When browsing the web, reading a brochure, or consuming any other written communication, how bothered are you by the grammar? Or, more accurately, by the correctness of the grammar?
By “grammar”, I’m talking about more than the dictionary definition that mentions syntax – the structure or arrangement of words and phrases. Yes, I’m including typos, spelling mistakes and incorrect (or absent) punctuation too. And, given that definition, consider this: does a spelling mistake, misplaced letter or absent comma get your goat? Or, worse still (for the message-provider), make you think less of them; distrust them, even?
The answer to either question appears to be a matter of opinion, as well as context. We’ll all forgive such things in an email or text message from a friend (and if we can’t, we probably don’t have that many friends anyway). But what if the mistake-ridden message is on a business website? Or in a sales letter from a charity or other organisation?
Are you more inclined to disbelieve the facts that have been presented within the content? Do the errors make the company appear less credible and/or capable? Are you less likely to act upon the message (in the way the writer/ organisation would like you to)?
Having Googled for statistics about the importance of grammar and its impact (upon reputation, sales and other criteria), it’s clear that there’s not much research into this area – or little that’s published, anyway. It could be that firms are doing A/B tests with correct versus incorrect grammar to see if it makes a difference to whether someone clicks or buys… but if they are, it’s not in the public domain as far as I can see.
So, that leaves us with our gut-instinct and/or personal experience. Of a certain age (i.e. I was taught grammar and spelling at school) and a professional copywriter, I have to admit to being swayed by poor grammar – in a negative way.
While acknowledging that we all make mistakes, and that language is constantly evolving, I also happen to believe that businesses should ensure they check and correct their writing before publication. Firstly, it shows they care and that they’re diligent. Secondly, it supports clear communication – a text riddled with errors isn’t as easy to read as the same message that’s been proofed and amended so that it’s grammatically correct.
Checking your work
So, as well as spell-and-grammar checking your texts, you should also print them off and read them out loud – so that you can hear the mistakes (and/or get someone else to do it). Then, you should proof-read them, looking at each word in turn, from the end of the doc backwards. Yes, from the end of the piece back towards the start. Doing it that way stops your brain from assuming what’s likely to come next, and therefore allows you to spot missing words.
It’s pain-staking work but, I’d argue, worth it. Getting it right won’t offend anybody, while getting it wrong may do.
However, if you’d like an alternative to all that hard work… hire a copywriter 😉
If your organisation commissions RichWords to assess some writing samples – with a view to editing, rewriting or replacing the text – we’ll use our PAGES analysis system to give you a structured response. We consider the Power of the vocabulary/overall message, its Architecture (structure; logical flow) and Grammar – as defined above – plus Eloquence and Style.
This Evening Standard report (with videos included) reckons that Sainsbury’s has won the battle of the Christmas ads this year – at least as judged by the number of views on YouTube.
This means the store’s mini-disaster movie “Mog’s Christmas Calamity” that features Mog the cat has beaten the perennial festive favourite from John Lewis (“Man on the Moon” for 2015), as well as all the other retailers.
However, the value of the sales that these stores clock up over the season may tell a different story. In recent times, John Lewis has out-performed its rivals at the tills, thanks in large part to its ads featuring a girl’s journey to womanhood one year, and a penguin (called Monty) another.
But why do any of these ads work?
Quite simply, they work because they tell a story and play on each viewer’s emotions. Either we recognise and identify with the scenes (e.g. the stages of a woman’s life) or else get sucked in by the cuteness and/or humour.
What’s more, these stories work as ads partly because they stand repeat viewing – there’s so much depth to the visuals (including animation/computer graphics as well as smart editing) and often a great piece of music to accompany it too. (The music also helps to wrestle our emotions into the right mood, just as it does in a film.)
Using emotional language in your messages
Now you may be thinking “That’s all very well for John Lewis, with all their millions to spend on TV advertising… but how can I apply some of this in my own promotional materials?”
Well, it is possible – with a little time thinking and some more time on your writing (but not a huge budget). The thinking involves you putting yourself into the shoes of your customer or prospect and imagining what they need or want – and how you/your product or service can address that requirement/desire.
Your writing should focus on evoking the primary emotion that, for your reader, relates most closely to his/her situation. Notice that I’m not advocating using lots of adjectives and adverbs in your texts to try and convey the emotion (things like “exciting”, “amazing”, “wonderful” and so on). Such words won’t get your reader to feel these emotions – more likely, you’ll turn them off with your gushing copy.
