In most language guidelines, there’s a bit that goes, ‘Don’t say that, say this instead’. Usually, the don’ts are hideous corporate-speak, which then emerge in the ‘do’ column as gleaming paragons of concise simplicity.
Unfortunately, Deliveroo seem to have got theirs the wrong way round, as the FT reports.
In the don’t column: ‘We pay you every two weeks.’ In the do column: ‘Rider invoices are processed fortnightly.’ This is a no-no: ‘Yesterday you were late to start your shift.’ Instead: ‘Yesterday you logged in later than you agreed to be available.’
To be fair, there’s a reason for it. Deliveroo drivers are technically self-employed, so the company’s language needs to reflect the realities of the ‘gig economy’. Whatever your views on the blurring of that particular line, it’s obvious that these guidelines are making a factual distinction: it’s not quite correct to say ‘we pay you every two weeks’ if it’s more of an invoice setup. And they have to refer to ‘branded clothing’, because ‘uniform’ is what employees wear.
Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see what’s happening to the tone in the ‘correct’ examples. Take ‘rider invoices are processed fortnightly’: suddenly they’re using the passive and the third person. They’ve even gone for the more formal ‘fortnightly’. I don’t know the company or how their systems work, but it’s hard to see why they couldn’t have just said, ‘We process your invoices every two weeks’.
At the moment, companies like Deliveroo are facing legal challenges and government scrutiny over whether they can really classify their workers as self-employed when they’re trying to exert so much control over them. It must be making them nervous. And you can see that in their mangled, cautious, shifty language.
*except for some of the language.
It’s 9.30am on a chilly Sunday morning in October. I’m negotiating my way across a gigantic car park with two very excited little people in tow. At last, we reach the gates of the Promised Land (or ‘Legoland’, as it’s otherwise known).
And the very first thing I see is this sign:
As a writer, it’s basically my job to spot things like this. But, as a customer, I was really taken aback by how unwelcome it made me feel. Of course, I’m not saying they shouldn’t search people, but there are nicer ways to warn people about it. (PREFERABLY NOT IN BLOCK CAPITALS.)
Pretty much any parent will tell you that Legoland doesn’t come cheap. I don’t expect them to roll out the red carpet or anything, but a little warmth wouldn’t go amiss. All it would take is something like: ‘Welcome to Legoland. We might need to search your bags on the way in for security. Have a great day’.
Mind the gap between the dragon and the platform
Maybe I need to get out more, but I also noticed that a lot of the ride announcements used that strangled bureaucrat-speak beloved of rail companies. They’d say things like, ‘Please remain seated until the vehicle has come to a complete standstill’.
Which bugged me for two reasons. Firstly, it’s no fun – and as such it’s totally off-brand. This sort of language just feels joyless, even if they try to disguise it by reading it out in a comedy, ‘OO-ARR!’ pirate voice.
And secondly, I had to keep translating it for my kids: ‘That means you have to stay sitting down until the submarine/train/dragon stops’. This is important safety information – why would you express it in a way that your audience (mostly young children) aren’t going to understand?
Pretty much everything else at Legoland is awesome, and I know I’m nitpicking here. But, at the end of the day, what they’re selling is an experience. And language is one of the building blocks (sorry) that make up that experience. An important one.
1. The Facebook essay is now a thing
‘Democracy’ is a word that’s being thrown around a lot at the moment. What we've found interesting lately is how social media has ‘democratised’ the opinion piece.
Not long ago, Facebook statuses were mostly one-liners about your running route, or that hilarious thing your kid said. But during the referendum, the Facebook essay really took off. Now everyone’s busily crafting their 1,500-word think pieces and posting them to their profiles, hoping they’ll go viral.
Pre-referendum, people focused on arguing the case – often setting out the facts (with careful footnotes) more clearly and compellingly than the official campaigns.
Post-referendum, it’s become more writing as therapy: a way for people to express their reaction to the result and its aftermath.
Another example of this: it was below-the-line comments that went viral in the immediate aftermath of the result, rather than ‘official’ pieces by journalists and commentators. (Like these ones in the FT and The Guardian.)
2. The Thick of It was actually a documentary
The linguistic ingenuity from backpedalling politicians seemingly knows no bounds. Take Iain Duncan Smith: ‘Our promises were a series of possibilities,’ he blithely told Andrew Marr at the weekend. The £350m a week figure was, apparently, ‘an extrapolation’.
Meanwhile, Chris Grayling referred to that same figure as ‘an aspiration’ and, when asked about the UK’s future relationship with the EU, cryptically said the single market ‘is a phrase’. Top marks for opacity there.
