My running buddy’s a doctor. And while pounding the pavements, she’s given me a few tips on how to get to the point. Because sometimes, it can be a question of life or death.
Before we started running together, I thought I had the whole ‘how to deliver difficult messages’ thing nailed: you say sorry; you explain why; you move on to a fix. But while that might work a treat when you’re writing to customers to say their gas bill’s going up or that a mobile banking app is bust; it doesn’t work with really tricky messages. Like telling someone that if they don’t lose weight they’ll have a heart attack before the year’s out. Or that something unusual came up in a routine scan.
That’s the kind of conversation she has with patients, and their families, every single day of the week.
I never tire of asking her how she does it. How she not only explains the complexities of a cocktail of drugs to a vulnerable patient, but also persuades them to care about it. Or how she’ll listen to a chain smoker’s woes with sympathy but will never sugar-coat her fix to their ailments.
Her calls to action are clear. Her explanations are straightforward (she doesn’t even need to say sorry to give them, either). And she only has 10 minutes to gain the patient’s trust.
These days, I give my writing the 10-minute test too. Assuming I’m lucky enough to have my reader’s attention for that long, I ask myself will they:
* find my call to action
* make sense of what I’m saying
* believe me?
I’d never want my doctor to waste time sitting on the fence or dwelling on background details when giving me news. So, I shouldn’t go there with my readers, either.
As part of Learning at Work week, we’re sharing stories about things we’ve learned in unexpected places.
‘I see where you’re coming from, but…’
‘He’s a nice guy, but…’
‘We’re really sorry, but…’
But undoes all the words before it
Sat in one of many business-y corporate conferences a few years back, our marketing director shared six words that really stuck with me: everything before the but is codswallop. (Well, that’s the censored version.)
And it’s so true. The ‘but’ undoes everything you’ve just said. You can ignore all the guff that comes before – that’s padding. Because whatever follows is what they really mean.
It’s become my little bug-bear.
My personal pet hate is ‘We’re really sorry, but’. I’ve seen the phrase over and over in ‘we’ve messed up’ apology letters. And I feel it wipes out the sincerity of what they’re trying to say.
Why say it?
But can instinctively make people roll their eyes, switch off, or put them on the back foot. It puts people on the defensive. I often cringe, suspecting bad news is coming.
It’s a negative-sounding conjunction. And it acts pretty similarly to the phrase ‘with all due respect’, which people often spout when they actually have little or no respect for the person they’re talking to.
Try replacing 'but' with 'and'
But is probably the most limiting word in our vocabulary. It can often change a neutral statement into a negative one. Using ‘but’ closes off the conversation, while ‘and’ opens it up.
So try replacing ‘but’ with ‘and’. See how that changes what you’re saying. And try to listen to yourself when you say (or write) it.
‘I see where you’re coming from, but it’d be clearer like this.’
‘I see where you’re coming from, and it’d be clearer like this.’
It’s not the only word that can damage your brand
A while back, we talked to three brand experience gurus, from three very different companies, about how language can affect their business. Here’s what they had to say.
Hello, we’re The Writer, the world’s biggest language consultancy.
We’re looking for people who get nerdy about words to come to our two-day Word Experience (in London) on Thursday 12th and Friday 13th April 2018.
You might be a student, or someone who's always been keen on the idea of a career in writing, but isn't sure how.
If you like what you read, be sure to send us your application by Friday 23rd March. (You’ll see how to get in touch a bit further down.)
What’s ‘Word Experience’?
We get a lot of requests from people wanting to come on work experience. But we’ve always felt work experience was pretty unsatisfactory all round: we can’t help many people in a year; you inevitably end up doing quite a bit of boring stuff; and, if we’re honest, it’s a lot of work to do well. (And who wants to do it badly?)
So we cooked up Word Experience: we gather about 20 people together for two days of creativity, workshops and fun stuff. Along the way we’ll talk to you about how you can make a career out of writing for business, show you how our agency works, and some Writer folk will tell you their own stories of how they got into business writing. All to show you there’s a career for people who like words that isn’t publishing or journalism.
Then we usually pick two people from each year to come back and join us for a short paid internship. (And some of those have ended up working here.)
Keep reading if:
You already write for your course
Maybe you study English, journalism or creative writing. Or maybe you just write a lot of essays. (You don't have to be a student, though - maybe you just love writing.)
You write in your spare time too
You might write for your student paper, a blog, or fiction. It doesn’t matter, as long as you write.
You’re a bit of a word geek
You have a tendency to get excited or properly riled up by all kinds of writing. From tube ads to tubes of toothpaste, Booker Prize winners to Charlie Brooker.
Yes that’s me. What do I need to do?
Head to our application page and send us 300 words telling us why we should pick you (and a way for us to get in touch with you). And get it to us by Friday 23rd March.
Here’s what previous Word Experiencers have said:
‘Word experience is, in a nutshell, the workshop we all should have done ages ago. Finally it feels like there’s a company out there who is trying to show you how to turn what you love, into what you do. Those two days in London opened my eyes to an industry I was surrounded by and yet unaware of, it gave me a whole new appreciation for marketing, for words and for the people who write them.’
