Copywriting

Write clearly to avoid the reality gap

Sometimes we can spend too much time worrying about the latest Google update, smartphone or OS version and forget that effective communication – for that’s what all these tools are there to support – often needs to be clear and simple.

This runs throughout our lives, as I found when I was booked into my local hospital for a medical procedure. I had a preparatory appointment with a nurse to brief me and took home a leaflet giving detailed instructions. I also had a preparation to start taking on the day before the procedure.

On that day, I found some of the information from the nurse, the leaflet and on the box containing the preparation conflicted. It was a Sunday so I used my common sense to work out the problem: a minor niggle that didn’t matter much.

I was getting concerned because the leaflet said the procedure would take 30-40 minutes to complete and, knowing that it was likely to be uncomfortable and that sedation would not knock me out completely, I braced myself for this mentally. I felt it was going to be tough. As it turned out, just before my turn the doctor mentioned that he was timing each procedure for a study and that the average time was 6-7 minutes: I breathed a sigh of relief.

I am glad to say the procedure was quick, painless and the results were fine. However, I had approached it in completely the wrong frame of mind as a result of the details in the leaflet.

Such gaps between perception and reality can be created by any written instructions. Whether we’re selling a flat-pack wardrobe, an electrical gadget or a holiday, it can be easy to plant the wrong impression in a customer’s mind. Once planted, that seed can grow into a dream or worry that bears no relation to the real product, service or experience.

For businesses selling products and services, this can create unrealistic expectations, impossible to deliver; for doctors it can cause unnecessary worry in patients.

Consistency and clarity are essential when writing instructions or descriptions. Not only do they prevent confusion and wrong impressions, they help to create happy customers . . . and patients.

Make it easy for readers to find and understand messages

Running a business is a complex challenge. Whatever the size of organisation, many processes need to run smoothly, while a number of statutory bodies require tax, accounting, health and safety and many more regulations to be observed.

How do you get your people to know this and recognise the importance of compliance?

Many organisations create manuals and intranets outlining important procedures, but do people read them?

Making information accessible is important if employees are to use materials in the course of their work. People need to know they can find the information they need fast.

Easy-to-use indexes and navigation

Readers will find a manual more useful if it is structured so that they can find what they need fast in contents or index pages or flick through the main body and see what they want in a heading.

An easy-to-navigate intranet or web site will also be more useful if viewers can find what they’re looking for fast.

Clear explanations

Once a reader has found the information they want, they have to be able to understand it. People tend to consult reference material when they don’t understand something and need an explanation. To provide what they want, manuals and web sites need to provide clear explanations without using jargon and without waffle.

If people can’t find what they’re looking for once or twice, they probably won’t bother trying a third time. And if they can’t understand explanations when they do find the right section, they’ll think the material is a waste of their time.

More importantly, if staff cannot understand important processes or regulations, what impact will it have on your business? Could it reduce productivity or, worse, prevent the business from meeting legal requirements?

Useful resources improve business

If you are going to the expense of creating reference material for employees, you’ll get the best value if they find it easy to use and it helps them do their jobs. It’ll also help maintain productivity and ensure your business meets any legal obligations.

Make it easy

With businesses pumping out so much information in press releases, newsletters, blogs and tweets, how much of it is clear?

Clarity is important when readers have so much to read. If they can’t understand something, it needs to be very important for them to take the time to re-read it or contact you for clarification. Most likely they won’t bother and will move on to the next item, possibly from a competitor. If that is easy to read and understand, you’ll have lost out.

When you’re close to your business, you understand the complexities: how everything fits together. It won’t be so clear to someone who doesn’t know your business. Often, people give up if they find something confusing.

Sometimes it isn’t necessary for customers to know about complex issues which are important to the internal processes of your business. If that’s the case, don’t mention them or you’ll add unnecessary complexity.

Where you do have to mention complexity, such as different brands or subsidiaries dealing with different products or services, make sure that these are explained clearly. If not, customers won’t know who to contact about what and they could feel it is easier to go to a competitor.

Why am I writing this? Because I am trying to write about a company which appears to have a similar sister company offering a similar product and I have had to ask them to clarify the set-up. Not everyone would bother to ask.

