Writing for readers in the digital age needs a novel approach
[Image courtesy of Martin at Flickr Creative Commons]
Last weekend, my book club chums and I met up for our monthly literary lunch.
It was the perfect setting: an idyllic English garden just outside Cambridge on a glorious summer day, with a bright sun and a gentle breeze. We even had strawberries and cream for dessert.
The book under discussion was Golden Hill by Francis Spufford. If you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend it. Spufford already has a string of non-fiction titles to his name, and his debut novel was received to huge acclaim when it came out last year.
It’s set in New York in 1746, and opens with a stranger arriving in town and causing a stir. No sooner off the ship from England, Richard Smith presents a bill for £1,000 to a trading house, and so begins a process that ends in thwarted love, death and escape.
I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I’ll say no more. It’s hugely enjoyable, and well worth the time and effort.
And I say that because for many people nowadays, reading is an effort. Not so much the actual process as the sustained attention that’s required to read longer copy.
Golden Hill comes in at 352 pages, which my Kindle app tells me should take 4 hours and 57 minutes. That’s a pretty impressive 70 pages an hour, or a page every 50 seconds. In practice, I suspect everybody at the book club (including me) took longer to finish it. And some hadn’t by the time we met.
Our rule is that no nominated book should be longer than 400 pages. And I’ve noticed that when pitching books, we all regularly use length to push our nomination. (“And it’s only 200 pages!” we say triumphantly, before resting our case.)
If Golden Hill has one fault, it’s the opening page with a seemingly interminable sentence. I discovered I wasn’t alone in experiencing that sinking feeling as I read it, wondering if I could stay the course if this was typical.
Luckily, it wasn’t.
In my view, Spufford and his editor made a mistake in not reworking it, as it gives a false impression of the rest of the novel, at a time when it should be enticing the reader in.
Spanning the divide
The overarching point here is that we’re all attention-challenged in this day and age.
Long opening sentences, long books, long articles, long emails and long reports are now almost universally classified under the TLDR (too long, didn’t read) heading. Facebook walls and Twitter feeds have irreversibly altered our attention span, and WhatsApp and Snapchat have made us all hyperactive.
So how do you attract your reader’s attention when so many other inputs are vying for it? Is long form dead, to be replaced by bite-sized chunks, spoon-fed to impatient readers?
I don’t think so. But you do need to meet readers on their own terms:
- Have a clear structure, and help the reader through the copy. It’s little wonder that some of the most popular novels are ones with shorter chapters and pared-down paragraphs. They set readers’ expectations, and make the copy more easily digestible. So take a leaf out of their book.
- Tell a story, and involve your reader. Did you conjure up that garden I described earlier? You may even have been salivating at the thought of those plump, delicious strawberries smothered in double cream. Maybe you felt that gentle breeze. And maybe you realised I did it on purpose, creating a sensory experience to keep you reading.
- Intrigue your audience from the very beginning, as the best novels do. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (1984, George Orwell) “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” (The Crow Road, Iain M Banks) How could you not want to know more?
- Minimise the number of distractions. Have a clean design with lots of white space so your reader can focus on the copy. If it’s on the web, you may want to limit the number of hyperlinks in your copy, so your audience isn’t tempted to click away. You could even consider putting them at the end of the copy, so they don’t get in the way of the flow. Which is essentially what books do, with endnotes after the body copy.
The long and the short of it
Remember as well that you can always repackage content (as tweets or infographics, for example) to drive traffic to the longer form. If you sufficiently capture people’s attention with the shorter version, they may very well be tempted to read the longer one.
And if they aren’t, they’ve still had one bite of the cherry.
So long form isn’t dead, but you do have to adapt your approach to the attention-challenged reader.
Meanwhile, back in our English country garden, as we dabbed cream from our lips and quaffed prosecco, our thoughts turned to the book for September (we choose two months in advance, to allow enough time for reading).
And the winner? Death in Venice by Thomas Mann.
It’s an excellent book, and it’ll be a pleasure to re-read it. But it’s also got another great USP: it’s a shade under 100 pages.
And that was enough to swing the vote.
How to short-circuit the process and get a result
[Image courtesy of Vic at Flickr Creative Commons]
I’ve been thinking for a while about revamping my website.
Everybody nowadays is going for full-page, funky, responsive sites so I’ve been delving into the wonderful world of Bootstrap. I’ve installed a local server, tested templates and hacked around the code.
And since it’s Bootstrap on top of WordPress, there’s lots of detail to master. In fact, I can tell you right now: it’s a bottomless pit.
