Why bad spelling may just hit your bottom line

The hidden cost of those niggly little errors – and what you can do about them

[Image courtesy of Barry Wat Flickr Creative Commons]

“Are you a Grammar Nazi?” asked somebody I connected with on WhatsApp, after I picked him up on a mistake.

I’ll have to way the options up, he’d written. I tried to resist the temptation, but failed. Weigh, surely? I replied, with a grinning emoticon.

He blamed it on predictive text, but I wasn’t all that convinced. And he followed it up with the question on my totalitarian learnings. 

I probably am a bit of a stickler for grammar, as well as spelling, punctuation and all the little details that separate bad writing from good. But then again, I have to be, as nobody’s going to pay me for copy that’s riddled with spelling mistakes and dodgy syntax.

You’d think it would be easy to get it right, with all of the technology we now have at our disposal. But even clever algorithms have their limitations, and mistakes can easily slip through the net – especially when you’re waying up the options.

Spelling it out

I was reminded of my friend’s slip-up when I started reading a fascinating book by linguist David Crystal.

If you’re a language geek like me, Crystal will need no introduction. He’s a prolific author who’s produced over 100 books on language in the last 50 years. And his latest, Spell it out: The singular story of English spelling, is compulsively readable.

Starting with a Christian scribe pondering over how to write down the unfamiliar sounds of Anglo-Saxon with a limited (Roman) alphabet, it takes us all the way up to present day via the Norman Conquest, Caxton and the arrival of printing, Shakespeare and Noah Webster (who’s the reason Americans now write harbor, center and traveling).

For a linguist, Crystal is pretty relaxed about spelling change: more of a describer, and less of a prescriber. Unlike some merchants of doom, he thinks textspeak is a sign that language mastery is alive and well.

But beyond the intellectual interest of knowing why -ough has so many pronunciations (through, tough, thorough, hiccough, though, cough), for me the book raised the more interesting question of why spelling is important in the world of marketing.

Does it matter if you get it right? And what’s the price of getting it wrong? Well here are just three considerations: 

  • Credibility: the web is a place where trust is everything, and there’s no shortage of people ready to take you for a ride. You really don’t have a second chance to make a first impression. Remember that on the web, your copy is representing you, so it’s important to get it right.  
  • Search engine ranking. Misspell a word consistently on your website, and you may just see your SEO suffer, for two reasons. The most obvious is that people aren’t searching for your misspelling. But more importantly, Google and other search engines may penalise you for getting it wrong, as misspellings can be an indicator of a site that’s less than trustworthy.
  • Lost revenue. Even when people do find you, that’s not the end of the story. One entrepreneur found that a single misspelling cut online sales by half. Fraud and phishing are so widespread nowadays that misspellings may just set alarm bells ringing – much in the same way that an insecure connection (http, rather than https) does.

Sweet success

Of course spelling errors can happen on both sides: your clients are just as prone as you are to slip up. And when they do, you may well be able to anticipate – and even capitalise – on it.

I regularly receive calls and emails from people looking to copyright a product or idea. But that’s something best left to lawyers. And so to avoid confusion, and reduce the number of enquiries, I added a page to my site explaining the difference between copyright and copywriting. took it one step further, when they realised that lots of people were searching for ‘bathroom sweets’. They acquired the domain and redirected it to a special section of their website that has a distinctly chocolatey feel – complete with photo of an edible bathtub.

With gentle good humour, they explained the difference between ‘sweets’ and ‘suites’ and guided people to the destination they needed. A stroke of creative genius (unlike Topshop, whose ‘Shakespere’ t-shirt earned it online ridicule).

So spelling does matter, and it could just affect your bottom line, for better or worse.

And what are my recommendations? Print out your copy. Read it with a pen in your hand, guiding you through every word. And always take a break to get some distance and see things clearly. 

Crystal clearly.

Why your point of view doesn't matter (and theirs does)

It’s a good idea to take off your goggles every now and then

[Image courtesy of frankieleon at Flickr Creative Commons]

Last week, on the day that Article 50 was finally invoked, I left the country.

The timing was entirely coincidental, of course, as I’d booked my holiday well before the fateful date of 29 March was made public.

As I made my way through the airport, my eye was caught by the wildly differing newspaper headlines.

FREEDOM! shouted the Daily Mail. Dover & out, punned the Sun as it ‘beamed a message’ from the famous white cliffs to the continent.

The Guardian, however, was not amused. Today Britain steps into the unknown, it warned, against the backdrop of an EU jigsaw puzzle with a gaping hole where Britain should have been.

