5 easy ways to shorten your copy - and make it work better

Boxes, pyramids and vanishing detail

[Image courtesy of Jenni C at Flickr Creative Commons]

As the Twitter revolution has clearly shown, shorter is better. If anybody had told you 10 years ago that we’d all be sending 140-character messages and still including everything we wanted to say, you’d have dismissed them out of hand.

And yet, that’s exactly what’s happened. In the space of a few short years, we’ve all learned to be more concise and to cut out all the extraneous detail. Which proves that when we have to, we can. 

If only web pages, emails and brochures came with a word limit. But they don’t, so we give free rein to our creativity and say everything we have to say. And then some. 

The result is copy that people simply don’t read. Maybe once they would have. But Twitter – plus all the other bite-sized communication out there – has set the expectation. Well, that and all the digital distractions and interruptions we have nowadays. Today, more than ever, you have to get to the point fast

So let me do just that and give you five simple ways to cut down your copy.

  1. Summarise. This is actually cheating, but if it works, who cares? An executive summary at the start of a whitepaper is simply a short version of the document, designed for busy people who like to skim. If they read it, they get the gist without wading through the detail. If they want the detail, they know exactly where to find it.

    And it works not just for whitepapers. You can summarise virtually anything by including the key points in subheadings, bullet points, numbered points, call-out boxes or at-a-glance guides. In a way, it’s the best of both worlds, as you’re catering for the skimmers and delvers.

  2. Hide the detail. Yes, this is also cheating, but (a) you’re busy and (b) it’s easy, so refer to point 1. With this, you simply move the heavy stuff out of sight, so that it’s there but not up-front.

    So your landing page has the bare bones, with an attention-grabbing headline, or an overview. Then allow people to branch out to pages with more detail. They can select the area that interests them, rather than be overwhelmed by superfluous detail.

  3. Write from the top down. If you can’t stop yourself saying absolutely everything (and often, it’s the only way to get all that stuff out of your head) then go on and do it. But try to prioritise as you go. If that’s too much like walking and chewing gum, then just put it all down, then reorganise it so the important stuff comes first.

    Whichever approach you take, the next step is the crucial one: cut from the bottom up. The 80/20 rule applies to virtually anything, and copy is no exception. You can actually get rid of most of it and still get your message across. But you don’t need to be quite so radical: cut it by 50% and you’re well on the way to success. The top-down approach is used by journalists, who are taught to write in an inverted pyramid structure (check out the video at that URL if you’re interested).

  4. Read it out loud. This is an infallible test for all copy. If it sounds wrong, it’s wrong. But more importantly here, if it sounds long… well, you get the picture. If reading it aloud is a chore, that’s a sure sign that you need to cut it down.

    A variation on this is to give it to somebody else to read, aloud or otherwise. Often, when we’re writing something, we lose our objectivity. It’s why so many people come to me with half-finished copy, or barely started copy where they’ve lost their way and can’t see the wood for the trees.

  5. Chase the numbers. Have you ever had to write a Google AdWords advert? I have – in fact it may very well have been responsible for bringing you to my site. AdWords is completely unforgiving when it comes to word count. In fact, it goes beyond that, limiting you to so many characters per heading plus the two lines of your advert. So you have no choice but to bring a razor-sharp focus and endless economy to your ad writing.

    You can do the same thing when you’re writing copy, simply by setting yourself an absolute limit.

    I’ve recently been doing that for blog posts I’ve written for a client. Their CMS limits the number of words, and while the client doesn’t want to exceed that number (they can’t, so they have no choice) the flipside is that they don’t want to undershoot either, and waste valuable words. So I’ve been practising trying to get as close as possible to the limit, saying everything I need to, but without ending too abruptly.

    And you know what? When you want to, you can. All it takes is a little practice. So try chasing the numbers. Impose a limit on yourself, and see if you can hit the target. 

I say it all the time – on this blog, to clients, and to just about anybody who’ll listen: the key to getting people to read what you write is to think like a reader. And that’s easy, because you’re one too. You know you prefer shorter to longer, and that you don’t do detail. 

So keep that in mind when you write, and you’ll rarely go wrong. 

Apple and the art of simplicity

Saying more with less, and cutting your prose to the core

[Image courtesy of TechStage at Flickr Creative Commons]

Following my recent (re-)introduction to the wonderful world of Apple, I’ve become something of a fanboy. From the free iPad I got a few weeks back, I’ve graduated to a (purchased) iPad mini 2 with retina display: a slick, state-of-the-art ‘fondleslab’ if ever there was one.

But what’s really struck me is not the build quality, or the display, or the ease of use – though all three are pretty impressive.