Because when I say I’ve been thinking for ‘a while’ about revamping, that’s an understatement. This has been going on since the beginning of last year, so I’m already heading for the 18-month mark. With embarrassingly little to show for it.
When I mentioned this to a friend recently over coffee, he actually laughed. Out loud.
“Aren’t you always banging on about procrastination being the thief of time? About working smarter, not harder? And how 80% is good enough?” he said, relishing each twist of the knife.
He did have a point, though I’m not sure I’d agree with the banging on bit. But still. Once we’d gone our separate ways, I began to wonder how I’d managed to spend so much time and achieve so little.
To be fair, I haven’t been working on it non-stop. It’s a back-burner project, so I’ve been slotting it in when I have some spare time. Even so, I should probably accomplished more than I have – so it’s just as well I’m not a full-time web wallah.
So what’s the reason for my lack of progress? Simple, really:
- No deadline.
- No real plan.
- Endless choice.
It’s a perfect storm, and one that I would never let develop when it comes to writing copy. But from chatting to people about their efforts to wrangle words into some sort of order, I know that it’s a scenario they frequently face.
And it’s often complicated by the inability to gain an overview of the whole project, or to know where to begin.
The write way
Several years ago, at a networking event, a fellow copywriter shared some Yoda-like advice with me.
“Don’t start until you’re ready,” he said, blinking like the Jedi master, “but don’t wait until you’re ready to start.”
Which I realised, when the penny finally dropped, means plan, but don’t overplan.
I thought of these words of wisdom again recently when I read The Phoenix Project, a novel about IT, DevOps, and helping your business win (a work choice, not a personal one – but still a lot more entertaining than it sounds).
Phoenix is a big IT program that’s supposed to help the protagonist’s company fight off the competition and turn around their business. But it’s late and over budget, and is the source of much internal conflict.
“Perfection is the enemy of the good!” barks Sarah, the head of sales, in a tense meeting with the IT folks. And you know what? She’s right. But the Phoenix team are not even at good, let alone perfection.
You’ll see what happens to the project if you read the novel, but I think you’ll already have guessed that it’s only heading one way.
One step back, two steps forward
So how do you get out of analysis paralysis? How do you know when you’ve done enough planning, but not too much? Well if I knew the answer to that, I’d probably have relaunched my website last summer.
But wait, my friend said in an IM. Why don’t you just take the approach you use for writing and see if it works for web design?
Genius. So I sat down and made a list of the things that help me tackle a big writing project:
- Get conceptual by drawing a diagram, or creating a MindMap.
- Stay out of the weeds (i.e away from the keyboard) until I can see the big picture.
- Don’t spend too long on any one element. Ditto any decision.
- Break a big project into small chunks.
- Set goals that are easily achievable so I can advance in a series of hops.
- Take regular breaks and come back to the project with a fresh pair of eyes.
- Keep it simple, because complicated is almost always wrong.
It may all sound pretty 101-ish, but it’s helped me navigate through many an unwieldy job with ease.
So maybe, just maybe, if I eat my own dog food, I’ll finally get to relaunch my website. My friend has offered his help (he’s a web designer) but I told him that simple beats complicated. Couldn’t resist that twist.
And boy, did it feel good.
Make sure your customers are putting their X in your box
[Image courtesy of Avaaz at Flickr Creative Commons]
It’s easy to be wise after the event. And when the event is as earth-shattering as last week’s UK general election result, a lot of people wise up very quickly indeed. Because they have to.
After all, if you’re a political commentator and you didn’t see this coming, then why should anybody believe what you say about what’s still to come?
So history is being rewritten very rapidly.
It was common knowledge, said one journalist in an online article, that Theresa May’s ex-advisors, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, were rude, controlling and secretive. Which prompted one below-the-line commenter to ask why the journo had never mentioned it before.
The question was politely ignored.
Be careful what you ask for
As it happens, several weeks ago I was chatting with a friend and casually raised the possibility that Theresa might lose her bet.
“Can you imagine how gutted she’ll be? Going to the country when she didn’t have to, then crashing and burning?”
That was never going to happen, my friend countered. Yes, the public opinion polls were showing a tightening gap, but then look at last year (Brexit, Trump) and the year before (UK general election). Wrong, wrong and wrong again.
Plus, private polling by Tories showed that they were still well ahead (as if that wasn’t subject to the same problem). But I had to admit that my friend probably had a point, so we moved on and I thought no more of it.
