Blog in 09 2014.
We love a bit of a do at The Writer. So we had ourselves a breakfast party in the BT Tower last week. Our guest of honour was Steven Pinker, who’s just written a book on our favourite subject. (That’s writing, by the way.)
We had a chat about the dos and don’ts of business writing. Including avoiding clichés. So we hope you appreciate the tongue-in-cheek title of this post. But everyone did tell us they enjoyed our event. Including those nice people at the Financial Times, who told their readers about it too. They said:
‘Professional narcissism’ is to be avoided, warned Steven Pinker this week to an audience of business executives. In other words, writing in jargon, brandishing your expertise and thereby making it impenetrable to the general reader. The latest book from the Harvard psychologist and linguist, The Sense of Style is all about language and stylish writing.
If you're an FT subscriber, you can read the rest here.
We’ll have a video of the whole thing up on our site soon, too.
We spotted this from HP, and we like it.
The way tech firms approach security is changing; it’s nice to see that change reflected in the language of ‘prevention’. Kudos to HP for standing out from a traditionally dull crowd.
And we love this ad, a perfectly-pitched spoof of Apple.
Like the recent Ikea advert, it works because the execution is spot on. (‘Under £539’ made us chortle.)
Of course, none of this would work if Apple wasn’t such a staggeringly distinctive brand; it’s hard to imagine any other phones inspiring a parody. And for Innocent, it wouldn’t work if they hadn’t built their brand using humour and irreverence. The spoof works so well because precisely because they never use overblown marketing language or big boasts.
Two great brands, playing to their strengths.
There’s been much fevered blogging about Apple’s fancy new wrist-watch (or ‘wearable’ – ugh). Some people think it’s a great example of Apple’s innovative spirit. Others think it’s proof that they’ve lost their way. But most people agree it’s a masterstroke of usability design; a beautifully crafted thing that Apple have clearly obsessed over. They’ve spent years getting all the tiny details of the size, the strap and the crown (there’s a watch-word I didn’t even know until the Apple Watch turned up) just right.
It’s a shame they don’t take the same care over the details of their language.
Back in June, we pulled together a report of the longest, most difficult Ts and Cs. It’s a shame we didn’t include Apple – they’d have been a contender for the top spot.
Today iTunes asked me to click to say ‘I agree that I have read these terms and conditions’ on a document that was 15,022 words long, with a Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score of 42. That’s effectively the same length and reading difficulty as Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
How many millions of dollars did they spend designing the 21st-century watch?
How hard would it be in comparison to fix this regular dose of iGibberish?
Last week the Money Advice Service said the average UK adult loses £428 every year, thanks (or no thanks) to confusion over financial jargon. That adds up to £21 billion a year. Ouch.
According to their research, many of us don’t understand the terms financial providers use. A worrying 84 per cent of us don’t read the full terms and conditions when buying financial products, which leads to a lot of bad decisions.
That sounds familiar. Not too long ago, we worked out that it takes a good 28 minutes to read a set of Ts and Cs. And that most of them are so hard to get through, you need a university-level reading age. (You can download our full report here.)
But hang on, did anyone read the quote from the Money Advice Service? It said: ‘Reading and understanding the terms and conditions of a financial product can seem long and unnecessary, but if you don’t, you may end up incurring unexpected penalties and possibly even impact your credit score.’
‘Incurring unexpected penalties’? ‘Impact your credit score’? What? Even a service set up to help people understand the ins and outs of money lapses into the occasional boardroom bingo phrase.
They’ve also taken a bit of a ‘buyer beware’ stance, implying that the onus is on us to decipher financial-speak. Rather than on the financial industry (who, by the way, want our money) to make it easier for everyone.
That’s telling. It’s like we’re resigned to the fact that a bank wouldn’t be a bank if it didn’t use language that obfuscates. Just look at the number of glossary-style websites out there trying to make sense of terms like ‘compound interest’, ‘annuity’, ‘EAR’ and ‘APR’. Sometimes the definitions can be equally frustrating: ‘Compound interest which is calculated not only on the initial principal but also the accumulated interest of prior periods.’
We shouldn’t just accept it though, should we? For once, I’d like to read something along the lines of: ‘We’ll pay you interest on the sum of money you originally saved with us, as well as on any interest you’ve earned since. So you’ll earn interest on your interest.’
Think how much the firm that really nails it would stand out from their competitors.
Fewer misunderstandings. Fewer complaints. Happier customers. And a handy £428 back in our pockets.
I was wandering through the Guardian’s Mind Your Language blog the other day, and stumbled across a piece by Gary Nunn that really made me smile. It’s all about the names scientists give species and organisms when they discover them.
The dinosaur names have to be my favourites. The Latin versions we know conjure up images planted by films like Jurassic Park. But their translations give us a very different and much more descriptive insight. We go from the big, angry, scaley, stompy Velociraptor, to the crafty, lithe and tactical ‘Swift Thief’.
Then there are the less famous dinosaurs – the likes of Psittacosaurus Mongoliensis. I couldn’t imagine what that creature might look like. But when I read the translation ‘Parrot Lizard of Mongolia’, all of a sudden I became a lot more interested in palaeontology.
Beyond the world of dinosaurs, scientists are comparing the critters they’re discovering to the celebrities they admire. Like the rare horsefly with a gold patch on its back: the Scaptia Beyonceae.
I love how much personality these names pack into subjects most people don’t get excited by. (I’ve certainly never been interested in horseflies before Beyoncé entered the picture.) And I think some of that creativity comes from the naming system scientists have to stick to: the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature.
I’m not saying everyone should use celebrities to name their products or services (the ‘50 Cent Saving Scheme’, anyone?), but I do know that a few constraints can bring out stronger, more creative and more consistent names. They mean you’re not starting with a completely blank slate; you’ve got a direction to go in. They help you edit out the weaker names, the ones that don’t fit the rules, and coax you down the path of stronger ones.
So if you need a hand making your names a little more Quianzhousaurus Sinesis* and a little less ‘Premium Logistical Solutions’, get in touch.