3. We got to read an awful lot of resignation letters
Many of the shadow cabinet’s parting shots to Jeremy Corbyn had a formal, slightly hoity-toity tone. At least Jess Phillips MP warmed things up a bit in hers: ‘All the best. I know none of this has been easy on you and your loved ones. Nobody deserves some of the crap you have put up with. Sorry if I was ever to blame for any upset – perhaps sometimes I took straight talking honest politics a little too literally.’
4. We had the most British protest ever
Could there be anything more British than a crowd of thousands of people outside Parliament chanting ‘ETON MESS! ETON MESS!’ over and over again?
5. Good slogans work
Take back control. Take back control. Take. Back. Control.
The Leave camp were praised for their ‘message discipline’, but at times during the debates, it felt more Paul McKenna than Alastair Campbell. They definitely over-egged it during the Wembley debate – cue the strange sound of 6,000 people groaning in unison.
But it seems to have worked. Maybe it’s the ‘rule of three’ thing. Or maybe it’s that punchy imperative – urging people to actually do something is the best way to make them feel like they have control, after all.
The Remain team didn’t have anything nearly good enough to counter it with. The verbless ‘stronger, safer, better off’ felt wishy-washy in comparison.
6. Boris Johnson made his column deadline
After a jolly good game of cricket at Earl Spencer’s estate on Sunday, Boris headed home to bash out a superficially fluent but basically nonsensical piece for the Telegraph. In it, he set out his vision for our new relationship with Europe. It sounded strangely familiar.
He later distanced himself from it, saying it was ‘written too quickly’ and he was tired. (We’ve all been there.)
In the end, though, it was his leadership bid, rather than his column, that ended up on the spike. Maybe he shouldn't have let Michael Gove sub-edit it.
7. Tony Blair’s ‘house swapping’ analogy was quite good
Storytelling and metaphor were notable by their absence in the referendum campaigns. But, whatever you think of him, Tony Blair summed things up pretty neatly afterwards:
‘The strange thing about the referendum was that it was like swapping your house for another house, but you didn’t see the other house. You just had a claim and a counter-claim from two people that had said they’d seen it.’
8. And the award for best new word goes to…
#Regrexit. Nuff said.
Wondering when and where you can use [this offer]? Check out the terms below.
1. Feel free to use your voucher all day Sunday - Thursday until 29 May 2016 inclusive.
2. Your code gives you 30% off your food bill, including the Piccolo menu.
3. Feel free to use it to dine in and on takeaways, but bear in mind that it can’t be used when ordering online.
4. You can’t use it with other promotions or set menus (such as Tesco/Nectar codes, NUS extra and Tastecard).
5. To claim your discount, simply hand the voucher to your waiter when getting the bill.
6. A code can only be used once, so why not make the most of it and bring your friends – it will cover your whole party. Sadly we can’t exchange it for cash, just great value food.
7. Here are a few places you won’t be able to use it: PizzaExpress Ashford McArthur Glen, Brent Cross, Olympia or at live music venues. When sports/entertainment events are taking place nearby, you also won't be able to use it at: PizzaExpress Baker Street, Fulham Broadway, Fulham Road 363, Fulham Road 895, O2 North Greenwich, Twickenham or Wembley. To check upcoming events, visit: pizzaexpress.com/eventexclusions.
8. Brought to you by: PizzaExpress, Hunton House, Highbridge Estate, Oxford Road, Uxbridge, UB8 1LX.
We’ve heard all about the spelling and grammar test you have to do as part of your SATs. We think it sounds pretty tough.
Not just the test itself, but all the months you’ve spent learning about things like fronted adverbials and expanded noun phrases and subordinating conjunctions. We’re willing to bet you wish you’d spent a bit less time doing that, and more time making up funny poems, or writing your own adventure stories.
Well, there’s something we wanted to tell you.
We asked our team of 15 professional writers whether they knew what a fronted adverbial was. How many do you think said ‘yes’?
One. And that’s because she has a daughter in primary school, just like you.
The rest of us didn’t have a clue. Remember, we all earn our living from writing, and helping other people to write better. And we’ve all managed to get this far without the words ‘fronted adverbial’ ever entering our minds.
We did try, honest. We looked up ‘fronted adverbials’ online, and spent a good few minutes frowning and scratching our heads. We couldn’t really understand it, and then we decided not to worry about it anyway, because fronted adverbials make sentences sound a bit weird, like they were written by Yoda from the Star Wars films, and we went off to make a cup of tea instead.
All this isn’t to say spelling and grammar aren’t important
They are. Our writers all know where to put apostrophes, and what semicolons are for.
And we understand how grammar choices can affect how writing comes across to the reader. Like how passive sentences can be unclear or – worse – make it seem like you’re trying to hide something.
