That time I rewrote a Thameslink message screen

Standard

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.

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