Blog in Grammar rants
‘We should probably comment on this. Hmm, what can we say?’
Brands needing to react to the news is nothing new. But between a global pandemic and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, 2020 has made topical messaging pretty much a full-time job for marketing departments. And they’ve got big expectations to live up to as these days, we want the brands we buy from to show they care about social issues.
But topical messages can be a minefield. In this blog series, we’ll look at three ways to make sure you’re positively contributing to the conversation – and not just jumping on the bandwagon. And that starts with getting your story straight.
Your ad-hoc posts need something solid to back them up
It’s not enough to send out an email telling customers you’re committed to their safety at this difficult time, or post a #BlackoutTuesday black square on Instagram. Consumers are all-too-wary of the cookie cutter ‘social issue response’ from brands, as this post perfectly sums up:
To avoid looking like you’re paying lip service, your words need to be backed up by actions. In the case of Black Lives Matter, for example, are you championing Black voices in your content? Donating to organisations that fight racism? Changing your hiring practices to find more diverse talent?
And all of that needs to be backed up by a solid brand story – your purpose, values, vision and taglines. The core pieces of storytelling that will back up the more reactive messaging.
Now’s the time to reassess your messaging
A recent survey of UK Twitter users found that 93% of us don’t want brands to go back to their pre-Covid messaging. So if there was ever a good time to re-jig how you talk about your business, it’s now.
Gather together the core pieces of your brand story – usually found on your website About Us and your brand positioning documents - and take a long, hard look at them. Do they hold up in 2020? Or, like KFC’s Finger Lickin’ Good, do they suddenly feel out of step?
Sort your brand messaging into what you can keep, what you need to update, and what needs to go. And don’t forget to involve all your teams. Make it a diverse group and ask them what they think your brand stands for, what it means to them. Because that’s where you’ll find a truly authentic story.
Of course, once you’ve figured out what your story is, you need to work on how you say it. More on that in part 2 of this series…
This blog is part of series on communicating topical messages, without sounding like you’re just jumping on the bandwagon. You can read part two here.
Herd immunity, incubation periods, zoonotic. Over the past few months, the general public’s vocabulary has exploded with medical terminology and niche scientific jargon.
‘Ah, the R rate,’ we nod intelligently. ‘Of course, the distinction between the R number and the growth rate is crucial.’ A few BBC articles down, and we’re all expert epidemiologists.
… Except of course, we’re not.
It’s good that we’re all learning more about something that’s changing our daily lives. But coming into contact with so much technical terminology can cause a fair few problems for us as readers. There’s a lesson here for the scientific and medical industries in general: what’s the right way to talk about complex topics?
Two problems with jargon
1. By definition, it’s exclusive
Jargon is defined as ‘special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand’. The part about ‘a profession or group’ is important: jargon is insider language. It signals to people who aren’t in the know that they’re on the outside.
In the wrong hands, that insider feeling can be used to deliberately obscure meaning – throw around enough complex words, and your listener might give up trying to understand, and just assume you know what you’re talking about.
2. It makes us switch off
An Ohio State University study from February this year found that reading specialised terms actually makes us less excited about certain topics.
In the study, two groups read about topics like surgical robots or self-driving cars. Afterwards, the group exposed to technical language reported that they were less interested in science than those who read the same content, without the technical terms. (Even when those terms were explained, it didn’t help – the presence of jargon alone was enough to disengage readers.)
So let’s assume you don’t want to deliberately pull the wool over your reader’s eyes, or bore them to tears. How can you use language to draw people in, not push them out?
Think like your reader
When you’re an expert surrounded by other experts, it’s difficult to un-know all the sector-specific knowledge in your head. Test your writing out on a family member or friend – do they get it? If not, you need to find a simpler way in.
The fix might be as simple as defining a scientific term when you first use it – even if that feels dumbed down to a pro. But sometimes it might mean rethinking how you frame the information, and whether all the new vocabulary is helping or hindering your reader.
Acronyms send a signal to our brain that what we’re about to read looks like hard work. So avoid them when you can.
Let’s say you’re writing about ACE2, the protein in our cells that coronavirus attaches to (told you I was an expert epidemiologist). The first time you use it, explain what it is. But any time after that, you could just say ‘the protein…’ rather than repeating the acronym.
Use language we can see, hear or touch
What’s clearer: ‘Maintain social distancing’ or ‘Keep a car length away’?
Concrete language that we can see, hear or touch is much easier for our brains to process than abstract concepts. Try using more verbs (doing words) than nouns in your writing, and using language you can physically imagine. In the public health realm, people will be more likely to do what you’re asking of them if they can picture it.
We’ll never be able to do away with technical terms – nor should we try to. They’re important for accuracy, and as a shorthand when we’re talking to others who are in the know. But when you’re trying to communicate niche ideas to the public, they work against you. So keep the jargon behind closed doors. Now, excuse me while I google R rate again.
A lot of people have been getting worked up about commentators using 'medal' as a verb during the Olympics.
Everybody calm down. The English language is packed to the rafters with verbs that didn’t start out as verbs. Like these:
Languages evolve, and there’s nothing we can (or should) do about it.
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.