Tag Archives: message

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…

CLEGGMANIA PART II

It’s election season in the UK, and the climaxing cavalcade of ‘Election Debates’ has given us the last opportunity to watch various grasping bastards simultaneously begging for our favour. I’m sorry but watching politicians trying to get their message across is particularly sickening for communications professionals, because the cynicism is even easier for us to detect. It’s a bit like marketing people and their ability not to fall for brands. Brands are for people who DON’T completely appreciate what’s really, insidiously, going on to take your money in exchange for guff.

But anyway – back to the politics. Before I go any further, I am not advocating any political party. I just wanted to point out the PR machinations surrounding one political leader, Nick Clegg. Let me also state that I did not vote Liberal Democrat in the last Election and see no reason to change this time around.

Clegg’s biggest communications mistake was not to contradict his previously ardent position on tuition fees by being part of a government who trebled them when he promised to abolish them. His mistake was to misjudge the press and public’s wilful ignorance of how a coalition government is supposed to work.

A poll in today’s Independent shows that 50% of undergraduate students will never vote LibDem because of Clegg’s infamous U-Turn. Only 6% intend to support Clegg’s party next month, compared to 23% who said they would before 2010’s General Election. The collapse in support is being egged on by the National Union of Students, which represents 7 million students, and recently unveiled a billboard campaign branding the LibDems ‘liars’ and ‘pledge breakers’.

Even the laziest student of political history would agree that coalition governments are very unusual in the UK, with the last few being necessary for the purposes of our total war against national annihilation. Following the 2010 Election, with neither Labour nor Conservatives willing to proceed with a weak minority government, the LibDems entered into a Coalition Agreement with the objective of assailing the nation’s imminent bankruptcy.

Coalitions are far more common in other democratic countries, where a broad spectrum of opinion and vested interests inevitably ends up being more or less fairly represented by a governing executive. It goes a bit like this: no one party gets to implement 100% of its manifesto commitments. Indeed, if a small party like Plaid Cymru (likely to return three or perhaps four MPs in the Election; 0.5% of the House of Commons) were to join a coalition government this year, they’d count themselves fortunate to have a single unique policy implemented.

It’s easy to forget just how much the public warmed to Nick Clegg during the 2010 Election. An honest, business-like antidote to Cameron’s “Little Lord Fauntleroy” and Brown’s awkward cheesiness, the big catchphrase was “I agree with Nick”. Indeed, if the LibDems had made “I agree with Nick” their campaign slogan, they might have returned more than 57 seats.

With the Conservatives represented by 47% of the House, and the Liberal Democrats by a little under 9%, the gruesome twosome could rely on a majority to implement an agreed policy programme.

Imagine you had voted Liberal Democrat in that General Election. In the vast majority of cases, your vote would have been unlikely to make a difference in your local constituency because of jealously guarded constituency boundaries and our arcane ‘first-past-the-post’ system. Despite the LibDems’ 6.8m votes putting them in third place behind Labour’s 8.6m votes, Labour won nearly five times as many seats.

And yet you could say that your horse won (sort of). Even if your vote had carried a local LibDem to Westminister, without the Coalition Government in place your voice would have been entirely incidental to change. Frankly, that number of MPs may as well have stood outside protesting in the rain for all the good their measly voting block would have done them.

A revised estimate for the yellow-coloured (i.e. LibDem) proportion of the Coalition Agreement put into action between 2010-2015 is 40%. In other words, despite making up less than 9% of the House, 16% of the Coalition Government, and 23% of the popular vote, the Liberal Democrats ended up managing to control around 40% of the government’s actions. By any standards, anyone voting Liberal Democrat in 2010 enjoyed an outrageous return on their support.

Having achieved an unprecedented political coup, Nick Clegg is likely to preside over a complete obliteration of his party’s fortunes in next month’s Election. Despite his obvious communications skills, and his clever PR spins in recent weeks about “Salmond, Farage or me” and the threat of “Blukip”, Clegg’s problem continues to be an inability to get his message across.

