Saying what you mean, loosening up and getting the little things right
Hey you! started the email, which is always a good way to get attention. Nothing like a little directness. Whatever happened to Copycam? Or have you stopped snapping?
And you know what? He was onto something, my direct emailing friend. I haven’t stopped snapping – or sniping come to that. Every so often, I’ve been taking photos of copy that could have been more elegant, or clearer, or even omitted. Unintended meaning, misplaced punctuation and clunky prose.
It’s just that I haven’t been posting it. So hold onto your hats, and let’s get started.
Funny you should mention that
I’m a big advocate of humour in small doses, when it comes to writing in general and copywriting in particular. There’s rarely a faster way to connect with people and show them there’s a beating heart behind the business.
You don’t want to lay it on with a trowel (it fasts becomes tedious) or make it dodgy (it soon offends), but a little dash of wit here and there never hurts.
And it if has a topical hook, so much the better. About this time last year, when Margaret Thatcher died, the laundry up the road from Copy Towers was quick off the mark:
It’s clever without being corny. It refers to a controversial figure without being openly partisan. And the speed with which it appeared was remarkable. As was the speed with which it disappeared, to be replaced by another laundry-related pun.
Staying with the theme of ladies, I spotted this one day when I was in town:
One for the gentlemen, I thought. Who could resist at that price?
And yet I can’t really throw the first stone. We’ve all been there – you, me, and everybody who’s ever picked up a pen or hunted and pecked on a keyboard.
Afterwards, you look back in horror and wonder did I really write that? You did. And so did I. But what we didn’t do was review it after leaving it to one side for a while.
My rule is simple: write once, edit many times. Read even more times.
If in doubt…look it up
Let’s stay with with fashion, but move departments. H&M decided to avoid humour and simply tell it like it is:
Unfortunately, they forgot the all-important apostrophe. Yes, yes, I know it’s just a small thing, but all the small things add up to a lot of big things. Lack of attention to punctuation could just lead to more serious lapses. Or is that just the word geek coming out in me?
Perhaps you’re right, so let’s move on. But before we do, I should tell you that I found the missing apostrophe a few streets away in a pub window:
Small but perfectly formed. And speaking of misplaced punctuation, here’s another example:
Which makes you wonder just how good those crêpes really are. And whether they shouldn’t simply have stuck with pancakes, which is mercifully accent-free.
Say what you mean
More serious than a misplaced accent or apostrophe is a tone that jars. And yet it’s one that we find time and again in business copy – and anything that has to sound ‘official’. The giveaway is a construction that’s unnecessarily complicated and roundabout. Much like this sign I saw in Cambridge Central Library:
What’s wrong with it? Well it’s inconvenient for people who want to use the machine, so there’s no may about it. And any isn’t really necessary. Take it out and what changes? Nothing.
Lastly, we are sounds more distant and formal than we’re.
Put it all together, and what do you get as an alternative version?
We’re sorry for the inconvenience
See the difference? It’s more honest, it’s shorter, and it doesn’t mince its words. And it’s friendlier, so people are more likely to be forgiving.
Crème de la crème
But let’s finish as we started, with a dash of humour. It doesn’t take much, so use it sparingly. As this cosmetics shop did to entice people in:
How does it work? Where does the old hand cream go? Is it helping the Third World or Children in Need? What hand creams qualify for the amnesty? Is it free or free*? Are there strings attached?
Who knows. And in a way, who cares. None of those practical questions matter – all that matters is that it hooks your interest, makes you smile, and gets you to go into the shop.
I almost did. But then I looked at the state of my hands and moved quickly on.
Customer loyalty: sweet success or a bitter taste?
I’ve been reflecting recently on three service experiences, and how they’ve affected my perception of the brands.
The first, unfortunately, involves an embarrassing admission on my part. Having vaunted the benefits of mindfulness and being in the present moment, I have to put my hand up and admit my mind went AWOL.