No, instead, you must demonstrate how and/or why what you’re offering is exciting to/for them – preferably without using the word “exciting”. White-water rafting is exciting; your new widget or service is not (honestly, it isn’t). Key into the emotional state that your reader is likely to be experiencing when s/he reads your copy, and then make your words transport him or her to a different state.
So, move them away from fear about losing money (by making a bad investment decision, perhaps) to the financial security and peace of mind that your product and/or service can offer.
If you need help making the shift in your own thinking, as well as writing in a way that moves your reader’s thinking and emotions, let me know.
But just wait until the New Year, if you don’t mind – I’ve got some ads to watch and turkey to eat!
- Published in Uncategorized
Now I’ve got your attention, I’m not going to disappoint you by talking about something completely different… the headline is backed up by scientific research. (Yes, I know you’ve heard that one before too, but please bear with me.)
PsyPost, a psychology and neuroscience news website, recently reported on a study published in the journal Current Biology. Researchers from the University of Barcelona and elsewhere discovered that learning a new word activates the reward region of the brain. So what?
Well, this is the same area that gets us excited when indulging in food, drugs and sex.
As well as being fascinating, and perhaps helping to explain my love of language (!), the article also reminded me how my regular “Word of the Week” post used to generate a good response on Twitter. Now I know why – and feel inspired to resurrect the idea.
With that in mind, just think about “ventral striatum” for a moment. Does it feel good? (Doubly so, perhaps, since there are two words.) Anyway, it’s the medical name for this reward region of the brain we’ve been talking about.
And if that’s just too, er, Latin for you, how about these “ven” words:
vendace – either of two types of fish
venery – sexual indulgence (there we go again)
venipucture – puncture of a vein as part of a medical procedure (e.g. taking a blood sample)
Look out for more “Word of the Week” tweets by following me on Twitter @CopywriterRich
The title of a recent article in The Telegraph online edition summed up the problems facing the new boss of the UK’s biggest retailer: “Tesco’s Lost Decade”.
Despite its 28% (lion’s) share of the market, the company has lost its way over the past 10 years and is now experiencing declining sales and poor credit ratings. It’s also enduring negative publicity on other issues, ranging from suppliers who feel they’re being squeezed unfairly through to disgruntled customers unhappy about their shopping experience. There are also environmentalists and other commentators grinding whatever axes they can find to attack the store.
Even wordsmiths like myself and others with a claim to expertise (or interest) in English have joined in on the act. There have been complaints about Tesco’s poor grasp of basic vocabulary and grammar, and the chief culprit is the humble sign that appears above selected checkout aisles in every store: “10 items or less”.
The first thing to say is that Tesco’s is not the only retailer using this wording… but as hinted above, the “Let’s bash Tesco’s” band-wagon is rolling, so various people are jumping on board with some word pedantry too.
The second thing to say is that the sign IS wrong – in terms of traditional grammar, at least: the word “less” should be replaced by the word “fewer”. The reason for this required change is simple – “less” refers to quantity and “fewer” to number.
Now, for many people, there’s not a lot of difference between these terms; they understand “quantity” in the same way as they understand “number” (which explains the existence – and prevalence – of the wording on the sign in the first place).
So the best way to recognise the distinction between the two words is to cite a different example. The style guide gurus William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (aka “Strunk & White”) provide a great one in their classic reference book “The Elements of Style“:
“His troubles are less than mine” means “His troubles are not so great as mine” (where “less” refers to quantity, or degree). In contrast, “His troubles are fewer than mine” means “His troubles are not so numerous as mine” (“fewer” referring to the number of troubles).
See the difference now?
If you believe it’s important to abide by the traditional rules of grammar, then the use of “less” in the sign may irk you… but probably not stop you from shopping at Tesco’s (although some of the other issues mentioned above might have that effect).
However, your own organisation may well be subject to different rules of engagement – assuming it isn’t the size of the retail giant. In other words, when similar errors creep into your company’s communications, the effects may be more serious and detrimental to the success of your business.
So, a spelling mistake or grammatical mis-step may cause a client (or prospect) to pause for a moment and (re)consider your organisation’s attention to detail. Frequent or obvious mistakes may cause them to question your intelligence and educational background (even though these may not be relevant to the product or service you’re hoping to offer).
This means that getting the words (and grammar) correct can play an important part in helping you win – and retain – business.
If you’re unsure about getting these things right, then RichWords is happy to provide you with advice and training, as well as originate and/or edit texts – just email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.
You see, every little bit helps…
Yes, I know there’s an error in the headline. It’s deliberate – and there to prove a point about the importance of proofing (or checking) your written work. Because, if you don’t proof your work, you can end up looking:
Are those the traits you want to portray to people, the impressions you want to create in the minds of your readers?
