Archive | business

Who is the star of your business?

Tyneside Cinema programme featuring La La Land

I went to see La La Land at the Tyneside cinema this week. And I loved it. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film that I felt so totally immersed in.

For just over two hours, although physically present in a comfortable cinema seat, my heart and mind were miles away, dancing in the hills above Los Angeles, watching a love story with all its stops and starts, triumphs and mis-steps unfold.  It made me beam and sigh and smile and yes, I cried a bit.

Who is the star of your movie?

Think of your business as a movie. Who is the star? You, or what you do? What makes it different from all the other movies out there? Does it have a better story? A bigger name? More awards? More dinosaurs?

Or is it more like a quirky little art-house film that not every one will have heard about, but those who love it, love it fiercely.

Why marketing is like the movie business

Walt Disney Star on the Hollywood Walk of FameLike a movie, you have to get people to notice your business, to excite interest in what you do.

Do you invest in marketing, logos, posters, billboards, social media campaigns to create a buzz?

Do you connect with influencers, experts, bloggers to spread the word about what you do?

While big stars, like Emma Stone or Ryan Gosling may be well out of your budget, getting endorsements, recommendations and referrals from your customers can be a great way to bring in more.

Reviews and recommendations

What was the first thing I did, as I emerged from two hours in the Hollywood sunshine into the contrast of a chilly winter’s day in Newcastle? I told my friends via social media how much I loved the film.

Now I’m sure La La Land is doing very nicely at the Box Office without my little endorsement. It’s certainly gathering up awards at a grand pace.

But my  post got a reaction. A bigger one than I expected actually.

Some of my friends were excited to see the film. Others had already been and were less impressed. My off-the-cuff comment started a conversation, and I know at least one person said they were going to see it because of my reaction to it.

Word of mouth. Recommendation. Being different. All things that can help your business dance its way to the walk of fame.

If you have a great business with a story to tell, and need someone to write or polish the script, then please get in touch.

Who are you and what do you care about?

Man driving an ox cart in Cambodia
I’ve recently returned from an amazing trip to Cambodia with Lendwithcare – a charity that supports people working their way out of poverty.

I learned many things from the experience of travelling through the country and meeting the local people – things that I’ll write about here in future. But one of the most striking has got me thinking about how we talk about who we are and what we do.

So I was very proud to be invited to write a guest post for The Table on the subject of purpose in business and in writing. I enjoy reading Rob Self Pierson’s blog and feel that it reflects many of my own values about writing for business and pleasure.

Take a look:…

Helping a new client find the right tone of voice

I’m really focused on work for a new client at at the moment. I’m helping them to define and articulate their tone of voice and writing some of their marketing materials. It’s a new area of business for me, but one that I really believe in, so it’s exciting and challenging and I’m deciphering a whole new range of jargon and acronyms.

So how do I go about helping an organisation to find its tone of voice? Surely that’s something that people who have more experience of the business should do?

Well, actually, looking at things with a fresh pair of eyes, or hearing things with a fresh pair of ears can be a real advantage. I’m more likely to pick up on the things that have always been said or written like that, and ask why. And because I’m new, people understand if I ask lots of questions.

So how do I develop a tone of voice for a business that I’m only just starting to get familiar with?


First of all I listen, or more often, read anything and everything I can get my hands on. The website is a good place to start, and social media too. I go and dig around and visit the little visited pages, the nuts and bolts and hidden corners.


I take notice of my environment, the posters, adverts, leaflets, screens all around me. And I get my hands on letters, emails, communications of all sorts.


I talk to people too, find out about what they do, who their audience are and what challenges they face in their communications. I look for common themes, poke out clichés and get an ear for common phrases that have become a little dull through over use.

From there I start to get a feel for what’s authentic, what feels right and what feels a bit old and tired and needs shaking up a bit. And I start to play it back to the people who write and encourage them to hear what’s being said as thought it’s new to them too.

Gather evidence

Along the way I’m gathering examples of the good, the ‘could do better’ and the ‘what is this?’ I’m learning about the audiences from research and conversations with some of them too.

Picture of books - We, Me, Them & It, Dark Angels, The Invisible GrailGuide

I’ve been helped by re-reading We, Me, Them and It (How to Write Powerfully for Business) by John Simmons. This very readable book, recently republished my Urbane publications, demonstrates how words and language can help differentiate one business from another and add life to products and services.

What’s been most helpful to me has been John’s insight into how he put this into practice with real examples from his work with brands like the Royal Mail, Anglia Railways and Cable and Wireless. It’s a kind of ‘behind the scenes’ view that’s the next best thing to having been there at the time and says as much about the approach and challenge as it does about the results.

