Last night, I came home after a long day to find this in my mailbox:
Those three words stopped me in my tracks. In the moment it took to open the envelope, my brain ricocheted between emotions. First came concern: had I forgotten to pay my Time Warner Cable bill? Then, sheer panic: WOULD THEY CUT OFF MY INTERNET? And finally, despair. Whatever it was, it was obviously going to add yet another chore to my growing list of ‘things to do before leaving for California in 24 hours’.
Then I read the letter.
The tone couldn't have been more different from the threatening words on the envelope.
A whole new range of emotions. First I was confused, then angry. I stopped reading by the third 'enjoy'.
To all the Time Warner Cables out there: next time you send out a letter, remember to push the envelope, too. Because it sets the tone for the whole experience.
Living on the L train route in Brooklyn has made me no stranger to rush-hour delays and cancellations. This morning, my ire was even captured on camera and featured on gothamist.com. (That’s me in the bottom-left corner, plotting my escape.)
That picture was taken shortly after a train had vomited hundreds of passengers onto our platform before being taken out of service. But for me, the (very sour) cherry on top was when, moments later, an automated message rang out over the station speakers:
‘Thank you for travelling with MTA.’
Needless to say, it didn’t lighten the mood.
A transport #fail might seem trivial compared to some of the genuine disasters that many companies face. But MTA’s handling of the situation shares many characteristics of crisis communications gone wrong.
Here are four lessons inspired by this morning’s drama.
1. The wrong message at the wrong time will only make people angrier
Two thoughts went through my mind when that robot lady’s voice came over the speaker:
1) Yeah, right. Thanks to MTA, I’m not travelling anywhere.
2) Why the hell are they thanking me when they should be apologising? That last point is crucial. Even if it’s not your fault, acknowledge that people aren’t happy, and say you’re sorry.
2. If you don’t give the whole story, people will make up their own
When I asked a fellow commuter what was going on, she said she’d heard that ‘something’s gone wrong in the tunnel’. And that’s all she knew. Something’s gone wrong? Like what? A suicide? A terrorist attack? A rat on the track? A suicidal terrorist rat on the track? At least two of those options went through my mind.
3. When you do explain yourself, use language that people can understand
What the hell is a ‘rail condition’? Is it terminal? Or is it more like morning sickness, seeing as we’ve had two rush-hour ‘rail conditions’ in a row?
4. Keep people informed
Basically, all I want to know is: Will I get to work tomorrow? I guess we’ll find out in the morning, because MTA isn’t telling.
‘Customers will never love a company until its employees love it first.’
A bold statement, and one of several snippets of wisdom I heard at the Advanced Learning Institute’s recent Strategic Internal Communications conference in San Francisco.
Here are five more:
1. Your employees are your brand.
Your reputation is in their hands. And yet, internal communications are only given a fraction of the budget and attention of external communications. What’s up with that?
2. An employee who’s stopped caring can cost you dearly
In the USA, companies lose an estimated $350 billion in productivity every year because of unhappy employees. And around 68 per cent of customers take their business elsewhere because of bad or indifferent service.
3. Language matters
Almost all the speakers, whatever their specialist topic, stressed the importance of speaking to your people like, you know, people. Be honest and straightforward in your internal communications, using language everyone can understand and relate to, even when it’s bad news.
4. So does storytelling
‘Storytelling’ might have become a marketing buzzword, but there’s science behind its effectiveness. So why limit it to your big, flashy external campaigns? At Intel, there’s a team doing ‘internal content marketing’, which means they find and write stories that make people proud to be part of the company. And The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago has based an entire internal campaign on employees’ personal stories, making its own people not just fans but also cheerleaders.
5. And don’t forget employee-to-employee communications
When we hear ‘internal communications’, most of us probably think of those emails, posters and policies where it’s the employer speaking to the people. But how employees write to each other is important too. Change that, and you could see a change in your entire culture.
Last week, teen clothing store Wet Seal made headlines for giving staff just a few days’ notice before closing 60 stores.
As if it weren’t enough of an HR and PR disaster already, the script used by managers to break the bad news has gone viral. This, despite being headed: ‘Confidential – not to be copied or reproduced. Destroy after conversation has been conducted.’
It’s not that the writing in the script was particularly awful. On the contrary: the first paragraph comes across as clear, honest and empathetic; everything you’d want in this kind of situation had they got the timing right. So the script didn’t dominate the story – which is lucky for Wet Seal. But the whole situation is a valuable reminder that internal communications can easily become external.
