Saying what you mean, loosening up and getting the little things right
Hey you! started the email, which is always a good way to get attention. Nothing like a little directness. Whatever happened to Copycam? Or have you stopped snapping?
And you know what? He was onto something, my direct emailing friend. I haven’t stopped snapping – or sniping come to that. Every so often, I’ve been taking photos of copy that could have been more elegant, or clearer, or even omitted. Unintended meaning, misplaced punctuation and clunky prose.
It’s just that I haven’t been posting it. So hold onto your hats, and let’s get started.
Funny you should mention that
I’m a big advocate of humour in small doses, when it comes to writing in general and copywriting in particular. There’s rarely a faster way to connect with people and show them there’s a beating heart behind the business.
You don’t want to lay it on with a trowel (it fasts becomes tedious) or make it dodgy (it soon offends), but a little dash of wit here and there never hurts.
And it if has a topical hook, so much the better. About this time last year, when Margaret Thatcher died, the laundry up the road from Copy Towers was quick off the mark:
It’s clever without being corny. It refers to a controversial figure without being openly partisan. And the speed with which it appeared was remarkable. As was the speed with which it disappeared, to be replaced by another laundry-related pun.
Staying with the theme of ladies, I spotted this one day when I was in town:
One for the gentlemen, I thought. Who could resist at that price?
And yet I can’t really throw the first stone. We’ve all been there – you, me, and everybody who’s ever picked up a pen or hunted and pecked on a keyboard.
Afterwards, you look back in horror and wonder did I really write that? You did. And so did I. But what we didn’t do was review it after leaving it to one side for a while.
My rule is simple: write once, edit many times. Read even more times.
If in doubt…look it up
Let’s stay with with fashion, but move departments. H&M decided to avoid humour and simply tell it like it is:
Unfortunately, they forgot the all-important apostrophe. Yes, yes, I know it’s just a small thing, but all the small things add up to a lot of big things. Lack of attention to punctuation could just lead to more serious lapses. Or is that just the word geek coming out in me?
Perhaps you’re right, so let’s move on. But before we do, I should tell you that I found the missing apostrophe a few streets away in a pub window:
Small but perfectly formed. And speaking of misplaced punctuation, here’s another example:
Which makes you wonder just how good those crêpes really are. And whether they shouldn’t simply have stuck with pancakes, which is mercifully accent-free.
Say what you mean
More serious than a misplaced accent or apostrophe is a tone that jars. And yet it’s one that we find time and again in business copy – and anything that has to sound ‘official’. The giveaway is a construction that’s unnecessarily complicated and roundabout. Much like this sign I saw in Cambridge Central Library:
What’s wrong with it? Well it’s inconvenient for people who want to use the machine, so there’s no may about it. And any isn’t really necessary. Take it out and what changes? Nothing.
Lastly, we are sounds more distant and formal than we’re.
Put it all together, and what do you get as an alternative version?
We’re sorry for the inconvenience
See the difference? It’s more honest, it’s shorter, and it doesn’t mince its words. And it’s friendlier, so people are more likely to be forgiving.
Crème de la crème
But let’s finish as we started, with a dash of humour. It doesn’t take much, so use it sparingly. As this cosmetics shop did to entice people in:
How does it work? Where does the old hand cream go? Is it helping the Third World or Children in Need? What hand creams qualify for the amnesty? Is it free or free*? Are there strings attached?
Who knows. And in a way, who cares. None of those practical questions matter – all that matters is that it hooks your interest, makes you smile, and gets you to go into the shop.
I almost did. But then I looked at the state of my hands and moved quickly on.
Customer loyalty: sweet success or a bitter taste?
I’ve been reflecting recently on three service experiences, and how they’ve affected my perception of the brands.
The first, unfortunately, involves an embarrassing admission on my part. Having vaunted the benefits of mindfulness and being in the present moment, I have to put my hand up and admit my mind went AWOL.
Yes, we have no bananas
A couple of weekends ago, I was doing my weekly supermarket shop online, and I ordered the usual pack of eight bananas. Or at least I thought I did. It was only a few days later, when the order arrived that I realised I’d absent-mindedly put ‘8’ in the quantity box before clicking add.
So that’s 8 x 8, a sum total of 64 bananas.
Now I’m as fond of bananas as the next person, but there is a limit. The delivery man looked on with a bemused smile as I lifted bag after bag of bananas out of the crate. Just as well I’d discovered the power of mindful breathing, as it was the only thing at that moment between me and a sense of panic.
Only just, though.
But you know what? It was fine. The supermarket not only takes back substitutions that you don’t like. They also take back things you’ve ordered in error, or quantities you’ve got wrong.
“Don’t worry,” said the chirpy delivery chap. “Mistakes happen. I’ll just scan them back in, and we’ll refund you.”
Two days later, the refund still hadn’t come in, so I phoned the helpline.
“No problem,” said the oh-so-accommodating call-centre woman. “We’ll refund you.”
And so she did. In vain did I tell her that the delivery guy had scanned the excess bananas, and that it was just possible that he hadn’t yet done a data upload from his handheld device.
“That’s all done,” she said brightly. “Anything else I can help you with?”
There wasn’t, so I thanked her and hung up. The next day I checked my account online. And there was not just one, but two refunds, for the same amount. There had been a delay in the data upload.
I’ve thought many times about changing supermarkets, but it’s little don’t worry moments like this that keep me loyal. Well, that and the double refunds. I considered calling them up and explaining that I’d got more than my just deserts (yes, pun intended) but I just know what the response will be. Don’t worry.
So I won’t.
Who you gonna call?
If you’ve followed this blog along the highways and byways over the years, you’ll know that when it comes being seduced by operators, I’m a serial offender. I’ve changed partners five times in eight years.
The most recent change was a few weeks ago, when I discovered that my personalised voice-mail message had disappeared for the third time in 18 months. Instead, it reverted to the default message, which features a blokey Geordie who says things like ‘Nice one!’ when you press a button to make a choice.
Now I have nothing against Geordies, but the blokey thing did grate. But it wasn’t just that. It was also the fact that I finally saw how I’d been manipulated by the marketing people – and for the marketer, that’s reason enough to up sticks and go.
It’s a pay-as-you-go operator who played a very clever slowly-slowly-catchey-monkey game. First, free unlimited internet. Then, limited internet. And finally, a price hike in calls. Which made their rolling 30-day contracts seem more and more attractive.
Bait and switch, I hear you say? My thoughts exactly.
The final straw came when they were undercut by one of their rivals – by a good 70% on the call-per-minute rate – and simply dropped them from their price-comparison table.
So I felt manipulated and deceived. It was time to get a PAC code.
You want coffee with that?
My last service experience mirrors my first one. It’s my favourite cafe, where the coffee is piping hot and the welcome is always warm. Recently, the tills have been randomly printing out ‘Free drink’ on the top of the receipts, inviting you to fill in a customer-service survey online and claim your prize.
So I did, and got a free coffee on my next visit. The receipt after that also offered me a free drink if I completed the survey. So I did, again. And the pattern has been repeating itself for three months. I’ve been paying for only one coffee in two.
Now the service is great and the coffee tastes good – especially when it’s free. But I’m sure they can’t want to hear my admittedly valuable opinion quite so much. When I mentioned the surveys to one of the staff, I was told that you could only complete one a month from the same IP address.
But that’s not true, as my weekly feedback shows. I didn’t have the heart to tell her. And here’s the thing: I’ve actually stopped doing the surveys now, as I feel so positive about them I actually want to pay for my coffee. It doesn’t feel right not to.
Yes, it’s a marketing tactic, but unlike my mobile experience, it doesn’t leave me feeling manipulated.
It’s not Starbucks, by the way. They’re off my Christmas card list after they downgraded my rewards card at the beginning of the year. But that’s another story, which I’ll tell you another day.
Over a coffee, perhaps.
Lessons learned and disasters avoided (with a little sack-cloth and ashes thrown in)
Cyberspace is full of people telling you what to do, how to succeed, who to target and how to make the sale. Fewer people give you the scoop on what not to do, as that can appear too negative and might just make you think ‘how do they know that?’ - and wonder if they too have made those mistakes.
Well in the spirit of openness, and as this week’s mindfulness exercise is embracing discomfort, I’m going to dish the dirt and live with the consequences. Isn’t that liberating for both of us?
Some of these mistakes I’ve made myself, and others I’ve let other people make when I should have pulled the emergency cord and stopped the train.
- If it’s wrong, don’t try to make it right. Never try to rewrite copy that just doesn’t work, no matter what way you look at it. It’s almost always easier to throw it out and start again. I’ve learned this to my cost, as I’ve struggled to hammer errant prose into some kind of presentable shape. It’s like a painting that’s wrong – you need to re-prime the canvas and start all over again. In the long run, it’s always faster and easier.
- Don’t leave the copy until last. Websites take months to build. Brochures often take weeks to design. So why leave the copy right till the end? An unholy rush is not a sure-fire recipe for quality. So handle the design and content in tandem, to make sure they play nicely together. Or as a former art teacher or mine put it: ‘work the entire painting, not just one area at a time’.
