Write, better, not more and think about your audience

I thought you might enjoy this blog post from a fellow copywriter, Tom Albrighton. He strikes a case for pushing words to their limits. Condensing ideas and thoughts down into a memorable or striking phrase.

That very much resonates with my own thinking, that often short and simple is better. Because it’s easy to take in. Easy to understand. Memorable.

And that often invoves using the language of poetry. Poetry is about the economy of language. The right word in the right place. A word or two that perfectly capture a moment or sensation. It’s powerful stuff.

And it’s hard to do. When I run writing workshops in the company I work for, I often hear people say “But our products are really complicated, it’s hard to make them sound simple and fully explain what they do.”

And yet, over the last few weeks, on television screens across the country, thousands of us have tuned in to hear Professor Brian Cox explain the infinite complexities and mysteries of the universe.

He talks about things we cannot see. Describes things so big we cannot measure them and talks about events that will not happen in our lifetime or a million lifetimes. And there’s nothing overly complicated about the language he uses. The programme lasts an hour, but it’s not a lecture that bombards us with information, statistics and mathematical proof points.

So how does he do it? Explain something as complex and marvellous as the universe?

Quite simply by framing it in terms that we can understand. By bringing it back to tangible objects that we can hold, touch or imagine. In one programme, he explained the second law of thermodynamics and ultimately why time only goes forward, using a sandcastle in a desert. Turning something abstract, into something real.

So if Brian Cox can explain entropy in simple language, I’m quite sure businesses can explain their products using it too.

That’s where real world metaphors, like Brian’s sandcastle can help. To give you an example, I was recently trying to get my head around a feature in one of our software products, desperately trying to figure out why it’s useful for a customer.

It’s about data (something intangible). To help me understand it, the product manager used the metaphor of a car. We build the basis of a car, but then our customers can choose the options they want – for example a bigger engine, different wheels, leather seats etc.

It’s basically about shaping data into something that makes sense for our customers, for example, a list of their 20 most profitable products. It means they can adapt the data to suit them, but we’ve given them a head start by providing the basis (the chassis if you like).

I did smile at the fact that Tom’s blog post about writing better, not writing more is in itself over 1,000 words long – something he acknowledges. And now I’ve added my own sum of words to that.

Could I have worked harder to condense it down into  a pithy quote? Arguably. But I’m still stewing the ideas in my own version of brain soup.

Tom’s thoughts have also been challenged by another copywriter, Ben Locker, who argues the case for the audience saying it’s just as important to know who you’re writing for, what they want and how it’s being delivered.

I believe that too. And it’s certainly given me plenty to think about for my next writing assignment.

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When poetry is perfect

A couple of weeks ago I wrote down some thoughts about running that came out as poetry. And the most excellent Barry Cornelius kindly sent me a comment with a link to ‘The Song of the Ungirt Runners

I hadn’t read it before, but thought some of you might like it too. I particularly like the second verse:

The waters of the seas
Are troubled as by storm
The tempest strips the trees
And does not leave them warm
Does the tearing tempest pause?
Do the tree-tops ask it why?
So we run without a cause
‘Neath the big bare sky.

At the moment those images of tempests and storm tossed seas resonate with the scenes we’ve witnessed in Japan.

Sometimes poetry is perfect, especially for the big events. Its heightened language speaks to us in ways that prose finds difficult, through rhythm, rhyme and precise language. Like the right word at the right time, it resonates deeply.

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Today I ran

Today I ran
For the sound of the surf and the breath of the wind
To turn my back on the cares of the day
To unknot my shoulders
And give my eyes a broader landscape than a brightly lit screen.

Today I ran
Not so far or so fast
But because I can.
I ran for those who will no longer run
Poppies in Flanders’ fields
Dust in Camp Bastion.

And as I ran
In the desert under the sun
Through the woods in moonlight
Up through the fells and down through the scree
The trudgers, the plodders, the brave, the hardy
The crazy, the committed, the hopeful and the glad
Joined me.

And among our numbers were the gods
The fleet of foot and bright of smile
Who astonish us all with their flashes of brilliance
And breathe the same breath.