It’s the latest in a series of incidents where so-called ‘internal’ messages have gone public. Microsoft VP Stephen Elop probably wishes he could recall and rewrite last year’s jargon-riddled memo that famously left the bad news (‘an estimated reduction of 12,500 employees over the next year’) till almost the very end. And the recent hacking of Sony’s computer networks should make all of us think twice about what we say on the inside.
When social media can turn a memo into a meme in a matter of seconds, it’s more important than ever to think about what you say in your internal communications, and how you say it.
Here’s a tip: the next time you write an internal email, memo, policy or announcement, ask yourself: ‘How would I feel about this piece of writing if it went on BuzzFeed? Or if it were read on the evening news?’ Then rewrite it until you’d be happy for it to go public.
At least that way, your words won’t be the story.
Last week I shared some of the year’s best ‘Writing for Design’ entries from the D&AD Awards. But not one of them was quite groundbreaking enough to win the ultimate accolade: the Black Pencil.
So, what does it take to be groundbreaking in writing for design?
1. Don’t stop at the idea
If we could’ve awarded every great idea on the table at the D&AD Awards, it would’ve been a bumper year. But once we looked past the big idea or the clever headline, the rest of the words often let the work down.
Take the Run That Town app by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Such a brilliant idea: to gamify the results of the Australian census in an app that lets you ‘run’ your local area a la Sim City, complete with personalised ‘newspapers’ reporting on the local community’s response to your planning decisions. But although the video trailer for the app revealed some great writing within the app’s 100,000+ words, when our jury actually tried to play with it, the signing-in process – and the instructional language that came with it – let it down.
Remember, as I explained at a Creative Mornings talk earlier this year, every word is an opportunity.
2. Beware of humour
One reader’s belly laugh is another’s face palm. As illustrated by the wackaging backlash, getting it wrong can turn readers off quicker than you can say: ‘Contains 100% FUN!’
Have a look at last week’s post to see how Harvey Nichols and The Macquarie dictionary got it just right.
3. Think beyond words
An unexpected medium. A brilliant typographic twist. By definition, being groundbreaking means going where no one else has gone before.
I love the annual report by the Calgary Society for Persons with Disabilities, which won a Black Pencil for graphic design. A single staple through the middle of the report makes it physically hard to read, illustrating life with a disability in the most tangible way. And the words work beautifully with the design, telling the story of a client over a day and using the ‘four sides’ created by the staple for different sections and threads.
Now if only they’d entered it for Writing for Design, they might have had another Black Pencil on their mantelpiece…
When I was a seventeen-year-old advertising student in South Africa, it was my dream to win a D&AD Award. So I was as thrilled as a teenager on a first date to be at last night’s awards ceremony as foreman of the ‘writing for design’ jury.
Being foreman meant I got to judge not only the Yellow Pencils, but also the coveted Black Pencils, which recognise the best of the best from across all design categories.
As I wrote here the last time I judged the awards, winning a Yellow Pencil is hard enough. But to be awarded a Black Pencil, a piece of work needs to be truly groundbreaking.
Sadly, it was once again a lean year for writing for design, with only one Yellow Pencil awarded, and no Black.
Next week I’ll share some tips on how to make your writing groundbreaking. But in the meantime, here are some of this year’s entries that came close…
Harvey Nichols: Sorry, I spent it on myself
Some of you might find it surprising to see department store Harvey Nichols’ tongue-in-cheek Christmas range in the D&AD Annual for writing. It certainly divided our jury.
The packaging was deliberately ‘undesigned’ and ‘unwritten’ for a low-budget feel that’s totally out of keeping with the luxury brand – because the gift-giver ‘spent it on themselves’.
As such, there are very few words on the packaging. And yet, the writer has managed to squeeze loads of subtle wit into the short product descriptions where most others might have given in to the temptation to labour the gag.
Dishoom’s story plates
From a content marketing and storytelling point of view, this entry really stood out for me. Indian restaurant chain Dishoom took anecdotes about the original Bombay cafes in India and retold them on their plates. A lovely way to educate and entertain diners waiting for their masala prawns and gunpowder potatoes.
