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We’re an opinionated bunch, here at The Writer. If you’ve ever worked with us, you’ll know we’ve got no time for things like buzzwords, or boring, formal writing.
But we know we’re in a bubble. We think about words all day, every day. On the plus side, that means we know our stuff. But on the minus, there’s always a danger that we’ll lose touch with how real people think.
So we teamed up with Nielsen and two well-known FMCG brands, let’s call them Soothe and Sport, to put our theories to the test.
We got our hands on one product concept each for Soothe and Sport. They’d already run the concepts through testing and both had got the worst possible result: ‘probable failure’.
We rewrote them both in three ways: one neutral, one in the Soothe tone of voice, one in the Sport tone of voice.
We wanted to see if good writing could improve a product concept’s performance in testing. And we also had a hunch that Soothe customers would prefer the Soothe tone of voice, and Sport customers would prefer the Sport tone of voice.
What we found
Good writing makes a disproportionately big difference. Our best-performing concept doubled the overall result of the previous version. (And each concept took us about 20 minutes to rewrite.)
Loyal customers prefer writing that’s in the brand’s tone of voice. The concept in the Soothe tone of voice was most popular with Soothe buyers.
Clear writing beats concise writing. Our best-performing concept was actually a little longer than the original. And a version we chopped right down ended up failing the clarity part of the test.
Metaphor works. As part of the testing, people had to click anything they particularly liked. The phrase that got the most love was this: The clay inside acts like a sponge.
People need to know what ingredients are for. The original Soothe concept talked about moisturising cream and vitamin B3, but left it there. In our rewrites, we gave the benefits attached to those ingredients, and took the result for the ‘credibility’ scale from bottom marks to top marks.
You can explain away people’s worries. The Sport product contains clay. After the original test, people were worried it would stain their clothes and clog their pores. In our versions, we named those worries and explained why they were unfounded. Nobody had any worries about the clay.
Work experience: but not as you know it
Hello, we’re The Writer, the world’s biggest language consultancy.
We’re looking for students, ideally second-year undergraduates, to come to our two-day Word Experience on Wednesday 12th and Thursday 13th April.
If you like what you read, be sure to send us your application by Friday 24th March. (You’ll see how to get in touch a bit further down.)
What’s ‘Word Experience’?
We get a lot of requests from people wanting to come on work experience. But we’ve always felt work experience was pretty unsatisfactory all round: we can’t help many people in a year; you inevitably end up doing quite a bit of boring stuff; and, if we’re honest, it’s a lot of work to do well. (And who wants to do it badly?)
So we cooked up Word Experience: we gather about 20 people together for two days of creativity, workshops and fun stuff. Along the way we’ll talk to you about how you can make a career out of writing for business, show you how our agency works, and some Writer folk will tell you their own stories of how they got into business writing. All to show you there’s a career for people who like words that isn’t publishing or journalism.
Then we usually pick two people from each year to come back and join us for a short paid internship. (And some of those have ended up working here.)
Keep reading if:
You already write for your course
Maybe you study English, journalism or creative writing. Or maybe you just write a lot of essays.
You write in your spare time too
You might write for your student paper, a blog, or fiction. It doesn’t matter as long as you write.
You’re a bit of a word geek
You have a tendency to get excited or properly riled up by all kinds of writing. From tube ads to tubes of toothpaste, Booker Prize winners to Charlie Brooker.
Yes that’s me. What do I need to do?
Send us 300 words telling us why we should pick you (and a way for us to get in touch with you) to email@example.com. Make sure ‘Word Experience’ and your name are in the subject line. And get it to us by Friday 24th March.
Here’s what previous Word Experiencers have said:
‘Word experience is, in a nutshell, the workshop we all should have done ages ago. Finally it feels like there’s a company out there who is trying to show you how to turn what you love, into what you do. Those two days in London opened my eyes to an industry I was surrounded by and yet unaware of, it gave me a whole new appreciation for marketing, for words and for the people who write them.’
‘Hands-on activities included the sorts of word games that seem like harmless entertainment while you do them, but come loaded with Karate Kid-style moments of realisation that detonate later on. The other day I was struggling over an email to a tutor, then something clicked and (wax on, wax off) I realised I could cut out half the words to make it cleaner and clearer.’
Every year we go all Mystic Meg and try to predict the word exploding into a boardroom near you any time now. Throughout 2016 we had a few words on our ‘watch list’: the ones we were starting to hear more and more in presentations and CEOs’ speeches around the world.
So this year’s winner is: pivot. (Here’s our Neil talking about it on the BBC’s Wake Up To Money podcast, 39.50 minutes in.)
It’s a word that’s had a big leg-up from a year of political turmoil. With Brexit and Trump’s unexpected win, all kinds of businesses are hastily rethinking their strategies. But announcing to the world that you’ve ‘changed direction’, ‘changed your mind’ or made a U-turn’ all sound worryingly reactive.
That’s the beauty of ‘pivot’. Because it’s a word with a specific scientific meaning, it sounds so much more specific and planned, doesn’t it? Less panic, and more physics.
The ones that nearly made it
Bubbling under were tiger team, a group of experts brought together to solve a business problem, and swim lane, an area of responsibility in business (as in ‘maybe we can all stick to our swim lanes on this one?’). Add those to your bingo card in 2017.
(In 2016 we picked ‘amplify’, and the year before that, the suffix ‘-jack’. Both have gone on to great things.)
The sociolinguistics of your office
Of course, an obvious question is why each year ushers in a new set of business buzzwords. Well, as The Economist’s Lane Greene was saying on our podcast last month, language isn’t just about communication, it’s also about identity. And businesspeople want to sound as much a part of the in-crowd as your average socially awkward teenager. And it takes courage to reject what everyone else is doing at work, just like it was at school.
So, if you’re the person who refuses to budge in 2017 when everyone else is pivoting, we salute you.
We had an event the other week where customer experience experts told us what they’d learnt about changing the language of their CX. (Yes, we know the jargon.) They were Jorge Mascarenhas from O2, Jess Poore from British Gas and Shelagh Martin from HSBC, since you ask.
If you weren’t there (and most people in the world weren’t), here are a few of their pearls of wisdom. Think of them like ‘Goals of the Month’ on Match of the Day.
1. To change your language externally, you need to change it internally. So don’t talk about ‘retention’; talk about ‘customers staying with us’. Get HR and internal comms bought in to really change the language of your culture.
2. Map out how your customers feel at different points in your journey. And tune your language to match. Split test your writing, and see when people want you to fall over yourself to be helpful – and when they just want the facts.
3. The last conversation you had with a brand shapes what you think of that brand, even if it’s on Twitter, or through a bill. And all of those moments add up to a good or bad experience.
4. The right language can win you fans in a crisis. When O2’s network went down, their customers actually got behind the O2 social media team because they handled so many grumpy customers in a genuine way, rather than just spitting out stock phrases.
5. To simplify your customer comms, you need to simplify the processes that sit behind them. That said, you can make even a complicated process feel easier by explaining it really clearly.
6. Language can help make your CX more efficient, or more empathetic, or more distinctive, or more consistent. Or all four. But be clear what you’re trying to achieve at the beginning.
7. Measure. Measure. Measure. Look at things like response rates and volumes of complaints to see the effect you’re having.
Having a strong, trusted brand is at the top of many marketers’ priorities. But what happens when your whole industry is struggling with an image problem?
Banks are still trying to repair trust after the 2008 crisis. Consultancy PwC identify ‘rebuilding trust’ as the number one megatrend for the financial services industry. And others echo that concern.
In his column How Can Bankers Recover Our Trust?, leadership consultant Steve Denning points to a vast gulf in customer satisfaction between companies like Amazon and old-school banks. And he, like Keith Mestrich, president and CEO of Amalgamated Bank, says greater transparency is one way to rebuild customer confidence.
What many banks don’t realise, is that transparency isn’t just about what you say or disclose. It’s about how you say it, too.
In a study by Siegel+Gale not long after the financial crisis, 84 per cent of US consumers surveyed said they were more likely to trust a company that uses jargon-free, plain English. And 63 per cent felt that banks, mortgage lenders and Wall Street intentionally make things complicated to hide risks, or to keep people in the dark.
So why is it that, all these years later, most banks are still talking about ‘accrued interest’ or ‘affirmative covenants’?
Next time you’re working on customer communications, look out for those jargon culprits. (Often they’ll be acronyms that take a whole footnote to explain.) And keep asking yourself, ‘What does that really mean?’
So, instead of ‘accrued interest’ you might try: ‘interest you’ve earned but not yet been paid (also known as “accrued interest”)’.
Your customers won’t just prefer it. They might just trust you more, too.