Experience vs. memory, colonoscopies and punchy copy
I’ve been reflecting on endings.
Two books I’ve recently read have had relatively disappointing ones. They were both whodunnits that were going great guns until the penultimate chapter. There were so many unanswered questions, and so much sleuthing left to do. How would the hero solve it all in time?
In both cases, the villain wrote him a letter that explained everything, tied up all the loose ends and unwound the unbearable suspense. And yes, it all made perfect sense, but I felt nevertheless it was a bit of a cop-out. It was simply too easy, and those final chapters have coloured my perception of the novels.
In other respects, they were well written, well plotted and entertaining. But the endings are what I remember, simply because they’re what I read last.
I was also thinking about endings as I watched Daniel Kahneman’s TED talk a few weeks back.
Called The Riddle of Experience vs. Memory, it’s a thought-provoking examination of what we remember and how we remember it. In our own lives, it seems, we often play the part of unreliable narrators (much like some of the books we read).
He talks about cognitive traps, the little things that ruin the big experience, the storyteller that’s in all of us, the futility of taking a two-week holiday and why moving to the sunshine won’t necessarily make you happy.
His talk made me think about the overall impression that copy makes. And more importantly, the close. The call to action, that is. In the same way as salespeople say you’re only as good as your last sale, writers could say you’re only as good as your last line.
Opening lines are important – they set the scene and create the promise. They draw the reader in and make them want to keep reading. But it’s the last line they remember, because that’s the experience you left them with.
Which is where the colonoscopy comes in. But I don’t want to spoil the surprise, so you’ll have to watch the video to find out more.
Like I said, it’s all about endings. Which in turn affect your bottom line (sorry, couldn’t resist that one).
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Find out more:
- Food for thought: Kahneman explores our unknown unknowns (as Donald might say) in his best-selling Thinking, Fast and Slow.
If in doubt, go short. And even if you’re not, do it anyway.
Over the weekend, I listened to a BBC podcast called A Good Read.
If you’re a book lover like me, it’s a delight. Each week, the presenter and two guests recommend books they’ve read and enjoyed. They’ve all read each other’s recommendations, and each defends their own choice and gives their opinion of the other books.
Sometimes, they’re all agreed that they love a book. But the most interesting programmes are where there’s disagreement, with a clutch of bibliophiles slugging it out over their reading choices.
One of the books recommended this week was The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.
It’s a decade since Franzen created a minor media storm by rejecting Oprah’s endorsement of his book. This was marketing madness in a world where Winfrey was a kingmaker.
But reject it he did. And actually, it was a pretty smart move, as the controversy sent sales through the roof.
I read it when it came out, and enjoyed it. Most of it. There were some passages that seemed to drag, and others that seemed to fizzle out. But I’m difficult (you didn’t know?) and thought that was just me.
Make a long story short
The presenter thought there was excessive detail, excursions into minor characters’ pasts, and a dead end or two. And the guests – including the one whose choice it was – had to agree.
So yes, they all liked it. But.
And it’s that but that makes all the difference. Franzen takes an age to produce a book, and is almost obsessive in his research and writing routine. He’s so totally focused on the book that all else ceases to exist. In fact, during the writing of The Corrections, his wife left him.
He’s also famously difficult with editors, insisting that his writing remain intact and fiercely resisting amendments.
The determination, focus and years of hard slog were worth the effort though, and the book shot to the top of the bestseller list.
But it would have been a better book if it had been shorter, tighter and less meandering.
As the old saying goes, and as the presenter of A Good Read reminded us, you must learn to ‘murder your darlings’. In other words, to run your red pen through your carefully crafted copy and cut it down to the essentials.
First to go should be the bits that you feel particularly pleased with (that’s an early warning of a blind spot).
Short and tweet
It’s easy to write a long story. A long brochure. A long web page. A long anything. It requires no discipline, plan or structure.
Shorter is actually more work, and never as easy as it looks. It’s a case of being objective, methodical and empathetic towards the reader’s needs.
Will they be bored? Will they follow your logic? Could you spare them any detail? Could you make it punchier? Can you assume they’ll make it to the end? (That’s a very big assumption.)
Long is never wrong. It’s just not as right as it could be. Ironically, The Corrections failed to live up to its title. It sold millions, but it would have done even better if it had been a couple of hundred pages shorter.
On which point, it’s time to end. If you’ve actually got this far…
Find out more:
Doing the right thing vs. doing the right thing for business
Have you heard of ‘greenwashing’? I hadn’t either until I did some work a few years ago for a company that organised conferences on the topic of ethical business.
Greenwashing is when a company does the ‘right thing’ (paying a living wage, doing business ethically, not damaging the environment, reducing its carbon footprint) not because it’s intrinsically good, but because it makes them look good.
So it’s a cynical attempt at looking virtuous in the eyes of their clients and prospects. Whitewashing their dodgy practices so they look green – hence the name.
The trouble with a few rotten apples in the business barrel is that they inevitably affect the perception of the others. And when all business is tarred with the same brush (think the Occupy movement) then it’s clearly got a problem.
