Notes from the grammar trenches

Magnificent obsession or just attention to detail?

Notes from the grammar trenches | grammar copywriting  | copywriter [Image courtesy of Nutdanai at]

Recently, a friend told me I was obsessive about grammar. Which I took, naturally, as a compliment. For one woman’s obsession is another man’s passion. Or attention to detail.

As with most things, it depends on your point of view. And in the case of my friend, her point of view was that she thought that grammar doesn’t really matter. As long as people know more or less what you’re saying, that’s OK.

The trouble is that you might just more or less make the sale depending on what you say.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather more than less. Sales and marketing copy isn’t just throwing words on a page and hoping they’re OK: it’s about getting all the little things right that send out cues to your readers.

Cues that tell them you’re the one they want to do business with.

So in the latest of my occasional series about those little grammar things that make a big difference – and that every writer should know – let’s look at two tweaks you can make to your copy that’ll make it sound more natural and connect with your reader.

Active or passive?

When we write, we often unwittingly slip into business-speak, because we think it sounds more professional. And it does, though that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Remember, your audience are not a class of badly-behaved pupils sitting quietly listening to a lecture. They can (virtually) get up and walk out any time they like.

A big part of business-speak is the use of the passive voice. So you end up with sentences like:

  • Steps will be taken to reduce waste.
  • You’ll be contacted by a customer service representative.
  • Your order will be delivered by 5pm the next working day.

To turn passive into active, and cold into warm and friendly, simply flip it around. So this:

Steps will be taken to reduce waste.

Becomes this:

We’ll take steps to reduce waste.

Similarly, you wave your magic wand and you have:

  • A customer service representative will contact you.
  • We’ll deliver your order by 5pm the next working day.

The resulting sentence sounds immediately more conversational – because it is. In real life, we use the active much more than the passive.

If you want to write like you speak, active it is.

Would have liked to have done

If active beats passive, then simple beats complicated.

If you’re talking about a situation that could have happened, but didn’t, then you simply say something like this:

I would have liked to attend the conference.

Or this:

I’d like to have attended the conference.

Strictly speaking, they mean slightly different things, but to all intents and purposes, they’re they same.

The point here is that you only need the conditional past (as it’s called) once. And yet you increasingly hear:

I would have liked to have attended the conference.

It’s not wrong (as is often the case with grammar, there’s no right and wrong) but it sounds clumsy and inelegant. It also makes the possibility of attending the conference a very remote one, as if it never really mattered in the first place.

So if in doubt, leave the second ‘have’ out. It sounds more natural, and makes more sense. And more importantly, it makes you sound like somebody who cuts to the chase and says what they mean.


As you can see, neither of these is actually incorrect. It’s more a question of the impression you create. In a world where perception is reality, you want to control and manage that perception.

With the passive voice, you sound distant and remote. With the second construction, you sound as if you’re unnecessarily complicating a sentence that should be simple. Or that you’re trying to sound more formal and ‘correct’.

With sales and marketing copy, simplicity is king. Cut it back, pare it down, take it out and make it short. Result? Copy that sounds more human – and that connects with other humans.

Which is exactly what you want.

Five simple ways to improve your copy

Getting the basics right means avoiding those hindsight moments

Five simple ways to improve your copy | copywriting  | copywriter [Image courtesy of patrisyu at]

As part of a (very late) spring clean of my PC, I’ve just been reviewing some copy I wrote quite a few years ago.

And I have to say, I’ve felt my toes curl more than once. Not because the copy is bad, but because there are so many small tweaks I’ve noticed that I could have made, but didn’t.

Hindsight is always perfect, and berating yourself after the fact serves no useful purpose. Life is a constant learning process, and with learning comes improvement. So it makes complete sense that previous work should seem less than perfect.

In any case, no copy is ever perfect. Or ever finished.

Just like a painting, you can always add a final touch, a little highlight, or an extra shadow. And unlike paintings, you can keep many versions, so you can roll back at will. But at some point, you simply have to stop typing and move on.

