Dated. Generalized. Flat.
Three words that come to mind after I attended the National Seminars Training Two-day Copywriter’s Workshop in Oakland, California. My attendance was the result of a long search for conferences and workshops designed specifically for copywriters, of which there are rather few.
Learning and progress did I seek!
Naturally, “The Complete Course on Creating Killer Copy Both Traditional and E-Media” caught my eye.
Alas, the copywriting acuity ended there in a quiet burp passed through the nose.
What It Will Cost You To Attend
Aside from the long-term mental health affects of the slow, creeping realization that the workshop you’re attending is low-rent and shoddy, this workshop will run you $799. For an additional cost, you can buy books available for sale on the day of the workshop.
The Workshop Experience—Day One
After wandering up to the East Bay from San Diego, it was a short walk from my room at the Washington Inn Hotel to my seat at the Alameda County Training & Education Center. It’s a drab and curious place—one half legal library, one half classroom farm. Still, my optimism and positive attitude remained intact after checking in and chatting with the energetic instructor. Nice enough, and she did make an effort to keep things lively. As attendees of all age and background filtered in—around 12 in total—the day finally commenced.
Assignment one: turn to your neighbor, interview her, then write and present a creative introduction to the room.
“Many a folk in the sunsplashed streets of Burlingame know Wendy…”
This brief exercise was followed by some book work. To wit, the instructor read out of the textbook, verbatim, sometimes pausing to share anecdotes or examples. This continued throughout most of the morning, with various on-the-spot composition activities interspersed, details included herein for effect and accuracy.
Assignment two: with a partner, create a comic strip meant to simulate storyboarding.
Storyboarding? A small glimpse of hope!
Lunch in the company of a handful of attendees, however, confirmed my early suspicions:
No one was into it.
A delightful turkey sandwich in the open air of a pleasant Wednesday in downtown Oakland was followed by a seemingly haphazard smattering of illustrative anecdotes, beginner composition activities, and more dictation.
Assignment three: write a description of your favorite movie; cut a bunch of words; see if the class can guess it based on your description.
Like some kind of idiot, I chose The Master:
In post-war California, the wreckage of the Pacific Theater is washing ashore, and with it, Freddie Quell. Sailor. Moonshiner. A troubled, irascible drunkard. After accidentally poisoning a man on a cabbage farm in Salinas, Freddie flees, eventually crossing paths with Lancaster Dodd, leader of The Cause. What ensues is a journey into not only Freddie’s most moving memories, but also our own.
Shoulda picked Moana.
Hope of practical techniques applicable in a modern context quickly dwindled. Half the workbook left. Half the conference already over. My key takeaway for day one was an anecdote the instructor shared about people attending these seminars while traveling just to write off their vacation expenses.
That and the value of Stunk & White.
Wake Up, It’s Day Two
9:00am. Onward we pressed, almost before I’d finished my first sip of backwater coffee, to reading out of the textbook and doing more composition activities.
Assignment four: write a catchy subject, body, and postscript for an email to your boss soliciting his or her support for Pirate Day at work.
Subject: Man overboard!
Body: As much as I love working for you, I can’t stop thinking about how fun it would be to see Bill with a patch over his lazy eye, pipe hanging from his chapped lips, drunk as a skunk off basement grog.
PS Please set aside $25 in the budget. Pretty please?
Now, the prompts come in waves.
Assignment five: describe what you wanted to be when you grew up, prose style.
Each morning, in the wee hours before I skipped off to catch the school bus, I’d sit in the warm glow of the television screen, watching as Jerry Taft forecasted the weather for the greater Chicagoland area. As symbols, numbers, and animations crossed the screen, Jerry brought jet streams, low-pressure fronts, and lake-effect snow to life. And for years thereafter, I would tell inquisitive adults that, when I grew up, I wanted to be a meteorologist.
Hooray for me. Now I’m a goddam copywriter.
All this tomfoolery preceded a marked left turn into nothingland, totally and finally taking all hope of practical training with it.
Time for another turkey sandwich.
After lunch, assignment six hit the airwaves: team up and build a “marketing campaign” comprised of a radio spot, television commercial (which you must act out live), a social media post (including hashtag), and a print trifold brochure.
Our group dreamed up a self-correcting pen and ran with it the best we could:
It’s not writing, it’s Spellink.
The third group’s generic hipster coffeeshop won the room.
How could we forget Instagram?
Day two closed with an expedited reading (again, verbatim) of the remaining pages of our textbook, followed by another product pitch by the instructor. At one point, we’re given advice on stimulating creativity, including the benefits of chewing peppermint.
Finally, we’re given assignment seven: the course feedback form.
It’s the last piece of writing we’d be asked to complete for this workshop.
I left and headed straight for the bar.
Things That Weren’t So Great
Let’s start with the quiet sterility of Alameda County Training Center. The people were nice and kill me if I start turning up my nose; but a workshop is meant to engage, excite, and inspire, no? Especially when it’s marketed toward creatives. For two days, I felt like Tim Canterbury from Season 1, Episode 4 of The Office UK, a downtrodden employee of Wernham Hogg forced to endure sensitivity training so dreadfully plain it causes an outburst.
Whatever happened to the importance of setting?
Surprisingly, few of the attendees had a background in copywriting. Save for a good odd few, most of my fellow workshoppers were either testing the waters (and “seeing what copywriting is all about”) or taking advantage of a ripe excuse to spend two days away from their own Wernham Hogg.
Not exactly chomping at the bit, was our little Oakland cohort.
The instructor spent a lot of time reading directly out of the book, which would be bad enough without a generic and totally uninspired copywriting workbook.
Worse yet, there was almost no technical training or advanced copywriting concepts. Where was the deep dissection of a high-converting digital sales letter? Why didn’t we look at good examples of About Us and landing pages? What about a word or two on how to collaborate effectively with graphic designers? Were the words in-house, freelance, or agency uttered even once?
Plenty of what, but not a lot of why and how.
Tinkering and toying with the CoSchedule Headline Analyzer, MOAT, and Similar Web was about as close as we got to practical application, and that all comprised a woefully underwhelming and incomplete introduction to Search Engine Optimization.
Okay, It Wasn’t All Bad
Look, I try my darnedest to avoid being a Debbie Downer. I did meet some nice and intelligent people. The instructor gave good effort in a limited system. For two days, I got to sneak away to the The Trappist for lunch, a fine establishment with delicious solids, drinkable liquids, and a fine atmosphere.
And, as it turns out, Oakland is a pretty rad town.
To Go, Or Not to Go?
If I do sound like an overly critical blowhard, consider this: if I had stumbled on a review like this beforehand, I never would have attended this workshop. My cynical view is that these programs are cash cows for National Seminar Training (look at the volume of courses they offer, the amount of upselling that goes on in the classroom). This was the shell of what an intensive two-day copywriter’s workshop should be, just enough material to stand the thing up and generate revenue.
If you attended this conference and thought to yourself, Am I crazy, or is this thing pure drivel? you’re not crazy, and you’re not alone.
I thought so, too.
I would not recommend this course to any serious copywriter.
Shoot, at least I met some good people at the hotel bar.