If you’re a fan of the comedy series Blackadder, this scene from series three will raise a smile.

The Prince of Wales’s butler, Edmund Blackadder, has wagered that he can rescue an aristocrat from revolutionary France.

But rather than risking The Terror and Lady Guillotine, he decides to cheat by ‘rescuing’ a French nobleman from Mrs Miggins’ pie shop.

He finds one – the Comte de Frou Frou. But how much English does he parlez?

Comte: A little…
Blackadder: Yes, when you say “a little,” what exactly do you mean? I mean, can we talk? or are we going to spend the rest of the afternoon asking each other the way to the beach in very loud voices?
Comte: Ah, no. I can, er, order coffee, deal with waiters, make sexy chit-chat with girls — that type of thing.
Blackadder: Oh, good.
Comte: Just don’t ask me to take a physiology class or direct a light opera.

It’s over 20 years since I first laughed at that dialogue, but now I can see there’s a useful nugget in there for the copywriter: How much of an expert do you need to be?

Expert? Moi?

Before we start talking at cross purposes, I’m not talking about expertise at copywriting. It goes without saying that a copywriter needs to be good at that.

What I really want to ask you is this:

Do you need to have expert knowledge of an industry before you can write about it?

My own view is that you usually don’t – but I do think you need certain qualities if you’re going to be any good at writing about a particular industry or profession.

They are:

  1. An interest in the sector. I’m not a builder, engineer, plumber, cabinet maker or insulation manufacturer – but trades interest me, so I love learning and writing about them. But if you ask me to write about management training, Government guidelines or key performance indicators I’ll do a terrible job – because even though I know about these things, they bore me to into a near coma.
  2. An understanding of industry language. Not so you can dot your copy with jargon and acronyms, but so you can understand what your client is talking about. Your job is to get a clear message over to your client’s chosen audience. That usually means translating industry speak into English.
  3. An outsider’s point of view. Industry insiders have a habit of talking about what interests them, not what interests their clients or customers. Your copywriting should tip the balance the other way.

That last point is the most important, and it’s the one that comes to your aid when someone says:

“But what about legal copywriting? Or copywriting for accountants, or the medical profession? Surely you have to know these professions back to front before you can write about them?”

Because in my experience, the people who write most of the copy in these fields are the professionals themselves.

And while it’s rare to find a copywriter who’s as much of an industry expert as the professionals, it’s rarer to find a professional who writes genuinely good marketing copy for their business.

Don’t you agree?