The Writer in the USA

Anya and I have been over in New York for the last few weeks, running a kind of pop-up Writer. We’ve been doing workshops for our US clients, speaking at events, sweltering on muggy avenues, learning to ask for the ‘check’, tipping people way more than we’re used to, and of course, trying to make friends with people in nicely located offices (hello, Bill).

And naturally, we’ve been attempting to forensically examine the language of American brands in the process. So what have we learnt (or should that be learned)?

1.       The MBA still holds sway

There’s just as much of a battle as at home to wrestle business language into human. But it’s a slightly different battle; while British business writing tends to the stiff and bureaucratic, the US strain groans under the weight of business school verbiage. Just as in the UK, pretty much everyone recognises it gets in the way of decent communication, but that getting rid of it means changing the habits of a lifetime.

2.       They’ve got a bit of cheek

While you’ll find most British brands on a spectrum from businessy and dull to friendly and informal, the voices of American brands are much more polarised. It seems once you break free of the MBAspeak, you might as well go the whole darn way. We loved the café whose poster proclaimed their food was Prepared under the direction of an executive chef (not slapped together by a kid in a hairnet).

3.       They’re ready to take a stand

Some brands are being really bold about what they believe in, even when it’s got nothing to do with their product. We saw it in American Apparel’s windows, and a huge great poster saying If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get gay married. This on an advert for Manhattan Mini Storage. Forget PowerPoint slides about values; say what you think and slap it on the side of a bloody great building.

4.       Don’t get Texans to have a go at rewriting a bit of business writing in the style of Barack Obama

It opens a right old can of worms.

5.       You can be shameless without shame

In the UK, if I mention I’ve written a book (or three), it’s met at best with grudging respect. I only get away with a plug if I’m apologetically self-deprecating at the same time. Americans, by contrast, positively congratulated me for writing it (even, and in fact especially, the ones with their own books to flog). They treat you like you’ve really achieved something. They left me feeling like, well yeah, maybe I have. Rest assured that I will be swiftly disabused of that fleetingly satisfying sentiment as soon as I make it back into the UK office. We had a blast. So, America, will you have us back soon? (Maybe when it’s cooler.)

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