Recently we’ve been writing some video scripts to launch a tone of voice. They needed to be funny, and it was interesting to see what worked and what didn’t.
Here’s my theory: In life, things can be one-beat, two-beat or three-beat funny. And you have to pick the right number of beats for your message, audience, and how long you have their attention for.
On screen it’s physical comedy like Del Boy falling through the bar. In writing, it’s stuff like simple puns.
Something unexpected, like this error message.
Or this bin lorry’s strapline.
When it’s good, one-beat funny can show a pop of personality. It takes no work on the part of the reader to ‘get’ it. And it’s handy when you don’t have your audience’s attention for long.
Dad jokes tend to be two-beat funny (or cringeworthy). My favourite joke from my Dad was when he called me one day and we had this conversation
Dad: Charlotte, we’ve seen a celebrity stabbed in London!
Me: What?! Who?!
Dad: Ummm, Reece…Reece something.
Me: Reece Witherspoon?!
Dad: No, it was with a knife! Bah ha ha ha! (Hangs up).
Kudos Dad – two-beat funny.
It’s what you see in observational comedy, where the audience needs to make a connection.
Like this Nytol advert.
Using this kind of humour is good for when you know you have your audience’s attention for more than a second or two. It tends to sound more intelligent or sophisticated than the one-beat kind. (With the exception of some dad jokes.)
This is where the audience has to engage their brain a little more to get it. Like this poster from The Economist.
This sign that went up when this electronics store closed down.
And that whole suite of ads from Spotify.
Beyond being three-beat funny
It’s where things get more surreal and you’re asking your audience to suspend belief or enjoy the ridiculousness of what you’re saying. Or they have to have some inside knowledge to get it.
Like Lewis Capaldi’s album launch ad.
This kind of funny can be risky, because there’s a good chance you’re going to alienate a portion of your audience. But the pay-off is big for those that do get it.
Why am I sharing all this?
If you’re wanting to get humour into what you write, here’s my advice:
- if you don’t have much time with your audience, go for one or two-beat funny
- for more high-brow humour, go for two-beat funny or above
- only do something beyond three-beat funny if you know your audience, or they know you, really well.
And with that, I’ll leave you with my favourite joke.
Q: What’s the difference between a kangaroo and a kangaroot?
A: One’s a kangaroo and the other is a Geordie stuck in a lift.
You. Are. Welcome.
When Dominic Cummings, chief aide to the Prime Minister, posted job ads on his blog recently, it caused quite a stir.
We noticed that in spite of the blog’s mad moments (appealing to ‘weirdos’ and ‘misfits’ and promising to ‘bin’ people within weeks if they don’t fit), Cummings makes some commendable linguistic choices that HR pros could learn from.
To avoid inflating his ego too much, though, let’s kick off with how not to do it…
Try not to be exploitative
Brazenly admitting to exhausting your staff beyond the point of irreparable psychological damage is a definite no-no. In the brief for his personal assistant, he goes all Dom Wears Prada on us. ‘You will not have weekday date nights, you will sacrifice many weekends — frankly it will be hard having a boy/girlfriend at all.’ Steady on, Dom. Where’s the work-life balance?
Stay on track
Rambling’s never a good look, and Cummings definitely derails his point on more than one occasion. He actually admits to his own folly, when after a three-paragraph ramble about failed projects, he starts the next paragraph with ‘Anyway…’. You can almost hear his broken cogs spring off the page. When you’re hiring, try not to fall into the same trap – keep your writing concise and focused.
Give your quotes some context
Cummings quotes five of his favourite thinkers in a pompous, irrelevant epigraph that he doesn’t bother to explain. It’s left to the reader to join the dots as they read on. If you want to use a quote in your writing to back up a point, then great. Just make sure the reader doesn’t have to work to realise why it’s included. Used poorly or too often, these allusions can be distracting instead of supportive.
Okay. Now we’ve brought him down a peg or two, let’s take a look at the good stuff…
Choose an open and honest tone
Too often job specs slip into internal jargon and the human disappears from behind the words. Not Cummings. ‘We want to improve performance and make me much less important — and within a year largely redundant.’ With this approach, the applicant gets a much stronger sense of the person they’ll be working for.
Try something unusual
Job specs tend not to evolve with the role. The same old ads are wheeled out year on year with the same tired structure – a brief summary of the role followed by a list of must dos and must haves. Cummings throws out the formula, and to good effect. ‘Those applying must watch Bret Victor’s talks and study Dynamic Land. If this excites you, then apply; if not, then don’t.’ Hiring managers can use these specs as an opportunity to show off their company’s personality. Share a quote, a study, a story: something unexpected to get the best candidates interested.
