Writing Tips from David Ogilvy

David Ogilvy


David Ogilvy (1911-1999), who is often hailed as the “Father of Advertising”, was a US marketing tycoon, and a co-founder of Ogilvy & Mather, one of the largest marketing companies in the world.

Ogilvy was best known for advocating two important concepts in marketing. The first concept was that marketing decisions should be driven by research into consumer habits, while the second was that consumers should be treated as intelligent, and should be persuaded to purchase products accordingly, using soft-sell techniques.

Below is a collection of tips from Ogilvy on writing and creativity. While they were originally aimed at people working in the advertising industry, they are valuable to anyone who writes content for one reason or another.


Tips on writing

Write the way you talk. Naturally.


Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are the hallmarks of a pretentious ass.


Do not address your readers as though they were gathered together in a stadium. When people read your copy, they are alone. Pretend you are writing to each of them a letter on behalf of your client.


Use short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs.


The less an advertisement looks like an advertisement and the more it looks like an editorial, the more readers stop, look, and read.


I don’t know the rules of grammar… If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me that you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think. We try to write in the vernacular.


Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.


Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.


Tips on headlines

On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. Never use tricky or irrelevant headlines… People read too fast to figure out what you are trying to say.


In the average newspaper your headline has to compete with 350 others. Readers travel fast through this jungle. Your headline should telegraph what you want to say.


The headlines which work best are those which promise the reader a benefit.


Tips on editing

Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it.


If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.


Check your quotations.


Tips on creativity

Big ideas come from the unconscious. This is true in art, in science, and in advertising. But your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant. Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process. You can help this process by going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret. Suddenly, if the telephone line from your unconscious is open, a big idea wells up within you.


In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.


The creative process requires more than reason. Most original thinking isn’t even verbal. It requires a groping experimentation with ideas, governed by intuitive hunches and inspired by the unconscious. The majority of business men are incapable of original thinking because they are unable to escape from the tyranny of reason. Their imaginations are blocked.


Concentrate your time, your brains, and your money on your successes. Back your winners, and abandon your losers.


Where people aren’t having any fun, they seldom produce good work.


When you reach for the stars, you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.


Summary and conclusions

  • David Ogilvy was one of the most notable figures in the marketing world, and is often hailed as the “Father of Advertising”.
  • The tips that he offers, though originally intended for those in the marketing industry, are valuable for anyone who writes content or needs to be creative in their work.
  • His general advice on writing focuses on writing as naturally as possible, in a manner that is accessible to your readers.
  • His advice on headlines emphasizes the competition that your headline faces, and the consequent importance of being clear and offering a benefit to each potential reader.
  • His advice on creativity discusses how to let your subconscious lead the process, and highlights the importance of knowing how to channel your creativity in a productive way.


If you enjoyed these insights, you can take a look at two of Ogilvy’s best-known books: Ogilvy on Advertising and Confessions of an Advertising Man.


Three Principles that Get You to Take Action

Take action


When it comes to taking initiative, we are often our own worst enemy. Instead of going after what we want, we let ourselves be ruled by anxiety and self-doubt, which hold us back.

In the following article, you will learn three simple principles, which can help you get over that self-doubt, and allow you take action when you should.


If you don’t ask, the answer will always be no.

Being told “no” sucks, which is why we often avoid putting ourselves in situations where we might get rejected. However, actually receiving that rejection usually isn’t that big of a deal. In essence, the problem is that we hold ourselves back, and spend a huge amount of time and effort agonizing over the decision whether or not to act, just because we’re afraid of rejection, even when that rejection has no consequences.

Think about it this way: once you get over the fear of the rejection, you only stand to profit by putting yourself out there and asking for what you want. Up until the moment you ask, you automatically have “no” for an answer. Therefore, by asking, you can either keep that “no”, or possibly change it to a “yes”. By just being willing to ask, you’re already significantly improving your odds of success.


It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.

People don’t want to take responsibility for any potential consequences that your actions might have. That’s why, if you ask them beforehand, they might not give you permission for even minor things, that are unlikely to actually matter. Conversely, after the fact, people generally don’t care too much about what you did, especially if there isn’t anything that can be done about it.