And if I was proved right, it’s less because I’m a clairvoyant and more because I’m a natural catastrophiser – which you may remember is one of the cognitive traps I spoke about a few posts ago.
Wise before the event
All election campaigns are actually marketing campaigns nowadays. It’s all about image, airtime, soundbites and slogans that stick.
I think there are several valuable lessons that can be learned by marketers from the mistakes of the Conservatives’ approach:
- Focus less on the detail and more on the big picture. When the Tories unveiled their plan for covering care-home costs from the value of a patient’s house, it was immediately branded a dementia tax by the opposition. Game over. The details of the policy no longer mattered, because those two simple words killed it stone dead.
- Don’t forget your existing customers – or if you’re a political party, your voter base. The Conservatives didn’t focus nearly as much on the party faithful as Labour did. Having loyal supporters is great, but not if they don’t vote/buy. So it’s vital to spread the love and not take anybody for granted.
- Get specific: the Labour Party’s granular Facebook campaign micro-targeted voters in certain key constituencies. The details of this are still sketchy, though crowdsourced research carried out by the BBC (who asked people all over the country what ads they were seeing on social media in their area) shows that the Labour party wasn’t doing one-size-fits-all.
- Avoid negative campaigns. Whether it’s Acme Inc or Jeremy Corbyn, the same rules apply: don’t badmouth the competition. The Conservatives’ fierce attack campaign against ‘Red Jezza’ (as The Sun uncharitably branded him) fell badly flat. Worse, it backfired, making him seem like the victim of an unprovoked attack. It didn’t really matter what his position was on the IRA or Trident. The Tories’ negative campaign gave him a Teflon coating – and moral superiority.
- Get out there and meet the people. Theresa May didn’t take part in TV debates, and didn’t make firebrand speeches in front of cheering crowds. Perhaps restrained by the despotic duo Timothy and Hill, she gave the impression of a leader who was more comfortable in the bunker than on the front line. But that’s where battles are won, whether they’re political or commercial. Sometimes, you just have to feel the pain and do it anyway. Get out there and put yourself in the way of opportunity. Because if you don’t, the competition will.
It’s early days yet, and the calamitous election campaign by the Conservatives has only just begun to be picked apart by analysts and political wonks. Over time, the big fault lines that we already know about will be traced back to the hairline cracks that were barely visible in April.
No doubt we’ll be told that it was all perfectly predictable, and that it was a disaster waiting to happen. Then again, I could have told you that.
Though at least I’d have been the first to admit it was an uneducated guess. Which, with classic dumb luck, turned out to be true.
Maybe I should set myself up as a political pundit.
Getting outside the bubble and blowing your own trumpet
[Image courtesy of Eric at Flickr Creative Commons]
I was chatting a few weeks back with a friend of a friend who’s relaunching his website.
He’s spending a small fortune on design, but that’s OK, because he’s making a large fortune in a business that’s so niche you’ve probably never heard of it. I certainly hadn’t.
Naturally, I asked what he was doing about the copy.
“Oh we’re writing that in-house,” he said confidently.
With an in-house writer, I wondered? Not a bit of it. He said he was simply getting the ‘people who know the business’ to put something together that would accurately reflect who they were, what they did and what made them different from the competition.
Now at first glance, that might sound like a good idea. After all, the people who know the business are best placed to write about it, aren’t they? It also means they don’t have to explain to an external writer the ins and outs of a pretty complex operation.
And it’s free, coming out of company time that’s already budgeted for through salaries (and in this case, a generous profit-share scheme).
But let’s just play devil’s advocate for a moment here. Why would it not be a good idea to write copy in-house?
Here are six pretty compelling reasons:
- You’re not objective, because you live inside the bubble. Whether you’re the owner or an employee, it’s very difficult to get an outside-in view. But it’s important to shift your perspective, so you’re seeing your company as others (like readers) see you.
- You’ll include too much detail, simply because you know so much detail. And it’s easy to forget how overwhelming that is for the average person who’s not familiar with your world. And if they are familiar with your world, why include that detail anyway? You’re preaching to the converted.
- You won’t include enough detail. The flipside of being immersed in your business is that you develop blind spots. You may skim over something that requires more explanation, or ignore a key selling point because ‘everyone does that, don’t they?’ (No, they don’t.)
- You won’t be able to blow your own trumpet, which is a particular problem for small and midsize companies without the corporate confidence of their larger counterparts. It can feel awkward to put yourself out there and talk the talk.
