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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Making it look easy is hard work – but it always pays off
If you’re in England (and I mean England, not the UK), by now you’ll have received a tall, narrow, four-sided leaflet from the National Health Service (NHS) outlining their plans to share information across different areas of the organisation.
Depending on your point of view, it’s either a quantum leap towards joined-up healthcare, or an overambitious scheme that exposes confidential data to prying eyes.
Which just goes to prove that in marketing, messaging is everything.
Proponents of the change say it’ll revolutionise the system, improving care, rationalising services, providing vital information to researchers, and preventing disease in those who are most vulnerable.
Critics focus on the Big Brother approach that they say amounts to a snoopers’ charter, and point to the dismal record of expensive NHS IT systems. Not to mention the embarrassing loss of patient data on CDs and USB memory sticks left in taxis, tube trains and buses.
I’m not sure yet what side I’m on. In fact, I’m not even sure it’s worth taking a side, as this is one discussion where right and wrong are matters of opinion. Come to that, so are most discussions. Which brings us back to the messaging thing.
But what really struck me about this leaflet is what a great example it is of good, clear, precise copywriting:
- It’s clearly laid out, with headings, bold and bullet-pointed text.
- It’s written in a Q&A format, which immediately involves the reader. That said, it mixes the patient and NHS voices, which affects consistency (‘What are the benefits of sharing my information?’ [Patient] / ‘What will we do with the information?’ [NHS]).
- It uses simple, everyday language, with no long words or technical terms. Some have accused it of being simplistic, but I think it actually strikes the correct balance between authority and informality.
- It tells a simple story, focusing all the time on the positive - better treatment, improved diagnosis, a more holistic service.
- It gives people the chance to opt out if they want to. And it doesn’t highlight the negative when it does so, which is always a good idea (more carrot and less stick is a much more satisfying recipe for copy tastiness).
Just what the doctor ordered
As a piece of copy, it works exceptionally well. It ticks all the boxes and gets its message across in a clear, coherent and unambiguous way. It tells a good story and answers the basic questions. And it does it all in a tone that’s not patronising, bossy or official.
And yet the simplicity is deceptive: clearly, a lot of thought, planning and effort has gone into giving it a light touch. When it comes to copy, complicated is easy – just throw it all down on paper and don’t give the language a second thought.
Simple is always more difficult. Counter-intuitive, but true.
On the whole, I think this initiative is quite positive, despite the doom-mongers’ dire predictions. I know I can opt out if I want to, but I think on balance, it’s probably best if I don’t.
Is that the right decision? Come to that, is there a ‘right’ decision? Who knows. One thing I do know is that the copy is as good as it can be. It won’t convince everybody (like my conspiracy-theory friend, who’s already opted out) but then you can’t win ‘em all.
Nor should you try to. Because most of ‘em, most of the time, is good enough.
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Problem? What problem? (And why that’s not an answer.)
I’m having to swallow a bitter pill. And it’s all because of my tablet.
My Nexus 7 tablet, which has been my constant companion since I grabbed one of the first off the production line in summer 2012.
It was priced at a very affordable £199 (which we all know is really £200, but somehow our brain is short-circuited by that perennial sales ploy). It had the sort of high-end specification you’d expect in a tablet twice that price. It really was a no-brainer. How could I lose?
And for a long time, I didn’t.
Video was fast and fluid. The 16gb of storage was enough for my modest needs. It was light and portable, and kitted it out with a nifty case, it felt just like a paperback when I used it as an e-reader.
And then last summer, it started slowing down. And down. And eventually it was running at a crawl. It was unresponsive and lagged horribly. Apps took ages to load, and boot-up and shut-down were painfully slow.
Meanwhile, Google was trumpeting Kit Kat (aka Android 4.4) from the rooftops. This was a game-changer: it would be faster, leaner and more responsive. The minimum spec would be lowered, to allow it to run on more devices.
OK, I thought, this sounds like the solution to my problem.
So I waited. And waited. And waited. Google missed two (rumoured, but with the status of semi-official) launch dates for Kit Kat. And then, eventually, it rolled out. Late but hugely anticipated, the answer to everybody’s Android woes. And mine too.
Except it wasn’t. If anything, my tablet ran more slowly than before. So with nothing left to lose, I went for the nuclear option: a factory reset.
Radical, I hear you say? Well, yes, you lose all personal data (so back up first) but overall, the process is pretty smooth. Apps are automatically reinstalled, and it’s really not that radical if you’ve planned it properly. A couple of hours later, I was up and running.
And not just running. I was motoring, with my ‘fondle slab’ running faster than ever before. It was like greased lightning, and I was as happy as a sandboy.
For two weeks, at least.
For then came a minor Android update (4.4.2) that killed the charge rate (down to a quarter of previous levels) and for some, though not me, battery life.
I spoke to Google product support, and they suggested you-know-what. Yes, another factory reset. But I had my FR checklist, and it was even quicker and easier than first time round.
Except it made not a jot of difference. And I wasn’t alone: lots of tablet owners had problems, as I soon discovered in the Google product forums.
Triumph over adversity
But enough of my woes. One of my resolutions for 2014 (apart from the one about not making any more resolutions, which I’ve obviously broken) is to try to take something positive away from mistakes – mine and others’.
So what have I learned from my interaction with Google so far? What useful marketing lessons could be drawn from my ongoing saga?
