There were new words: coronacoaster, furlough, maskne. There were old words: clichés landing in our inboxes quicker than you can say now more than ever. There were frustratingly woolly words from governments, and plenty of brilliant words, too.
To us, language always matters. But in 2020, it felt like every syllable of what brands were saying was under scrutiny. So here are The Writer’s top five business writing picks of the year. From adverts to employment contracts, these are all examples of businesses using tone of voice and language in the right way, at the right time.
1. A message from the CEO, Airbnb
Back in May, Airbnb founder Brian Chesky broke the news to employees that almost 2,000 of them would lose their jobs. And the way he did it is a masterclass in dealing with difficult messages.
He breaks the bad news in the fourth line, rather than making his team anxiously scroll through paragraphs of background and bluster. He avoids the usual euphemistic phrases – restructure, streamlining, realigning resources – in favour of straightforward terms like layoffs and cuts. And he clearly sets out what will happen next. No business wants to write this kind of comms. But if you have to, there are plenty of tips to pick up here.
2. New year out of home adverts, The Economist
It’s strange to think there was part of 2020 where marketing messages weren’t linked to covid, but back in January, it was advertising-as-usual for The Economist. Copy is always the star of the show here, and the publication’s set of out of home adverts in the new year tuned in perfectly to the type of clever, crafty humour their readers want to see. (If we were in the game of categorising types of humour, which we are, The Economist would sit in the ‘three-beat funny’ camp.)
3. Employment agreement, Tony’s Chocolonely
We often talk about the importance of nooks and crannies when it comes to tone of voice – writing terrific, on-tone copy in job ads, cookies messages and Ts & Cs, not just the obvious stuff. This employment agreement from Dutch chocolatiers Tony’s Chocolonely is a shining example. The quirky design, human language (‘we can both break up at any time’) and unexpected touches (‘you’re off to those nerve-racking serious notes’) all give a new starter a sense of the culture they’re joining straight away. It’s proof that legal writing can be compliant and creative.
4. Silence is not an option, Ben & Jerry’s
In the wake of global Black Lives Matter protests in June, plenty of brands scrambled to put together statements showing their support of the movement. But lots of responses used vague, hedging language, and risked sounding like a box-ticking exercise. In contrast, Ben & Jerry’s statement was direct and decisive. They directly called out anti-Black racism and white supremacy, and called for four clear actions. And importantly, it wasn’t just words – the brand has a long history of activism, and supports organisations like the NAACP and Color of Change.
5. We are not an island, part two, HSBC
In 2019, HSBC created a stir with their original ‘not an island’ campaign. It was seen as unusually political and firmly anti-Brexit, which divided opinion.
At the start of 2020, instead of backing down or going in a different direction, HSBC held firm. And we like that. It’s not often that financial services brands take a cultural stance, and HSBC mix a clear point of view with a confident, unapologetic tone of voice here. Just goes to show that you can still touch hearts and spark conversations in the most traditional of industries.
Honourable mention: seven-word lessons, Work in Progress
This one’s from an agency, not a brand – but we wanted to sneak it in. This campaign from Work in Progress saw them ‘taking education to the streets’ after schools closed in the US,with a series of seven-word lessons sourced from real teachers around the country. We love the super concise format (we often get clients writing six-word stories in training sessions). And what’s not to like about a billboard telling you Venus is the only planet that spins clockwise?
Here’s to a brighter 2021 – and another year of clear, compelling brand writing.
Google’s Year in Search 2020 video is all about asking ‘why’. From ‘why is it called covid-19’ to ‘why are people protesting’ to ‘why is Mars red’. (Be warned, it’s an emotional watch.)
We love the word ‘why’.
It’s the question we all ask as kids. Repeatedly. Unapologetically. As adults, asking ‘why?’ shows you’re curious and open to learning – that you’re not afraid to challenge the status quo.
Simon Sinek says to ‘start with why’. He says that brands that think about the ‘why’, more so than the ‘what’, tend to be more innovative, more profitable, and have more loyal customers.
‘Why?’ is a brilliant question to ask when you’re writing
Ask yourself, ‘why should my readers care?’ And if you don’t have a compelling answer, or it’s buried, then that’s a sign you need to rethink and rewrite.
If you’re struggling to write a headline, try thinking about the five Ws – who, what, when, where, why – to come up with questions that will resonate with your readers.