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A Day to Die For – book review

I’m currently reading ‘A Day to Die for’ by Graham Ratcliffe, the story of a May night in 1996 when eight climbers died on Mount Everest.

It was my privilege to meet Graham when I worked as a journalist. Breaking the news that he’d succeeded in becoming the first British climber to reach the summit of Everest twice was the proudest moment in my journalism career.

This story about a previous summit attempt is absolutely gripping. I started reading it as I was waiting for an appointment and I was really sorry when I had to put it down. I’ve been devouring chapters during my lunch break and cannot wait to get back to it.

It is a hard story for Graham to tell. He was on the mountain that night, preparing for his own summit attempt and feels that with a little more knowledge of what was happening, he and his team mates could have saved some lives.

I’m only part way through, but I know that the events of that night, the worst disaster of Everest’s history, raised a lot of questions and it’s taken a long time for the facts to be made public. Questions around the commercial aspect of Everest expeditions; about decisions taken by the other team leaders and what was known about the storm that cost so many lives.

Knowing one of the people who was there does give me a real interest in the story, but I think it goes far beyond that. It’s certainly well written and takes you right into the heart of this amazing, beautiful and treacherous place. I don’t pretend to understand the world of extreme climbing, although I’ve been known to shimmy up a climbing wall or two. But I do begin to have a feeling for the drive and commitment that such a challenge involves.

I liked Graham instantly I met him. And I found him very inspirational. Climbing Everest requires the same dogged focus and dedication that he’s applied to tracking down the facts about that tragic night. I was a very minor part in his story, but I’ve often thought about his calm determination and drive as I’ve taken on my own physical challenges.  It’s good to know he’s still out there, dreaming of mountains.

The news story I wrote and the award winning website I worked on at the time have long since disappeared into the ether. Other people I also had the pleasure of working with, including Alastair Leithead and Olwyn Hocking played a far greater part in spreading the news of his successful expedition. But here’s what the good old internet looked like in 1999 when he finally succeeded in his amazing quest.

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A question of grammar

Correcting the grammar on a poster

Yesterday, as I was getting ready for work, I heard a news story about a business bemoaning the poor grammar skills of their recent graduates. It seems bosses at Leeds Building Society are so concerned about workers’ written English that they have hired a teacher to give them grammar lessons.

As I arrived at the office I spotted a prominent poster with an  error that would no doubt have irritated one of their senior executives. The poster exclaimed ‘Its here’. The standard form of punctuation in this context is:  ‘It’s here’ – with it’s being a shortened form of it is.

Does grammar, spelling  and punctuation matter?

In the case of the poster, the message can be understood, so you could argue that it’s irrelevant. But as in the argument about the building society employees, does an inattention to detail here mean sloppiness elsewhere?

As a writer I have a foot on both sides of the fence. As someone who works with words every day and who has a good understanding of the conventions of spelling, grammar and punctuation, something inside me screams out, “But it’s wrong”.

I’m aware that people can get very passionate about what’s ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ when it comes to grammar. But as a writer, I’m also aware that language changes. It evolves. Words, sentence structure and punctuation that were perfectly acceptable to a writer like Charles Dickens,  would seem rather formal and verbose if I were to use them today.

We often talk about the ‘rules of grammar’ – but what are they? Where is the book that tells me what they are? The truth is, there isn’t one.

There are grammatical conventions that help us understand, for example, that although there, their and they’re sound the same, they have different spellings to help us understand that they have different meanings.

But discussions about grammar rules often lead to misconceptions, like “You can’t start a sentence with and or but”. Yes you can. And I often do. In fact I’ve done it in this paragraph.

I was lucky to have good teachers, plenty of encouragement at home and a certain amount of natural interest and aptitude for written English and I work with words every day, so I keep my skills fresh. That’s not true for everyone.

So is it fair to recruit a sales person, for example, to test them at interview on how they handle a telephone call and whether they’ll fit with your team and then criticise them when they write a customer email littered with grammatical mistakes?

Even if you were taught well, how much do you remember from your school days? If you asked me to add up a string of figures or work out a percentage, I’d be a bit stuck without a calculator. That’s partly because I prefer words to numbers, but mostly because I’m a lot out of practice.

