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Does plain English kill your creativity?

Why simple doesn’t mean bland. And why complicated might just lose you the sale.

Does plain English kill your creativity?  | writing language grammar  | copywriter [Image courtesy of Pete O’Shea at Flickr Creative Commons]

I recently had an interesting conversation with a fellow writer about whether plain English means bland English. He had very strong views on the matter, saying that plain meant boring – which killed creativity.

I was not entirely convinced. For maybe plain (with negative overtones) is just another word for clear (with positive ones). And when it comes to copywriting, clearer is always better.

The starting point for the debate was the Plain English Campaign, an organisation that’s been ‘campaigning for crystal-clear English since 1979’. They serve up brickbats and bouquets (if that’s not too clichéd a term) ever year to both state and private-sector organisations based on the quality of their written output.

Their website, as you can imagine, is a fascinating read. And if you’re a fan of telling it like it is, and a hater of the hackneyed, you’ll love it. It’s a grammar geek’s sweet shop, full of unexpected pleasures and new discoveries.

Their PDF guide has some common-sense tips that every writer should take on board:

  • Keep your sentences short
  • Prefer active verbs
  • Use ‘you’ and ‘we’
  • Use words that are appropriate for the reader
  • Don’t be afraid to give instructions
  • Avoid nominalisations
  • Use lists where appropriate

In fact, most of those things I’ve advocated over the years on this blog (well, all except the one about nominalisations: turning a verb such as complete into a noun – completion).

Their suggestions for alternative everyday words (change instead of adjustment, allowed instead of admissible, total instead of aggregate) seem to chime with the first law of copywriting: write how you speak.

They also say that plain English is not about ‘the cat sat on the mat’ school of writing, or about banning words.

Just as well.

Style and substance

So what is it about? Well at its simplest, it’s about writing copy that people will read. About connecting with your audience in a language that they can understand and relate to.

Which brings us back to the the discussion – or heated debate – I had about whether plain English cramps style and kills creativity. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a bit of a non-issue.

For creativity is not about using long words and convoluted expressions. It’s about a lightness of touch and a lack of self-importance. About doing more with less, and creating an impression rather than labouring every brush-stroke. It’s as much about the gaps between the words as the words themselves.

And it’s about originality, which doesn’t need polysyllables.

All you have to do is take some well-known taglines, throw away the Plain English Campaign guidelines and see what happens.

Every little helps (Tesco) becomes individual actions contribute to the overall good.

And you’re done (once used by Amazon) becomes you have accomplished what you set out to do.

And Yes you can (you know who) becomes It is possible for you to achieve your goals.

Bigger, better and more effective? No. Just plodding and pedestrian, and full of self importance.

So next time you’re writing and feel yourself coming over all serious, remember the simple advice of the Plain English Campaign. It won’t cramp your style, and it won’t kill your creativity.

And it might just win you a new client. And that, in the end, is all that matters.

Find out more:

The easy way to give your copy a makeover

First impressions count, and a little formatting can go a long way

The easy way to give your copy a makeover | writing marketing language copywriting  | copywriter [Image courtesy of Carlislehvac at Flickr Creative Commons]

Last weekend, I was prompted to reflect on what a difference presentation makes. And the starting point for this train of thought was a paintbrush.

But I wasn’t standing in front of an easel; instead, I was scraping, sanding and painting the window frames in my office.

In just a couple of hours, they went from dirty, cracked and unappealing to clean, smooth and pristine. And all because of a little elbow grease and a lick of paint.

To motivate myself when I do these little DIY jobs, I say to myself ‘What would a potential purchaser think?’ And in this case, they’d think ‘What great windows. I think I’ll pay the asking price for the house’.

And that’s all the motivation I need. My house isn’t for sale, but if a little work here and there can make it more saleable, and increase the value, then it’s time and effort well spent.

The same is true of copy. On this blog, I’m always saying things like cut it down, take it out and pare it back. But there is a limit to how much you can hack away. Sometimes, there’s no excess left to take out. So is the job done?

Not exactly. For copy, like windows, walls and gardens, can always do with a little primping to make it look more appealing. And more saleable.

Let’s take an example. Twice.

Now before you say ‘I’m not reading all that’, let me tell you that you don’t have to. In fact, it’s better that you don’t, as it’ll demonstrate my point more effectively.