No, it’s the clarity of the message. The instructions are crystal-clear, the language pared-down and precise, and the tone friendly and engaging. From the very first screen (Hola! Hello! it says) the iPad setup and configuration process is like a chat with your best new friend.

We all know the story of Apple design: it’s all about eliminating complexity. So the iPod was a marvel of minimalism, an example that was followed through by the iPhone and iPad. But for me, the interesting thing is that they also eliminated complexity from all their written materials.

As a closet geek, I like to really get to know things inside out. So I’m actually reading all 300-odd pages of the iPad user guide to get the lowdown on all those hidden features that most people never discover.

The manual is a shining example of how to get it right.

Simple language, logical steps, bulleted and numbered points. All of the information is presented in bite-sized chunks, with just enough detail to find out what you need to know. Hyperlinks take you to cross-referenced sections, and screen captures illustrate a feature at exactly the right point.

But here’s the thing: this simplicity is deceptive. I’m sure they started out with lots more detail, and just like the iPod, iPad and iPhone, they designed out the complexity. It’s a lesson we should all learn from. It’s a lesson that some of us already have.

Anker, for example, who produce a range of accessories for Apple products.

Simple is as simple does

I was looking for a second lightning cable, so I could set up a juice point for my iPad downstairs as well as up. But all third-party lightning cables are not equal, it seems. Some are certified by Apple, and others aren’t.

Anker is. And they appear to have taken a leaf out of Apple’s style guide, as I saw as soon as the cable arrived and I took the box out of the wrapping.

Anker: smart just got easier, it said. Already, I was beginning to like these people. Inside, the story got better: we hope you never have the need, but if you do, our service is friendly and hassle free.

I decided I liked them even more. Their goal of making the smart life easier meant starting with affordable, high quality gear and ending with a commitment to 100% user satisfaction, they went on to say. After all, we’re customers too.

Don’t you just love them? Inside the box was a card that said Happy? on one side with a little sun, and Not happy? on the other with a raincloud.

You see what they’re doing here, don’t you? They’re not Apple, and yet they sound like them. They’re riding on the back of the Apple touchy-feely experience, if anything pushing it to a point that Apple hasn’t yet reached. 

They’re doing what lots of clients I speak to would like to do. We’d like to be more like Apple, they say. So what’s stopping you? I say.

The answer, of course, is nothing. Simple language doesn’t cost anything, and simple policies and procedures are easily created, implemented and followed.

What I suspect is holding them back is the thought that you can get too simple. Too pared-down. Too telegraphic. But you know what? You can’t, because that’s what people respond to in this age of reduced attention spans and digital impatience.

Next time you think I wish our brand could be more like Apple (and I suspect most companies have those moments) take a look at your written materials, and see how they could be cut down and made more reader-friendly.

It is possible. Anker have done it, and they’re reaping the rewards. You could too.

All you have to do is take the first bite.

Are you hiding behind your words? If so, it's time to come on out.

Perception, reality and the space in between…

[Image courtesy of at Flickr Creative Commons]

I recently met somebody in person whom I’d already dealt with by email. I’d also had a look at his website, and formed an impression based on what he said and how he presented himself. He wasn’t a potential client, and the meeting wasn’t in a business setting. But even though I was off duty, I still couldn’t help weighing up his words.

I was expecting somebody serious and slightly humourless, and just a little intimidating. The sort of person who’s polite and well-mannered, but with whom you never really feel at ease.

How wrong I was. The first hint was when I phoned him to check directions as I made my way to our rendezvous. There was warmth and friendliness in the voice, and a touch of humour. How odd, I thought.

And it was even odder when we finally met and shook hands. The big, beaming smile and easy manner took me by surprise. There was instant rapport, and we never ran out of things to talk about.

So how did that happen?

The answer wasn’t difficult to find. In fact, I felt so comfortable and relaxed with my new friend that I told him the picture I had of him before our meeting. He looked a little crestfallen, but went on to explain the discrepancy.

“I’m basically quite a shy person,” he said, “and have always been a bit of an outsider. So I suppose I compensate by coming across as serious and self-assured. Perhaps I’ve overdone it. I’m OK in person – the problem is mostly in writing.”

And he’s right – he is OK in person. More than OK in fact. He’s positively exceptional: charming, witty and excellent company. Just as well, really, as he’s a portrait photographer. Then again, maybe it’s because he’s a photographer that he’s developed these skills.

Either way, his writing lets him down, so I offered to tweak his web copy and give him some pointers on relaxing and letting go in email. And he’s taken it all on board, if our recent communication is anything to go by. He’s leaned into the exercise, and has really loosened up. 