So while it’s true that most of us use the English language every day, many of us don’t have to write it down. And just criticising someone for making a mistake, or thinking they’re stupid because they got something ‘wrong’ doesn’t help either.

If you can understand the message, does it matter? It does to me. But what about you?

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26 ways of looking at direct mail

I’m in the middle of producing a lot of copy for a marketing campaign. And I mean a lot of copy in the sense that I’m essentially writing about the same product for a number of different audiences and formats, including a whole heap of direct mails.

It’s great that my client is trying to communicate with their customers in a personal and relevant manner, but it does pose a challenge for me as a copywriter – how do I make sure that the last thing I write about Product X is as fresh as the first?

It usually starts off being quite straightforward. Whenever I’m drafting out some new copy, I start by writing a simple sentence about what I’m trying to do at the top of the page, for example:

‘Write an email to customer Y, telling them when product X will be released, explaining why it will help them and directing them to website Z for more information.’

This helps me create the structure of the copy, sometimes gives me restrictions like word count for example, and gives me a clear understanding of what I want people to think, feel or do as a result of reading the piece.

But once I’ve been writing about something for a while, it can be tempting to fall into a patchwork approach and steal a bit of copy from here and another from there. And whilst I won’t deny that I do re-use copy that I’ve already written, especially where I think it’s explained something very clearly, this approach can lead to lazy writing and the trap of the cliché.

So how to re-invigorate a brain that’s already found 21 ways of writing about the same thing?

I turned to a few copywriter mind tricks (not quite so impressive as Jedi mind tricks, but they work for me). The first is to write using a different style, so imagine you’re writing a fairy story, or a detective novel for example. In this case I imagined I was writing it as a Barrack Obama speech.

Another trick is to set yourself a constraint, such as starting with one letter of the alphabet and finishing with the next or writing your copy in exactly 50 words.

Now I’m not saying that the results of either of these mind tricks will find their way into print, but within those early drafts were some phrases and ideas that I can use that I wouldn’t have come up with if I hadn’t made myself take a different view of the words I was using.

It’s a useful writing experiment that writing guru and tone of voice expert John Simmons employs in his book ’26-ways of looking at a blackberry’. He takes a rather ordinary piece of writing and re-writes it in 26 different styles, ranging from William Shakespeare to Plain English. Now, not all of them work, as he’ll admit, but the results are sometimes surprising and delightful. And they certainly offered me a way of freshening up my words today.

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The language of the World Cup

So the World Cup kicked off today and as well as the host nation hoping to build its reputation on the back of football fever, there are plenty of big name brands hoping to cash in as a worldwide audience of millions turns its attention to South Africa.

It means beer and burgers in the supermarket, barbecues at the petrol station and any amount of plastic tat on sale just about everywhere you look.

There are some big brands out there hoping to draw some of that attention to themselves through their TV adverts. Nike’s done one featuring its sponsored footballers, Pepsi and Sony have taken a humorous approach, but the one that’s caught my eye, or rather ear is Carlsberg’s team talk.

It mimics a motivational team talk, putting you, the viewer, in the heart of the action; from the dressing room out into the tunnel, encouraged on by some British sporting legends, with a rousing speech ringing in your ears.

Watch it and listen to it. How does it make you feel? Inspired? Emotional? Excited? That’s not an accident. While the film itself is undoubtedly designed to push your emotional buttons, the language is designed to do that too. In fact it users a number of tricks to grab your attention.

Here are the opening lines:
“He says he knows how good you are. You know how good you are. It’s time to prove how good you are.”

Look at the repetition. It’s like poetry. Sometimes when we’re writing, we may feel that we shouldn’t repeat ourselves and will go to great lengths to find an alternative word or phrase, but here it’s used to create a particular effect.

Repetition is often used in speeches, to reinforce a point or to get a message across. And it can be stirring stuff. Just think of Winston Churchill: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Did you notice that ‘how good you are’ is repeated three times in those opening lines? That’s not an accident either.

Patterns of two and three (doublets and triplets) just seem to make sense to our ears. In fact the rule of three is often used in speeches because people tend to remember three things. For example: “Friends, romans, countrymen”, from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or Tony Blair’s “Education, education, education.”

