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?


More words are not any easier to understand

One of the disadvantages of being a copywriter is having to wade through so much material to produce a piece of writing that means something and which people will want to read. I’m doing some research at the moment and whatever I read seems to take far too long to get to the point. It’s not as if I’m reading a novel where the scene has to be set or a play where the atmosphere has to be created: this is business.

There is a temptation, especially when an argument is a bit shaky and there is not sufficient evidence to back a point, to write more words in the hope that repeating it will convince the reader. It’s a bit like repeatedly shouting the same words at someone who does not speak your language in the futile hope that repetition and volume will force them to understand.

For busy people who are looking for information fast, clear and simple is best.

Of course, this can be complicated by the needs of internet search engine optimisation which can require keywords to be included in online content for the sake of technology, not the reader. There are also techniques to increase recognition of a brand or an argument through using repetition.

Such writing techniques require balance. Text written purely in keywords will sound like someone who’s swallowed a product catalogue, while aimless repetition of a point will sound like the cries of a market trader. Crude use of these techniques will turn readers away as the text won’t sound natural.

However clever a writer wants to be, if there are too many unnecessary words, the reader will tire and stop reading.

After yesterday’s blog, what have you done to progress your marketing and communications today?

z2zine tomorrow: public sector dehumanising language

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Writing those first words

Many people put off writing because it worries them. This is understandable if you don’t feel you’re a natural writer, but there really is nothing to worry about. If you don’t like what you’ve written, you can tear up your sheet of paper or delete your word processing file: it can’t actually hurt you.

Even experienced writers sometimes find it difficult to write, while on other days they find the words flow easily.

If you do worry about writing, especially for business, remember that you don’t have to publish anything until you’re happy with it. This means you can write as many versions as you want and ask as many people as you like to check it and proofread it before your readers see it.

If you don’t like what you’ve written, ask yourself why you don’t like it and how you can change it. Read it to a colleague and ask for their opinion. It can be easy to be too critical of your own writing and other people sometimes have a more balanced view. When you’re reading material written by other people, think about what you like and what you don’t like about how they write.

What’s important is to make a start and put some words down on a blank sheet of paper or type something on to the screen so that you have text to work on and can start building your confidence.

After our last blog, do you know what and why you need to communicate?

z2zine tomorrow: Moving your plan forward

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Finding your voice

One of the biggest challenges when writing for business is in selecting the right tone of voice, both for you and your readers. There used to be a tendency to write in a very cold, formal, unwelcoming style, while now some people write very informally and can be too familiar. Depending on your target audience, the best style is probably somewhere in between these extremes.

What’s important is to develop a style that feels comfortable for you and your business and which your audience likes too. It’s no good developing a highly individual style of writing which your audience can’t understand, as business text has to be practical. If your main objective is to persuade people that your product is worth buying, they have to be able to understand that easily.

Style develops over time, so don’t agonise over your writing: you can only develop your style through practice. Also, most business materials have a very short shelf life these days, so focus on improving your writing every time you write a new brochure, report or blog.

While it’s important to be aware of the rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling, any piece of writing has to be interesting for people to read it all the way through. Finding the balance between a style that is easy to read and which also reflects the character of your business can take some practice, but it is worth it. There is so much boring text printed and published online that most people welcome the opportunity to read something interesting. This gives you the chance to shine through with an effective writing style.

So think about this every time you write something for your business, whether it’s a report, a letter or promotional material. It will also help you to measure what works as you see the effects of your developing style in terms of increased responses. If responses drop, you’ll know your style isn’t suitable for your readers and can work to change it.

We’ll talk more about this in the future, but bear it in mind for now.

After our last blog, have you thought about what interests your customers?

z2zine tomorrow: Know why you’re communicating

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Marketing deficiency: incorporating peripheral vision into the broader view

The power of social media can be staggering, but so can the downward drag of all the dross and spam.

As millions flock to use twitter and similar services, sifting out the rubbish can become a chore (even with clever applications automating it). It’s a bit like discovering an excellent pub where the beer is superb and the conversation even better. At first, a select group frequents the pub, but over months more and more people discover it and eventually it becomes crowded and noisy. Perhaps some of the regulars retreat to a private room to recreate the atmosphere that originally attracted them or maybe even find another pub they can visit in comfort. The pub is now just like any other and eventually it is abandoned and closes as people move on to the next up-and-coming hostelry.

In marketing terms, this happens all the time as businesses look for new ways of promoting and selling their products and services. Underneath, a lot of what they are doing should be the same: researching products and markets, updating business plans, developing campaigns to advertise and sell products.

What does change is peripheral activity: advertising, promotion and public relations. As one method loses its attraction, another is invented or rediscovered. I call it peripheral because it is often the delivery mechanism or format that changes most, although in no way are these unimportant. These activities can range from the traditional, such as print advertising, to the revolutionary and can often be be mixed and matched to suit specific marketing objectives.

One of the most exciting aspects of marketing is finding new ways of communicating that make you stand out from your competitors. Inevitably, others will catch up and copy you, your target audiences lose interest as new campaigns grow familiar until the hunt begins for the next new method.

Change is constant at this periphery, but the main marketing vision has to remain consistent to achieve the objectives of the business plan. Balancing the consistency of the core business vision with the changing nature of peripheral activity is a challenge, but getting it right is crucial. It means that you can choose from a huge choice of marketing tools, watching the new grow old and at the same time keeping an eye on the horizon for tomorrow’s new tools and opportunities.

What’s important is not to be distracted by peripheral vision from seeing what’s ahead.

An obligation to entertain

When I write for pleasure, I write to entertain myself. There’s no point in doing it if my audience – me – is not entertained. If other people are entertained by my writing as well, that’s a bonus.