It made it into the book, but didn’t get nominated – mainly because the quality of the stories, and the writing, was inconsistent across the dozens of variations on the theme. Had there been fewer, better examples, it might have gone a different way…
Minds for Minds: meeting of the minds
One of only two Yellow Pencil nominations, Minds for Minds’ poster juxtaposes the thoughts of a person with autism with those of a scientist studying the condition. It’s a moving piece of work that gets even better and more rewarding on a second or third reading.
Had it been up to me and me alone, I would’ve given it a Yellow Pencil.
And the winner was… The Macquarie for Phubbing
As the writing for design jury, it gave us huge pleasure to recognise a good, old-fashioned dictionary (with next to no budget) for inventing a new word – phubbing – and turning it into a phenomenally successful campaign. An example of both a great idea and consistently great writing, The Macquarie’s website had us smiling from beginning to end, hitting that sweet spot where ideas, wit and humour come together without ever trying too hard.
Not only that, but I’m happy to report that this particular judge has been keeping her phubbing habits in check ever since.
In an attempt to declutter my inbox, I’ve been unsubscribing from various newsletters I’d signed up for over the years. You know the drill: you squint at the small print at the bottom of their last email until you find the ‘unsubscribe’ link, then go to their website where you’ll find some variation on this message:
‘If you no longer wish to subscribe to our newsletter, fill in your email address/click on the link below/fill in our short questionnaire’ blah blah blah.
Click, click, unsubscribe, get email confirmation, delete.
Until I got to Firebox.com, where the ‘unsubscribe’ link took me here:
And you know what? I had second thoughts. For the first time in about two years, I clicked through to the website. And I chuckled at their banter. And I marvelled at the remarkable bargains. (‘Maybe I really do need Random Crap Crates?’)
In the end, I resisted their charms and unsubscribed anyway. And then I got the email to confirm it. Where everyone else said something along the lines of You have been successfully unsubscribed from X, this email was different.
It’s a bittersweet moment for us and we’ll treasure the memories, but as requested, we’ve unsubscribed you from the Firebox newsletter.
If you have changed your mind (puppy dog eyes) or if this was all just a big misunderstanding, you can easily resubscribe here.
I clicked on the link. What can I say? I’m a sucker for puppy dog eyes.
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.
‘It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it that’s most important.’
For years, that’s what brand agencies and language consultants have been telling their clients when selling them ‘tone of voice’. Want your customers to be more loyal? Your people to be more engaged? Your products and services to be more desirable? Just get rid of all that pesky jargon, business-speak or formality in your writing and voila.
After all, when everyone’s saying the same thing, saying it in a friendlier way will make all the difference, right?
Often, jargon and business-speak just mask the fact that actually, brands and organisations have nothing interesting to say. And changing that is a much bigger challenge than changing the way you write.
It means changing the way you think.
Here are five thoughts to get you started.
Think about the reader
That customer who’s just complained about someone being rude to them on the phone doesn’t give a hoot about the awards you’ve won for your service. And your people aren’t going to listen to how brilliant your newly merged company is if they’re worried about losing their jobs. So think about your reader. Who are they? What’s important to them? Cut through the spiel and spin and talk about what matters.
Your people, products and processes all need to live up to your messages. So make sure you join up your thinking between teams and departments. One of our clients wanted their messages to be all about making life easier and simpler for their customers. But clunky processes and creaky legacy systems meant their service didn’t live up to it. They needed to make sure those things were changing too, otherwise they’d be making promises they couldn’t keep. (And when the change actually happened, it became a really positive message in itself.)
Think one thought at a time
Don’t write things by committee, or try to tick off 20 ‘key messages’ in every piece of communication. It always sounds false, disjointed or forced (or all three). And anyway, your reader will only remember one or two things. So focus on the one or two main points you want them to take away.
Think like Einstein
Albert Einstein once explained relativity by saying, ‘Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute.’ Note that he didn’t just find another word for ‘E=mc2’. He took a completely new look at relativity and explained it in a way that everyone, not just scientists, could understand.
And finally, think about your language
Once you’ve done all of that, you can think about the specific words you use – the bit the consultants would call ‘tone of voice’. Only this time, you’ll have something to say.
Last week, eight of us from The Writer ran a half marathon. We raised some money for Macmillan Cancer Support (you can still sponsor us). We all finished. We all got our medals.
But for me, it doesn’t end there. I’ll keep going. Because I do some of my best work when I’m running.
It was writing that drove me to running in the first place, while on sabbatical in South Africa three years ago. I was there to research and write a book and, to keep myself from turning into a square-eyed blob after three months behind a laptop scoffing my mum’s home cooking, I started running every other day.