- Don’t write in-house unless you have an in-house writer… and most people don’t. It’s always easier to outsource it to somebody who’s a specialist, and who can bring an experienced, objective eye to your company, market, message and sales pitch. Remember also that letting somebody internally do it has an ‘opportunity cost’ – they’re defocused from their regular job, they’re not a specialist, it causes disruption and it takes longer. Now add up the cost.
- Don’t under-budget for it – and that means money and time. Copy is not an optional extra. It’s a salesperson in print or on the web, one that sells, informs and entertains 24 hours a day. Isn’t it worth paying what it takes to get it right, and setting aside the time to do it properly?
- Never rush it. Nothing good was ever created in a hurry. If you rush it, it’ll look rushed. Planning well ahead of time, and briefing properly, means that it’s all happening in parallel and you can get on with the really important stuff. Remember as well that deadlines are almost always self-imposed, and often unrealistically tight. So loosen up, cut yourself some slack, and remind yourself that getting it right later beats getting it wrong earlier.
- Don’t write before you plan. (Yes, I’ve done that a few times, and mainly on account of no. 5 where I was pushed into rushing it.) The fist step isn’t sitting in front of a blank page to write. It’s sitting in front of a blank page to plan. These days, I don’t do linear plans any more as they’re too constricting. Something like a MindMap is far more flexible and allows you to represent how things really look in a fluid environment.
- Don’t start unless you know where you want to end up. This is related to 6, as you’ve probably worked out. But it’s worth a point all of its own, as it’s so important. The easiest thing to do is to ask yourself a question: what am I trying to achieve? For example, are you trying to close a sale, or get somebody to fill in a form, or pick up the phone? Are you trying to build credibility, or to establish yourself as a thought leader? A really easy way to plan is to start with the goal and work backwards.
- Never write for yourself. Yes, you’ve done it, and I’ve done it. But unless you’re writing a diary (and even then, you might have an eye on posterity and publication) you’ve got an audience, and they’re the ones who come first. So who are they? What are they looking for? What do they absolutely need to know? What can you safely leave out? What tone of voice will they respond to?
- Never trust a first draft, which is partly related to the sub-commandment Just do it. Yes, you should stop procrastinating (ask me about it) and just get something – anything – down on paper. The sense of release is enormous, and it’ll really get your creative juices flowing when you most need them. But it’s only a start. Leave it overnight, and see what you think tomorrow.
- Don’t multi-task. Don’t write and email. Or write and post on somebody’s wall. Or write and tweet. I’ve tried all three combinations and I can tell you now, they don’t work. Shutting everything else out and just writing is like meditation: difficult at first, but immensely rewarding when you settle into it. And the results will show in the copy, which will be sharper, more focused and more flowing.
And lastly, never have more than 10 points in a list (that wasn’t one, by the way). If it’s good enough for Moses, it’s good enough for you.
And for me.
Brevity is the soul of wit – but there is a limit
The mindfulness is going well. Thanks for asking. Not that you were really asking. Not really. But anyway. Whatever.
Have you noticed that we’re all writing shorter and shorter sentences? Probably not. Neither had I until recently, when somebody who never texts, IMs or tweets wrote me – and I mean really wrote, with pen and paper – an actual letter.
What struck me was the length of the sentences. 20 years ago, it wouldn’t have been anything out of the ordinary. But in our fast-paced, 24-hour world of messaging at the speed of light, his style seemed quaint and endearingly old-fashioned.
And strikingly effective.
It immediately made me think that for all the gains of the information revolution, we’ve lost something very special: the luxury of time, the attention to detail and the effortless eloquence of unhurried composition.
Now it’s all staccato and snappy, abrupt and abbreviated. The clue’s in the name: Twitter and Snapchat, WhatsApp and Viber.
Long and winding road
Copy can swing the other way too. I’m often asked to write ‘long copy’, which immediately sets my teeth on edge. Long copy isn’t just copy that’s long – it’s a particular format that resembles a foot-in-door salesman who scarcely pauses for breath.
It’s the sort of shouty, urgent, edge-of-the-seat copy that picks you up and grabs you by the scruff of the neck, and doesn’t let go until you’ve bought the special offer and got those great ‘bonus’ products that you don’t want and will never use.
And it’s not just the copy that’s long. It’s the sentences too, as they meander and snake and duck and dive before eventually drawing to a close. Eventually.
There’s also the other form of long copy that lets it all hang out, and never knows when to stop. It’s not shouty or breathless (those would be advantages in this case) but slow, languid and tedious. It says everything, hoping the reader will pick up the important bits. As if.
So too long is bad. But is too short bad?
It depends on the context. But here, the context I’m talking about is sales and marketing copy, and informational copy (articles, how-to guides, interviews, fact-sheets, case studies).
Variety. Life. Join the dots.