Because of this, instead of asking for permission to do something, you’re often better off just doing it, and then saying “sorry” afterward (if it’s even necessary). Of course, you have to do it in a smart way, without stepping over boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed.


It’s not about who’s going to let you; it’s about who’s going to stop you.

We often fret before taking action, because we spend a lot of time thinking about who to get permission from for that action. However, in many situations, it’s better to just act, and then if it actually bothers someone, they’ll let you know themselves.

Therefore, don’t waste your time agonizing over finding the appropriate person to ask for permission from each time you want to do something. Don’t invent excuses for yourself why not to do something, because someone else might not be okay with it. Furthermore, remember that in many of the cases when you want to do something that might seem significant to you, other people won’t really care about it that much anyway.


How these guidelines fit together

All three principles advocate for you take action when you otherwise wouldn’t, and to go for things in cases when you know the consequences aren’t significant (and they generally aren’t).

The difference between them is that they tell you to “go for it” in different ways. Pick the best option that’s relevant in your case, and apply it. If necessary, adjust as you go along.


Apply with common sense

Obviously, these guidelines should be applied with common sense. I’m not telling you to go rob a bank and then tell the judge “sorry” afterward, or anything along those lines.

Instead, I’m telling you to stop holding yourself back in areas where you shouldn’t. This means everything from just asking out that someone you are interested in, to asking for the raise you deserve at work. Don’t always assume you’ll get a “no” and give up before even trying.


Summary and conclusions

  • We are often our own worse enemy, in terms of letting our doubts hold us back. However, there are some guidelines that can promote you to take action where you would otherwise hesitate.
  • First, remember that if you don’t ask, the answer will always be no.
  • Second, keep in mind that it’s often easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.
  • Finally, remember that it’s not about who’s going to let you; it’s about who’s going to stop you.
  • All of these guidelines tell you to “go for it” in different ways. Use the most appropriate one in each scenario, and make sure to always apply them with common sense.


Handwriting vs. Typing: How to Choose the Best Method to Take Notes

Writing notes by hand versus typing them up on a laptop.


A common question people ask is whether you should write notes by hand or type them up on a computer. In short, studies generally show that writing notes by hand allows you to remember the material better than typing it. However, when it comes to actually choosing which method you should use, the answer is more complicated than that.


The following article will show you:

  • How each method affects the way you remember the material.
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of each method.
  • How you can counteract some of the disadvantages.
  • How to decide which method is best for you.


Note-taking and your memory

As previously stated, taking notes by hand generally allows you to remember the material better. This has been shown in a number of studies, ranging from those which examined memory in general, to those which examined note-taking methods in a classroom setting:

In the case of taking notes during lectures, the main issue with typing is that people are more predisposed to engage in verbatim note-taking when they type, as opposed to when they write the notes by hand. This means that they just type whatever the speaker/lecturer says, and this sort of note-taking involves relatively shallow cognitive processing of the material. In comparison, writing down the material by hand usually involves a more in-depth processing, where you don’t just transcribe everything the speaker says word-for-word.

Being aware of this issue might allow you to take better notes while typing, as long as you focus on how to summarize and rephrase the material, instead of just transcribing it verbatim. However, you need to be aware of your abilities, and honest with yourself regarding whether you can actually do this successfully. Testing shows that in most cases, telling students to avoid taking verbatim notes when typing doesn’t actually lead to an improvement in their note-taking. This doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to improve if you actively work on your note-taking skills, especially if you dedicate yourself to it in the long-term, but it does mean that you should be wary.


Important factors to consider

Conceptual versus factual learning

The way in which you’re expected to interact with the material matters when choosing which note-taking method to use, and there is a difference between conceptual learning and factual learning. In the case of conceptual learning, you’re expected to reach a thorough understanding of the material, while in the case of factual learning, you’re mostly expected to know specific details. The advantages of taking notes by hand are more significant in the case of conceptual learning, since it requires a deeper processing of the material.


