Next year, the BBC’s Royal Charter will expire. This is the official statement that explains what the BBC’s purpose is and guarantees its independence, so writing a new one is a pretty big deal. And because the BBC is a public broadcaster, the government have set up a public consultation that we can take part in by filling out an online survey. They want to know what you think of the BBC, and how you’d like it to change and improve over the next decade.
Or do they?
Here’s question two:
Which elements of universality are most important for the BBC?
Elements of universality? Eh?
Activist organisation 38 degrees reckons that the government has made the questions so difficult and full of jargon that nobody will respond. So they’ve translated the questions into everyday English and sent the survey out to their members. Apparently they’ve had over 70,000 responses so far.
Here’s their translation for question two:
This question sounds a bit like gobbledygook! It looks like it’s asking about the BBC’s aim of 'providing something for all of us'. The BBC has TV and radio channels, as well as being online. It produces children’s programmes, drama, documentaries, entertainment and news. It also shows national events like Wimbledon and the Royal Wedding. You could talk about whether you think it’s important that the BBC produces this range of programmes and content. You could also talk about whether it’s important to you that these things come without adverts!
I did the survey and, without the comments and translations, I’m not sure I would have known how to answer some of the questions.
Whether or not the government deliberately tried to bury this public consultation in bad language in the hope that nobody would respond, we’ll probably never know. It would be a sneaky and cynical ploy, but it could well have the desired effect. People are very unlikely to respond to surveys (or any form of communication for that matter) if the writing is unclear and the instructions difficult to understand.
So thank you 38 degrees. For using nice, clear language to put the ‘public’ back into ‘public consultation’. Government departments could learn a lot from this.
The consultation closes on 8th October so there’s still time to have your say.
I was at a client meeting recently when someone asked, ‘but what about our SEO?’ Across the table, somebody else launched into an explanation of how the SEO agency they’ve partnered with is making sure everything is as optimised as optimised can be.
I bit my tongue. There’s a persistent idea even among fairly tech-savvy people that SEO is somehow something separate that you can do to your website, which will turn whatever you’ve got into a Google-conquering monster. Let’s be clear: the time when you could trick a search engine into promoting your site is long gone. All that really matters now is good design and good content.
Evan Bailyn, the author of SEO Made Easy, says: ‘What Google’s search engine effectively does nowadays is return the best-written, most helpful, most popular website for a given search.’
Search engine algorithms today are very sophisticated: they don’t fall for stuffing keywords into pages, and they don’t care much for paid ads either. But they still don’t actually know whether the content of your site is any good or not. They’re interested in what people think of it. As moz.com’s guide to SEO says, search engines rank sites based on what people ‘discover, comment, react and link to’.
Here’s what Google themselves say: ‘You should base your optimisation decisions first and foremost on what’s best for the visitors of your site. They’re the main consumers of your content and are using search engines to find your work. Focusing too hard on specific tweaks to gain ranking in the organic results of search engines may not deliver the desired results.’
And what do people react well to? Good design and interesting, helpful content. We wrote a blog saying the very same two years ago.
Pour your resources into giving people in your company the skills and support to create consistent, clear, compelling stuff. If your writing and design are good, you’ll naturally fly up the rankings. (We’ve never spent a penny on SEO at The Writer, but we’re on page one of Google, Bing and Yahoo! for tone of voice.)
Here’s Evan Bailyn again: ‘The sophistication of Google’s algorithm has left us with a situation that has surely disappointed many a corner-cutting SEO company: that you have to produce truly good content, and lots of it, in order to rank highly in organic search.’
When even SEO experts are telling you that SEO isn’t the answer, it’s time to put your efforts elsewhere.
(And if you want a hand with the writing, you know where we are.)
We think it’s great that you’ve asked the British public to #nameourstorms. So we thought we’d weigh in, first with some advice, then with some suggestions.
1. Beware unintended consequences
Here’s some research that shows people aren’t as afraid of storms with female names as the ones with male names. It seems ridiculous but it’s worth looking into.
And if you’re thinking about basing the system on British towns and villages, you should read this blog we wrote about the World Health Organisation’s new naming rules. They launched the rules to stop people naming diseases after places, because those places suffer dips in tourism as a result.
2. Test it out in real life
People are going to suggest lovely naming systems like British foods or British TV shows. But Hurricane Fish ‘n’ Chips destroys village sounds flippant. So we recommend putting all the suggestions through the Daily Mail test.
Here’s what we think you could do
If you want to stick with gendered names, go for something more dramatic than common or garden first names. Ancient gods and goddesses like Artemis, Osiris and Magni would be a good bet. Or if you want to stick closer to home, you could go for Shakespearean names like Iago, Caliban and Goneril.
To avoid the gender danger altogether, you could go with colours or British surnames (famous or otherwise).