The Express talked of ‘Theresa May’s no-nonsense message to Brussels’, while the The Independent mentioned the ‘nightmare’ of a hard Brexit.

The Star, meanwhile, had slightly different priorities, with Arise Sir Becks (David gets a knighthood) and Mel B’s three in bed romps (still just as spicy after all these years, apparently) taking pride of place on its garish front page.

I didn’t buy any of them, but decided to return my attention to The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood that’s recently seen a uptick in popularity thanks to the misogynistic sorties of The Donald. (Highly recommended, by the way, and headed for an 8 out of 10 at my upcoming book club.)

As the plane climbed high, I gazed out the window and began to think about the stories we tell ourselves – about ourselves and others. Fresh from my foray into cognitive behavioural therapy, I wondered whether we ever really understand what’s going on in anybody’s head, our own included.

He said, she said

The interesting thing about Brexit and Article 50 is how polarising it’s all become – just like the Trump presidency, in fact. People on both sides passionately defend their point of view, and believe that right is on their side with a sort of religious zeal.

As the plane descended over the Alps and lined up to land at Nice airport, my thoughts returned to earth too. What would the French make of it all, I wondered. Would their newspaper headlines be as provocative?

A glance at the front pages in the arrivals hall made me realise that point of view is just as important as the story you tell. 

Le Figaro did have a front-page photo of Theresa May with a small caption about Brexit. But the main headline was about doubts over the economic policy of presidential hopeful Emmanuel Macron.

For many other papers, it was news, but not the news, relegated to second place by French politics, gossip and sport. 

Libération, on the other hand, had a full-page photo of a red-jacketed foot guard, with Vous nous manquez déjà (we’re already missing you) printed on his bearskin. Inside, they had two possible visions of a British future: one bright and optimistic, the other dark and menacing.

No prizes for guessing which one they thought was the more probable. 

La vie en rose

As I chatted to French people on holiday, I quickly realised that Brexit is a side-show for them.

They see it through the prism of the age-old rivalry between Britain (or more exactly, England) and France, the legacy of World War Two and a fundamentally different relationship between the people and those in power. Plus the latest scandal involving François Fillon’s wife and who’s made it through to the next round of The Voice.

The point of all of this is simple: point of view. Yours, theirs, and the overlap between.

When you’re communicating with clients and prospects, it’s vital to take off your goggles and put on theirs. It doesn’t matter what you mean; it’s what they understand. It doesn’t matter what you write; it’s what they read.

If you can step outside your world, and step into theirs, you can see how to get through to them. So Trump could be a standout president, and just what the country needs. Brexit could be a huge success and mark the beginning of a new era.

And your latest genius marketing campaign might not be quite as attractive as you’d previously thought.

(D)over and out.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for marketers

Getting inside your audience’s head (and your own)

[Image courtesy of Pawel Loj at Flickr Creative Commons]

My friend F, who’s almost completed a course in counselling, sent me a couple of her recent essays to read. A train journey to London was the perfect opportunity to get in touch with my inner self. 

One essay was on Freudian psychoanalysis, which has never really appealed to me. I think it’s too intent on raking over the past, and can keep you so focused on the problem, you can’t see a solution.

Also, there’s really only so much you can blame your parents for; somebody once told me that if anything goes wrong over the age of 25 it’s on you, not them. Ouch.

The second essay intrigued me, delving into the fascinating world of CBT. 

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy aims to change the way you think about yourself, other people and the world in general. It’s the old idea that nothing is bad, but thinking makes it so. So it’s not the event in itself that’s negative, but your reaction to it – and when you react, you have a choice.

As a self-help addict (a paradox in itself, I think you’ll agree) I was hooked. So as my train sped towards King’s Cross, I went online and found a book on Amazon called Change Your Thinking with CBT.

It had rave reviews, including several that said it changed their entire way of thinking in just a couple of days. 

Praise indeed. But did the book – and the therapy – live up to the expectations?

I have to say that, much to my surprise, it did.

Mind matters

There’s nothing in there that we don’t all know already, but sometimes, the obvious isn’t obvious until it’s pointed out by somebody else. Almost every page had a light-bulb moment for me, and it helped me think differently about common frustrations and niggles. 

By simply reframing how you perceive the things that happen around you, you can defuse situations and take power away from negative thoughts. And not just in your personal life, but in business too.

