Olivia Colman is more than just a wonderful actor. She’s very kind and thoughtful person too. That came out in a bit of film-set advice she once gave. It’s such good advice that it can help you when you’re copywriting for your business.
Helping a fellow actor focus
I found the story of her excellent advice on Twitter, where Samuel West said:
On a recent job with Olivia Colman: tricky two-hander; new lines; big, busy set. Two takes in, it wasn’t happening; we wouldn’t get a fourth. I was nervous.
She turned to me. “Remember, it’s only us here,” she said. “Let’s just do it for each other”. Take 3 was the print.— Samuel West (@exitthelemming) February 25, 2019
“Remember, it’s only us here”
That helped Samuel West stop thinking about the director,
and maybe a producer or two hovering behind her; the director of photography
whispering something to the camera operator; and the lighting guys clattering
around as they adjusted the lights.
It stopped him worrying about someone with a clipboard
checking for any continuity problems; the other actors gossiping over a coffee,
just out of shot; and all the other busy-ness that fills a film set. It’s a
pretty exhausting environment to write about (and I’m sure read about too), let
alone work in.
Instead, Samuel just focused on Olivia and she just focussed
And they nailed it on the next take.
Why that’s such excellent copywriting advice
That piece of advice – “Remember, it’s only us here” – is excellent copywriting advice too.
If you try and write for everyone who might ever read your document, you’ll get lost. It’s like trying to plan a journey to every town you’ve ever wanted to visit at once. I can pretty much guarantee your head will explode. Mine certainly would.
Instead, take Olivia Colman’s advice and remember it’s just
the two of you – you and your most important reader.
Turn it into a one-to-one conversation
Imagine the single person who most needs to read your
document. Make some notes about what they’re like, what’s important to them and
what motivates them. Then think through what they really need to hear from you,
rather than just what you’d like to tell them.
Then write as if you’re sat quietly with them, speaking to
them and them alone. Pretend you’re talking with them. Maybe even say what you
need to out loud before you write it
You’ll find you’re talking to someone you know and
understand about something they really need to hear. There won’t be anyone or
anything else to think about.
That’ll make your document much easier to write and edit.
In fact, you’ll probably end up nailing it on the next take
– just like Samuel West did.
When you’re a brand, it can be tough to know how to say sorry. Brand messaging is all about being positive, so brand representatives don’t really have much practice at responding to the negative.
That can make them feel really insecure. And then they hit problems.
Making things worse
They can blame other people, like US clothing brand
Lululemon’s founder Chip Wilson. Here he is responding to fabric problems that
made some of their yoga pants see-through:
Quite frankly, some women’s bodies just actually don’t work. It’s about the rubbing through the thighs.
You can imagine how that went down.
Or they resort to bland, evasive corporate waffle, like Dove.
They posted a Facebook ad that made it look like a black woman was turning into
a white woman after using their soap. It caused massive offense. Dove replied:
An image we recently posted on Facebook missed the mark in representing women of color thoughtfully. We deeply regret the offense it caused.
It’s a classic non-apology, shifting the focus away from the problem and onto the response to it. People see straight through that sort of language. Because the problem is real but the apology isn’t, it just makes things worse.
How to say sorry
If your brand’s screwed up and you need to apologise, you need to do two very specific things:
Openly, honestly and directly acknowledge what’s
Use the moment as a springboard for genuine, positive
Getting it right
Sometimes, it’s very obvious what you need to apologise for.
Apple Music had that kind of problem. They were offering a three month free trial period for Apple music users. But they weren’t paying artists for music streamed during those three months.
Taylor Swift wasn’t happy about that. So she took them to task on Twitter. Where she has 83.4 million followers.
Apple Music’s Head Honcho Eddy Cue tweeted back a clear, simple response:
Apple will always make sure that artists are paid
#AppleMusic will pay artist for streaming, even during customer’s free trial period
We hear you @taylorswift13 and indie artists. Love, Apple
He didn’t actually say sorry – but then, he didn’t really need to. He’d openly and honestly acknowledged the problem and committed to fixingit. That was the apology
It could be that you’re not quite sure what’s gone wrong and you need to ask for feedback. Few brands have ever turned that kind of moment round more effectively than Naked Wines back in 2013:
It’s the same pattern – openly acknowledge the bad, then find a clear path towards the good. That’s how to say sorry and make sure people know you really mean it.