What the headline should say is “The proof’s in the pudding” – a shortened version of an old saying “The proof of the pudding is in the eating”. The problem with the full version, of course, is that by the time you’ve said it, half of the dessert is likely to have gone.
Anyway, this is all a convoluted way (excuse?) to write a blog post about “proofing” – a shortened version of the word that describes the least favourite task of many writers: proof-reading.
A short history of roof
Yes, another deliberate mistake since I’m not going to write about mud, hay, slates or tiles.
The term “proof-reading” or “proofing” derives from the print industry, before computers and electronically word-processed texts were sent around the world as digital zeroes and ones. The Oxford English Dictionary calls a proof “a trial impression of a page used for making corrections before final printing.” The key part of that definition is near the end: “making corrections”.
Back in those olden days (maybe 30 years ago) when type was set, printers created a proof and sent it to the author for proofing. The idea was for the writer to be able to check that the printer had managed to correctly “translate” his or her own words (either typed or hand-written) onto the printed page. If the author found an error, s/he would mark up the proof using a set of industry-standard symbols that denoted what action was needed to rectify the mistake.
Once the text had been proofed from start to finish, the author sent the annotated – or signed-off as “clean” and approved – proof back to the printer, either for printing (if it was OK) or for re-setting (if not). In the latter case, and especially when more than a few minimal changes were required, the printer would have to send another proof back to the writer for checking… and so it went on.
Harder than you thing
(“Think”, not “thing”!) Nowadays of course, everyone’s a publisher in some capacity or other – from emails to blogs, Facebook posts to tweets, we’re all writing and sending stuff out to the world every day. What’s more, correcting a mistake is as easy as hitting the “Delete” or “back” button on whatever device we’re using at the time… except it isn’t that simple, is it?
First of all, you’ve got to bother to check the text for mistakes before pressing “Send”. Have you got the time/energy/inclination to do it? If you have all three and want to review what you’ve written before sharing it globally, do you know what you’re looking for?
Which brings me to point 2 – you must decide what constitutes an error. Do you have a personal (e.g. ethical, religious, or other) set of rules that govern your communications? Or, if writing in a business context, a set of corporate guidelines that dictate tone of voice, vocabulary, spelling, grammar, and so on?
Third, do you have a technique for proofing your work properly and thoroughly? I have – and it involves printing whatever I’ve written, reading it through several times (including out loud, and from finish to end – yes, backwards). It works – but it’s long-winded too.
If you’ve thought about – and can answer – those three multi-layered questions, you’re probably a copywriter. If you haven’t, you don’t want to, and you’re not, then maybe you need one?
To find someone who regards proofing – and writing – as their bread and butter, simply email email@example.com
- Published in Uncategorized
Tone of voice is all about two factors: the way your words sound and the way they make your readers feel. We’re going to focus on the first of these.
To get your tone of voice sounding right, you have to take care of both your sentence structure and flow, as well as your word choices. It follows that you must also be able to adjust the volume knobs on the sound.
Deciding how far to turn the knob, and in which direction, depends upon what you want to emphasise (by turning the volume up) or play down. In making these selections, your tone of voice needs to reflect your brand personality attributes or traits: those elements of your corporate persona that sum up your organisation in the minds of your audience.
So, when I ask my training delegates to talk about Apple, they often say “stylish” or “innovative” because these are the traits that the company projects in its communications – and in its products, retail outlets and so on.
I’ve never seen the words “stylish” and “innovative” in any of Apple’s marketing materials, and yet they’re the adjectives that people use to describe the company. Why? Because these are the words that are evoked in Apple’s tone of voice, the way it works and its products.
Adjusting your volume
As long as you know what your brand stands for, and which personality traits you want to portray, you can decide which attributes to push or hold back upon.
For example, let’s say that one of your brand’s traits is “fashionable” yet you also have an established history. You’ve decided to target the older demographic with your audience, so your communications play down the trendy elements and focus on your heritage, since you know this will appeal more to your readers in this case.
Other factors can also influence your decision about the volume levels. When RichWords provided tone of voice training to international relocations and assignment management company Crown Worldwide, it became clear that different countries needed to use different volume levels for different personality traits.
So, rather than dictating what the levels should be from the centre, we encouraged the training delegates from around the world to decide which traits to dial up (or down). They based these decisions upon their intimate knowledge of the local culture and what they thought would work best with their national and regional audiences.
