Blog in 11 2013.
I don’t like smileys. It’s not that I’m a miserable so-and-so, it’s just I have this old-fashioned theory that if my writing’s going to make someone smile, the words’ll do it on their own. The reader’s not going to need a prompt. That would be the literary equivalent of holding up an ‘applause’ sign to a TV audience.
But I see smileys in all sorts of unexpected places. Web chats about unlocking a phone. Tweets about giving your electricity supplier a meter reading. Invitations to link up with someone I’ve worked with on LinkedIn. Feedback forms from someone who’s just been to one of our workshops. And emails. They sneak into emails all the time.
Why do we need these open brackets, lonely colons and stranded hyphens to inject a bit of personality into our writing? ‘It’ll make me sound like a real person’, I’ve been told, or ‘it’s okay, because the customer frowned first’. But I’m not convinced we need emoticons at all. If, say, I was in a mobile phone store swapping a SIM card from one phone to another, I wouldn’t smile non-stop at the customer. Nor would I wink at them, or stick my tongue out. So why do it virtually?
If there is such a thing as emoticon etiquette when writing at work, then in my mind it goes something like this:
- If you’re talking to a customer, then never smile first.
- Smile, and only smile.
- If it’s a colleague, well, you probably know them better than I do and can make your own mind up.
And if you’re writing to me? Don’t take it personally, but I never smile back.
We’re always telling people to write more like you speak. Search for the phrase on our blog and you’ll find plenty of entries (one of which Neil wrote just last week).
Most people accept it as a helpful bit of advice, but others rail against it. They worry it’ll make them sound too informal. Unprofessional. Flippant, even. This latest entry to our write like you speak anthology is my response to them.
Picture the scene: it’s 50,000BC. Ig and Ug are hunting deer, and Ug’s managed to disturb a pack of woolly mammoths. Which of these warnings should Ig try?
a. ‘Watch out!’
b. ‘It is recommended that you adopt a movement strategy given the proximity of that large elephantine animalian solution!’
If you answered a, congratulations. Ug will go on to live a happy life and bear many children.
If you answered b, let’s just say there’s a lot of skewering.
For the likes of Ig and Ug, spoken language was – among other things – a survival tool. It was the best way to get a thought into someone’s head. Since then it’s grown in tandem with human progress, and it’s been chipped and shaped and moulded to do its job efficiently, clearly, brilliantly.
It’s the most nuanced and natural form of communication we have. It comes with pronunciation, emphasis, rhythm, volume adjustment and variable pace. It comes with eye contact, so people can hear what you’re saying in the full context of who you are.
And then there’s writing. An artificial series of squiggles that only vaguely correspond to the thoughts in our heads. At most, it’s had 5,000 years to evolve. Spoken language, if you believe Noam Chomsky, has had about 100,000.
Yes, you can choose to write on a banana if you want to show you’re quirky. Or write with letters cut from different magazines if you want to show that you’re trying not to show anything at all.
But there’s nowhere near the same amount of context, of choice, of colour.
And that, in a nutshell, is why writing more like you speak isn’t flippant. It isn’t unprofessional. It’s just human nature.
In this age of the frequent flyer, where we’re all constantly zipping off to Ljubljana for stag dos or popping to Barcelona for long, tapas-soaked weekends, it’s become deeply uncool to pay any attention whatsoever to the in-flight safety instructions. Lift your gaze from your Kindle even momentarily and you might as well buy a uniformed teddy bear and king-sized Toblerone and have done with it [Hey, what’s wrong with Toblerone? – Ed].
The airlines must be sick of people’s heads bent over ‘electronic devices’ while they point out the exits. So they’re coming up with ever-more elaborate twists on their safety videos to grab their passengers’ attention.
First we had Air New Zealand’s Lord Of The Rings-themed epic. Now Virgin America have gotten in on the act with this Glee-style musical extravaganza. They’ve got dancing air hostesses! A singing nun! Kids doing comedy raps! There’s even a Daft Punk-style robot breakdown (my favourite bit).
It must have cost them a bomb. And they’ve clearly put a lot of work into the script; their wonderfully cheeky translations of standard airline lingo are pure Virgin.
‘If your vest doesn’t fill, honey, no big deal
Blow into the red tube and you’ve got a refill.’
Genius. And what better way to get people to ‘remain seated’ than this:
‘So won’t you buckle your seatbelt, put it on tight
And keep your (whoo) in that chair until we turn off that light.’
Brilliant stuff. Except. Except.
Every now and then there’s a spoken bit – presumably to make sure people take in the really important instructions amongst all the jazz hands and frou-frou. And what do we see there? Passive sentences. Formal words.