But we don’t know what every single little grammar thing is called. And we don’t need to.
Trust us. We’ve helped thousands of grown-ups all over the world get better at writing. And we’re going to tell you the same thing we tell them: it’s okay to sound like yourself when you write.
You don’t need to use long, complicated words to sound important. You don’t need to use fronted adverbials or expanded noun phrases to be a good writer (we think you’ll be a better writer if you don’t). And it doesn’t matter if you wouldn’t recognise a subordinating conjunction if it clonked you over the head.
If you find those things hard, it doesn’t mean you’re no good at writing.
What makes someone a good writer?
You’re a good writer if you sound like a human being, not a robot. (Unless, of course, you’re writing a story about robots.)
You’re a good writer if you’re kind to your reader: if you don’t write long, boring sentences, or bang on for pages without getting to the point.
You’re a good writer if you have something interesting to say, and you’re not afraid to say it.
You’re a good writer if you make your reader change their mind about something. Or look at something differently. Or do something they might not have done otherwise.
You’re a good writer if you can make your reader feel happy. Or sad. Or indignant. Or motivated. Or reassured.
You’re a good writer if you can keep your reader interested, even if you’re writing about something really boring, like gas pipes, or tax.
You’re a good writer if you can take something really, really complicated, and explain it so simply that anyone could understand it.
And, most importantly, you’ll be a good writer if you enjoy writing, have fun with words and even break the odd rule now and again.
Don’t worry about the test. Really.
I cancelled my Spotify Premium the other day, because I’d come to the end of my free trial. It was the usual deal – to leave, you have to click through various screens where they say things like, ‘Are you sure? Don’t go! Pleeeeeeease!’
But the last screen did actually make me hesitate. ‘We couldn’t let you leave without some music,’ it said, winningly. And up popped a window with a playlist titled ‘Can we still be friends?’
Ten classic breakup songs. First track: I Want You Back by the Jackson 5. Oh yes.
It’s testament to Spotify’s cleverness that I stuck around to listen to that song (which, of course, features the best bassline of all time). And that I got all the way to If You Leave Me Now by Chicago before I finally, reluctantly clicked ‘cancel’. (Obviously I drew the line at Michael Bolton’s How Am I Supposed to Live Without You. I do have some standards.)
Yes, I left. But I like the Spotify brand a whole lot more than I did before. And who knows, I might go back to them one day. High five to their customer experience people.
Not everyone gets it so right, though. That same week, I spotted on Twitter a bizarre email from Boden. ‘What’s with the cold shoulder?’ it said, next to a picture of a winsome girl leaning coyly against a radiator. ‘We miss you. Bad. Give us a click and we won’t disappoint.’
Boden’s tone of voice does divide people – that’s a natural consequence of being truly distinctive. Normally I love it. But even I felt this was a step too far. It certainly wouldn’t encourage me to place an order. (Take out a restraining order, more like.)
It’s great be true to your brand when you’re trying to win your customers back. But maybe there’s such a thing as laying it on too thick.
My favourite yoghurt, Yeo Valley, has a loyalty scheme where you can save up points to spend on freebies and days out. We get through three or four big pots a week in our house, so I should have enough points to buy my own cow within about six months.
Anyway, I spent a few minutes on their website this weekend typing in the codes from the packs I’ve been collecting. Their writing’s great: upbeat and jolly without crossing the line into nauseatingly cute. In particular, they have an endearingly daft penchant for crowbarring the brand name in wherever they can (for example, you can save up your Yeokens to buy a yeo yeo, or even a yeoven glove).
Even a great brand like this isn’t immune from the odd language lapse, though. When I accidentally switched two letters in one of the codes, a message popped up in red: ‘Sorry, the code you entered is invalid.’ Okay, I’m being really picky here, but I still felt a bit disappointed that they hadn’t thought of a nicer way to say it. (‘Whoops, that code doesn’t work. Try again’ or something.)
It reminded me, bizarrely, of the Labour Party. They got into hot water on Twitter recently for the rather uncomradely emails they sent people they suspected of trying to sabotage the leadership contest (dubbed the ‘Labour purge’).
One supporter tweeted the welcome email he got when he first registered, alongside the rejection email telling him he’s not allowed to vote. The tone of the first email is cosy and conversational. The second is formal, impersonal and not a little passive aggressive.
It’s a common phenomenon: everyone’s nice and friendly when they’re trying to sell to you, but as soon as there’s some bad news, the tone goes out the window.
It’s usually because the good news messages are written by brand and marketing people, who are more likely to have the time and the skills to craft them properly. Whereas bad news often comes from legal, compliance or – in the case of Yeo Valley – IT, who don’t.