Not that you shouldn’t do the best job you can. And for that, some basic things should be on your checklist. Once you’ve ticked them off, you should put the copy to bed and tackle the next project.

So here’s my checklist to avoid those toe-curling moments in years to come:

1.  Get the tone right

As a rule of thumb, most sales and marketing copy should be conversational. If you find yourself talking down to your readers, or preaching, or worse still, broadcasting to them, it’s time to stop and take a step back.

Language can always be simplified, and long words rarely impress. So shake off the business speak and connect with your readers – but be careful to not cross the line into inappropriate informality.

Other points that my trip down memory lane brought to mind:

  • Sales copy can be too ‘salesy’, and it’s easy to lay it on too thick. If in doubt, try reading it aloud. If you’re happy that you’d say it in front of a real person, then it’s OK. If not, you need to modify it.
  • Jargon and buzzwords should be avoided for a general readership, or at the very least, fully explained. The only exception is if if you’re talking to a closed community of insiders: often, they’re expecting to see those terms, and may even judge your competence and reliability by the presence of them.

2. Remember your audience

Who are you writing for? Are they motivated by price or by making the right business decision? Or both? What stage are they at in the buying process?

Why would they not choose you? It’s easy to discard the negatives, but it’s only by acknowledging them that you can address and neutralise them.

A great way to test your copy is to pretend you have a prospect in front of you. Think what you’d say to them: the language you’d use, the sales tactics you’d employ, the balance between talking and listening.

That balance is crucial, by the way, when it comes to copy. If your we-to-you ratio is 1:1 or more, you need to change it. Most readers are selfish, and ask what’s in it for me? The copy should always be more about them than you.

3. Be different

Don’t say what everybody else says – even if you’re in a market where there’s little to differentiate one player from the other. If you’re selling goods and they’re commoditised, focus on something else instead (customer service, free delivery, great support).

If you’re selling services, identify what it is that makes you different: the little things that people always praise you for, or the ones that cause the light-bulb moment for your prospects.

Remember also that sometimes, you will need to say what everybody else says. The trick is to put your own spin on it.

4. Make it long enough (but not too long)

Good copy should get to the point fast. Your readers read just like you do: skimming, hovering, darting from one thing to another. If your copy is one long sea of unbroken text, they’ll move on pretty sharpish.

So how much detail is enough?

It’s enough if it tells them the basics: who you are, what you do, why they should deal with you, how they’ll benefit and what to do next. And the fewer words the better.

That said, there’s always a small, but significant, minority of  people who want to delve into the detail. But that’s not a problem: simply include all the highlights up front, in bulleted lists, boxes, headlines and summaries, and the detail further down (or a click away) for people who really want to understand the nuts and bolts.

But as a general rule, brevity is king. For everything you write, ask yourself ‘if I took this out, would it be missed?’

5. Remember why you wrote it

You didn’t write it to win a literary prize, or to hone your creative writing skills.

You wrote it to sell, inform, raise the company profile, educate, market or push people along the sales cycle. To differentiate yourself from the competition, to make yourself the go-to company for your product or service.

So focus on that goal, and always bring your copy to a close with a call to action. Do you want people to phone? Email? Book an appointment? Fill in a form? Register for a webinar? Or just click through to your online store and buy?

When it comes to copy, you should be absolutely single-minded. What’s the one thing that you want your audience to do? Not two, or three, but one. Everything should point relentlessly in that direction.

And one last thing: when you’ve said what you wanted to say, stop. Then move on, and never look back.

Not even when you’re spring cleaning.

The little design changes that make a big difference

I recently spoke to somebody who wanted copy for their website. And the good news, they told me, was that the site design was already done and dusted.

On the home page, there were three square boxes in a row, spaced evenly. Underneath, there was a box that took up the entire width of the page, and under that were another two boxes.