No newspaper or TV network supports the Liberal Democrats. Aside from the few impartial ones, each strongly favours Labour, the Conservatives or (in the case of the Daily Express) UKIP. This isn’t helping Clegg’s message succeed.

I don’t like the idea of £9,000 a year tuition fees, and neither do students. But the biggest pity of all this is that the brightest young minds of our generation can’t seem to understand the simple truth behind coalitions. The message is coming through far too faintly, and – regardless – they just aren’t listening.

Gorging on Christmas Content

The earliest journalist content request for a Christmas related article I got this year (from Peter of Rowing & Regatta magazine) was the 23rd of June.

Print magazines continue to use Christmas to jostle with each other on the newsstand. Even for those mags distributed on controlled circulations, it’s a time for bumper issues, annual round-ups and free giveaways. It’s also the time for most yearly subscription renewals, and that all-important December issue is the last make-or-break chance to make a genuine impression. However, there are less print magazines now than ever, and so the proportion of corporate communications being funnelled to buyers through that channel is getting marginalised.

The typical method of reaching the corporate buyer remains email, and again we see Christmas emerge as a common theme for content. You’re more than likely to receive some of these in your inbox in the run up to Christmas:

  • The ‘instead of burning carbon to send you a Christmas card, we thought we’d email you this’ seasonal greeting
  • The ‘lessons from 2014 you can put into action now’ list of top tips
  • The ‘what’s going to be really important in 2015 that we just happen to be ideally placed to sell you right now’ thought leadership piece
  • The ‘countdown to Christmas’ series of promotional emails, with a new one every single day
  • The ‘best content/news from the past year’ round-up (great for covering up the profound lack of any fresh content/news)
  • The ‘make sure you enjoy yourself this Christmas without having to worry about things that might go wrong as a direct consequence of not buying one of our products yet’ semi-threatening discount deal
  • The ‘buy now for no other reason than because it’s Christmas and we’ve stuck reindeer everywhere’ limited time offer

The obvious drawbacks with this approach are:

  • It’s a bit hackneyed, isn’t it?
  • The amount of Christmas related spam email always spikes during this time of year, and your message is a high risk of being zapped by the recipient (if the spam filter doesn’t get it first)
  • Email is also diminishing as a proportion of corporate communications voice, with the slack being taken up by social.

Ah… social. Real-estate wise, we’ve gone from A4 sized magazine cover landing on someone’s desk, to an email subject line enduring in someone’s inbox, to now – with social – an ephemeral snapshot of content appearing momentarily in the line of sight of a busy person’s fickle social media preference. What to put in those 140 characters or less…? Does your community want it to be full of knockabout festive cheer, or to continue engaging them on the kinds of trusted content you’ve worked hard to develop in the other 350 days of the year?

Christmas is 9 characters long (unless you’re the kind of heathen who’d swap for Xmas) and many people are sick of it by mid-December. We all need a creative theme for our content, but how creative is it when it’s the same theme as everyone else?

I say you threaten your integrity by complacently going through the motions with any kind of content. If you really want to share a good old-fashioned Christmas message with your customers or prospects, then you should absolutely go ahead and do it. But if you started looking at the calendar in mid-November and thought: “Eh up, time to wheel out the chrimble schmaltz,” then kindly go and stick it up your chimney.

And before I unwittingly cause offence by overlooking the religious and spiritual significance of Christmas, consider for a moment – by comparison – what vacuous lack of homage a box-shifting IT distributor is paying when it spams customers about its 2 for 1 Christmas offer on Ethernet routers.

A little less Christmas surely makes the Christmas we’ve got left far more special.

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.

“WHAT BISCUIT ARE YOU?” & OTHER TALES FROM INSIDE THE MESSAGING WORKSHOP

If you’re too close to something, you can’t see it so well. This is the value of an external consultant who not only brings rare skills but also can step back and take a different perspective that’s free from historical baggage, “we’ve always done it this way” thinking and office politics.

