Tag Archives: English

GIVE VERBOSITY A SNIFF

Next time you are on a plane, get the duty free brochure and marvel at the most florid and inflated copy you will find anywhere (outside one of my own blogs).

For me, anything will do when I really need something to read. I will avidly digest every advert inside a tube carriage, including terms and conditions at the bottom. I have been known to sit in a hotel room waiting for Mrs Dev to finish getting ready, reading the fire drill instructions and every single bottle in the toiletries bag. I think it’s because I associate with whoever wrote these things, and I’m looking for errors and tautologies so that I can mentally high-five my own razor intellect.

Very sad, I know.

Anyway – back to the duty free brochure. Pick a bottle of perfume or aftershave and read its 50-word stanza, which invariably goes a bit like this.

Verbosity by Shanelle

Confront the factory smog of your existence with the splendid tones of emmenthal, shagpile carpets and smoky bacon burps in this sanctimonious ode to aspiration. Embrace your passion and be heralded by angels of destiny on your journey to the neverworld of you, and the banishment of forgotten ages past.

On the face of it, this is complete bollocks. However, looking more closely you can see that this is in fact extremely expensive.

What is the intrinsic value of a bottle of perfume? A nice piece of mass-produced glass in an attractive box, containing an ethanol-based formula of synthetically manufactured scents. Being generous – and having done zero research into the matter – I’m saying that’s worth £2. In fact, £2 can’t be that inaccurate if counterfeit perfumes can be sold for a tenner by people prepared to go to prison for being caught.

Our bottle of Verbosity will cost you £45 for a small bottle, but a bargain £70 for one twice the size. That’s one hell of a margin. But we’ve forgotten all the marketing costs – and there are A LOT of marketing costs. Why? Because you can’t just rely on stupid people and rich people (and the golden combo: stupid rich people) to sit up and take notice. It needs a ‘story’ so that the hordes of temporarily distracted sane people will also engage.

This idea that people don’t just buy a product, they buy the story that goes along with the product, is absolutely fascinating. Fascinating because it requires intelligent people to be so bored and uninspired that a splurge of what we’ve scientifically established as “complete bollocks” will drive them towards making a purchase.

Our Verbosity description tells you absolutely zero about what’s in that bottle and 100% of legally permitted nonsense that the manufacturer has optimised to make you want to buy. OK, so you’ll have a squirt of it before you actually hand over your money, but by then the seed is planted.

Looking at the wider fashion industry – and specifically the premium end of the market – you find other examples of storytelling. As you might have already gathered, I’m not the sort of person who spends more than £100 on a pair of jeans. I think £100 is too far above the intrinsic value for a hardwearing garment intended to cover my lower half. I’ll go £60-70, which is pretty far above it too, but then the pair is still likely to be of far better quality, colour and cut than your Asda-esque garb. I buy this from a standard shopping centre outlet. My jeans have NO STORY.

If you want a story with your jeans, then check out Hiut Denim. Here’s a snappy bit of prose describing one of their product lines: Selvedge.

Selvedge is an investment. Ours is from Kuroki, the artisanal Japanese denim mill. Woven on a 1959 loom. 100% indigo dyed. Unwashed 14.5oz.

The key difference between this text and Verbosity is that Hiut’s is a succession of facts about the product. But aren’t they INTERESTING facts? You can’t help feeling “Oh my God, the jeans I’m about to buy were made on a 1959 loom from Japan, not some 2006 French junk” or “Whoa – 14.5oz – that is way cooler than any of that inauthentic 410 gram rubbish”. A little too pretentious for a Gap wearing tight arse (no pun intended) like me, but still very engaging indeed.

All of it builds a story, and it fits in wonderfully with the company’s website and its clubby little nuggets of information, hipster steampunk photography and general “vibe”. I dare say the actual products are lovingly and professionally produced, and that the people at Hiut believe in what they’re making a good deal more than the cynics at “Shanelle”.

The big question is – what can you learn from fashion marketing and communications that you can apply to a business-to-business environment? In my view, you learn almost nothing. B2B marketing needs personality, and DOES involve aspirations, but never in the realm of people’s personal aspirations for how they want to be perceived. Go large on this approach in a B2B environment and I’m sorry but you risk insulting your audience.

The story approach that makes a difference in fashion products is only really relevant in B2B when you’re explaining the background to the people at your company. But not all the time. I’ve worked with hardware distributors and components manufacturers and these aren’t places where your purchase has got much to do with people. A software developer or cybersecurity consultancy is different, because you’re buying people when you spend money with them.

No B2B copy must ever be devoid of humanity, simply because humans will read it. Take this blog for instance. What you’ve been reading so far is basically a roundabout way of ingratiating myself to people who work at businesses. I may or may not have failed in maintaining your interest, but I really can’t afford to insult your intelligence.

