Blog in 02 2013.
Something strange has happened to me.
After a month of working in the States, that uniquely American brand of optimism seems to have rubbed off on me. Maybe it’s because, for much of that time, I was in California, where they take positive thinking to a whole new level of ‘awesome’. Whatever the reason, I’m seeing the effects not only on my general state of mind, but also in my writing.
After 14 years in London, I hadn’t realised I’d ‘gone native’. But it turns out the British way of thinking has been chipping away at my sunny South African disposition all this time. The self-deprecation. The faux-modesty. The verbose politeness. The use of negatives to make a positive (‘I don’t suppose you’d be so kind as to...’). And where else in the world is the word ‘awfully’ used to describe a positive?
In the US, it makes us sound like naysayers, party poopers and gloommongers. And that’s just not the American way.
So we’ve worked that American optimism into the brand language we’ve developed for a Silicon Valley client. Focus on the positive. The possibilities. The benefits, not the features.
When it came to introducing the new brand language, we practised what we preached. Instead of the usual ‘Our language was confusing and formal and full of jargon’ that you see in most guidelines, we flipped it round and switched to the benefits of speaking in a more natural and distinctive way.
It’s an interesting habit to get into, especially in things like case studies and proposals where the standard format is problem first, then the solution and then the results.
Next time you find yourself writing one of those, try starting on an optimistic note.
You’ll find the result is positively awesome.
In workshops, we tell people to watch out. To watch out for the long sentence. Because long sentences are bad. They’re confusing. You lose your thread. You have to go back and read them again. It’s all too easy to do, of course. You start on a thought and then you’re off. And before you know it, you’ve gone on. And on. And on. For ages. They’re difficult to follow, long sentences.
But recently we’ve noticed something else. And that’s the opposite problem. The problem of the short sentence. Where people over-compensate. And go the other way. And start to make all their sentences short. Really short. It’s copywriters. Mainly. And it’s just as bad as the thing about short sentences. It’s juddering. Jarring. Twitchy. Staccato. Stuttering.
When you read a long sentence, you run out of breath. When you read a passage that’s all short sentences? You hyper-ventilate.
A short sentence gives you pace, punch and timing. But they’re your spice and seasoning – not your meat and potatoes. Please, addicts of the stuttering sentence, use them more sparingly: ‘emphasise everything, and you emphasise nothing’, as somebody once said about something else. It’s time to re-acquaint yourselves with the elegance of the well-balanced sentence, the pleasures of a graceful comma, the more subtle rise and fall of a full-bodied sentence. There’s more to phrasing. Than the full stop.
Not sure if you’re a short sentence addict? Watch out for the following symptoms:
- You’ve forgotten how to use a comma, a semicolon and parentheses. (Or brackets.)
- You have an unusually high percentage of sentences starting with ‘and’ and ‘but’. But for no real reason.
- You read this post and didn’t see anything wrong. With it.
If you’ve hung out with anyone under the age of four recently, you’ll have come into contact with one of the biggest brands to come out of the UK in ages*: Peppa Pig.
In case you’re not familiar with it, it’s a cartoon on Channel 5. I don’t know a single toddler who isn’t obsessed with it. And the three men who created it are really bringing home the bacon (sorry); the show is now worth hundreds of millions of pounds, not to mention the merchandise (Peppa Pig duvet cover, anyone?).
What’s the secret of Peppa’s success? I have a theory. Parents are the ones who decide what their kids can and can’t watch, especially when they’re very young. And parents love Peppa, so they let their kids watch it.
Why do parents love it? Because it’s funny and clever and slightly arch. The creators know how tedious most kids’ TV can be for adults; the only remotely entertaining thing about In The Night Garden is marvelling at how much Iggle Piggle looks like David Cameron. So Peppa’s writers throw in little treats now and again to keep mum and dad happy.
I actually snorted with laughter when Peppa’s French pen pal, Delphine Donkey, asks the hapless, bumbling Daddy Pig, ‘Are English split infinitives a form of irregular verb or past pronoun?’ I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of another show aimed at two-year-olds that makes jokes out of obscure grammar references.
What’s so clever about Peppa Pig is that it’s written for its unintended audience (parents) as well as its intended one (kids). And sometimes business writing has an unintended audience, too; competitors, as well as shareholders, read annual reports. Employees, as well as customers, read case studies.
In short, writing with your audience in mind is always a good thing. Writing for your unintended audience as well – now that’s really clever.
Is company culture as important as people make out? Does it really affect the morale and motivation of your people? And can it really be the thing you love most about your job?
To all these questions, I’d say an overwhelmingly big YES! (Sorry about the exclamation mark and shouty caps.)
I believe this so strongly not because I’ve been consuming masses of business books on the subject of people and culture. It’s because I experienced it first-hand, last year, when I was living in New York and setting up The Writer’s US HQ.
You see, the London office, our gang and our blackboards are kinda special to me. (Pop in when you’re in town and you’ll see what I mean.) The people, from all walks of life and cultures. The hubbub of noise filled with linguistic opinions. The different accents. The quirks – like Neil’s obsession with clocks. All these things, in their small, unique ways, add to our culture. And make The Writer, The Writer.
So when you put a gal in a megapolis like New York, working solo (even if you’re a salsa-dancing extrovert like me), it’s tough. And it gets tougher the longer you’re away. At the end of last year I had a eureka moment when I realised the root of this. I also understood what all the talk about cultivating a company’s culture is about, and why finding people that fit is so crucial to a successful business.
It’s why I’m now listening even more closely to the likes of Zappos and their CEO, Tony Hsieh (his book Delivering Happiness is well worth a read). I mean who else decides to offer all new recruits $3,000 to leave right there and then after a month’s training (testing in the process how much they really want to work for you)?
It’s why it’s ace being back in with the culture of The Writer in London.
Good business writing is planned writing
In fiction, there’s the distinction between planning a story and discovering a story.
If you plan a story, you know the characters, you build an outline, you know your ending. And then you start writing, filling in the gaps.
If you discover the story, you start with an idea or two. Maybe you have this cool alien planet and the girl who grew up there. And when you write about it, things start to happen. And the next thing follows from there and you write that down.
Most good business writing is planned writing. It has a clear structure and it’s written with the main point in mind. Which is good, if you know what you want to say. And you want others to understand what you’re saying, too.
But what if you don’t know what you want to say?
Then discovery writing is a brilliant way to come up with new ideas or to flesh out existing ones.
Just pick a question that’s important to your business or an idea you want to present, and start writing. Let your mind wander and write down what you discover along the way. You may be surprised by all the shiny things you’ll find.