How to stop 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

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.

Lose the charts, just tell it as a story

Lose the charts, just tell the story

I was at a tech meetup the other night. It was a hot evening and I’d had a glass of wine beforehand. All the presentations were full of fascinating info, but also quite technical and bullet pointy. So – as I’m sure you can imagine – my attention began to wander and I started feeling a bit sleepy.

Then someone new took the stage. He didn’t have any slides. He just sat down and started telling a story. He told us about his journey into the blockchain world, sharing how he’d come to understand and believe in the tech, and how that belief was driving him to invest in and document its growth.

A story to act on

That talk woke me right up. It did what a good speech should, grabbing its audience’s attention, memorably sharing both experiences and information and, most importantly, motivating its listeners to actually do something.

It did that so well because it wasn’t really a speech – it was a story. And stories have a very strong impact on us. They’re how we’ve been sharing information for millennia, lighting up parts of our brain that other comms styles don’t even begin to reach.

They do that in some very specific ways:

  • They’re built around people we identify with, so they trigger our sense of empathy and set us imagining what it’d be like to live through them ourselves.
  • They use emotive words and details, waking up every single part of our brains – unlike dry corporate language, which only triggers our language processing faculties.
  • Because they create so much empathy and brain activity, we find it much easier to remember any facts we hear as part of them.
  • And as we all have an instinct for story, we’re more likely to retell them to other people and act on them ourselves.

Before and after story

Here’s a practical demonstration. First of all, read this:

  • Blockchain engagement and support actions:
    • Growing investment from initial $100,000 purchase
    • Establish blog, podcast, YouTube channel, etc
    • Prioritise long term commitment over short term gain

Yawning already? Yup, me too. Let’s tell it as a story instead – I’ve blogged about how to structure a story here:

‘So when I went to my first meetup I was just amazed, everyone was so open and friendly. They were all in t-shirts and shorts, they’d all brought their dogs, I wasn’t used to that. And I realised I wanted to get involved – but how?’

‘Well, I bought $100,000 worth of Bitcoin, so now we had a position. But that wasn’t enough, it didn’t help the community. So we started our blog, we made films, our podcast runs every day.’

‘We’re recording it, we’re helping people understand it all. We’re building for the future because we’re in it for the long term. It’s such an exciting world to be part of.’

If you share information as a story, you make it easy for people to take in, remember and act on. And that’s the power of story in action.

Talking brand storytelling

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:

Let’s build on what we all share

A team agreeing to cooperate. Awesome things will now happen!

I’ve had a pretty civic-minded week. First I hit The FuseBox to learn about the future of Brighton & Hove from Nick Hibberd, B&H Council’s Director of Economy, Environment and Culture, and his colleague Max Woodford. Then I heard Keith Taylor, our local MEP, talk about Brexit. All that’s set me thinking about how cooperation’s better than competition.

Brighton and Hove’s distributed future

The City of B&H wants to be “a nationally significant hub of employment and productivity growth”. It’s already pretty successful – it’s the UK’s third biggest service exporter after London and Edinburgh. And it’s growing fast.

But that creates problems too. At current growth rates, we’re going to need about 30,000 new houses by 2030. There’s only room for 13,000 and probably only capacity to build about 7,000. B&H’s office space is equally tightly constrained.

So the city’s looking beyond itself for solutions. It’s been a big part of the push to create Greater Brighton – a region of shared ambitions, infrastructure and general problem solving stretching all the way inland to Gatwick, and from Worthing to Seaford along the coast.

Big new housing schemes are getting the go-ahead throughout the region. And they’re part of a wider transport, technological and commercial development plan. By reaching out beyond boundaries to collaborate with its neighbours, B&H is finding exciting new ways of growing.

Thinking across even bigger borders

Greater Brighton’s a lovely example of how productive looking beyond traditional borders and creating new ways of coming together and collaborating can be. And that struck me with even greater force last night, at a talk given by our local MEP Keith Taylor.

