of the temple students.

In copywriting one of the most important guidelines that you can use is to put yourself in the reader’s shoes and then look at the world through their eyes. Empathise with their needs and take into account the factors which contribute to their physical and mental well being.

In other words, stop thinking about the task of writing and start thinking about the bigger picture which is usually how your writing can add value to the lives of your readers. To do that you need to sit back and think about what makes them tick. Remember no man is an island and your readers are more complex than you may think.

Each of your readers is an individual, yet they share certain attributes (a family, a job, kids, bills to pay, holidays to plan) and psychological needs (Maslow had something to say about those needs).

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Make sure that your writing is aimed at providing something useful to these readers to feed and satisfy their needs (even if it just a laugh at the end of a long day).

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However, I would suggest that Lee’s philosophy be changed slightly to provide added value to the business writer, perhaps ‘First think , then feel’ would be more appropriate. So analyse your target audience, analyse the business strategy, develop your theme, key messages and tone based on this research and then set it all aside. Take some time to think about the people in the business and what they’re trying to say and who they want to reach.

You’ll be a better writer using both mind and heart.

“Man, the living creature, the creating individual, is always more important than any established style or system.”

As quoted in “From Wing Chun to Jeet Kune Do” by Jesse R. Glover

Bruce Lee could have been talking directly to business copywriters of today when he uttered those words. However, ignoring style guides and established approaches completely can be a trap for the unwary. These approaches have proven their worth time after time.

Style conventions provide writers, especially business copywriters with an established framework that makes business copywriting less of a chore and also aids writers in their job of conveying information and meaning clearly and concisely.

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There are however many writers who choose to throw off the shackles on convention and develop their own unique style and voice. These writers have usually served their apprenticeship writing using conventional forms and employing traditional stylistic guidelines.

You can do the same. However, be careful to ensure that your business copy reflects it s primary purpose, which is to convey valuable information about the brands or services of the company in a way that is easily understandable by the target audience. Before you begin developing your own style you should make every effort to understand and master the conventional approach to business writing.

My advice: Read annual reports (you can skip the boring numbers) and other marketing collateral developed by professional business writers. Take some time and read the business sections of publications such as the New York Times at least once a week. Information is power so also make sure that you continually scour the Internet for great examples, tips and tricks from the gurus of business writing. There is more advice out there than you could probably access in a lifetime of study. The challenge is to sort to wheat from the chaff. Keep at it, the good stuff is out there.

By putting aside the time to do these simple tasks you will develop an in depth understanding of different styles and take the first step to developing your own, unique style of writing.

“Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water.  Be water, my friend.”

Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey (2000); here, Lee was reciting lines he wrote for his short lived role on the TV series Longstreet

This probably the best known of all of the wisdom based on the philosophy of Bruce Lee.

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How does this apply to the practice of copywriting?

Just as water can take on many forms and is able to fit into any space the business copywriter of today must be able to master many skill sets. He or she must be able to find reliable sources of information and convey that information in a logical and concise manner, in language that the target readership finds engaging and easy to understand.

Once you can master the ability to find and convey information in a logical and succinct manner your career as a business writer will be well and truly on track and you can set your sites on fame, fortune and a seat on the Board.

In my opinion one of the only ways to diversify your skills is to read articles by the best in the business. There are numerous websites out there which feature articles by some of the best in the business. Set aside an hour a day and look for articles on your chosen area of expertise. Create a folder on your laptop and file the best away; you’ll be glad you did.

If you use the Internet as much as I do (and what writer doesn’t?) find a site like scoop.it which will allow you to ‘scoop’ interesting or well-written pages on the fly. If you don’t make an effort to provide find content that will allow you to provide a unique viewpoint, chances are that your writing will be lost in the noise of millions of similar pages when readers are searching for that one piece of essential information.

“Make at least one definite move daily toward your goal.”

“Beyond System — The Ultimate Source of Jeet Kune Do”

If you can commit to a single action every day that will contribute to your future success then you’ll soon reach the heights of the copywriting profession.

Our advice; look to the social media. Join LinkedIn groups and make sure that your Facebook and Google+ pages have new content every day. Source interesting articles, comment and share with others. Building your network and establishing yourself as an expert in your field, or at least as someone with a thirst for knowledge and something interesting to say is one of the foundations of success. Keep posting and keep an open mind, try and make connections between seemingly unrelated pieces of information. You will be amazed at the results.

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