I was on a crowded train last week. Opposite me was one of those inconsiderate people who won’t move their stuff to give everyone more room. ‘I bet you’re a banker, aren’t you?’ blurted a fellow passenger.
Oh dear. Can banks fix the fact they’re now a go-to metaphor for the worst of humankind?
We think so.
They’re always talking about ‘regaining the public’s trust’. Which is admirable. But trust is an abstract concept. We think all too often they’re missing something that’s right under their noses. So, it seems, do the regulators.
Only this week the financial services rulemakers ticked banks off for making simple information about savings accounts hard to make sense of (and hard to find). They said banks should help us check how our savings accounts measure up by giving us ‘clearer, more timely information’.
What kind of people do you trust? I know I’m more likely to trust a car mechanic or a plumber who explains things carefully, who helps me understand.
Banks could turn things around just by getting better at doing that.
They should. And they should do more to explain all their products and services clearly. If I really get what an offset mortgage is, I’ll feel better about choosing one. If I can read Ts and Cs without scratching my head, I’ll know where I stand. If there are clear choices, I’ll be more confident about my decisions.
We’ve seen clients really improve relationships with customers by making everything they write easy to understand. From letters and emails to brochures and websites. By being crystal clear even about the downsides.
We all know that trust is earned. Banks will be better at earning it by steadily and thoroughly making everything they say as clear and simple as possible.
Then maybe ‘banker’ will stop being a dirty word.
We’re sad to say our colleague Lisa Plumbridge died early in the New Year.
She was a project manager at The Writer in London, though she’d been off work with cancer for most of the last three years. She spent her last few days surrounded by a small army of family and friends.
A big gang of Writer people, past and present, went to her funeral earlier this week, and it was great to hear her closest friends describe her in exactly the same way that we would here: very funny; determined to the point of stubborn; really brave. And pouting in every picture, like the one above, where’s she’s holding her favourite word.
Our hearts go out to everyone who was close to her. And of course, we’ll miss her loads as both a colleague and a friend of ours. She was brilliant to have around; we’re just sorry it wasn’t for longer.
I was hanging out with some lawyers in Detroit a couple of weeks ago (I know, what will Glen Hoddle think I’ve done in a past life?).
I asked them what makes a good bit of legal writing. And somewhat surprisingly, they said all the things I’d want them to say: clear, concise, even warm.
They’re right, of course (there’s evidence that less formal English is even more likely to persuade judges). Yet it’s not what most of us see from most lawyers.
Lawyers are faced with an extreme version of a task that most of us face in our writing, which is getting people to do what we want. And in real life most of us know that takes not just the intelligence to construct a watertight clause, but the emotional intelligence to persuade someone you’re not trying to screw them over.
Our client Jos Sclater, general counsel at GKN, made the point beautifully:
‘I’m trying to get my legal team not to think of contracts as just legal documents. They’re not. They’re often the first expression of the sort of relationship you want with your supplier or customer. So if that document is complicated and defensive, it suggests that’s what your company’s like, too.’
That’s why in Blink, Malcolm Gladwell points out that doctors in the US with good bedside manners get sued less than their colder counterparts (even when they make mistakes!). We just can’t switch off that human bit of our brain.
(Oh, and if you deal in legal writing that needs a dash of human, come along to our Letters of the Law workshop.)
Last week, teen clothing store Wet Seal made headlines for giving staff just a few days’ notice before closing 60 stores.
As if it weren’t enough of an HR and PR disaster already, the script used by managers to break the bad news has gone viral. This, despite being headed: ‘Confidential – not to be copied or reproduced. Destroy after conversation has been conducted.’
It’s not that the writing in the script was particularly awful. On the contrary: the first paragraph comes across as clear, honest and empathetic; everything you’d want in this kind of situation had they got the timing right. So the script didn’t dominate the story – which is lucky for Wet Seal. But the whole situation is a valuable reminder that internal communications can easily become external.
It’s the latest in a series of incidents where so-called ‘internal’ messages have gone public. Microsoft VP Stephen Elop probably wishes he could recall and rewrite last year’s jargon-riddled memo that famously left the bad news (‘an estimated reduction of 12,500 employees over the next year’) till almost the very end. And the recent hacking of Sony’s computer networks should make all of us think twice about what we say on the inside.
When social media can turn a memo into a meme in a matter of seconds, it’s more important than ever to think about what you say in your internal communications, and how you say it.
Here’s a tip: the next time you write an internal email, memo, policy or announcement, ask yourself: ‘How would I feel about this piece of writing if it went on BuzzFeed? Or if it were read on the evening news?’ Then rewrite it until you’d be happy for it to go public.
At least that way, your words won’t be the story.
We’ve made some headway into the New Year, and it’s early enough that most of us are still sticking to our resolutions. Maybe, like us, you’ve even been to the gym for the first time in months.
But what about shaping up your words?
How about making 2015 the year you give your words a workout? You could revamp your LinkedIn profile by injecting it with some energy. Get rid of the flab in over-complicated emails so nothing gets lost in translation. Or just generally get your writing into fighting-fit shape.
We can help.
To get you off on the right foot, we’re tweeting wordy wisdom throughout January with #WriteWell2015. To round the month off, we’re running a live twitter Q&A on Friday 30th January from 2.30pm to 3.30pm. And to flex your writing muscles, we’ve got our academy courses going on all year. So you can sign yourself up for workouts on any problem areas.
Like a milder-mannered personal trainer, we’ll be there to cheer you on while you get your words working harder.