In conversation with

Kate Hamilton & Emily Ames

Co-founders of Sonder & Tell

Introduction

Introduction

In three years of Sonder & Tell we’ve browsed the bookshelves and brains of marketing directors, journalists and copywriters, asking questions about the craft of language and the makings of a good story. While preparing to grow the team, we realised we’d never asked co-founders Kate and Emily for their take.

Writing is often thought of as a solitary act – with artists stuck in their heads, and then struck by midnight moments of inspiration. Ours is a collaborative process that makes the singular act of writing a team effort. While one asks “what do you want to say”, the other questions “how do want people to feel?” It’s about pushing and cutting copy to get words to the best possible place.

Read on for writing advice (embrace shitty first drafts), the secret to a great brand story (hero the customer) and snippets from childhood diaries (drama).

Question and Answer

What are your first memories of writing?

Nothing makes us laugh more than reading one another’s diaries from when we were young. Both unbelievably self important. Impressionable too. At Angus Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging age it was all “fit” “blimey” “big knickers”. When we both lived in America around age 11 (Emily in New York and Kate in Alabama) we took on an entirely American tone of voice. One of Kate’s entries from that time reads “I luv 2 b single. Now I can flirt”; and Emily’s “he thinks that I am, like, his”.

What’s the best advice you’ve read about writing?

There’s a W.H. Auden quote (which we actually saw on Naomi Shimada’s Instagram) that says “poetry is the clear expression of mixed feelings”. It’s really stuck with us and influenced the way we explain the role we play for brands: we need to help them think clearly about their mixed messages through clear expression. The advice that we always pass on is that great writing, or poetry if you like, is about clear thinking. That, and the Anne Lamott sentiment that all writing starts with a shitty first draft.

Why do you write collaboratively?

If you ask someone what their favourite word is, you’ll usually get two types of answers. People pick words based on what they actually mean (the content) and how words make them feel (the tone). Holiday vs bamboozled. Writing can become very content focused, especially for brands that need to be accurate and clear. But you also have to make your customers feel something. At S&T we make writing a collaborative act so that we’re always fulfilling those two functions of brand writing. What are we trying to say? And how do we want to make them feel?

“Writing can become very content focused, especially for brands that need to be accurate and clear. But you also have to make your customers feel something.”

On that note, what’s your favourite word?

We recently came across verklempt (thank you Otegha Uwagba). Which means to be overcome with emotion. That works on both levels.

Who edits who?

Everyone’s an editor at Sonder & Tell. We’re into quick, open feedback and our team is constantly cutting one another’s words (sometimes painful, always necessary) to push creative ideas and make sure the words get to the best possible place. As a freelance copywriter or while working in-house at a brand, it’s difficult to get access to that kind of critical eye. Which is one of the reasons we started our new Slack channel The Wordsmiths: to help all kinds of copywriters meet and hopefully find room to grow.

What trap do you think a lot of brands fall into when it comes to copywriting?

Jumping to copy when they don’t have a tone of voice. Or personality. Or values. It’s why so many brands end up sounding the same (because they’re copying what the next brand is doing). ‘We’re changing the way the world drinks/snacks/suntans’. ‘We’ve got you covered!’ ‘It’s a ________ revolution’.

Photos by Eva Schwank for Rogue Matilda

What’s the secret to a good brand story?

A really clear understanding of the role you play in your customer’s lives. It’s how you make the customer the hero of the story, not your own brand (or founder).

Can you share a snippet of a brand story you have written?

We loved writing the story for Homethings, the eco-cleaning brand as they really let us run wild with a narrative all around: the world is bonkers, Homethings makes sense.

“The world is bonkers. A quick plunge into the internet is all it takes to realise that – with YouTube videos of tiny hamsters eating tiny burritos, and pigeons that wear cowboy hats in Vegas. The most bonkers of it all? The global threat to the environment and the single-use plastic problem…”

What are you looking forward to in S&T’s future?

Growing a team of copywriters – strategists and storytellers – who believe in the power of words. Challenging the thinking that positions TOV as one slide on friendliness at the end of a beautiful designed deck.

Kate & Emily's Storylist

Books

  1. Luster by Raven Leilani
  2. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  3. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
  4. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  5. Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
  6. No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
  7. Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  8. Leaving The Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

Magazines

  1. The Gentlewoman
  2. Riposte
  3. Face

Newsletters

  1. The Word by Sonder & Tell
  2. Public Library by Phoebe Lovatt
  3. The Ann Friedman Weekly
  4. The Craft by Jami Attenburg
  5. For The Love by Aja Singer
  6. Since No One Asked by Cat Sarsfield
  7. The Round Up by Otegha Uwagba
  8. In Her Words by The New York Times
  9. The Aram by Tahmina Begum

Podcasts

  1. Dolly Parton's America
  2. Missing Crypto Queen
  3. The Drop Out
  4. Adam Buxton
  5. Ctrl Alt Delete by Emma Gannon
  6. Awards Chatter
  7. Longform by The New Yorker

Digital Platforms

  1. New York Times
  2. Repeller (RIP)
  3. The Cut
  4. galdem
  5. The Atlantic
Previous Story
JP Watson
JP Watson

Writer & Founder of The Pound Project

Next Story
Chloé Pierre

Founder of thy.self

Articles

Featured storytellers

View all

Sign up to our newsletter