When writing for other people, either businesses or theatre audiences, I have an obligation to entertain them. If not, businesses won’t read what I write and audiences will lose interest and walk out of a show.

It doesn’t matter how factual or important content is, people need to be entertained to take note of the message that’s being communicated.

Often this gets lost in the scramble to use technology to communicate. It doesn’t matter whether the message is written in 140 characters on twitter or daubed on a plywood sign at the side of the road: if it isn’t entertaining, people won’t take notice.

So do you need a creative person to write for you? They certainly should be able to help, but there’s nothing to stop anyone writing entertaining copy.

Think of it as telling a story or joke to your friends or recounting your latest achievement in your favourite hobby or sport. If you can make these sound exciting and communicate your enthusiasm, then why not anything else? All right, I recently struggled to make a piece on sewers entertaining, so there are some topics where a little extra effort can be required.

Always remember that, whatever the format or delivery method, we are obliged to entertain our audience.

That’s all for now, folks!

Fresh is the marketing key to followers

There’s nothing new. There’s nothing original.

If social media and micro-blogging are blessings, the curse they bring is of endlessly recycled mediocre ramblings. With the need to feed search engines and provide a continuous supply of articles and content, today’s marketing challenge is how to remain interesting, useful, relevant or entertaining when the option to unfollow, switch off or ignore is so easy to choose.

When every business is scratching around for something original to say, the only realistic option is to relax and find another approach. Most media content – from adverts on television to gags used by comedians – is not new, but to be successful it has to appear fresh. Simply repeating the same unchanged story again and again, as many are doing, is an instant turn-off. It’s like meeting someone at a party who always tells the same joke, which wasn’t that funny the first time round: someone we try to avoid.

Give three people the same speech to read and each one will deliver it differently. Some will read woodenly and make the audience sleepy, others will be mildly interesting, while a few will project the words with the energy and emotion to hold the audience spellbound. That’s what we have to aim for: spectacular delivery.

Technology, tools and content are important, but it’s the manner of delivery that bind them to work together successfully. I’m sure that occasionally the new and original can be found, but much of what we say and read is based on or inspired by what exists already. We can choose to discard it in boredom, trot it out again flatly without enthusiasm or use our creativity to refresh it and relaunch it in a format that enables successful communication.

How do we do that?

By using our personality and creativity to add relevance and interest. What are our customers interested in? What will they find attractive? What will they take notice of? Strip away unnecessary words and details, adapt the story to our clients, our sector, the current climate. Use the tone of voice, language, cultural references with which people identify. The result will be the same story but fresh, relevant, targeted and useful: with more chance of people listening, following and taking notice.

Don’t throw your flimsy briefs at me!

One of the skills needed in any creative marketing role is to be able to see the world from the client’s point of view so that you can produce work that achieves their vision.

Last week Simon and I were discussing various briefs – the specifications for a copywriting or other creative project – provided by clients and how minimal some can be. Often a client can want something, but not know what that something is. Our response is to ask questions to identify what they want to help us create it.

Now, we wouldn’t expect everyone to specify a precise word count for an article or list technical production details, but what is important in a brief is to have a reason for the project. Even before any creative aspects are considered, what is the business aim of the project: to sell an identified product, to increase company awareness, to advertise an event, to attract visitors to a web site?

Identifying this reason, the target audience and required result is the starting point for any creative activity. From there we can establish the best way to achieve what the client requires. Whenever starting a project, we always ask what the client is looking to achieve: some can tell us precisely, while others have to be helped to define it.

We include it as part of our service to ask these questions so that we fully understand the client, their needs and the projects they commission us to complete, but it makes good sense for any business to know what it’s looking to achieve at all times.

Doing this doesn’t just mean we receive fewer flimsy briefs, but ensures businesses focus sharply on their commercial objectives. And if their commercial objectives are clearly defined, we think they’re more likely to achieve them.

Structures and signposts help your readers

I’ve been working on a few longer documents recently, which has reminded me how important it is to structure texts.

If writing a book or booklet, a structure helps to keep the reader’s mind focused, whereas text that meanders from one subject to the next without really knowing where it’s going can lose the reader fast. A reader who doesn’t find content useful or entertaining is more likely to just give up.

Creating a structure is not difficult, especially for business or reference works. Start by listing the topics to be covered and arrange these into chapter headings and sub-sections. This not only helps readers, who can find what they’re looking for more easily, but helps when writing, as you will know where to put specific material and will be more aware of wandering off topic.

Very few business books are likely to be read from cover to cover with many people dipping in and out or looking up specific topics, so chapters, effective headings and sub-sections provide useful signposts for readers searching for information or answers.

Robert Zarywacz

Confusion down, productivity up with clear communication

Once again, a news item focuses on how gobbledegook used by local government confuses people or, at worst, conceals the truth. Yet it’s not only councils that use jargon: businesses are often just as guilty.

It can be easy, when sitting in a room with colleagues or industry peers, to throw jargon and acronyms around. It saves time and can make us look good; it can also alienate people, make us look arrogant and block progress when others haven’t a clue what we mean.

It doesn’t take much to communicate clearly, using plain English instead of jargon, but the difference can be significant. If we rattle off an email that no one can understand, readers will either ignore it because they don’t know what we’re on about and don’t want to look stupid themselves or respond by seeking clarification from us. So that’s two unnecessary emails we’ll have generated. Confusion up, productivity down.

Acronyms and abbreviations do have their uses. Spelling out or saying ‘methylene diphenyl diisocyanate’ every time does get tedious, so following its first use with the initials MDI (so everyone knows what we’re talking about) can be useful, but inserting them into every document or conversation regardless of the intended audience should be avoided.

The answer, as usual, is in achieving balance through ensuring that our audience understands any technical or specialist terms we use. That’s how to keep both understanding and productivity up.

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