The key to effective copy – or any writing that doesn’t fall into the IM camp – is variety. If you have all short sentences, it’s choppy, disturbing and difficult for the reader.
The subliminal message you’re sending out is that you’re a very busy person, and long sentences aren’t for you. It creates an almost military feel, with the thump-thump-thump of the drum on the parade ground. Even worse, the constant punctuation can seem almost aggressive. It. Stops. People. In. Their. Tracks.
It’s easy to write, but exhausting to read.
Using exclusively long sentences has the opposite effect. It makes you look verbose and disorganised (most long sentences can, and should, be broken up). It creates the impression that you don’t care about the reader’s time, and that you, on the other hand, have all the time in the world.
So the best course is to alternate. Some long sentences, some short. Don’t strive for a particular ratio of long to short, but try to write naturally and let your thoughts flow.
And if in doubt, as always, simply read it out. That works every time, letting you hear whether you sound wordy or choppy. If you do, lengthen the short sentences, or shorten the long ones. Or both.
And when you have no more to say, stop.
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Or why good writing and dark chocolate have more in common than you think…
I’ve just started reading a book on mindfulness.
It’s a term you’ve probably heard bandied about over the last decade or so as the answer to all our woes. From insomnia to digestive disorders, from stress to depression, mindfulness is the new miracle cure. By practising it, you’ll be calmer, more centred, more rested and more organised.
And yet, far from being a new idea, it’s as old as the hills.
Focusing on one thing at a time, while forgetting all external pressures and influences has been an open secret for centuries. The 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal famously said that most of man’s troubles come from not being able to sit quietly in a room.
And that was before Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat.
So what does all of this have to do with copywriting? And with chocolate, for that matter?
More than you think.
Have you crossed any red lines recently? If so, you’re in good company. David Cameron’s said it, and so has Barack Obama. And yet just a few short years ago, we crossed lines without specifying the colour.
Originally, it was a specialised term. Editors redlined passages of an article that needed rewriting. Lawyers redlined sections of a contract that were unacceptable.
A red line was simply a way of drawing attention to something that needed changing – and the easiest way of doing that was with a red pen. Early word processors duly took up the term, and let you redline paragraphs of text, mimicking the editor’s pen. Over the years, it morphed into tracking changes in a document, a feature that still uses red lines.
But then, the lines got blurred. And now, we can’t just cross any old line; it has to be a red one. And when you hear somebody else saying it, there’s an irresistible temptation to copy them, even if you don’t know why you’re doing it. Or even what it means.
Similarly, we’ve started kicking the can down the road on just about every issue. There are no longer questions about certain things, but question marks. Vicious cycles abound, as do virtuous cycles, as we all forget that we should actually say circles.
The point here is that we’re on autopilot. We don’t even notice we’re saying these things, still less that we’re saying them because we’ve heard or read them.
It’s one of the reasons that so much copy fails to work. It simply reaches for the nearest cliché, and uses it with scant regard for what it really means, and whether it’s appropriate. The result is writing that’s rushed, formulaic, hollow and meaningless.
Worse, it does nothing to distinguish itself from anybody else’s copy. And yet the danger signs are easy to spot.
You write copy because there’s a box to fill on a web template – not because you’ve got anything to say. You have a mission statement or values page on your site because everybody else has one. You keep writing because there’s no limit to the length of a web page. You use jargon and buzzwords liberally, because you think they sound impressive.
But they don’t. And they definitely won’t set you apart from the crowd.
Make haste slowly
So instead, stop and slow down. One of the first lessons of mindfulness is to bring your thoughts back to the most basic of things: your breath.
And with your copy, you should always come back to basics too:
- Why are you writing this?
- Who are you writing it for?
- Why should they read it?
- Does it add to your reputation, credibility or likeability?
- Does it move you closer to the sale?
- Have you said it in as few words as possible?
- Have you said it in your words, or have you unwittingly slipped into buzzword mode?
- And crucially, if you cut it, would anybody miss it?
Really focusing on what you’re writing as you write it makes an enormous difference. So it’s worth setting aside the time and effort to get it right. And if you’re outsourcing it, making sure you have enough budget, a clear brief and a good idea of what success looks like.
Otherwise, you’re writing – or getting somebody else to write – on autopilot.
Which brings us all the way back to chocolate.
The book I’m reading starts with getting you to really focus on what you’re doing, to the complete exclusion of everything else. One of the very first exercises is The Chocolate Mediation. It’s a very simple, but startlingly effective, demonstration of how concentrating on what you’re doing can transform the results.
Believe me, chocolate never tasted so good. And if you apply the same approach to your copy, it’ll go down a treat, and leave a very pleasant taste in the mouth.
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