‘Seatbelts should be fastened whenever you’re seated.’
‘Personal electronic devices should be turned off and properly stowed.’
‘FAA regulations require that all guests comply with the lighted information signs, posted placards and instruction of the in-flight team.’
I mean, what in the name of Cee-Lo is a ‘posted placard’? Who uses the word ‘stowed’ in normal conversation? Who are the FAA and why are they getting all Robocop on our asses?
My biggest objection to this kind of language is that it’s so unclear – especially to non-native English speakers who, it stands to reason, you’re more than likely to find on planes.
Yes, there are things airlines have to say by law. But as far as we can tell, the federal regulations only tell the airlines what messages they have to give passengers – they don’t specify any actual wording. So as long as they get the content right, they can theoretically do what they like with the tone.
Virgin are already inviting people to audition for their next safety video. I hope they look at all the words next time: the boring legal bits as well as the tongue-in-cheek song lyrics.
Because our research shows that what really makes people switch off is fusty, passive, formal language. And all the song and dance in the world ain’t gonna change that.
In our writing workshops, we often tell people to write more like they speak. It’s a good starting point that quickly gets people to dump corporate jargon or cold formality. From there, we get people to hone what they write into something more distinctive and interesting.
It’s a simple formula, but it’s often tricky for people. It can mean ‘unlearning’ most of what they’ve been taught is good business writing.
This month though, we’ve been working with two groups of people it’s even harder for.
First I’ve been in Québec, helping a professional services firm in both English and French. Writing more like they speak comes to them relatively easily in English. But one of them pointed out that many of them have been made to feel that the French they speak in Québec is the sloppy, ill-mannered cousin of the supposedly pure, sophisticated European dialect. Writing that down at work makes them feel really exposed, despite the fact that it’s exactly what they use in meetings, and there’s a written Canadian standard emerging in newspapers, on TV news and the like.
So which variety do they dare to write in? Many of them felt flouting two linguistic taboos at once was quite a leap.
Second, two of our team are in India for the next couple of weeks, working in the call centre of one of our UK clients. Now, Indian English can sound very formal, and occasionally a little rude, to British ears. So we’re grappling with a different dialectal problem: should they write more like they speak, or more like the Brits speak? (That’s a tough act of linguistic ventriloquism to pull off.)
And how do you do that anyway? Our answer so far is to get them watching lots of British telly. Which show you watch matters, though; it’s going to throw their British customers if they launch into an Indian-accented stage-school Cockney they’ve picked up from EastEnders.
All of this is why I studied sociolinguistics at university. It’s amazing how the tiniest aspects of the language we use are the tip of iceberg-sized issues like education, and ethnicity, and class, and power.
A few weeks ago, a man called Jamie Jones tweeted a letter from We Buy Any Car (hereon WBAC because life is too short to type that out over and over). He’d offered them a toy car, and they’d said, essentially, ‘No, we don’t want to buy your toy car even though we’re called We Buy Any Car.’ The letter went viral. It was exactly the kind of corporate telling-off that you’d expect from a big company: ‘The frequency in which you refer to the toy as a vehicle annoyed us’, so do ‘refrain from contacting us again’. We all laughed (well, smirked) because Mr Jennings – the author of the letter – wrote in such a hoity-toity tone. It’s fun to laugh at officiousness, and we all recognise that haughty corporate attitude.
But the letter was a fake. (Of course it was – nobody sends letters anymore.)
And as it turns out, WBAC reacted pretty well to the spoof, using the whole thing to flash a nicer side of their personality. They took to Twitter straightaway; ‘We do love the colour of the Little Tikes and it’s clearly in good condition – but toy cars are just not our area of specialty... maybe Jamie should try eBay?’
And then they leapt into action with webuyanytoycar.com. The site lets users donate their old toy cars. For each, WBAC will give a tenner to charity. Their tone is adorable: ‘We’re not saying we’re experts in buying toy cars, but we just can’t get enough of those Tikes – their red and yellow bodywork, zero carbon emissions and pedal power just make us happy.’
Over the years, there’s been a lot of academic research into theories of humour and what makes a gag work. Jamie Jones’ initial joke was all about laughing at superiority – the (made-up) authority-complex of a big company. But WBAC subverted that with another type of humour; the humour of the unexpected. They used the opportunity to step out from behind the corporate spiel and say, ‘Hey, look. We make jokes too.’ In short, they proved what we’ve been saying for ages; that when companies show personality it’s unusual, fun and refreshing. And it catches our attention in a good way.