Just what is a fronted adverbial – and what can it do for your B2B copy?
Turns out, the homeschooling parents’ nemesis can be good or bad for your content. B2B copywriter David McGuire reveals all.
If you’ve had to homeschool any small people lately – or even if you’re just connected to some parents on social media – you’ve likely been confronted by the baffling phrase “fronted adverbial”.
You’re far from alone. Even as a professional B2B copywriter – with 15 years’ experience and an Oxford English degree on my CV – I had to admit I’d never heard of such a thing until Michael Gove insisted they were not only real, but terribly important for all eight-year-olds to know.
But when I eventually did find out (and don’t worry, I’ll explain it in a minute), I recognised it’s actually a technique that copywriters use all the time. And depending how it’s deployed, a fronted adverbial can either be a very good – or a very bad – thing in your marketing content.
Just what is a “fronted adverbial” anyway?
Quite simply, it’s a word or self-contained phrase at the start of the sentence, that describes how the action in the rest of the sentence happens. You might think of it as a little introduction which sits before the comma, and sets up the main part.
So, in the explanation above, “quite simply” is a fronted adverbial (gold star if you spotted it).
If you think back to school, an adverb is a word that describes a verb; it tells you how an action is done. Usually, they end in “-ly”. For example: “David explained it clearly.”
But you can also get a phrase which acts like an adverb. It might or might not contain an adverb itself – that doesn’t matter. For example, in “She caught the ball with her eyes closed,” the last section works like an adverb, so it’s an adverbial phrase.
Put it at the front – “With her eyes closed, she caught the ball” – and you have fronted your adverbial.
Other examples of fronted adverbials might include:
“Suddenly, Ali’s daily routine changed.”
“Before he became a makeshift teacher, Gary had been a successful B2B marketer.”
“Completely exhausted from homeschooling, Jane reached for the gin.”
There’s plenty of controversy about what constitutes a fronted adverbial, and whether teaching them makes anybody a better writer, but for homework purposes, that’s good enough. The interesting part is how should (and how you shouldn’t) use this information to make your B2B content better.
How to use a fronted adverbial well in your content
Now you know what a fronted adverbial is, you’ll likely start seeing them everywhere – because people use them all the time. (See? That was one there.) Especially, as it turns out, B2B content writers.
When I was just a baby copywriter (oh look, there’s another one – OK, I’ll stop pointing them out now), I worked under the magnificent John Knowles – a canny veteran of the materials handling industry. And quickly, I picked up a writing trick I called the “John Knowles ‘importantly’”.
Whenever John needed to recapture the audience’s attention in the middle of a piece of content – for example, before introducing a second key feature – he’d start the new paragraph with “Importantly”.
It was a simple trick, but effective; the equivalent of snapping his fingers or clearing his throat. That importantly says “Pay attention! You don’t want to miss this bit…”
Surprisingly, I soon found almost any adverb could do the job. “Crucially” works well but is a little overblown. “Occasionally,” is good in context (though “often” is more conversational). “Increasingly” is helpful when you’re writing about B2B trends. But “importantly” remains my favourite.
How some B2B marketers use fronted adverbials badly
Unfortunately, one of B2B’s most common uses of the fronted adverbial is also one of the worst. And it’s something I make a point of warning the delegates about on every B2B copywriting course I teach.
“In today’s fast-paced digital world,”
“In the crowded ecommerce marketplace,”
“In this noisy B2B technology market,”
How many blog posts, ebooks and white papers have you read (or, let’s be honest, written) that start with those very words – or something very much like them?
There are two problems with starting your content that way. One, as we’ve pointed out, is that everyone else is writing very much the same thing. Before you’ve even started, you’ve shown the reader that your content is unoriginal – subtly undermining anything that might come afterwards.
The other is that those preambles rarely add anything of value. The first words in your piece are the most crucial – it’s when the audience’s attention is most focused – but here, they’re wasted. They’re just a run-up before your sentence starts to say what it really means.
As I say on the course, the best approach is to simply write your beginning, then delete everything up to and including the comma. Usually, what’s left will be what you wanted to say anyway.
Does it even matter what it’s called?
Unless you’re a homeschooling parent, or you have Year 6 SATs coming up, it really doesn’t matter how you define a fronted adverbial. What counts is choosing the right words, and understanding the effect a technique can have if you use it well – or badly.
After 15 years of professional B2B copywriting, that’s something I’ve never stopped learning.
How many fronted adverbials did you spot in this blog post? Let us know on social media or in the comments.