Last week I ran a workshop with some of the marketing team, combining some of my observations with their thoughts and experiences. It’s reaffirmed that I’m on the right track with my approach and thinking.

Developing a brand tone of voice is a fascinating process and one I love. I can quickly get a feel for how an organisation sounds and adapt my writing style to theirs. Encouraging it to make changes to help it sound more distinctive and to have its own voice will take a little longer but I’m already on the case, devising tips, tricks and examples to bring it to life.

Celebrating small businesses that make a big difference

MicroBizMattersDay logoAs well as being the birthday of one of my musical heroes, David Bowie, this year 8 January also marked #MicroBizMattersDay. It’s a day where everyone’s encouraged to show appreciation for the small, independent businesses that drive the economy by taking to social media and sharing the love.

Technically a micro business employs 0-9 people. That could be any type of business, but typically they are the kind of local, independent going concerns that provide jobs in a small community and whose owners work long and hard to provide an income for themselves and their families. They could be retail shops or handy services, people who work from home or businesses that get out and about, online or off.

One of the many things I like about where I live is that there are plenty of these independent shops and businesses. Places that offer a more personal experience than the big brands and corporate chains. On #MicroBizMattersDay I took to twitter to show my support for some of them. Here are just three of many I could have chosen:

Children of the Revolution

Tynemouth’s coolest shop for quirky gifts and trendy clobber for kids and teens. This is my first stop when I have to buy a new baby gift, with radical bibs and babygrows that help me maintain my reputation as the cool auntie and fuel the imaginations of niece, nephews and baby brothers to grow up to be superheroes.

Their Christmas shop window is legendary on Front Street as are their displays all year round, and with gifts inside featuring the likes of Doctor Who and Star Wars, there’s plenty for this big kid to enjoy too. If you’re looking for something out of the ordinary and with a sense of fun, it’s a great place to visit. And they gift wrap too!
Find Children of the Revolution on facebook

Riley’s Fish Shack

Riley's Fish Shack at King Edward's Bay, Tynemouth

The latest, hippest eaterie on the north east coast brings the freshest local fish and seafood from the North Shields fish quay to the grill in the shack at King Edward’s Bay. Enjoy the catch of the day with fresh salad, fried potatoes and flatbreads accompanied by the sound of the waves as you look out over golden sand.

This crowd-funded business already has a loyal army of fans who can now enjoy a bite to eat, a coffee or excellent ales from Wylam brewery on tap. It’s hard to believe the steam-punk inspired shack began life as a couple of shipping containers. It’s a buzzing and friendly hang-out where you’re sure of a warm welcome even on the chilliest day.


G&S Organics at Christmas Farm

It should be clear by now that I’m a writer who loves my food and these guys have been keeping me supplied with the very best ingredients via their organic box scheme for several years. Meat, fruit and vegetables delivered fresh to my door direct from the producer every week, helps me to eat seasonally, healthily and with minimal impact on food miles too.

With regular newsletters, facebook updates and recipes it’s easy to keep in touch with what’s going on at the farm and make the most of food that’s grown with love and care for the environment. Farm events and wild camping also offer a chance to see where your food comes from and to learn new skills such as butchery or crafts such as flower arranging.

Okay, so they asked me to write their website for them, but I’ve been a customer and a fan for far longer.

Find G&S Organics on facebook

P.S. I wrote this on Sunday and set it to post today. In the intervening hours, the world lost an icon and I’ve lost one of my musical heroes. I’m sad today to have lost the genius of David Bowie, but forever grateful that he supplied a soundtrack of significant music for much of my life and influenced my writing in many, many ways.

Why be inspired to a greater love of words, in business and in life?

Why? It’s always a good question to ask when you’re trying to understand something. Why do words matter? Why are they worthy of love, thought and respect?

As a member of 26 I was asked to provide my answer, which is now included along with the thoughts, wisdom and humour of other 26 writers in ‘The Book of Because.’ Here’s my contribution:

Because words connect.

Photo of the Book of BecauseWords we love roll round our mouths like
ice cream on a hot day.

Because words conduct business.
Words on stone tablets saying “Pay this
soldier a pig and four sacks of grain”.

Words that fly through the ether to appear
on a screen.
Words link to our past and shape our future.

Because words can be as sharp as a blow or
as near as a whisper.

Words are a gift our bright blue planet
bestows on only one species.
Because, above all, words are human. 


Thanks to the editorial team at 26 Characters, Faye Sharpe, John Simmons and Neil Baker for bringing this project together and to Rodney Mylius for the elegant and tactile design.

