How can brands help build better people?

So I’ve been deep in a fascinating book, Fred Turner’s ‘The Democratic Surround’. It describes how European mass media societies enabled the deeply destructive politics that led to WWII, and what the US did when it realised that it was a very similar kind of mass media society.

It’s got a lot of lessons for us today.

How to build better people

The Americans were lucky – they had a combination of Bauhaus refugees and brilliant psychiatric, sociological, anthropological and artistic thinkers to draw on. ‘The Democratic Surround’ tells their story.

Together, they analysed pre-WWII European politics, looking to understand how certain kinds of mass media could create and support a certain kind of self – the fascist self. Then they asked themselves how those media could be used to create its opposite – the democratic self.

That led to the development of a certain kind of public event, which reached its peak in the internationally successful ‘Family of Man’ exhibition. It was first shown in 1955 in New York, then toured the world for eight years. It was seen by millions and widely acclaimed. There’s a picture of it up at the top of this post.

You were largely free to make your own way through it. Words and images arranged in free-floating groups surrounded you, encouraging you to shuffle them together in your own way and create your own interpretations of them. And those words and images were carefully curated to engage with the full diversity and shared experiences of human life.

You can read more about it here.

The exhibition as a whole was a machine for building empathy and encouraging freedom of choice. And that style went on to inform the next decade or so of US public exhibitions. It was a direct contrast to totalitarian comms styles, which remorselessly imposed absolute, divisive, individuality-eradicating us-vs-them experiences on their viewers.

Asking a very important question

It was also a model for a broader US media experience. Across all media, freedom of choice and interpretation, and active encouragement of diversity, would build up people’s democratic selves.

As the US’ visionary public comms people developed their events, they started with a very important question:

  • How can we help people build up the best in themselves?

It was a very important thing to think about then. And it still is now. That’s because we live in a society far more shot through with mass media than 40s Italy or Germany ever were.

But it’s one that we very rarely ask ourselves.

Instead, we tend to be much more instrumental. As modern comms people, we ask questions like:

  • What are the people we’re talking to already like?
  • How do we want to change their behaviour?

We take who they are as fixed. Then we look at some small aspect of what they do, and try to change that.

Perhaps we try and get them to choose our fruit drink over someone else’s, or switch to a new bank account, or feel a little more enthused about a particular kind of tea.

Having read about ‘The Family of Man’, that doesn’t really seem like enough.

What kinds of selves do modern brands create?

Every piece of comms implies a certain kind of reader or viewer. By talking to that kind of person, it supports the growth of that kind of self. Generally, it’s not a very impressive kind of self. It certainly doesn’t match up to the kind of person that the visionary thinkers of the 40s and 50s wanted to seed.

Of course, some brands push against that.

I’ve written before about the excellence of the Weber BBQ brand. They’re very clearly trying to do more than create people-who-buy-BBQs. They’re looking to help people who might not have seen themselves as food preparers become highly-skilled BBQ chefs, confident, thoughtful and inventive users of a very sophisticated set of cooking tools.

That new understanding of the cooking process can be transformative, changing how people see each other’s roles and shifting domestic relationships accordingly. I’ve seen it happen myself.

In fact, the Weber self is something close to the democratic self. The brand helps you freely choose from a wide range of options to assemble your own response to the world in an open, democratic fashion. Along the way, you gain a wider respect for expertise and experiences you might not have previously thought or cared too much about.

And of course, Weber aren’t the only brand working like that.

What about your brand?

From Which? to Tesla cars, from Innocent Smoothies to Howies clothing, the world is full of organisations that want to support better ways of being human rather than just modify some short term consumer behaviours.

In these challenging, divisive times, it’s a question worth asking about your own brand communications too. Rather than thinking about reaching the consumer types most likely to buy your product or service, imagine the kinds of people you’d most like to build relationships with.

Ask yourself what they’re like at their best. And then think about how your brand can help them become an even better version of themselves. Go back to that very important question that all those Bauhaus refugees and US deep thinkers asked back in the 40s and 50s:

  • How can we help people build up the best in themselves?

And then start to make that change happen.

Digging into ‘The Democratic Surround’

You can find out more about ‘The Democratic Surround’ and move on to Erik Davis’ and Clay Shirky’s podcast interviews with Fred Turner over on his website. And here he is being interviewed by the ever fascinating Doug Rushkoff on the highly recommended Team Human podcast.

