Don't be lost for words...

The best learnings

blogEntryTopperOccasionally, it's illuminating to take a look at some copy from a company that prides itself on communicating well with its customers. Of course we all hope that we're doing that, but when you place it at the heart of your strategy it's important to get your supporting copy right.

So let's take a look at this:

"We apply design thinking as a key deliverable. We don’t rush to get to the conclusion as often it’s on the journey where the best learnings come. We build relationships and within those relationships, the shared experiences help us to enrich and evolve our approach, working closely with our clients to add meaning and value as the projects unfold."

You can see what they're trying to do. They're big on relationships, big on the journey, on shared experiences, on "learnings" on evolving and the point where you think that last sentence will never end. (And that's putting aside the whole "learnings" catastrophe).

The problem is that the message (we won't approach your project with a fixed idea, but work with you to achieve the right result) gets lost in that mangled tumble of designspik (yes, we can make up words too) and whatever authority may have been built up by the rest of the website - which is considerable, by the way - simply evapourates.

It's the way kids write when they have to produce an essay but can't be bothered to research it, so instead they produce complex, compound sentences that try and sound important and insightful in a doomed attempt to get the word count up and make it appear as if they have something to say.

It's why we always read copy out loud, several times. It's not only great for catching grammatical errors and mis-spellings, but it also helps you parse the text to make sure you're - you know - actually making sense.

What are you good at?

blogEntryTopperThe longest delay we've ever experienced with a project was 15 months. And that's even not the total amount of time from start to finish - which was considerably longer. No, that was just the bit in the middle when the website design was finished and we were all just sitting around waiting for the client to deliver the text.

The client had very strong ideas about what they wanted to say and how they should say it. These ideas were so strong that it soon became clear that actually getting them out there was going to be a tough job. So we offered to help.

"No thanks," came the reply, "we're on the case now."

Months passed. By now, the strong ideas were stuck in the client's throat and it seemed that no amount of hawking was going to get them loose. We offered again - not to write the text but to put some rough ideas down that could perhaps coax the strong ideas out into the open so that the two could combine to form the finished message.

"No, we'll get on it now. Thanks for the reminder."

More months passed. The strong ideas atrophied until it was impossible to express them at all - at which point the client finally gave up and commissioned a copywriter to do the job.

The text was written in a week, then passed to the client for comments. At which point....well you can probably guess the rest.

The moral of the story? Do the things you're good at. Arrange the flowers, build the engines, design the aqueducts, fine-tune the carbon fibre, create the jobs, inspire your audiences, sing your songs; and let other people do what they're good at.

Got a lot to say?

Long ago, I got some of the best advice you can ever give a writer. "You need to learn how to cross out," said Sid Smith (his real name, as it turns out). He was talking about poetry, but this astute observation could apply equally to any number of forms, and especially to the web.

Print and pixels are two different kinds of media. We're used to perusing print with an easy eye that accepts the long form and that's willing to take on pieces of a thousand words or more. Not so on the screen, where our attention is constantly being tickled and prodded by adverts and links and associated 'if-you-like-that-you'll-love-this' stories.

On the one hand, copy that wants to stretch out and take its time is in danger of falling into what's sometimes known as the tl;dr trap - Too Long, Didn't Read. On the other, text that's been tightened and pruned to within an inch of its - all too brief - life, too often reads like a badly-written shopping list of keywords and jargony buzzphrases.

Instead, focus on your message, pay attention to the customer and concentrate on persuading your visitor to do whatever it is you want them to do. Once you've done that, stop writing. Your work is done.

Words have power

If you doubt that, then consider the kerfuffle that's currently surrounding the choice of name for the Natural Environment Research Council's new multi-million pound polar research ship, currently dubbed 'NPRV' or New Polar Research Vessel.

To recap, some bright spark came up with the idea of letting the public vote for a name for the new vessel, under the slogan: "200 MILLION POUNDS. 15,000 TONNES. 129 METRES. ONE NAME." All of which I rather like. It's engaging, the copy on the NERC website is catchy, and the idea of involving everyone in an endeavour that affects us all is a sound one.

Unfortunately, the organisers didn't count on the public's sense of mischief, and when the closing date was reached....well you probably know the rest already. The overwhelming choice was not 'Arctic Fox' or 'Polar Star' or 'Benthic Explorer' but the now infamous Boaty McBoatface.

You can imagine the horror at the NERC as the results poured in and it slowly dawned on them that - in their eyes - the thing had backfired badly. You can see it on the website. The opening section has a light touch and a sense of fun. Scroll down to the results section and the colours are sombre, the tone of the text heavy and resigned. It's all gone a bit Pete Tong.

This is because words matter, they have power. And in this case, the organisers clearly feel that those words will undermine the seriousness of what the NERC is trying to do. Indeed, UK science minister Jo Johnson has said: "I think we were clear when launching the competition that we were looking for a name that would be in keeping with the mission."

They weren't, of course, and the name now has such legs that I suspect whatever they end up calling it officially, Boaty is here to stay.

Because words have power, you know...

How Long

does it take to write the copy for a website? In our experience, the actual writing - the physical act of getting the words onto the screen - doesn't take very long at all. What takes time is understanding what it is that needs to be said and then distilling that down into compelling and digestible chunks of information.

The web has changed the way we read and therefore the way that we need to write. With a magazine, the writer must first compete with all the other titles on the newsstand to grab your attention and thereafter, with all the other articles and adverts in the magazine. It's a tough job.

But it's even tougher on the web, because your competition is essentially the entire known electronic universe, always only a click or two away; so a typical website has only seconds to rise above that background hubbub and do its job before the visitor moves on. 

That's why it's vital to distill your message, to refine your offering and to take a virtual red pen to all those extra, unnecessary words that are clogging up your site and dissipating the impact of your message.

Writing the copy for a website? That's the easy part.