How to write the best social media profile . . . for you

Many of the best marketers learn the rules of marketing so they can break them to stand out from the crowd. Social media is a lot newer so the rules are still being written, if it’ll ever be possible to have rules in such a fast-moving, constantly shifting environment.
So how can you write an effective personal profile to post on social media sites?
It’s about you . . .
Whereas you’re probably used to writing about your business, not yourself, social media is about people. Potential followers will want to know about you, the person, and a combination of your business and personal interests, experience and expertise. Sometimes it can be the most unlikely topic that connects two people and creates a valuable business relationship, so your profile has to be as open as possible while remaining within the safe limits of what you are prepared to publish online.
. . . connecting with other people
You want to connect with other people. If you have a social media strategy, you’ll have already identified the type of person you want to attract and what interests they have. Perhaps you’re looking for new clients, suppliers, business partners, advisers, a business support network or friends in the same field. If you’re using social media for business, then your goals will probably include one or more of these.
By entering relevant keywords in your profile you can make it easier for your targeted group to find you in searches, while your profile’s content and style will then attract them to follow or contact you. The ideal reaction is “he sounds interesting” or “I need to connect with her”. If you achieve these, you’ll attract your target group to follow you by choice without using automated following tools.
Developing your personal style and tone
A quality portrait photograph and suitable logos to brand your business create a good visual first impression. Your text has to go beyond this to convince readers that you are a genuine, approachable and valuable contact.
Developing the right tone of voice is important. You want people to hear in their minds how you would greet them in real life at a business meeting or other event. You’ll probably want a mix of professional and friendly, although depending on your business sector people could expect you to be more formal/informal, conservative/modern or representative of the way people talk in your industry.
This is a very personal choice and you will have to decide what is suitable. Remember, nothing is set in stone and if you find your profile does not work effectively at first, you can refine it or even re-write it completely. Sometimes experimenting can be useful to discover what works and what doesn’t.
One thing to consider carefully is the use of humour. Everyone has a different sense of humour and what you find funny may strike others as anything other than funny. Humour can be very effective in communicating, but needs to be handled very carefully. There seem to be more failed comedians using social media than successful ones.
Heading
Where a site lets you post a heading, this gives you the opportunity to summarise yourself in five or six words. You could say “an accountant with 20 years’ experience”, but that sounds boring. “Award-winning accountant who understands business” suggests you are a leader in your field and are able to get beyond numbers and filing tax returns. “Approachable accountant helping Berkshire businesses” shows that you are easy to work with and serve clients in a specific place.
As with tone, your heading is a matter of personal choice. There are many different approaches, but all of them enable you to highlight the one or two most important characteristics you want readers to notice. Most sites let you edit your profile, so you can change your heading to reflect a change in interest, different times of year or events.
Profile text
What do you write when faced with an empty dialogue box? Well, what are you trying to achieve through your social media strategy? Who do you want to attract? What is it you want to interest them in? What balance of business and personal information do you want to give? The answers to these question will help you sort the information to include.
Also, how do you intend to participate in a specific service, such as twitter, or on a forum? Will you write tweets giving out advice, find people to help on a specific issue, publish blogs on a specialist topic? Will you be projecting a business persona or are your opinions going to be purely personal? Do you want to establish yourself as an expert in your field or do you just want to talk to people for fun? Again, these are serious questions that need to be answered if you want to achieve specific aims.
Even if you want to establish yourself as a serious expert, it’s going to be you talking, not your business. So write in the first person as if you were speaking, using I, rather than in the third person, using he/she/it, which is usually the case in business and could sound overly formal here. However, you probably don’t want to repeat I, I, I all the time as it will put many people off. If the profile has separate personal and business sections, you can write about the business as ‘it’ or ‘we’ in that section.
Highlight your achievements and expertise, but think how you would view someone who arrives at a business meeting, then launches into how successful they are, what awards they’ve won and much business they’ve got. Be careful that your achievements do not come across as bragging.
How will you know if what you’ve written is suitable? Let a trusted colleague or associate read it and give you constructive criticism. They could have some very good ideas for improving it. Don’t worry about criticism, because writing about yourself is one of the most difficult things anyone can do and probably the reason why so many people put off writing profiles.
Also, check you grammar, punctuation and spelling. If you can, ask someone else to check it: a fresh eye is more likely to pick up typos.
What’s the best length?
Some profiles limit how many words you can enter, so use this to focus on what you really want to say. If there is no limit, it’s still a good idea to be succinct. If you have several things to talk about, split these into sections. If you’re able to use html in the profile, you could create basic navigation so people can click on a heading to go to that section. However, if it’s too long, people could just give up. The best balance is where you write enough for a reader to find you interesting: not too little and not too much.
How do people find you?
Many social media services and sites feature keyword searching, so include relevant words to feature in search results. Think about what words and phrases your targets are likely to enter in the search box. Again, if you can use html, you could use the keywords to link to your web site to drive more web traffic to it.
Where do I start?
Taking this all into account, why not start writing your profile now? If you can’t decide on which approach is for you, look at other people’s profiles for inspiration. How do those in the same industry write their profiles? Don’t copy them, but decide what you like about them and what you don’t like. Adopt the approaches you like and apply these to writing your own original profile.
Let’s get personal
Remember that your profile is about you: it’s personal. It’s there to make you stand out, so the more individual you can make it, the more readers are likely to find it interesting. Don’t be afraid to experiment, as most sites let you edit your text. There are millions of profiles out there, so if you discover a unique way to present yourself that works well, then use it.
Do you have your own profile tips?
There are so many personal choices to be made when writing your profile. What do you find works particularly well? Please share your experience and tips.