Yes, we have no bananas
A couple of weekends ago, I was doing my weekly supermarket shop online, and I ordered the usual pack of eight bananas. Or at least I thought I did. It was only a few days later, when the order arrived that I realised I’d absent-mindedly put ‘8’ in the quantity box before clicking add.
So that’s 8 x 8, a sum total of 64 bananas.
Now I’m as fond of bananas as the next person, but there is a limit. The delivery man looked on with a bemused smile as I lifted bag after bag of bananas out of the crate. Just as well I’d discovered the power of mindful breathing, as it was the only thing at that moment between me and a sense of panic.
Only just, though.
But you know what? It was fine. The supermarket not only takes back substitutions that you don’t like. They also take back things you’ve ordered in error, or quantities you’ve got wrong.
“Don’t worry,” said the chirpy delivery chap. “Mistakes happen. I’ll just scan them back in, and we’ll refund you.”
Two days later, the refund still hadn’t come in, so I phoned the helpline.
“No problem,” said the oh-so-accommodating call-centre woman. “We’ll refund you.”
And so she did. In vain did I tell her that the delivery guy had scanned the excess bananas, and that it was just possible that he hadn’t yet done a data upload from his handheld device.
“That’s all done,” she said brightly. “Anything else I can help you with?”
There wasn’t, so I thanked her and hung up. The next day I checked my account online. And there was not just one, but two refunds, for the same amount. There had been a delay in the data upload.
I’ve thought many times about changing supermarkets, but it’s little don’t worry moments like this that keep me loyal. Well, that and the double refunds. I considered calling them up and explaining that I’d got more than my just deserts (yes, pun intended) but I just know what the response will be. Don’t worry.
So I won’t.
Who you gonna call?
If you’ve followed this blog along the highways and byways over the years, you’ll know that when it comes being seduced by operators, I’m a serial offender. I’ve changed partners five times in eight years.
The most recent change was a few weeks ago, when I discovered that my personalised voice-mail message had disappeared for the third time in 18 months. Instead, it reverted to the default message, which features a blokey Geordie who says things like ‘Nice one!’ when you press a button to make a choice.
Now I have nothing against Geordies, but the blokey thing did grate. But it wasn’t just that. It was also the fact that I finally saw how I’d been manipulated by the marketing people – and for the marketer, that’s reason enough to up sticks and go.
It’s a pay-as-you-go operator who played a very clever slowly-slowly-catchey-monkey game. First, free unlimited internet. Then, limited internet. And finally, a price hike in calls. Which made their rolling 30-day contracts seem more and more attractive.
Bait and switch, I hear you say? My thoughts exactly.
The final straw came when they were undercut by one of their rivals – by a good 70% on the call-per-minute rate – and simply dropped them from their price-comparison table.
So I felt manipulated and deceived. It was time to get a PAC code.
You want coffee with that?
My last service experience mirrors my first one. It’s my favourite cafe, where the coffee is piping hot and the welcome is always warm. Recently, the tills have been randomly printing out ‘Free drink’ on the top of the receipts, inviting you to fill in a customer-service survey online and claim your prize.
So I did, and got a free coffee on my next visit. The receipt after that also offered me a free drink if I completed the survey. So I did, again. And the pattern has been repeating itself for three months. I’ve been paying for only one coffee in two.
Now the service is great and the coffee tastes good – especially when it’s free. But I’m sure they can’t want to hear my admittedly valuable opinion quite so much. When I mentioned the surveys to one of the staff, I was told that you could only complete one a month from the same IP address.
But that’s not true, as my weekly feedback shows. I didn’t have the heart to tell her. And here’s the thing: I’ve actually stopped doing the surveys now, as I feel so positive about them I actually want to pay for my coffee. It doesn’t feel right not to.
Yes, it’s a marketing tactic, but unlike my mobile experience, it doesn’t leave me feeling manipulated.
It’s not Starbucks, by the way. They’re off my Christmas card list after they downgraded my rewards card at the beginning of the year. But that’s another story, which I’ll tell you another day.
Over a coffee, perhaps.
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.
