Every year we go all Mystic Meg and try to predict the word exploding into a boardroom near you any time now. Throughout 2016 we had a few words on our ‘watch list’: the ones we were starting to hear more and more in presentations and CEOs’ speeches around the world.
So this year’s winner is: pivot. (Here’s our Neil talking about it on the BBC’s Wake Up To Money podcast, 39.50 minutes in.)
It’s a word that’s had a big leg-up from a year of political turmoil. With Brexit and Trump’s unexpected win, all kinds of businesses are hastily rethinking their strategies. But announcing to the world that you’ve ‘changed direction’, ‘changed your mind’ or made a U-turn’ all sound worryingly reactive.
That’s the beauty of ‘pivot’. Because it’s a word with a specific scientific meaning, it sounds so much more specific and planned, doesn’t it? Less panic, and more physics.
The ones that nearly made it
Bubbling under were tiger team, a group of experts brought together to solve a business problem, and swim lane, an area of responsibility in business (as in ‘maybe we can all stick to our swim lanes on this one?’). Add those to your bingo card in 2017.
(In 2016 we picked ‘amplify’, and the year before that, the suffix ‘-jack’. Both have gone on to great things.)
The sociolinguistics of your office
Of course, an obvious question is why each year ushers in a new set of business buzzwords. Well, as The Economist’s Lane Greene was saying on our podcast last month, language isn’t just about communication, it’s also about identity. And businesspeople want to sound as much a part of the in-crowd as your average socially awkward teenager. And it takes courage to reject what everyone else is doing at work, just like it was at school.
So, if you’re the person who refuses to budge in 2017 when everyone else is pivoting, we salute you.
You might have heard Lane Greene on our podcast talking about the weirdly formal language of airlines.
Well, I’d like to invite you to join me on a quick Virgin America flight from San Francisco to San Diego. My TV screen isn’t working (hence the fact that I’m writing this). But there’s no way I can get angry with them, when the flight attendant’s just said to me:
‘I’m really sorry about the screen. But you just let me know if you’re hungry or thirsty: we’re gonna booze you up.’
Put that in your tone of voice guidelines.
We had an event the other week where customer experience experts told us what they’d learnt about changing the language of their CX. (Yes, we know the jargon.) They were Jorge Mascarenhas from O2, Jess Poore from British Gas and Shelagh Martin from HSBC, since you ask.
If you weren’t there (and most people in the world weren’t), here are a few of their pearls of wisdom. Think of them like ‘Goals of the Month’ on Match of the Day.
1. To change your language externally, you need to change it internally. So don’t talk about ‘retention’; talk about ‘customers staying with us’. Get HR and internal comms bought in to really change the language of your culture.
2. Map out how your customers feel at different points in your journey. And tune your language to match. Split test your writing, and see when people want you to fall over yourself to be helpful – and when they just want the facts.
3. The last conversation you had with a brand shapes what you think of that brand, even if it’s on Twitter, or through a bill. And all of those moments add up to a good or bad experience.
4. The right language can win you fans in a crisis. When O2’s network went down, their customers actually got behind the O2 social media team because they handled so many grumpy customers in a genuine way, rather than just spitting out stock phrases.
5. To simplify your customer comms, you need to simplify the processes that sit behind them. That said, you can make even a complicated process feel easier by explaining it really clearly.
6. Language can help make your CX more efficient, or more empathetic, or more distinctive, or more consistent. Or all four. But be clear what you’re trying to achieve at the beginning.
7. Measure. Measure. Measure. Look at things like response rates and volumes of complaints to see the effect you’re having.
When we were watching the US presidential debates last week (no, don’t get us started), we spotted something: Donald Trump is great at naming. Bear with us.
Right through his campaign, he’s managed to ‘brand’ his opponents with what he wants us to think about them. And he’s done two things we often recommend to our clients: first, he’s found a recognisably Trumpy pattern; and second, he’s stuck to it, using them again and again.
Brands can do this trick too. Ikea’s names are beautifully, well, Ikeaish. They don’t tell you much about the products, but if you see Fjellse, Nornäs or Oppland on a big, brown cardboard box, who else is it going to be?
Apple have iPod, iPad, iTunes and so on. Now, that system’s actually not that unique (look at BBC iPlayer) or interesting, but they’ve stuck to it so relentlessly that the pattern has muscled its way into our collective subconscious.
So, make your naming system work this hard. It’s powerful. It’s tremendously powerful, believe me.
You might have seen that Specsavers has applied to trademark the word ‘should’ve’. And they’re not the first; Carlsberg managed to trademark the word ‘probably’ (and cunningly got round a ban on alcohol advertising at Euro 2016 by using just that word on billboards).
They’re both words that started off in straplines and have taken on a (carefully managed) life of their own. And they prove that your brand’s words can be what Professor Byron Sharp calls ‘distinctive assets’ , just as much as the visuals. After all, which is more Nike: the swoosh, or ‘Just do it’? They both ooze Nikeness.
The words you use in your straplines, names (not just the brand name) and, of course, your tone of voice all have the potential to be recognisable, distinctive elements of your brand. But most brands don’t think of language methodically enough, or make memorability enough of a factor in the words they choose. That’s why we spend our lives convincing new marketing directors not to ditch really well known straplines, just because their strategy has changed slightly.
