Blog in Bits and pieces
I’ve just been listening to a debate on the radio about Gareth Southgate’s approach to managing England. The thrust of it was that his tendency to tinker with his tactics based on who he’s up against is either: a) brilliantly pragmatic, or b) the end of the world as we know it.
At the heart of the debate there seemed to be a tension between flexibility and identity. As in, if you’ve got one, you can’t have the other.
I think those clever football pundits have inadvertently hit on one of the big debates in tone of voice circles. When we’re working on a tone of voice, we’re often asked to build in some flex. And we’re very happy to do that, but there’s a drawback. A flexible tone of voice is an inconsistent tone of voice. And an inconsistent tone of voice isn’t really a tone of voice at all. It’s just some writing guidelines.
So before you put the F-word in your brief, ask yourself what’s most important to you: identity or flexibility?
Prepare for some heavy-duty boasting. In 15 years, we’ve never once failed to improve whatever metric our client was interested in improving*. We’ve:
* boosted sales
* cut customer complaints
* improved response rates
* increased NPS scores
* changed customer perception
* gotten ‘unheard of’ engagement on social media.
All through using language better. (Read about a bunch of those examples here.)
Why all the showing off?
Because language gets pigeon-holed as the fluffy bit of customer experience, if it gets considered at all. Even switched-on CX people often think it can’t really do any of the heavy lifting; words alone won’t make people buy more, or complain less, or stay loyal.
Language in customer experience tends to be thought of as a brand tool to do buzzword things like drive emotional engagement. And of course it can do that: if your writing is more human, interesting, exciting or unexpected then it’ll connect more with your audience.
But better writing doesn’t just help you connect. It makes and saves you money, because it makes you more efficient. It sharpens up your processes, and makes your communications more effective. Which your customers will love you for. We’ve got the proof.
The good news: changing the way you use language is a relatively quick, cheap and easy thing to do. Certainly compared with the other traditional challenges CX people face, like big digital transformation, or changing culture to break down internal silos.
That isn’t to say you shouldn’t be doing those things. But it does mean that if you’re not thinking really seriously about the language of your customer experience, then you’re missing a great big open goal. Investing a bit of effort into improving how you write always gets results.
*Or, at least, no-one’s ever told us about it if we have. If you’re a client of ours with a bad news story, let us know. We’ll be sad, but we’ll want to hear about it.
My youngest brother is, at the tender age of 22, living in his first definitely-not-a-student flat and working in his first ‘proper’ job. In the process, he’s encountering a whole new world of bureaucracy. And bureaucratic language.
There’s a problem with the bathroom light in his flat. They’ve been there two months now. It’s still not fixed. It’s now become something of a daily routine: get up, brush your teeth, email the lady at the estate agency about the light problem. Again. And she duly responds, telling him things like:
Regrettably, after liaising with facilities management as to their availability in the coming week the department has advised me that…
[insert unfortunate, but compelling, reason why the repairmen aren’t coming].
And my bro’s doing it too, in his own job. He’s ‘querying’ things where he just used to ‘ask’. ‘Advising’ where he used to ‘tell’. People ask him to ‘raise an issue’ with the distributors. He’ll write his colleague a nice email back, explaining that he’s ‘queried’ it, and the result is...
But does the weird, formal language bother him? Not really. He seems think of it like putting on a jokey voice – ‘Yeah but it’s funny. It’s like, oh look, I’m working in an office.’
So, what do you reckon? Should I be worried for my little brother’s soul?
Well, judging by the giant, comedy typing gesture he made to accompany the word ‘office’, I don’t have too much to worry about just yet. But, you know, we are what we repeatedly do. And habits are surprisingly quick to form: a mere 66 days. How long until my brother stops thinking of it as a joke – and stops noticing he’s doing it at all?
How long until his ‘office voice’ is permanently estranged from his real one?
So, please, take a moment to think: what weird linguistic habits are you picking up at work? Knock ‘em on the head now, before it’s too late. Otherwise it’s a whole other 66 days to get clean again.
Last week, they were talking about apprenticeships on the radio in the UK. Apparently, the ‘apprentice brand’ is dwindling. It’s becoming just another word for training.
My ears pricked up. At The Writer, we’ve had apprentices for many moons. It all starts with Word Experience. Twenty undergraduates come and spend two days with us, learning how to turn words into work. Then two of them come to spend a six-week stint with us as apprentices, learning all the basics of business writing.
There are lots of different apprenticeships, of lots of shapes and sizes and industries. But what about ours? Does it measure up to what the experts were saying this morning?
‘It should be all-round preparation for highly-skilled work.’
If it’s easy to read, it almost certainly wasn’t easy to write. In the words of Dolly Parton, ‘it costs a lot to look this cheap.’ And that’s what we teach.
Not everyone can take 2,000 words of passive language and corporate speak and turn it into a page-turner. Not everyone can weed out the killer points of an annual report. Not everyone can spin a head-turning headline.
It all takes time and practice (and a fair amount of getting it wrong before you get it right). Being an apprentice is just the start.
‘It should give value to the company in the long run.’
According to the Beeb, apprenticeships have been called ‘a monumental waste of money’ by some. Ouch. We pay our apprentices a good wage while they’re with us and put a lot of our time into training them. So does it all pay off?
Well, me and Jess were both apprentices, back in the day. Fast forward to now: we’ve been here three and four years respectively. Now, I work with words, not numbers. But if you think of all the paid work we’ve done in those years – I’d say that’s a pretty good return on investment.
Are you interested in being The Writer’s apprentice? It all starts with Word Experience. We’ll be posting about the 2017 course soon – but here’s last year’s info, just to whet your appetite.
Words by Suzanne Worthington
Are you already testing your documents to check their ‘reading age’? Well, one company is taking it a step further.
I spotted this piece in the Chartered Insurance Institute’s Journal, about a focus group set up by Covéa Insurance.
They ran a real-life reading age test
Covéa wanted to find out what was tricky to understand in their policy wording. (So they’re already a step ahead in trying to make their wording clearer.) But they did something extra-clever: their focus group participants were all between 11 and 13 years old.
That may sound odd, but their rationale makes sense. If, as the Covéa study quotes, 16 per cent (5.2 million) adults in England have the literacy level of, or below, an 11-year-old – why not just ask 11-year-olds?
Turns out kids don’t like over-complicated documents either
You can only see the Journal online if you’re a subscriber, so here’s what they found.
1. The children were confused about the meaning of words like ‘premium’, ‘excess’ and ‘write-off’.
2. They found it much easier to understand concepts when the researchers used simple words to help them imagine something happening. For example, if you tipped your home upside down and shook it, the stuff that falls out is the ‘contents’. (Neat.)
3. They found information easier to understand when it was in bullet points, tables or graphics. Just like grown-ups, then.
Let’s write off unclear wording
Policy wording, terms and conditions, contracts. If a lawyer can show that a document wasn’t clear enough for a normal reader then the document won’t stand up in court (even if people signed it to say they agree).
Too often, policy writers and lawyers assume too much of their readers. So ask a real person if they understand your wording. Or, better yet, follow Covéa’s lead – ask an 11-year-old.