I’ll cover more on what B2B should include (rather than shouldn’t) in future blogs. For now, there must be something else to read…

WHEN TYPOS REALLY ARE CRIMINAL

Chirpy FT regular Lucy Kellaway is always good value, and her article on BBC Online this week, about the relative unimportance of spelling mistakes and typos, was guaranteed to get a vociferous response from grammar zealots. I’ve some sympathy for her position, having already staked out my red lines around typographical fastidiousness, but the truth is that this lady has gone too far.

I, like Lucy, have made a great many howlers in my time. Indeed, “I, like Lucy,” may even be one of them. The reason these made it in front of my clients (and on at least one occasion, in print) was because I didn’t try hard enough to identify the faults and correct them. Like making sure there’s no hair in the sandwiches I make my kids every morning, it DOES matter. It matters because the act of writing is an intimate communication process between a writer and a reader. Failing to apply the highest possible care in delivering that content fundamentally disrespects the reader, and if you disrespect the reader then what was the point in sitting down to write your ditty in the first place?

I get a pile of spam email every day, most of which is funnelled into a spam folder that I rarely open. Spam is often the delivery mechanism for extremely damaging bugs and viruses, or the opening gambit for a ‘phishing scam’ where the email appears to be from your bank or business supplier but is in fact from a rather nasty character in Belarus called Vlad. Clicking on a link or opening an attachment could be a disaster. The information security industry makes billions of pounds a year developing technology to identify and stop the bad stuff reaching you; letting the good stuff pass through unfettered.

Telling the difference between a cybercriminal attack and a legitimate email is very simple, if you take the time to read for spelling, grammar, syntax, formatting and so on.

I’ve written about information security for over 10 years and seen a great many malicious email threats. Cybercriminals are doing astonishingly clever things with code that run rings around national intelligence agencies and anti-virus scientists. But never, in all that time, have I read a cybercriminal email that was sophisticated enough in its use of English to look as though it was written by the marketing/comms department of – say – a UK high street bank.

That’s a blatant crime if ever you saw one.

THE CHINESE ARE COMING

Globalisation was supposed to make it absolutely imperative for me to have a ‘modern language’ GCSE, and look how that turned out. Putting up with Mrs Flanagan for two years equipped me with little more than the ability to get an occasional giggle (or patient correction when I said ‘really, it’s kidney’ when I meant ‘really, it’s nothing’) from the French people I have since worked with.

In my school at 13, French was still the big one. By 15, I found out six months too late that it should have been German. At 18, everyone thought Spanish was paramount, amidst confident claims that no American president after the year 2000 would ever get elected unless he/she spoke it fluently. By the turn of the century, with the inevitable rise of the Chinese superpower, the smart money was supposed to be on learning some Mandarin.

All that fretting seems a bit silly now.  We’d clearly seen the evidence for Britain’s post-Imperial decay as a global power and just assumed her language (yes, yes, yes – and America’s etc.) would be going the same way.

I’m not some ignorant linguaphobe who wanders around like a safari-suited Denham Elliot going “Hello! Does anyone speak English?!” refusing to bend to cultural differences. Indeed, being Welsh and married to a Welsh speaker I am equally committed to the preservation of what is, in the cold light of day, a redundant language. But with English utterly dominant as the international language of business in 2014, I believe native English speakers have an exceptional opportunity to exploit their advantage in a global economy for knowledge skills. If you’re a native English speaking communications professional, then you’d better be pretty exceptional in how you use it. There is absolutely no room for you to be complacent.

Whether it’s junior PR pros, trade IT journalists straight out of college or everyday business people going about their work, I’ve seen the average standard of English fall through the floor over the years. At the same time, the skill with English I’ve seen from the likes of German, French, Dutch, Indian and – dare I say it – Australian clients and colleagues has been extraordinary, and getting better all the time.  We need to sharpen our pencils!

I gave a talk at Cohesive recently, called “The Chinese Are Coming – so what do they need you for?” which covered some of this in depth. We started off in party atmosphere with a big bowl of prawn crackers and a fairly knockabout exploration of the issues. We ended up soberly confronting the truth that an increasingly international economy is not going to require more diverse language and communications skills; it’s going to need better English ones. I’ll update this blog with a link to the presentation once I figure out how to get a sanitised version of it onto Slideshare.

It’s not just about the Chinese of course, but the Chinese example is especially pertinent to the technology industry with Lenovo, Huawei and ZTE just the tip of the iceberg. The Chinese government’s goal is to transform the country into a world technological power, and when the Chinese government stands up and says it’s going to do something, it invariably (albeit chillingly) gets it done.

Researching my presentation I found – where figures are available – that only Honduras, Ethiopia, Guadeloupe and the Dominican Republic have a lower proportion of population than China able to speak English (less than 1%). The Chinese government apparently doesn’t believe changing that is a top priority, and why would it?

THE DEEP BREATH OF WRITING

Nature programs us to be scared of things like sudden movements, the stink of rotting matter, and brightly striped buzzing creatures. Fear is the emotion best equipped to keep humans alive, so it’s a real sign of the times that so many people are scared of public speaking.