So have a look at your brand. How many ‘distinctive linguistic assets’ does it have? (We know, we know: we’d like to help the Professor with his language, too.)
I spotted this the other day:
(It’s in Chinese because I nicked it from the Cathay Pacific lounge in Hong Kong.) It’s a little thing, but that Coca-Cola-bottle-shaped barcode made me smile.
I love it because it’s so unnecessary. It’s just there to be a nice touch. It’s one of those things that the designer could have left just the way everyone else does it, and no-one would’ve batted an eyelid. But instead I’ve sent that picture to a few geeky design pals. Now I’m sharing it with you.
It’s why at The Writer we obsess about getting our clients’ tones of voice into every nook and cranny of their brand. When clients say ‘but no-one reads the terms and conditions’, or the back of a visitor’s badge, we say: ‘well, someone will’. And if we give them a nice surprise, they might tell a few other people.
Boy, the British Government loves wading into debates about English usage. The Department for Education has just issued rules on which uses of the exclamation mark will get kids credit in tests (only in sentences that start with ‘How’ or ‘What’). A few years ago the Justice Secretary (and former Education Secretary) Michael Gove fired off his own idiosyncratic hodge-podge of guidance about what’s acceptable English and what’s not.
Now, here at The Writer, we bemoan the over-use of exclamation marks with the best of them. But an arbitrary rule about which sentences should have them, and which shouldn’t, is barmy. That’s not how language works.
We should be teaching kids (and exam markers) that these aren’t black-and-white issues, but questions of context, judgement and taste. And if you really want to know where exclamation marks actually get used, do some science. Get some data. There’s what an academic linguist would do. The Department of Health wouldn’t recommend a medicine on the basis of what colour pill some minister happened to prefer, so why do we tolerate the same subjective amateurishness about language? That’s how unsubstantiated superstitions like ‘You can’t start a sentence with “and”’ become accepted, but ill-informed, wisdom.
It’s not like it’s difficult to investigate. At The Writer we were debating how to describe in the US what our UK clients call ‘tone of voice’. In the US, we hear ‘brand voice’, ‘verbal branding’ and all sorts of alternatives. So we checked which terms people searched on Google, and ‘tone of voice’ was still the clear winner. Two minutes’ research into real usage and job done. Using facts, not hunches, or prejudices.
I spoke at a conference about customer experience the other week, and, like most conferences I go to, I heard a few brilliant thoughts that really got me thinking. But let’s not talk about those.
Let’s talk about the drivel that most people produce. If you’re presenting at one of these conferences, here are five things to think about to stop your audience sticking pins in their eyes by the mid-afternoon break.
1. Don’t write everything you’re going to say on your PowerPoint slides
Surely everyone knows this one by now. It’s in every presentation course.
What happens? I read your incredibly dense slide in 30 seconds. Then I stop listening for the next five minutes and check my email, while you say the same thing – only in even more words.
2. Say things that mean something
There really are lots of presenters who are fluent but say nothing of consequence:
Creativity empowers us to innovate for tomorrow and not just today.
3. Pretty charts don’t make something smart
There was one beautifully designed slide that said:
Knowledge = understanding what will happen
Intelligence = understanding what will happen next
The difference being...? The presenter read this out like it was a tremendous insight.
4. For the organisers: it’s not 1846
So why are we having a networking luncheon?
5. Repeating things doesn’t make you Obama
We all know a bit of judicious repetition can make your talk more memorable. But there’s a weird trend to repeat long, ugly sentences in the hope that they’ll become more profound:
Simplifying things is incredibly complex but absolutely necessary.
Simplifying things is incredibly complex but absolutely necessary.
Enough already. (Maybe time for a little holiday, Neil? – Editor)
We’re sad to say our colleague Lisa Plumbridge died early in the New Year.
She was a project manager at The Writer in London, though she’d been off work with cancer for most of the last three years. She spent her last few days surrounded by a small army of family and friends.
A big gang of Writer people, past and present, went to her funeral earlier this week, and it was great to hear her closest friends describe her in exactly the same way that we would here: very funny; determined to the point of stubborn; really brave. And pouting in every picture, like the one above, where’s she’s holding her favourite word.
Our hearts go out to everyone who was close to her. And of course, we’ll miss her loads as both a colleague and a friend of ours. She was brilliant to have around; we’re just sorry it wasn’t for longer.
I was hanging out with some lawyers in Detroit a couple of weeks ago (I know, what will Glen Hoddle think I’ve done in a past life?).
I asked them what makes a good bit of legal writing. And somewhat surprisingly, they said all the things I’d want them to say: clear, concise, even warm.
They’re right, of course (there’s evidence that less formal English is even more likely to persuade judges). Yet it’s not what most of us see from most lawyers.
Lawyers are faced with an extreme version of a task that most of us face in our writing, which is getting people to do what we want. And in real life most of us know that takes not just the intelligence to construct a watertight clause, but the emotional intelligence to persuade someone you’re not trying to screw them over.
Our client Jos Sclater, general counsel at GKN, made the point beautifully:
‘I’m trying to get my legal team not to think of contracts as just legal documents. They’re not. They’re often the first expression of the sort of relationship you want with your supplier or customer. So if that document is complicated and defensive, it suggests that’s what your company’s like, too.’