Here are two versions of the same copy, with a few tweaks on the second pass:

Password security

It’s just crept up on us. Over the last 15-20 years, we’ve had to create passwords for everything from Amazon to Google, from Apple to our PCs and mobile devices. The trouble with a password is that you have to remember it. So you need to make it memorable.

And that’s the problem. Because often, what’s memorable is what’s most obvious. So you choose your date of birth, or your partner’s name, or your house number. It’s easy for you to remember, and for hackers to guess.

It’s not just humans you’re up against. Password-cracking software can cycle through thousands of word and number combinations a second, making cracking obvious passwords child’s play.

So what do you do? Well firstly, don’t use the same password for everything. So much for what you shouldn’t do. But how about some positive advice?

Well one easy way is to use a ‘passphrase’, where you use the first letter of each word to create your password. Alternatively, you could use a password-generator to create a strong password for you, incorporating punctuation and symbols.

Or you could create a password document, where you store all your passwords; the thing is, if you forget the password document password, then you’re in trouble. Do also remember also to change your passwords frequently, for added security.

Password security may have just crept up on us, but that’s no reason to ignore the problem. In an age of increasing hacker sophistication, doing nothing is not an option. The time to take action is now.

And again:

Password security: Top Tips to keep you safe from prying eyes!

Passwords are everywhere. They’ve just crept up on us. Over the last 15-20 years, we’ve had to create passwords for everything from Amazon to Google, from Apple to our PCs and mobile devices. The trouble with a password is that you have to remember it. So you need to make it memorable.

Don’t make the hackers’ job easier. And that’s the problem. Because often, what’s memorable is what’s most obvious. So you choose your date of birth, or your partner’s name, or your house number. It’s easy for you to remember, and for hackers to guess.

It’s not just humans you’re up against. Password-cracking software can cycle through thousands of word and number combinations a second, making cracking obvious passwords child’s play.

Here are our Top 5 tips:

  • Don’t use the same password for everything, as you could lose everything in one go.
  • Use a ‘passphrase’, where you use the first letter of each word to create your password.
  • Use a password-generator to create a strong password for you, incorporating punctuation and symbols.
  • Create a password document, where you store all your passwords. But be careful: if you forget the password document password, then you’re in trouble.
  • Change your passwords frequently for added security.

Take action NOW

Password security may have just crept up on us, but that’s no reason to ignore the problem. In an age of increasing hacker sophistication, doing nothing is not an option. The time to take action is now.

Paint your copy better

You see what I mean? When it comes to copy, a little formatting goes a long way. I’ll bet you only read the headings and the bolded text in the second one. And you know what? You picked up the message just as well as if you’d read the bits in between.

Good copywriting encourages speed-reading. It helps the reader through the text, saving them time and effort.

Just like scraping, sanding and painting does for tired window frames, a little light decorating work will transform you copy. And it’ll make readers and potential purchasers think ‘I’ll buy that’.

And you’re done.

Get your marketing in shape with some smart moves

Lessons from the fitness frontline that we can all learn from

Get your marketing in shape with some smart moves | marketing  | copywriter [Image courtesy of jerryonlife at Flickr Creative Commons]

This is the tale of three gyms. Let’s call them A, B and C.

I’m a couple of weeks away from moving to C, which is actually a reincarnation, rising from the ashes of A. But before I lose you entirely, let me take a step back (crouching and feeling that stretch, naturally) and set the scene.

Gym A was just down the road from me. I joined it 10 years ago, when I left the madness of London for the relative calm of Cambridge. In fact, I joined the gym before it opened, signing up in the sales office to the sound of hammers, pneumatic drills and builders’ bawdy jokes in the background.

It was big, bright and well equipped. I got an off-peak membership, which suited me fine. Not for me the after-work crowds and endless queues. And for years and years, it was just what I needed.

Until it wasn’t.