Messaging workshops are a very useful way of enabling a communications consultant to get at what is often the most surprisingly difficult thing to articulate: your proposition. But ‘messaging workshop’ is a very arty-farty term isn’t it? I mean, a couple of grand to sit in a room all day with a troupe of prancing marketing types getting you to muse on what sort of biscuit your brand is most reminiscent of…?

If you can get over the name, and get your head around the beautiful simplicity of what happens during one of these sessions, then you’ll realise just how immensely valuable they can be to your entire marketing strategy.

The perfect recipe for a successful messaging workshop:

  • An appropriate group of people from the business itself (in physical attendance rather than conference call – that just doesn’t work), including people who sell the product/service, provide customer support, create the intellectual property etc. Don’t just have marketing people. Make sure the MD/CEO is there.
  • A qualified facilitator who can lead the group through a series of questions and exercises; ably supported by a scribe who can record all of the discussions.
  • A set agenda, with timings, allowing for best use of the day.
  • An agreed set of outcomes. These would typically include the development of a series of ‘elevator pitch’ propositions of varying length with additional consideration to how these could be put to work in creative marketing campaigns and specific channels like PR.
  • A session length of around 6 hours, including for lunch to be brought in.
  • No mobiles or other distractions.

A typical workshop is 40% collecting, 40% creating and 20% therapy. Magic really does happen inside messaging workshops, and it’s surprising just how many times I’ve sat in one and it’s become apparent that the people around the table – all of who occupy senior positions in what is invariably a start up or early stage business – have NEVER got together and talked like this before.

What often isn’t appreciated by people who’ve never commissioned a messaging or positioning workshop is that the majority of the consultant’s work is done AFTER the workshop is finished. Like I said, it’s 40% collecting information and this bit is immensely important in the week or so after the event to interpret and replay the energy, observations and ideas from the session to produce a set of outcomes that are not only what the participants recognise and agree with, but which will serve their objectives for clearer and more differentiated communications.

But there are pitfalls in doing this too. I’ll leave you with some ploys that you need to watch out for when working with a communications consultant on a messaging workshop.

  • The hilarious cost

It is ever the case that, if you pay peanuts, then thou shalt get peanut eating sub-human primates. A lot of time goes into a workshop, a day each for the two consultants plus another two or three days to develop the stuff back at base. What I’m talking about is being shaken down for five, six, seven, TEN thousand pounds by some ultra-cool agency with exorbitant rents to cover. The illusion is all about value. “Is this going to be a valuable exercise?” you quite rightly ask. “Well of course it is – just look how bloody expensive we’ve made it!”

  • Insisting that the workshop takes place offsite or at their premises

This is rubbish; it doesn’t matter where you do it so long as it’s comfortable, accessible and private. This is just a ploy designed to inflate the price or sell other things at you harder.

  • Bigging up their power player

Telling you crap like “We’re really excited to have Frazer pop in for some of today’s session” is an irritating connivance intended to make you believe in the value of a prat in a bow tie and espadrilles. Frazer is no better than anyone else, but by stalking in like some rock-star, only to sulk in the corner and then pop up with a sage comment like: “We don’t need a strategy, we need a stratagem”, he can make even very intelligent, pragmatic people behave like nodding idiots.

Be careful out there everyone. And if you need any more help, don’t be afraid to ask.

WHAT DOES A FREE iPHONE SAY ABOUT YOUR BUSINESS?

Whenever Apple releases a new consumer device, that’s the top prize giveaway that gets hawked on all the 3 m2 exhibition booths at trade shows up and down the land for the next six months. Unless you’ve been living under the earth’s crust these past few weeks, you’ll know that Apple just released the iPhone 6. I’ll bet a decent proportion of the shipments made in its first quarter will end up in these promotions.

As the company giving it away, you look relevant as well as fairly generous. You look like you understand that people want what’s new, and that this is going to attract people to give you their contact details and enter.

