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. Find out more: