Blog in Bits and pieces
You might already have had to change up how you work over the last couple of weeks. But even if you haven’t yet, there’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic is having a huge effect on businesses. Working from home is becoming the norm, and we’ll all see more coronavirus cancellations in our calendars as non-essential visits get paused.
The Writer runs a lot of international training. So we’ve already had to think on our feet to switch up plans at short notice. Our clients are asking us how they can still get the benefits of a carefully thought-out language learning programme without the risks that come with travelling and face-to-face contact.
Here’s our view.
Now’s the time to take advantage of digital learning
We’ve long been fans of digital learning. How else could you get a hundred people together across a dozen cities, all brushing up on turning numbers into stories? Most of the training programmes we recommend will always have a digital element – whether it’s video conferences, pre-recorded lessons, or interactive e-learn modules.
We do that firstly because it’s effective. Designed well, virtual training can be just as impactful and successful as face to face. And often, it’s the only way to get the job done when teams are spread out across different cities and countries. A few days ago, we trained over 700 people in dozens of countries around the world in just one morning. One of those Webex sessions had over 350 people (a personal best for us).
Secondly, digital training is digestible. Online learning sessions tend to be shorter, so you can squeeze them into your day and spend less time away from what it is you do to make the company money.
Last but not least, it’s sustainable. Digital training cuts down on travel expenses, and you can repeat sessions and share them quite easily.
We anticipate that in the next few months, most of the training we do will be digital. And we’re cool with that.
With a bit of support, online learning works out great
Face-to-face, in-person training will always have a role for us. Attendees get direct contact with our trainers, so they can practice their new skills right as they learn them, and bounce ideas off a professional writer there and then.
This isn’t possible on a pre-recorded video, or practical in a video conference with 200 delegates on the line. So when in-person training isn’t an option, we recommend supplementing any training sessions with some backup support for when attendees have had time to try out what they’ve learned. For example, we might suggest:
- one-to-one coaching by video call
- writing advice through a ‘virtual helpdesk’: tap our experts for feedback and we’ll write back to you in an agreed time
- drop-in clinics (or ‘office hours’ for our American colleagues) – where teams can get feedback on their writing in real time, and learn from each other’s experience.
Your business might not be working as usual over the coming months, but that need not disrupt your training plans. If you’re looking for creative and novel ways to share learning while your staff are working from home, talk to us.
On BBC Radio 2, Jeremy Vine was talking about a workshop where a group from Walsall Council were asked to use Lego in an activity. The participants weren’t happy and the workshop was being mocked online. (You can read the article here.)
Well, I called into the show. Have a listen - I’m on at 1hr50.
Here’s my take: play is fine, as long as you pitch it right.
We’re huge advocates of interactivity in workshops. We’ve rallied against ‘death by PowerPoint’ for 20 years now, and that won’t be changing. It baffles me when people are herded into windowless, stuffy rooms and sat in front of a presenter and a PowerPoint for hours, if not days, at a time. It’s a passive learning experience. And a boring one to boot.
I learnt the other day that when you’re a participant in a workshop, your body becomes depleted in glucose in the same way it would if you were working out a mathematical problem*. Learning is hard work. So the last thing you want is for it to be dull too.
Building stuff with Lego, playing with plasticine, doodling. It might sound frivolous, but it can be really valuable. Play is a great way to get people thinking differently. It can unlock ideas and keeps people engaged.
When we design workshops for our clients, we think really hard about making them enjoyable and attention-keeping.
We’ve got references to Star Trek and Sherlock in our grammar workshop. We use Beyoncé lyrics to teach people about the passive voice. We have people thinking about their bucket lists so they can get better at writing bullet points. We channel poets and journalists when we want to show how to write persuasively. We get people up and moving and playing.
Because we know that it helps the learning stick.
But - and it’s a big but - we never do it for the sake of it, and we always think about who we have in the room and what’s going to work for them. It should never, ever be cringeworthy.
Join us for a workshop and you’ll see what I mean. Lego may or may not be included.
*That's from Roy Baumeister’s book Willpower.
Recently we’ve been writing some video scripts to launch a tone of voice. They needed to be funny, and it was interesting to see what worked and what didn’t.
Here’s my theory: In life, things can be one-beat, two-beat or three-beat funny. And you have to pick the right number of beats for your message, audience, and how long you have their attention for.
On screen it’s physical comedy like Del Boy falling through the bar. In writing, it’s stuff like simple puns.
Something unexpected, like this error message.
Or this bin lorry’s strapline.
When it’s good, one-beat funny can show a pop of personality. It takes no work on the part of the reader to ‘get’ it. And it’s handy when you don’t have your audience’s attention for long.
Dad jokes tend to be two-beat funny (or cringeworthy). My favourite joke from my Dad was when he called me one day and we had this conversation
Dad: Charlotte, we’ve seen a celebrity stabbed in London!
Me: What?! Who?!
Dad: Ummm, Reece…Reece something.
Me: Reece Witherspoon?!
Dad: No, it was with a knife! Bah ha ha ha! (Hangs up).
Kudos Dad – two-beat funny.
It’s what you see in observational comedy, where the audience needs to make a connection.
Like this Nytol advert.
Using this kind of humour is good for when you know you have your audience’s attention for more than a second or two. It tends to sound more intelligent or sophisticated than the one-beat kind. (With the exception of some dad jokes.)
This is where the audience has to engage their brain a little more to get it. Like this poster from The Economist.
This sign that went up when this electronics store closed down.
And that whole suite of ads from Spotify.
Beyond being three-beat funny
It’s where things get more surreal and you’re asking your audience to suspend belief or enjoy the ridiculousness of what you’re saying. Or they have to have some inside knowledge to get it.
Like Lewis Capaldi’s album launch ad.
This kind of funny can be risky, because there’s a good chance you’re going to alienate a portion of your audience. But the pay-off is big for those that do get it.
Why am I sharing all this?
If you’re wanting to get humour into what you write, here’s my advice:
- if you don’t have much time with your audience, go for one or two-beat funny
- for more high-brow humour, go for two-beat funny or above
- only do something beyond three-beat funny if you know your audience, or they know you, really well.
And with that, I’ll leave you with my favourite joke.
Q: What’s the difference between a kangaroo and a kangaroot?
A: One’s a kangaroo and the other is a Geordie stuck in a lift.
You. Are. Welcome.
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.