I just watched ‘Stammer School’ on 4OD where a bunch of poor unfortunates facing a lifetime struggling to speak, work bloody hard trying to.  I dare say it’s enough to make anyone with a fear of public speaking a little ashamed of themselves.  I’ll bet most stammerers would give their eye teeth to ‘stand up and say a few words’ without being burdened by their cruel disability.

I’ve seen a few people struggle in front of an audience – a cousin’s best man comes to mind, who gave, I am confident to assert, the shortest and worst wedding speech ever – but you can sympathise with the pressure that comes from being ‘in the moment’ and expected to perform.

By contrast, it’s very hard to sympathise with someone who is phobic about writing, and for whom the sight of a blank Word document (with cursor flashing mockingly at them) is enough to make them reconsider their choice of trouser colour.  That’s because of the single biggest advantage of the written word over the spoken, and one made even more assured since the comparatively recent introduction of word processing software; the delete key.

Writing isn’t a live sport; you don’t have to start at the start and do each piece in turn.

Imagine writing is like modelling with clay; first of all you need a lot of clay, right?  To accumulate your lump, embark on a process of unloading every little thought (even if it’s only tenuously related to what you’re writing about) onto the page.  A lot of these will be entirely unconnected little lumps – don’t worry; keep going.

Pretty soon you’ve overcome this fear of not having anything on the page.  Now there is a lot of seemingly useless crap on the page instead, but that’s OK because you’ve got the delete key to cut, scoop and smooth most of it away.

Some of the individual lumps will each look like something; a good ending perhaps, or an example, a metaphor, or passage of meaty technical bumf.  Work them over and over to shape them into short, sharp pieces.  It’s all disjointed but they’ll all come together in the end.

Now you’ve got some parts you like the look of, you need to put them in order and fashion the linkages and segueways that make them flow.  In no time at all you’ve got a finished piece of writing in front of you – which you now need to delete the hell out of…

It is quite liberating to smash the hell out of your own work, but like a baker’s dough it genuinely will benefit from a good thrashing.  “Cut like a scalpel until it is lean, taut and compelling,” is what my old boss used to tell me.  You will be merciless and, in so doing, you will see whole parts that you really liked creating being consigned forever to Microsoft’s extremely short-term memory.

Having employed this approach for many difficult writing tasks in the past – and in training countless junior colleagues down the years – I’ve become used to witnessing a phenomenon I call ‘the deep breath’.   This is the very start of the writing process (initial clay lump accumulation stage!) where the first few sentences start forming on the page.  You can tell a ‘deep breath’ from a mile off.  People accidentally leave it in at the very start of their writing instead of deleting it along with everything else that’s obsolete.  (Check out my recent Ode to Aldi post and you can see I’ve made the mistake there.)

Watching those stammerers learn to overcome their challenges, you can see each one consciously remember to take a big deep breath (part of the costal breathing technique) before each word.  The coaches – all former stammerers – never seem to need to; instead they’ve become experienced enough to do it subconsciously, and the result is speech much like anyone else’s.  It’s so similar to writing; the deep breath you seem to want is the deep breath you don’t end up needing.  It’s a comfort blanket you don’t need.

If you’re lacking in writing confidence then learn to love the delete key and it will pay you back a million fold.

NEVER ABUSE THE ENGLISH B*STARD

I’ve ghost-written for countless business leaders and other influential people, and I’ve trained a lot of young writers and communications professionals.  One thing I’ve learnt is that you can always be a better writer.  That’s especially achievable because the English language is such a contradictory, rule-breaking mongrel of uncertain parentage, that you can paint on its canvas in a lot of different ways.

Now when it comes to some of the essential elements of English grammar, it pays to be a pedant.  Personally, spelling errors and botched apostrophe’s (see what I did there?) would be punishable by death if I ruled the world etc. etc.  For a business (and by extension a professional person) to present themselves without regard to these essential conventions frankly makes them look stupid.

But whether you’re carefree about your commas, or pernickety about your parentheses, the people who I’ve got no time for whatsoever are the ultra-orthodox nut cases who wet their pants at the sight of a split-infinitive.

And misplaced modifiers?  Don’t talk to me about misplaced buggering modifiers…  OK, OK, so I accept that the syntax of a sentence could be more gracefully expressed in many of the instances where modifiers are misplaced, but come on… really?  The only two clients that ever presented this objection to my work were basically missing the point about what the article/press release/opinion piece was trying to achieve: COMMUNICATION.  Technically, they were right, but what the hell is that supposed to count for?

(Incidentally, if you want to know what a misplaced modifier is then feel free to Google it.  That’ll be 20 seconds of your life you’re never getting back, by the way…)

There is a wonderful line by Lynne Truss in her book “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”.  Following a brief analysis of appropriate  scenarios for employing the comma, she offers her own rule to beat them all: “Don’t use commas like a stupid person.”  I regard that as seriously good advice.

Content creators are not the Waffen-SS of the English language.  Just remember what the content is for, and who it’s for.