Tag Archives | brief

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.

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Brief encounters

The brief. The starting point of the conversation between client, creative and customer.

“I don’t understand it”
“It contradicts itself”
“There’s too much information”
“There’s not enough to work with.”
These are all things I’ve heard, said or thought myself about the briefs I’ve encountered on creative and writing projects.

Hardly the start of a great relationship – one that promises a meeting of minds, sparks imaginations, encourages creativity, and collaboration.

Group of people sitting round a table and writing on flipcharts

Writing the perfect brief.

And it seems I’m not alone. I was in London today for the first in a series of workshops being offered by writer’s organisation 26, under the title 26 Trade Secrets. Today’s session at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon was “Setting up Projects for success.”  A chance to look closely at briefs, learn how to turn bad ones into good ones and what to do with them when you get them.

We started exposing the nightmares. The poor briefs. The confused. The sketchy. The ‘says one thing but really means something completely different.’ Around the room we all had similar stories.

A poor brief can become a source of conflict, a sort of battle map, drawing up the lines between them and us. Hardly the best start for a constructive relationship. And yet no client deliberately sets out to write a poor brief.

I go back to my clients, ask questions, challenge preconceptions. I worry that sometimes, to a client, it must seem like I’m asking so many questions, I don’t actually want the work. But really it’s about finding the truth of what I’m being asked to write about.

As a writer, it’s always good to be able to step into someone else’s shoes. So recently I’ve been trying on the role of client as I work to improve the briefs that we ask them to complete.

And it’s really hard to write a good brief. I used an example for a product campaign I’m very familiar with, and still found it tricky to identify what should go in each section, how much or how little information to include and how best to explain it, without lazily copying and pasting from some commercial document. And that’s my job – to simplify, condense an explain things in simple terms.

As I also learned, those who write the briefs may not always have training or advice on how to complete them. Or the necessary background information to complete them. No wonder it can be a fraught process.

Today, as we broke down and built our perfect brief, there was much discussion about what it should include. But the one thing that stood out for me was clarity. Clear purpose and clear communication.

And that requires clear thinking. How much time do you allow to create, interrogate and confirm a brief? Is it something delegated to a junior team member, a form to be filled in and passed to the creative team to decipher?

Or is it not so much a battle plan, as a campaign objective? Something you think about, consider and discuss with the people who need to sign it off?

Rather than complaining about bad briefs, I’m going to continue questioning, considering and looking for ways to help my clients to help me by writing better ones in the spirit of producing more effective and clearer communications. I hope to return to this subject in future blogs

What are your tips for writing a great brief?

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Making connections – 26 Under a Northern Sky

Connections. That’s what a group of writers were making as we travelled north this weekend.

photo of rail tickets

Tickets for 26 Under A Northern Sky journey

The reason for our journey was to launch the latest 26 project, 26 Under A Northern Sky – a collection of creative writing inspired by the music of Nick Drake and a railway journey between Newcastle upon Tyne and Glasgow.

We were making real connections with trains and timetables, to get where we needed to be at the appointed time and make our way back again. But through the creative writing process and the journey itself, many more connections were revealed.

Each writer was given a brief. Take the name of one of the 26 stations along the line and the title of a Nick Drake track, chosen at random and write something in response. The final constraint was that the piece should be able to be read aloud comfortably in 3 mins 44 seconds or less – the duration of Nick Drake’s Northern Sky, which provides the title for the whole collection.

The resulting pieces were wide ranging in style and tone. We had poems and short stories, a sonnet, folk tales, histories and ghost stories. Each one was read along the journey. And each writer had found a different way to connect to their brief.

Some responded to the place, its location, history or a claim to fame. Others took the songs, their lyrics, form and rhythm as inspiration. And many combined the two, to come up with something that touched on both, but that was made new and different by being reflected through the prism of each writer’s own experience.

It’s the same in business writing. There is a brief from a client, that often comes with rules and constraints. As a writer I have to find a way to connect to that brief and interpret it in a way that will connect with a customer. That may mean digging deeper to discover how a customer thinks and feels and finding the words that make that connection. And the final creative piece is always a collaboration between writer, designer  and client.

Woman reading on a train

Faye Sharpe reading her contribution to 26 Under a Northern Sky

The 26 Under a Northern Sky project similarly came with deadlines and timetables, with writers asked to submit first and then final drafts after feedback from a small team of editors.

As Editor in Chief, I had the privilege of being the first to read the entire collection. And it was a joy.

In this project I acted as both client and creative; contributing my own piece, while making sure the whole collaboration remained on track. It’s taught me a lot about setting a brief and then allowing creative people the freedom to explore it in their own way.

Each piece in 26 Under a Northern Sky is unique, but each writer has found a way to connect to the brief and through that created a piece of work that connects with a wider audience.

I’m very proud to have been part of something very special.

26 Under A Northern Sky will be published on www.26.org.uk later this week. But you can enjoy the beautiful introduction to the collection, written by Anna Jauncey right now.

About 26

26 is a diverse group of people who share a love of words. Many of us work with words for a living, as writers, language specialists, editors, designers or publishers, but anyone who cares about words is welcome to join. Together, we hope to raise the profile and value of words not only in business, but also in everyday life.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to all the writers, editors and readers of 26 Under A Northern Sky:
Anna Jauncey, Sue Evans, Fiona Thompson, June Mong, Sharon Jones, Joan Lennon, Tony Balazs, Laura Waddell, Faye Sharpe, Simon Parsons, John Simmons, Kenneth Stirling, Justina Hart, Stephen Potts, Alastair Creamer, Colette Davis, Jo Matthews, Stuart Delves, Aidan Baker, Irene Lofthouse, Mike Benson, Marianne Powell, Elaine Gibb, Sophie Gordon, Martin Lee, Tom Collins and especially to my co-editor, Sandy Wilkie. Thanks also to Rachel Marshall and Elen Lewis for promoting the project through the 26 website and newsletter.

Special thanks to Michael Burdett of The Strange Face Project for introducing me to the music of Nick Drake and providing the initial spark that lead to this crazy writing project.