How To Write Like David Ogilvy - The Father Of Advertising

    Over the past 6.5 years of my working life, I've written around 1000 words daily, i.e. around 1.8 million words since my first day at Business Insider.

    Over the years, my go-to writing guide has been an internal memo sent by legendary ad-man David Ogilvy on September 7th, 1982 to all his agency employees, titled 'How to Write'.

    This note succilently captures the essence of Ogilvy's perspective on writing, and has since made its way into in the 1986 gem The Unpublished David Ogilvy and the subsequent 'Confessions Of An Advertising Man'.

    In the memo, David makes his case clear on the importance of clear and concise writing.

    "People who think well, write well. Woolly minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters and woolly speeches." -  David Ogilvy

    Here are the 10 tips on writing well from history's most iconic advertising guru:

    Its true that the more great writing you read, the better your mind would connect the dots on what truly great writing is made of. If you're an aspiring writing, or generally want to improve your writing, listen to Ogilvy, and get yourself a copy of Writing That Works (latest edition of 'On Writing' that Ogilvy mentions) by Roman & Raphaelson.

    Personally, I'll recommend On Writing Well by William Zinsser, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King and Nobody Wants To Read Your Sh*t by Steven Pressfield.

    Ogilvy always wrote like he spoke, naturally. Informal writing is simply easier to read and understand.

    Unless you're writing a legal document or business contract, follow these simple rules if you want to be understood easily:

    • Active Voice: “I've noticed” vs. “It has been noticed that …”
    • Contractions: “won’t” over “would not”
    • Abbreviations: “TV” over “television”
    • Informal expressions: “kids” over “children

    Long & winding sentences might just be what a writer feels they need to express themselves, but they are an assault on a reader's senses.

    Writing should deliver value & fast. As an author who wishes to write for others, your personal satisfaction is irrelevant.

    Big bulky words might massage a writer's ego, but they make you feel snobbish & conceited. These words confuse readers, make them feel stupid, and they won't want to come back to read more.

    Good writing is instantly understood.

    Ogilvy’s point is clear - never write more than is necessary on any topic. If you can make an explanation consise without leaving out important details, do it.

    Edit without mercy.

    In today's era of fake news and misinformation, this is meant to be taken literally.

    If someone is reading you, and you quote someone else in your writing, the reading is trusting you to be honest & sincere.

    Distancing yourself from your work is the only way to retain objectivity. Any content rarely comes out perfect on the first go, especially if you write it.

    Just as you won't go in for a public speech without a dry run, why publish an article without a second look?

    Any writing with your name, or even your signature on it is important. Every word counts towards your reputation, your legacy.

    So treat it with the care it deserves.

    Any writing, especially, business communication is done with a goal.

    In any written communication, its important to keep this goal in mind, in order to make the writing cohesive. Noone likes reading a bunch of long winding sentences on an email, only to wonder, 'what did he even mean?'

    Even the best writing can’t replicate human interaction, the sensation of being face-to-face with another human.

    We are not a bunch of thinking beings who feel, we're a bunch of feeling beings who think.

    Our emotions are what ultimately move us. So trust Ogilvy, and get on a Zoom/Google Meet meeting, a call or even a flight if you can afford it.


    Still Curious? Read more about David Ogilvy, his life and his work in 'Confessions Of An Advertising Man' and The Unpublished David Ogilvy: A Selection Of His Writings From The Files Of His Partners.

    Saikat Pyne

    Saikat Pyne

    Saikat Pyne is an award-winning integrated marketing & communications specialist. He has consulted 40+ leading brands on ways to build their reputation with digital-first content.