If you’d like help establishing your brand personality, translating it into a coherent tone of voice, and figuring out which volume knobs to adjust, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Image from guitarerepairbench.com
- Published in Uncategorized
Marked in over 100 countries around the globe, World Book Day – run by a charity of the same name – is now in its 18th year. The UK celebrated the event on March 5th (other countries assign different days).
Seeing a playground full of kids dressed up as book characters that day did more than raise a smile. It strongly suggested that children really do enjoy reading, which is tribute to the schools, parents and carers involved – as well as WBD itself.
But what does all of this mean for your business and your need for effective communications? Here are some thoughts…
1) Try and keep your joy of reading alive
I hope this enjoyment was instilled in you as a child, since it makes it possible for you to savour each page as a few (or more) moments of happiness.
If that’s the case, then it probably doesn’t matter whether it’s factual or fictional, hard copy or online, or strictly for business rather than for pleasure – you’ll feel good about the time you’ve spent.
2) Reading keeps your grey cells active and broadens your knowledge
Being quick-witted, and having the ability to converse about a range of subjects, are attractive and useful traits in anyone – personally or professionally.
Would you rather spend your leisure time, or working hours, with someone who’s well-read – or a person who’s not?
3) Reading widely allows you to acquire new vocabulary and see different writing styles in action
Picking up and using new words can demonstrate knowledge but, if too obscure, can alienate people too. Try and match the vocabulary you use with everything you know about the readers you’re trying to engage.
While the stream-of-consciousness approach of James Joyce (see “Ulysses“, for example) is definitely not for use in your business writing, the stark and to-the-point crime novels of Elmore Leonard provide better clues. As an aside, Leonard’s famous “10 Rules of Writing” offer great advice too (especially: “If it sounds like writing… rewrite it.”)
4) If you want to read one book about writing…
There are hundreds of books about the art of writing fiction, and about commercial copywriting too. On this latter subject, a great place to start has a title that suggests a slightly wider remit – but don’t let that put you off.
Written by David Ogilvy, arguably the best copywriter of the past 50 years (and one of the original Mad Men), “On Advertising” is a classic that will inform, enlighten and entertain you in equal measure: I highly recommend it.
- Published in Uncategorized
The trainer, David Willis, used “cats” and “dogs” as metaphors for the types of behaviours we deal with – and can all identify in ourselves. These metaphors allow you to recognise and adjust to your own (and others’) behaviours, and to improve your communications as a result.
Do you (or someone you deal with regularly) behave like a cat or a dog?
Many of us adopt a “persona” when we’re at work that determines how we’ll behave in most situations. This may be different (or similar) to the way we’d behave in another environment. Sometimes, we might also flip from one mode of behaviour to another, depending upon the context, the reactions of other people, and other factors.
But how aware are you of these behavioural changes? Can you recognise them in yourself, and in others? On the training course led by David Willis, he grouped behaviours into two broad types: dogs and cats.
The former value relationships and want to be liked; to be a part of the family or pack. They’re confused by conflict or changes of routine, and like to receive (and obey) clear instructions.
You can recognise someone who’s behaving like a dog because they’ll tend to put their weight onto one side or another and tilt their head. They also make acknowledging sounds while listening.
People who are displaying dog-like behaviours will also lean forward when they’re talking or listening, maintain eye-contact, gesture with their hands (palms-up) and vary their tone of voice.
Cat behaviours include sitting or standing straight, with weight balanced evenly and their head centred and still.
They listen in silence and display few gestures – except for palms-down hand movements – prefer to have minimal eye-contact and to use a flatter tone of voice.
Although the summary above only touches on the depths of the analysis, you can probably see some truth in it already. Even with this basic knowledge, you can start recognising the two modes of behaviour in the people you’re with (as well as in yourself).
This can help you to improve your relationships – with “cats” as well as “dogs” – and your communication skills, and even your job prospects. That’s because recognition should lead to adjustment.
You can start emulating behaviour, or adopting the opposite style, according to whatever’s most appropriate to the person or people you’re with and the situation you’re in. And you can make similar adjustments to your writing too.
How to write to dogs
If you know that the person you’re writing to tends to behave like a dog (like around 70% of the population do), then your writing job just got a whole lot easier.
First of all, you can adopt a friendly, conversational tone that uses “you” and “you’re” and other variations two or three times more often than “we”, “I”, “our” or “us”. This will appeal to this (dog-like) reader’s need to be part of a relationship and to feel wanted and liked.
When you’re trying to convince this kind of reader about the validity of your argument, and/or sell them a product or service, appeal to their emotional not just rational self.
People displaying dog behaviours want to feel comfortable and safe too, so you should use phrases that play on this fact (as long as they’re true). So, if you’re writing to dentists, then a phrase in your copy such as “hundreds of other dental surgeons already enjoy the benefits of X product; now it’s your chance to grab this opportunity.” will resonate. Why?