If you’re editing, ask yourself what words, phrases and sentences will really resonate with your readers, and why? And cut anything that doesn’t deserve a place on the page.
Asking ‘why?’ is powerful because it helps you weed out meaning, understand reasoning, solve problems, find common ground, bring clarity to complex topics, and deliver penny-drop moments.
If there’s one thing we’re happy to take from 2020 into next year, it’s asking ‘why?’ Repeatedly. And unapologetically.
Ontological. Hermeneutics. Liminal. Epistemiology. Synecdochic. Dialectics.
Reading that list of words probably made you feel one of two ways, depending on whether or not you work in academia. To the academic, those words might’ve felt natural – like speaking in a familiar dialect.
The non-academic, though, probably felt lost. Perhaps a bit shut out of the conversation, or that it’s not really meant for them.
That difference sums up the problem with academic jargon.
By definition, jargon’s exclusive
It creates a clear divide between those who get it, and those who don’t. When you’re writing to experienced academics in your field, that’s not as much of a problem. But what about when you’re trying to reach a wider audience – like policymakers, journalists or the general public? Or readers whose first language isn’t English?
Two thirds of academics want to see more knowledge being shared between academia and practice, to make academia more inclusive. To break down that barrier between academia and the wider world, we’ve got to use our language to draw people in – not shut them out. And exclusivity isn’t the only problem…
Jargon can make even the most interesting topics pretty dull
An Ohio State University study found that reading specialised terms actually makes us less excited about certain topics .
In the study, two groups read about topics like surgical robots or self-driving cars. Afterwards, the group exposed to technical language reported that they were less interested in science than those who read the same content, without the technical terms. (Even when those terms were explained, it didn’t help – the presence of jargon alone was enough to put readers off.)
Insider language is only part of the picture
It’s not just jargon that’s working against us in our bid to make academia more accessible. Overly complex language and long, winding sentences make for writing that’s dense and difficult to read.
A recent study of the readability of scientific journals found that 22% of papers published in 2015 had a readability score of less than 0 . That means not even university graduates could be expected to understand them. (For context, the readability of the BBC typically sits at around 60.)
When we’re writing to a wider audience, our language needs to shed light on things – not make them murkier. Here are some tips to help.
1. Find your own Doris and Bertie
When US investor Warren Buffett writes his annual reports, he imagines writing to his sisters, Doris and Bertie – they’re smart, but they’re not experts in finance.
To get out of your academic bubble, think of your favourite non-academic (like a friend, family member or partner), and write to them.
2. Cure acronymitis
Plenty of acronyms make your writing look like hard work, so use as few as possible.
Say you’re writing about the BPS, the British Psychological Society. The first time you use it, explain it. But any time after that, you could just say ‘the society…’ rather than repeating the acronym.
3. Watch out for zombie nouns
Academics love turning verbs into nouns: the utilisation of, the implementation of. Higher education professor Helen Sword calls them zombie nouns: they suck the energy out of your writing, and make it hard to see what’s happening. Use more verbs instead.
4. Swap the passive voice for the active
What’s easier to understand: a trend was observed or we observed a trend? The first is in the passive voice – we don’t know who’s doing the action. The passive voice makes your readability worse, so stick to the active.
5. Shorten your sentences
When your average sentence length is 14 words or fewer, readers take in 90% of your content on a first read. When your sentences stretch up to 43 words, that understanding drops to 10%. Add in a few more full stops to keep it readable.
Bonus tip: track your readability score in Microsoft Word. Find out how to switch it on.
We wrote this blog for academic publisher Emerald Publishing. They turned our tips into a nice infographic, which you can find here.
We’ve all come across them during “these uncertain times” – tone-deaf, cliché, or generally unhelpful Covid communications.
Anyone who came to our recent webinar on getting your message right during a crisis will remember this example from KFC:
In short, KFC put a lot of time and money into a glossy new campaign that brings their long-running slogan to life. But it couldn’t have come out at a worse time.
Ads, billboards, and social posts. All promoting putting your hands in your mouth right in the middle of a pandemic. Naturally, the response was pretty negative. Ad Standards received over 100 complaints, and KFC got a lot of flak on social media.
We were talking this over at The Writer, and we came up with a new take that keeps to the spirit of the original slogan while acknowledging the new norms of the pandemic:
Finger lickin’. Bad. At least right now.
Our chicken: still really good.
May we suggest a spork?