Up close and personal

There’s nothing unusual about this experience. Everybody finds it difficult to write about themselves. They’re just too close to the action, and it’s too personal to feel comfortable. So they stiffen up and distance themselves – from themselves, ironically.

But it’s more than that.

It’s an inability to accurately represent in writing what an actual encounter will be like. And I’m not simply talking here about individuals. Companies are just as prone to the same error – more so, in fact. There’s often a yawning gulf between what they say and how they act. Between what they say and who they are.

So next time you’re surprised, as I was, by the gap between perception and reality, try turning the tables and ask yourself how others see you, based on your written materials. Your emails, tweets, blog posts, direct mails, website copy and brochures.

Are they saying you’re serious, humourless and intimidating, or warm, friendly and open? And does that tally with the actual experience?

Companies have personalities, just like photographers and copywriters, and everybody in between. So what’s yours? And does your writing accurately reflect that?

If not, you really should fix it.

Customer service, try before you buy and Kevin Spacey

Lessons learned from the flat-panel frontline

[Image courtesy of Paul Townsend at Flickr Creative Commons]

Guess what? I’ve joined the 21st centuy. Yes, that’s right – I’ve got myself a smart TV.

It had got to the point where I was embarrassed to let people into my lounge in case they’d see the CRT monster lurking in the corner. It wasn’t flat panel, it wasn’t HD, and it wasn’t connected to the internet. But it did the job, and I was happy with that. 

But before I get into customer service, let me take a brief detour via try before you buy. For the thing that drove me into the arms of the LED brigade was a whirlwind romance with Netflix. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because it all started with an iPad.

One that a friend no longer had any use for (he’s a serial upgrader) and which he gave to me. It’s one of the original ones that hit the streets way back in 2010. I’ve never been an Apple fanboy, but this was free, so I took it. 

And was I impressed. As a dyed-in-the-wool Android user, I was bowled over. Slick, fast, clear, and eminently usable. The App Store was a revelation, and I quickly filled all the screens with funky little app icons. 

Including Netflix, which was the slippery slope to flat-panel perdition. Somebody told me there was a 30-day trial you could sign up to, so I did. Like the iPad, it was free, so I jumped in feet first. 

You may well think that

And that’s when I discovered House of Cards. I remember the original series in the UK (yes, I’m that old, despite the boyish features) and loved it. But could Kevin Spacey live up to Ian Richardson’s Francis Urquhart? 

Could he just. Transport the series to the other side of the pond, do a quick name change from Urquhart to Underwood, and 25 years on, the formula is as compelling as ever.

I was hooked. But the prospect of binge-viewing HOC (and 24, and House, and all the other series I’ve missed over the years) on an iPad somehow didn’t seem right. Something was missing. Something 32 inch, with sleek lines and sexy contours. 

Enter Samsung, with their irresistible UE32H6400 TV. Again, I tried before I bought, this time at the Richer Sounds store here in Cambridge, in a perfect example of reverse showrooming (aka ‘webrooming’ – checking it out online, and buying in-store). 

The people at Richer Sounds were just perfect: knowledgeable without being overly technical, helpful without being invasive, accommodating without being sycophantic. They even have a system that registers the product for you, so by the time I brought my slimline beauty back chez moi, a guarantee email was waiting in my In Box. 

But the customer service experience was about to take a turn for the worse. For the TV kept losing its connection to the internet, and when it was connected, Netflix refused to play ball. So I resorted to calling Samsung support on their UK number. 

I couldn’t possibly comment

And they were available, even on Good Friday. Then again, that’s not a holiday everywhere, and the support centre was clearly not in the UK. My guess would be Eastern Europe, but it’ll have to remain a guess. 

As we were trying the usual tactics (factory reset, router reset etc.) I asked the chap who was helping me where he was. 

“I’m not allowed to disclose that information,” he said matter-of-factly.

I thought he was joking, but given the deadpan delivery, I ought to have known better. When I speculated that he wasn’t in the UK, there was silence. Complete silence, followed by another instruction relating to the Samsung Smart Hub. 

He didn’t solve my problem in the end. A convenient system update gave him the chance to end the call, as he assured me that the 800MB file would cure my problems. As one of my problems was the speed of the TV connection to the internet, it took 90 minutes to download. And it fixed nothing. 

In the end, I was the one who solved it, and then thanks to my new best friend, Netflix. Move your TV closer to your router, it suggested. Or failing that, plug it into a WiFi extender. And bingo, House of Cards was on my new TV. Together with the must-see shows from a lost decade.

Sheer. Viewing. Bliss. 

And the lessons I learned from my experience? 

