Nowadays, our beloved books too often play second fiddle to a binge on Prime or a Killing Eve marathon. Here’s a reason for us to ditch The Crown and cosy up with a good old fashioned novel this evening.
It’s a beautiful love affair
Psychologist Victor Nell looked at the state our mind falls into when we read for pleasure.
He found that when we’re at peak-pleasure we slip into a trance. Everything slows down. We’re not being raced along, moment to moment, scene to scene, as we would be in film and tv. We’ve got time to stand still and reflect. We can start placing our own lives and memories on to the story we’re immersed in.
We fall deeper than just the words on the page and into the arms of the author, and things get profound and steamy (in a literary sense). It can feel a lot like falling in love.
And the best thing is, you’re not exclusive to one author – you can be as unfaithful as you like.
So go on, put away the smartphones for a day. Netflix can chill. It’s time you fell in love again.
And again. And again.
Religion and politics. Not just the two things you don’t talk about at the dinner table, but also two things that most brands have steered clear of in the past. Or, if they did go there, they’d stick to gentle jibes or statements so general they couldn’t offend anyone.
Not at the moment, though. In the run up to today’s UK general election, plenty of brands have run ads that feel close to the bone – and that, in some cases, have got them into a bit of trouble. Maybe it’s the fact that, for the first time in over 90 years, a UK election is clashing with Christmas ad budgets. Maybe it’s that the state of UK politics is so uncertain, it feels like it’s fair game for brands to get involved.
Either way, here are our three favourite politically-inclined campaigns from brands in recent weeks – and what we can learn from them.
Westminster Jungle – The Times
The newspaper transformed Westminster station into a vine-covered jungle for a day. Images of elephants, gorillas, lions and sloths adorned the walls – bickering, prowling, lazing metaphors for parliament.
It’s easy to see why this one works – The Times has earned the right to get political. Throughout its history, the paper has been known for detailed political analysis, and its editors typically have close ties to No. 10.
And because their Tube takeover is a general comment on the state of parliament, rather than one aimed at any particular party, it’s hard to disagree with.
Manage anything. Even London - monday.com
Project management software start-up monday.com caused a stir with a series of ads poking fun at the current government – with particular swipes at Brexit negotiations, and Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge.
It’s the specificity of these ads that have made them a hit with London commuters. When it comes to observational comedy, the more specific an observation, the more it rings true – a more general comment like ‘gosh, isn’t the government annoying at times’ would never have got monday.com the traction these ads have.
But it’s a double-edged sword: that same specificity has also got TfL referred to the advertising watchdog for being partisan.
A tech start-up like monday.com doesn’t have to play by the same rules as incumbents, though. They get to occupy a maverick role, pushing limits that would be harder for a big financial services company, say, to get away with. Our final ad is an example of a bigger-name brand playing it safer – but still getting a laugh.
Time for a cabinet reshuffle - Tesco
You can always rely on Tesco for a top-shelf pun.
In this ad, the supermarket subverts the usual meaning of a phrase that was on everyone’s lips in the early days of Johnson’s premiership.
There isn’t much to get away with here. It’s fun wordplay, rather than serious satire, and that’s exactly right for Tesco’s inclusive brand. It feels sufficiently cheeky and punchy, even though there’s no real risk involved in what they’re saying.
So, what can brands learn from these examples?
- Point of view and tone of voice go hand-in-hand. Brands can’t really get away with turning a blind eye to the big issues of the day anymore – we expect more. But what you say and how you say it have to chime with each other – or your message could fall flat.
- You still need to make a point about your offering. These three ads work because they’re not just making political jokes for the sake of it – they’re all firmly tied to what these businesses actually do.
- Make sure your stance suits your positioning as a brand. It’s hard to believe in a big financial services brand playing the rabble-rousing start-up. Know the role your customers expect you to play – and if you do get political, make sure it matches up.
We’ve been thinking about ‘storytelling’. It’s an idea you hear about a lot, but if we’re all going to use the S word, it makes sense to be clear on what it means. Here are three distinct types of storytelling, for a start.
The Song of Ice and Fire: planning an epic opus
Sometimes, we’re asked to do some storytelling when a client needs a hand taming a huge report. Fixing puzzles like:
* Who will want to read this thing?
* How the hell did it get so long?
* What’s the point of it, again?
In this definition, the writer is like a novelist planning an 800-page fantasy novel. You’re weaving plot lines together to craft a page-turning narrative. And if you want good reviews, you’ll probably need to kill off some of the less interesting or relatable characters along the way.
The Clark Kent: hammering at the typewriter
Or sometimes, we’ll take a storytelling brief and then realise it’s a messaging job. The end result will be a messaging ‘house’ (suite, matrix, or whatever you prefer). Basically, a library of messages in all shapes and sizes that a business can use to talk about its products or mission.
These documents are bigger than a Sunday newspaper and are often the basis for all kinds of spin-off communications. They’re signed off by big groups of stakeholders, and the writing needs to be clear, effective and legally compliant. When you do this type of storytelling, you can feel a bit like a journalist: working to tight word counts, scrunching up redrafts, and checking your facts.
The Dead Poets Society: rekindling a love for language
Then, there’s the creative sort of storytelling. Sometimes, people will come to us when they’re all out of ideas and their writing is getting stale. They might need a creative kickstart for fresh thinking in their team or department. Or a lesson in some linguistic tricks that will hook their readers in and keep their attention.
