The Golden Secret of good writing

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

Getting through a crisis with stories and druids

The other day I met up with a crisis management expert. We had a fascinating chat – not least because we ended up talking about how important story telling is in his work.

If you can’t tell a powerful story about how you’re going to get out of trouble, you’ll have big problems convincing anyone to come along with you. To tell that kind of story, there are two very important things you need – a clear structure and a strong hero.

The simplest story structure

Well, it’s three act structure, which is really just making sure that your story has a beginning, a middle and an end. But that doesn’t tell you why those three acts create such compelling stories.

A better way of understanding it is to think about the story’s hero. Each act brings a different part of their journey to life, like this:

Act 1 – hero wants to do something

Act 2 – hero can’t do something

Act 3 – hero does something

Now let’s see how that works in practice.

Learning from the druids

At the moment, I’m watching enjoyably nutty woad and weirdness epic ‘Britannia’. One of its lead characters is a rogue druid who’s resisting a Roman invasion.

His story is going like this:

Act 1 – Druid wants to protect Britain from the Romans

Act 2 – Druid can’t protect Britain from the Romans

Act 3 – Druid protects Britain from the Romans

Act 1 establishes why it’s so important for the hero to act and what will happen if they don’t. The Romans burned a village down and enslaved its menfolk as soon as they arrived. If our druid can’t stop them – exploitation and chaos!

In Act 2, you put obstacles in the hero’s path and explore how they learn how to overcome them. Our druid hero’s big obstacle is pretty obvious – he’s up against lots of heavily armed, politically savvy Romans.

And in Act 3, you explore how they get what they want and where that leaves them. That’s going to be interesting for our Druid, because of course historically the Romans did win. So I think victory might come in an unexpected way for him.

Telling your own story

And that brings us back to storytelling your way out of a crisis. That’s what our druid’s doing, with his Roman crisis – and it could help you too, when you hit your own critical moment. Think about what winning through would look like, then work back from that through your three acts to build your story of success.

That will give you a simple, powerful story to tell about what winning through looks like and how you’re going to get to it.

Oh, and there’s one last thing to add – how to be a strong hero. It’s simple – just be an active one! Don’t let things just happen to you. Make sure you’re driving the story on yourself, and then you’re sure to win out, even if that takes you somewhere you didn’t quite expect.

How dark archetypes can help you fix your brand

Image by nrkbeta

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

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

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

Enter… the Shadow!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond the Shadow

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

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

Why business writing should come from the heart

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

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

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

Where facts can’t go

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

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

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

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

So what do you really feel?

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

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

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

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

Information wants to be far more than free

Image by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

So that ‘Information wants to be free’ slogan has always annoyed me a little. Partially that’s because of what it’s led to – a world in which services support ‘free’ by turning their users into the product.

More importantly, it gets to me because it’s actually only one part of a much more inspiring statement about information – one that’s very useful when you’re thinking about brand comms, too.

How it all began

Before we get to that, let’s look at who first said it. Stewart Brand was a fascinating person, one of the people who brought together psychedelic philosophy and deep tech savvy to shape our modern relationship with technology and the online world.

He started out by appearing in Tom Wolfe books, producing shows for the Grateful Dead and helping film ‘The Mother of All Demos’, where tech visionary Doug Engelbart introduced the mouse, hypertext, video-conferencing, email, windows, live collaborative editing and much else to the world all the way back in December 1968. It’s astonishing.

Then Brand played a big role in how both personal computing and the online world developed, shaping them through his involvement in the Whole Earth Catalog (a kind of proto-web, sketching out how people would share information and build communities online), the WELL (one of the internet’s first and most inspirational virtual communities), the Global Business Network (which took utopian web thinking into the world of commerce) and many other projects.

In short, he knows what he’s talking about.

What Steward Brand actually said

So, back in 1984, in conversation with Steve Wozniak, Brand actually said:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

That’s a much subtler and more interesting take on information in the digital age. It also has a fascinating message for marketeers.

Comms are made of information

Because comms are made of information, they too want to be both full of value and free.

On the one hand, when they reach the right person, they’re transformative. They should reset their audience’s sense of a particular challenge, and show how the brand can help them overcome that challenge. Brand comms should feel expensive, because they deliver such genuine, positive, relevant value.

On the other hand, they should be accessible at minimal cost in time, effort and money, painlessly reaching their audience at the right time in the right way with the right message. Brand comms should feel free, because they’re so easy for the right people to find, understand and share.

That’s a fascinating balance – and one well worth thinking about next time you’re working on the comms that bring your brand to life.

There’s no such thing as a mistake

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

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

A sticky workshop moment

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

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

And they let me know this in no uncertain terms.

Inspiration from a great

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

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

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

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

Improvising a new path

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

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

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

The process is the point

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.

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.

Brand learnings from ‘Super Mario Bros’

So there’s a lot you can learn about how important good brand writing is from 1993’s failed ‘Super Mario Bros’ movie.

OK, bear with me here.

