Archive | language

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.

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’.

Is imitation really the sincerest form of flattery?

I caught the new Ford TV advert this week.

Not a bad idea I thought, but not as good as the Sound of Honda.

Honda has created some very clever, eye-catching television adverts over recent years. So when I start to watch an advert that’s a bit quirky, I instinctively start to think of Honda. That’s a really powerful bit of brand association. (But I still drive a Mini!)

Familiarity can be a good thing for a brand, but what happens when you start to see the same thing everywhere?

Innocent is a brand that’s really established a strong identity through its tone of voice (which I have to admit I love). But now it has its imitators. Barclays seems to be trying to adopt a more ‘innocent style’ and fellow smoothie makers PJ’s are desperately trying to catch their cheeky, fun, irreverent tone (but not quite getting it IMHO).

So what happens to the Innocent brand if one element of its uniqueness, is no longer so unique? Will their smoothies be diluted by these pale imitations? Or are the other brands just savvy by trying to sparkle in their reflections?<

Drumming gorillas and Phil Collins?

It’s the latest advert to cause a buzz in the world of marketing, picked up and posted on YouTube and the subject of much debate and discussion.

First aired in a plum slot on UK TV during the Big Brother final, it depicts a man in a very convincing gorilla suit sitting behind a drumkit and launching into an enthusiastic rendition of the Phil Collins drum solo from In the Air Tonight.

And that’s it. That’s all. No pack shot, no company reference, no strapline, no musical sting, no web address. None of those things that countless textbooks on marketing recommend.

So how do you know what it’s trying to sell? Well there are clues of course. Catch the very start of the ad and you’ll see it’s made by A Glass And A Half Full Productions, and the wall behind the drumming gorilla is a particular shade of purple. I got the association pretty much straightaway, but whether that’s due to the strength of brand association or my over-familiarity with its product – I’ll leave you to decide.

But I wonder how many times “drumming gorilla” was entered as a Google search term before the advert was shown? And how many more afterwards?

Will it sell any more product? Or help restore the feel good factor of a brand that’s taken some knocks? We’ll have to wait and see. But it’s certainly got people talking.

And if you’re still wondering what the heck I’m blathering on about, see for yourself.

I met a new word today

The word is chaebol. And today was the first time I’ve ever encountered it.

I met it in an article which referred to Samsung as a “Korean chaebol”, which didn’t really give me many clues as to what it meant. So I had to look it up. I couldn’t find it in the online Oxford or Cambridge dictionaries but Dictionary.com came up trumps. 

For those of you still in the dark, chaebol is a conglomerate of businesses, usually owned by a single family, especially in Korea.

It’s not every day that I meet a new word. When I do, they’re often compound words  like podcast or blog, and I can work out their meaning from the context and understanding of their familiar roots.

Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be using chaebol in my every day language. But it was nice to make its aquaintance.

New compound words

This week I was asked to look over some copy that included the word ‘webinar’ and it almost caused a physical twitch. I’m guessing the writer used it as a shorter way of saying web-based seminar.

But it started me thinking about my attitude to compound words in general. You see I didn’t like ‘blog’ or ‘podcast’ the first time I heard them either.

‘Blog’ sounds like what it is – a made up word, a contraction of web log and it just felt clumsy in my mouth. I objected to podcast initially because I felt it was inaccurate. You didn’t have to own an iPod to listen to one.

Needless to say I’ve overcome my first reactions and have adopted and use both terms. But it’s going to take some serious persuasion to get me to use ‘webinar’.

Nancy Friedman picks a word of the week on her Away with words blog. Last week it was upycling which I like and this week it's crowdsourcing – which I'm a bit undecided about. As a matter of personal preference, I recognise it's a purely subjective judgement. They're fun to collect though!