About  year ago, I decided I wanted a change. And the process has been an exercise in marketing basics – which is a workout that we all need to have once in a while. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Don’t look for a reason where there isn’t one. I left Gym A because I was bored and wanted something different. Did they do anything wrong? Not really. No more than other gyms, who take members for granted once they’ve signed up. My departure wasn’t sparked by any one thing, but by a slow burn of minor reasons, ignited by a flash of desire for something new. When there’s no logic, you just need to accept that these things happen and move on.
  • Novelty is attractive, but it doesn’t last. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be called novelty. When I moved to Gym B, everything was new and different.  From the machines to the showers, from the pool to the classes. But it soon became the new normal, and after a year it’s almost as familiar as the old gym. And the lesson here? Keep innovating and changing, and never get complacent. If Gym A had been a bit more innovative, they might not have lost me.
  • Price always matters. Gym A was closer but more expensive than Gym B. And for a long time, I thought close beat cheap. But then one day I cycled the route to B, and realised that although it took twice as long (both ways, of course) I could compensate by cutting down on aerobic exercise once I was actually there. Now, cheap became the overriding factor, combined with novelty (see above).
  • You need to make existing clients feel loved. For years, Gym A had special offers plastered outside the entrance (which is next to the foyer of a multiplex cinema) with great rates for new members. And they were almost always better than the deals that existing members were on. Not once did they offer to reduce my membership fees, or add extras. And changing-room chatter often revolved around the perennial question: How much are you paying?
  • Pricing should be transparent, and with Gym A it wasn’t. The website was vague and evasive (‘contact a member of our sales team’). This added to the above chatter, and had the faint whiff of dishonest practices. Gym B had prices on its site for all to see, and a simple signup facility. And sign up I did.
  • Nothing is forever, as Gym B has now discovered. The competitive landscape is constantly changing, and what was good enough yesterday doesn’t always cut the mustard today. Earlier this year, the Gym A chain got into financial difficulties and was forced to downsize. They sold off some of their gyms, including my local one. Enter the newest player: Gym C, a chain that’s shaking up the market with cut-price offers and 24×7 opening (yes, yes, I know – who on earth works out at 3am?).
  • Limited offers work best. Scarcity sells – always. You can either restrict the supply of products (but not too much) or the duration of offers. If people feel they could miss out, they take action. In my case, the clincher was that Gym C has an unbeatable pre-opening deal that will be available up to two weeks before they’re up and running. Once they are, it reverts to the full price with the full joining fee. That rock-bottom deal then runs for the first year of membership. What’s not to like? Needless to say, it was enough to make me reach for my mouse and click Join.
  • You don’t need to wait until you’re ready. Don’t throw open the doors (virtual or otherwise) and then start looking for clients. Hype it up beforehand, and create a buzz. Pre-opening offers means you hit the ground running from day 1 with an established client base. Pre-ordered tablets and phones (Google’s favourite ploy) means you can gauge demand weeks before you have to supply. That vital lead time gives you some breathing space, and ensures you’re not overwhelmed.
  • Make sure you deliver. Whether it’s footfall on your gym floor, or products falling into customers’ hands, you need to make sure you hit your target date. Nothing spoils a shiny new purchase like an unexpected delay. Gym C had better open in two weeks, or there’ll be a lot of disappointed gym bunnies out there. The sexy Nexus 9 (I’m considering its charms, and am feeling more than a little in love) had better be available in early November. A promise broken is worse than a promise never made at all, so make sure it’s doable before you commit.
  • Be a graceful loser, and set your clients fee. I cancelled my membership at Gym B, giving them the required calendar month’s notice. I then waited for the last payment to go out, and cancelled my direct debit (automatic payment). Job done – or so I thought. For just a few days later, my access card failed to open the turnstile. When I explained to the woman at the desk that it might be linked to my imminent departure, there was a sharp intake of breath: “Oooh – they don’t like it when you cancel.” And she was right: the system had put a lock on my account, claiming that I still owed another month’s membership. It took the intervention of the manager to override the system and correct the mistake.
  • Always try to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. When I announced to Gym B that I was leaving, they made no attempt to make me reconsider. They simply asked me to fill out a form, then clicked, tapped and confirmed – and it was done. Not once did they ask me if there was anything they could do to make me stay. And yet the cost of finding a replacement for me will far outweigh what they could have offered me as an inducement. But they just let me go without a second thought.

And Gym C? Well, I’ll report back in a while. We’re still at the early stages of in our relationship, and I’m hoping for great things. I’m crossing my fingers that its opening will be synchronised with the end of my membership at B. Which it should do if they keep their marketing promise.

