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:
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.
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.
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.
So we were down at the Garden Centre the other day, buying a goldfish. That was a lot of fun – but for me, the really exciting part of the trip was finding issue 4 of Weber’s ‘Grill On’ barbecue magazine, because their brand language is fantastic.
We have two Weber barbecues – a big gas one and a little charcoal one – and we’re basically barbecue nuts. At the end of a hard day, few things are more relaxing than standing out in the back garden with a cold drink and something delicious sizzling on the grill.
And Weber have transformed what we barbecue and how we barbecue it, because they understand the real purpose of brand language. The best brand writing doesn’t tell, it shows. It helps people understand how wonderful your brand is by showing them how to get the most out of what it does.
Weber’s awesome cookbooks
Weber do that really well. They even publish cookbooks – we have their complete barbecue book and smoking guide. Both are fantastically informative, including deep dives into barbecue theory and practice, all-purpose grilling tips and tricks and of course a small mountain of delicious recipes.
Those books contain some of the most practical, informative food writing I’ve ever read. Weber’s content strategy turns their barbecuing expertise into useful, practical guidance that transforms their users’ brand experience. They pretty much guarantee that you’ll get the best out of your Weber kit.
Oh, and the ‘Grill On’ magazine is excellent too. It’s basically the Weber catalogue – but before you get to any product info, you have fifty six beautifully designed and written pages of barbecue recipes, grilling science and practical info. It’s a great read.
But what’s in it for Weber?
All that content’s great for the Weber barbecuer, because it brings the whole process to life in a way that’s practically, positively relevant to them. After all, they’re the ones paying good money for Weber kit. They have every right to all the help and support the brand can give.
And of course people who know how to get the most out of a brand automatically become excellent ambassadors for it. Whenever anyone sees them using it, they see high quality results achieved in a confident, purposeful way. What’s not to like?
Then they start talking about it.
You’ve had a sample of me raving about Weber above. If we were chatting face-to-face, I’d probably have pulled one of the books off the shelf to show you. You might also be munching away on a delicious recipe from it. So you’d probably end up feeling pretty positive about Weber barbecues.
The big brand language question
That’s what good content does. And it all goes to show the most important question to ask yourself when you’re writing for your own brand. It’s not: