Blog in Wordy thoughts
Ontological. Hermeneutics. Liminal. Epistemiology. Synecdochic. Dialectics.
Reading that list of words probably made you feel one of two ways, depending on whether or not you work in academia. To the academic, those words might’ve felt natural – like speaking in a familiar dialect.
The non-academic, though, probably felt lost. Perhaps a bit shut out of the conversation, or that it’s not really meant for them.
That difference sums up the problem with academic jargon.
By definition, jargon’s exclusive
It creates a clear divide between those who get it, and those who don’t. When you’re writing to experienced academics in your field, that’s not as much of a problem. But what about when you’re trying to reach a wider audience – like policymakers, journalists or the general public? Or readers whose first language isn’t English?
Two thirds of academics want to see more knowledge being shared between academia and practice, to make academia more inclusive. To break down that barrier between academia and the wider world, we’ve got to use our language to draw people in – not shut them out. And exclusivity isn’t the only problem…
Jargon can make even the most interesting topics pretty dull
An Ohio State University study 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 put readers off.)
Insider language is only part of the picture
It’s not just jargon that’s working against us in our bid to make academia more accessible. Overly complex language and long, winding sentences make for writing that’s dense and difficult to read.
A recent study of the readability of scientific journals found that 22% of papers published in 2015 had a readability score of less than 0 . That means not even university graduates could be expected to understand them. (For context, the readability of the BBC typically sits at around 60.)
When we’re writing to a wider audience, our language needs to shed light on things – not make them murkier. Here are some tips to help.
1. Find your own Doris and Bertie
When US investor Warren Buffett writes his annual reports, he imagines writing to his sisters, Doris and Bertie – they’re smart, but they’re not experts in finance.
To get out of your academic bubble, think of your favourite non-academic (like a friend, family member or partner), and write to them.
2. Cure acronymitis
Plenty of acronyms make your writing look like hard work, so use as few as possible.
Say you’re writing about the BPS, the British Psychological Society. The first time you use it, explain it. But any time after that, you could just say ‘the society…’ rather than repeating the acronym.
3. Watch out for zombie nouns
Academics love turning verbs into nouns: the utilisation of, the implementation of. Higher education professor Helen Sword calls them zombie nouns: they suck the energy out of your writing, and make it hard to see what’s happening. Use more verbs instead.
4. Swap the passive voice for the active
What’s easier to understand: a trend was observed or we observed a trend? The first is in the passive voice – we don’t know who’s doing the action. The passive voice makes your readability worse, so stick to the active.
5. Shorten your sentences
When your average sentence length is 14 words or fewer, readers take in 90% of your content on a first read. When your sentences stretch up to 43 words, that understanding drops to 10%. Add in a few more full stops to keep it readable.
Bonus tip: track your readability score in Microsoft Word. Find out how to switch it on.
We wrote this blog for academic publisher Emerald Publishing. They turned our tips into a nice infographic, which you can find here.
We’ve all come across them during “these uncertain times” – tone-deaf, cliché, or generally unhelpful Covid communications.
Anyone who came to our recent webinar on getting your message right during a crisis will remember this example from KFC:
In short, KFC put a lot of time and money into a glossy new campaign that brings their long-running slogan to life. But it couldn’t have come out at a worse time.
Ads, billboards, and social posts. All promoting putting your hands in your mouth right in the middle of a pandemic. Naturally, the response was pretty negative. Ad Standards received over 100 complaints, and KFC got a lot of flak on social media.
We were talking this over at The Writer, and we came up with a new take that keeps to the spirit of the original slogan while acknowledging the new norms of the pandemic:
Finger lickin’. Bad. At least right now.
Our chicken: still really good.
May we suggest a spork?
It got us thinking about other recent offenders, and how they might have been more effective. So, here are a couple examples of what not to do in your crisis comms, with edits from The Writer.
Focusing on yourself instead of the reader
One thing that doesn’t play well during a pandemic? Braggy, self-involved writing.
Hertz: A message about Coronavirus (Covid-19)
Whether you rent a car at the airport or at one of our nearly 3,000 convenient neighborhood locations, Hertz is here to get you there. Be assured as the No. 1 ranked company for rental car Customer Satisfaction by J.D. Power, our focus remains on going the extra mile to get you where you need to be safely and with confidence.
We are closely monitoring Coronavirus (COVID-19) and following the current guidance from the leading government and health authorities to ensure we are taking the right actions to protect our customers, employees and the communities where we operate.
Hertz hit a few wrong notes here. There’s the impersonal “Dear Customer.” It’s all about Hertz – not the customer’s concerns. And there’s the inappropriate bit of self-praise: “Be assured as the No. 1 ranked car company for customer satisfaction…”
Here’s our take on a more empathetic response:
We’re still here to get you there – safely
Hello from the home office.
A lot has changed in the last few months. Vacations might be on hold, or you might need to visit a family member. That flight might have been swapped for a road trip.
One thing that hasn’t changed? We’re still here to get you there, wherever the new “there” might be. In a clean, safe, reliable car.
Contact-free drop off and pick up means you can keep your distance. We’re rigorously disinfecting every vehicle with a multi-step cleaning process. And we’re following all available guidelines to keep our employees and customers healthy.