Many of the best marketers learn the rules of marketing so they can break them to stand out from the crowd. Social media is a lot newer, so the rules are still being written, if it’ll ever be possible to have rules in such a fast-moving, constantly shifting environment.

So how can you write an effective personal profile to post on social media sites?

It’s about you . . .

Whereas you’re probably used to writing about your business, not yourself, social media is about people. Potential followers will want to know about you, the person, and a combination of your business and personal interests, experience and expertise. Sometimes it can be the most unlikely topic that connects two people and creates a valuable business relationship, so your profile has to be as open as possible while remaining within the safe limits of what you are prepared to publish online.

. . . connecting with other people

You want to connect with other people. If you have a social media strategy, you’ll have already identified the type of person you want to attract and what interests they have. Perhaps you’re looking for new clients, suppliers, business partners, advisers, a business support network or friends in the same field. If you’re using social media for business, then your goals will probably include one or more of these.

By entering relevant keywords in your profile you can make it easier for your targeted group to find you in searches, while your profile’s content and style will then attract them to follow or contact you. The ideal reaction is “he sounds interesting” or “I need to connect with her”. If you achieve these, you’ll attract your target group to follow you by choice without using automated following tools.

Developing your personal style and tone

A quality portrait photograph and suitable logos to brand your business create a good visual first impression. Your text has to go beyond this to convince readers that you are a genuine, approachable and valuable contact.

Developing the right tone of voice is important. You want people to hear in their minds how you would greet them in real life at a business meeting or other event. You’ll probably want a mix of professional and friendly, although depending on your business sector people could expect you to be more formal/informal, conservative/modern or representative of the way people talk in your industry.

This is a very personal choice and you will have to decide what is suitable. Remember, nothing is set in stone and if you find your profile does not work effectively at first, you can refine it or even re-write it completely. Sometimes experimenting can be useful to discover what works and what doesn’t.

One thing to consider carefully is the use of humour. Everyone has a different sense of humour and what you find funny may strike others as anything other than funny. Humour can be very effective in communicating, but needs to be handled carefully. There seem to be more failed comedians using social media than successful ones.

Attract followers with an interesting heading

Where a site lets you post a heading, this gives you the opportunity to summarise yourself in five or six words. You could say “an accountant with 20 years’ experience”, but that sounds boring. “Award-winning accountant who understands business” suggests you are a leader in your field and are able to get beyond numbers and filing tax returns. “Approachable accountant helping Berkshire businesses” shows that you are easy to work with and serve clients in a specific place.

As with tone, your heading is a matter of personal choice. There are many different approaches, but all of them enable you to highlight the one or two most important characteristics you want readers to notice. Most sites let you edit your profile, so you can change your heading to reflect a change in interest, different times of year or events.

Shaping your profile text

What do you write when faced with an empty dialogue box? Well, what are you trying to achieve through your social media strategy? Who do you want to attract? What is it you want to interest them in? What balance of business and personal information do you want to give? The answers to these question will help you sort the information to include.

Also, how do you intend to participate in a specific service, such as twitter, or on a forum? Will you write tweets giving out advice, find people to help on a specific issue, publish blogs on a specialist topic? Will you be projecting a business persona or are your opinions going to be purely personal? Do you want to establish yourself as an expert in your field or do you just want to talk to people for fun? Again, these are serious questions that need to be answered if you want to achieve specific aims.

Even if you want to establish yourself as a serious expert, it’s going to be you talking, not your business. So write in the first person as if you were speaking, using I, rather than in the third person, using he/she/it, which is usually the case in business and could sound overly formal here. However, you probably don’t want to repeat I, I, I all the time as it will put many people off. If the profile has separate personal and business sections, you can write about the business as ‘it’ or ‘we’ in that section.