I’m sure there will be teething problems – there always are. They’ve already blotted their copybook just a bit, by replying to an email I sent about the opening date, and whether there was a way to set up an alert:

I am afraid there isn’t you should receive an email saying where were open for viewings tours and when our actual opening date is. The class timetable will be put on at the end of next week but not too book you won’t be able to do that until were officially open.

So two sentences instead of four, a blind spot when it comes to where/when and we’re/were, and an errant s in viewings tours.

But that’s OK. I know that where gyms are concerned, the important thing is brawn, not brain. As long as they’re open in two weeks’ time, I’ll forgive the odd spelling and grammar mistake.

But they’d better shape up, or I’ll be on the lookout again. One false move, and I could just be heading for Gym D.

Lateral thinking, sensory perception and the power of recommendations

Dream holidays and dream clients, and how to find both.

Lateral thinking, sensory perception and the power of recommendations | marketing  | copywriter

Let me take you on a little journey.

You wake up in the morning in a soft bed with fluffy sheets. It’s quiet and peaceful, with just the sound of the birds singing in the distance. You roll up the blinds (on the outside of the windows, on tracks) and the sunlight floods in.

You then head upstairs – for the bedroom is downstairs, as it doesn’t need the view as badly – to the lounge, with its shiny parquet floor. From there, you head to the kitchen and make yourself a cup of rich, heady coffee. You then take it, and yourself, to the balcony, where you sit and contemplate nature.

Spread out before you is a rolling lawn lovingly tended, with shrubs strategically placed here and there. At the end of the lawn, somebody has already climbed to the top of the boathouse, where they’re sharing the view you’re just easing yourself into.

And what a view. A lake as still as a mirror, occasionally rippled by a passing boats, sculled by oarsmen in perfect unison. They glide by, and calm returns.

You savour the coffee and the view, and life feels good.

And yet, all of this is just 30 minutes from the hustle and bustle of Berlin city centre. Through the distant trees, you can see the occasional red blur of an S-Bahn train heading city-wards, with a reassuring clackety-clack.

Sounds tempting, doesn’t it? Almost too good to be true. And yet it is true – I know, because I stayed there in April, and I’d recommend the holiday apartment without a moment’s hesitation.

And now you’re tempted, aren’t you?

Of course you are. We all want to find that secret hideaway, especially in a vibrant city. The perfect marriage of urban and rural, an oasis of calm that’s still within reach of one of the great capitals of Europe.

You see how powerful a recommendation is? And when the description is laden with lots of sensory input (fluffy sheets, rich coffee, rattling trains) it feels even more real, and you begin to imagine yourself living it.

You too can experience this peaceful idyll first-hand. But there’s just one hitch – and that’s where the inspired idea comes in.

Low-hanging fruit

Let’s say you owned the holiday home. Let’s say that in the beginning you really enjoyed it, but now work commitments mean you’ve got less time to spend there.

So you rent the place out, and it’s a nice little earner. As long as you go through a reputable rental site, get a decent security deposit, and spell out the terms and conditions (in a warm, fuzzy way) things go swimmingly.

And one day, you realise you’re not spending enough time there to justify keeping it on. So you decide to sell it, and list the property with an estate agent.

Do you stop there? Of course you don’t – because you have the ultimate list of qualified prospects.

We all know the power of the try-before-you-buy experience. From tonking with iPads in the Apple store to taking a shiny new hatchback for a spin round the block, we realise just how powerful it is to touch it, feel it, taste it, hear it and see it up close.

And the qualified list is, of course, the people you’ve rented the apartment out to. They’ve all woken up in the bed, brewed the coffee, sat on the terrace and watched the scullers. They’ve enjoyed the rus in urbe (country in the city, a Latin expression that I’ve been wanting to slip into a blog post for years now) of the apartment that has it all.

So unlike potential purchasers, who look at the estate agent’s details and take a quick tour around the property, they’ve actually experienced what it’s like to live there.

It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? And that’s exactly what the owner thought, when he emailed me last week, along with everybody else who’d stayed there (BCC’d, of course).

Now here’s the clever bit, to add to the lateral thinking: instead of doing a crude sales pitch (You liked it so much, why don’t you buy it?) he simply wrote to say that after eight wonderful years, it was time to move on. He thanked everybody who’d stayed there, and let them know that the apartment would no longer be listed on the holiday site.

