That time I rewrote a Thameslink message screen

Brand language, Tone of Voice, Uncategorized, Writing

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

Than:

  • 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

into:

  • 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

And:

  • 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
  • You’re here

Using our supper example, it means moving from:

  • A supper of sausages, chips and peas mumble mumble mumble

To:

  • 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.

Talking brand storytelling

Brand personality, Brand storytelling, Branding, Content strategy, Narrative branding, Tone of Voice

So I’ve been podcasted – many thanks to Andy from SiteVisibility, who had me on their Internet Marketing Podcast to chat about brand storytelling.

Once you start talking about brand storytelling, it’s hard to stop. We discussed how to give your brand a compelling personality, tell it as a gripping story and show your customers how it can play a crucial role in their own adventures. Oh, and we touched on tone of voice and content strategy too.

So here’s our chat – I hope you enjoy it:

So why do we need tone of voice anyway?

Branding, Business writing, Tone of Voice, Writing

Well, you can answer that in three words:

Dick Van Dyke

If you’re not British, you probably know him as a tremendously versatile actor and light entertainer who’s still hoofing it up in his 90s. But if you are a Brit, when you hear his name you’ll probably mutter something like ‘Gorblimey Mary Poppins’ in a tremendously bad cockney accent, then wince.

And for us Brits, his disastrous attempt to sound cockney in ‘Mary Poppins’ gets in the way of everything else about him. It completely overwrites his all-singing, all-dancing, utterly charming performance in the film. And it’s overwritten much of the rest of his career too.

Poor tone of voice turned Dick Van Dyke from a comedian into a joke.

Wincing at slogans

The need for good tone of voice struck me again on a recent anti-Brexit march. I think Brexit is a big mistake. So I want to change the minds of people who are pro-Brexit. And so, every time I heard or read the slogan ‘Bollocks to Brexit’, I winced.

Of course, the slogan’s core message – ‘we think Brexit’s a bad idea’ – is entirely sound. It’s a great starting point for a conversation, leading naturally into ‘…let’s talk about why that is’. But its tone is aggressive and patronising. So it repels the pro-Brexiteers it most needs to convince.

Poor tone of voice alienates the very people you need to reach out to.

Reaching the right people

Tone of voice isn’t just about the big public messages. It can have very subtle impacts too. For example, small changes in tone can make a big difference when you’re recruiting. Certain words stop people from even applying for a particular job – here’s a fascinating article on how that works.

Getting job ad tone right increases diversity, which, because (according to McKinsey) companies with more diverse teams are 33% more likely to outperform their peers, increases profitability. How you use language can have a real, measurable impact on your business’ bottom line.

Good tone of voice boosts your business by bringing the right people closer to you.

Evoking the best of you

And of course some brands have fantastic tone of voice. First Direct are my own favourite example. I bank with them, so over the years I’ve had a lot of communications from them. Almost without exception they’ve been easy to understand, practically useful and just the right kind of friendly.

Put more technically, their communications deliver both rational and emotional benefits. And because they so precisely embody the First Direct brand, even the shortest note from them both reminds me of and reinforces all the good experiences I’ve had with them over the years.

Good tone of voice evokes everything your customers love about your brand.

So why do we need tone of voice?

We all need tone of voice because it shapes how we choose words, and the words we choose shape our brands and define our businesses in the minds and hearts of everyone they touch.

How dark archetypes can help you fix your brand

Archetypes, Brand personality, Narrative branding, Tone of Voice

Image by nrkbeta

People often use archetypes when they’re talking about brand personality or pinning down a tone of voice. They can be very helpful indeed – but, like everything, they have a dark side. Every heroic brand archetype is balanced by its villainous opposite.

Those dark archetypes are just as useful when you’re thinking about your brand. They can help you understand how it might be going wrong and help you tell a clear, simple, relatable story about fixing it.

So, let’s take a close look at a dark archetype. I’m going to focus on one that appears in pretty much every story ever told – the Shadow.

Enter… the Shadow!

The Shadow is the hero’s lead opponent – the absolute opposite of everything they stand for. And the conflict between them and the hero drives the story they both appear in.

Darth Vader – Luke Skywalker’s opposite in every way – is a classic Shadow. ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ is all about the good doctor’s Shadow taking over. Disney does great Shadows – look at Cruella DeVille or Snow White’s Wicked Stepmother. The Terminator is another example – an inhuman machine trying to destroy humanity. They can be very obvious in comedy – look at ‘Bridesmaids’, whose hero Annie is almost broken by her own absolute opposite, Helen.

If a brand’s making its customers feel it’s doing the direct opposite of what they want or need, then it’s a Shadow brand. Big Silicon Valley entities like Google and Facebook are great examples of Shadow brands. They want people to love how they’re creating a great new era of openness and community. But they’re very often seen as profoundly controlling and deeply divisive.

‘We’ve gone a bit Darth Vader on this one’

If you think your brand’s acting like a Shadow – that is, standing against rather than for what your customers want or need – it can be quite depressing. But the thing about Shadows is that their stories are about reconciliation and forgiveness as much as opposition and fracture.

