Blog in Grammar rants
Hey, banks – if you want a killer reason why your brand needs a tone of voice, and why you should use it every time you write to your customers, it’s this: it’ll help stop your customers falling foul of phishing emails.
Why? Because online fraudsters can’t write. Most phishing emails are full of grammatical errors, clunky phrases and – deliberately or not – are written in a strangulated formal tone.
Even the quickest nose around banksafeonline’s archive of phishing emails turns up a whole crop. How about this from an attack on Co-operative Bank’s customers:
‘The Co-operative Bank P.L.C. Internet Banking Security Department has been receiving complaints from our customers for unauthorised uses of the Co-Operative bank accounts. As a result, we are temporarily shutting down some selected Online Accounts perceived vulnerable to this, pending til the time we carry out proper verification by the account owner.’
‘For unauthorised uses of’ is just bad grammar. And the strangulated formality of accounts ‘perceived vulnerable to this, pending til the time...’ is just weird.
A recent phishing email sent to Halifax customers crams the same two bad habits into a single sentence:
‘Important notice: note that your Security Question and Answer should be match correctly for proper re-verification, in order to avoid service suspension.’
Of course, most people who fall foul of these attacks aren’t reading the phishing emails in this kind of detail. And that’s the point. At a quick read, people obviously just get a general feeling that these emails are genuine.
That doesn’t say much for our impression of how banks communicate with their customers. But it does present a clear opportunity: if you make sure the way you write to customers is clear, natural and distinctive to your brand – especially for ‘unsexy’ day-to-day emails – then these shabbily-written phishing emails will instantly feel wrong to your customers. They’re much more likely to think ‘hang on, this doesn’t sound like my bank...’.
Ironically, the phishing email that prompted me to write this post was this one, purporting to be from HM Revenue and Customs:
‘After the last annual calculations of your fiscal activity, we have determined that you are eligible to receive a tax refund of 468.50 GBP. Please submit the tax refund request and click here by having your tax refund sent to your bank account in due time.’
Its pompous and formal tone sounded exactly like how HMRC actually sound. Which is really dangerous for them.
PS: Hey, phishers! Ever thought about signing up to one of our writing workshops?
Get lost. We only use our powers for good.
‘Work and imitation go together in the process of learning.’
Stretching your mind – the value of imitation
Imitation can be good, especially when you’re starting out as a writer or trying to master some new form of writing. (After all, imitation is the natural way we learn as kids.) Consciously imitating a writing style helps you to discover how it works, helps you to learn its underlying structure.
And then you start changing it. Some changes make the text or the approach better, some make it worse. In either case, you learn something new about the topic, the text, the approach and about yourself as a writer.
That’s the good kind of imitation.
Imitate, don’t copy
Copying on the other hand is rigid and unthinking. There are no variations and there is no learning.
That’s the bad kind of imitation.
(There was one good thing about copying in the past: it kept you writing. But with the computer’s copy and paste, even this advantage is gone.)
So, stop copying and start imitating.
Remember that ‘grammar nazi’ sketch on Mitchell & Webb? The boss of a business calmly shoots employees who misuse or (mostly) mispronounce words and ends up killing himself when a colleague points out his own mistake. What is it about it that makes us laugh? The risqué idea of going on a workplace killing spree? Or is it that we imagine ourselves pointing the gun at apostrophe, comma and colon abusers? (Enough about my dodgy fantasies.)
There’s obviously something about grammar that gets under people’s skin. Newspapers’ postbags and inboxes are groaning with spleen-venting rants about this or that mistake that lazy sub-editors have let through. The ranters usually end up tracing the ‘problem’ back to inadequate teaching. Or a general decline in ‘standards’. Which of course were much higher when they went to school and learned how to do it all properly.
Take a look at this nutty blog from a businessman who says he won’t hire people with ‘poor grammar’. Then check out the comments. Typical combination of frothing anger and nit-picking. Hardly anyone’s thinking about what the piece actually says. They’re all getting stuck on hyphens and split infinitives.
Above all, they’re not seeing that good writing is about more than grammar. Grammar all by itself never moved anyone. Never persuaded them. Never entertained them.
So what’s really going on when the ‘sticklers’ hold forth? I’ll take a punt. People who dislike and fear change, but can’t do much about it, are latching on to what they see as an example of it and letting out all that pent-up fear and rage. It helps that the topic is something they feel they’re an ‘expert’ on.
It’s great if you can put your commas and apostrophes in the right places. And not get your ‘there’ and ‘their’ mixed up. Your writing will be easier to read and readers won’t get distracted by the mistakes. They’ll probably take the writing more seriously too. But that’s assuming they read to the end. To make them do that you need personality, verve, style.
People write best when they enjoy it. And they won’t do that if they’re getting an insecurity complex from their inner school master.
I love self-service tills in supermarkets. For a start, I’m an introvert, so they mean one less human interaction in my day. Also, it’s really satisfying beep-beep-beeping your stuff across the scanner – like when you were little and pretended you worked on a checkout. (Maybe that was just me.)
But really: whose idea was it to make them talk like a cross between a cyborg and a civil servant? I don’t know why they bothered getting that velvet-voiced lady to read the script when she just ends up barking weird phrases like ‘unexpected item in bagging area’ at you. They should’ve gone for a full-on Dalek voice and had done with it.
There are two reasons why the supermarkets should get on to this.
Firstly, daft, robotic phrases like ‘please wait while we verify your bags’ aren’t exactly consistent with the warm, customer-friendly supermarket persona.
Secondly, half the time the machine makes no blooming sense. Many a time I’ve gone in for a packet of paracetamol or a bottle of wine and found myself standing there like a lemon while the till bleats ‘approval needed’ at me. I’d probably feel a little less exasperated if it said something sensible like ‘We just need a member of staff to check that for you’.
Supermarkets, we’d be more than happy to help you make your machines more human.