Saying what you mean, assuming nothing, and learning from others

Last weekend, I was in London and saw this poster at King’s Cross underground station.

I was walking along the platform left to right as you look at the poster. So the first thing I saw was not the logo or the tagline, but the copy on the left: My home helps fund my startup.

I was confused. I vaguely registered ‘Camden’ in the next line, and was left with the impression that home helps (i.e. people who are paid for by the local council to assist with household chores) were funding this woman’s startup.

How very generous of Camden Council, I thought. But that was just for a second.

I read on, saw the URL, doubled back and a light-bulb of comprehension flickered on. What they meant was: My home helps to fund my startup. 

The addition of the word ‘to’ would have avoided any ambiguity, and prevented me – and many others, I imagine – having to re-read the copy to make sense of it. With the word help, it’s optional – but advisable here to avoid misunderstanding.

It’s so easy to develop blind spots when it comes to our writing. We know what we mean, so we assume that readers will too. But often, as I was on the platform of the westbound Piccadilly line, they’re left scratching their heads.

So here’s Tip number 1never make a reader double-back. Make sure they get it the first time round. Because there might not be a second time. 

Here are my other top tips (learned through years of trial and error – lots of error, but then see tip 10): 

  1. Avoid jargon. If your readers are not in the know, then don’t pepper your copy with technical terms, acronyms and buzzwords they’ll struggle to understand. If you must use them, then explain them clearly and quickly. The last thing you want to do is alienate a reader by making them feel ignorant.
  2. Use jargon – if you’re talking to an audience who expects to see it. If they’re part of a closed circle (developers, accountants, gamers, techies) they’ll have no problem navigating a sea of specialised terminology. And it may be vital to establishing your credentials and credibility with your target audience. 
  3. Take it one step at a time. Many years ago, my parents assembled a greenhouse from a flat-pack kit. At the end of the day, we stood back to admire our handiwork, only to realise with mounting horror that it was completely askew. Yet we’d followed the instructions to the letter. When we reviewed those instructions the next morning, we saw that some steps had been omitted and others were ambiguous. All of which led us astray. So make sure you don’t end up with the copy equivalent a wonky greenhouse. Assume nothing. Proceed one step at a time. 
  4. Don’t imagine everybody sees it your way. Recently, a client asked me if I could replace the term ‘IT’, which I’d used to reduce the repetition of ‘technology’ elsewhere. To him ‘IT’ was computer repairs, cabling and configuration. To me it was interchangeable with technology – as it was to another client a few months back, who hadn’t batted an eyelid at the use. But it was this latest client’s audience that mattered, nothing else. What you write isn’t necessarily what I read and understand. And vice versa. So always remember the reader, and see it their way – if you can.
  5. If you promise, make sure to deliver. I bet you’ve clicked on a search-result listing recently and landed on a page that didn’t follow through on the promise of the link. It happens all the time with link bait, of course, but also with genuine content. The headline should accurately represent what you’re talking about. It should grab readers, pull them in, make them read more and give them what it promised. Then, you can get them to take action. Give first, take later. 
  6. Do it fast. Made it this far? Frankly, I’m surprised. As I’m sure Farhad Manjoo would be. In 2013, he analysed people’s behaviour on Slate magazine. 38% opened an article and didn’t read it at all. Of those who did actually read it, only 25% got to the end. And 5% of people read the headline and clicked away. The message is simple: make your point fast, and move on.
  7. Cut everything in half. Recently, I had a briefing call on a straightforward piece of copy. It took an hour, and even then we almost ran overtime.  Later that week, the client and I had another call on a much meatier piece, but we only had 30 minutes because of scheduling clashes. And you know what? We achieved more in less time on a far more complicated topic. Because we had to. Because there was no choice. So cut meeting times in half, cut copy in half, cut the detail in half. You’ll end up with a sharper, more focused message that does a better job in less time. 
  8. Get to the point quickly. Google just about anything (How do I stop my iPad photos syncing with Google Photos? was a recent frustrating example for me) and you’ll find endless waffly articles that take ages to let you know they’re not actually what you’re looking for. You’re still struggling through the big-picture intro when you should be getting the low-down on what you searched for. So write like a busy, impatient reader and cut the waffle.

Tip number 10 is a great one that applies to anything, but which struck me as particularly relevant when it comes to writing. It’s courtesy of my daily inspirational email from Arina over at Seven QuotesIt is necessary for us to learn from others’ mistakes. You will not live long enough to make them all yourself.

Yes, it’s amusing, but there’s also a serious point: whenever you read, look out for those errors, and make sure you don’t repeat them. It’ll save your readers unnecessary effort, and help you get the message across quickly and effectively.

And it’ll also save those hard-working home helps beavering away in a North London kitchen.

Which can’t be a bad thing.