Access and distractions

When you type, you have access to a lot of tools on your computer. This can be either beneficial or detrimental to your learning.

The benefits: you can look things up during the lecture and sometimes use supplemental material that the lecturer provides.

The disadvantages: you have a lot more distractions available. Don’t underestimate the negative impact that this can have on you, since multitasking on a laptop during lectures has been shown to significantly hinder students’ learning. You can try and mitigate this in various ways, such as by blocking your access to sites/programs which you know might distract you, but this doesn’t always work.

However, keep in mind that writing notes by hand doesn’t mean that you don’t have access to distractions (e.g. your phone). You need to be self-aware and truly think which platform allows you to concentrate better.


Length and type of text

Writing by hand tends to make you more succinct, since people can generally type more quickly than they can write. This can be an advantage, since it means you only include the more-important details in your notes. However, if you are forced to be so brief that you omit minor-but-necessary details, this can become an issue.

Typing allows you to write more details, but the disadvantage of writing too much is that you might end up drowning in unnecessary details, which makes it more difficult to study later. Therefore, decide whether you will benefit more from being brief and concise, or from covering all the details which are mentioned. This also has to do with how you’re expected to know the material (i.e. conceptual vs. factual understanding), as we previously saw.

In addition, keep in mind that:


Preferences and study technique

Sometimes you may not feel comfortable writing by hand, because it’s too slow for you, or because you’re not familiar enough with the material to process it during the lecture. If you rely on going over the material after the lecture, it can be beneficial to produce more-accurate notes by typing, even if it comes at the cost of not processing the material as much as when you’re writing it by hand.


Practical benefits of digital notes

There are a few advantages to typing your notes which are not directly related to your memorization ability, but which are still important to consider:

  • Digital notes are easier to edit and fix.
  • Digital notes are easier to search through.
  • Digital notes are more reliable, especially if you back them up appropriately (i.e. there’s no chance of forgetting your notebook somewhere and losing a year’s worth of notes).
  • Digital notes are easier to share (though some people may consider this to be a disadvantage).


Finding what works for you

As always, there are tons of variables to consider when deciding which method is best for you. Try things out for yourself and find out which method you prefer. Keep in mind that different methods might be better in different situations. This depends both on the nature of the material, as well as on your end goal for the notes.

Overall, you can generally use the following guidelines in order to choose a method your note-taking method:

Taking notes by hand works best when you want to fully process the material as you’re writing it down. It’s especially helpful when you’re expected to achieve a conceptual understanding of the material, and when the material you need to write down isn’t convenient to type up on a computer.

The main issue with writing things by hand is that it’s relatively slow, which can be problematic if you can’t write fast enough to keep up with the speaker.

Typing your notes works best if there is a lot of material that you need to write down, and writing by hand isn’t convenient or fast enough. You tend to process the material less as you’re typing it, especially if you end up just transcribing everything verbatim, so you will probably have to rely more on going over the material after you finish taking the notes. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and depends on your study techniques and preferences.

Other advantages of digital notes are that they’re simpler to edit and fix, easier to search through, and are more reliable in terms of backups. However, working on a digital device can open you up to more distractions, which is detrimental to your learning if you’re not careful.


Summary and conclusions

  • Writing notes by hand generally improves your understanding of the material, as it involves deeper cognitive-processing than typing it.
  • The main issue with typing is that it causes people to transcribe the material verbatim, exactly as presented by the speaker, which means that they don’t process the material as much. This is difficult to avoid even if you’re aware of the issue.
  • Both writing notes by hand and typing them are valid strategies, and each can be preferable in different situations, as they both have their advantages and disadvantages.
  • Writing by hand is better if you need to process the material as you’re writing it, and especially if you’re expected to reach a conceptual understanding of the material (as opposed to factual understanding).
  • Typing notes is better if you need to write a lot, or if you’re planning to go over the material again later. It has the added bonus of making the text easier to edit and search through. However, it also opens you up to more distractions, which you should take care to avoid.