There are two ways to get around that. Get brand and marketing to look at bad news stuff as well as good news. Or, even better, help everyone – including legal, compliance, IT and anyone else who communicates with customers – get better at writing.
Because it’s these contrasts and contradictions that break down people’s trust in brands, little by little. No biggie for a yoghurt, maybe. But a disaster for a political party.
It’s a fairly insignificant problem in the grand scheme of things. But it’s always annoyed me that I’ve never really had a satisfactory way to describe my own hair colour. It’s not blonde. It’s not brown. It’s somewhere inbetween.
None of the usual descriptors were quite right. ‘Mousy’ is too unflattering; ‘caramel’ too pretentious; ‘dirty blonde’ too unhygienic. And having two kids with similarly indeterminate barnets has only deepened my identity crisis.
So thank you, L’Oréal, for bringing the word ‘bronde’ to our attention. I don’t know whether they actually coined the word or not, but they’re putting their considerable marketing muscle behind it, and for that, I applaud them. Their new ad campaign – starring the patron saint of brondeness, J-Lo – describes the shade as ‘sexier than a blonde, spicier than a brunette’. Yesssss. Take that, ‘mousy’!
I normally have a low tolerance for fashiony portmanteau words. ‘Shoots’ is too ambiguous (it means ‘shoeboots’, in case you’re wondering). ‘Coatigan’ sounds as frumpy as it looks. And don’t even get me started on ‘treggings’. But ‘bronde’? Utter genius. It’s succinct, useful, accurate and impossible to argue with.
I’m going to be randomly dropping it into conversation until it catches on. Brondes of the world, who’s with me? We will not rest until it’s in the dictionary. We’re worth it.
This story about highstreet bath-bomb purveyors Lush and their naming spat with Amazon has caught our eye. Apparently, Amazon were using a version of Lush’s name to flog their own cosmetic lines, until a High Court judge stepped in this week.
Now naughty old Lush have trademarked the name of the UK managing director of Amazon, Christopher North, and named a shower gel after him. With the strapline ‘rich, thick and full of it’.
They’re having fun with the product description, too. ‘Kindle a new love for your skin: it’s not taxing to take care of your skin with this product packed with Amazon Prime ingredients.’
Lush clearly understand the power of a David and Goliath story. We have to say, we can’t wait to hear how this one turns out.
I’ll be having my second baby in a couple of months so, in preparation, I’ve been reading the classic Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, by the revered American midwife and natural birth guru Ina May Gaskin. This little passage leaped out at me:
‘In my early days as a midwife, I felt free to change some of the language surrounding birth as a way to help women cope with labour pain… I began to use the word rush instead of contraction. Why use a word that suggests tightness and hard muscles when successful labour will require expansion of the cervix?’
You might be tempted to dismiss this as hippy-dippy nonsense. How about some hard stats, then? The caesarean rate at Ina May’s birth centre in Tennessee is 1.4%, compared to a US national average of 31.1%. And her instrumental delivery rate (forceps or ventouse) is 0.05%, compared to 10% nationally.
Of course this isn’t entirely down to the language she and her colleagues use. But it’s scientifically proven that the environment in which women give birth can have a huge impact on how painful or tricky it all turns out to be. Subtle things like lighting, sound and surroundings can all encourage or inhibit the production of oxytocin, the hormone that speeds up birth and bonds mums to their babies. Words are a small but potentially powerful part of that mix.
The thing is, ‘contractions’ is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unhelpful reproductive terminology. If your labour doesn’t go as quickly as it should, for example, you’ll see ‘failure to progress’ on your medical records. (Which, in your hormonal, sleep-deprived postpartum state, can make you feel – well, like a bit of a failure.)
Or if you have the opposite problem – the neck of your womb isn’t strong enough to hold the baby in until it’s due – you get told you have an ‘incompetent cervix’. Charming.
A couple of years ago, Mumsnet, the Association of Early Pregnancy Units and the Miscarriage Association campaigned to change a particularly awful bit of terminology. The medical procedure women have to go through after they miscarry was called ‘evacuation of retained products of conception (ERPC)’. A lot of families understandably found this term upsetting (I doubt many people think of their lost child as a ‘product of conception’) and the campaign settled for the clearer and more respectful ‘surgical management of miscarriage’.
It all just serves as another reminder – as if we needed one – of how crucial words are. How they shape our perceptions and responses to our surroundings, major life events, and even our own bodies.
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.
Where were you the night the fabled Storm of St Jude struck? Or, rather, where were you the day after?
Chances are, like many people, you spent at least some of Monday at home waiting for the trains to start running again. My corner of south London was left pretty much unscathed by the wind – old Jude hadn’t even managed to blow the lid off my recycling box – but there still weren’t any trains on my line until after 6.00pm.