- You’ll come over all corporate – a problem that has affected virtually everybody who’s ever tried to write copy for their business. They fall back on stock phrases (‘we firmly believe’, ‘our core values’, ‘we pride ourselves on’) which everybody else uses. Which means they sound like everybody else.
- It costs a lot more you think. Let’s say you give the task of writing your website copy to your marketing manager, or sales director. How many days will they take? Pro-rata their salary and see what it works out at – and don’t forget to include the opportunity cost of what they could be doing while they’re wrangling words. Plus the knock-on effect of copy that suffers from all the problems in points 1-5.
The bottom line is this that you’re giving a complex writing task to people who don’t write for a living. And defocusing them from what they should be doing for a living – which in turn damages your business.
Or to turn the problem on its head: would you let a professional writer run your business development? Probably not.
An internal writer may be the answer to your problem, but then again, have you got enough work to keep them busy five days a week, every week of the year? If not, then they’re not paying their way. So that also comes at a cost.
And in the end, did I seize the day and pitch for the work on my friend’s friend’s site?
Not directly, because it might have appeared opportunistic, especially in a social setting. But I did hint at the dots.
Now let’s see if he joins them.
Getting the basics right – and making the pasta stretch a little further
A few weeks ago, I got itchy feet – again. This time, I decided to visit my friend S in Milan.
He and I used to do an Italian/English conversation swap when he lived here in Cambridge, and we’ve remained in touch online since he returned to Italy. But however HD the video, and however surround the sound, a Skype call just isn’t the same as a face-to-face encounter.
So I decided to head for the bright lights and the big city, and booked my ticket for Milan. But first, I had to find somewhere to stay, as S’s sister’s flat couldn’t accommodate all three of us.
A home from home
Booking accommodation is always a bit of a crapshoot. In the past, I’ve had the misfortune to rent one place where the bedrooms smelt of cat pee and the owner’s hard-of-hearing mother had the television on at full blast in the room above mine (Rome).
Or the creatively photographed apartment that left out the busy road running right past the terrace (French Pyrenees). Not to mention the top-floor flat above a market square that turned into a gathering place for droves of Vespa-riding teens until well after midnight (Florence).
But now with the sharing economy in full swing, and with everybody rating everybody, things have become a little more transparent. Cat pee and noisy roads will soon sink a listing, so you can book with relative confidence.
But in a world of rising standards, not everybody has hit five stars. So what makes a service experience really stand out?
- Communication. My host (let’s call him A) was responsive from the very beginning – confirming the booking within minutes, and suggesting we connect on WhatsApp. From then on, he was available at a moment’s notice to answer any questions or provide advice.
- Flexibility. I read in one of the reviews that A had waited up until 1am for a guest to arrive who’d got delayed. And with me, he showed the same flexible approach: no problem with arrival or departure time, breakfast at whatever time suited me, and modifying his schedule on the fly to take me on an impromptu walk through Milan.
- Going above and beyond. Strictly speaking, I should have had just bed and breakfast (if you haven’t had Italian fette biscottate to start the day, you haven’t lived). But on my four nights in Milan, A invited me to dine with him on one evening, and with him and his partner on another when I rocked up five minutes before they were due to eat (“Join us! There’s plenty of pasta to go around.”).
- Making a connection. When I chatted to A about renting out his spare room, he said he started it as a business, but soon realised that it was more than that. Receiving paying guests in his home wasn’t simply a commercial transaction, but a way to connect with people from all over the world and share their lives (and his) for a few days.
The caring economy
Now renting accommodation on Airbnb or any of the other lookalike sites is not like selling widgets, or providing IT support services or running a management consultancy.
So can the lessons of a holiday experience be extended to business? I think they can. Because what these hosts and guests have realised is that all business is transacted between two people.
And yes, it’s true that you don’t get to meet every customer or prospect in person over a crunchy Italian biscuit at breakfast.
But you can try to imagine what their world is like when you’re writing that marketing email or posting that tweet, when you’re drafting the blog post or launching a sales campaign.
A physiotherapist once told me that it’s been scientifically proven that if you visualise a muscle when you’re exercising it, the manoeuvre is more effective. In much the same way, I think that if you visualise your target audience when you’re carrying out any sort of marketing activity, it works better.
And that’s why so many marketers nowadays have detailed buyer personas. See the person and you make the connection – which, for my money, is what separates a good service experience from an exceptional one.
I’m already planning a return trip. Because those crunchy Italian breakfast biscuits just aren’t the same here.