Creating the perfect one sentence elevator pitch

These days, the elevator pitch is a big thing. It’s something every brand should be able to do for itself. But boiling the essence of what you do and why that matters into a pithy, witty statement of intent can be a nightmare. I’m sure you’ve struggled with it – I certainly have.

So, I’m going to help you create the perfect short, sharp, one sentence elevator pitch.

I’m going to start by sharing the best elevator pitch creation advice I ever had. It’s from back when I worked in the place where elevator pitches have become a very fine art indeed – the world of feature film development.

So what was the best bit of elevator pitch advice you ever had, Al?

Well, I’m glad you asked that question. Way back in about 1998, I asked a screenwriter how she came up with good script pitches. She replied:

‘Never mind getting it perfect. Come up with a few different versions of your elevator pitch and test them out at parties. You’ll know within five to ten seconds whether you’ve got a good pitch, because it’s so easy to spot when people are bored.’

So I started doing that. It worked really well. I could tell straight away whether or not my pitch was working. Either people’s eyes would glaze over and they’d change the subject (which is of course bad), or they’d look intrigued and start asking questions (which is much more satisfying).

Those questions were very helpful. They’d show me what people were interested in, and where I could usefully take the conversation next. And then I’d polish my pitch a little, and give it more test runs and polishes, and pretty soon I’d have something short, sharp and very effective indeed.

Then I started to notice that all my good elevator pitches had something very specific in common. And my bad ones often missed the mark for one very particular reason too.

Two great elevator pitches (and how they work)

At this point, I’d love to share some of the great script pitches I came up with. But I left the film business almost 20 years ago, so I’ve completely forgotten them all. So instead I’ll use some great one sentence pitches from films we’ve all seen.

Here’s one for Jaws:

A beachside tourist town’s besieged by an uncatchable shark – it’s Moby Dick crossed with a slasher movie!

It’s a great pitch. It creates an immediate and very specific sense of a pacey thriller with something a little more thoughtful going on too. No wonder it was such a big hit!

And there’s this great summary of some obscure little 70s science fiction flick:

A farm boy crosses the galaxy to rescue a princess from the man who destroyed her home and killed his father.

The stakes couldn’t be higher and the setting couldn’t be more expansive. It’s another smash hit in the making.

And of course, these two pitches have something in common. Both take a familiar reference point (a lovely seaside town, a classic fantasy quest) and then add something new and intriguing to it. In ‘Jaws’, it’s the hungry shark. And in ‘Star Wars’, it’s the galactic setting.

That’s an important part of such a short pitch. There’s no time to explain anything in detail. So you’ve got to start with something your audience already understands, then super-quickly make it new and intriguing. 

Two pitches that miss the mark (and what we can learn from them)

Of course, not all of my pitches worked. And that was usually for a very specific reason too. When you’re pitching, it’s very important to think about who you’re pitching to and what they need to hear. This glorious take on ‘The Wizard of Oz’, from film critic Rick Polito, illustrates that very well:

Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets, and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.

It’s brilliantly witty, recasting a fantasy quest story as a brutal, noir-ish thriller. But if you used it to persuade people who’d never seen ‘The Wizard of Oz’ to watch it, you’d disappoint everyone.

Fantasy quest lovers would steer well clear of a film they’d actually love, while the dark thriller fans who went for the pitch would end up very confused and disappointed by the actual movie.

The same’s true for this:

A whiny teen with father issues accidentally romances his long-lost twin sister.

It’s an entirely accurate description of Star Wars. But that doesn’t mean it’d put any bums on seats. A good pitch does more than just hook people. It helps your audience find out if the bigger story you want to tell them is one they’d actually want to hear.

The rules of one-sentence elevator pitching

Taken together, that gives us these basic rules for creating our own one sentence pitches. They are:

  • Frame your pitch around something your audience already understands
  • Introduce something surprising that makes it new and attractive
  • Make sure you take them somewhere they’ll want to go

For an example of that in action, let’s go to master pitch-maker Steve Jobs. Back in 2007, he spend ten minutes or so launching the iPhone, and with it a revolution that’s still shaking through all of our lives. Within that presentation, he made the first ever public pitch for the iPhone.