Let’s end with a masterclass from KFC, who acccidentally blew up their own supply chain. When they apologised, they did more with three letters than most people do with entire PR campaigns:
You probably already tell very realistic tales about your brand. Telling much more imaginative brand stories about it – science fiction, fantasy, even horror ones – can unlock very important truths about it too.
That’s because those kinds of stories reveal different kinds of truths in different ways. Let’s start by understanding what those truths are.
What does each kind of story do?
Science fiction stories think about the present from the point of view of the future. We use them to think about what might happen next and how we could respond to it. They help us practice being surprised by tomorrow.
SF stories are about things that could happen.
Fantasy stories are about the impossible. They describe worlds and people that play by their own rules. They help us understand which parts of ourselves will never change, even if everything else does.
Fantasy stories are about things that never happen.
Horror tells stories we want to turn our eyes away from. They help us explore all the different ways our lives can go horribly, irrevocably wrong, then show us how we might live through all that awful pain and loss.
Horror stories are things that shouldn’t happen.
And finally, there are the realistic stories you’re already telling. They help us look directly at the world of today, understanding either how it works or how it came into being. They explain the world as it already is.
Realistic stories are about things that do happen.
New worlds for your customers
Telling customer stories in different genres helps you think through all the different things they might need from you and you can do for them.
A few years back, I did some work with a big DIY supplier. When we discussed how people already used their products, we told realistic stories. That helped us understand problems customers actually had and improve their day-to-day product experience.
They liked making up fantasy stories about their customers too. That’s how they ended up staging gigs in people’s gardens as part of a big promotional campaign (‘What’s something that will never, ever happen?’ ‘Your favourite comedian playing your garden shed!’).
Telling SF stories helped them understand how the DIY world could change, and what they could do about it. And when they thought about how it could all go wrong, so they could make absolutely sure that everything went right, they told horror stories.
New ways of imagining your business
Telling different kinds of stories about your own company helps you understand who you really are and plan for whatever’s coming next. Imagine that Brexit’s going to have a big impact on your business, for example.
It might have come onto your radar years as ago as a fantasy story: ‘It’ll never happen, but let’s think through what it could mean anyway.’ Exploring the impact of impossible changes will throw up surprising insights into your business and your customer relationships.
Then Brexit would have turned into an SF story. ‘Well, it could happen, so let’s look at how it might pan out and see what that’d mean for us.’ With greater realism comes more precise speculation and planning, making sure you’re never surprised by whatever’s next.
Right now, the chaos and uncertainty it’s created is something that shouldn’t happen. Telling Brexit as a horror story will help you understand what you need to preserve and what you might be forced to let go of as it goes forward.
And one day, it’ll be a story about something that actually did happen. You’ll know exactly how it all turned out, and you’ll be able to tell the tale of what you, your business and your customers learned from it.
So those are some ideas about new kinds of stories you can imagine. But they’re only starting points – the world of storytelling is limitless. So now, it’s over to you.
Think about all the fantastical, surprising, terrifying stories that have blown your mind over the years, then work out how you can tell stories like that about your business. You’re sure to find out some wonderful – and very useful, and hopefully not too scary – things…
I’m on a Thameslink train into London, compulsively watching my carriage’s little message screen. It’s giving me some pretty useful information – but their brand language is a little clunky.
That’s frustrating, because with a few simple tweaks their writing could be much warmer, friendlier and more impactful. So, as a great believer in putting my money where my mouth is, I’m going to apply four basic better writing principles to make those changes myself.
Keep it snappy
As a rule, the fewer words the better. To see how that works, check out:
We will shortly be arriving at Three Bridges
It’s a short sentence, but it still feels wordy. Try saying it out loud – it doesn’t really roll off your tongue. Let’s turn it into:
We’re about to reach Three Bridges
That’s two words and eleven characters shorter. And you’ll find it sounds much more natural. After all, you’re much more likely to say:
I’m about to serve supper
I will shortly be serving supper
Talk with your audience, not at them
Talking in terms of ‘you’ and ‘us’ helps your audience feel included. So quite subtle changes, like turning:
This is coach 9 of 12
You’re in coach 9 of 12
can actually make quite a big difference.