All it takes is a simple plan and a little effort
If I had a penny for every client who’s told me they want to launch a corporate blog, I’d probably have at least 49p by now (that’s almost $0.80 or €0.58). Not a fortune, but you get the point: it seems like everybody wants to do it.
But not everybody actually does.
If I had a penny for each one of those who’s followed through, I’d be hard pressed to break into double figures.
Why, I hear you ask. If blogging is cheap (sort of), quick & easy (sort of) and effective (very) then what’s the problem?
Well it is quick and easy, but only if you plan right. And most people don’t. Instead, they launch themselves into the project with a great burst of enthusiasm, but soon find they’re running out of road.
And yet it really doesn’t have to be that way. If you follow a few simple guidelines, blogging becomes simplicity itself. Not something you have to do, but something you really want to do, because you’ve got such great material.
- Keep an ideas book. Inspiration never does command performances. It strikes when you least expect it, and often when you’ve got nothing to record it on (or in). So have a dedicated place, real or virtual, to record those ideas. A notebook, Google Keep or even just pile of floaters.
- Bang heads together. If you can’t think what to blog, then call a meeting. No need to get formal: you can do it on Skype, or round the water cooler, or over lunch. Ask your colleagues what’s new, what’s hot, and what they’re working on. A little digging will unearth some great stories.
- Get on the case. Don’t just stop at your colleagues. Your clients also make great blog material. Case studies are a win-win topic: you showcase your products or services, and they get free publicity. But here’s a hint – don’t make the ‘challenge’ (i.e. problem) they faced reflect badly on them. Focus instead on the solution.
- Follow my leader. Let’s face it: everything’s been done before, so stop looking for something truly original. If you’ve read a great blog post or article, think how you could adapt, develop and run with it. I’m not talking about copying here. Instead, use it as a starting point and put your spin on it. Even better, pull ideas from several sources, so you have a breadth of vision that nobody else has.
- Get practical. Everybody loves tips and tricks and how-to articles (why are you reading this?). So share time-saving ideas and best practices. Show people how to do more with less, and be more productive. Simplify complex ideas and provide inspiration. Do their job for them (well, almost).
- Recycle material. If nothing’s new (see point 4) then at some point, you may have to repeat yourself. But remember, you can easily repackage and re-purpose written content. That brochure? Perfect blog material. The email? Ditto. The newsletter? Same.
- Review and preview. End of the year? Look back and forward. End of a project? Give the highs and the lows. New technology, legislation or rules? Explain, excite and expand. If you’re at the end or the beginning of something, there’s always something to say.
- Be the go-to blog. Your readers are busy and looking for ways of getting things done faster. So save them the trouble, by doing a round-up. Link to other blogs, news stories and developments. Summarise and simplify. Do the hard work, so they don’t have to.
- Theme your posts. Technology month, productivity week, jargon-free Friday. Map out the year, and colour-code the themes. Think in broad brush-strokes, and work out the fine detail later. Big themes mean lots of little stories for your blog.
- Go multimedia. Want to do something different? Grab a camcorder and start video blogging. Take all of the ideas above, and get them in front of the lens. Talk to clients, colleagues, the man/woman in the street. Show your human side, and connect with the reader. If you’re not ready for video, then stick to sound and start a podcast. You can reach listeners on the move (commuting, driving, working out) when they’d never read your blog.
- Plan, plan, plan. If a thing is worth saying, it’s worth saying three times. Planning is the crucial element in blogging. Always know what you’re doing next week and next month. Perhaps a little less detail on the following months, but at least an idea. Remember those colour-coded themes. Never ever get caught out thinking ‘what now?’
- Have a bottom drawer. The best-laid plans of mice and women gang aft agley (as Burns almost said). People will let you down. A case study will fail to get sign-off. Product launches will be delayed and stories will turn sour. So always have a story or two in reserve. It’s a tip I picked up from a newspaper editor, and it’s served me well on more than one occasion. The story should ideally not be linked to a specific date or event, so you can use it at a moment’s notice. Voilà – instant blog entry.
So there you have it. Not so much the 12 days of Christmas, as the 12 tips of Christmas.