On this type of job, the writer’s role is like Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society: an eccentric, enthusiastic English teacher who’s obsessed with language. Wear your sensible shoes, because they might just ask you climb up onto your desk for a fresh perspective.
This list could have gone on for much longer, because there’s really an element of storytelling in everything we do as communicators.
If you’re ever struggling to get your story straight, come and talk to us.
Remember the days of buying cinema tickets over the phone? Wasted minutes bellowing ‘Jumanji… JU-MAN-JI’ into your landline as the disembodied voice on the other end says ‘Sorry, I didn’t get that. Did you say Batman Forever?’
Thankfully, voice assistants have come a long way since then. By the end of 2017, Google’s speech recognition had hit 95% accuracy. Chatbots have come a long way, too – but inevitably, error messages and bottlenecks still happen. And research shows that unhelpful messages can make customers’ stress levels go through the roof.
So how do you stop your users getting fed up, and calling you instead? It’s all in your language. Find the right tone for your bot – and make it a master conversationalist – and you’ll save your customers from banging their heads against their screens.
1. Sound human. (Just not too human.)
The Turing Test might once have been the standard we held robots to, but we don’t want our bots to pretend to be human any more. A Goldsmiths study found that almost half of Brits think it’s ‘creepy’ when a bot pretends to be real. We don’t want to feel duped – we want to know where we stand. In California, it’ll be illegal for a bot to pretend to be human as of July this year.
That doesn’t mean we want to have to interpret robot-speak, though. In a conversation with a bot, we want the same things we want in any conversation: empathy. Warmth. Signs that the other person is listening. One of the most natural ways we show empathy is by mirroring the language of the person we’re speaking to.
So writing more like you speak will serve you well here. Use conversational words, contractions, and the odd discourse marker like ‘ok’ ‘well’ and ‘right’ to help build a warmer relationship with your users. (Of course, there are as many ways to sound ‘human’ as there are, er, actual humans. It all depends on your brand’s personality, and the persona you’re after for your bot.)
2. Set the parameters of your relationship.
One of the biggest reasons your users are getting frustrated with your bot might well be because their expectations don’t match up with what you can deliver. So from your first interaction, be totally clear on what your bot can – and can’t – do.
And pick the right points in the conversation to remind customers what those boundaries are.
Your intro message is the place to start. Nike does a nice job of this in theirs:
‘I can help with an existing order or get you set up with the hottest shoes & gear.’
As does Western Union:
‘Chat with us to send money, track transfers, check exchange rates/ fees, find agent locations, and more.’
Your bot not understanding a question is another good time to direct users to the right tasks – ‘Hmm, I can’t help with that. Here are a few things I can do…’
Set the parameters for the tone of your conversation, too. If you start on a subservient, apologetic note – ‘How may I be of assistance?’ – you’re priming your user to have less respect for your bot. (Plus, if your bot’s female, using language like that could reinforce harmful gender stereotypes.) Go for an adult-to-adult feel instead: ‘I’m here to help. What’s happening?’
3. Balance personality with getting on with the job at hand.
Your users might come to your bot because they have a job that needs doing. But they’re more likely to stick around, come back, and tell other people about it if they have a good time in the process.
In a Forrester study into the traits we want to see in a bot, ‘funny’ came fourth – right after polite, caring and intelligent. We want efficiency and helpfulness, sure – but sometimes, we want jokes and weird gifs, too.
Take the time to craft your bot’s character: what’s their back story? What are their hobbies? What other robots would they be mates with in the playground? Turn that character into a set of guidelines that anyone writing for your bot can follow – like the ones we did at The Writer for Vodafone’s customer service chatbot TOBi.
Don’t let personality get in the way, though. No one wants your assistant to crack a joke at the expense of actually solving their problem. Save those snippets for the Easter eggs – hidden gems to reward you user with if they ask certain questions.
Ultimately, the smarter machines get at things like speech recognition and natural language processing, the less fed up we’ll get as consumers. But all of that technological brilliance is wasted if your bot’s just rubbish at having a conversation. And without things like body language or visual cues to help guide that conversation, it’s your words that need to do all the heavy lifting.
Pay more attention to those words, and your customers will feel more inclined to keep coming back – and less inclined to chuck their Alexa out the window.
Microsoft has announced that Word is getting an injection of Artificial Intelligence. And if the comments on the BBC article are anything to go by, we should all be worried.
I think we should reserve judgement.
What Microsoft says
According to the Microsoft blog, this is about things like “calculated average time to read the document, highlight extraction, as well as familiar fixes for spelling and grammatical errors and advice on more concise and inclusive language such as ‘police officer’ instead of ‘policeman’.”
Can that really be that bad?
It could promise productivity, more confidence for people in their spelling and grammar, and formatting options to make your main points clearer.
The current version of Word
It wants me to avoid contractions, and cut words that I’ve included for a reason. But I can, and have, chosen to ignore those suggestions. And that’s the thing. We have choice.
How AI and us humans can co-exist
Regardless of what Microsoft launches, it still needs someone with purpose, emotion and a deft hand to make sure the reader gets the point. Microsoft says it too. “Writing requires a dash of uniquely human creativity. Artificial intelligence alone cannot do it for us, at least not very well.”
Let’s not fear what we don’t yet know
This change could make our lives easier and help us avoid being a blatherskite.*
Just as long as we can still choose to say things like ‘blatherskite’.
*Blatherskite: a person who says things that are meaningless and foolish.
By Charli Nordone, UK Creative Director