Blog in Wordy thoughts
Take some wishy-washy words. Add a line about causing offence. Sprinkle a hashtag. Hold the sympathy. Leave to simmer, then turn up the heat online for 15 minutes.
There you have the recipe for a half-baked public apology, cooked up by a publicist on behalf of a shamed celebrity. It’s a technique we’ve been seeing a lot of lately and, if social media is anything to go by, one we’re hot at spotting.
We get it though. Writing an apology (whether public or private) can be a minefield. Sometimes it’s because you’re afraid of looking weak. Or getting into hot water by admitting you’re in the wrong. But when sincerity is missing from your apology, it stands out at 40 paces.
So what’s our recipe for an effective apology?
Having a business is a lot like being famous. You’re judged on what you say and how you say it. A poor choice of words and your reputation can be left in tatters. But get it right and you’ll get good press, plenty of reassured customers and perhaps a few new ones for your efforts.
Whether you’re responding to a public outcry (for example, Ryanair’s cancelled flights last year) or a private letter, these must-have ingredients will help you avoid making a dog’s dinner of it.
An armful of active language
It’s an obvious one, but it shows you’re owning your apology. Sometimes you’ll see statements like ‘Mistakes were made’. By whom? We use the ‘by monkeys’ test. If you can add ‘by monkeys’ to the end of the sentence and it makes sense, it’s passive. Rejig the subjects and objects, and use verbs instead of nouns to turn what you’re saying active.
A healthy splash of sincerity
We see a lot of ‘We’d like to apologise for any inconvenience’, and we’d ban it if we could. It comes from the good old days of formal business language but in 2018, it comes across as copied and pasted from the user manual.
It’s also meaningless: the ‘we’d like to’ smacks of ‘we’re only doing this because we’ve been told we should’. The ‘apologise’ is a stuffy substitute for sorry, and ‘inconvenience’ is just plain rude. If you know what the fallout was (a missed wedding from a cancelled flight, a delay in opening a new account, a tree on the track) say it. It shows you’re listening and you care.
A pinch of personality
Every brand has a tone of voice. (Yours doesn’t? Call us.) It puts your brand’s aims and aspirations into words that everyone can get behind. It’s a big part of your end-to-end brand experience and so while you might think it’s only for the fun things (like an ad campaign or your website), it’s just as important – or even more so – for the more sensitive or serious stuff.
Because that’s where people really pay attention. By injecting a bit of your personality, you’re showing that your brand’s not run by robots reeling out the tired, formulaic phrases. And that you believe in talking to your customers in the same way, wherever they are in the journey.
A dash of humility
Being able to show that you’re learning works wonders. If you’re changing the way you do things, rethinking your strategy or simply refunding a payment, let your reader know. They’ll appreciate your honesty and openness (and the impact on their bank balance), and see your brand as more human than humdrum.
And a sprinkle of ‘sorry’
The all-important ingredient. Put it in first or leave it to the end. But put it in unsullied, untweaked and unfettered. No ifs, no buts, just sorry.
If you’re a company (or a celebrity) and your apologies need whipping into shape, get in touch.
‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’
No prizes for guessing who said this one, especially as I’ve put his name in the title. Churchill’s words on the Battle of Britain in 1940 are probably some of the most famous in history.
But something you might not know is that Churchill had a good few goes at these words – or a variation, at least – before he really got it right.
Forty years earlier, when speaking at a by-election in Oldham, no less, he said:
‘Never before were there so many people in England, and never before have they had so much to eat.’
Nine years later, he dusted off the old notebook and gave it another crack. This time he was talking about a new irrigation system in Africa:
‘Nowhere else in the world could so enormous a mass of water be held up by so little masonry.’
That’s not even the whole of it– there are loads more examples in here.
For any writer familiar with the feeling of struggling to get the words out, thinking about this example can be pretty freeing.
Effortless to read doesn’t mean effortless to write
Writing that looks naturally brilliant is, more often than not, the product of hours – or decades, in this example – of reworking something bit by bit until it just works.
When we see great words printed on an advert, or hear a great speaker say them, it can feel like they were always that way. That they just appeared fully-formed.
In reality, though, Churchill was able to come up with such a word-perfect line to suit this occasion because he was a great writer, yes, but also because he already had it in his armoury, after years of honing.
Let your first draft be a bit rubbish
We love the idea of the casual genius. But no one writes a perfect first draft.
There’s a myth that Abraham Lincoln scribbled the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope on the train on the way to give the speech. It’s a nice romantic image, but it’s not true: he spent a couple of weeks on it, probably made lots of revisions, and hated the idea of speaking off the cuff.
So next time you’re sat in front of a blank Word document, waiting for divine inspiration to strike, think about Churchill playing with the same words over forty years. Get a first draft out your system, and fix it later.
In most language guidelines, there’s a bit that goes, ‘Don’t say that, say this instead’. Usually, the don’ts are hideous corporate-speak, which then emerge in the ‘do’ column as gleaming paragons of concise simplicity.
Unfortunately, Deliveroo seem to have got theirs the wrong way round, as the FT reports.
In the don’t column: ‘We pay you every two weeks.’ In the do column: ‘Rider invoices are processed fortnightly.’ This is a no-no: ‘Yesterday you were late to start your shift.’ Instead: ‘Yesterday you logged in later than you agreed to be available.’
To be fair, there’s a reason for it. Deliveroo drivers are technically self-employed, so the company’s language needs to reflect the realities of the ‘gig economy’. Whatever your views on the blurring of that particular line, it’s obvious that these guidelines are making a factual distinction: it’s not quite correct to say ‘we pay you every two weeks’ if it’s more of an invoice setup. And they have to refer to ‘branded clothing’, because ‘uniform’ is what employees wear.
Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see what’s happening to the tone in the ‘correct’ examples. Take ‘rider invoices are processed fortnightly’: suddenly they’re using the passive and the third person. They’ve even gone for the more formal ‘fortnightly’. I don’t know the company or how their systems work, but it’s hard to see why they couldn’t have just said, ‘We process your invoices every two weeks’.
At the moment, companies like Deliveroo are facing legal challenges and government scrutiny over whether they can really classify their workers as self-employed when they’re trying to exert so much control over them. It must be making them nervous. And you can see that in their mangled, cautious, shifty language.
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.
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.