The first version’s blandly anonymous. The second one’s direct and personal, which is never a bad thing. It’s the difference between:
This is supper
Here’s your supper
Which one would you rather hear when you’re sitting down for your sausages?
Lose the pointless detail
Now we’ve got some very useful information – a diagram of which train loos are open, a little dot showing where I am and:
Toilets on this train
You are here
Something so small I can’t actually read it
This is so useful. It tells me something about the train I have no other way of finding out.
But then there’s that tiny, unreadable writing under ‘You are here’. I’ve never even noticed it before. So let’s lose it. That gives us more space to make the important words bigger. And they can be snappier, too:
This train’s toilets
Using our supper example, it means moving from:
A supper of sausages, chips and peas mumble mumble mumble
Supper’s sausages, chips and peas
Don’t use scary corporate-speak
Some words have a very formal, corporate feel to them. Here’s a great example:
This train terminates at Bedford
Now I’m thinking about Arnold Schwarzenegger at his most robotic. So let’s get rid of that rather ominous word ‘terminate’ and rewrite to:
Our last stop is Bedford
That says exactly the same thing with fewer letters and less time-travelling robotic vengeance. And we can change its companion message, ‘The next station is / Balcombe’, to match it:
Our next stop is Balcombe
Or, in food terms, instead of saying:
We terminated supper
We’re now saying:
We finished supper
It’s another small change, but once again it makes a pretty big difference.
So what’s all that actually achieved?
None of these are big brand language changes. But, taken together, they help Thameslink seem much more open and friendly. And there’s a very practical pay-off too – shorter, sharper messages are much easier to read, take in and act on. So it’s a win all round!
And they’re all based on four clear, simple principles. So, if you’ve got a second, why not try those principles out on your own brand language? They’re sure to change it for the better.
Primal Scream’s ‘Screamadelica’ album came along at just the right time for me. It exploded across the 90s horizon in a kaleidoscopic blast of dub, techno, rock and roll, and general saucer-eyed creativity just as I stepped out of my rather bland schooldays and into far more colourful worlds.
Then, a couple of years later, its follow up, ‘Give Out, But Don’t Give Up’ appeared. It was generally felt to be a bit of a limp, directionless let down. I did my best to love it, but even I had to admit that it was nowhere near as trailblazingly brilliant as its predecessor.
And now the Primals have released the original GOBDGU sessions. They’re what the album should have been, before the record company suits (man) stuck their collective oar in. They’re utterly and unreservedly fantastic, and they’ve got some very important things to teach us about creativity.
It’s not what you expect
The whole point of creativity is that something new happens – and that new thing is not always going to be what you expect. So, if you ask someone to go off and be creative, and they come back with something that’s just plain baffling, sit down and think about what it’s really achieving.
That’s what Creation Records boss Alan McGee didn’t do. He asked the Primals to come up with a follow-up to a ravetastic dance music classic, expecting more of the same. But they shot off at a tangent (and to Memphis) to record a soulful rock album that’s more like early 70s Rolling Stones than anything else.
It’s a great achievement, coming together as a timelessly cohesive, powerfully emotional and slinkily groovy suite of songs. But because it’s not what McGee was expecting, he couldn’t see its good qualities. So he insisted on having everything remixed and re-recorded into muddy, bland oblivion.
So that’s lesson one. If you’re managing or part of a creative process, don’t measure its results against your original expectations. They might blind you to your real achievements.
It’s not always a lightning strike
There are times when creativity transforms the whole landscape. It’s a lightning strike – a sudden, overwhelming blast of change, appearing out of nowhere and dominating everything. That’s what ‘Screamadelica’ was – a surprising, brilliant achievement and a transformative step forwards.
But there’s only so much transformation that the world can handle – and, to be honest, only so much radical change that people can constructively create. So, when it came to a follow up, the Primals’ first instinct was to look backwards.
