When Dominic Cummings, chief aide to the Prime Minister, posted job ads on his blog recently, it caused quite a stir.
We noticed that in spite of the blog’s mad moments (appealing to ‘weirdos’ and ‘misfits’ and promising to ‘bin’ people within weeks if they don’t fit), Cummings makes some commendable linguistic choices that HR pros could learn from.
To avoid inflating his ego too much, though, let’s kick off with how not to do it…
Try not to be exploitative
Brazenly admitting to exhausting your staff beyond the point of irreparable psychological damage is a definite no-no. In the brief for his personal assistant, he goes all Dom Wears Prada on us. ‘You will not have weekday date nights, you will sacrifice many weekends — frankly it will be hard having a boy/girlfriend at all.’ Steady on, Dom. Where’s the work-life balance?
Stay on track
Rambling’s never a good look, and Cummings definitely derails his point on more than one occasion. He actually admits to his own folly, when after a three-paragraph ramble about failed projects, he starts the next paragraph with ‘Anyway…’. You can almost hear his broken cogs spring off the page. When you’re hiring, try not to fall into the same trap – keep your writing concise and focused.
Give your quotes some context
Cummings quotes five of his favourite thinkers in a pompous, irrelevant epigraph that he doesn’t bother to explain. It’s left to the reader to join the dots as they read on. If you want to use a quote in your writing to back up a point, then great. Just make sure the reader doesn’t have to work to realise why it’s included. Used poorly or too often, these allusions can be distracting instead of supportive.
Okay. Now we’ve brought him down a peg or two, let’s take a look at the good stuff…
Choose an open and honest tone
Too often job specs slip into internal jargon and the human disappears from behind the words. Not Cummings. ‘We want to improve performance and make me much less important — and within a year largely redundant.’ With this approach, the applicant gets a much stronger sense of the person they’ll be working for.
Try something unusual
Job specs tend not to evolve with the role. The same old ads are wheeled out year on year with the same tired structure – a brief summary of the role followed by a list of must dos and must haves. Cummings throws out the formula, and to good effect. ‘Those applying must watch Bret Victor’s talks and study Dynamic Land. If this excites you, then apply; if not, then don’t.’ Hiring managers can use these specs as an opportunity to show off their company’s personality. Share a quote, a study, a story: something unexpected to get the best candidates interested.
Use more ‘you’, less ‘we’
It’s a common gaffe in job specs for companies to talk too much about themselves. Off the back of the election, Cummings could’ve waxed lyrical about Boris’ romp to victory, The Tories’ huge majority, Brexit oven-ready, blah blah. Instead, he puts the candidate centre stage. ‘You should be able to explain to other mathematicians, physicists and computer scientists the ideas in such papers, discuss what could be useful for our projects, synthesise ideas for other data scientists, and apply them to practical problems.’ Next time your HR teams are updating your role profiles, try doing the same. It lets the applicant picture themselves in the job and get a stronger sense of whether they’re the right fit.
We’re curious to see what happens next, and whether Cummings will stay true to his promise to ‘post some random things over the next few weeks and see what bounces back’. In any case, even if your company isn’t looking to hire a graduate Rasputin, there are some tricks and techniques here that you can borrow for your own job specs. And definitely a few habits you can ‘bin’.
We do like a writing geek out. (If we didn’t, we’d have to think about putting our name out to tender.) And we don’t discriminate. Ads, road signs, mum’s to-do list – if it gets us talking, it’s going in our bank of favourites.
Before we sign off for 2019, us London creatives have picked out five bits of writing that stuck with us. Here goes…
Carlsberg – probably not the best beer in the world
In a world full of sceptics, a healthy dose of honesty can go a long way. Carlsberg couldn’t ignore the critics any longer – nor did they want to. They launched their new beer and owned up to their past failings in the campaign that went with it.
‘We focused on brewing quantity, not quality. We became one of the cheapest, not the best.’ We’re not used to brands using such frank language. When they do, it forces us to sit up and listen.
