Blog in Wordy thoughts
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.
My daughter’s learning to play the flute. And while her squeaky blasts and spit-spraying puffs into the mouthpiece might sound terrible to our neighbours, my more generous ears think otherwise. Which is why, in a moment of proud parenthood, I told a Spanish friend all about her efforts. How she’ll spend forever piecing the parts of the flute together and slotting it back in its velvet-lined case. And how, even if a note comes out an octave higher than anyone expected, she’ll firmly press her fingers down on the keys and give it another go until she gets it right.
It turns out that my Spanish friend’s son is studying music, too. ‘He’s in his second year of classes now,’ she confided. But when I asked what he’s learning she looked at me blankly. ‘Nothing yet. He starts with music theory, like everyone does.’ I was stunned. Two years of lessons about dotted minims, clefs and the like and he doesn’t even get to touch an instrument.
Which made me wonder how much theory is enough theory. When I run a writing workshop, people often fret about their spelling or where they should put an apostrophe. They’re concerned that if they don’t get that stuff right, they won’t be able to write in the right tone, or on brand. Which is nonsense.
I always make a point of parking the technical details at the start of a workshop – it can get in the way of enjoying writing (just as I’d rather play a piece of music before I analyse it). When people give different types of writing a go not only does it prove that their corporate career hasn’t sucked every single ounce of creativity out of them, it also shows that they can improve a piece of writing (even if the odd apostrophe’s off).
Most people want to see better writing at work – just as my neighbours would appreciate a little less shrillness from my daughter’s flute – but studying the theory alone won’t make that happen. I think we learn best by doing. Our workshops give the long-forgotten ‘writer’ inside everyone a job to do. One that they can keep on doing, even when the session’s over.
And the semicolons? Well, let’s leave them for the editor to deal with.
Words by Suzanne Worthington
Are you already testing your documents to check their ‘reading age’? Well, one company is taking it a step further.
I spotted this piece in the Chartered Insurance Institute’s Journal, about a focus group set up by Covéa Insurance.
They ran a real-life reading age test
Covéa wanted to find out what was tricky to understand in their policy wording. (So they’re already a step ahead in trying to make their wording clearer.) But they did something extra-clever: their focus group participants were all between 11 and 13 years old.
That may sound odd, but their rationale makes sense. If, as the Covéa study quotes, 16 per cent (5.2 million) adults in England have the literacy level of, or below, an 11-year-old – why not just ask 11-year-olds?
Turns out kids don’t like over-complicated documents either
You can only see the Journal online if you’re a subscriber, so here’s what they found.
1. The children were confused about the meaning of words like ‘premium’, ‘excess’ and ‘write-off’.
2. They found it much easier to understand concepts when the researchers used simple words to help them imagine something happening. For example, if you tipped your home upside down and shook it, the stuff that falls out is the ‘contents’. (Neat.)
3. They found information easier to understand when it was in bullet points, tables or graphics. Just like grown-ups, then.
Let’s write off unclear wording
Policy wording, terms and conditions, contracts. If a lawyer can show that a document wasn’t clear enough for a normal reader then the document won’t stand up in court (even if people signed it to say they agree).
Too often, policy writers and lawyers assume too much of their readers. So ask a real person if they understand your wording. Or, better yet, follow Covéa’s lead – ask an 11-year-old.