How often do you hear “oh, s/he’s just a one-trick pony” or “so-and-so’s totally one-track minded”? It’s usually said dismissively, as though it’s a bad thing. Yet other people might say the same person was absolutely focussed – a good thing, if sometimes hard to live with, and vital if you’re to win an Olympic medal or grow a successful business. In copywriting, being one-track minded is the ideal: having just one idea running through each piece. It’s sometimes called a “Golden Thread”.
And yes, to answer the question in the headline, you definitely need a Golden Thread.
The Golden Thread is the big idea that holds your whole piece together, whether you’re writing an 20-page mailshot or a 500-word blog. You can side-track from the idea, as long as your diversion is related to it. But stick with one idea per piece of writing if you want your readers to have a clear concept of what you want them to do.
It’s the same as writing an essay (I hated writing them and left school vowing I’d never write another. How wrong can you be?). When you’re writing an essay, you start from one question and you (should) arrive at one conclusion, having looked at the question from every possible angle. You don’t start discussing something quite different in the middle. You stick to the point, even if you take a broad approach to it.
So often when we find a piece of writing unsatisfying it’s because the writer has gone off on a tangent and never returned to the original matter. Our questions aren’t answered, we don’t get a considered opinion and we’re left hanging in mid-air, thinking “But… Come back…!”.
I was recently leafing through a wonderful compilation of old ads, sold as “Divers in Advertising”, and wondering what the big idea was in using deep-sea divers to advertise (among other things) cigars. Watches, yes. Underwater comms, by all means. Cars – OK, they have big boots for all the gear.
But cigars?!?!? (The ad was used in Playboy magazine, UK, in the 1970s, and is probably © Embassy Cigars, or whoever owns the brand.)
Another ad had a diver looking ecstatic at finding tins and boxes of Fry’s cocoa underwater. They’ve obviously never tried putting cardboard or metal in the briny for more than a few nano-seconds. Bouillon cubes was another one – they’re quite salty enough already, thank you. Microsoft even used an image of a diver in a goldfish bowl on an office desk to promote Office; I have no idea what the relevance was, even after reading the ad three times.
Once you start looking at these ads, it’s amazing what people thought they could shoe-horn divers into. Obviously they’re working the “sunken treasure” idea, but it’s forced, unnatural and weak in almost every case.
Your big idea needs to flow naturally from what you’re trying to promote, not be shoe-horned in because you like an image or a simile and you’re darn-well going to make it fit. Like shoe-horning your feet into ill-fitting shoes, that’s just painful and impractical (especially if the shoes in question have 5” spike heels. No, let’s not go there!).
So, as well as spending time choosing your headline, you need to spend time working out exactly what is the Golden Thread for each piece you write. It doesn’t matter whether the piece is 5 words or 5,000: know what you want to say, stick with one theme per piece, state it clearly, and your audience will know what you want them to do or think at the end of it.
Which gives you a much higher chance of them actually doing it.
Which is, after all, the big idea of writing content in the first place.
P.S. The Content Confidence Club is opening up to new members from September, so if you want help support, tips and all sorts of other “sunken treasure”, get in touch.