It also helps to create a rhythm to the language. And in the case of the Carlsberg advert that rhythm subtly changes as it builds to its climax. Although none of the phrases are particularly long and wordy, it starts off slowly and by the end there’s a noticeable quickening created by short, sharp phrases, like: “Enough talk. Time for action”. There are two sentences there without a verb in them. Remember your English teacher told you a sentence had to have a verb in it? Sometimes breaking the ‘rules’ can create something quite powerful. The trick is knowing when to do it.

Listen again to the words in this advert. There’s nothing highbrow, nothing fancy there. “It’s gonna take bottle,” may be a sly nod to the brand’s product, but it’s also the kind of language that you’d use with your mates down the pub. The point is that it’s simple, everyday language. Nothing poshed up, no jargon, just good old everyday words.

And that’s something that I try to explain in my tone of voice workshops. That simple language doesn’t have to be dull or dumbed down. Simple language doesn’t have to lack passion. Simple language can be strong and powerful. As strong and powerful as a ball hitting the back of the net.

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My top ten tips for business writing

As a copywriter, I write for many different businesses. Here are my top ten tips for improving your writing, whether you’re communicating for business or writing for pleasure.

1. Begin with one grain of sand

In other words, you have to start somewhere. So state your purpose and outline what you’re trying to do. I often find it helps to start with a statement of what I’m trying to do: e.g ‘Write an email to let customers know about this week’s special offers’. Or to start by finishing a sentence e.g. ‘My customers would like to…’

You may not use these words in your finished communication, but they can help you to get over the fear of the blank page.

2. Be a reporter

Ask the questions who, what, where, when, how and why? And answer them. These are the questions that have served me well through my years working at the BBC and then as a copywriter for big business. They will help you get the facts and structure your story.

photographerWhen it comes to writing clear communications, imagine you’re writing for a quality newspaper or news website.

Don’t pack everything into the first sentence. Start with the most important piece of information, then add to it. Try to stick to one idea per sentence or paragraph.

3. Just do it (no critics allowed)

The best way to write something is just to write it. Banish your inner critic.

No one gets to read your first draft anyway. No one cares if it’s spelt wrong or you missed an apostrophe at this stage. Just get on and do it. You can go back and refine things later.

4. Be active

Choose the active, rather than the passive voice eg. ‘I am doing this’, rather than ‘this is being done’.

It makes you sound more involved, interested and less shifty.

5. Sell the sizzle

Every time we write in business we’re trying to get a response. It’s not just about increasing our sales (though that’s a distinct advantage), but also about how people feel about doing business with us. So we have to write persuasively and that means talking about benefits not features. Answer the question ‘What can it do for me?’

Think about perfumes – their feature is they make you smell nice, but they’re sold on the benefit that smelling nice will encourage the object of your admiration to fall at your feet. Answer the question ‘What can it do for me?’

6. Leave it

autumn leavesIt’s easy, particularly when you know your subject really well to get wrapped up in what you’ve written, to lose perspective. Take some time to away from it and come back with new eyes.

It can be as little as a few minutes while you make a phone call, grab a coffee, whatever – but try to read it as though you’ve never seen it before.

I’ve found it really helps to read things backwards, starting at the end and working back to the beginning. You may realise there’s a better place to start.

7. Prune it

Read through what you’ve written and look for places where you may have repeated yourself.

Look for the businesses and doublespeak; the handy jargon and short cuts we might use everyday but that make little sense outside our own circle. Cut big, then cut small.

Pruning also means you have to let some areas grow. Sometimes it might be better to take a couple of sentences to describe what something does instead of referring to what it’s called.

So rather than telling me it’s a personal GPS system, you might want to describe it as a gadget that helps you pinpoint exactly where you are.

8. Map it

Help your reader out by signalling where you’re going.

  • New paragraphs help single out thoughts.
  • Bullets and lists are great for drawing attention to things – and they’re easy to read.
  • Subheadings help the reader to skim through to key points of interest, or to pick up reading from where they left off

9. Check it

Ideally you shouldn’t proofread your own copy, but in reality most of us have to. Use your spell check if it’s an electronic document (make sure you’ve chosen English dictionary), but remember it’s not infallible. Take the time to read it through again.