They understood that radical transformation needs to be balanced with consolidation and reflection. So, they made a very traditional album that drew on their deep musical roots, looking to understand and reassert their core selves and values in the aftermath of so much innovation.
So there’s lesson two. There’s such a thing as too much change. Pushing for it can exhaust both you and your audience. True creativity knows when to balance transformation with consolidation.
You won’t always get it straight away
The Primals went along with McGee’s rebuilding of the album because they weren’t very confident in what they’d created. They didn’t understand their own achievement – in fact, it’s only now that they’ve been able to properly assess and come to terms with it.
That’s actually quite common. There’s a big difference between creating something new, and understanding exactly what it is you’ve created. Being the person who’s planted and nurtured all the trees can make it pretty much impossible to see the shape of the forest.
And that’s lesson three. Don’t judge what you’ve done too quickly. Watch other people engage with it and see what they get out of it. Understand it by distancing yourself from it.
And now let’s rock
Of course, all this is very important. But the real point of any creative achievement is the achievement itself. So now let’s just sit back and groove to a little timeless Memphis magic from the 90s. Enjoy!
And as a final footnote, here’s the BBC documentary about it all:
The ProCopywriters’ Network interviewed me on Twitter, asking about brand personality, tone of voice and content strategy. Here’s what we talked about during our #ProCopyChat:
Let’s start with you telling us a bit more about yourself. What’s your writing background?
Well, I’m a Brand Language Consultant. I help all sorts of different organisations change how they write so they reach their customers more directly and powerfully. It’s a bit like being a brand design agency, except with words instead of visuals.
I’ve been freelancing for about 10 years. Before that I was experiential at Imagination and brand focussed at Corporate Edge. And I started off at Unilever, marketing frozen food and ice cream for Birds Eye Wall’s.
I’m also an SF novelist who learned about storytelling by working in feature film development. Stories are how we make sense of the world – they’re a big influence on how I see brands. And the SF helps me get clients ready for their own futures.
When we think of tone of voice, we initially think about the personality of the brand/client/business. How is this created, and how does it then have an impact on the audience?
Who you are is defined by what you do. So that’s how I look at brand personality. Once I’ve read through all their writing – I ask people ‘what’s the best things your brand actually does?’, then I dig into what that means for their customers.
A brand exists to help its customer solve their problems. So we usually end up discussing things like: ‘What sort of friend is this brand? What vital things does it help you get done? How does it help you do them?’ Then I turn that into a story.
You can understand most stories as ‘Hero wants to do something / Hero can’t do something / Hero does something’. You can use that structure to tell a story where the customer’s the hero on a mission and the brand’s their vital support.
Everybody loves being the hero! So from the word go you’re winning the customer over. And you’re telling them a story about how the brand helps them achieve a vital goal in a unique way. So you’re showing them why they should buy into it.
And it’s also a great way of digging into anything the brand doesn’t quite get right. After all, nobody’s perfect. Getting people talking about how their brand might be a *challenging* friend can be very helpful too.
Why is tone of voice an important concept in copywriting?
Writing is where a brand comes to life in real time. A good tone of voice shapes that writing, making sure the brand cuts through the noise to reach people in a direct, instantly recognisable way, with words that have genuine, alluring meaning to them.
A good tone of voice also makes customers feel the conversation’s centred on them by helping brands use their own language to reach them. That’s very powerful too – ‘Me me me’ is a terrible sales pitch, ‘You you you’ is much more effective.
And it’s a live response because writing’s live. Logos, look and feels – they don’t change. But if someone’s grumbling on social media, the brand has to write back live…
If they’re launching a new product, they’ve got to find new words to describe it… everywhere from on the pack to in the instructions to in the press release to on the website…
And even if someone at the brand’s writing a customer email – well, it’s great if that’s on tone as well, because it shows that the people at the brand stand for the same values as the brand itself.
Oh, and it’s where emotion comes in too – very often, particularly in B2B writing, people are all Sherlock Holmes – dry and rational. Tone of voice brings in the Dr Watson – powerful emotive storytelling!
Can you give us some good (and bad!) examples of tone of voice?
The classic is Innocent Drinks – they pioneered that cheery, chatty modern conversational brand tone, they’re completely unforced and entirely natural. And their tone is (as I understand it) a very precise reflection of what they’re really like. Perfect!
