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.

Something Inside So Strong

blogEntryTopperI've always thought that writing good copy is a bit like writing the lyrics for a song. Both need to be personal and universal, both have only a few moments to grab the audience's attention before they click off the page or spin the dial, and both need to make the audience feel something - to respond in an emotional manner.

Like good copy, song lyrics are persuasive, which is why they're used in so many adverts. They're also subtle, so they convey a mood or a feeling of well-being - satisfaction, contentment, freedom, whatever - rather than coming out and describing the by-the-numbers benefits of the product or service (the ones that do aren't songs, they're jingles).

Consider Labi Siffre's Something Inside So Strong, a song of history and substance. Originally written as a reaction to a TV documentary about the injustice of apartheid and to describe Siffre's own experiences growing up as a gay man, it was used to advertise the Peugot 307, a stodgy family hatchback so technically unremarkable that the ad agency felt it had to go for an entirely emotional response. Thus, a man delivers a baby, a prisoner paints, a woman protests, a couple kiss and by association, Peugots are elevated and purchased in their tens of thousands.

By emphasising an emotional connection, by telling a good story, well-written copy can achieve the same kind of results; and - thank God - we don't even have to make it rhyme.

Telling Tales

blogEntryTopperThe 'About Me' or 'About Us' page on many websites is often a source of dread, mainly because you know what's in store. Dates, dry statistics, perhaps a list of qualifications gained or courses completed, finished off with a liberal topping of inscrutable jargon. 

You can see why people do it. They want to establish their credentials or their skill set and they want to convince visitors that they bring experience and authority to whatever service it is they're trying to sell. 

But a lot of the time, it's counter-productive because it doesn't sound natural and it reads with the awkward formality of a not-very-good school essay. (One way of testing out whether what you've written trips off the tongue nicely is to say it out loud. If it doesn't sound like something a real person would say to another real person, then it probably isn't.)

Copy like this will almost certainly lack the other element that makes something worth reading - heart. A sense of connection between the reader and the author that establishes common ground or shared purpose and that makes you say to yourself: "Yes, this person 'gets' me."

That's why narrative copy - copy that tells a story - works so much better than a conventional company history or list of personal qualifications. It gives visitors to your website a glimpse of who you are and why they should do business with you. 

And everyone loves a good story. 

Five copywriting mistakes (and why people make them)

blogEntryTopper1. It's OK, I can write my own copy - In most cases no, you really can't. Just because you can write an estimate or a letter of complaint or a shopping list, doesn't mean you can write the kind of copy that'll persuade people to do whatever it is you want them to do.

2. Nobody knows my business better than I do - True - and that's part of the problem. You know every nook and cranny, you know what's behind every cupboard door, the history of each decision ever made, of every product you ever shipped and of all the services you ever rolled out. Nobody cares. They want to know what your product or service can do for them.

3. Good communication, it's one of my core competencies - No. Potential customers don't want to wade through indecipherable jargon to find the information they need. The writing needs to be clear and concise.

4. And serious right? I'm a serious person in a serious business - Well, not always. Good copy isn't a laughing matter but it understands that you need to talk to different customers in different ways; and yes, sometimes that means adopting a more relaxed style.

5. Our product's are brilliant - but unfortunately, your grammar is not. Bad grammar makes copy feel wrong and turns visitors off, and there are few things more likely to make someone click away than one of those wandering apostrophes.