That’s why in Blink, Malcolm Gladwell points out that doctors in the US with good bedside manners get sued less than their colder counterparts (even when they make mistakes!). We just can’t switch off that human bit of our brain.
(Oh, and if you deal in legal writing that needs a dash of human, come along to our Letters of the Law workshop.)
Once you’re a jaded 37 year old like me, it takes a lot for a bit of commercial writing to stop you in your tracks. But that happened to me on my walk to work last week.
I was sauntering round the Elephant & Castle roundabout (oh, the glamour!) and saw a billboard for HSBC. It featured a man with a little girl on his shoulders, but that wasn’t what got me. It was this line:
Raising a business.
The second hardest job in the world.
That’s it exactly, I thought to myself. As we’ve taken The Writer from three people in a chaotic serviced office to the slick multinational it is today (ho, ho), it’s been by turns exhilarating, frustrating, fascinating. So yes, like raising a child. It’s a simple idea, but one that I’d never really thought of, or put so succinctly. And even though I know how the ad writing game works, it really does make me think someone somewhere at HSBC knows what it’s like.
So well done to that copywriter. You gave an old hand a pause for thought.
You might have heard us showing off about having Professor Steven Pinker round to ours the other week (well, okay, up a well-known London landmark).
Steve (as we can now call him) has written a book channelling all his years of experience and experiment in cognitive science and linguistics into advice for writers. And blow us down if the science doesn’t prove everything we’ve been banging on about for years. Phew.
But while we were hanging out in the clouds, our big-haired academic friend made a cute point about grammar.
There are two, you see. First, there’s grammar as linguists understand it: a set of rules in your head that tells you what you can say and what you can’t. That grammar tells you to say I’m having chips for tea and not *Having I’m for tea chips. (The asterisk is linguist for ‘no-one says this, it sounds bonkers’.) If you’re a native speaker, you don’t need to learn these grammatical rules; amazingly you just work them out when you’re wee.
Then there’s grammar number two (the way most people, especially ageing whiny journalists, use it): a set of ‘rules’ about how so-called educated people speak and write. Many of these rules are baloney: you really can start a sentence with and and split your infinitives like there’s no tomorrow. Despite what the old codgers say, these ‘rules’ are mere conventions, and they change over time, going in and out of fashion.
Professor Pinker pointed out that the things the sticklers get het up about can’t be fundamental grammatical rules. If they were, no-one would ever need to express them, just as you don’t need to ever tell anyone not to say *Having I’m for tea chips. The very fact the sticklers need a rule to say which bit of disputed usage is ‘correct’ proves that it isn’t a rule.
Neat, huh? Of course, following conventions can be useful to you. Menotfollowingspellingorpunctuationsconventionsmakesreadingdifficult. So if you want to know which to consider and which to ignore, either swing by our Grammar for Grown-Ups workshop, or download our swanky new app.
I was in the big Kennington Tesco the other day (Tesco being the UK’s biggest supermarket, international friends), and over the cabinet with the sandwiches, crisps and cans of Coke was a big old sign:
What is snacking? It’s not something I’ve ever heard anyone say positively (‘ooh, I really fancy doing some snacking during my afternoon lull’). You do hear health campaigners talking about it, though (‘constant snacking is at the root of the obesity crisis’). Which makes that cabinet much less tempting.
But it’s part of a trend for businesses to –ing things into nouns in a way that feels distinctly unnatural to me. So our utilities talk about ‘billing’ (‘I’ll put you through to someone in billing’); I bought a shirt the other day that had a label in it that said ‘quality shirting’; and nigh-on all our clients talk about ‘messaging’.
It seems to me that the new versions shift the focus from the things you and me can touch or hear or eat (snacks, bills, shirts, messages) to the process that involves them. And because the process matters much more to the company (or maybe justifies the existence of a team within it) than to me, it feels weirdly corporate and remote.
But it looks like it’s on the rise. Tweet us @TheWriter if you spot more corporate –inging.
A couple of weeks ago, I bought a picture frame from Habitat (don’t worry; this blog gets more interesting). At just the wrong moment for them, they’ve asked me to review their service on ‘independent review community’ site Trustpilot. And in the middle of my grumpiness about the seemingly endless and impossible task of getting a picture frame from one part of London to another (sorry, I know I promised), I got a nice surprise.
When you go to post a review on Trustpilot, you get some writing advice.
It kicks off with ‘Your opinion in one sentence’. ‘Write a catchy header to make your review stand out’, it adds.
And then, when we get to the main bit, it tells you to ‘write as if you’re speaking to a friend’.
Really simple, and really effective. And most importantly, it nudges you in the right direction at just the right moment. At The Writer, we’re always moaning about the fact that even brands who’ve bothered to decide how they sound too often hide that advice in guidelines documents that no-one ever looks at.
Better to stage an intervention: surprise people with useful ‘tone of voice’ direction in the PowerPoint template everyone has to use, or on the timesheet everyone has to fill in. It’s much more likely to hit home at the point when you actually have to use it.
I’ve always thought London was a pretty cosmopolitan city.