  • Try before you buy is immensely powerful, for services and products.
  • Retail isn’t dead, especially when you want it now.
  • Good service is hard, and bad service is easy. 
  • Everybody in the food chain needs training to be on-message (create a cheet sheet, write a script, make a video, run training, rinse & repeat). 
  • Sometimes, little things can keep a customer very happy (email guarantees, for example). 
  • Other times, they can cause them to fall out of love with you (robotic non-disclosure of current location). 

And one last thing: Kevin Spacey is fabulous. Just fabulous. Must be the name (and no, I don’t mean Spacey).

Should you ever swear in your marketing?

If everybody else is doing it, why shouldn’t you?

[Image courtesy of Melissa Wiese at Flickr Creative Commons]

 “I don’t know why people get so worried about what others think of them,” said a friend last week, when we were talking about a mutual acquaintance. “Personally, I’m past caring.”

Good for you, I thought. Because most of us aren’t.

We’re all just a teensy bit afraid of being judged by others, and being found wanting. Not clever, or funny, or intelligent, or cultured, or polite enough. Or whatever. So most of the time, we mind our p’s and q’s and play it safe.

Most of the time. And most people. But not everyone, and not always.

My friend, who claims to be past caring, still doesn’t extend his nonchalance to swearing. Why? Well it’s not a matter of what people would think of him. The truth is much simpler: he’s just not a sweary person.

Because there are sweary people. We all know one – or knew one, if their potty mouth has caused us to avoid their company.

Swearing doesn’t have to be vulgar, and used cleverly, it can actually be quite funny. And a non-sweary person can achieve even greater effect by dipping into the arsenal (stop it) of bad language and pulling out a weapon every now and then. The fact that it’s unexpected makes it even more striking. 

So much for the personal sphere. But what about swearing in marketing? And branding?

The simple answer is that it depends, as in real life, on who you are and who you’re talking to. If you’re a big, serious, heavyweight brand you’re never going to swear or even come close. It’s simply not in keeping with your image. If you’re a B2B brand, it’s always better to err on the side of caution. Nobody was ever offended by not swearing, so it’s best to play it safe.

No, swearing – or even moderately risqué language – is best confined to B2C brands. And then, only those who feel comfortable with it and are ready to accept the consequences.

Just like in real life.

Get over it, dude

There’s no mistaking the message that Fat Bastard or Sassy Bitch are sending out. What’s surprising is that both are a brand of wine, traditionally not a product associated with colourful language. But by shaking things up, and saying up front who they are and what they stand for, they immediately identify with their target market. 

Which is a clever move.

It’s probably also what Holy Crap cereal is trying to do, though I don’t think I’ll be chowing down on that any time soon. On the other hand, Bigg Ass Fans kind of appeal to me, and sound like they might really keep me cool in a long hot summer.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably already reacted to these brands (currently available in the US, but inevitably heading everywhere else) based on their names. Either you’re their sort of customer or you’re not. 

And here’s the thing: they know that, and don’t want you if you’re not.

Like me, like my lingo

Which is almost exactly what Doug Kessler over at Velocity said to me a few months back.

He’d written a brilliant piece on the subject entitled How to use swear words in your f***ing marketing (except he didn’t use asterisks), which tickled me in all the right places, and went down a storm with his readership (“Funniest and most entertaining blog I can remember reading, EVER!”). 

The thing is, Doug is the first to admit he’s a sweary guy. It’s part of his shtick, and is inseparable from who he is. And when it comes to clients, it separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls, and the clients he wants from the ones he doesn’t. 

It works for him, and he feels comfortable with it.

(As an interesting aside, during our conversation lasting almost an hour, he didn’t swear once. Perhaps that was just because I opened  by mentioning the blog post, and the element of surprise, and spontaneity, had disappeared.)

I’m not sure the same approach would work for me, though. Strict parents, Catholic school and a natural aversion seem to stop me letting rip (most of the time – just don’t make me angry, as Bill Bixby used to say.)

And you know that? That suits me just fine.

I’m not offended in the least by other people swearing, and am even amused – or was, as the joke rapidly wore thin and became tiresome – by FCUK. (Yes, yes, we all know what it means. And yes, it’s clever. But if you’re going to swear, at least be honest and come right out with it.)

So should you swear? Or use risqué language? Or push the envelope just a little bit? It’s really up to you, your company voice and your target market. 

A good rule of thumb is never to say in writing what you wouldn’t say to somebody’s face: to an existing client, or a prospect, who’s standing there looking you straight in the eyes.

If that very thought makes you feel uncomfortable, then swearing’s not for you.

Find out more