Dennis Hopper nails it

The reason I’m bringing up one of cinema’s more epic turkeys is this article about its troubled production. The shoot looks tough to live through, but it’s great to read about. In particular, it’s hard to beat Dennis Hopper’s epic two and three quarter hour rant about:

  • the poverty of the script
  • the inexperience of the directors
  • the iniquities of Hollywood in general

I wouldn’t pay to watch the movie, but I’d love to see that rant. Especially because Hopper was surrounded by 300 baffled extras (except when he broke for lunch, still ranting) and dressed as a humanoid dinosaur.

Image result for dennis hopper super mario bros

And also, he nailed the big problem that sunk the movie.

Of course, lots of inexperienced directors have made great movies despite the difficulties of Hollywood. And making a ‘Super Mario Bros’ movie wasn’t actually such a crazy idea. Films like ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ and the various Lego movies have spun cinematic gold from very similar material.

The problem was the script

The script’s first version was by ‘Rain Man’ writer Barry Morrow. But something about his road-tripping mismatched brothers story was a little… over-familiar. After another false start, producer Roland Joffé brought in the Max Headroom team. Their cyberpunk dystopia wasn’t quite right either.

British comedy legends Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (who’d written everything from ‘Porridge’ to ‘The Commitments’) then worked on it. The directors loved this draft, but the film’s financial backers didn’t. So, just before the shoot, they had the co-writer of ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ produce a final version.

Apparently, it wasn’t bad.

Image result for bill ted excellent

Unfortunately, nobody told the directors about this final version. It came as a huge shock on the first day of filming – they almost walked out. Perhaps they should have done, because the shoot was a disaster and the film was one of the 90s’ biggest flops.

And all of those problems began with the script.

No clear vision

After all those rewrites, it didn’t express a single clear, powerful vision for the film. And without that, all those incredible talents – Bob Hoskins, Dennis Hopper, some of the world’s finest special effects people, the producer who’d just made ‘The Killing Fields’ and ‘Chariots of Fire’ and so many others – had nothing to bring them together.

So everything fell apart.

In both film-making and business, words are where a clear, powerful vision comes together in a way that everyone can understand, buy into, and act purposefully and creatively on.

If you can agree on the words that describe what you’re all going to achieve together, and if you can make that story clear, compelling and easy to understand, then you’re off to the best possible start.

And if you can’t – well, just go and watch ‘Super Mario Bros’.

How to practice being surprised

I’m part Brand Strategist, part Science Fiction author. Sometimes they’re very different worlds, but sometimes I learn something in one part of my life that’s very useful in the other. And the other day thinking about science fiction helped me realise something very important about prediction, and then about brands.

Tomorrow’s not what it used to be

When you’re an SF writer, people often think you’ve got a shortcut to the future. It can get a bit embarrassing, because in fact nothing dates like technology. Everyone had an iPod ten years ago. Twenty years ago mobile phones had only just stopped being bricks. And the very latest record player from the Eighties? It’s an artefact from a different time.

And that creates problems when you’re writing about tomorrow. The future’s the one place we’re all headed towards, all at exactly the same speed. And, because time always passes, when your readers sit down to read your SF book, they’ll be closer to the future you’ve invented than you were when you were inventing it. And that can make anything you’ve got wrong very easy to spot indeed.

Look at famously excellent SF movie ‘Blade Runner’, for example. It’s set in 2019. Now that we’re actually in 2018, it’s very easy to see that it’s not actually very accurate. Nobody in the film has mobile phones and none of them use the internet. We don’t have flying cars (an ongoing tragedy) or almost-human robots. And Los Angeles doesn’t look anything like Ridley Scott’s urban hellscape, which is actually quite a relief.

All the possible futures

So, if SF doesn’t predict the future, what’s it actually for? Well, ‘Blade Runner’ is still a great film to watch. Of course it tells a very human story, about love, mortality and loss. But it does something else very valuable. By showing you a world that’s not actually tomorrow, but is different from today in some pretty surprising ways, it helps you practice being surprised.

And what I realised about prediction. On one level, it’s impossible. Nobody knows exactly what will happen next – just ask the pollsters from the last election. But it can help you get ready for what might happen next. And that’s a very important thing to do.

To do that, you need to define the best of what you are now, about the genuine, constructive value you bring to the world around you. Then you test it out. You think about all the different tomorrows that could happen – most very sensible, some completely nutso. And you work out how you’ll bring the best of yourself to bear on all of them.

And whatever it is that always works, whatever it is that always makes the world better not just for you but for the most important people around you – that’s what you build your brand and all your brand comms on. Because you know that, whatever unpredictable things happen, it’ll always help you make the best of them, for you customers, your colleagues and for you.

A film making masterclass

Last night I went to the launch of the British Council’s Film Collection. It was a wonderful evening – great to see the films, and very satisfying to see a process I helped begin back in 2009 come to such marvellous fruition. I’ve blogged about it all in more detail over at allumination, where I’ve also picked out three of my favourite British Council short films.

But I wanted to post ‘Island People’ here, too. It’s a marvellous film – culturally fascinating, but also a masterclass in how to pack an awful lot of information into a short, highly watchable package.

And there are many more equally good films to explore over at the archive. They’ve been released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, so you’re free to play with them as well as just watch them. Enjoy!