The proposed design looked attractive, making good use of white space and complementary colours. It was when I asked what went in the boxes that we ran into trouble.

I’d made the assumption that three boxes meant three distinct offerings. Or three target audiences. Or three offers.

But they didn’t, any more than the one box underneath was destined for anything specific. Or the two boxes below that. In fact, the whole design was chosen on the basis that it looked pleasing, its boxes filled with the ubiquitous mock Latin (Lorem ipsum etc.).

But when we actually looked at the copy that was needed, it didn’t fit neatly into the boxes. Or neatly on the page, for that matter.

So we did the only thing possible: turned the approach on its head, and started with the copy. For at the end of the day, you have a story to tell, and an audience to engage. And the design should support, not dictate, the way that story is told.

I’m not saying copy trumps design. The two have to work hand in hand, so there’s not a disconnect between what you’re saying and the way it’s presented.

I was reminded of this balancing act as I watched a TED video last week.

Margaret Gould Stewart, Facebook’s director of product design (and ex-YouTuber) talks about the huge impact that little design changes can make. Like changing the Like button on Facebook. That tiny graphic took the lead designer 280 hours or work (that’s seven weeks at 40 hours a week) to redesign.

She also talks about the Facebook photo take-down request that failed to engage users. Until, that is, the designers tweaked it to include the reason for the request, and how the photo made the requester feel (sad, angry, embarrassed and so on).

From a copy point of view, the take-down story is fascinating, proving that context is everything. If people understand why you’re asking for something, and what a difference it will make, they’re much more likely to comply. In Facebook’s case, usage of the feature jumped from 20% to 60% of those wanting photos (usually embarrassing ones) taken down.

And research showed that 90% of people who’d posted photos wanted to know if and how they’d upset people.

Gould Stewart also talks about knowing who you’re designing for, which in Facebook’s case means a huge number of users who don’t have access to cutting-edge hardware or fast internet. The exact same approach applies to copy: if you don’t know who you’re writing for, you’ll never come up with copy that connects with your target audience.

How giant websites design for you (and a billion others, too) has lots of insights into how little things can make a big difference, and may just get you thinking – as it did me – about the importance of getting them right.

And of really thinking about who’s out there, and what matters to them.

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Getting up close and personal - and getting results

What’s in a name? The keys to the marketing kingdom, that’s what.

Getting up close and personal   and getting results | marketing  | copywriter

One minute, I was walking down to the post office. The next, I was stopped in my tracks.

For there, on the side of the bus shelter, was my name – together with lots of others, but mine was in pride of place, right at the front of the line of bottles.

Coke became my new best friend. And I don’t even like Coke.

But still – I was glad they made the effort. I even tweeted about it. How’d they do that? I mused jokingly. With a little bit of Coke magic, replied the folks at Coke UK marketing.

The ad made me smile, and the campaign pulled me in. I was even tempted, for a very brief moment, to rush to my local store and see if I could find a real bottle with my name on it.

Me, you and them

There’s no denying it – personalised marketing works. And it doesn’t take very much. Once you’ve got somebody’s first name, you’ve got the keys to the marketing kingdom.

But it’s not just the name that does it; it’s the style too. If you’re on first-name terms with somebody, you have to carry that through with writing that’s engaging and friendly, balancing informality and professionalism.

And that’s not always easy.

If you cross the line into over-familiarity, you very soon reach the point of diminishing returns. The trick is to appear to be somebody’s friend – everybody’s friend, ideally – while maintaining a certain detachment. It’s a delicate balance to achieve, but the rewards are tremendous.

So why does personalised marketing work?