We Brits are, of course, famously intolerant of weather-related excuses from train companies. For much of Monday, my Twitter feed was full of people going, ‘Chuh! Bloody trains!’ rather than sympathising with the poor souls who were having to clear all the debris off the tracks.
I’m sure much of this is down to the way train operators communicate with their passengers. They never give us any specifics, and they always use that awful, officious train company lingo; it’s all ‘inclement weather’ this and ‘signalling problems’ that.
Which is why I groaned when I spotted this poster Southeastern Railways have up in London Bridge station at the moment.
The big mistake they’re making here is refusing to acknowledge the elephant in the room: that – along with ‘the wrong kind of snow’ – the phrase ‘leaves on the line’ is a complete joke among British commuters. You turn up late to work, and your colleagues say, ‘Leaves on the line again, eh? Chuh!’ and roll their eyes.
Personally, I’ve never understood what the problem is: if I’m walking along the pavement and I encounter some leaves, I just take it in my stride. And I’m just nine-and-a-bit stone’s worth of human lady – imagine what a couple of hundred tons of speeding metal could do to a pile of foliage.
Except it’s not dry leaves that are the problem, as I discovered when I visited Southeastern’s dedicated leaf-fall web page (yes, I know). It turns out that when trains run over leaves and squash them, they turn into a ‘resin-like substance’ that’s the railway equivalent of black ice. I don’t know about you, but that would certainly make me think twice about getting on a train of an autumn morning.
As it stands, the poster sounds po-faced and whiny: ‘Seriously, you guys, this isn’t funny, okay? Leaves on the line are actually a big problem for us, yeah?’ But unless they tell us why – actually give us some useful information – we’re just not going to care.
If they’d explained the black ice thing there and then, I might have felt a bit more well-disposed towards Southeastern. Instead of thinking, for at least the tenth time that day, ‘Chuh! Bloody trains.’
Ages ago, I used to be a PR consultant. One day very early in my career, I phoned a journalist to (rather tremulously) pitch them a story.
Across the office sat a lady called Lynne. Lynne was a senior consultant the managing director had brought in to act as a mentor to us young’uns, and she was proper old-school PR (called people ‘darling’, talked incessantly about Reiki, had a vast leather-bound ‘contacts book’ but no idea how to switch a computer on).
Anyway, after I put the phone down, Lynne tilted her head to one side and said, ‘Laura, can I give you some feedback on that call?’
I cringed. Not just because she’d eavesdropped on my call and then offered unsolicited advice about it in front of the whole office, but also because of the word ‘feedback’. I’d barely heard it before, and it seemed at the time like the most bizarre, ridiculous piece of jargon.
My colleagues and I joked about it for weeks afterwards (‘Can I give you some feedback on those shoes?’ and so on – yes, hilarious, I know). Circa 2001, ‘feedback’ hadn’t yet entered common parlance. Maybe that experience scarred me, but I studiously avoided using it for years.
Of course, we’re at it all the time now. Feedback feedback feedback. You hear it all the time at Writer HQ. ‘We’ve got the feedback from that workshop.’ ‘Could you give me some feedback on that first draft?’ And it doesn’t bother me at all. (Though I’m still slightly allergic to using it as a verb: ‘Can you feed back by next Wednesday?’ Yuck.)
The same thing seems to be happening with another bit of corporatespeak: ‘stakeholder.’ It was always popping up on Boardroom Bingo lists. Here at The Writer, people seemed to do almost anything to avoid using it – or, if they had to, they’d stick it in slightly arch inverted commas. But now we seem to be mellowing. I’m starting to see it pop up unironically in the odd proposal or two: ‘We know how to keep even the most demanding stakeholders happy.’ It’s like we’re all looking around at each other and whispering, ‘So is it okay to say “stakeholder” now?’
How do we tell the difference between a new, useful bit of business language and insidious jargon? Simple: it’s jargon if there’s already a perfectly good alternative. There’s no other succinct way to say ‘stakeholder’: ‘person who’s involved in a project or interested in how it turns out’ doesn’t really cut it, does it? That doesn’t apply to, for example, ‘going forward’: we already have at least two perfectly acceptable phrases that mean the same thing (‘from now on’ and ‘in future’ – ‘going forward’ can mean either, which makes it vague as well as ugly).
I’m not saying we shouldn’t use words like ‘stakeholder’ judiciously. But refusing to use them at all is like insisting on saying ‘electronic mail’ or ‘telephone’. Language changes.
So I’m ready to bring ‘stakeholder’ in from the cold. What do you think?
