Blog in 03 2013.
I’ve been spending another week running workshops in California. And every time I come over here, I’m struck by the esteem in which two texts on language are held: the AP Stylebook (I mean, Stylebook? One word?), and Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.
To a Brit, the quasi-religious reverence these books seem to elicit in the USA is a bit odd. As a rule, I think in the UK we’re a bit more comfortable with the odd bit of linguistic jaywalking. So while I’ve got nothing against following the rules, or the AP Stylebook, if you’re looking for some rules to follow, please, please, please ignore the spurious ramblings of Strunk & White.
The brilliant Language Log has been skewering this ‘horrid little compendium’ better, and for longer, than I ever could (and it’s telling that they file their Strunk & White blogs under ‘prescriptivist poppycock’). But the basic point is this: their rules are so arbitrary and constraining that they can’t even follow them themselves.
And it’s why, when we give our clients writing guidelines, they’re just that; not rules, not laws, and not always right.
Hey, banks – if you want a killer reason why your brand needs a tone of voice, and why you should use it every time you write to your customers, it’s this: it’ll help stop your customers falling foul of phishing emails.
Why? Because online fraudsters can’t write. Most phishing emails are full of grammatical errors, clunky phrases and – deliberately or not – are written in a strangulated formal tone.
Even the quickest nose around banksafeonline’s archive of phishing emails turns up a whole crop. How about this from an attack on Co-operative Bank’s customers:
‘The Co-operative Bank P.L.C. Internet Banking Security Department has been receiving complaints from our customers for unauthorised uses of the Co-Operative bank accounts. As a result, we are temporarily shutting down some selected Online Accounts perceived vulnerable to this, pending til the time we carry out proper verification by the account owner.’
‘For unauthorised uses of’ is just bad grammar. And the strangulated formality of accounts ‘perceived vulnerable to this, pending til the time...’ is just weird.
A recent phishing email sent to Halifax customers crams the same two bad habits into a single sentence:
‘Important notice: note that your Security Question and Answer should be match correctly for proper re-verification, in order to avoid service suspension.’
Of course, most people who fall foul of these attacks aren’t reading the phishing emails in this kind of detail. And that’s the point. At a quick read, people obviously just get a general feeling that these emails are genuine.
That doesn’t say much for our impression of how banks communicate with their customers. But it does present a clear opportunity: if you make sure the way you write to customers is clear, natural and distinctive to your brand – especially for ‘unsexy’ day-to-day emails – then these shabbily-written phishing emails will instantly feel wrong to your customers. They’re much more likely to think ‘hang on, this doesn’t sound like my bank...’.
Ironically, the phishing email that prompted me to write this post was this one, purporting to be from HM Revenue and Customs:
‘After the last annual calculations of your fiscal activity, we have determined that you are eligible to receive a tax refund of 468.50 GBP. Please submit the tax refund request and click here by having your tax refund sent to your bank account in due time.’
Its pompous and formal tone sounded exactly like how HMRC actually sound. Which is really dangerous for them.
PS: Hey, phishers! Ever thought about signing up to one of our writing workshops?
Get lost. We only use our powers for good.
Every year, The Bookseller gives an award for the oddest book title. They’ve just announced the shortlist and there are some real corkers. (We’d vote for God’s Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis. Because we secretly love smut.)
While we were chuckling over that, we realised we’ve spotted a few odd titles ourselves over the years in books all about writing. Like these:
Write Good or Die – edited by Scott Nicholson
Then We Set His Hair on Fire – by Phil Dusenberry
Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This – by Luke Sullivan
“Shut Up!” He Explained – by William Noble
Come across any odd book titles in your field? Let us know in the comments. Or tweet us with the hashtag #oddwritingtitles.