Use more ‘you’, less ‘we’
It’s a common gaffe in job specs for companies to talk too much about themselves. Off the back of the election, Cummings could’ve waxed lyrical about Boris’ romp to victory, The Tories’ huge majority, Brexit oven-ready, blah blah. Instead, he puts the candidate centre stage. ‘You should be able to explain to other mathematicians, physicists and computer scientists the ideas in such papers, discuss what could be useful for our projects, synthesise ideas for other data scientists, and apply them to practical problems.’ Next time your HR teams are updating your role profiles, try doing the same. It lets the applicant picture themselves in the job and get a stronger sense of whether they’re the right fit.
We’re curious to see what happens next, and whether Cummings will stay true to his promise to ‘post some random things over the next few weeks and see what bounces back’. In any case, even if your company isn’t looking to hire a graduate Rasputin, there are some tricks and techniques here that you can borrow for your own job specs. And definitely a few habits you can ‘bin’.
We do like a writing geek out. (If we didn’t, we’d have to think about putting our name out to tender.) And we don’t discriminate. Ads, road signs, mum’s to-do list – if it gets us talking, it’s going in our bank of favourites.
Before we sign off for 2019, us London creatives have picked out five bits of writing that stuck with us. Here goes…
Carlsberg – probably not the best beer in the world
In a world full of sceptics, a healthy dose of honesty can go a long way. Carlsberg couldn’t ignore the critics any longer – nor did they want to. They launched their new beer and owned up to their past failings in the campaign that went with it.
‘We focused on brewing quantity, not quality. We became one of the cheapest, not the best.’ We’re not used to brands using such frank language. When they do, it forces us to sit up and listen.
There’s great strength in taking such a candid approach. First, it showed they were listening to their customers and doing their best to change things. And second, it made their #newbrew sound all the more intriguing.
If ever you feel as though your brand’s back is up against the wall, try the Carlsberg approach. Own up to your flaws and make it work for you.
Revolut – Ts & Cs rewrite
We’ve always been a strong campaigner for a clear writing style. If you join any of our training sessions, you’re bound to see a study or two fighting the cause. But legal teams and their documents are often the hardest to sway.
So when we heard Revolut had a breakthrough, we were pretty chuffed. They rewrote their Ts & Cs to make them ‘clear, simple and easy to understand’.
It’s proof these documents aren’t a tone of voice no-go zone. These are the contracts that set out the legal relationship with customers, and businesses owe it to them to make those terms as clear as possible.
Okay, only a small portion of customers ever need to use them. But when they do, it’s often because they want to lodge a complaint. If they’re easier to read, those customers are less likely to grumble.
Puns should always be used with some trepidation. One false move and you can end up sounding like an embarrassing uncle. You know the one – coming soon to a dinner table near you. But these are p-Itch purr-fect.
They get a smile out of dog and cat lovers everywhere and, more importantly, do a great job of promoting their products. But there’s no use using puns or humour for the hell of it. It’s got to be appropriate for your brand. Otherwise you really are just barking up the wrong tree.
We’ve always been a fan of citizenM. So much so in fact, we took a client to one of their hotels this year to show them what a great tone of voice looks like in action.
They leave no stone unturned, making sure their voice shows up in every nook and cranny. From the welcome mat in their lobby, right down to the feedback form they send you when you checkout.
Considering not many people take time out to complete these forms, it’d be ever so easy to go down the generic route. But not citizenM. Any opportunity for their tone to shine, they take it. And build their brand in the process.
These moments make a lasting impression on people. Especially in these instances where it’s the last point of contact with the customer. It could be the difference between counting on their return custom and watching them disappear into the sunset.
The New York Times – The British and Irish dialect quiz
Our final winner shut down the office momentarily. The quiz asks you a series of multiple-choice questions and will locate where you were brought up, almost to the borough, by the answers you choose.
It might ask, ‘What is your name for the playground game where one child chases another?’ Is it tag, had, it, tiggy, tuggy, or touch (the list goes on)? The answers drum up all manner of nostalgia. Taking you back to when you bought a chip butty, bap, or roll that time you first skived off, dogged off, or played hooky from school.
It’s such a fun celebration of how expressive language can be – how every region has its own relationship with it, and will bend and mould it to best suit the sound and character of their accent. Give the quiz a try. We’re sure you’ll have as much fun as we did.
So, what tips can we take with us into 2020:
Stay honest. Open up about your faults, they’re often what make your brand interesting.
Use clear, natural language. Even legal teams are coming around.
Play with puns respectfully. Don’t take guidance from your Christmas cracker.
Put your tone everywhere. In the big campaigns and on the tiniest of labels. And everything in between.
And do the New York Times quiz.
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.