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.

Information wants to be far more than free


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.

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.

Writing speech for brands


It struck me just now that the best way of writing for brands is to see your words as speech, not prose.

That came out of thinking about the difference between writing for brands and writing fiction. I’ve always separated them by saying that, when I write for a brand, I’m trying to sound like someone else, and when I write fiction I’m trying to sound like myself.

But in fact, when I’m writing fiction I’m never just talking in my own voice. Stories are built on characters, and characters spend an awful lot of time talking to each other. So, whenever I’m telling a story, I’m actually working hard to sound like several other people at once.

And that’s what made me think that writing dialogue a lot like writing for brands. In both cases, I’m trying to understand and communicate a coherent personality, one that’s entirely separate from my own. And that, I think, is going to be quite a useful insight, both when I’m writing and when I’m teaching writing.

First of all, it’s a reminder that brand communications are more effective when they’re pitched in a more conversational tone of voice. A formal, blandly corporate tone might share information, but it can’t share emotion like speech can. And – of course – emotional engagement is core to any effective piece of brand writing.

And secondly, it’s a reminder that we live in a world where any brand’s audience can very easily go online and start talking back. Any piece of brand writing can start a new conversation, or become part of an ongoing one.

That means, every time I write for a brand, I need to be thinking about what’s already been said about it, how what I write is going to fit into it, and how I’d like people to reply to whatever it is I’ve just said.

Dynamic geographies in action


Reading this fascinating blog post about the 2010 web from Robert Scoble has made me think about online developments, and in particular about how they’re helping make the web’s central revolutionary feature – its replacement of a physical geography with a geography of interest – even more dynamic.

Before getting to that, though, it’s worth thinking about why the easy availability of a geography of interest is such a big change.

Historically, your relationships were defined by who you were physically close to. For most people, in most of history, that meant a relatively small group, located in a space extending maybe ten or twenty miles from your birthplace.

Of course, that’s not to say that you couldn’t move across the world in service of a particular interest. But it was expensive and time consuming, which made it an option that was only available to relatively few people.

The web’s changed that, removing almost all barriers to creating relationships based on shared interest, rather than shared geography. Now, anyone with internet access can type an obsession into Google, and within microseconds find whole communities of fellow travellers.

That geography of interest makes it easy to build relationships with people who share your passions. Objective physical geography has been replaced by subjective intellectual (or emotional) geography.

The changes that Scoble points to are changing the terms of that geography. Until recently, online conversations have mostly been relatively static things. You’ve needed to be sat at your PC or laptop, in at best a wireless enabled space.

You’ve talked to people through one particular portal – on their blog, or in a particular chat room, or on a message board. Web searches have been based on what people have read about in the past, not what they’re reading about now.

But, as we move towards 2010, that’s no longer the case. Online engagements are becoming increasingly dynamic, increasingly focussed on the now. The mobile web, real time search, social media, fragmented web presences, and so on, are combining to create a new style of online engagement.

We’re used to a web that’s like reading and writing (you write in the past, I read and respond to your writing now, you will get my response in the future), but these new technologies are letting us engage in ways that are more like talking (you say this now, I respond now, you get my response now).

That’s very intriguing, but – in practical terms – what does it mean? For us as individuals, I’m not sure how much of a difference it’s going to make. To some extent, the revolution has already happened. Since the mid 90s, most personal web users have been living in a geography of interest.

Now that that geography is more dynamic, it’s easier to have live, creative conversations within it; but as humans, we’re habituated to communicating through conversation, so (being admittedly very reductive) all we’ll experience will be a set of interesting new ways to carry on a process we’re all already very skilled at – finding and talking to interesting people.

I suspect that the step change is going to come at an organisational level.

First of all, existing organisations aren’t remotely habituated to living in a more and more dynamic geography of interest. That’s because they’re not very good at conversation. For the most part, they talk to the outside world through the discipline of marketing, and marketing speaks in monologue.

Most marketing activity looks to repetitively pound a simple message into a passive, undifferentiated mass of people (very reductively) defined as consumers. That model will come to seem increasingly dated and ineffective as people develop a sense of media as a vehicle for live, interest-driven, two way conversations.

The Terminator promotion I talked about below is one example of more conversational marketing. It’s more sophisticated – and more involving, and more *live* – than traditional film promotion materials, by several orders of magnitude.

Then, there’s T-Mobile, who are reverse engineering flashmobs to turn them into adverts, which are then made live TV events by being unveiled in specific ad slots (did you ever think you’d hear the words ‘exclusive commercial break’ on Channel 4?).

On a much smaller scale, there’s also Vodafone UK’s recent Treasure Hunts, which had their Twitter followers competing to solve clues to work out where free phones (fones?) could be found – if you search #VFTH on Twitter, you can track back over the action.

Secondly, new kinds of organisations will be enabled. A dynamic geography of interest means that people with shared interests will find each other very easily, and then communicate in real time.

Crowds will form instantly; some will coalesce into longer lasting tribes, defined by shared interests, and some of these tribes will generate teams wanting to do something practical that relates to those interests (on this process, more here and in upcoming posts).

Such organisations could be driven by political, commercial, creative or other interests; some will no doubt be substantial enough to compete effectively with existing, more traditional organisations.

The first manifestations of this kind of organisation have been political. For example, according to the Evening Standard, London Tamils are winding up for a summer of protests, organised spontaneously through Twitter and Facebook, and Twitter is playing a key role in Moldova’s ongoing revolution.

Of course, these are just initial symptoms of far reaching changes – changes that won’t happen overnight. Scoble makes the very valid point that these changes might not start filtering through into mass consciousness until far beyond 2015.

I don’t doubt that they will filter through, though, because we’re all social creatures, and living in a dynamic geography of interest will offer us all fascinating, rewarding, and increasingly easy to access new ways of being social.