We’ll keep this brief. Firstly because other writers, Tweeters and politicians have already noted it, and secondly because we’ve covered this topic before. (It’s kind of our thing.) But one last time: if you want someone to do something, please make it clear. This is as true in a time of crisis as it is in everyday business.
Beware the curse of knowledge
Virologists and epidemiologists might talk about ‘social distancing measures’ at work every day. But the average person won’t have heard those terms until March 2020. To my grandma, the advice from senior politicans to ‘practise social distancing’ will have been next to useless. She didn’t understand it, so she kept going to church as usual. That was, until my mam told her, ‘Stay inside.’
Specialist insight and advice is obviously invaluable. We’d be lost without it. But sometimes, that deep knowledge can be a curse, as it stops experts getting through to normal people. When there’s something complex to communicate, it can help to call a good writer.
Use words your reader will understand
For my grandma, ‘stay inside’ was exactly the simple and useful information she needed to hear. They’re short, everyday words, and the verb makes the sentence imperative so she knows there’s something she needs to do.
We’ve been thinking back to the ‘Catch it, bin it, kill it’ line that Dave Trott created and the UK government used in the 2009 swine flu outbreak. It’s simple, memorable and effective.
Lately, government spokespeople have appeared next to the slogan ‘stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’. This is better than some of the earlier advice. It starts by focusing on the most important action we can all take, before explaining its powerful knock-on effects. In my opinion, it needs an edit to be snappier. Stay home, save lives. We should have started saying it sooner.
You might already have had to change up how you work over the last couple of weeks. But even if you haven’t yet, there’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic is having a huge effect on businesses. Working from home is becoming the norm, and we’ll all see more coronavirus cancellations in our calendars as non-essential visits get paused.
The Writer runs a lot of international training. So we’ve already had to think on our feet to switch up plans at short notice. Our clients are asking us how they can still get the benefits of a carefully thought-out language learning programme without the risks that come with travelling and face-to-face contact.
Here’s our view.
Now’s the time to take advantage of digital learning
We’ve long been fans of digital learning. How else could you get a hundred people together across a dozen cities, all brushing up on turning numbers into stories? Most of the training programmes we recommend will always have a digital element – whether it’s video conferences, pre-recorded lessons, or interactive e-learn modules.
We do that firstly because it’s effective. Designed well, virtual training can be just as impactful and successful as face to face. And often, it’s the only way to get the job done when teams are spread out across different cities and countries. A few days ago, we trained over 700 people in dozens of countries around the world in just one morning. One of those Webex sessions had over 350 people (a personal best for us).
Secondly, digital training is digestible. Online learning sessions tend to be shorter, so you can squeeze them into your day and spend less time away from what it is you do to make the company money.
Last but not least, it’s sustainable. Digital training cuts down on travel expenses, and you can repeat sessions and share them quite easily.
We anticipate that in the next few months, most of the training we do will be digital. And we’re cool with that.
With a bit of support, online learning works out great
Face-to-face, in-person training will always have a role for us. Attendees get direct contact with our trainers, so they can practice their new skills right as they learn them, and bounce ideas off a professional writer there and then.
This isn’t possible on a pre-recorded video, or practical in a video conference with 200 delegates on the line. So when in-person training isn’t an option, we recommend supplementing any training sessions with some backup support for when attendees have had time to try out what they’ve learned. For example, we might suggest:
- one-to-one coaching by video call
- writing advice through a ‘virtual helpdesk’: tap our experts for feedback and we’ll write back to you in an agreed time
- drop-in clinics (or ‘office hours’ for our American colleagues) – where teams can get feedback on their writing in real time, and learn from each other’s experience.
Your business might not be working as usual over the coming months, but that need not disrupt your training plans. If you’re looking for creative and novel ways to share learning while your staff are working from home, talk to us.
We’ve been thinking about ‘storytelling’. It’s an idea you hear about a lot, but if we’re all going to use the S word, it makes sense to be clear on what it means. Here are three distinct types of storytelling, for a start.
The Song of Ice and Fire: planning an epic opus
Sometimes, we’re asked to do some storytelling when a client needs a hand taming a huge report. Fixing puzzles like:
* Who will want to read this thing?
* How the hell did it get so long?
* What’s the point of it, again?
In this definition, the writer is like a novelist planning an 800-page fantasy novel. You’re weaving plot lines together to craft a page-turning narrative. And if you want good reviews, you’ll probably need to kill off some of the less interesting or relatable characters along the way.
The Clark Kent: hammering at the typewriter
Or sometimes, we’ll take a storytelling brief and then realise it’s a messaging job. The end result will be a messaging ‘house’ (suite, matrix, or whatever you prefer). Basically, a library of messages in all shapes and sizes that a business can use to talk about its products or mission.