It’s easy to forget when you’re pushing out a marketing campaign, or tweeting, or writing a post on LinkedIn that you’re one person talking to a another person. And that you both fall into some of the cognitive traps highlighted in my wonder book. 

So what are they? Here are some of my favourites, together with how they affect the way we interact with colleagues, prospects, clients and readers. And everybody else.

  • The tyranny of the shoulds. This is the belief that things ‘should’ or ‘must’ be a certain way. It falls into the category of absolutist thinking that has a mental picture of the world that’s rigid and inflexible. (Customers should behave in a certain way. My LinkedIn post should have had more likes. My sales promotions should always work. Clients should like every idea I come up with.)
  • Awfulising (or ‘catastrophic thinking’), when we take a minor incident and react in a disproportionate way – or even a major one that’s serious, but not the end of the world. (One mistake means they’ll never buy from me again. Missing the deadline is a disaster there’s no coming back from. The product recall will damage our reputation irreparably. The website relaunch was a fiasco from beginning to end.)
  • Black and white thinking means you look at everything in a polarised way. It’s either good or bad, with no middle ground. Apparently this is a particular trap for perfectionists – and we know who we are. In reality, things are always a bit more nuanced, so a quick mental shift will allow you to focus on the positive. (The draft white paper came back with quite a few amendments, so I obviously got it completely wrong.)
  • Overgeneralising. This happens when you take an isolated event – or a small number of similar ones – and turn it into a rule of thumb. If you find yourself saying ‘always’, ‘everybody’ or ‘never’, you’re probably overgeneralising. (They always miss deadlines. I never win pitches against that competitor. Every time I deal with them, they beat me down on price.)
  • Mind-reading. We’ve all done it, and even though we’re often proved wrong, we continue to step into the trap with our size 9s. The conclusions we jump to about people are almost invariably negative, and cause lots of stress and anxiety. It’s closely linked to another trap – personalising – which is based on the premise that the world revolves around us, and that other people’s actions are aimed directly at us. (They didn’t buy from us, so they obviously don’t rate us. He didn’t return my call, so he must be angry with me for some reason.)

The last one is my favourite: comparing. It’s one that we all do personally or professionally virtually every day. There’s always somebody slimmer, richer, funnier or faster than you. And there’s always a company that has nicer offices, a better website, cleverer adverts or a slicker tagline than yours.

And you know what they say: compare and despair.

CBT may not change your life in two days, but it may just change how you think about yourself and your audience – and how you interact with them.

At least I think so.

Unless I’m overgeneralising again.

The art of listening - and why it's not all about you

Going with the flow, letting it go and staying out of the weeds

I had dinner with a friend a few weeks ago.

We’d both forgotten it was Valentine’s Day, as it figures on neither of our radars. So we were were surrounded by couples gazing adoringly at each other, and our candlelit table was strewn with rose petals.

The waiter obviously thought we were together, and greeted us with a knowing smile. Amused by his mistake, we decided not to burst his bubble.

As we ate and chatted, I realised that ours was one of the few tables where there wasn’t an uninvited guest. For all around us, as far as the eye could see (and the restaurant was long, narrow and packed) were couples one or both of whose faces were illuminated by the glow of not just a candle, but a smartphone. 

Now my friend and I both have phones – in fact we’d arranged to meet via WhatsApp, as phone calls are so yesterday – but we never have them on the table when we meet up. Instead, they’re tucked away safely in our pockets, out of sight and out of mind.

And that makes a big difference, as we’re not distracted when we talk. We’re both present in the moment (three years on, I’m still on the mindfulness kick) and we have better conversations because of it.

But it’s not just that we have no distractions. He’s one of the few people I know who actually gets how a conversation works: the give and take, the listening and talking, the to and fro.

And that’s perhaps no surprise, given that he worked for years as a broadcast journalist, getting people to open up and tell their story.

Which leads me nicely to Celeste Headlee, whose talk on TED has already racked up almost 7 million views. 

You can see why. 10 ways to have a better conversation is amusing, waffle-free and highly practical.

The veteran radio host says you should forget everything you’ve been told about how to talk and listen (“It’s crap!” she says bluntly, to an amused audience). Instead, she gives her top tips based on decades of experience.

You’ll find out what Buddha said about having your mouth open, why it’s a bad idea to pontificate, and how conversations are like a mini-skirt. 

For anybody involved in communication, this talk is a must. Whether you’re in conversation with a client, a case-study interviewee, your marketing agency or a prospect – or even a friend over a table of rose petals – you can use these simple techniques to great effect.

