You might have heard us showing off about having Professor Steven Pinker round to ours the other week (well, okay, up a well-known London landmark).
Steve (as we can now call him) has written a book channelling all his years of experience and experiment in cognitive science and linguistics into advice for writers. And blow us down if the science doesn’t prove everything we’ve been banging on about for years. Phew.
But while we were hanging out in the clouds, our big-haired academic friend made a cute point about grammar.
There are two, you see. First, there’s grammar as linguists understand it: a set of rules in your head that tells you what you can say and what you can’t. That grammar tells you to say I’m having chips for tea and not *Having I’m for tea chips. (The asterisk is linguist for ‘no-one says this, it sounds bonkers’.) If you’re a native speaker, you don’t need to learn these grammatical rules; amazingly you just work them out when you’re wee.
Then there’s grammar number two (the way most people, especially ageing whiny journalists, use it): a set of ‘rules’ about how so-called educated people speak and write. Many of these rules are baloney: you really can start a sentence with and and split your infinitives like there’s no tomorrow. Despite what the old codgers say, these ‘rules’ are mere conventions, and they change over time, going in and out of fashion.
Professor Pinker pointed out that the things the sticklers get het up about can’t be fundamental grammatical rules. If they were, no-one would ever need to express them, just as you don’t need to ever tell anyone not to say *Having I’m for tea chips. The very fact the sticklers need a rule to say which bit of disputed usage is ‘correct’ proves that it isn’t a rule.
Neat, huh? Of course, following conventions can be useful to you. Menotfollowingspellingorpunctuationsconventionsmakesreadingdifficult. So if you want to know which to consider and which to ignore, either swing by our Grammar for Grown-Ups workshop, or download our swanky new app.
‘Talk about benefits, not features.’ It’s one of the golden rules of copywriting. Because people don’t care about the details, they care about what your product/service/widget can do for them.
So, if you’re selling broadband, don’t bang on about ‘20 meg download speeds’, just explain that ‘you’ll be able to watch Netflix without any buffering problems’.
It’s fine as a rule of thumb, but it ignores the fact that actually, most benefits, no matter what you’re talking about, are pretty much the same: this product/service/widget will make you smarter/save you time/make you more attractive/give you more enjoyment. That pretty much covers it, doesn’t it?
The most interesting writing tends to sit in the blurry bit between features and benefits – when the features imply the benefits. Here’s an example.
There’s a café near where I live that serves the ‘three-mile breakfast’. It’s called the three-mile breakfast because all the ingredients used in it are sourced within a three-mile radius of the café.
Technically, it’s a ‘feature’ – it just tells you a fact about the breakfast. But it’s a feature that implies a whole host of benefits.
* Your fry-up is likely to be fresher and tastier because the ingredients haven’t had to travel so far.
* You can eat with a clear eco-conscience because the food miles are low (and the ingredients are likely to be organic).
* Eating here might well be fun/cool/interesting because the people who work here haven’t just gone for the standard ‘full English breakfast’.
The quirky ‘three-mile’ detail is a feature that works much harder than any generic benefit ever could.
I suppose ‘talk about benefits, not features, except when your reader will understand the benefit implicitly and the feature is more interesting’ isn’t such a snappy rule of thumb, though.
We love a bit of a do at The Writer. So we had ourselves a breakfast party in the BT Tower last week. Our guest of honour was Steven Pinker, who’s just written a book on our favourite subject. (That’s writing, by the way.)
We had a chat about the dos and don’ts of business writing. Including avoiding clichés. So we hope you appreciate the tongue-in-cheek title of this post. But everyone did tell us they enjoyed our event. Including those nice people at the Financial Times, who told their readers about it too. They said:
‘Professional narcissism’ is to be avoided, warned Steven Pinker this week to an audience of business executives. In other words, writing in jargon, brandishing your expertise and thereby making it impenetrable to the general reader. The latest book from the Harvard psychologist and linguist, The Sense of Style is all about language and stylish writing.
Read the rest here. (You’ll have to register, but it only takes a minute – and it’s free.)
We’ll have a video of the whole thing up on our site soon, too.
We spotted this from HP, and we like it.
The way tech firms approach security is changing; it’s nice to see that change reflected in the language of ‘prevention’. Kudos to HP for standing out from a traditionally dull crowd.
And we love this ad, a perfectly-pitched spoof of Apple.
Like the recent Ikea advert, it works because the execution is spot on. (‘Under £539’ made us chortle.)
Of course, none of this would work if Apple wasn’t such a staggeringly distinctive brand; it’s hard to imagine any other phones inspiring a parody. And for Innocent, it wouldn’t work if they hadn’t built their brand using humour and irreverence. The spoof works so well because precisely because they never use overblown marketing language or big boasts.
Two great brands, playing to their strengths.
There’s been much fevered blogging about Apple’s fancy new wrist-watch (or ‘wearable’ – ugh). Some people think it’s a great example of Apple’s innovative spirit. Others think it’s proof that they’ve lost their way. But most people agree it’s a masterstroke of usability design; a beautifully crafted thing that Apple have clearly obsessed over. They’ve spent years getting all the tiny details of the size, the strap and the crown (there’s a watch-word I didn’t even know until the Apple Watch turned up) just right.
It’s a shame they don’t take the same care over the details of their language.
Back in June, we pulled together a report of the longest, most difficult Ts and Cs. It’s a shame we didn’t include Apple – they’d have been a contender for the top spot.
Today iTunes asked me to click to say ‘I agree that I have read these terms and conditions’ on a document that was 15,022 words long, with a Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score of 42. That’s effectively the same length and reading difficulty as Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
How many millions of dollars did they spend designing the 21st-century watch?
How hard would it be in comparison to fix this regular dose of iGibberish?