But then I moved to New York for a few months. And even the names of our people there tell you a lot: Emelie Rodriguez. Mariam Muzaffar. Colby Brin. Anelia Varela.
Compare this to London: Nick Parker. Paul Edwards. (Sorry, chaps.) And yes, Neil Taylor. Heck, the other day we went to a meeting and our team was a Smith, a Jones and a Brown. You could barely get more statistically predictable. Thank God for Laura Swidzinska.
So that’s our illegal new recruitment policy in the UK: more interesting names.
Many moons ago, we blogged about how much we love the Manhattan Mini Storage tone of voice. We loved the boldness, directness and frankly the unrelated-to-their-businessness of their ginormous posters proclaiming: ‘If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get gay married.’
The other day, I spotted one of their most recent posters:
‘Gay marriage = gay registry = gay clutter.’
It’s genius. Make a big stand on a big issue, win a few friends, and then a few years later – when the controversy becomes mundane – remind those friends that you can take care of their excess stuff. No idea if they really planned it that way, but they’re smart if they did.
When I pick up my hire bike every day to cycle from New York’s East Village to our office in Soho, I’m struck by a great big missed opportunity.
All the blurb talks about the places where you pick up and leave your bike as ‘docking stations’, or maybe just ‘stations’. But the scheme is sponsored by Citi. Surely someone should’ve thought of calling them ‘bike banks’?!
Who knows, they could’ve even got me talking about ‘withdrawing’ and ‘depositing’ my bike, just to keep their services front of mind on a chilly New York morning. Barclays flunked it in London, too. Maybe if they’d inveigled their way into our psyches just a little more, they wouldn’t now be pulling out of their sponsorship.
(I’m still waiting for the banks to rename contactless payment, too.)
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.
The British Conservative party has got itself in a right old state about the idea of legalising gay marriage. I won’t get into that here (though you can guess what a muesli-eating, Guardian-reading liberal like me might think). But it did give me the idea for a brilliant Breakfast Experiment™ (copyright the always great Language Log).
We’ve often noted in our workshops that the more uncomfortable someone is with a subject, the more likely they are to use formal language to talk or write about it. So your HR department won’t say in a disciplinary letter, ‘we might sack you’; they’ll say ‘you may be liable for dismissal’. It is – we hypothesise – a distancing tactic.
So I’ve been listening to different politicians discussing gay marriage. And my hunch is that if you’re pro, you’re much more likely to use the words ‘gay’ and ‘straight’. The antis seem more prone to using ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’. But hey, it’s a busy week, and I don’t have time to do lots of listening to collect the data. Anyone got a spare day?
If I’m right though, it’d be an interesting little ‘tell’. If you think a politician’s toeing the party line, but not telling the whole truth about their real opinion, have a listen for which words they pick.
Our Ed has waxed lyrical before about how much he (and we) like the name Little Waitrose.
Just as good is Petit Pret (Pret A Manger’s compact cousin). Obviously, it’s exactly the same idea. Just in French.
It feels like a whole genre: cute brand extensions. Little Waitrose, Petit Pret, Dave Ja Vu, and the sadly defunct BMI Baby. They’re ace.
Sometimes a tiny bit of writing can be inordinately powerful.
Us Writer trainers spend quite a lot of time in the air, and I usually fly British Airways (for the points, and the ineffably polite cabin service, occasionally tinged with a note of public-weary sarcasm). But one thing I love about BA is that when I print out my boarding pass at home, it says at the top:
Mr Neil Taylor, you’re ready to fly.
It’s just so... exciting. Romantic. Like I’m about to step onto an aeroplane (no, hold on, definitely an airplane) in Rio in 1953. Or something. And that little ‘Mr’ is important, too. I don’t get mistered very often (and when I do, I don’t always like it). But BA pull it off.
None of which usually bears much resemblance to the rest of my flight. But it sets me off with a spring in my step and a smile on my face. Just like one of our workshops in California: a woman brought along a receipt from the US outdoorsy brand Prana. She’d kept it in her purse for five years because she liked a quotation they’d printed on it. How much would an ad agency pay for that ‘share of mind’? Every time she got her money out, she saw this brand. For five years (and counting!).
It cost them virtually nothing to do. But it’s why we think the nooks and crannies of a brand’s writing can be priceless.
I’ve been spending another week running workshops in California. And every time I come over here, I’m struck by the esteem in which two texts on language are held: the AP Stylebook (I mean, Stylebook? One word?), and Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.
To a Brit, the quasi-religious reverence these books seem to elicit in the USA is a bit odd. As a rule, I think in the UK we’re a bit more comfortable with the odd bit of linguistic jaywalking. So while I’ve got nothing against following the rules, or the AP Stylebook, if you’re looking for some rules to follow, please, please, please ignore the spurious ramblings of Strunk & White.
The brilliant Language Log has been skewering this ‘horrid little compendium’ better, and for longer, than I ever could (and it’s telling that they file their Strunk & White blogs under ‘prescriptivist poppycock’). But the basic point is this: their rules are so arbitrary and constraining that they can’t even follow them themselves.
And it’s why, when we give our clients writing guidelines, they’re just that; not rules, not laws, and not always right.
‘This company is an equal employment opportunity employer.’
