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How Strictly Come Dancing can make your writing sparkle

How Strictly Come Dancing can make your writing sparkle

Photo by Martin Barák on Unsplash

In a flourish of glitter and sequins, it’s back on our screens, whirling through Saturday night TV from Autumn until Christmas. In case you’ve had your head in a bucket, I’m talking about Strictly Come Dancing of course.

I make no secret of the fact that I’m a big fan of this annual extravaganza of celebs learning to perform the foxtrot, samba and cha-cha in pursuit of the glitterball trophy. Whilst I love watching the dancing, I’m reminded how it can be a wonderful form of expression – just like writing.

Here’s what Strictly can teach you about writing that sparkles:

Gotta have rhythm

The Strictly dancers, both professionals and celebrities, have to feel the beat of the music to move in time.

Writing has its own rhythms. Does yours plod along like a beginner stomping through a Paso Doble? Or does it zing and click like a high-energy Jive?

A good writer knows that using too many sentences of the same length, one after the other, becomes as dull and flat-footed as the contestant who gets ditched in week one.

Switch it up with a change of pace. Razzle dazzle ’em. Throw in an unexpected word. It’s the equivalent of a cheeky wink at the judges.

How Strictly Come Dancing can make your writing sparkle Click To Tweet

Style matters

tango dancersEvery dance has a different style –  from the romantic flowing movements of the waltz, to the hip action of the samba.

The same goes for writing. A good copywriter can switch between the smooth flow of a lengthy article that seeks to draw you in, and punchy eye-catching words that grab your attention instantly.

The professional dancers know that you have to start every dance by capturing the attention of the audience and finish with a flourish that will have them on their feet.

To write well you need to apply the same principle. Hook your readers with an engaging headline and leave them with a compelling call to action.

Hook your readers with an engaging headline and leave them with a compelling call to action. Click To Tweet

Master the technique

I’m no expert in dancing, but the Strictly judges will point out what they’re looking for from different dance styles. Woe betide you if you put an audience- pleasing lift into the routine when it isn’t strictly allowed.

In writing, that’s like understanding the conventions of grammar and spelling and knowing when to flout them.

Or knowing that changing verbs from the passive to the active will make your writing more direct and engaging – like facing down your partner in a Tango.

Practice, practice, practice

dancing coupleThe professional dancers on Strictly  make it look effortless, but it takes years of training and effort to do what they do.

Writing may not be quite as tricky as mastering the quickstep, but the more you practise, the better and more confident you become.

As a writer, I know that my first drafts are never going to be as clear, precise and powerful as the finished article.

It takes time to write, edit, review and rewrite. I’m always looking for improvements I can make to produce a polished performance for the final show.

Get the audience on your side

It’s not always the ‘best’ dancers who win through to the next round of Strictly Come Dancing. The watching audience votes for their favourites – the ones who have entertained them, made them laugh.

Thinking about your audience is essential for a copywriter. If you can appeal to their emotions, surprise, delight and thrill them in the same way that the couples do on the dance floor, you’ll be onto a winner.

Put your feet up and enjoy the show

I’m unashamedly a fan of Strictly Come Dancing. Just like music, dancing connects with me at a purely emotional level, that I don’t even pretend to understand.

As a writer, I’m like a dancer in the way I feel the rhythm of words, delight in a neat turn of phrase and express meaning through my creative craft.

Sometimes I stumble, sometimes I soar.  I always dream of sweeping you off your feet with some wonderful words.

Finding your writing voice and what that means

Finding your writing voice and what that means

A lot of writing advice talks about ‘finding your voice’. But what does that mean?

We all have a unique ‘physical’ voice. The tone, accent and language you use are formed from a unique mixture of your background and education; where you’ve lived and worked; who you’ve associated with, who you admire and whose customs you adopt.

Speaking vs writing

Studies have shown that we start to recognise human voices in the womb. In the early stages of human evolution, being able to distinguish whether someone was friend or foe in the dark, would have been an important survival trait.