Advice on business writing from Ernest Hemingway

My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the simplest way
– Ernest Hemingway

A quote from Ernest Hemingway

Well, of course, Ernest. You make it sound so straightforward. But in the real world it so rarely ever is, is it?

As a business writer, first I have to wrestle with the brief, to try and interpret what my customer is looking for and ultimately what the real world customer thinks, feels and wants. It’s rarely expressed in such clear and simple language as this.

Then I have to understand the product or service, gradually condensing down pages of features and benefits into a simple statement that, if I’ve got it right, will answer the question ‘What does this mean for me?’

Hemingway the copywriter

Mr Hemingway would have made a good 21st century copywriter I think, with his unfussy style. His sharpness, wit and ability to condense things down into a pithy quote would have made him a natural on twitter.

With his journalistic edge for reporting the facts and the details, what would he make of today’s jargon and business speak? How would he have responded to phrases such as  ‘leveraging synergies’ or ‘ monetising cross promotion strategies’.

I like to think he’d be firmly and forcefully opposed. With a loaded gun if necessary.

Five handy business writing tips

Want to improve your business communications, but don’t know where to begin? With 10 years of experience of writing for business, I’ve learned a few things along the way. So here are my top five tips for improving your business writing.

1. Get started

Research, ask questions, talk to customers, fill your brain with facts, figures and knowledge, but there comes a time when you just have to knuckle down and get writing.

The first thing you write is unlikely to be anything like the finished piece. But if you don’t start, you can’t finish.

I will often start at the top of the page with a factual statement of my purpose in writing. For example: Write 100 words on the history of the company for an audience of people who are just starting out in business.

Hand with fingers numbered 1-5

2. Be a reporter

As a journalist, I was used to asking the key questions who, what, where, when, how and why? As a copywriter, I still ask them every day.

Most important of all is ‘why?’. Why does a customer want or need this? What difference will it make to them? Answering that question really takes me to the heart of a sales communication.

3: Structure it

Start with the most important piece of information, then add to it. Try to stick to one idea per sentence or paragraph.

  • Give your audience signposts and make sure the text is easy to read.
  • Bullet points and lists are great for drawing attention to key points. 
  • Subheadings help readers skim to the part that’s most interesting to them, or to pick up reading if they’re distracted part way through.

4.  Edit it

It’s not unusual for me to spend longer editing and rewriting than I do writing.

In business communications, I’m always on the watch for jargon and cliches. The handy short cuts that may be familiar language in a specific business can be alien or meaningless to people outside of it. So they need to go.

Cut big, then cut small. I consider the piece as a whole, then paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence before looking at it word by word.

I’ll look for repetition, for unnecessary themes or complex phrases and either eliminate or find a better way to say them.  

Editing tip – leave it

It’s easy to get so wrapped up in something you’ve written, that you lose perspective. No matter how tight the deadline, I like to step away from a piece of business writing – make a phone call, get a drink of water and then try to come back to it with new eyes.

Not only can this be a good way of spotting errors, but it also encourages me to be critical of my own work.

In an ideal world, I shouldn’t have to proof-read my own copy, but in reality, I have to. I use a number of tricks to con my brain into thinking it’s seeing something for the first time.

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

5. Test it

Does your writing do what you set out to do? Check it against your brief or statement of purpose.

Get a second opinion before you publish. Do they 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?

Once it’s out there in the big wide world, what can you learn from your customers’ reactions to it? Are there metrics you can measure in terms of responses, awareness and sales? What can you learn for your next successful communication?

What are your top tips for successful business writing?

Exercising the writing muscles – how I train as a writer

I’ve been doing a lot of physical activity recently, running, cycling and swimming in preparation for a triathlon in a few weeks’ time. It’s tricky sometimes fitting it all in around my working hours. But I enjoy it, and so I make time for it.

Making time to write

Cyclist on Newcastle's Quayside

Cycling along Newcastle’s quayside

I believe writing’s a form of exercise too. You get better as you practice, learn new skills, gain confidence, or just a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

So I make time for writing too. Time to explore writing outside of work commitments. Time to try new things and to just enjoy writing for what it is – an important part of being me.

Learning by imitating

Most writers start out mimicking their heroes. I know I did. Somewhere in a box in the attic, there’s an exercise book filled with adventure stories in the style of C.S Lewis and tales of knights on horseback, battling dragons.

Reading was how I first learnt the elements of stories, about heroes and conflicts, quests and returns. Writing my own taught me about structure – beginnings, middles and endings.

Gathering skills

I learned techniques, hints and tips to bring my writing to life in English lessons. Using all the senses, and the power of metaphor and simile, and more about structure, rhythm and making words dance through poetry. They are techniques that serve me well as a business writer and copywriter.