Does that mean that you shouldn’t even bother? That the dodgy ones make everyone seem suspect, so it’s not even worth putting in the effort?
I don’t think so.
Because these initiatives have a way of taking on a momentum of their own. They may be started because of pressure from above, or outside, or because the sales figures in certain socially-conscious market segments are looking decidedly lacklustre.
But they then take on a life of their own, making staff more proactive and responsible, showing customers they’ve made the right choice, and demonstrating to prospects that you’re the one they should choose.
And that’s a great story to tell.
I worked a while back with a company that had just achieved its ISO 14001 certification.
Which means what, exactly? Well, it means that they try to reduce their energy consumption, look for sustainable suppliers, recycle rubbish and find ways of minimising their impact on the environment. I wrote a press release and web copy for it, so I had to dig a little deeper to find out when it started, how the process worked and what results they’d achieved.
And the more I talked to people, the more my cynicism took a hit. Staff genuinely cared about these things – to the point where they were taking material home to recycle it with their domestic waste. They wanted to reduce their carbon footprint, and powered down PCs and turned off lights before they left.
And why? Because they’d taken on board the idea that the planet is under threat, and that we all need to do our bit to change it. In fact, the idea to become ISO-certified had come more from inside than out.
OK, so much for the process. But how do you you tell your story? Should you even talk about your CSR efforts?
Yes, you should – but without the self-congratulatory air that so many people adopt when they do it. These days, it’s not something to gloat about – not least because you’re not the only one doing it.
As always, a little humility goes a long way. You’re not trotting out your story to garner brownie points, but to show that you’re a good company to do business with.
To return to the marketing and copywriting mantra, it’s not about features, but benefits. So you don’t focus on what you’ve done, but hint at how it affects the reader.
- You care about the environment = you care about the customer.
- You do the right thing = you’re honest, decent and above board.
- You tell your story in a low-key way = marketing hype isn’t your style, and you don’t make overblown promises.
- You take a big-picture view of the world = you’re not narrowly focused on closing the sale to the exclusion of everything else.
To a hardened old cynic like me, all CSR can seem hollow, insincere and opportunistic. And yet and yet. Don’t all the best self-help gurus tell you to ‘fake it till you make it’? That the mere fact of going through the motions makes the thing feel real, to the point where it becomes second nature?
So in a way, doing the right thing, even for the wrong reasons, can have a knock-on effect of doing the right things for the right reasons.
If you walk the walk for long enough, soon you don’t know any other way to walk. Because there is none.
Communicating it is a multi-step process:
- You do the right thing.
- You tell your story simply, without fanfare or boasting.
- You focus on the how, not the what.
- You let the reader draw their own conclusions.
You don’t need to make a virtue of a necessity. The necessity – socially responsible companies are the norm these days – magically transforms itself into a virtue all by itself. A marketing virtue, that is.
And you can’t put a price on that.
Drop your guard and connect with your prospect
I’ve been having an email ding-dong with somebody. Not an argument exactly, but a back-and-forth exchange (as all are, I hear you say) that’s been frustrating for both of us.
So eventually, I picked up the phone. And you know what? The tension evaporated, the misunderstanding disappeared and peace broke out.
Not that we were ever at war.
It’s just that we were both a little tense and our emails probably projected that. The language wasn’t intemperate, nor were any lines crossed. But there was a certain something that created confusion, frustration and an atmosphere.
But don’t you write as you talk, Kevin? you’re probably wondering.
Well yes, I do, but remember that written communication is a two-way thing: there are the signals you send out, and the ones that are received. And often, they’re two very different things.
Drawing a conclusion
An artist friend of mine said sometime back that her art is a combination of creation and interpretation. She brings a certain amount to the canvas, and the rest is up to the viewer.
They bring their experience, attitudes, thoughts, memories, visual acuity and personality to the party. And what they see – or imagine they see – is often vastly different from what my friend intended.
Not that she minds. Her art, as far as she’s concerned, is a collaborative venture. She does her bit, and the viewers do theirs.
Writing is much the same. You know what you mean, but that meaning is often seen through the filter of the reader. If they don’t know you, or your company, or your products, or your service, or your excellent reputation, you’ve got some work to do to meet them halfway.
And often, doing that is easiest by a slightly roundabout route.
Just last week, I was looking for a YouTube video on juggling (don’t ask). And I stumbled across a chap called Charlie, who taught himself to juggle pretty respectably within a week – using other YouTube videos, naturally.
But it wasn’t his juggling skills that most interested me.
It was his intelligence, sense of humour, and self-effacing nature that won me over. One video led to the next, and the next, and I found myself liking Charlie more and more. I’d give him a job (but he doesn’t need one). I’d buy him a drink (but he looks barely old enough). I’d lend him a tenner (but I think he earns more than I do).
Like many YouTubers, he’s an introvert who’s found a vast global audience without venturing into the danger zone of crowds.
Key to his success is his vulnerability. He lets his guard down, shares his secrets and isn’t afraid to laugh at himself.