He said he was launching three new products, then described them, then said:

An iPod, a phone and an internet communicator… an ipod, a phone and an internet communicator… are you getting it yet?

At that exact point the audience went nuts, because they did indeed get it. You can watch it here from about 1:20 on:

It’s a masterly one sentence elevator pitch, and it’s a great example of our pitch rules in action.

It was framed around three things the audience already understood very well. It made them new and attractive by combining them in a never-before-seen way. And it was followed by an in-depth product demo, delivering on everything it promised and more.

A more local (but equally unforgettable) example

I was at a start-up workshop the other week and heard one of the best one-sentence pitches I’ve ever run into. We were taking it in turns introducing ourselves and our businesses, and one attendee – Simon Batchelar of Pallant Design – said something along the lines of:

We do technical web and SEO stuff that’s hard to explain concisely – but one of our clients called us the other week to ask us to pause their paid ads, because they were bringing in so many new leads they couldn’t handle them all.

We were all open-mouthed. We all wanted to know more. It was a brilliant pitch. And it worked in part because of the three rules.

His pitch was framed around things we already understood very well (sales teams, leads, complex web tech). He introduced something radically intriguing – a lead generation campaign that’s so successful it has to end early. And of course Pallant Design can absolutely deliver on that pitch.

My own one-sentence pitch

As you’d expect, my own one-sentence pitch is constantly evolving. At the moment, I tend to say something like:

I’m like a brand design agency, except I sort out your words instead of your visuals.

Most people understand the need for a logo, look and feel, brand iconography and everything else, so that’s usually an easy sell. But very few people have met someone who specialises in brand language rather than brand design, so that’s the tweak that hooks them.

Then I go on to talk about brand messaging, tone of voice, content strategy and everything else that turns dense, generic business writing into impactful, unforgettable brand language. That’s like the trailer for the movie. And then, if they decide to do a project with me, that’s the movie itself.

Over to you

So that’s my rough guide to elevator pitching. I hope it helps you when you’re coming up with your own short, sharp pitches and helps you start many productive conversations in just the right way!

My three minute guide to writing a business blog

Writing your business blog

Friendly, helpful blog posts are a great way of bringing people back to your website again and again. But writing a business blog can be a real challenge.

You’ve got to keep on finding interesting things to talk about. Then you’ve got to work out what you’re going to say and find the right words to say it.

That’s where this particular blog post will help you.

I’m going to share some simple, practical blogging tips to help you solve those three blog writing problems. They’ll make writing your business blog posts simpler and speedier.

And it should take about three minutes to read, though I hope it’ll stick in your head and keep helping you for a lot longer than that.

So, let’s get started by asking ourselves:

How do I know what to talk about?

That’s a very important question to answer. But it’s not the best question to start with. Instead, ask yourself:

  • What does my audience want to hear about?

Think back over customer conversations you’ve had recently.

  • What’s on people’s minds?
  • What do they ask you for help with?
  • What do they wish they knew more about?

Then, make a list. Blast out 20 to 30 specific questions that your customers have asked you or are likely to ask you (like, for example, ‘How do I write a good blog post?’).

If you’re reaching out to different kinds of customers, make a list for each of them. Have some fun, too. See if you can find about:

  • 70% everyday questions
  • about 20% quirkier but still practically relevant questions
  • maybe 10% completely off-the-wall but really fun to answer questions

The answers to those questions are your next 20 or 30 blog posts. You should have quite a wide range of questions, which will help you create a good mix of content.

You’ve probably also got some brand definitions which will guide you as you answer them. For example, if your brand personality is ‘dynamic, authentic and challenging’, that’s how you should be writing your business blog.

You’ll reach your audience with a range of different kinds of posts, most of which will be immediately, practically helpful, and a few of which will be quirkily unforgettable.

How do I structure my blog post?

Your next blog post will answer one of the questions you’ve come up with. You’re the expert, so I’m sure you already know what that answer is.

But you still need to decide how to structure your answer.