A tone of voice should never be lipstick on a pig – it should be a direct and honest reflection of what’s best about a brand. Not that I’ve got anything against pigs – rather, tone should match personality, not try and cover it up.
In my first ever job I edited (and sometimes wrote) the jokes on Wall’s ice cream sticks. They set the tone for the brand perfectly – the fun of ice cream brought to life in a very inventive way.
I have a big soft spot for Lego instruction booklets too. They’re so perfectly put together – no words, but sometimes the best language is no language. They’re a brilliant example of show don’t tell, a core storytelling idea.
Oh, and Dilmah tea – their pack writing isn’t always too polished, but they’re so transparently and genuinely enthusiastic about their products it really doesn’t matter. They come across as very honest and authentic.
As for not so good ToVs… actually, my own personal bugbear is the ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ slogan… so confrontational, it’s never change anyone’s mind! It’s the opposite of what its audience needs to hear. None of us need more confrontation just now.
And I find station apologies incredibly irritating. Endlessly repeated robot ‘We’re sorry for your inconvenience’ = Grrrr! Southern Rail, I’m looking at you. Though to be fair making corporate apologies can be a real challenge.
Once you’ve established the tone of voice, what’s your next step in creating a brand identity?
Well, you know who you are and how you talk – the next problem is working out what you’re going to say! So – content strategy, aka the art of turning what you know into what your audience needs to hear to get them to a place that’s good for both of you.
Oh, and you might end up chatting to the designers too – although I’ve found that brand language definition tends to happen long after any design work’s done and dusted. That’s another bugbear – core words and visuals should happen together!
How do you develop a content strategy around the brand personality and tone of voice that you’ve established?
What really defines it is the brand’s customer – you think about where they start and where you want them to end up, and then you build a customer journey that gets them there.
Imagine you’re driving your customer – the brand personality’s the vehicle you choose, the ToV’s the music, chat and views that makes them love being in it, and the content strategy’s the GPS system that gets you to a destination you’re both happy with.
So you’ve got to understand where your customer’s starting from, where you (and they) want them to get to and how you’re going to get them there. Then you build your content to take them on that journey.
You might have several different kinds of customers. Then it all goes a bit ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ – you set up multiple paths through your content, and let customers choose (or just guide them through) whichever one’s best for them.
And there’s no shame in turning people away. If you can’t help them or they’re not the kind of people you want to do business with, you need to make that clear as soon as possible. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time and theirs.
Wasting people’s time is the greatest content sin. A good content strategy stops you from ever doing that, because it gives every little bit of content a clearly defined reason for existing. It makes sure your audience never shrugs and asks ‘So what?’
Weber BBQs do content strategy fantastically well. They want people to cook awesome food on their BBQs, so they provide every kind of content to help them do that – from all the normal stuff to BBQing courses and some of the best cookbooks I’ve ever read.
Do you go through this process so you can write effectively for on a client’s behalf, or is it more of a toolkit so the client can improve the communications they make themselves?
It depends what they want. Sometimes I’m involved in the whole process, even doing some of the writing and editing myself, sometimes I just give them all the guidance and structure I can, train them in how to use it all and leave them to it.
Both have their plus points. Of course it’s lovely going back to help out over months or years – but I also love the challenge of writing guidance and training people too. It really makes you dig into what you do, so you can help someone else do it for themselves.
What’s the best piece of advice you can offer to someone to help them write more effectively?
Always start with the people you’re talking to. Understand the obstacles they face. Pin down what sort of hero they are. And then tell them a story about how you can help them overcome those obstacles to achieve something awesome.
Finally (and most importantly) – what’s your favourite biscuit?
The US-style cookies my wife makes on special occasions, with stroopwafels coming in second. Both washed down with a strong cup of black filter coffee! As my entire writing career runs on a platform of coffee.
When you’re telling stories, you end up spending a lot of time thinking about change. That’s because stories are for the most part about why and how people change. And the way they map out change can help you think about the customer journey that turns people from distant prospects into committed customers.