But it’s a bit lazy isn’t it? I mean it lacks a certain amount of imagination. It isn’t such an issue when the product is still very new – IP Expo is just a fortnight away and iPhone 6s will legitimately be a pretty hot draw – but when you get caught deep in one of the dusty recesses of Apple’s product roadmap, the best you might rock up with at CloudIT 2016 will be a iPod that everyone’s pretty much already got.

I like the prizes that communicate what the business is all about; that tie in with a theme for the event and why that company is at the show touting for your business. It makes it easier for the booth staff to explain the promotion, easier and more logical to express the value proposition behind the promotion ahead of the event, and a much better way of extending the mindshare of the prospects you engaged with when you follow up weeks, months or even years afterwards.

However, even these themes can get a bit tired can’t they? I’ve been to more IT trade shows that I’ve had cooked dinners (well, almost) and this is my top three laziest trade show themes:

  • The Formula One car. Someone knows someone who can get a replica F1 car from 4 years ago onto your stand for only £2k. It means you can talk to prospects about your ‘performance’. The giveaway is a driving experience. Some exhibitors will even dress their stands with dead-behind-the-eyes ‘promo girls’ to hand out leaflets.
  • The Casino: Whether it’s a three-metre diameter replica Wheel of Fortune, or just a cheap roulette set from Argos – you can pull off the Casino theme for any budget. Great if you want to talk to your customers about risk, or about being ‘a winning business’. Get really switched-on croupiers to articulate your product message, or be an idiot and hire promo girls to wear something ridiculous and… er…. hand out leaflets.
  • The Character Actor: This is where the entire premise of your theme is based around a well-known or entirely contrived character that you pay some actor about £150 a day to become. In my time I’ve seen a robot, a zombie, a quick-draw cowboy, a superhero called The LAN Man, a 12st 8lb (i.e. NOT fat) Fat Controller from Thomas the Tank Engine, and a rather ill-advised (given the political situation at the time) ushanka wearing ambassador from the ‘People’s Republic of Hackistan’. Who knows who the agency will send on the day, but if they are the next Michael Sheen then it might just pay off. The trick here is to keep it professional at all times; it loses its lustre when you’re queuing up behind Batman while he asks for a VAT receipt for his overpriced Egg Mayonnaise sandwich.

When it all ties together, you succeed in communicating something that’s bigger and more logical and enduring that the sum of its parts. At least the companies employing the themes above are trying to think creatively, in spite of their lack of imagination. It’s almost tragic when you walk past a ghostly exhibitor booth with just two guys, a laptop, a glass bowl with a few business cards in it, and a little sign saying “Would you like to WIN the LATEST iPhone!”

Some colleagues far cleverer than me came up with a great idea for a trade show many years ago that we called ‘collars and cuffs’.

The client was a distributor of IT security products and the challenge they’d identified was that there were a lot of security solutions out there which were extremely large and expensive, and this made it difficult for reseller partners and their customers to know they weren’t overspending or ‘overspecing’.

The client’s objective for the show was to meet as many prospective reseller partners (and their customers) as possible. The stand was going to cost upwards of £30,000, so what they really wanted was to set-up meetings before the event and run a schedule, rather than relying on passing traffic to make their return on investment.

The idea was to send everyone on a pre-bought mailing list of prospects a collar or a cuff from a Savile Row shirt maker. We had a big box of these offcuts provided by the shirt company so must have mailed out about 500 to the best contacts along with a letter than explained how a meeting at the upcoming Infosec event would show them ‘how to be fitted for a tailor made security solution’ and allow them to ‘get the rest of this shirt’. The mailer – and the email equivalent that went out shortly after – had a great response and the client did a good job of following it up. The result was a packed schedule in time for the event itself.

The stand was dressed like a tailor’s shop, with real tailor’s mannequins and real tailors (from the shirt company) measuring up the prospects. The cost of the incentive was easily managed because the client could take a decision – either before the event or right there and then with the prospect in front of them – whether it was worth the £80 cost of the shirt to bother having the meeting.

