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.

How to stop writing

Business writing, The process, Writing

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

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.

Why Dr Watson’s right about good writing

Brand language, Storytelling, Writing

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.

How Sherlock would do it better

There’s a great example of Sherlock complaining about Watson’s writing style in ‘The Adventure of the Abbey Grange’. He says:

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 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.

The Golden Secret of good writing

Business writing, Clients, The process, Writing

Someone who knows the Golden Secret using it to do some good writing

Photo by picjumbo.com from Pexels

Yesterday Andy White interviewed me for SiteVisibility‘s weekly Internet Marketing Podcast. We talked about ‘Bringing your brand to life with words’. Our chat ended with a fascinating question about good writing. Andy asked:

‘What’s the one bit of advice you’d give to to help anyone write more effectively?’

I had to stop and think for a moment. Writing’s a very personal thing, so any advice or training I give tends to be very personally tailored. But there is one thing that’s absolutely central to all good writing. And it’ll help you build stronger, deeper relationships with your customers and clients too.

Revealing the Golden Secret

‘Write what your audience needs to hear, not what you need to tell them.’

It’s a very important point. It means building your communication around the person you’re reaching out to. It means thinking about who they are, why they need to hear from you, what you need to tell them and how you’re going to talk with them – all the essentials of good writing.

It also makes the process of writing much easier. It helps you work out what you need to put into your communication, what you can leave out (usually, quite a lot!) and how you’re going to structure it all. And it gives you a very useful yardstick to edit against.

The worst ever question

Most importantly, it makes your writing much more effective. It will help you avoid the single worst response any communication can spark:

‘So what?’

If you build your writing around what your audience needs to hear, they’ll never have to ask that question. That’s because every single one of your communications will solve a specific problem for them, or give them a vital piece of information, or make life easier for them in some other way.

Testing out the Golden Secret

It’s very easy to test it out. Just think about all the written communications you’ve received in the last few days. I’m sure some of them have been fantastic and some of them – well, not so much.

Pick out a really good communication and a really awful one. Read them again with the Golden Secret in mind. My bet is that the really good one will feel like it’s written for and talking to you personally. And the terrible one will feel at best completely generic and at worst totally irrelevant.

Better writing builds stronger relationships

Think about how each one makes you feel. I’m sure the good one will leave you with a lovely glow of good feelings about whoever’s written to you. And the bad one will probably make you feel a bit fed up, if not actively annoyed.

And that’s the final point about the Golden Secret. It’s not just about good writing. It’ll help you build stronger relationships with your clients or your customers, because it helps you show them that you put them at the heart of everything you do.

The process is the point

The process, Writing

So in my ever-continuing quest to be a more dynamic, energetic consultant, I’ve joined one of the local gyms. In practice, it actually means that – on a reasonably regular basis – I’m actually a pinker, more puffed-out consultant, but we’ll get there.

Yay Gympop!

While training, I’ve been very struck by the gym’s vision of health and fitness. There are screens everywhere. When they’re not playing Dynamic Upbeat Pop Videos (Gympop seems to be an actual genre) they’re broadcasting information about healthy eating, walking wherever you can and generally maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

https://i0.wp.com/c1.staticflickr.com/1/663/21453014295_f27deeeb1c_b.jpg?resize=700%2C700&ssl=1

It’s very clear that the gym owners see working out as actually quite a small part of a healthy lifestyle. Of course, it’s a very important focal point – but what you do before and after your exercise session is vital too. The workout they’ve set me up with reflects that too. I spend as much time warming up and warming down as I do actually lifting weights.

A word from my Dad

My Dad – being a golf nut – has his own sporting metaphor for this kind of thing. He often talks about the golf swing. He’ll point out that the moment when you actually hit the ball is a tiny part of the whole process. And it won’t go right unless you’ve got your stance, your grip, your backswing, your downswing, your follow-through and a dozen other things under control.

Silhouette of Man Playing Golf during Sunset

And as I was working away on a cross-trainer the other day, it struck me that that’s true for writing as well. Whether I’m writing a book or working for clients, getting the words down is actually a very small part of the process. In a business writing context, that translates into many different things.

Plan wisely

Before you even start writing, you need to define your brand personality, and be clear about your tone of voice and content strategy. And then, for each new document, you need to create a clearly defined brief. That’ll guide you through your first draft, help you focus feedback and help whoever’s signing your writing off understand exactly what they’re agreeing to.

adult, book, business

It’s like planning your trip before you set out. If you don’t do it, even a journey that should be really simple can become an endless slog. But if you’ve worked it all out, you’ll get where you need to be smoothly, easily and with hardly any getting lost along the way.

Beyond the keyboard

Thinking about it, it’s realising that that turned me from a writer into a consultant. I want my clients to end up with excellent words, created with minimal stress and hassle. And so together we have to think through all the whole writing process, which stretches far beyond the actual typing.

Getting the words down is a very small part of it all; like the golf swing, and like my workouts, it’s the whole process that makes the real difference.