It’s much easier to write if you have a clearly-defined structure in mind. Then, you’re just filling in the gaps. So here’s one handy way of structuring blog posts. It’s pretty self-explanatory:

  1. Start with a simple, unarguable true fact
  2. Show how that creates a problem for your reader
  3. Explain what your reader can do about it
  4. Tell them what’s in it for them
  5. End with a call to action

Sections 1 and 2 are your introduction. They should take up about 10-20% of your post. Section 3 is where the meat is, so it should be about 70-80% of your content. Sections 4 to 5 are your summary and conclusion. Again, it should be about 10-20% of your post.

Always start with a rough word count target too. Even if you end up going a little under or over it, it’ll help you focus as you write. My target length for this blog was about 750 words. It’s actually about 900 words long.

To show you how it works, I used it to structure this post. It breaks down like this:

  1. Start with a simple, unarguable true fact
    • Blog posts are a great way of bringing people to your website
  2. Show how that creates a problem for your reader
    • But blog posts can be very difficult to write
  3. Explain what your reader can do about it
    • Make a list of what your customers want to know about
    • Use a simple, practical, easy to work with structure
    • Write in a reader-friendly way
  4. Tell them what’s in it for them
    • I’ve just given you three simple, practical blogging tips
    • They’ll help you create great blog posts for your readers
  5. End with a call to action
    • Get blogging!
    • Leave any questions / your own tips below

And of course, that’s just one way of structuring a blog post. If you Google ‘How to structure a blog post’ you’ll find lots of other suggestions.  

How do I make my blog post reader-friendly?

When people are online, they tend to read at high speed. They’re often on small screens too – tablets or even just phones. So the best way of reaching them is to keep your writing style clear and simple.

Just follow these basic guidelines:

  • Use clear, simple words like these, avoid utilising complex jargon-maximising corporate vocabulary like the previous eleven nouns, verbs, conjunctions, etc
  • Involve your reader by talking about ‘you’ and ‘me’ or ‘us’
  • Keep your sentences short and snappy, no more than 15-20 words each
  • Make sure each paragraph is only three to four sentences long
  • Wherever you can, use bullet points, lists or even diagrams
  • Break your blog post down into short, clearly titled sections

Oh, and I always like to start my blog posts with a picture. You might already have some corporate photography to draw on. If you don’t, you can use Google image search to look for royalty free pics (using Google / Images / More tools to filter for them) or search on websites like Pexels or Canva.

I’ve followed these guidelines while writing this post (and all my other blog posts too), so you’ve already seen how they work in practice.

Now it’s your turn to blog

And that’s that. I’ve answered three basic questions about writing your business blog:

  • What should I write about on my blog?
  • How do I structure my next blog post?
  • What’s the best writing style for my blog?

I’ve shown you how to come up with lots of ideas for your blog. Then I’ve talked you through how to turn those ideas into actual blog posts. And I’ve given you some language guidance too.

That’s pretty much everything you need to create lots of fantastic blog posts for your readers. So now it’s your turn to get stuck into your next blog.

If you run into any more questions along the way, or if you have any blogging tips of your own to share, drop them into the comments below. Happy blogging!

Olivia Colman’s excellent copywriting advice

Some Oscars (there should be one for excellent copywriting advice)

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 on him.

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 down.

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.

How to say sorry when your brand’s screwed up

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 gone wrong
  • Use the moment as a springboard for genuine, positive change

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 fixing it. 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:

How to create impossibly imaginative brand stories

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.

What’s next?

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…

That time I rewrote a Thameslink message screen

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
  • You’re here

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.

Creativity learnings with Primal Scream

Creativity in action - pic by Sharon McCutcheon

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:

A #ProCopyChat on Twitter

Someone rather more smartly dressed than I am pontificating
Someone smartly dressed gets interviewed

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.

There’s a bio here –

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.

Here’s a blogpost I wrote a while back that touches on that process – and roleplaying games, because you can learn a lot about storytelling from them –

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!

Though actually, you really need to be both Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson – emotional and rational – at the same time –

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.

Here’s a blog post about with some more examples. And Dick Van Dyke, because you NEVER want your tone to go all Dick Van Dyke –

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.

Here’s a blogpost on how awesomely wonderful Weber BBQs’ content is –  and one on plotting customer journeys:

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.

How to help your customers change

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.

So Fanny’s journey might be: ‘lost’ – ‘disoriented’ – ‘unsettled’ – ‘clear’ – ‘steady’ – ‘at home’.

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.