That beautiful line is from the website of one of our big US clients. In workshops this week, we’ve been asking their people to rewrite a bit of the website which includes that line, to see if they can make it feel a bit more sincere.
And an interesting thing keeps happening. The more senior the workshop participant, the happier they are to junk that line and try something really different. Quite often people have suggested versions like ‘We want anyone who’s good enough to have the chance to work here’. Nice.
But many of the more junior participants don’t touch it. They might rewrite what’s around it, but they leave that phrase. When I ask why, they say ‘Well, that’s legal. We probably can’t change that.’ And, ‘I thought we had to say that?’
A few of the juniors do change it, though. They say, ‘It was awful. I completely rewrote it. Why do we have to use those lame words?’
Now, this is exactly the kind of minor skirmish we have with legal teams the whole time. While the company might be obliged to get across that content, it probably doesn’t have to use that tone. And at the very least, it’s worth challenging to find out the answer.
So why the junior/senior split? I’d guess there are two possibilities: maybe as you get more senior, you feel more confident questioning the status quo (in writing, and in every other aspect of business).
Or maybe it’s exactly that innate bravery that marks you out as a potential leader. Maybe the very few juniors who cut that phrase and start again will be the seniors of tomorrow. In which case, businesses can save a lot of money on ‘talent identification’ and psychometric testing, and just see which people go furthest in rewriting a paragraph from their website. Introducing The Writer’s proprietary Rewrite Bravery Leadership Correlation Index™.
While doing my lunchtime errands the other day, I was struck by a hero and a villain of retail language.
You can hear both of them in WHSmith (Britain’s big newsagent chain). Their bank of self-service checkouts is called the ‘fast lane’. Now our Laura has already written about the odd tone of those machines, but when the plummy automated voice said to me as I was walking off ,‘thank you for using the fast lane’, I thought it sounded quite good. It made me think I was gliding through the priority security channel at a chic European airport, or something. Whereas in fact I was buying a Twix.
To pay for my Twix, I made a ‘contactless payment’. Dead clever. You just tap your card on the machine and you’ve paid. No PIN, no signature, no fumbling through the fluff-clad coppers of my pockets. But really, ‘contactless payment’? It has the hallmark of all rubbish names: I feel embarrassed saying it. That’s why, when talking to cashiers, I’ve been reduced to asking to ‘do the contactless payment thingy’.
I don’t know whose job it is to name it, really. The shops? The banks? The card people? Us? (Londoners have christened our bike hire scheme the ‘Boris bikes’ after our comedy mayor, even though they weren’t his idea.) Supposedly the mobile phone network Orange triggered an explosion in texting, just by changing ‘SMS’ to ‘text message’. The poor old contactless payment needs a similar rebrand.
So what will it be? The competition starts here. Complete this conversation:
‘How would you like to pay, sir, cash or card?’
Tap it? Zap it? Magic it? Over to you.
At the beginning of our workshops, we often ask people to think of their favourite word. It gets them thinking about different aspects of language, notably whether it’s the meaning of a word they like (this week in San Jose we’ve had ‘gracious’, ‘serendipity’ and ‘burgundy’) or its sound (‘caboose’, ‘plethora’ and ‘onomatopoeia’).
On Friday, one of our participants said she didn’t have a favourite word, but she had one she just HATED: ‘moist’. And upon its utterance most of the room squirmed, audibly and visibly.
The funny thing is, the exact same thing has happened quite a few times. In fact, occasionally someone says they LOVE the word, yet a ripple of revulsion still passes through the rest of the crowd.
So what is it? The meaning? The sound? The slightly risqué combination of the two (or our prudish response)? Does it tap into some deep-seated reflex of disgust? Why?
Or is the idea of ‘moist’ as a disgusting word a meme? An idea that’s been talked about, passed on, and stays lurking just below the consciousness, waiting to emerge, ineluctably triggered when a writing trainer innocently asks for the exact opposite?
Either we really have discovered the most shudder-inducing word in English, or there’s something funny going on.
It’s one of those phrases: thought leadership. I mean, thought is good, right? And leadership comes in pretty handy, doesn’t it?
I’ve just been to an event where consultancies were bemoaning the time their businesses spend producing ‘thought leadership’ and the limited results they felt they were getting from it. Yet some of our clients have whole departments devoted to it.
One of the problems is the first word. From time to time, a client will ask us to help write a piece of ‘thought leadership’. ‘Of course’, we say. ‘What’s the subject?’ They tell us. ‘Great, and what are your thoughts on that subject?’, we ask. ‘Oh’, the client says, ‘we thought you’d do that.’
Thought leadership just means ‘having an opinion’. And the most interesting opinions are gleaned from years of experience, plus a little brainpower and reflection. Which means your business’s ‘thoughts’ are unlikely to appear magically out of the air of the marketing department (or their agencies). Instead they’ll come from your practitioners doing what they do best.
So this blog is thought leadership. Or, at least, it’s a thought. If you tell anyone else about it, or our competitors start using the same opinion in their pitches (it happens, trust me), then it’ll be ‘leadership’ too.