It got us thinking about other recent offenders, and how they might have been more effective. So, here are a couple examples of what not to do in your crisis comms, with edits from The Writer.
Focusing on yourself instead of the reader
One thing that doesn’t play well during a pandemic? Braggy, self-involved writing.
Hertz: A message about Coronavirus (Covid-19)
Whether you rent a car at the airport or at one of our nearly 3,000 convenient neighborhood locations, Hertz is here to get you there. Be assured as the No. 1 ranked company for rental car Customer Satisfaction by J.D. Power, our focus remains on going the extra mile to get you where you need to be safely and with confidence.
We are closely monitoring Coronavirus (COVID-19) and following the current guidance from the leading government and health authorities to ensure we are taking the right actions to protect our customers, employees and the communities where we operate.
Hertz hit a few wrong notes here. There’s the impersonal “Dear Customer.” It’s all about Hertz – not the customer’s concerns. And there’s the inappropriate bit of self-praise: “Be assured as the No. 1 ranked car company for customer satisfaction…”
Here’s our take on a more empathetic response:
We’re still here to get you there – safely
Hello from the home office.
A lot has changed in the last few months. Vacations might be on hold, or you might need to visit a family member. That flight might have been swapped for a road trip.
One thing that hasn’t changed? We’re still here to get you there, wherever the new “there” might be. In a clean, safe, reliable car.
Contact-free drop off and pick up means you can keep your distance. We’re rigorously disinfecting every vehicle with a multi-step cleaning process. And we’re following all available guidelines to keep our employees and customers healthy.
You have enough on your mind. When you ride with us, you can know that you and your family are safe.
Thank you for your continued loyalty. We hope to see you soon.
The Hertz Team
What’s changed? We’ve shifted the focus from Hertz’s record to the reader’s concerns, gave a nod to the new challenges, and addressed worries directly. While using more empathetic, personal language throughout.
Saying something just for the sake of saying it
Here’s an easy one. Take a look at this email from Barnes & Noble.
What exactly are we learning here? We already know that we’re living through turbulent times, right? It seems they felt they had to say something about Covid, but couldn’t come up with anything useful. At best, it’s time wasting. At worst, you sound opportunistic.
In this case our advice is simple: don’t say something just for the sake of saying it. It’s ok to say nothing.
Or, find something useful to offer. Maybe a book recommendation. (I’ve been enjoying Olga Tokarczuk’s writing lately. What about you?)
If you’ve come across a particularly good or bad crisis comm lately, we’d love to see it. Send it along to us @thewriter. And if you’re reading this at Hertz, Barnes & Noble, or KFC, let us know what you think. And feel free to drop us a line next time - [email protected]
‘Our tone’s just for our adverts, right? We can’t talk to customers the same way.’
You’ve put out your statement around Black Lives Matter on social media. You’ve added a banner on your website, explaining what you’re doing to support the movement. Job done, right?
Maybe not. In the quest for authenticity around social issues, focussing on big Above the Line moments isn’t enough. Your message needs to chime from every corner of your organisation.
Everyone’s a writer
Think about all the people who write on behalf of your business – customer service agents responding to chat messages and emails. The teams managing your social media. Even your finance and accounts teams chasing people up for payments. All of those people need to be on-message, too.
When they’re not, customers feel like they’re talking to a different company every time they speak to you. Which pretty quickly makes them question which side of you to trust. The empathetic messaging around COVID-19, or the short sharp emails from customer services?
When everyone’s on-message, it shows that your words have substance – and it creates nice moments that people take notice of. Like when Yorkshire Tea took the time to correct someone on social who assumed they weren’t supporting BLM:
Train people in your tone, and your messaging
Make sure any of the hundreds of people who might be writing on behalf of your brand are all on the same page.
That means getting them trained in your tone of voice, so they know how to sound. And it means equipping them with a regularly updated bank of key messages, setting out your brand’s stance on anything from the easing of social distancing measures to upcoming elections.
Those stances don’t have to be ground-breaking. But having them set out somewhere easily available makes it less likely that one of your colleagues will undermine all of your messaging efforts with an ill-timed tweet or complaint response.
As the year goes on, who knows what brands – and all of us – will need to react to next. But by getting your story straight, saying it with conviction and keeping everyone on message, you’ll make sure your words feel relevant and timely, and not like you’re taking advantage.
This blog is part of series on communicating topical messages, without sounding like you’re just jumping on the bandwagon. Find the first blog here.