Is AI a threat to copywriters’ careers? Why conversational copy matters today, more than ever

I wrote in my mid-May newsletter how sometimes old-fashioned writing techniques can deepen our thinking (e.g. especially when we plot, plan and draft fiction). But I’ve also read with interest the other end of that scale, how copywriters (communications and marketing writers) can benefit from and also defend themselves from the developments of Artificial Intelligence (AI)—most obviously when it threatens to overtake our livelihoods.

For years now, technology gurus and computer science specialists (and not only conspiracy theorists) have warned of a feared “intelligence explosion,” since progress from human level AI to superhuman ability now can occur rapidly. Many readers will know that “OpenAI,” a company backed by Elon Musk, can mimic the way that humans write so well that it can be impossible to tell whether a news item is written by a computer or by a human writer. Due to the ethical problems that ensue from this, Musk and others have not released some of the company’s most sophisticated developments.

If a computer can write as well as we can,

where does that leave professional copywriters?

When I teach students at Saskatoon’s Praxis School of Entrepreneurship conversational, open-ended copywriting, I deliberately use it to replace the aggressive, direct marketing style of copy that once dominated the business writing world. Conversational copywriting does not assume that the reader is passive and easily manipulated into a “hard sell,” as direct response copywriting does. But a conversational method also resists easy replication by AI.

Conversational copywriting adapts many tools to its approach. Here are a few:
(1) It asks open-ended questions that hook readers to participate in the “discussion,” whether in a headline or an opening paragraph (or both)

(2) It uses at appropriate times one or more of our five senses to persuade the reader to read and follow the discussion (e.g. onomatopoeic words, like “sizzling steak,” that sound similar to their meaning will convince the reader to follow more than dull, unfigurative, non-sensory ones)

(3) Writers using a friendly, conversational style will use contractions (“Won’t you agree?”), some sentence fragments (“Want to join us?”) that are not possible by formulaic/templated copy, thereby allowing the writer’s personality to shine through

(4) Using stock photos or short videos (at no or low cost to the writer) can engage the reader even more personally and powerfully than conversational language and can definitely be used to intensify its force

(5) Good, conversational writing includes a call-to-action (CTA) that encourages the reader to respond or comment, once they have read it.

Computer scientists tell us that AI cannot easily master writing that requires our own initiative (e.g. to develop an original and specific theme or topic that followers will read and respond to), judgment (e.g. such as the ethics of various approaches to copywriting and the readers those approaches appeal to) and perspective (our informed opinions, interests or biases).

Specifically due to the writer’s initiative, judgment and perspective, the open-ended capacity of blogging is more complex and harder to mimic or reproduce than, say, the more formulaic structure of a media release (or similarly, case studies, white papers or other template-patterned copy).

When I think of AI, I can’t help but remember how it has been parodied over the years by comedians like Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Michael J. Fox and others. That’s relevant because computer scientists tell us that our humanity, imperfections and conversational capacities (all hallmarks of comedy, in this case) are the most resistant to AI.

Showing our humanness in tone, content and style means that we’ll stay competitive longer. Consider, for instance, my colleague Daphne Gray-Grant who blogged this week (post #684) on how saying “no” to others’ requests can make yourself a better writer. In that post, she discusses the risk of being a “people pleaser” or what Bernard Brandchaft called “pathological accommodators” (agreeing to do much or all that others ask of you) can threaten one’s writing process and output, not to mention one’s health and well-being. Gray-Grant’s initiative, judgment and perspective have shaped every word in her posting; she needn’t watch nervously over her shoulder for the latest capabilities of AI.

So to my clients and students who do glance nervously around themselves in the world of AI, I suggest this: Use everyday, conversational language. Involve 

all of your senses. Write about your abilities and dis/differing abilities and whatever imperfections and vulnerabilities that shape what and how you think. Developing your own, original voice through these capacities will be far more persuasive than AI.

No one wants to tempt fate. And I certainly recommend reading about and using technology well and responsibly—no luddite arguments, here. But at least some computer scientists suggest that programming non-human superintelligence with the kinds of complex human values and emotions required by professional writing will be a technical feat not easily met—now or tomorrow.

And now it’s your turn: How do you engage or address the developments of AI for your creative work? Please share your responses; I’d be delighted to extend this conversation.