When we ask people in workshops which brand they think has the best words, an awful lot of them say First Direct. ‘They sound so friendly and nice and – y’know – direct,’ they say.
And we agree. First Direct’s tone of voice isn’t just distinctive for a financial services brand – it’s distinctive full stop. And what’s brilliant about it is that it gets right into the nooks and crannies – small print, disclaimers, Ts and Cs. (They have the best ever ‘translation’ for that stock phrase about recording calls for training purposes: ‘Because we want to make sure we’re doing a good job, we may monitor or record our calls. We hope you don’t mind.’)
Which is why we were a bit disappointed by this print ad we spotted in the Evening Standard the other day. ‘We’ll give you £100 when you join and £100 when you leave. Which is highly unlikely,’ it starts off, cheekily. Great. So far, so First Direct.
But then what happens? ‘If you do not pay in at least £1,000 a month into your 1st Account, you may have to pay a monthly fee of £10. There is no monthly fee for the first six months.’
Hmm – it’s all starting to sound a bit like bog-standard Ts and Cs.
Then: ‘This offer may be withdrawn at any time without notice.’ Oh dear. And that’s not even the small print. It’s the main body of the ad.
Let’s have a look at the small print, then. Again, it starts off well: ‘Still with us? Good for you.’ Then the brilliant ‘we hope you don’t mind’ line.
But then: ‘Applicants must be 18 or over. £100 offer is limited to one per customer or joint relationship. We reserve the right to decline to open an account.’ Not so friendly now.
Come on, First Direct. We love you. Don’t let us down.
I read our Anelia’s blog about how the upbeat packaging for Halls cough sweets put a smile on her face. Then on the train on the way home I spotted this Nurofen ad. And I have to admit I rolled my eyes so hard they practically disappeared into my brain.
Oh no, I thought. Anelia’s right. I’m grumpy. I’m jaded. I’m British.
But hang on. I don’t think I’m that repressed. I even cried at a Sainsbury’s ad once. (You know, the one where the dad and the little boy have a day out together, and they take the train to the seaside, and frolic about with a kite for a bit, and have an ice cream, and then they go home and make a massive pie for dinner, and the mum comes home and finds them cuddled up on the sofa fast asleep... oh blimey, it’s set me off again.)
I loved the Halls packaging, too. It’s funny and cute. So what is it about the Nurofen ad that’s curling my stiff upper lip into a sneer?
It seems to be trying to get at some universal human truth. But to me, its grandiose sentiments and rhetorical repetition don’t feel authentic. It makes me feel jaded because I’ve heard it all before.
And I can’t relate to it, either. Yes, I often soldier on through sniffles and sore throats. But if I get a real humdinger of a headache, I tend not to think to myself: ‘I will not let my spirits be dampened! I’m on a constant journey!’ To be honest, I’m just as likely to throw in the towel and go for a nice lie down.
(After popping a couple of Nurofen, natch.)
If you’ve hung out with anyone under the age of four recently, you’ll have come into contact with one of the biggest brands to come out of the UK in ages*: Peppa Pig.
In case you’re not familiar with it, it’s a cartoon on Channel 5. I don’t know a single toddler who isn’t obsessed with it. And the three men who created it are really bringing home the bacon (sorry); the show is now worth hundreds of millions of pounds, not to mention the merchandise (Peppa Pig duvet cover, anyone?).
What’s the secret of Peppa’s success? I have a theory. Parents are the ones who decide what their kids can and can’t watch, especially when they’re very young. And parents love Peppa, so they let their kids watch it.
Why do parents love it? Because it’s funny and clever and slightly arch. The creators know how tedious most kids’ TV can be for adults; the only remotely entertaining thing about In The Night Garden is marvelling at how much Iggle Piggle looks like David Cameron. So Peppa’s writers throw in little treats now and again to keep mum and dad happy.
I actually snorted with laughter when Peppa’s French pen pal, Delphine Donkey, asks the hapless, bumbling Daddy Pig, ‘Are English split infinitives a form of irregular verb or past pronoun?’ I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of another show aimed at two-year-olds that makes jokes out of obscure grammar references.
What’s so clever about Peppa Pig is that it’s written for its unintended audience (parents) as well as its intended one (kids). And sometimes business writing has an unintended audience, too; competitors, as well as shareholders, read annual reports. Employees, as well as customers, read case studies.
In short, writing with your audience in mind is always a good thing. Writing for your unintended audience as well – now that’s really clever.
You know when you stumble across something online that’s so brilliant, you just want to kiss the internet? That happened to me the other week when I found a recording of Truman Capote reading out an extract from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
It’s one of my favourite books, so I know the bit he’s reading very well. (Conveniently for the purposes of this post, the narrator is reading out one of his short stories to Holly Golightly, an irony Capote exploits for laughs about six minutes in.)