These documents are bigger than a Sunday newspaper and are often the basis for all kinds of spin-off communications. They’re signed off by big groups of stakeholders, and the writing needs to be clear, effective and legally compliant. When you do this type of storytelling, you can feel a bit like a journalist: working to tight word counts, scrunching up redrafts, and checking your facts.
The Dead Poets Society: rekindling a love for language
Then, there’s the creative sort of storytelling. Sometimes, people will come to us when they’re all out of ideas and their writing is getting stale. They might need a creative kickstart for fresh thinking in their team or department. Or a lesson in some linguistic tricks that will hook their readers in and keep their attention.
On this type of job, the writer’s role is like Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society: an eccentric, enthusiastic English teacher who’s obsessed with language. Wear your sensible shoes, because they might just ask you climb up onto your desk for a fresh perspective.
This list could have gone on for much longer, because there’s really an element of storytelling in everything we do as communicators.
If you’re ever struggling to get your story straight, come and talk to us.
Image by Mike Stokoe
Chances are you might be eyeing up a smart speaker in the Black Friday sales. YouGov have said one in ten people now have a speaker like Amazon Echo or Google Home in their pad, up from one in 20 last year.
I do quite like the idea of being able to summon a Jimi Hendrix solo to my kitchen at the drop of a (velvet, wide-brimmed) hat. But if you’re a brand looking to start helping your customers through a voice assistant, the new tech can throw up plenty of challenges. We think it’s useful to start out by thinking about the two sides of any voice conversation: the input and the output.
Speech isn’t like writing. Human beings use really different language when they talk out loud. (If you’ve been on one of our training sessions, your writing might be more speechlike than it was before, but it’s never going to be exactly the same.)
Whether they’re doing a ‘Hey Google’-style search or using your proprietary app, people will use their speaking voice. That means they’ll say ‘Laura has been talking about prawn gyoza for the last hour’ and not what they’d type into a search bar (‘Japanese takeaway south Manchester delivery’). But whether it’s edamame, energy or electronics you’re selling, you’ll need to think carefully about what your audience will be asking for to get near the top of the search rankings.
Answer in your real voice
If your brand has its own voice assistant, take the time to make sure its personality is a good fit for you. Chatbots and voice assistants are already starting to all sound the same, so don’t settle for an off-the-shelf product which is generically ‘warm and friendly’.
Be sceptical of anyone who tries to recommend a radically different tone of voice from your main one. Your new digital friend should be an extension of your main brand’s personality and feel like someone you’d really hire. Setting up their voice is a chance to express yourself, say something about your company’s history, and show your audience you’ve made the effort.
And as always, plug your ears to the jargon
The way things are going, we’ll soon be able to put together a voice tech bingo card, with conversation architecture, voice revolution and anthropomorphic UI on the winning line. When you’re reading up on voice, don’t let the consultancy jargon fool you. The skills you need to have good conversations are golden oldies. They’re just having their comeback tour.
The General Data Protection Regulation comes in on 25th May and the new privacy rules have got marketers in a bit of a flap. That's no surprise when you read the document itself. It’s opaque and chock-full of jargon.
Here are three tips for doing that.
1. Show people you care
Privacy is a hot topic lately. So GDPR is an excellent opportunity to do things right and earn your customers’ trust. You can do that by writing clearly and focusing on what matters to your reader.
- Keep it concise.
- If you’re asking the reader to do something, make it clear.
- Point out what you’re doing to help.
Facebook missed a trick here in their press ad. (Whoops.)
Notice how it’s ‘the regulation’ that will protect you, not Facebook. There’s a passive remark that ‘you will be asked’ something at some point, which is confusing and vague. And to add insult to injury, the call to action seems to be ‘go and read the full text of GDPR when you’ve got a sec’.
2. Fix the formality
The text of the GDPR itself is heavy going. Take this snippet for example:
The arrangement referred to in paragraph 1 shall duly reflect the respective roles and relationships of the joint controllers vis-à-vis the data subjects. The essence of the arrangement shall be made available to the data subject.
3. Spring clean your content strategy
As marketers contact their mailing lists asking them to re-register, it’s judgement day for repetitive, boring communications. Now’s the perfect time to rethink your strategy so you can send messages of quality, not quantity, to the loyal people who’ve stuck around.
That means thinking beyond the Easter egg gif for cracking deals in April. Instead, start planning your messages around what’s important to your reader. For example, a small business owner will usually be interested in a new government budget announcement. So that could be your cue to get in touch.
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