Luke’s faith in his father finally pays off. The Terminator ends up protecting John Connor and saving humanity. Helen and Annie celebrate their friend’s wedding together, then Helen helps Annie find true love. And so on, in so many stories.

That gives you a really strong story to tell as you help your brand step out of the shadows. It’s a story about what your customers genuinely value, why and how your brand needs to change to deliver it, and how productive and profitable that change will be.

Beyond the Shadow

And that’s only one archetype. Perhaps some current or potential customers see you as a slippery Trickster, an obstructive Gatekeeper, a confusing Shapeshifter, or something else entirely.

Once you’ve understood the problem, and once you’ve settled on the dark archetype that best represents it, you’ve got a great way of telling the story of how you can fix it and why that’ll bring existing customers back onside and help you attract new ones.

Why business writing should come from the heart

Branding, Business writing, Emotion, Tone of Voice

There’s a comment that often comes up when I’m training B2B communicators in better business writing. It usually happens when I say something along the lines of: ‘To write well, you have to think about what your audience are feeling as much as what you’re telling them’.

And when I say that, someone usually replies with something like: ‘Ah, but we’re not fluffy and consumer. We’re all about business to business. Everything we do is all about being as rational as possible. So we really don’t need to worry about the emotional side of things when we’re writing.’

I’ve had that comment from finance people, technical types, insurers, charity managers – just about anyone you can imagine. And there’s a specific story I always tell in response to it, from psychiatrist Antonio Damasio’s excellent book on how our brains work: ‘The Feeling of What Happens’.

Where facts can’t go

Damasio describes how one patients suffered a traumatic brain injury that turned off the emotional part of his mind, leaving him unable to feel. All he could do was reason.

And instead of turning him into some Spock-like genius, one who – unhampered by the confusing distractions of emotion – ended up secretly ruling the world, or at least doing pretty well within some important part of it, it broke him. He found making even the simplest decisions impossible.

That’s because he only had reason to rely on. And reason deals in firm, hard facts. And most of the time there aren’t enough firm, hard facts available to know whether or not you’re making the right choice.

Damasio’s patient couldn’t even decide what colour socks to put on in the morning, because he had no way of knowing for sure how the choice of either one might affect his day.

So what do you really feel?

Damasio uses that story to make the point that we decide by feeling as much as thinking.

Reason helps us deal with what we know will happen. But we can’t know everything. So emotion – lovely, fuzzy emotion – helps us fill in the gaps, feeling our way through all the vaguenesses and uncertainties of life, and reacting accordingly. It’s a fundamental part of being human.

And every piece of business writing is written by a human for a human. And that human audience makes his or her decisions by feeling as much as by thinking, because that’s how we’re built. That’s how we make our minds up. That’s who we are.

So, no matter how rational a piece of business writing you’re working on, you always need to stop and work out how you want it to make your audience feel. Because they’re another human, just like you, so how you make them feel is just as important as what you make them think.

There’s no such thing as a mistake

Tone of Voice, Workshops

At the start of jazz great Herbie Hancock’s autobiography, he describes a mid-60s gig with Miles Davis at a Stockholm concert hall. The band’s playing hard, the audience are going wild, the atmosphere’s electric, Miles is about to unleash a devastating solo, when:

‘I play a chord that is just so wrong. I don’t even know where it came from – it’s the wrong chord, in the wrong place, and now it’s hanging out there like a piece of rotten fruit. I think, Oh, shit. It’s as if we’ve all been building this gorgeous house of sound, and I just accidentally put a match to it.’

A sticky workshop moment

That quote came back to me once, when I was getting yelled at during a two day tone of voice training session.

It was for a small group of corporate letter writers, the people who reply to complaints and deal with problem customers. The company’s new tone of voice was meant to revolutionise their writing. Instead, they experienced it as an imposition from above, ignoring some of the real pressures and issues they faced.

And they let me know this in no uncertain terms.

Inspiration from a great

I remembered Herbie Hancock. For a moment I too felt that I’d completely screwed things up. So what happened next? Well fortunately, like Herbie, I had Miles Davis to inspire me:

‘Miles pauses for a fraction of a second, and then he plays some notes that somehow, miraculously, make my chord sound right… What kind of alchemy was this? And then Miles took off from there, unleashing a solo that took the song in a completely new direction. The crowd went crazy.’

As a brilliant improviser, Miles knew how to respond to the moment in just the right way, whatever was happening. Herbie goes on to say:

‘As soon as I played that chord I judged it. In my mind it was the “wrong” chord. But Miles never judged it – he just heard it as a sound that had happened, and he instantly took it on as a challenge, a question of How can I integrate that chord into everything else we’re doing?’

Improvising a new path

So, I took the same approach. I didn’t judge, I integrated. And I realised that it was actually a fantastic moment. Everyone was being absolutely and completely honest with me (if at quite high volume). They were sharing some very important reasons why they weren’t able to write well. And the workshop’s real purpose was to improve their writing.

So we turned the workshop on a dime, diving into the structural and managerial issues the team faced. That let me feed some genuinely transformative points back to senior management. Then we went back to the tone of voice.

Together, Miles, Herbie and the group taught me a very important lesson – Don’t judge, integrate. As long as you can find productive new ways of moving forwards, there’s no such thing as a mistake.