But hearing Capote read it out in his distinctive high-pitched drawl – and the audience’s delighted reaction – really brought it to life for me again. He had brilliant comic timing, so lines that just tweak the corners of your mouth when you’re reading it to yourself become proper laugh-out-loud moments.
At The Writer, we’re always telling people to read their writing out: it’s the best way to tell if something’s wrong with it. Running out of breath before you get to the end of a sentence? It’s too long. Putting on a funny voice? The tone’s not quite right. (I should probably point out that Capote wasn’t putting on a funny voice – that’s just the way he spoke.) But I must admit I’d really got out of the habit.
Then last month I went on a creative business writing course called Dark Angels. Reading your work out to the rest of the group is very much part of the Dark Angels philosophy. I found it quite nerve-wracking at first. But after a few days of doing it three or four times a day, I began to enjoy it, and to enjoy hearing other people’s work, too.
On the last night, we all read each other our final pieces. It was an incredibly moving experience – not just because the writing was great (though it really was), but also because sitting and listening to people reading aloud felt deliciously primitive. A big old fire, a glass of wine, hearing different stories told in different voices – just like humans have done for thousands of years.
So next time you write something, try reading it out. (Even if it’s just to the cat.) To check it reads well, yes. But also for the sheer pleasure of it.
And if you need more inspiration, there are loads more recordings of great writers reading their work on this blog post.
A couple of weeks ago, Time magazine had on its cover a photo of a woman breastfeeding her three-year-old son. As a mum to a toddler, I’ve been watching the resulting media furore with interest.
One Guardian article quoted a mum as saying that her husband ‘practised baby-wearing’. This sounds rather alarming (especially if you’ve ever seen The Silence of the Lambs), but she just meant that her husband carried their baby in a sling instead of using a pushchair. An odd term for an ordinary thing.
Reading this made me realise that jargon isn’t confined to the business world. It’s seeping into our personal lives, too – right down to the way we raise our kids.
So, at the office your boss bamboozles you by telling you to ‘socialise’ an idea (tell people about it), or that your report is too ‘granular’ (goes into too much detail). Then you come home and read a book about ‘attachment parenting’ (keeping your baby close to you and responding to its cues), which recommends ‘co-sleeping’ (sharing a bed with your baby) and ‘baby-led weaning’ (letting your baby feed itself, instead of spoon-feeding it mush).
Now, I have no beef whatsoever with attachment parenting: I definitely have more in common with the lentil-weaving baby wearers than the more regimented Gina Ford types. But I do find this sort of vocabulary a bit icky. These are things people have been doing instinctively for generations – do they really need to have these fancy names?
Why our sudden collective inability to call a spade a spade? Maybe we’re trying to make the mundane details of life seem more exciting. Or maybe we just like to put ourselves in boxes, to feel like we belong to a particular tribe. Either way, I wish we could all just tell it like it is, whether it’s in the nursery or the boardroom.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and refresh my son’s disposable undergarments.
Next time you get given a daunting writing job, spare a thought for Lord Denning. In 1963, the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, asked Denning, a judge, to lead an enquiry into the Profumo affair and report back on what he’d found.
Serious stuff. Not only had Profumo’s dalliance with Christine Keeler destroyed the credibility of the government, it had also posed a threat to national security at the height of Cold War paranoia (Keeler was involved with a Russian naval officer at the same time).
So you’d think Denning’s official report would be uber-formal, stiff and dry. But, surprisingly, it isn’t. In fact, it’s a thumping good read. No wonder it was described at the time as ‘the raciest and most readable Blue Book ever published’ – the lurid subject matter obviously accounted for much of its appeal, but it’s also really well written.
We’re always telling people they can be serious without being formal. And I think Denning achieves that brilliantly. He never seems like he isn’t taking the Profumo scandal seriously. But, for the time, his writing sounds straightforward and relaxed – certainly more so than a lot of legal or government writing you could read today.
Here are three things I think Denning does particularly well. Give them a whirl for your next corporate report. If Denning could do it, so can you.
1. Using informal words and phrases
Denning throws in some pleasingly informal phrases considering he was writing an official report for the Prime Minister. He often refers to Christine Keeler ‘sleeping with’ both Profumo and the Russian: in the context, the euphemism sounds positively racy. And elsewhere he writes about someone taking out a lease on a house to ‘do it up’.
In other words, he’s writing more like he’d speak, and that makes his report much easier – and more fun – to read.
2. Borrowing literary tricks
Just because you’re writing something serious doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself. Denning certainly did.