In contrast, writing is something we’re taught to do. It’s a skill we have to learn and it doesn’t come as naturally as speaking. So our writing voice is more likely to be influenced by education, and what we’re taught about writing.

And that’s where there’s can be a disconnect between our speaking and writing voices. In being taught to write, we assimilate all these ‘rules’ about grammar, spelling and punctuation. And they can sometimes get in the way, making us fearful of making a mistake when we write.

What happens when we write?

I’ve seen it more times than I care to remember in business communications. When someone picks up a pen or taps their fingers on a keyboard, their ‘voice’ changes. It becomes more formal. It looks for clever sounding phrases. It adopts things it’s seen written elsewhere in a bid to sound professional.

Man in a suit tightening his tieThat’s how you end up with nonsense like “leveraging our partner ecosystem” and “assuring you of our best attention” (an email sign off that I used to see on a daily basis).

Say those phrases out loud. How do they feel?

That’s a tip I use in my business writing workshops.Read what you’ve written out loud. Ask yourself ‘Would I actually say that?

Read what you've written out loud. Ask yourself 'Would I actually say that?' Click To Tweet

If you have to mentally wrinkle up your nose, or adopt an unfamiliar tone to say it, then it’s not natural and authentic. And your audience, your customers will sense that.

Why our spoken and written voices differ

When we speak, our communication is spontaneous. We don’t use complete sentences. We get distracted. We intersperse our words with pauses, umms and errs that give us time to think.

When we speak, our body language, facial expressions and tone give clues to our meaning and intention. We understand if someone is being sarcastic, joking or being serious. Our spoken voice is full of our personality.

When we write, we don’t have these extra clues to illustrate our meaning. The words we use have to do all the work. So it’s important that they are clear.

But your written voice can represent your personality in the same way that your spoken voice does. Use words to paint a picture, tell a story, conjure up ideas in another person’s mind. Drop in a colloquial phrase or a favourite word. It’s all about being authentic.

Use words to paint a picture, tell a story, conjure up ideas in another person's mind. Click To Tweet

Finding a voice for my clients

Cup of coffeeIn writing for clients I have to adopt voices. It’s a bit like being a impressionist. I listen to them talk about their business. I read their written content carefully. I look for words and phrases they use and mimic their rhythm and style.

When I adopt a brand voice for a client, it’s often about dialling up or dialling down certain elements. One client has a lovely chatty tone of voice, so as I write for them, I imagine popping into their kitchen for a cuppa.

Another client is incredibly creative, bursting with ideas and enthusiasm. I throw in words that appeal to the senses and drop in a one-word sentence for impact.

How I help improve your writing voice

Sometimes my job is to give a client’s voice clarity. I edit out words that you don’t need, strip away the fluff and focus on what matters so that you present the best version of your business.

Sometimes my job is to give a client’s voice a confidence boost, so instead of words like ‘maybe, might, a bit’, I use words like ‘can, will and lots’.

singerOften my job is to give your communication clarity. That means structure and punctuation that makes it easy to read. It’s a bit like a singing coach showing you where to breathe when singing a complicated line.

When I correct grammar and spelling, it’s about avoiding distractions, and preventing you from looking stupid. Think of me as the friend who’ll tell you that you have spinach in your teeth, or your dress tucked into your knickers before you head out to impress someone.

Think of me as the friend who'll tell you that you have spinach in your teeth Click To Tweet

As a copy and content writer, I choose my words carefully. The trick is to keep my client’s voice, but give it a tidy up. Just like you might brush your hair more carefully and put on a clean shirt for an important meeting.

The voice I use in these blog posts is mine. A unique mixture of my background, education, influences and interests. You may not be able to detect my accent, but my writing voice is authentically mine.

Obama’s victory speech

So America has re-elected President Obama for a second term. And for me, one of the highlights of the whole campaign (or what I saw of it) was his rousing acceptance speech.