Highlight your achievements and expertise, but think how you would view someone who arrives at a business meeting, then launches into how successful they are, what awards they’ve won and much business they’ve got. Be careful that your achievements do not come across as bragging.

How will you know if what you’ve written is suitable? Let a trusted colleague or associate read it and give you constructive criticism. They could have some very good ideas for improving it. Don’t worry about criticism, because writing about yourself is one of the most difficult things anyone can do and probably the reason why so many people put off writing profiles.

Also, check you grammar, punctuation and spelling. If you can, ask someone else to check it: a fresh eye is more likely to pick up typos.

What’s the best length for a profile?

Some profiles limit how many words you can enter, so use this to focus on what you really want to say. If there is no limit, it’s still a good idea to be succinct. If you have several things to talk about, split these into sections. If you’re able to use html in the profile, you could create basic navigation so people can click on a heading to go to that section. However, if it’s too long, people could just give up. The best balance is where you write enough for a reader to find you interesting: not too little and not too much.

How do people find you?

Many social media services and sites feature keyword searching, so include relevant words to feature in search results. Think about what words and phrases your targets are likely to enter in the search box. Again, if you can use html, you could use the keywords to link to your web site to drive more web traffic to it.

Where do you start?

Taking this all into account, why not start writing your profile now? If you can’t decide on which approach is for you, look at other people’s profiles for inspiration. How do those in the same industry write their profiles? Don’t copy them, but decide what you like about them and what you don’t like. Adopt the approaches you like and apply these to writing your own original profile.

Let’s get personal

Remember that your profile is about you: it’s personal. It’s there to make you stand out, so the more individual you can make it, the more readers are likely to find it interesting. Don’t be afraid to experiment, as most sites let you edit your text. There are millions of profiles out there, so if you discover a unique way to present yourself that works well, then use it.

Do you have your own profile tips?

There are so many personal choices to be made when writing your profile. What do you find works particularly well? Please share your experience and tips.

Borrowed thoughts in borrowed words

It’s now so common to express your ideas through a quote borrowed from a prominent writer or expert that we’ve decided to give in and join the practice, starting with:

People who like quotations love meaningless generalizations.”
Graham Greene, Travels with my Aunt

A great question for an essay or maybe to discuss over a drink in the pub, but sadly too many people take the lazy way out and quote away with very little accompanying original thought.

I enjoy reading the work of Jerome K Jerome, but if you search for him on twitter there are two specific quotations tweeted so many times daily that you wonder whether these people have actually read anything by him. (You’ll have to search yourself as I won’t include them here.)

Quotations can be very powerful when used sparingly. After all, how many of us can better the words of the greatest thinkers and writers? But if we communicate our ideas solely through someone else’s language we end up sounding like receptacles for soundbites with no ability to think for ourselves.

I imagine that a lot of people who issue their daily quote quotas don’t think deeply, while some can but don’t feel confident enough to express themselves effectively. Perhaps they think their ideas will carry more weight when shored up by the words of a well-known figure, even though the genius of a great writer is more likely to overshadow their message.

My own preference is to hear someone express their thoughts in their own words.

 

If a picture can paint a thousand words . . .

. . . why are they all questions?

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What is that? Where is it? When was it? Why was it there? What was the point? Who did it? Is it still there? Is that an inflatable? What gas was used to inflate it? Who chose the colours? Where did it come from? Will it be there again? Is that a mountain or a hill? Is it inland or on the coast? What are those brown patches on the hill/mountain?

That’s already 15 questions in just 72 words, so just think how many questions you could ask in a thousand words.

So does that mean words are more effective for communicating than pictures?

Of course not: both are useful in different ways. A picture or photograph can grab attention specifically because people want to find out more about a stunning image. For example, the BBC England website news page often has an ‘England’s Big Picture’ feature showing a partial image to tease viewers into opening it up to see if it is what they think it is. Stunning photography or images that tease can be useful in PR and marketing to attract people to read accompanying text.

In the same way, intriguing headlines can grab readers’ attention so that they read an accompanying article or text. News papers and websites make imaginative use of words in this way and, within reason, press releases and articles can do the same, as long as they do not mislead.

So what are more effective: words or pictures?

Neither. When applied with skill, one will not be more effective but will complement the other. If anything, a great photo will be let down by lousy writing, while a well-written article can be buried by poor illustration or layout.

When they work well together, the reader won’t take any notice of the composition of a photograph or style of writing but be totally engrossed in the message they convey.

That’s certainly our aim.

Cramming too many words on to a page

There is an option to stop writing.