‘Hands-on activities included the sorts of word games that seem like harmless entertainment while you do them, but come loaded with Karate Kid-style moments of realisation that detonate later on. The other day I was struggling over an email to a tutor, then something clicked and (wax on, wax off) I realised I could cut out half the words to make it cleaner and clearer.’
Take some wishy-washy words. Add a line about causing offence. Sprinkle a hashtag. Hold the sympathy. Leave to simmer, then turn up the heat online for 15 minutes.
There you have the recipe for a half-baked public apology, cooked up by a publicist on behalf of a shamed celebrity. It’s a technique we’ve been seeing a lot of lately and, if social media is anything to go by, one we’re hot at spotting.
We get it though. Writing an apology (whether public or private) can be a minefield. Sometimes it’s because you’re afraid of looking weak. Or getting into hot water by admitting you’re in the wrong. But when sincerity is missing from your apology, it stands out at 40 paces.
So what’s our recipe for an effective apology?
Having a business is a lot like being famous. You’re judged on what you say and how you say it. A poor choice of words and your reputation can be left in tatters. But get it right and you’ll get good press, plenty of reassured customers and perhaps a few new ones for your efforts.
Whether you’re responding to a public outcry (for example, Ryanair’s cancelled flights last year) or a private letter, these must-have ingredients will help you avoid making a dog’s dinner of it.
An armful of active language
It’s an obvious one, but it shows you’re owning your apology. Sometimes you’ll see statements like ‘Mistakes were made’. By whom? We use the ‘by monkeys’ test. If you can add ‘by monkeys’ to the end of the sentence and it makes sense, it’s passive. Rejig the subjects and objects, and use verbs instead of nouns to turn what you’re saying active.
A healthy splash of sincerity
We see a lot of ‘We’d like to apologise for any inconvenience’, and we’d ban it if we could. It comes from the good old days of formal business language but in 2018, it comes across as copied and pasted from the user manual.
It’s also meaningless: the ‘we’d like to’ smacks of ‘we’re only doing this because we’ve been told we should’. The ‘apologise’ is a stuffy substitute for sorry, and ‘inconvenience’ is just plain rude. If you know what the fallout was (a missed wedding from a cancelled flight, a delay in opening a new account, a tree on the track) say it. It shows you’re listening and you care.
A pinch of personality
Every brand has a tone of voice. (Yours doesn’t? Call us.) It puts your brand’s aims and aspirations into words that everyone can get behind. It’s a big part of your end-to-end brand experience and so while you might think it’s only for the fun things (like an ad campaign or your website), it’s just as important – or even more so – for the more sensitive or serious stuff.
Because that’s where people really pay attention. By injecting a bit of your personality, you’re showing that your brand’s not run by robots reeling out the tired, formulaic phrases. And that you believe in talking to your customers in the same way, wherever they are in the journey.
A dash of humility
Being able to show that you’re learning works wonders. If you’re changing the way you do things, rethinking your strategy or simply refunding a payment, let your reader know. They’ll appreciate your honesty and openness (and the impact on their bank balance), and see your brand as more human than humdrum.
And a sprinkle of ‘sorry’
The all-important ingredient. Put it in first or leave it to the end. But put it in unsullied, untweaked and unfettered. No ifs, no buts, just sorry.
If you’re a company (or a celebrity) and your apologies need whipping into shape, get in touch.
‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’
No prizes for guessing who said this one, especially as I’ve put his name in the title. Churchill’s words on the Battle of Britain in 1940 are probably some of the most famous in history.
But something you might not know is that Churchill had a good few goes at these words – or a variation, at least – before he really got it right.
Forty years earlier, when speaking at a by-election in Oldham, no less, he said:
‘Never before were there so many people in England, and never before have they had so much to eat.’
Nine years later, he dusted off the old notebook and gave it another crack. This time he was talking about a new irrigation system in Africa:
‘Nowhere else in the world could so enormous a mass of water be held up by so little masonry.’
That’s not even the whole of it– there are loads more examples in here.
For any writer familiar with the feeling of struggling to get the words out, thinking about this example can be pretty freeing.
Effortless to read doesn’t mean effortless to write
Writing that looks naturally brilliant is, more often than not, the product of hours – or decades, in this example – of reworking something bit by bit until it just works.
When we see great words printed on an advert, or hear a great speaker say them, it can feel like they were always that way. That they just appeared fully-formed.
In reality, though, Churchill was able to come up with such a word-perfect line to suit this occasion because he was a great writer, yes, but also because he already had it in his armoury, after years of honing.
Let your first draft be a bit rubbish
We love the idea of the casual genius. But no one writes a perfect first draft.
There’s a myth that Abraham Lincoln scribbled the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope on the train on the way to give the speech. It’s a nice romantic image, but it’s not true: he spent a couple of weeks on it, probably made lots of revisions, and hated the idea of speaking off the cuff.
So next time you’re sat in front of a blank Word document, waiting for divine inspiration to strike, think about Churchill playing with the same words over forty years. Get a first draft out your system, and fix it later.