Where writers like us can help is expressing those opinions in the most compelling language possible. A good test is whether you can boil your argument down to a pithy wee phrase. One of my favourites is ‘Any company that is serious about corporate responsibility shouldn’t have a CR department’. It’s just an opinion. An intriguing one, a provocative one, but just an opinion. That’s why thought leadership doesn’t exist.
You’ve probably heard of the BRIC countries: Brazil, Russia, India and China, the fast-growing economies leaving the traditional economic superpowers for dead. It’s a neat little acronym (which handily lends itself to all manner of punning headlines).
It was coined by people at Goldman Sachs, and it caught on pretty quick. Now they’ve come up with a new label for the countries hot on their heels: the Next 20.
I first heard it at The Economist’s grandly titled Emerging Markets Summit in London. And in one discussion, The Economist’s Daniel Franklin was fairly scathing about Goldman’s naming efforts. Next 20, he thought, really wasn’t in the same league as the BRICs.
It’s interesting that even in such a supposedly highbrow world as economics, a memorable moniker can make the difference between whether your idea takes hold or not. And it’s an area with some evocative language: crashes and crunches, even a Great Depression.
Words mean numbers, we often say, when we’re trying to convince people of the value of our work. Numbers need words too, it seems, to wheedle their way into our heads and tell a good story.
New York. Boston. Portland. San Francisco. San Jose.
We’ve had a fairly tremendous workshop itinerary for the last few weeks. And on our travels, our American clients have introduced us with a word most of us Brits never use in the same way: group. As in: ‘These guys are from a group named The Writer.’
What would we say? Company, probably. That’s what we use when we introduce ourselves. Agency, maybe. But not group. I mean, we’re not U2 (thank God). Although our Nat plays a pretty mean violin.
So what is this ‘group’ thing about?
The best hypothesis I’ve come up with is that it’s a kind of collegiate thing. A deliberate blurring of the boundaries between who’s internal and who’s a ‘vendor’ (eurgh). After all, workshop participants could be from ‘a group named The Writer’, or ‘a group based in Portland called sales enablement’, so the same word puts everyone on the same level.
But I’m guessing. So, to our American cousins: what’s going on?
We’ve gone and done it.
After a few years of flirting with it, we’ve hired ourselves a designer. Now, that’s a bit rum for a place that’s all about words, you might think.
Well, so did we, for a while. But of course, we work with designers all the time – our clients’ own design teams and design agencies – and we love it when words and pictures work handsomely together.
And a funny thing kept happening: clients kept asking us if we could recommend designers who could do justice to the hard work that goes into our words. So after a while, it became a bit of a no-brainer.
It’s an unusual kind of designer who wants to work at a place called The Writer, though. One who gets language, who thinks typography is where it’s at. And one with the clout to work with some big clients with superslick brands.
Introducing Léonie: The Designer.
The Writer’s global training juggernaut rolls on, this week to China and Australia, where we’ve seen our misconceptions speedily overturned.
We’ve been training salespeople in a British multinational to write more persuasively, and our starting point was to get people writing more like they’d speak. In fact, we’d wanted to summarise it to our Aussie cousins as ‘make your writing sound more Australian, and less British’.
But oddly, when we came to look at their writing in bids and proposals, it was even more formal than the Brits’. What’s that about?
A (South African) participant in Sydney suggested that it was basically an insecure ex-colony trying to show its British (now corporate) masters that they know how to behave in polite society, by writing emails inviting clients to a ‘private luncheon’ (seriously). Needless to say he was shouted down by most of his colleagues.
But when we got to Beijing and Shanghai, we were (perhaps naively) surprised by just how quickly they took to what we were recommending. After an hour or two, they were writing really natural, straightforward, confident documents. In their second language.
And in Beijing airport we were surrounded by signs saying things like ‘Don’t leave your luggage here’. Now, that contraction would cause uproar in some of our British workshops with its dangerous informality. The Chinese, it seems, aren’t bothered (though admittedly, there were quite a few signs telling us what not to do).
So next time we’re back in Oz, we’re going to recommend some good old-fashioned Chinese straight-talking.
I’ve just been doing some training in Indonesia. And the first instruction our client gave me was: ‘When you arrive at Jakarta airport, only take a Blue Bird taxi.’
Indonesia, it seems, has a problem with dodgy taxis. Yet everyone but everyone says you can always completely trust Blue Bird. One Jakartan rush hour (well, Jakarta doesn’t seem to have anything other than a rush hour) we stood in torrential rain, other taxis from other firms splashing past, while my client insisted we wait for a Blue Bird.
That’s the kind of unquestioning loyalty most brands would kill for. It’s not like they’re expensive either; not by British standards, anyway. And if you do want to spend a bit more, you can take a Silver Bird, Blue Bird’s swankier sister (nice naming system there). I couldn’t think of any brand in the UK that was as accessible but so completely trusted. You’ll never see it on the list of the world’s best brands, but it really is a belter.
We’ve been doing lots of training in Europe recently, trying to get a big professional services firm to make their documents easier (and quicker) to read.
One aspect of it, as you might expect from us, is using more everyday language, rather than the rather formal style they default to. And while most people agree with the approach themselves, they worry about how it’ll go down with other people. Will they think it’s ‘proper’? Is it ‘professional’ enough?