If only companies did the same.
Some do, and they’re very successful. One of my clients is a consultancy firm that handles Insurance Premium Tax (don’t worry – I’d never heard of it either until I started working for them).
Not exactly the most exciting topic, you might think. Maybe, and maybe not.
It’s all a question of approach. And theirs is an odd name, a striking logo, and a colourful, simple website that makes a complex subject easy. It’s a funky approach that works well for them - and for their readers.
So what could you do to connect with readers?
- Lighten up when you write. It’s not a legal contract, but an attempt to connect with somebody just like you.
- Tap into the fears, concerns and problems of your audience. Show them that you know where they’re coming from.
- Let them see there are real people behind the company. On the Home page, on the About page, on the Contact page. Real people looking happy, smiling and friendly (not stock images of models).
- Use humour, but remember it’s a bit like alcohol, and should be consumed with moderation.
- Tell people a secret, personal or corporate.
- Grab them with a headline that talks about them, not you.
- Imagine you’re talking to them. Talk to them if that helps (but make sure you’re not in too public or embarrassing a place).
- And lastly, at the risk of sounding (almost literally) preachy, treat them as you’d like to be treated yourself.
Connecting really isn’t that difficult. It’s just a case of letting go. Of picking up the phone. Of losing the stiff, impersonal language of corporate communication.
Of putting a smile on somebody’s face. And deep down, we all know how to do that.
Find out more:
- Ball games. Can’t juggle? Charlie will soon have you on your way.
- Taxing subject. Impendulo lifts the veil on Insurance Premium Tax, making light work of a heavy subject.
What not do do in 2013…
So here we are, at the dawn of a bright new year.
This year, yet again, I didn’t have to wait until the calendar flipped over to see the tired old cliché ‘New Year, New You’. In fact, unlike previous years, I didn’t even have to leave home. For there, on Saturday 29 Dec, was a letter from my gym with the NYNY headline.
It’s clichéd, but it’s all part of the fun of the holiday season. Much like the faithful old New Year’s resolutions.
According to a recent Channel 4 survey, 48% of people break their resolutions within a week. And 88% don’t even make it until the end of January.
So why bother? New Year’s resolutions are a bit like second marriages, in the famous words of Samuel Johnson – ‘a triumph of hope over experience’ (think about it).
We know we’ll break them. We know it’s not a good idea to pile the pressure on (I’m going to lose weight/stop smoking/drink less/find the perfect job/learn German) just after a period of excess, but we do it anyway.
So should we dump them completely? I don’t think so. Maybe instead, we should employ a little reverse psychology, and focus on stopping doing things that cause us pain, frustration and lost time and effort – particularly when it comes to marketing.
So here’s my line-up of anti-resolutions for 2013:
- Don’t do what you’ve always done. Try something new, and you might get new results. Forget the box – there is no box, so stop trying to think outside it. Instead, start with what you want (more sales, more customers, more recommendations, more likes) and work backwards from it.
- Don’t write like you write. Let go. No, really, let go. When you put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, write anything, everything, even nonsense. Loosen up, let your thoughts run wild. Like musicians doing scales, or artists doodling, or singers doing vocal exercises, let yourself have some fun. Then write like you talk, now that you’ve loosened up. If writing strikes fear into your heart, then do more of it, more often, and conquer that fear. Like speaking in public, it’s a knack you’ll soon get the hang of.
- Don’t aim for perfection in your marketing efforts. Copy is never 100% right. Promotions are never exactly what the customer is looking for. Blog posts can always be improved on, and newsletters are never ready to be put to bed. So you need to put a bit more work in, right? Wrong. You need to get them out the door, and tweak along the way. Perfection doesn’t exist, so go for ‘good enough’ and move on to something else.
- Don’t wait for the right time – because there isn’t one. Some swear by Friday as the best day to send out emails and newsletters. Don’t even think about Sunday, they say. No wait, say others – if you send on Sunday, you’re top of the list for Monday. And you know what? They’re both right, and wrong. Because there is no ‘right’ time. I know somebody who bucks the trend and does a ton of business in the ‘dead’ month of August. And another (who works in services, not retail) who cleans up over Christmas/New Year. And yet another who decided to pretend the downturn wasn’t happening (no, really). And you know what? It didn’t – for him, at least. The wrong time was the right time, as far as he was concerned.
- Don’t overcomplicate things. Offers with too many choices. Terms and conditions with too many terms and conditions. Sentences with too many words. Words with too many syllables. Pages with too much copy. Websites with too many pages. Virtually all Flash animation (you like it, they don’t). Go for easy, not complicated. Because your clients, prospects and readers are – wonder of wonders – just like you. They like easy.
One of my favourite tips of 2012 (actually a tweet) was never spend more than five minutes on a decision. Radical, reckless and revolutionary? Yes, on all three counts. But also gloriously liberating, and no worse than spending five days or months on a decision. Because most decisions are (a) not really that important and (b) not irreversible.
And lastly, don’t stop trusting your instinct. It’s probably right, and you know your business better than others.
Happy New Year.