He talked about issues from global warming to international crime that show no respect for traditional borders and so demand collaborative, co-operative, trans-national responses. Here too, community beats division. We’re at our strongest when we work together. Co-operation is king.

Brexit’s an obvious counterpoint to that. One of the few things Remainers and Leavers can agree on is that it’s been handled very divisively. And that’s weakened the UK on the world stage, shattered parliamentary authority and caused immense stress and uncertainty for millions of people.

So let’s all collaborate!

Which is a lovely idea – but what’s the best way to make it happen? Well, just get out there and do it. Build bridges not walls in everything you do. Come together as one!

And it’s a particularly interesting challenge in a marketing context. Marketing’s a discipline that’s obsessed with things like competitors, USPs, competitive sets, etc. They’re all ways of defining division rather than commonality. Reversing that can take you to some interesting places…

Step beyond the borders of your marketplace. Think about what your brand shares with others, defining it by its peers not its competitors. Pin down common selling points not unique ones, map out collaborative not competitive sets – and so on.

That’ll give you a whole new way of understanding your brand and a whole new set of inspirations for evolving it. And it’ll set you thinking about what we share with each other, which is where co-operation always begins.

Dungeons, dragons and brand guidelines

Back in the day I used to play a lot of role playing games – Dungeons & Dragons, Call of Cthulhu, all of the classics. You’d get together with your friends, then head out into a whole new world and start exploring it, inventing and living its stories rather than just reading them. It was literally fantastic.

Creating your character was a big part of the fun. You’d roll the dice, see who and what you  could be, then fill out the character sheet that described your new self. Character generation began every game, because you can’t start adventuring until you know what sort of adventurer you want to be.

Brands are characters too

Brand guidelines always remind me of character sheets. Both describe who you’d like to be and how you’d like to move through the world:

A wizard might be very intelligent but not very strong. She’ll be a natural when it comes to casting spells, but she’ll never going to pick up the nearest battle axe and charge headlong into the fray.

A DIY brand might be very useful and durable but not very stylish. It’ll be perfect for priming and painting the garden shed, but it’ll never try to step into your front room and make it look spiffy.

The limits of description

The problem is, both character sheets and brand guidelines are really just aspirations – they’re not the actual achievement of those aspirations. I was very strongly reminded of that by a great little rant from games designer and narrative media consultant James Wallis.

It comes in the character generation section of his influential game ‘The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen’. Writing as the Baron, Wallis takes issue with how abstract the whole process is:

‘For character is not generated but forged on the anvil of life. It is only when the blows of experience ring in our ears that we move another step on life’s path… Our souls are formed first by doing then recollecting the experience of those deeds so that we and others might learn from the experience.’

We judge both people and brands not on how they talk the talk, but on how they walk the walk. Character only lives through action. We are what we do, not what we’d like to be.

You are what you do

That’s a tremendously important thing to remember when you’re building your own brand. Having a clear set of brand guidelines – a clear character sheet –  is very important. They help you understand and communicate who you’d like to be. But only action can define who your brand actually is.

So, once you’ve done all the thinking, make it practical. Test your brand aspirations out against your brand’s actual behaviour. If they match up, that’s great; but if they don’t, then you’ve got some work to do. It’s never enough to just tell people who you are – you have to show them too.

Sizzle your way to better brand language

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:

  • How do we tell people how awesome we are?

Instead, ask yourself:

  • How do we help people do awesome things?

Then you’ll be on to a winner.

How to future proof your brand

One of the first things I learned about the future is that making lots of varied guesses about it is much more productive than trying make a few perfect predictions. That’s because the only thing you can confidently say about tomorrow is that it’ll surprise you.

So, the best way to future proof your brand is to imagine as many different versions of it as you can, then see how you’d react to them. That’s the futurist’s real role – to help you practice being surprised. Then you’ll find out how well you’ll cope with the unexpected and what really defines your business and your brand.

But how do you actually do it? Well, here’s one way that works for me:

What’s next?