Now, these are worries we hear a lot, even in the UK. But working with so many non-native speakers has thrown up another challenge. One chap in Madrid summed it up nicely: ‘If a Spanish client of ours got this new document from our London office, they would think it was cool and modern. If they got it from our Madrid office, they might think we couldn’t speak English.’
It made me think of a problem the EU now has. When translating documents into English, they have to decide whether to use British English, or a more ‘international English’ – not one native speakers really use, but one that’s easier to understand as a business lingua franca for people who’ve learned English as a second language.
It gives us natives an interesting dilemma. Being brought up Anglophone gives us an amazing competitive advantage, without even trying. But the success of English also means we’re having to accept that it’s not ‘ours’ any more, and that the perceptions of an army of converts might be more important than our own intuition.
I know it doesn’t really matter. I know it’s only a little thing. I know there’s much more important stuff going on (heck, the country is being battered by murderous winds as I type). You’ll be amazed that I can afford the seconds in my life to even think about this stuff.
But at the end of the new TV ad for the Nationwide building society, they say ‘visit us in-branch’. (I told you it was a little thing.) But ‘in-branch’? What? No-one says ‘in-branch’ in real life. ‘Did you pay that bill, love?’ ‘Yep, I went to Nationwide and did it in-branch.’ Don’t think so.
This is a phrase that only people who work in banking ever use. (Just like mobile phone companies talk about being ‘a Vodafone customer’. But us normal people say ‘I’m on Vodafone’ or ‘I’m with Vodafone’.) And of course, in the scheme of things it’s not the end of the world. But it is a sign that they’re not quite as connected to their customers as they claim (and that their ad agency have gone native).
Make enough of these wee slips, and you’ll always end up sounding a touch corporate, however magical the rest of your ad looks.
Friday is plain English day. With depressing predictability, the usual Government departments and utilities will be lined up and ridiculed for using jargon and bureaucratic obfuscation.
Fair enough. Lots of it is ridiculous and laughable (and our own Words at Work survey found most of us get wound up by the likes of ‘touch base’ and ‘I’ll socialise that’). But is plain English really the answer? The fact that they’ve been plugging away at it for over 30 years – in which time the stuff they moan about has only proliferated – suggests they’re barking up the wrong tree.
Yes, plain English is better than confusing English; we’d sign up to that (and do, with our clients). But plain English can be – and often is – deathly dull. It gets its point across, but does it persuade you? Does it provoke you? Does it touch you? Does it make you want to take off your shoes and dance down the street in the cool, fresh winter rain? Type ‘plain boring’ into Google and those words appear together on the internet 30 million times.
Part of the problem is that the plain English brigade are natural critics. As well as picking holes, wouldn’t it be great to know who’s doing a good job? Someone should pick out public figures, companies, brands whose language is clever, funny, moving, surprising. Anything but plain, in fact. Cue Nick.
At the moment, I’m working from home after an unfortunate coming together of me, my bike, and the Elephant & Castle roundabout. I’ll be on crutches (and an extensive cocktail of painkillers) for a good few months. And I have an extraordinary contraption round my leg, stopping my knee moving, called a Taylor Spatial Frame, with a surprising number of wires going straight into my leg.
So, when I do get out of the house, my weirdo frame gets a lot of attention (it looks more painful than it feels). And inevitably, people say ‘what did you do?’ And I say, ‘I came off my bike’. And on account of the general gruesomeness of my frame, people at that point generally guess, ‘motorbike?’
And I say ‘no... pushbike’. It’s not a word I used very much before my accident. But when asked to make a distinction, it’s the one which springs to mind. Which is great. It’s a lovely quaint word. I feel like it belongs alongside a word like ‘wireless’ (in the old sense). Or maybe even ‘charabanc’. It’s a word in black and white.
So while I’m wishing the months away till I get back on (touch wood), I might keep using that word when things go back to normal; a little linguistic memento of times gone by.
Anya and I have been over in New York for the last few weeks, running a kind of pop-up Writer. We’ve been doing workshops for our US clients, speaking at events, sweltering on muggy avenues, learning to ask for the ‘check’, tipping people way more than we’re used to, and of course, trying to make friends with people in nicely located offices (hello, Bill).
And naturally, we’ve been attempting to forensically examine the language of American brands in the process. So what have we learnt (or should that be learned)?
1. The MBA still holds sway
There’s just as much of a battle as at home to wrestle business language into human. But it’s a slightly different battle; while British business writing tends to the stiff and bureaucratic, the US strain groans under the weight of business school verbiage. Just as in the UK, pretty much everyone recognises it gets in the way of decent communication, but that getting rid of it means changing the habits of a lifetime.
2. They’ve got a bit of cheek
While you’ll find most British brands on a spectrum from businessy and dull to friendly and informal, the voices of American brands are much more polarised. It seems once you break free of the MBAspeak, you might as well go the whole darn way. We loved the café whose poster proclaimed their food was Prepared under the direction of an executive chef (not slapped together by a kid in a hairnet).
3. They’re ready to take a stand
Some brands are being really bold about what they believe in, even when it’s got nothing to do with their product. We saw it in American Apparel’s windows, and a huge great poster saying If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get gay married. This on an advert for Manhattan Mini Storage. Forget PowerPoint slides about values; say what you think and slap it on the side of a bloody great building.