There’s great strength in taking such a candid approach. First, it showed they were listening to their customers and doing their best to change things. And second, it made their #newbrew sound all the more intriguing.
If ever you feel as though your brand’s back is up against the wall, try the Carlsberg approach. Own up to your flaws and make it work for you.
Revolut – Ts & Cs rewrite
We’ve always been a strong campaigner for a clear writing style. If you join any of our training sessions, you’re bound to see a study or two fighting the cause. But legal teams and their documents are often the hardest to sway.
So when we heard Revolut had a breakthrough, we were pretty chuffed. They rewrote their Ts & Cs to make them ‘clear, simple and easy to understand’.
It’s proof these documents aren’t a tone of voice no-go zone. These are the contracts that set out the legal relationship with customers, and businesses owe it to them to make those terms as clear as possible.
Okay, only a small portion of customers ever need to use them. But when they do, it’s often because they want to lodge a complaint. If they’re easier to read, those customers are less likely to grumble.
Puns should always be used with some trepidation. One false move and you can end up sounding like an embarrassing uncle. You know the one – coming soon to a dinner table near you. But these are p-Itch purr-fect.
They get a smile out of dog and cat lovers everywhere and, more importantly, do a great job of promoting their products. But there’s no use using puns or humour for the hell of it. It’s got to be appropriate for your brand. Otherwise you really are just barking up the wrong tree.
We’ve always been a fan of citizenM. So much so in fact, we took a client to one of their hotels this year to show them what a great tone of voice looks like in action.
They leave no stone unturned, making sure their voice shows up in every nook and cranny. From the welcome mat in their lobby, right down to the feedback form they send you when you checkout.
Considering not many people take time out to complete these forms, it’d be ever so easy to go down the generic route. But not citizenM. Any opportunity for their tone to shine, they take it. And build their brand in the process.
These moments make a lasting impression on people. Especially in these instances where it’s the last point of contact with the customer. It could be the difference between counting on their return custom and watching them disappear into the sunset.
The New York Times – The British and Irish dialect quiz
Our final winner shut down the office momentarily. The quiz asks you a series of multiple-choice questions and will locate where you were brought up, almost to the borough, by the answers you choose.
It might ask, ‘What is your name for the playground game where one child chases another?’ Is it tag, had, it, tiggy, tuggy, or touch (the list goes on)? The answers drum up all manner of nostalgia. Taking you back to when you bought a chip butty, bap, or roll that time you first skived off, dogged off, or played hooky from school.
It’s such a fun celebration of how expressive language can be – how every region has its own relationship with it, and will bend and mould it to best suit the sound and character of their accent. Give the quiz a try. We’re sure you’ll have as much fun as we did.
So, what tips can we take with us into 2020:
Stay honest. Open up about your faults, they’re often what make your brand interesting.
Use clear, natural language. Even legal teams are coming around.
Play with puns respectfully. Don’t take guidance from your Christmas cracker.
Put your tone everywhere. In the big campaigns and on the tiniest of labels. And everything in between.
And do the New York Times quiz.
Nowadays, our beloved books too often play second fiddle to a binge on Prime or a Killing Eve marathon. Here’s a reason for us to ditch The Crown and cosy up with a good old fashioned novel this evening.
It’s a beautiful love affair
Psychologist Victor Nell looked at the state our mind falls into when we read for pleasure.
He found that when we’re at peak-pleasure we slip into a trance. Everything slows down. We’re not being raced along, moment to moment, scene to scene, as we would be in film and tv. We’ve got time to stand still and reflect. We can start placing our own lives and memories on to the story we’re immersed in.
We fall deeper than just the words on the page and into the arms of the author, and things get profound and steamy (in a literary sense). It can feel a lot like falling in love.
And the best thing is, you’re not exclusive to one author – you can be as unfaithful as you like.
So go on, put away the smartphones for a day. Netflix can chill. It’s time you fell in love again.
And again. And again.