Start by blasting out a list of possible future changes. Clones becoming our slaves! Brexit collapsing! Virtual reality replacing TV! The EU collapsing! Robots becoming real! Self-driving cars and trucks taking off! Aliens landing! Teleportation becoming cheap and easy! Whatever takes your fancy.

And be sure to balance the completely reasonable with the totally impossible. If you want to practice being surprised, you need to imagine some properly surprising events.

Utopian or dystopian?

Now think about how all those changes could work out. Free teleportation could be pretty utopian. But what if you’re running a bus company? Your business would disappear overnight. So from that point of view, it’s definitely dystopian.

Go through all of your changes and think about what they’d do to your business. Teleportation would transform estate agents, for example, because location just wouldn’t matter anymore.

What would you do?

Now pick the four changes that would have the biggest impact on what you do and how you do it. Choose a possible utopian, possible dystopian, impossible utopian and impossible dystopian one.

Discuss how you’d respond to each of them. Understand what could stay the same and what would have to change. Think about how you’d find opportunities in the dystopias. Explore any problems the utopias might throw up. Think practically about the impossible changes and impossibly about the practical ones.

What you’ll learn

Each scenario will help you think about how your business might change as the world changes around it. That’s useful in itself, because it gives you a greater sense of its possibilities and limits. And, taken together, all that will help you understand something even more important.

Ask yourself what you’ll always keep on doing for your customers, no matter how crazily the world’s changed. There’ll be something there – a single, central problem you’re always solving for them, no matter what.

Solving that problem is what your business is really about.

People will always need help with it, no matter how the world changes. And they’ll always come to you for that help, because you’re the experts in it. So, to future proof your brand, make sure that solving that problem is at the heart of everything your business says and does.

How to have a Good Idea

I’m part consultant, part author. In both roles, I have to come up with new ideas – and they have to be good ones. So there’s one question people very often ask me:

‘How do you have a Good Idea?’

Well, a Good Idea can feel like it’s come from nowhere. But there’s actually a very specific process that can help you come up with one:

Understand your problem

Good Ideas solve problems. And to really solve a problem, you need to understand it. So, dig into your problem. Research it, then write yourself a brief that lays out:

  • What the problem is
  • Why you need to solve it RIGHT NOW
  • Any obstacles you need to overcome to solve it
  • Who’s going to benefit when you do solve it
  • Exactly:
    • what they’re going to get out of it
    • why that’s so important for them

Immerse yourself

Gather lots of information. Find out all you can about every part of your problem. If you can, experience it for yourself. Look for similar problems and see how other people have solved them. Fill your head with useful details.

And don’t stop there. Do some random browsing too. Is there something you’ve always wanted to find out about? Or a favourite book, film, song or whatever else you haven’t listened too for ages? Go and check them out. Indirect information can be as stimulating as directly useful stuff.

Get blasting

Now you’ve understood and explored your problem it’s time to get creative. Blast out as many ideas as you possibly can. Go quickly – you’re trying to explore as many different ways of solving your problem as possible. Don’t judge them – at this stage, there’s no need to. And, most importantly:

  • Go Crazy!

Create ridiculous, absurd, impossible ideas. That’ll help you think beyond the boundaries, and also help you understand where the boundaries really are. Also, you’ll have a lot of fun, and that’ll help even more ideas flow.

Distract yourself

Now stop and go somewhere else entirely, to do something emotionally or imaginatively stimulating that has nothing to do with the Good Idea you want to create. Distract yourself with shiny new things so your subconscious mind can go to work. But don’t forget your notebook. Because…

The magic moment

Round about now, everything should come together and a truly Good Idea will just pop up in your head. It can happen anywhere, at any time, so be ready for it! Or you might look back over all the ideas you’ve already had, and realise that one of them is just perfect.

Make it even better

Your Good Idea is a wonderful, precious thing. But it’s also brand new. So, live with it for a bit. Test it against your brief. See if it needs a little polishing up. And then bounce it off a few people you trust. Talk them through your brief, then ask them how well they think your Good Idea works.

And that’s that! Happy Good Idea creating…

So why do we need tone of voice anyway?

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.