I love to hear President Obama speak. He undoubtedly has many people who help him write these important public communications, but he comes across as a very fine communicator.

So I thought I’d take a closer look at his latest speech to see if I can spot some of the tips and tricks that make it so effective. You can read or listen to the whole thing on the BBC News website.

Firstly, let’s consider his language. This is a highly educated, well informed man who no doubt spends a lot of time in meetings and discussions with similar high powered politicians. I’m sure President Obama understands words like synergy and leverage, but they are not the kind of words he uses in his speeches. Instead he opts for simple, straightforward words, the kind of language regular people use every day and understand.

He begins with ‘Tonight’ – a simple word that sets a marker for a significant moment. It’s repeated four more times during the speech – each time bringing you back to the here and now.

Within his opening address he talks of moving forward. In fact he uses the phrase ‘moves forward’ three times in quick succession. As ‘Forward’ was his campaign slogan, that’s hardly surprising, but it’s a nice nod to continuity, to consolidating the promises he’s made on the campaign trail.

And the pattern of three is important too. Look at the text of the speech and you’ll find numerous examples where a word or phrase is repeated three times, or he cites three examples. For example “That’s why we do this. That’s what politics can be. That’s why elections matter” or “We believe in a generous America, in a compassionate America, in a tolerant America.”

You’ll often find this pattern of three in speeches and presentations. In Obama’s speech, he’s using it for impact and to add a pattern and rhythm which makes it appealing to the ear.

But three is a powerful concept. Shakespeare is littered with examples  – “Friends, Romans, countrymen…” Even Steve Jobs used it in his keynote presentations. And  that’s because it’s memorable. Something about the way our brains work makes three more memorable than six or eight. If you’re looking for people to hold things in their mind in the short term, then three is the ideal number.

Of course if you always use patterns of three, your speech may become laboured, and stilted, sounding contrived and unnatural. Obama knows this and breaks the pattern up into twos and fours. For example, he talks of “love and charity and duty and patriotism.” And later he says “I have never been more hopeful about our future. I have never been more hopeful about America.”

It’s easy to see this kind of thing when you read the speech in its written form, but it’s important to remember that this is a speech. It’s meant to be received by your ears not your eyes. The patterning and repetition helps there of course, highlighting things you may want to remember, drawing our attention to particular points, creating a subtle melodic rhythm that makes it appealing.

But it’s even more important to consider the setting. Sure, Obama’s on a winning podium surrounded by his supporters, so he’s pretty much assured of a rousing reception. But think about what he has to work with. It’s just one man, using his voice and body language to make his point. No slides, no powerpoint, no props.

So what does he do? How does he carry the audience with him? He tells stories.

He speaks about “the determination in the voice of a young field organiser who’s working his way through college,” and “the pride in the voice of a volunteer who’s going door to door because her brother was finally hired when the local auto plant added another shift.”

It’s all very well talking about big ideas like belief and hope, but Obama knows we need something real and tangible, something we can picture in our minds and hold onto. That’s what the stories give us. They humanise the big themes, make them real and personal.

And it’s interesting that he chooses to make us hear them, rather than just see them. A sign that he is alluding to the power of other voices as well as his own, perhaps?

I don’t know about you, but I get the feeling these are real stories. Certainly when he goes on to speak about meeting the family with the young daughter with leukemia, that’s a very real, personal and powerful anecdote that sticks in the mind.

Now, I’m no expert on political speeches, but I do enjoy listening to a good speaker or presenter, be they an actor, presenter or politician. I’ve no doubt that Obama’s speech was drafted, studied and edited several times before it was delivered.

But if you have a speech or presentation to make, there is a lot you could learn from this one. From the simple, concrete language through to selected repetition and patterning, and the power of stories to forge an emotional connection with your audience.

And there’s no need for Powerpoint slides.

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:
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’.