Speaking of which, have a very happy one. And a wonderful, blog-filled 2014.
Little things, big difference. What are you waiting for?
Have you ever told somebody to button their shirt? To move their tie up a tad, so it doesn’t look like it’s a flower drooping in the midday sun? To change that stripy jumper for a plain one?
Often, it’s the little things that make a big difference. Suddenly, everything falls into place. The look makes sense, the colours work, the missing something is no longer missing.
As with fashion, so with copy.
Last week once again, I turned a job away because all it needed was a tie-tuck or a done-up button. I really shouldn’t make a habit of this (it’s bad for business) but on the other hand, I never take on a job where I’m not really needed (which is good for goodwill, so it balances out).
Often, all copy needs is a quick makeover, and you’re done. Not an expensive, plastic-bending splurge. Just a little accessorising to give it that all-important lift.
Try it now. Take any copy you think doesn’t work and apply these simple steps. And marvel at the results.
1. Get over yourself
When you visit a website, what’s the most important thing you’re looking for? Don’t think too hard about it, because the answer is staring you in the face. And if you still can’t work it out, stand in front of the nearest mirror. Now, it’s literally staring you in the face.
It’s you, of course.
And when I go to a website, I want to find out about me. How the smartphone will make me smarter. How the suit will make me sharper. How the car will improve my self-esteem (well that’s a bad example, as I’m not a petrolhead, but you get the idea).
Now take another look at that copy.
How many times does it use the word ‘you’? Divide that by the number of times you see the word ‘I’ or ‘we’. If the result is less than 1, you’ve got a problem. But then, you already know the solution.
2. Be bold (and don’t dodge that bullet)
People naturally gravitate towards what’s easy to read. So make it easy, with bold text, big headings, plenty of bullets and a smattering of underline. Give them some stepping stones, so their eye can be led through the copy.
Is anybody going to read all of this post? Maybe, maybe not. But the chances are increased if they see the bold, numbered headings (they know there’s a start and end point) and are intrigued enough to read the bits in between.
3. Slash and burn
Vast swathes of unbroken copy are daunting. Why do you think Dan Brown writes short snappy chapters with breathless cliffhangers at the end of every one? Why do you think so few people make it through War and Peace or Gone with the Wind (both weighing in at over 1,000 pages)?
If classic books can be summarised in 140 characters, then there’s no excuse for your web copy, brochure, report, article or blog post.
If you don’t know where to start trimming, try a more radical approach: lop off the whole branch. Instead of snipping a word here or there, cut out an entire paragraph. Does it affect the big picture? Is a vital detail missing? Does the copy still flow?
If you can’t see the wood for the trees, keep hacking.
4. Loosen up
You don’t envisage, you plan or imagine. They don’t request or require, they ask or need. It’s not assistance, it’s help. And as for plethora or myriad, if they’re finding their way into your copy, you might
encounter meet lots of problems.
Big words impress nobody when it comes to selling, marketing, promoting or convincing. People are far more easily won over if you let down your guard and talk like a real person.
Here, the golden rule is if in doubt, read it out. If it sounds wrong, it probably is.
So here’s an idea: get your headset, set your PC to record, and do an elevator pitch. Or a sales pitch. Or a marketing presentation. Nobody’s listening, so be yourself. Now play it back. Notice the difference?
If you’re happy with it, transcribe it. Voilà – instant copy.
5. Become an action hero
Never, ever leave people dangling. You’re not Dan Brown, you’re a marketer, so cliffhangers are not your ultimate goal.
Round off every page, every section and every subsection with a call to action. Have boxes, and banners and buttons that tell people what to do. Repeat your call to action (or calls to action: phone, email, download, fill in a form, request a callback) as many times as you need – or dare.
* * *
So there you have it. Not rocket science, I hear you say? Of course not. Any more than straightening your tie, or buttoning your shirt, or combing your hair.
If it’s really that easy, what are you waiting for? Grab some copy and give it a makeover. You can do it – I know you can.
And don’t worry about me. A little goodwill goes a long way.