  • It’s more memorable. Already, I’m talking about Coke and I’m not their biggest fan. I’ve shared the photo with friends, and (sadly) it was one of the highlights of last week.
  • It increases customer engagement. People up and down the country, and right around the world, are rushing out to find a bottle with their name on it. When I sent the photo to a French friend, he told me the campaign is running there too, but he’s yet to find a bouteille with Pierre on it. The whole thing has the feeling of a treasure hunt, which is always exciting.
  • It pushes up conversions. When you get personalised recommendations from Amazon, or personalised vouchers from Tesco, you’re much more likely to sit up and take notice. And to take action.
  • It keeps people coming back. In the same way as you avoid shops where you’re made to feel like just another footfall statistic, you’re attracted to ones where they know your name, remember your usual order, and always greet you with a smile. The exact same rule applies in the virtual world.
  • It’s more fun for you, which means you put more into it, and it becomes a virtuous circle. We may all be marketers, but we’re also ordinary people, just like our customers. Personalised marketing feels like a casual conversation, which is more relaxed and enjoyable. And it’s a karma thing: you get back what you put in, so if you let your guard down and appear a bit more friendly, your customers and prospects will too.

With the advent of Big Data (with its ominous capital letters) the era of personalised marketing is truly upon us. Everybody’s doing it, from Tesco, who’ve just acquired Sociomantic, to Ovo Energy, whose funky, chatty letters and emails I’ve been getting since I switched from one of the bigger, more impersonal energy companies.

In a world were virtual is the norm, it pays to get personal.

And the good news is that it’s never been easier. We have all the technical tools, and exhaustive data, to get up close and personal. So your marketing isn’t just a message in a bottle, it’s a message on a bottle.

A bottle with somebody’s name on it. And we can all drink to that.

Keep it short and simple, focus on benefits, and repeat. Job done.

Marketing is a message in a bottle. Just keep sending the bottles.

Keep it short and simple, focus on benefits, and repeat. Job done. | marketing copywriting  | copywriter

Just last week, this flyer landed on my doormat. It’s simple but very effective. Why?

  • It makes easy look easy. You’d be surprised how many people do the opposite. If you’re telling people you’re making their lives easier, make sure you walk the talk.
  • It has a magic number. It wouldn’t work with two, or four, or six. Three, yes. Five, yes. For some reason (to get geeky for a moment, probably because they’re prime numbers, being divisible only by 1 and themselves) they work. And in this case, five is enough. Any more, and you’re making easy look difficult.
  • It tells a good story, which is what the best copywriting is all about. It solves a problem and seems to have no downside, which is always what people are looking for when they’re wondering why not to buy.

There is one area where it falls down, and it’s common to a lot of copy: it leads with features. The thing is, it starts well with an up-front benefit: why I can make your life easier. It grabs your attention. It certainly grabbed mine.

But it doesn’t follow though. And yet, the step required to change features into benefits is a simple one. All you have to do is flip around the order of the sentence, or add a few words, and you’re there.

So let’s work that feature/benefit magic trick:

  • Get it all in one place. Choose from over 250 daily essentials.
  • Order anytime, anywhere with milk&more mobile.
  • Shop when it suits you. Order up to 9pm the night before your next delivery.
  • Save time and hassle. Avoid those trips to the shops and beat the queues.

And what about Free delivery? I hear you ask. That’s a feature, isn’t it?

Yes it is.

The benefit is that you don’t need to struggle to reach a minimum amount, and can just fire off an order when you feel like it. But this feature has one trump card: the word free. That beats all other cards in your marketing deck.

So feature it is.

And did I sign up for milk&more? Well, no. But not because the flyer isn’t an effective piece of communication. It is: simple and direct, with a friendly tone and funky graphics.

But the milk&more marketing gurus can stop scratching their heads and wondering where they went wrong with me. Because it wasn’t anything they did or didn’t do. It was simply that somebody else got there first. In this case, Tesco, who’ve locked me in with their super-duper midweek delivery-saver programme. For now.

So should milk&more give up? Absolutely not. One day, I may be ready to buy what they’re selling, so they need to stay top of mind in the meantime.

Marketing is a message in a bottle, and timing is everything. So keep the bottles coming, and one day somebody will pick it up, read it and buy.