Blog in 01 2012.
I’d not heard of title or author before but as I started to flick through its pages I was hooked.
It’s got Lowry-esque illustrations sitting alongside simple, clear, warm language about London life (in 1959, when it was published). Piccadilly Circus, Greenwich, Covent Garden, City workers, ‘the sport of queuing’; he’s painted a fascinating picture of hustle, bustle, people and places. Then I read the front again and noticed that this was a children’s book; a travel guide for readers up to three years old to be precise. Amazing. It’s not dumbed down, it’s not insulting to your intelligence – it’s just good writing that doesn’t overcomplicate things, written with a good sense of humour and a light touch. (There’s a lesson about writing with your audience in mind in there somewhere.)
The end result is a beautiful thing. And it turns out it’s just one of a whole series he wrote about cities all over the world. Next stop San Francisco.
Wired magazine has a way of making me feel like I’m living in the future. Mostly, that’s a good thing – knowing about all the insanely clever things people in the world are doing with technology. But sometimes, it gets a bit scary. Like last month, when they released their 25 big ideas for 2012. On that list, they have things like wireless mind control, connected conservation, ubiquitous face recognition, corporate long-termism and, er, bioart.
I’ll leave you to delve into the daunting details of those, but basically folks, the machines are taking over everything. Almost. For a stomach-plunging split second, I looked at the heading Robo writers, and had visions of pen-wielding robots coming after our jobs.
Apparently there are firms in America designing machines that come up with ‘narrative content from data: no humans required’. Yikes. In the article, they’ve given this example of this football match report, generated by one of their slave robots:
An own goal by Liverpool goalie José Reina in the 90th minute allowed Arsenal to escape with a 1-1 tie on Sunday at Anfield. Liverpool had spent the entire second half down a player after referee Martin Atkinson gave midfielder Joe Cole a red card for his tackle of Laurent Koscielny at the very end of the first. Still, Liverpool maintained a 1-0 advantage for most of the second half...
A fairly straightforward report of a football match. Then I read it again. And I decided that while they’re definitely a step up from the automated spam messages Bee blogged about, there’s still something missing. The emotion, the drama, the theatrics. There’s no opinion in what’s essentially a bland, factual retelling of what happened, and so it doesn’t make for exciting or entertaining reporting.
Inject some metaphors, imagery, colours, senses, atmosphere and, of course, politics, and it might start sounding like it was written by someone with a beating heart and warm blood. But robots can’t do that. Plus, the people who designed this ‘Authoring Engine’ (I know, really?) are talking about ‘ingesting data’ and ‘inflection points’. I don’t think this writing’s meant for real human beings.
So while Wired ended the article with ‘Uh oh’, I’d end it with an assured, if not cocky, ‘psshhh’. The robots won’t be taking over the writing world just yet.
Spam is annoying. But I can’t help but smile at the effort spammers are putting in to get me to give them my bank details. They’re pretending to be real people, and emailing me to offer me money. Lots and lots of money.
They pretend to be people like Abuba Abda, from the Bank of Africa in Ouagadougou. He wanted me to have 40 per cent of $2,500,00. He discovered it in an account belonging to a deceased customer of the bank, ‘who was involved in the December 25th 2003 Benin plane crash’. He even gave me a link to the CNN website, so I could read about the crash too (just in case I didn’t believe him). He never told me what he meant by ‘involved’ though.
But not all of the emails I get are from people wanting to give me money.
I got an email with ‘lots of love’ from my ‘new friend’ Alicia. She wrote:
‘It really pleases me to write you for a lovely and sincere friendship even if we haven't met or seen each other before. I will so much appreciate to see your reply soon, so that we can share pictures and know more about ourselves’.
And Alena, who sometimes wrote her name Elena. A dating agency asked her what kind of men she likes, and they said she should talk to me. ‘Maybe learning more about each other we can have true relations. I want to search my love. I want to have true relations.’ Did I mention I’m not a man?
It seems to me these spammers are missing a trick. They’ve had a bit of a half baked idea here – let’s pretend to be a real person to gain a sympathy vote and to build up some trust... but let’s write in a way that no real person would.
You’d never say my aim of contacting you is to solicit your cooperation and assistance based on one of the accounts under my management. Or I got your contact from the internet, while searching for an honest and trustworthy person who will assist me to implement this transfer. They’re just words gone wrong. No real person would say them. These spammers need to write like they speak. Or they’ll never find anyone to give all that money to.
Most businesses don’t think about their writing enough. Some only ever think to write well when it comes to external things like ads and posters. But a few get it right all the time.
Innocent is one of those. Their tone is always clear, from the bit on the bottom of the bottle that says ‘stop looking at my bottom’, to when you call them up (someone will answer ‘banana phone’), to their brochures, their website, their employment contract, etc.
Lastminute.com is another. Instead of saying ‘Please click here if you are unable to view these images’ at the top of their emails, they say ‘Has everything gone a bit Picasso?’
Then there’s Google+. The wait between clicking on your selected photo and opening Google’s picture editing programme is cheered up by random witticisms such as ‘Resharing kitten video’ and ‘Amassing high scores’ appearing underneath the loading bar.
For a tone of voice to work, everything a company writes needs to sound like them. From the ads to the small print. We recently challenged one of our clients to change the standard legalese on their ticket offers from ‘Subject to availability’ to ‘When they’re gone, they’re gone’. Because if you aren’t thorough, it’s like carefully crafting a beautiful meal, then serving it on a filthy plate.
Imagine a company, like Innocent, spending a load of money to create a great-looking website, filled with quirky language that’s bang on tone. Then using a traditional word like ‘Search’ for their buttons. Wouldn’t ‘Scout’, ‘Hunt’, or ‘Have a look’ be better? Wouldn’t it make you want to click that button more?
The words in the nooks and crannies are the surprises, the bits we remember, the touches we tell our friends about (as our Neil will tell you). So make sure they’re good ones that are right for the brand.
I know it doesn’t really matter. I know it’s only a little thing. I know there’s much more important stuff going on (heck, the country is being battered by murderous winds as I type). You’ll be amazed that I can afford the seconds in my life to even think about this stuff.
But at the end of the new TV ad for the Nationwide building society, they say ‘visit us in-branch’. (I told you it was a little thing.) But ‘in-branch’? What? No-one says ‘in-branch’ in real life. ‘Did you pay that bill, love?’ ‘Yep, I went to Nationwide and did it in-branch.’ Don’t think so.
This is a phrase that only people who work in banking ever use. (Just like mobile phone companies talk about being ‘a Vodafone customer’. But us normal people say ‘I’m on Vodafone’ or ‘I’m with Vodafone’.) And of course, in the scheme of things it’s not the end of the world. But it is a sign that they’re not quite as connected to their customers as they claim (and that their ad agency have gone native).
Make enough of these wee slips, and you’ll always end up sounding a touch corporate, however magical the rest of your ad looks.