Conversely, when you choose to have big prizes and give them out at random you don’t get to manage your returns so well. At least ‘break the safe’ and other similar games genuinely are random. The amount of times I’ve witnessed a company fix the prize draw by going through all the business cards to discard competitors, staff, irrelevant job titles etc., to identify the prospect of greatest value is testament to just how few prize draws are played straight.

Anyway ‘cuffs and collars’ got rolled out for a few clients and events, before the theme became a little tired and other companies caught wind of the idea.

People still talk about the company who did it first though, and remember as much about the proposition behind the promotion as the promotion itself.

That’s what I call good communication.

ROBOT JOURNALISTS THAT NEVER SLEEP

If you have daughters of a certain age then you too may have come across a stinking corruption of literature known as the Rainbow Magic Fairy Books.

Each lazily contrived volume is an attempt to come up with a new angle for the pretty standard fare of your common-or-garden fairy character, and it feels like meagre exaggeration to suppose that – positioned end to end – the entire compendium would stretch to hell and back. Having been begged by an excited 6 year old to pollute their absorbent mind by reading out loud one such example of this rotting crap, your heart and soul should be sufficiently burnt out to avoid exposing them to another. But you love your kid right? So that’s why I read another.

The unsurprising realisation that Kate the Royal Wedding Fairy’s story was as depressingly formulaic as Adele the Singing Coach Fairy caused me to wonder who on earth had written this nonsense. There are no authors credited on the spine, yet endless supplies of fairy mini-series pour forth; Sporty Fairies, Ocean Fairies and (I shit you not) Pet Keeper Fairies being just the tip of the iceberg. There was only one conclusion to my mind: they are written by robots.

Robot writers are becoming increasingly popular, as I read with interest in this chilling Guardian article by Yves Eudes this week. By 2025 about 90% of the news we read will be generated by computers, claims one of the foremost peddlers of automated writing technology. Well I hope to goodness I’ll be spending 100% of my reading time on the other 10%.

PR practitioners have grown used to the strange world of news aggregation websites that regurgitate enormous amounts of announcements from PR-land, despite being entirely bereft of human journalists. It used to be that these places just cut and pasted newswires to create a win-win situation for all involved: a win for the PR sender and their client because it’s an extra piece of exposure on the Internet for no cost or effort, and a win for the site owner whose traffic and corresponding advertising revenues would marginally increase. All of this was before Google changed the rules on its algorithm and now prefers ‘original’ content instead. Thankfully, the new Google regime supports the ideal of employing a human writer to interpret the more worthwhile PR blurb, apply their own news values to it and then publish the resulting original content as something someone might value reading. That content wouldn’t have existed if the press release hadn’t provided the impetus for the story.

I know a colleague who had a bit of a run-in with one of these automaton sites recently; let’s just call them storagegubbins.org. Rather than cut and paste, and rather than spend money on a writer, it looks as though they employ a rudimentary auto-thesaurus rule in a bid to fashion something different out of a bog standard press release; different enough to fool Google anyway. My colleague had put out their release about ‘ABC Components’, which read a bit like this:

“ABC Components, a major manufacturer of next generation chipsets, has announced a strategic partnership with BigBang Computers to extend their dominance of the European cloud IT market….”

Within minutes the website had published something more like:

“ABC Components, a chief industrialist of next generation chipsets, has proclaimed a deliberate syndicate with BigBang Computers to prolong their supremacy of the European cloud IT bazaar….”

I found this website doing something that looks alarmingly similar.

Back to the Guardian article, it’s hard to argue with the intelligent claims of experts but I can’t be the only one who thinks the idea of so much machine-driven writing is very sad indeed. Reading good writing is a joy, because you’re sharing the human experience. I also believe great writing is a performance in itself, where the words on the page conjure images in your imagination and generate some kind of emotional response.

I don’t know how machines can respect their readership. I just hope that it’s the sheer volume of data increasing to such as extent that only machines can supply the gaps in ‘news content’ that we don’t really care about anyway.

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.