‘I've said “jiminy jillikers” so many times the words have lost all meaning!’
Milhouse Van Houten, The Simpsons
My wife and I were Googling potential honeymoon spots the other day when we came across this advertorial on Fodor’s site: 20 of the world’s best romantic hotels.
Regardless of the substance of the slideshow, and how romantic these hotels actually are, I like that title. A lot. Because it shows something that’s becoming increasingly rare in internet headlines: respect for the English language.
Think about it. Nine times out of ten these days, an article like that gets the title:
The 20 most romantic hotels on Earth
20 hotels that will redefine your perception of ‘romantic’
The 20 hotels you have to honeymoon in before you die
It’s obvious that the author, Megan Suckut, had to accommodate search engine optimization (SEO); hence the generic title and the counterintuitive choice of ‘best’ over ‘most’. But I appreciate her not using SEO as an excuse to go the superlatives-on-steroids route. Instead, she’s saying:
‘Here are 20 very romantic hotels. Are they the most romantic hotels on earth? Not necessarily. But they’re up there. So they’re probably worth checking out if you’re looking for a romantic place to stay.’
As a writer, it’s important to me that people use language as correctly and precisely as possible. It’s the most important tool of my trade, and when people misuse it for click bait-y titles, they’re blunting that instrument. Eventually we all lose. Even, if not especially, those same headline writers.
Because how many times can you write things like: The Hanukkah video you will not be able to stop watching before you reach boy-who-cried-wolf status?
That’s a real headline I saw on my Facebook feed today. Will I really not be able to stop watching this thing? It was originally posted on 22nd November. If the people who started viewing it then haven’t been able to turn away, they’re all either dead from starvation, or concerned family and friends have hooked them up to IVs while they sit half comatose, watching this four-and-a-half-minute video on an endless, Sisyphean loop.
Of course I know this hasn’t happened to anyone, but nevertheless, I can cross the website in question off my list of credible go-tos for amusement.
How about: A pretty cute Hanukkah video that’s bound to put a smile on your face?
That would stick out and get my attention.
Russell Brand has just been awarded this year’s Foot in Mouth award from the Plain English Campaign. It’s an annual prize for the most incomprehensible writing around. They’ve called Brand’s choice of language a ‘seemingly endless stream of gibberish’. They say that his diatribes on democracy and revolution don’t actually make much sense.
Well, yes, it’s true that if you’re going to bang on about politics and revolution, it’s probably a good idea to make sure that people can understand what you’re saying. And yes, we suspect that Mr Brand isn’t exactly an avid reader of, say, Ernest Gower’s Plain Words. Here’s an extract from Brand's most recent book Revolution:
This attitude of churlish indifference seems like nerdish deference contrasted with the belligerent antipathy of the indigenous farm folk, who regard the hippie-dippie interlopers, the denizens of the shimmering tit temples, as one fey step away from transvestites.
But then clarity isn’t always the point. There’s also intriguing, provoking, engaging. He chooses the words that are interesting; he obviously likes the shape, the flow, the sound. He’s a logophile:
On what basis can an energy corporation claim to own gas at the earth's core? What's next? Are they going to claim they own our earwax and our uncried tears and start burrowing into our heads for a few sheckles?
He’s got a distinctive voice. You can instantly recognise the, ahem, Brand brand. You can’t say the same for most people talking about politics in the public eye. In fact, Mr Brand, we award you our inaugural mellifluous language award.
But it’s true he might benefit from a bit of help structuring his argument. Fancy coming to our Writer’s secrets workshop, Mr Brand?
When big things happen in a business, it’s important not to forget about the little things. Like how people talk about change internally. And how they write about it, in particular.
Take Pfizer and AstraZeneca for example. Earlier this year, ‘big pharma’ player Pfizer attempted to take over AstraZeneca. The deal didn’t work out. It might still happen, though, once Pfizer gets to the end of a cooling-off period. But no one at AstraZeneca’s really sure what that means for them. A friend of mine who works there confessed, ‘no-one’s got a clue what’s going on’.
If you’re in a department like HR or internal comms, people look to you for information. And if there’s none available, those people will worry instead. Or they’ll listen to water-cooler gossip about how their function’s moving to the other end of the country. And that’s hardly going to boost employee morale, is it?
I think if there’s even the faintest scent of change on the horizon, like there is at Pfizer and AstraZeneca, then someone needs to speak up about it internally. And not in a cloud of corporate vagueness. But honestly. To show that the bods in the boardroom really do care about how employees are feeling. They certainly don’t want to make the same mistakes as Microsoft in their lengthy memo to employees that takes 11 paragraphs to get to the point: 12,500 people are about to lose their job.
Because if Pfizer claims ‘respect for people’ and AstraZeneca ‘to do the right thing’ that’s true, especially at times of change, isn’t it? And if both companies could get a sense of those values across in their writing, then maybe people wouldn’t feel so clueless anymore.
Much hoopla this week about the landing of a picture-taking, data-relaying thingmy on the back of a comet.
Am I alone in being left a bit cold by this? I mean, well done amazing scientists for working out how to fire the thingmy gazillions of miles into space and bump it down onto an object travelling gazillions of miles an hour.
But what’s it all for?
All I heard on the news was the technological achievement, or the ‘how’. Only after a good minute or two did the BBC’s David Shukman throw in any mention of the ‘why’. It seems the thingmy might tell us how the Earth got its water. Ah. Now I’m interested. Tell me more. Except Shukman didn’t. Shame. (Especially as I really like him, usually.)
This all reminded me a bit of something we tell people in workshops: talk about benefits, not features. Because people care more about how fast they can download films than how big the chip in their phone is.
I’m not averse to a science story. The Voyager probe transforming what we know about the universe. The boffins at Bletchley Park shortening WWII by cracking the Enigma code. But until someone tells me what use this thingmy really is, I’ll just think the money would have been better spent on developing an Ebola vaccine.
Once you’re a jaded 37 year old like me, it takes a lot for a bit of commercial writing to stop you in your tracks. But that happened to me on my walk to work last week.
I was sauntering round the Elephant & Castle roundabout (oh, the glamour!) and saw a billboard for HSBC. It featured a man with a little girl on his shoulders, but that wasn’t what got me. It was this line:
Raising a business.
The second hardest job in the world.
That’s it exactly, I thought to myself. As we’ve taken The Writer from three people in a chaotic serviced office to the slick multinational it is today (ho, ho), it’s been by turns exhilarating, frustrating, fascinating. So yes, like raising a child. It’s a simple idea, but one that I’d never really thought of, or put so succinctly. And even though I know how the ad writing game works, it really does make me think someone somewhere at HSBC knows what it’s like.
So well done to that copywriter. You gave an old hand a pause for thought.