At times, his report reads more like a thriller: ‘The newspaper kept their photographs of the letter. After all, they had paid Christine Keeler £200. Maybe the letter would come in useful one day,’ ends one chapter tantalisingly.
Who wouldn’t want to read on? Meanwhile, the last chapter – a gossipy dissection of various rumours involving government ministers – boasts subheadings that sound like the titles of mystery novels, like ‘The Spaniard’s Photograph’, ‘The Man in the Mask’, or, most intriguingly, ‘The Man Without a Head’.
3. Starting sentences with ‘and’, ‘but’ and ‘so’
In case you needed any further proof that it’s okay to start sentences with conjunctions, here’s Denning doing it three times in the same paragraph:
‘It would be a security matter if Mr Profumo was sharing a mistress with a Russian Naval Attaché – if it meant that there was a flow of secret information passing through her from one to the other. But Ivanov had now left the country. So any present risk had gone. And there was no reason to suppose that any information had passed from Mr Profumo through to the girl.’
He does this throughout the report, and it adds real pace and urgency to the writing. So next time someone tells you off for doing it, just tell them that an eminent High Court judge did it – way back in 1963.
Book: Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
Film: Bridget Jones’s Diary, directed by Sharon Maguire
You’d have thought Helen Fielding’s sharp, knowing, laugh-out-loud funny writing would be a gift to any screenwriter. Shame, then, that the people who adapted Bridget Jones’s Diary into a film decided to blunt the edges of the dialogue and ramp up the slapstick. (Not to mention giving poor old Colin Firth the worst pre-kiss line since Andie MacDowell simpered ‘Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed’ at the end of Four Weddings.)
The end result’s a movie that’s about as funny as being dumped for someone younger and thinner than you, and as subtle as an ample bottom zooming down a fireman’s pole.
Have a look at these lines.
‘An S A now I mean 2 write
2 U sweet K T J ...’
Now guess when they were written.
Go on, guess. Don’t cheat.
Nope, not even close. They’re from a poem called ‘An Essay to Miss Catherine Jay’. And it was published in 1875. OMG! And this anonymous author wasn’t the only one to experiment with sound/letter substitutes. Queen Victoria and Lewis Carroll did it, too. People have been messing about with language for years.
I thought about this yesterday when I read that Maid in Manhattan* star Ralph Fiennes is grumbling about the English language going to hell in a handcart.
Apparently it’s all because of that new-fangled Twitter thing. We live in ‘a world of truncated sentences [and] soundbites’, he said (ironically, in a soundbite). And, he reckons, the youth of today are too busy tweeting about last night’s X-Factor, or what they had for breakfast, to appreciate Shakespeare.
It reminds me of all that hand-wringing about how kids these days can only write in text-speak (or txtspk). And yet study after study has shown that the more children text, the better their literacy scores are. New technology is giving them more and more opportunities to read and write, so they’re getting better at it.
Isn’t it the same with social networking sites, blogs and chatrooms? It makes writers of all of us. Some are better at it than others. But every day, millions of us are reading and writing and swapping ideas and voicing opinions through these channels.
Even better, to make yourself heard on Twitter you have to be concise, insightful, amusing. People who turn tweeting into an art form have thousands of followers, and for good reason. ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’, after all.
Fiennes disagrees: ‘Our expressiveness and our ease with some words is being diluted so that the sentence with more than one clause is a problem for us, and the word of more than two syllables is a problem for us.’ Ralph Fiennes doesn’t use Twitter. Maybe he should give it a go.
*Yes, I know he’s been in some good films as well.
Truman Capote, one of my favourite writers, once said*: “I think most writers, even the best, overwrite. I prefer to underwrite. Simple, clear as a country creek.”
I thought about this last week when I was working on something for a client. They wanted us to help them make a business case for doing something more strategically.
They were too close to it, they said. They wanted us to write something clear and simple so they could see the wood for the trees.
After a couple of hours, I had the bare bones of the argument down on paper. It looked all clean and new and lovely. But there it was: the word ‘strategic’, popping up all over the page like weeds on a newly mowed lawn.
There’s something about that word. It’s everywhere, yet hardly anyone seems to know exactly what it means. Including me, it turns out.
“Are we allowed to say ‘strategic’?” I wailed at Jan across the desk. “I know I shouldn’t. I just can’t think of anything else.”
He looked thoughtful for a minute. “How about just saying ‘cleverer’?”
So I typed: We need to be cleverer about how we do this. Simple, clear as a country creek. And so much better for it.
*He said it in the Preface to Music for Chameleons, a collection of short stories, reportage and interviews, including a hilarious and moving conversation with his friend Marilyn Monroe. Have a flick through it one day. It’s brilliant.