There are also options to edit what’s already written, to cut, to shorten sentences.

More words don’t necessarily make it any easier to understand a message. As the 140-character limit of twitter demonstrates, communicating succinctly can be very effective: it concentrates the mind.

I can remember sitting in an exam and watching someone walk up to the front of the hall for more paper. I worried that I wasn’t writing enough. It didn’t matter: the few words I wrote answered the questions well enough for me to get an A.

I can remember a sales manager worrying about a tender and just writing more and more. In the end, they just repeated themselves to the point of confusion.

When standing up to deliver an elevator pitch, the most effective attention-grabber is often a pause.

Sometimes the words we leave out make those we do write and say even more powerful.

 

Making the right sounds

What’s the best tone in which to write? It all depends on what you want to say, who you say it to and what you want to achieve.

Just imagine the response to someone walking into a pub and talking like the press officer of a local council? Probably some strange looks and possibly a phone call for an ambulance to take them away.

Why? Because the institutional language of local government isn’t appropriate in a pub.

So how do you know what voice to use and how to develop a style of writing appropriate for your audience? One way is to read out loud what you write and listen to how it sounds. If you don’t feel you’re good at reading aloud, ask a colleague or associate you trust to read it out and listen to them. Is it language your audience will understand easily? Are they likely to respond to it? Ask what other people you know think of it.

It’s important to remember that words on screen or paper still have to sound right because they are spoken by the silent voices in people’s minds.

Try it and see how your voice sounds.

 

Guaranteed sleep remedies

Some words and phrases are used so much in marketing, advertising and public relations that they have lost their original power.
New is an obvious one, but enhanced, improved and innovative have also become almost meaningless. How often do official enquiries conclude that “lessons have been learnt”, only for organisations to make the same mistakes again?
Often our response can be to turn off, stop listening and, if we’re trapped in a conference or presentation, even nod off to sleep.
This creates a challenge when marketing products and services, especially when you do have a genuinely new or improved product and your audience has become immune to hyperbole.
What can you do? One answer is to aim for a balance of fresh, upbeat messages that reflect your products realistically. Use language itself to create a lively atmosphere by developing an active voice (eg saying you do something rather than that it was done to you), by cutting out unnecessary words and avoiding clichés.
While it’s harder work than using safe but tired words and phrases, the extra effort can produce messages that really are exciting, grab the attention of customers and persuade them to buy. When they’re enjoying themselves people can be readier to listen your message and take it in. They’ll certainly be more responsive than if they were asleep.

Some words and phrases are used so much in marketing, advertising and public relations that they have lost their original power.

New is an obvious one, but enhanced, improved and innovative have also become almost meaningless. How often do official enquiries conclude that “lessons have been learnt”, only for organisations to make the same mistakes again?

When we feel we’ve heard it all before, our response can be to turn off, stop listening and, if we’re trapped in a conference or presentation, even nod off to sleep.

This creates a challenge when marketing products and services, especially when you do have a genuinely new or improved product and your audience has become immune to hyperbole.

What can you do? One answer is to aim for a balance of fresh, upbeat messages that reflect your products realistically. Use language itself to create a lively atmosphere by developing an active voice (eg saying you do something rather than that it was done to you), by cutting out unnecessary words and avoiding clichés.

While it’s harder work than using safe but tired words and phrases, the extra effort can produce messages that really are exciting, grab the attention of customers and persuade them to buy. When they’re enjoying themselves, people can be readier to pay attention to your message and take it in.

They’ll certainly be more responsive than if they were asleep.

 

Public sector dehumanising language

In a newspaper article about council refuse collection the other day, the featured council’s representative referred to employees as ‘operatives’. For me, this word represents all that is wrong with literary cleansing for political purposes.

I see the people who collect our refuse as ‘people’; operatives makes them sound like machines and dehumanises them. We used to call them dustmen or bin men, because they were predominantly men, but I see nothing wrong with using dustwoman.

Our dustmen are very helpful and cheery, as are our posties, both men and women, and I think of them as individuals: real people. ‘Operatives’ suggests they are cold, unthinking, mechanical, inhuman and unable to take pride in helping the community.

No doubt, many councils and public sector organisations trot out the old cliché that ‘our people are our most valuable asset’. Well, if that’s true, treat them like people and show them some respect when talking about them.

The dustmen and women and all the people who actually provide services are the public face of councils and public sector organisations and often create much better PR for them than any good-news glossy magazine, press release or damaging comment by a representative in a newspaper.

After our last blog, are you cutting out unnecessary words?