How change works in stories
That change can be purely emotional. But it usually involves real world change too. Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’ is a good example. Its hero, Fanny Price, is often seen as quite passive – but she actually changes quite a lot.
She begins the book as a 10 year old girl, feeling profoundly lost as she arrives to live with her rich (and sometimes rather hostile) relatives. She ends it as an 18 year old woman, married to the son of the house and at the moral heart of the family.
And sometimes it can be entirely practical. Hercule Poirot’s personality never really changes, despite all of his adventures. But in every single one, he starts the story not knowing who the murderer is and ends it by revealing them.
Mapping out change
As a writer, one of your big challenges is to map out that change. And there’s a way of doing that that can help you map out a customer journey too.
First of all, you find a single word or phrase to describe your character’s starting point. For Fanny, it might be ‘lost’ or ‘terrified’. For Poirot, it’s ‘oblivious’ or ‘unenlightened’. Choose extreme, evocative words – the bigger the change, the more compelling the journey.
Next, find the opposite of that word – perhaps ‘at home’ or ‘supremely confident’, or ‘fully aware’ or ‘all-knowing’. Then track a course between them, finding maybe six to eight words that move you from your first word to your final word.
Once you’ve mapped that journey out, you’ve got the spine of your story. Then your job is to describe the events and people that help your character move through those different words.
Defining a customer journey
Every customer journey is about change. Your customer moves from having a problem you can solve but not knowing about you to not having the problem, and both knowing about and being grateful to you.
So you can use the same technique to map out their journey. Think about how they feel when it begins; think about where they end up; then blast out words describing the stages between those two points. And that gives you a basic map of the journey you need to plot for them.
Once you’ve defined that journey, you can make sure you’re there for them in just the right way at every stage of that journey. At first you’ll reach them with communications, and then with products and services, that make sure they’ll always get where they need to go.
Sometimes the biggest challenge is knowing when to stop writing. It’s easy – and so frustrating – to find yourself spending ages on a document, going back over it again and again, adding more and more to make sure that absolutely everything essential is in there.
That can be a surprisingly simple problem to solve.
Understanding the journey
Writing anything is a journey – and it’s very easy to start a journey. Take a couple of steps and you’re off. But if you want to have a good journey, you need to know where you’re going and why you need to get there, so you can plot the right route and take the right supplies with you.
And of course if you don’t know what your destination is, you run into a very big problem. You’ll never be quite sure when you’ve arrived. And even if you do feel like you’ve reached somewhere that’s sort of like where you think you’d want to be, you won’t be ready to make the most of it.
So, you’ll probably keep moving forever. And that’s not because the place you need to get to doesn’t exist – it’s because you haven’t given yourself the tools you need to recognise it when you reach it.
Defining your destination
If you want to know when you’ve finished a document, you need to understand what finishing it will look like. Before you start off you should write yourself a brief, outlining:
Who you’re talking to and why they should care
What they should know, feel and do differently after they’ve read your doc
What you need to tell them to make that change happen
How you should talk to them to reach them most efficiently
Once you’ve done that, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what needs to be in your finished document. With the destination so clearly defined, you’ll know exactly when you’ve reached the end of your journey. And then you can settle down and reward yourself with a cup of tea and a biscuit.
And as you sit there, exhausted but content, your mind will probably wander. Perhaps you’ll think about all the previous journeys you’ve been on and all the future journeys you might take. And that will give you one last way of knowing you’ve completed this particular journey.
Seeing the bigger picture
Each piece of writing’s a journey in its own right. But it’s also always just one part of a wider, deeper, ongoing conversation with your audience. So, when you’re deciding whether or not you’ve completed a document, always think about that bigger voyage too.
Look back on what your audience already knows. Think about what they might find out in the future. Understanding that will help you finally complete the journey of writing your current document, because it’ll reassure you that you don’t need to tell them absolutely everything, all at once – you only need to tell them what they need to hear right now, at this particular moment.
Sherlock Holmes is very famous indeed. His adventures have been translated into 76 different languages. The Guinness World of Records lists him as the ‘most portrayed movie character’, played by over 70 different actors in more than 200 movies. Even his computer game’s sold more than 7 million copies.