Read it aloud. Start from the end. Turn the paper upside down. Read every word one by one. If you spot a mistake, look for the one next to it.

10. Test it

Does your piece of writing do what you set out to do? Get a second opinion. Does your tester understand it? Did they encounter any mental speed bumps? Bits where they had to go back and read it again? Did they spot any errors?

There are lots of tools that help you track digital communications these days, so you can see how well your email, website, or even social media is engaging with your customers. Is there a keyword or phrase that works well for you. what time of day are your customers most responsive. Take note of your analytics and look at areas where you could improve in future.

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This made me smile…alot

We all make mistakes. And it’s easy to make them when you’re writing. The English language has some rather unusual spellings and lots of words sound the same, but have different spellings e.g. write, right, wright. They’re called homophones by the way.

So when someone sent me this link, it made me chuckle:
http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2010/04/alot-is-better-than-you-at-everything.html
It’s a light hearted look at a common error in writing.

I have to confess, it’s the kind of error that would normally make me tut and roll my eyes. But now, if I see it, I’ll smile and point the perpetrator to this post to help them remember the correct way to write ‘a lot’.

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What does a copywriter do?

I’m never quite sure how to reply when people ask ‘What do you do?’ If I say I’m a copywriter, they either look at me blankly or start asking questions about the little c in a circle symbol (that’s copyright – something different entirely).

If I say I’m a writer, people start talking about novels and films, or ask me to read something they’ve written.

Basically I write things and read things. ‘Great!’ I hear you cry, ‘I can do that…can I be a copywriter too?’ And yes, my job does use basic skills that most of us have. I just choose to specialise in them.

So what do I do?

Writing

A copywriter will generate language to express ideas, themes and concepts. Part of my job is to be inspired, to come up with new ways of saying things. To find the truth at the heart of the thing.

One of my skills is in recognising what language works and what doesn’t, then tweaking and refining it so that will appeal to potential customers. My aim is to choose words that will attract their attention and get them to read on. It’s my job to put myself in your customers’ shoes and ask ‘What does this mean for me?’

And that’s just the start of it. Explaining what a business does and how it does it, can be tricky. I work from research and commercial information available, that’s often technical and jargon filled. My job is to take that and out it in terms that customers understand, and more importantly, relate to.

One of the most exciting parts of my job involves working with other creative  people, including designers, to come up with ideas for campaigns, websites, adverts and other forms of marketing. Together we will develop the themes, look, feel and design that a business will use on brochures, leaflets, emails, websites, product boxes and all over the place.

The finished idea may only include a few words of copy – a sentence, a line, three words or less – but in the process of getting there I’ll have written many more that your customers will never see.

Reading

I also read. Good writing starts with reading. And I’ve been a voracious and experimental reader of everything, ever since I first learned the skill. When books were banned from the breakfast table, I’d read the back of the cereal packet.

postercorrectionIn business I often read factual reports, documents and insights that help me understand the subject that I’ll be writing about. My skill is to take those words and turn them into something that a customer will understand, and engage with – to make them think ‘oh, that’s just like me.’

Because I work with words all the time, I’m good at spotting when there’s one that’s spelled incorrectly, or picking up on a bit of grammar that doesn’t make sense.

Sometimes I read with a red pen in my hand and filter out mistakes. I don’t profess to be a professional proofreader, but by acting as another pair of eyes to check over your writing, I can stop you from making the kind of mistakes that put people off dealing with your business.

Understanding

I also help people and businesses understand the importance of language in their communications. That means talking about and demonstrating tone of voice in action and applying it to different businesses. I do this though workshops, training sessions, writing examples, offering advice and constructive feedback.

Communicating clearly with customers is just one part of business writing. Doing it in a way that gives a real sense of connection, showing the face behind the business, being authentic is what really drives me as a writer.

There’s often a bit of a debate about the term copywriter – and whether there’s a better word we could use to describe what we do.

Personally I use the term writer, but then put it into a business context. In any case, what I call myself is just the start of the story. Keeping you interested is the real skill.

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