You have enough on your mind. When you ride with us, you can know that you and your family are safe.
Thank you for your continued loyalty. We hope to see you soon.
The Hertz Team
What’s changed? We’ve shifted the focus from Hertz’s record to the reader’s concerns, gave a nod to the new challenges, and addressed worries directly. While using more empathetic, personal language throughout.
Saying something just for the sake of saying it
Here’s an easy one. Take a look at this email from Barnes & Noble.
What exactly are we learning here? We already know that we’re living through turbulent times, right? It seems they felt they had to say something about Covid, but couldn’t come up with anything useful. At best, it’s time wasting. At worst, you sound opportunistic.
In this case our advice is simple: don’t say something just for the sake of saying it. It’s ok to say nothing.
Or, find something useful to offer. Maybe a book recommendation. (I’ve been enjoying Olga Tokarczuk’s writing lately. What about you?)
If you’ve come across a particularly good or bad crisis comm lately, we’d love to see it. Send it along to us @thewriter. And if you’re reading this at Hertz, Barnes & Noble, or KFC, let us know what you think. And feel free to drop us a line next time - email@example.com
‘Our tone’s just for our adverts, right? We can’t talk to customers the same way.’
You’ve put out your statement around Black Lives Matter on social media. You’ve added a banner on your website, explaining what you’re doing to support the movement. Job done, right?
Maybe not. In the quest for authenticity around social issues, focussing on big Above the Line moments isn’t enough. Your message needs to chime from every corner of your organisation.
Everyone’s a writer
Think about all the people who write on behalf of your business – customer service agents responding to chat messages and emails. The teams managing your social media. Even your finance and accounts teams chasing people up for payments. All of those people need to be on-message, too.
When they’re not, customers feel like they’re talking to a different company every time they speak to you. Which pretty quickly makes them question which side of you to trust. The empathetic messaging around COVID-19, or the short sharp emails from customer services?
When everyone’s on-message, it shows that your words have substance – and it creates nice moments that people take notice of. Like when Yorkshire Tea took the time to correct someone on social who assumed they weren’t supporting BLM:
Train people in your tone, and your messaging
Make sure any of the hundreds of people who might be writing on behalf of your brand are all on the same page.
That means getting them trained in your tone of voice, so they know how to sound. And it means equipping them with a regularly updated bank of key messages, setting out your brand’s stance on anything from the easing of social distancing measures to upcoming elections.
Those stances don’t have to be ground-breaking. But having them set out somewhere easily available makes it less likely that one of your colleagues will undermine all of your messaging efforts with an ill-timed tweet or complaint response.
As the year goes on, who knows what brands – and all of us – will need to react to next. But by getting your story straight, saying it with conviction and keeping everyone on message, you’ll make sure your words feel relevant and timely, and not like you’re taking advantage.
This blog is part of series on communicating topical messages, without sounding like you’re just jumping on the bandwagon. Find the first blog here.
‘We’re committed to endeavouring to attempt to support our customers. Um, where possible. Subject to change.’
If your biggest fear about reactive messages is sounding inauthentic, don’t just pay attention to what you say. Pay attention to how you say it. Certain words, clichés or types of language signal to readers that you’re not being genuine. Here’s how to keep it real.
Stop being ‘committed to’ things – and start doing them
In businesses’ responses to the pandemic, two words probably cropped up more than any others: committed to. Brands have told us they’re committed to our health and safety, to continuing to bring us great service, to getting back to business as soon as possible.
The trouble with those words is they don’t actually mean anything. You could be committed to going for a run – but until you’ve actually laced up your shoes and forced yourself out of the front door, that commitment is just hot air.
So look out for hedging language like that in your writing – other common culprits include endeavouring to, aiming to, and caveats like where possible – and cut it. Get straight to the action you’re taking instead.
Use concrete language
When you do get to describing the actions your brand’s taking, use concrete language to make those actions sound clear and convincing. Concrete language is tangible – words we can see, hear or touch.
On UK supermarket Sainsbury’s website, they say they’re ‘working to feed the nation’ throughout the coronavirus pandemic. That sounds much more solid and believable than if they’d said something abstract that we can’t picture, like ‘we’re continuing to provide for our customers’.
Don’t tell customers you understand – show them
Showing empathy in language is hard – and the easiest route can feel like relying on phrases like ‘we know times are difficult’ or ‘we understand that you may be feeling uncertain’. But telling people you understand them isn’t the same as… actually understanding them.
Instead of reaching for these phrases, show that you get it by listening to customers, and giving them the content they need and want from you now.
Like this nice and simple message on Airbnb’s website:
They haven’t said ‘we understand that travel abroad may not be possible right now, and you might be feeling stir-crazy at home’. They’ve shown that they get it by pointing customers to staycations and online experiences.
By avoiding hedging language, abstract terms and those ‘tell’ phrases, you’ll come across as more genuine, and make your messages stand out from the dozens of brands saying the same thing.
Now that we’ve covered the what and how, in our final blog in this series we’ll look at the where – how to filter your new messaging through everything you do.
This blog is part of series on communicating topical messages, without sounding like you’re just jumping on the bandwagon. Watch out for the final blog here. Or go back to the first one.
‘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.