But there’s one thing this most famously brilliant of thinkers is always wrong about – how Dr Watson writes about his adventures.
Your fatal habit of looking at everything from the point of view of a story instead of as a scientific exercise has ruined what might have been an instructive and even classical series of demonstrations. You slur over work of the utmost finesse and delicacy, in order to dwell upon sensational details which may excite, but cannot possibly instruct, the reader.
In short, it’s all far too sensational – or, using a more modern word, far too emotional. Then Sherlock describes the more strictly rational approach he’d take:
I propose to devote my declining years to the composition of a textbook, which shall focus the whole art of detection into one volume.
Why that wouldn’t work
Watson’s four novels and fifty six short stories are pacey, exciting, unputdownable reads. They dramatise startling solutions to baffling, often scandalous crimes. Each of them balances a rational description of how Sherlock’s art of detection works with a compelling sense of its varied emotional impact.
They describe the costs and rewards of Sherlock’s own dedication to his art. We see how it drives the evolution of one of literature’s strongest, most affecting friendships. And of course the stories show us how it soothes the anguish of Sherlock’s clients and sometimes even of the criminals he catches.
And it’s all of that emotional detail that Holmes’ disapproves of and would strip out of his own book. But by losing it all, he’d lose the impact of Watson’s writing. It’s pretty hard to imagine his rational little textbook immortalising his art as successfully as Watson’s powerfully emotional stories.
What Dr Watson shows us
In the corporate world, I very often meet people who remind me of Sherlock. They work for companies with very specific expertise, so they want to see writing that precisely and rationally communicates that expertise. They want words that instruct people; a textbook, not a story.
That’s an entirely reasonable thing to ask for. But, like Sherlock, it misses something very important – the Dr Watson side of things, the emotional details that turn bland instruction into compelling storytelling, that show us why expertise can matter so much to the people who benefit from it.
And that’s what Dr Watson can teach us. He immortalised Sherlock’s product – his art of detection – by describing both how it works and why that can matter so much. To write powerfully about your business, you need to balance those two rational and emotional factors in exactly the same way.
I was at a tech meetup the other night. It was a hot evening and I’d had a glass of wine beforehand. All the presentations were full of fascinating info, but also quite technical and bullet pointy. So – as I’m sure you can imagine – my attention began to wander and I started feeling a bit sleepy.
Then someone new took the stage. He didn’t have any slides. He just sat down and started telling a story. He told us about his journey into the blockchain world, sharing how he’d come to understand and believe in the tech, and how that belief was driving him to invest in and document its growth.
A story to act on
That talk woke me right up. It did what a good speech should, grabbing its audience’s attention, memorably sharing both experiences and information and, most importantly, motivating its listeners to actually do something.
It did that so well because it wasn’t really a speech – it was a story. And stories have a very strong impact on us. They’re how we’ve been sharing information for millennia, lighting up parts of our brain that other comms styles don’t even begin to reach.
They do that in some very specific ways:
They’re built around people we identify with, so they trigger our sense of empathy and set us imagining what it’d be like to live through them ourselves.
They use emotive words and details, waking up every single part of our brains – unlike dry corporate language, which only triggers our language processing faculties.
Because they create so much empathy and brain activity, we find it much easier to remember any facts we hear as part of them.
And as we all have an instinct for story, we’re more likely to retell them to other people and act on them ourselves.
Before and after story
Here’s a practical demonstration. First of all, read this:
Blockchain engagement and support actions:
Growing investment from initial $100,000 purchase
Establish blog, podcast, YouTube channel, etc
Prioritise long term commitment over short term gain
‘So when I went to my first meetup I was just amazed, everyone was so open and friendly. They were all in t-shirts and shorts, they’d all brought their dogs, I wasn’t used to that. And I realised I wanted to get involved – but how?’
‘Well, I bought $100,000 worth of Bitcoin, so now we had a position. But that wasn’t enough, it didn’t help the community. So we started our blog, we made films, our podcast runs every day.’
‘We’re recording it, we’re helping people understand it all. We’re building for the future because we’re in it for the long term. It’s such an exciting world to be part of.’
If you share information as a story, you make it easy for people to take in, remember and act on. And that’s the power of story in action.