- Under-promise and over-deliver. If your product is fabulous, say it’s great. If it’s great, say it’s good. Don’t build up expectations unless you’re absolutely sure they’re justified. A promise broken is worse than none made at all.
- Don’t commit to a launch date if you aren’t sure you can meet it. OK, it wasn’t official, but as good as. By staying silent when rumoured dates were aired, Google simply added to the expectation that the they were correct.
- Always acknowledge a problem. When I phoned up support, they told me they’d never heard of the ‘issue’. Other users were told a similar story. And yet support people had only to do a simple search (using Google, for example) to bring up the product-forum discussions.
- If you’ve got nothing to say, don’t say anything. Google staff have posted links in product forums to ‘solutions’ that address a different problem to the one people are having. Even worse, they reposted it despite earlier comments that it was not relevant.
- Each customer counts. Obvious, I know, but they count in more ways than one. You can probably multiply each disgruntled one by 10, and that’s the number of potential sales you’ve lost. Many Nexus 7 owners have expressed disappointment, and even embarrassment (having recommended the tablet to friends). Advocates have become naysayers, and that’s a dangerous situation for any company.
All very basic stuff, but Google seems to have forgotten it. Customers are hard to win, and easy to lose. The same goes for trust and confidence, not to mention reputation.
And the true test of character is not what you do when things go right, but how you respond when things go wrong.
As I write, the situation is still unresolved. Google are thanking Nexus 7 owners for their patience, but I’m sure they realise that it has limits. In the meantime, inserting and removing the USB cable several times seems to trick the hardware into boosting the charge rate to near-normal levels. But it’s a clunky, hit-and-miss workaround.
In the spirit of 2014, I’m seeing every problem as a potential learning experience. So I’m relatively positive.
Now if only my charger was.
More business, less hassle, quick wins and easy options
So how was it for you? Did you get that iPad Air you wanted, or was it a stripy pullover again? Or socks?
Never mind. There’s always next year, when tablets will be faster, cheaper and sexier. In the meantime, grab another mince pie and let’s look at five ways to ease yourself into the brave new world of 2014.
1. Work your network
Cross-selling to existing clients is always easier than finding new ones. Why? Well, you already know a lot about them. And they already trust you.
So go for it, but don’t make your pitch obvious and opportunistic; instead, make them feel as if they’re getting something special because they’re valued clients (they are, aren’t they?).
So give them something that’s really special – something that new clients don’t get. There’s nothing worse than thinking you’re getting a special offer and then discovering (a) it’s not special or (b) new clients are actually getting a better deal. That’s what happened at my gym – now my ex-gym.
2. Keep it simple
Do you really need such a complex pricing structure? Do your terms and conditions need to sound so legalistic? (Yes, I know they are legal, but you can still soften them up a little. If you don’t, you risk putting people off before they’ve even dealt with you.)
Could you simplify your sales pitch? Can that PowerPoint presentation be shortened? (I can tell you the answer to that without even seeing it: yes.) Can you have fewer bullet points on each slide? (Ditto.)
Simplifying your life and your clients’ lives goes hand in hand. Simple beats complex. Short beats long. Conversational beats formal.
3. Stay in touch
People deal with people they like. And know. And who turn up often. Think back to Christmas (if you can, through the fog of holiday over-indulgence). Who are the people who always send cards, and include a handwritten paragraph or two? The ones that remember your birthday and other important dates?
Special friends are like special businesses: they’re the ones you feel most positive about. And a big part of that is simply staying in touch. So send that email, make that call, build that community. If you don’t, somebody else will.
4. Take another look
If, like me, you’re a bit of a Twitter sceptic, maybe this should be the year you question your preconceptions.
I recently spoke to somebody who gets all of their new business through their Twitter network. And another client who’s really making Facebook work for their company (yes, I’m an FB sceptic too).
So what else could work? Text-message marketing? Crowd-sourced product lines? Black Friday deals? Harlem Shake? (OK, maybe that’s a shimmy too far.) But you see where I’m coming from here.
There are lots of things we ‘know’ until we realise we don’t. Stuff we’re convinced doesn’t work – until it does. Language that we think is inappropriately uncorporate, and then it wins the client. Ideas we think are just too wacky, but then deliver the goods.
So how about dropping your guard, turning off your critical radar and going for it? If you do, I will too. (See you on Twitter.)
5. Just do it
Yes, the days are short, the holidays are (almost) over, the blood-alcohol level is dangerously high, the presents are already on eBay, and the credit card statements are looming. It’s not really the time to launch a marketing campaign, is it? Or an email blast? To start a blog or newsletter, or crank up that special?
Won’t it wait? Can’t it?
Yes, it can, but there’s no time like the present. One of the best tips I learned in 2013 was in Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.
And here it is: don’t wait until inspiration strikes, or until you’re in the mood. Instead, just go ahead and make a start. You’ll soon be in the mood, and inspiration is a lot more likely to strike when you’re in position at your desk. Going through the motions almost always flips over into the real thing, so stick with it.
(Yes, you’re right – it’s the old fake it till you make it idea.)
And if you need an extra reason, here’s one: if everybody else is suffering from January blues and procrastinating, what better time to get in and get noticed? Less competition means a higher hit rate.
So write it, design it, send it, follow up on it, launch it. Just do it.
And have a great 2014.