At a fraction under 12 minutes, it’s a presentation that walks the talk, obeying the last of the 10 rules: be brief.

I hope you enjoy it.

[If you’re reading this in an email, click here to see the talk on]

Why a simple story trumps a complicated one

Popular votes, hanging chads and Caesar salads

[Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore at Flickr Creative Commons]

“Trump!” harrumphed my friend over her Caesar salad. She almost made it sound like a swear word, and waited for me to commiserate. 

I pointed out that whatever people thought, he was still democratically elected. So the more interesting question to ask was… but I never got the chance to finish my sentence. 

“He didn’t win the popular vote!” she hissed, brandishing her serrated knife menacingly.

The thing is, you don’t need to.

In fact, the first president elected without winning the popular vote was John Quincy Adams, way back in 1824. So the flaw in the electoral-college system – if indeed it is one – has been known about for over 200 years.

I was going to point out to my friend that if Americans had a problem with the loophole, they would have long since closed it. As recently as 2000, George W Bush was elected that way, amid the endless political soap-opera of the ‘hanging chads’, so it’s not as if we didn’t have a precedent in recent history.

But with her knife still hovering in mid-air, I thought it best to keep that thought to myself.

I don’t think we’re in Kansas Washington anymore

In the interests of full disclosure, I should just say that I’m not American, or a member of the Democratic or Republican parties. Or a supporter of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Or anybody else who fought for the nomination in the primaries.

I’m just somebody who’s fascinated by the fact that the most unpopular president in US history (and after just a month, that’s quite a record) actually got elected in the first place.

Viewed as a brand, he was borderline toxic late last year, especially after the off-the-record comments that surfaced just a month before the election.

Then again, nobody was surprised, as it was consistent with his track record. As the Huffington Post put it, They Never Cringed (though reading that article may cause you to, so exercise caution before clicking). 

So how did we get here? More to the point, how did he get there?

I don’t think there’s any great mystery about it. He just went back to first principles.

Politics meets marketing

He told a simple story: make America great again. It may be have been simplistic rather than simple, but it struck a chord.

If you’re one of the long-term unemployed in the Rust Belt, the idea of repatriating jobs is music to your ears. If you’re barely surviving on a low income (because all those illegal immigrants are pushing down wages) or living in a crime-ridden area (those immigrants again) then why would you not think the wall or mass deportations were a good idea? 

They always say that you should act fast, and use up any goodwill – such as it is, in this case – to get things done in the first 100 days. But the speed with which Donald Trump has acted has taken everybody by surprise.

But the measures shouldn’t: after all, he’s just doing what he said he would. The wall, the travel ban, the TPP withdrawal, targeting the Affordable Care Act, pulling funding from aid groups supporting abortion. You name it, he was upfront about it.

He also differentiated himself: he was a businessman who wasn’t part of the Beltway set or any political clan. He was the anti-politician who wanted to challenge the politicians.

He funded his campaign from his vast personal wealth, and so felt indebted to no one – least of all the Republican Party. And that independence gave him the ability to speak freely and tell it like it is (or at least, how he thought it was). 

It’s easy to level charges of sexism, racism and bigotry at him, but then what does that say about half the electorate (OK, a smidgen less than half) who voted for him? That they’re also guilty on all counts? Or that they were duped, and simply didn’t understand what they were voting for?

Here’s another possibility: maybe in a world where politicians hedge their bets and duck and dive, where they’re more spun than candy floss at a funfair, straight talking gets you noticed.

And even if people disagree with you, maybe they admire you for saying what you really think.

Though many marketers would recoil in horror if you said that there was a parallel between Donald Trump’s approach and theirs, I think it’s worth pointing out that he obeys some of the basic rules of the marketing game (or maybe Kellyanne Conway keeps him on track – and I wouldn’t want to mess with her): 

  • Tell a story
  • Be consistent.
  • Be different. 
  • Do what you say you’ll do. 
  • Don’t try to appeal to everybody.
  • Be authentic (even if, to some people, you’re saying unpalatable or unacceptable things).

It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out over the next four years. My knife-wielding friend scarcely knows how she’s going to make it through to 2020, and wonders if the nightmare will be prolonged with the call for ‘four more years’.

Personally, I think brand fatigue will have kicked in by then, and the GOP will have lined up a reserve candidate. And prepared an escape hatch for Donald and Melania.

But then what do I know? I got the 2015 UK election, Brexit and the US election wrong. One thing is for certain: I’m no Nate Silver. But then, that’s probably for the best.

Because I like surprises too much.