4. Don’t get Texans to have a go at rewriting a bit of business writing in the style of Barack Obama
It opens a right old can of worms.
5. You can be shameless without shame
In the UK, if I mention I’ve written a book (or three), it’s met at best with grudging respect. I only get away with a plug if I’m apologetically self-deprecating at the same time. Americans, by contrast, positively congratulated me for writing it (even, and in fact especially, the ones with their own books to flog). They treat you like you’ve really achieved something. They left me feeling like, well yeah, maybe I have. Rest assured that I will be swiftly disabused of that fleetingly satisfying sentiment as soon as I make it back into the UK office. We had a blast. So, America, will you have us back soon? (Maybe when it’s cooler.)
People love getting into a lather about language. If you needed proof, the BBC published an article last week about the supposed tidal wave of Americanisms overwhelming British English. And got a deluge of people’s personal peeves.
Now, never mind the fact that lots of these so-called Americanisms started off in British English in the first place. Or that many of the moans depend on people being wilfully dumb so they can pretend to be confused.
What’s amazing is that 1,295 could be moved to mither. It’s not just Americanisms, either. Start a conversation ‘I hate it when people say...’ and almost everyone will pitch in.
Why? Why do we care so much if someone says something different from (or ‘to’, or ‘than’) us?
We don’t think this argument is about language at all, really. After all, most of us have got bigger things to worry about than if someone says ‘normalcy’ when we’d have said ‘normality’. But to get het up, there must be something bigger at stake. Not just the odd word, but our identity. Our very culture. Somewhere, subconsciously, every time someone says ‘I’m good’, we believe a little patch of England dies. Maybe.
It’s why we think every business should be thinking about language. Because for lots of people, it’s the most obvious expression of a business’s culture and identity. And we judge our employers, suppliers and colleagues on these tiny little things.
While we’re on America...
we’ll be putting our own prejudices to the test in September. We’re taking up residence in New York to talk at The Economist's Human Potential summit, and running an open writing workshop on the morning of September 13. If you’re in NYC and want to come, or know someone we should take out for coffee and bagels, just email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last week, a few of us Writer types past and present sashayed along to a debate at the British Library called The Language Wars. It featured some duffer from the Queen’s English Society claiming English was going to hell in a handcart because people say ‘disinterested’ when they used to say ‘uninterested’ (I’m paraphrasing). And a man who’s written a book rightly saying ‘people have been saying English has been going to hell in a handcart for centuries. Well, it ain’t. Things change. Get over it.’ Or words to that effect.
Which is fine, if you just want a bit of knockabout. But it’s frustrating that it was riddled with subjective, unsubstantiated assertions, from the panel, the audience, and even the usually magnificent Libby Purves as chair. People talked about various aspects of language as ‘ugly’, ‘incorrect’, ‘graceless’, ‘American’. In most other disciplines, you wouldn’t get away with stuff like that without backing it up. There are thousands of academics around the world collecting data on how language actually works. They’ll investigate, for example, if a particular word or phrase really is American (so, do Americans use it more than Brits, say? Does it vary in different contexts? Did it really start in America?). But proper research-based linguistics rarely gets a look-in, so most public discussion of language is spectacularly ill-informed.
It felt slightly like going to an eighteenth century debate on medicine, with people arguing about exactly which imbalance of humours they felt were responsible for making women hysterical.
And it’s a shame, because there are great places to look if you want to know more about language without having to suffer some amateur’s wildly partial ramblings. Try books by the late, great Larry Trask. My hero April McMahon. David Crystal. Or the brilliant Language Log. All written by academics whose writing is entertaining and rigorous.
The good news for us at The Writer (and we have a few linguistics students in our gang) is that even a lightweight debate like that shows how much people care about language. How our words are so wrapped up with our identity that we are determined to vehemently defend our own tastes and castigate other people’s. It’s why language is an extraordinarily powerful tool, which businesses still undervalue and ignore at their peril.
(And by the way, thank heavens for rapper Dizraeli. He was the star of the panel, and was brilliantly eloquent, in sometimes satisfyingly non-standard English. He shut up many of the sticklers by asking how on earth they had time to get het up about supposedly ‘incorrect’ words that were perfectly clear in context. Pragmatics, that’s called in linguistics.)
I have a new favourite bit of my day. Let’s say I’ve taken a Boris bike from my house in leafy Kennington to The Writer in The Borough. (By the way, every political bone in my body is telling me to call it a Ken bike or a Livingston cycle, but alliteration seems to win the day, annoyingly.)
I love the sound it makes when you get off and give the front wheel a good, solid push into the docking station. There’s a satisfyingly mechanical clunk as the docking station clutches it tight. It’s not the refined business-class catch of a BMW door; there’s something plasticky and basic, worthy and trustworthy, about it.
And it’s not just the sound. Once it’s made its robot growl, the light goes green, and you just wander off. No locking, no touching out with your Oyster. You get to swagger away nonchalantly like a mid-80s detective leaving a soft-top in a crime-ridden part of LA without closing the roof, or even thinking about putting the alarm on. I throw my scarf over my shoulder, and dream of wearing white slip-ons and no socks.