Thanks for reading. We can’t wait to see what you choose.
* If you just want a system that’s going to be super organised, you could copy NASA’s approach to naming comets by creating a sort of code: a letter describing the type of storm followed by the date it started. So G090915 would be a gale that started on 9th September 2015.
We know that’s not as attention-grabbing as Titus, for example. But you’ll never run out of names to choose from and there’s no danger of flippancy.
My favourite yoghurt, Yeo Valley, has a loyalty scheme where you can save up points to spend on freebies and days out. We get through three or four big pots a week in our house, so I should have enough points to buy my own cow within about six months.
Anyway, I spent a few minutes on their website this weekend typing in the codes from the packs I’ve been collecting. Their writing’s great: upbeat and jolly without crossing the line into nauseatingly cute. In particular, they have an endearingly daft penchant for crowbarring the brand name in wherever they can (for example, you can save up your Yeokens to buy a yeo yeo, or even a yeoven glove).
Even a great brand like this isn’t immune from the odd language lapse, though. When I accidentally switched two letters in one of the codes, a message popped up in red: ‘Sorry, the code you entered is invalid.’ Okay, I’m being really picky here, but I still felt a bit disappointed that they hadn’t thought of a nicer way to say it. (‘Whoops, that code doesn’t work. Try again’ or something.)
It reminded me, bizarrely, of the Labour Party. They got into hot water on Twitter recently for the rather uncomradely emails they sent people they suspected of trying to sabotage the leadership contest (dubbed the ‘Labour purge’).
One supporter tweeted the welcome email he got when he first registered, alongside the rejection email telling him he’s not allowed to vote. The tone of the first email is cosy and conversational. The second is formal, impersonal and not a little passive aggressive.
It’s a common phenomenon: everyone’s nice and friendly when they’re trying to sell to you, but as soon as there’s some bad news, the tone goes out the window.
It’s usually because the good news messages are written by brand and marketing people, who are more likely to have the time and the skills to craft them properly. Whereas bad news often comes from legal, compliance or – in the case of Yeo Valley – IT, who don’t.
There are two ways to get around that. Get brand and marketing to look at bad news stuff as well as good news. Or, even better, help everyone – including legal, compliance, IT and anyone else who communicates with customers – get better at writing.
Because it’s these contrasts and contradictions that break down people’s trust in brands, little by little. No biggie for a yoghurt, maybe. But a disaster for a political party.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I wrote an open letter to Apple, about the shabby state of their end user agreement. The gist being: your superpower is elegant user experience. So why is the user experience of your writing so appalling?
This time it’s Spotify. They’ve updated their terms and conditions in such a way that it basically sounds like they’re making a land-grab for their customers’ private information. Understandably, it’s created a shit-storm of negative publicity.
Magazines like Wired are calling the updates ‘eerie’ and ‘ridiculous’. Influential customers, like Minecraft creator Markus Persson (2.4 million Twitter followers), have tweeted they’ll be cancelling their accounts. And Spotify CEO Daniel Ek has been forced to respond with a blog saying SORRY, and going into a detailed clarification of many of the points.
Are Spotify really trying to sneak one past us? Have they just expressed themselves badly? As a long-time Spotify customer and enthusiast, with just a gut-level sense that they’re not in the screw-your-users-for-profit game, my money is on the latter. But in truth, when you read the updated terms, it’s just not possible to tell.
For instance, their updated terms contain sentences like:
With your permission, we may collect information stored on your mobile device, such as contacts, photos, or media files. Local law may require that you seek the consent of your contacts to provide their personal information to Spotify, which may use that information for the purposes specified in this Privacy.
If you wanted to design a sentence to discombobulate your readers, you couldn’t do much better than this. It’s essentially giving you the linguistic cue that something fishy is going on here by using the vague legalese ‘we may collect information…’, while at the same time presenting itself as utter nonsense (‘seriously, Spotify, you’re saying I might actually have to get permission from my friends because I’m using your music player?!’).
Contrast with the clear, unequivocal, decidedly not legalese language on Daniel Ek’s SORRY blog: ‘Let me be crystal clear here: If you don’t want to share this kind of information, you don’t have to.’
(And, of course, in contrast with just about everything else Spotify write. Even their error messages are usually carefully crafted and engaging.)
I think one thing is abundantly clear: the interplay of privacy and trust, and how this is interwoven into our relationships with the brands in our lives, is currently the defining subject of the social and digital age. And if you’re a brand that’s trying to conduct that relationship with your customers through an end user agreement document that’s the length of a novel and the complexity of Shakespeare, you’re mad. It’s like trying to have an intimate conversation with someone down an extremely long toilet roll, while speaking in a silly voice.
End user agreements are a broken format, not fit for purpose.