At University one of my tutors used to set tasks to write essays in the style of the works we were studying – Philip Sidney, John Milton, Alexander Pope. That may sound like a cruel and unusual form of undergraduate torture. But in mimicking the rhetoric, or manipulating my thoughts into rhyming couplets, I became even more conscious of the skill and technique of the writers, and I understood their work at a deeper, more personal level. Of the hundreds of essays I wrote in my University terms, those are the only ones I remember.

Adopting voices

As a copywriter, the ability to adapt my writing to different styles is a very useful skill. It helps me sound like the brand or company I’m writing for.

But to make it sound authentic, it’s not really enough just to mimic. I believe you have to be able to add something of yourself. And in analysing the work of literary writers, I’ve learned to spot styles and forms that I can adopt and adapt in more commercial and contemporary writing.

How writing is like exercise

Running, cycling and swimming all take discipline and commitment if you want to improve. The same is true of writing.

Just as you don’t know how far or fast you can go until you really try, you’ll never realise your writing potential on a blank page – sometimes you just have to fill it.

How readable is your writing?

That 20 page document outlining in detail the research, findings and recommendations of your latest project is easy to read, right? You know the subject in detail. You’ve been working on it for months. It’s obvious… isn’t it?

To you, it may be. But what about your audience? The person who picks it up and reads it for the first time? What does it tell them?

Do they look at it and groan, put off by the thought of reading pages and pages of tight-packed text with long sentences and paragraphs that go on, and on and on? Will they be baffled by jargon? Stumped by acronyms? Wonder why on earth this is relevant to them?

Is it well organised and structured in a logical way? Does it have a beginning, middle and end? Do your conclusions actually conclude anything?

These are all questions and challenges that came up for discussion during one of my business writing training sessions.

There’s lots you can do to make your documents easy to read, starting with thinking about your audience and writing for them, not yourself.

RAdding an apostrophe eadability checker

Here’s one little tip to see how easy your writing is to read:

When you do a grammar and spelling check on a Word document, (because you all do that don’t you?) did you know you can also see how easy it is to read?

Word can show you readability statistics. To turn this option on:

  1. Click the File tab, and then click Options.
  2. Click Proofing.
  3. Under When correcting spelling and grammar in Wordmake sure the Check grammar with spelling check box is selected.
  4. Select Show readability statistics.

Next time you’ve finished checking the spelling and grammar of your document you’ll see information about its reading level.

Sadly, just having the statistics may not help you understand whether it’s easy to read or not. So for a quick guide to what the numbers actually mean and an online version of the scorecard, I like this readability checker from The Writer.


That was my favourite word on Tuesday. It sounds like a tree full of chimpanzees with a bowl of trifle.

A perfect word for a day of travelling north on the train. Watching the waves and the rain through the window. Arriving in Edinburgh to the skirl of the pipes and a bustle of excitement at visiting the Book Festival.

Meeting Lesley in a whirl of a hug and setting off walking, talking ten to the dozen. Drifting through the street theatre, finding a warm café and settling down with cake and coffee and more chat.

Dodging the raindrops and ducking into the gallery in search of art and landscapes and portraits that looked freshly painted. Smiling at Vincent’s silver trees and light shadows between the clouds on a hillside.

Parting with plans ready made for another meeting. And then solo, finding my way through the street magic to a quiet enclave of tents, books and stories.

My favourite writer greeted with affection by an appreciative crowd. Remembering the last time we were together in this place when two mischievous authors tested the skills of the sign language interpreter.  Mr Gaiman tells his enraptured gathering of short stories that won’t stay short. Of the old country over the duckpond. Of the older country that sank and the even older one that blew up.

Speaking with affection for one of his best loved characters and how she came about. Mixing the inherent sexism of language, with the essence of a myth of the beauty of death. “It’s a great job. It gets you out and about. You get to meet people. You get to meet everyone.”

Of the unprompted applause when he speaks of The Doctor’s Wife and the best ever answer to the question, “What’s your favourite book?”

And stories, stories, stories. Those told and loved. Those waiting for the right moment. The rare one that came dream bound and perfect. Going to Hell in a hot air balloon. Vikings sailing to Jerusalem. A wild head full of dark, bright imaginings and always the promise of more.

And later still, more writers, more words from Dark Angels Jamie Jauncey and John Simmons. Words loved and hated. Words mangled out of meaning. And the clear sharp minds that cut through like a skater on a lake. A reminder that writing should be kind, human. That being a writer is about simply being. Right now in the moment.

When I return home, much later and more weary, a million shades and colours dance in my dreams.