At first it was a wheezing embarrassment. But after two weeks, something happened. As I became fitter and the running became more instinctive, my brain started going elsewhere. As if it clicked into gear as soon as my legs did.
In that half-hour run, I could suddenly plan the entire chapter I was going to write that day. By the time I got home, it had all fallen into place and I was raring to go.
Ever since I got back to London and my day job, the distances have become longer and the thinking time even more valuable. On early-morning runs before work, I can rehearse an entire presentation in my head. Write the first few pages of a proposal. Finally crack that killer headline. During one particularly productive 10k, I had so many thoughts while planning my team’s appraisals, I had to turn on the voice recorder on my iPhone so I could capture them all, breathlessly, while I ran.
So if you think for a living, I recommend you run. I never thought I’d get into it. But stick with it. Ease into it, slowly, and just keep going. You’ll be amazed where it takes you.
Last week I judged the year’s best Writing for Design at the D&AD Awards.
I had a pretty good idea of what to expect: there’d be some great work, some healthy debates with my fellow judges, a few yellow pencils awarded to the best of the best and some beers in the pub afterwards.
And that’s pretty much how it went, except for one thing: we didn’t give out a single yellow pencil in our category.
Here are ten reasons why:
- Big brands should be braver. There were very few major brands in our category – and the handful who were represented (like Apple and Adidas) were just a bit... ‘expected’ in their writing
- Corporate writing was conspicuous in its absence. Out of 74 entries, there was just one annual report. Where was all the other great corporate writing from the year? Serious writing can be sexy too.
- Self-promotion is easy. Take away the client, the deadline, the politics and the rounds and rounds of comments, and of course the work stands a better chance of being great. No wonder there was once again a disproportionate number of entries promoting writers, designers and creative agencies themselves. (And yes, one of those was the only entry we nominated for a pencil.)
- A veneer of good writing isn’t enough. One university prospectus had us ooh-ing and ah-ing from page one... but sadly only up to page three. If we could’ve given it a pencil for just those three pages, I think we would’ve. But sadly, the piece as a whole didn’t live up to that early promise.
- Design matters... One hotly debated entry – a little hardback book of film descriptions made up entirely of search terms from video shops – failed to make it through mainly because it didn’t feel like ‘writing for design’. Almost entirely ‘undesigned’ in its simplicity, the book had no introduction at the front and three blank pages at the back – making the design feel very much like an afterthought and the whole thing more like an art project than writing for design.
- ...So does the brief. One of my hot favourites was a set of stationery covered in words. Labels talking about labelling people, letterheads going on about ‘stationary’ vs ‘stationery’... It was all really clever, I thought – until my fellow judges made me realise the words had absolutely nothing to do with the cosmetics brand in question. I had to admit that it smacked of an idea a copywriter had been sitting on for ages, just waiting for a willing brand to come along.
- Web writing is ‘writing for design’ too. Just five digital entries? Really?
- Wacky can go one of two ways. Some things that made me laugh out loud made other judges groan. It’s a risk you take not just with awards judges, but with your customers too.
- All packaging is starting to sound the same. Matey, cutesy, wacky... some examples were better than others, but ultimately we felt like it had all been done before (and done better).
- If you never enter, you’ll never win. Although we saw some good writing, it just didn’t feel like the 74 entries in front of us truly represented the year’s very best from across the entire English-speaking world. A snoop around the other tables in the hall revealed that there was plenty of great writing that just hadn’t been entered in the writing category. Who knows how much more was never even entered at all?
- Big brands should be braver. There were very few major brands in our category – and the handful who were represented (like Apple and Adidas) were just a bit... ‘expected’ in their writing
Today's 100 word play, or thereabouts, looks like this.
Based on a true story
Theo is driving. His wife, Olivia, is next to him and their daughter, Alice, is in the back seat.
Olivia checks the rear-view mirror.
Olivia: They’re following us.
Alice looks out the back window.
Olivia: The security police. But it’s okay, darling. Don’t worry.
Alice: They don’t look very happy.
Theo: Try giving them a little wave. It might cheer them up.
Alice waves out the back window.
Alice: Helloooo, Mr Security Policeman.
She turns back towards her parents.
Alice: They still don’t look happy. Are you sure we know them?
Olivia: Actually, we don’t know them at all. But they know us. They know all about us.