And that was that. Except, of course, for the attached PDF, with all the details of the property, together with lots of lovely photos and the price.

I was so tempted. But then I remembered that (a) 2014 is the year of downsizing and (b) I don’t speak German, though I’d like to and (c) I don’t want a mortgage and (d) I don’t have that sort of cash (€385,000) lying around.

But maybe you do. In which case, be my guest.

Home sweet home

So there you have it. One story, three lessons.

Recommendations are powerful, and sell better than any salesperson. All it takes is some satisfied clients, and a little encouragement.

Language is even more powerful, especially when used to create a multi-sensory perception that conjures up the feeling (or in marketing speak, the benefits) of a decision well made.

And the next sale is often much closer than you think. In fact, you already know where to find it. You just have to shake the trees a little, and it’ll fall into your lap.

So what are you waiting for? Get shaking, and be sure to ask for referrals. Use language cleverly, and always think laterally.

And start dreaming of Berlin and that piping-hot coffee.

How to write copy that goes viral

Art or science? Or just a lucky accident?

How to write copy that goes viral  | marketing ideas copywriting  | copywriter [Image courtesy of Idea at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]

I was recently chatting with a fellow writer who told me a client of his had asked for something that was going to ‘spread like wildfire and light up the world’.

In other words, to go viral.

But the problem is that things that go viral generally tend to do so of their own accord. If there was a sure-fire formula, we’d know about it by now. But there isn’t.

Funny videos flop. Clever ideas disappear without a trace, and killer copy falls flat. Sometimes.

And sometimes, they don’t. But that’s just the point: viral copy doesn’t do command performances, and takes most people by surprise. Including the people who wrote it.

So what are you to do? Leave it to chance? Well yes, ultimately it’s all down to a roll of the digital dice, but you can increase the odds by focusing on the basics:

  • Add value. It’s a trite phrase that everybody uses, but what it really means is be useful. Don’t just write for the sake of writing. Put something out there that makes a difference and gets people excited.
  • Strike a chord. Things go viral when they chime with what people are thinking. So stay in touch with what’s happening in your market. Find out what’s important to your target audience: the problems they have, the solutions they’re looking for, the tips and tricks they need, the niggles they need un-niggled.
  • Say something that’s useful and that people will want to pass on. Everybody likes to be the bringer of good news, the sharer of a top tip, or the solver of a problem. So give them something they just can’t keep to themselves.
  • Write for one person: the ideal reader. Give him or her a name and define their basic characteristics. The more real they feel to you, the more real your copy will feel to them.
  • Be different – and that means being yourself. If it’s true that people do business with people they like, it’s even truer that they connect with people they like.  So pour yourself into the copy, and connect with your reader.
  • Take your light-bulb moment and share it. Whenever you have an aha! experience, get it down in writing. If it lit up your imagination, chances are it’ll do the same for somebody else.
  • Pump up the volume. Instead of focusing endless energy into making one piece of copy go viral, spread it around a bit. Hedge your bets by communicating often through as many channels as possible. If it’s a numbers game – and ultimately all marketing is – then push the numbers up and stack the odds in your favour.

On a practical level, make sure your copy ticks all the usual boxes:

  • Write a great headline that captures people’s imagination.
  • Structure your copy so it’s easy to read for scanners and skimmers (i.e. everybody in our attention-strapped virtual world).
  • Make it easy and obvious what you want them to do next.
  • Ask yourself why am I writing this? What’s the one thing I want it to achieve?
  • Give something away, even if it’s just knowledge. Especially if it’s knowledge.
  • Keep it short and simple. Keep it even shorter if you can.

And what else can you do?

Well you could try downloading and digesting Copyblogger’s viral copy report, subtitled Trading words for traffic. It’s got some great pointers to help you get started with copy that gets noticed. Though it’s been around for quite a while (it came out in 2006) it’s packed full of practical tips and sound advice that still hold true today.

And get writing right now. Crank up the handle and get your copy out there. Because the more you do, the greater the chances of it lighting up the world.

And just one last tip: never, ever aim to write viral copy. Because you can’t. And what makes it viral isn’t the writer, it’s the reader – which is what my friend told his client.

Let’s hope he passes it on.