Because you’ve given the reader the sense of safety s/he craves – the knowledge of being part of the pack if they take up your offer. Talking of which, you can also be very bold with your call to action when approaching this audience, since those behaving like dogs enjoy receiving – and will follow – clear instructions.
How to write to cats
When writing to someone who tends to display cat behaviour, it might be useful to adopt a more formal, less conversational style compared to your tone when addressing “a dog”. This means avoiding contractions such as “can’t” and “it’s” and using “cannot” and “it is” instead.
In addition, you can take out any relationship-building friendliness that you might include when writing to “a dog” (“How’s the family?” for example) and focus instead on the task or issue at hand.
You can also present the cat with challenges without fear of confusion or flight – those behaving like cats will relish the fact that you’ve trusted them to tackle the issue head on – and ask them to make quick decisions.
- Published in Uncategorized
Once Colonel Sanders had perfected his secret blend of 11 herbs and spices and developed a basic cooking technique for Kentucky Fried Chicken, he was able to franchise the business and become successful.
There’s also a KFC formula for copywriting success* that combines different elements and can help you quickly create a memorable product: text that people find satisfying, which they’ll want to read and act upon. For copywriters, the letters KFC stand for Know, Feel, and Commit and they inspire three separate questions:
1. What do you want your reader to know?
Before you start, you need to figure out who you’re writing to – and why. In other words, what’s your purpose or ultimate goal? And who are you informing about it and/or persuading to act upon your message?
Once you’ve settled on these, you can figure out the facts that you need to share. These might include an acknowledgement of the reader’s situation/problem/aspirations and a logical follow-up that – respectively – reveals your empathy and support, discusses your proposed solution, and imparts some information about how best to achieve those goals.
Most organisations are very good at pushing out information to their customers and prospects. Not so many bother to filter that data before dissemination. Think about the needs and desires of your reader (remember, focus on just one reader to make your message more personal) before you jot down the most important facts from their perspective.
Then, string these facts into a logical sequence that counters any likely objections and answers every reader’s most pressing question: What’s in it for me?
2. What do you want your reader to feel?
Very few companies get this right, because they focus on the rational arguments that they believe will persuade a reader. Usually, this rational approach is all about facts and figures, so it’s covered by the answer(s) to “What do you want your reader to know?”- so long as (1) is done well.
While this may persuade the ultra-rational to respond, it’s unlikely to move a mass market to action. Even if your focus is business-to-business, there are still people within your target organisations making the decisions – and people are emotional.
Humans respond to desire, fear, greed, humour, hunger, jealousy and other powerful emotional triggers so your messages should evoke these feelings. Once you’ve identified your purpose and your typical reader, you must then decide which emotional triggers to pull upon within your text.
If you concentrate your text on answering the “What’s in it for me?” question, you’re likely to be outlining the benefits that a reader will enjoy by buying your goods or services. In turn, and perhaps without even knowing it, you’ll probably be using some of these emotional triggers.
For example, a focus on price is essentially playing the greed card – the reader saves money (benefit) and keeps more of it for him/herself (benefit based upon greed). Then again, you can put the spotlight of your message on guarantees (benefit = minimal risk), or a service level agreement (benefit = low risk and recompense if the SLA is broken), or the many other satisfied customers you have (benefit = low risk because it’s proven/successful). With these ideas, you’re now honing in on the reader’s fears: of making a wrong choice, missing out on a good deal/not being “insured”, or lagging behind the market/their competitors.
3. What do you want your reader to commit to doing?
If your communication has a purpose behind it, you’ll want your reader to do something after seeing your message. It may be to place an order, sign up to a newsletter, or phone for more information.
Ideally, you should ask for only one thing. Once decided, make the call to action as clear and simple as possible: “Fill in the attached order form.”; “Complete your name and email address on this sign-up form.”; “Call this number:”.
You can mention the call to action more than once within your communication, and you should certainly include it at the end of your message (maybe even adding a variation of it as a “P.S.”).
* With thanks and acknowledgements to fellow copywriter and friend (and ex-boss!) Andy Maslen who first mentioned this to me way back when.
- Published in Uncategorized
A few of my freelance friends have been asking how I’ve managed to keep so busy over the past year, and I guess there are three answers: hard work, good work and good luck.
The hard work involves self-motivation and long hours – getting into the office on time and doing a full day (even when the sun’s shining, like it has been all this week). Sometimes, it can be about working in the evenings or at weekends too, although I try to keep this “overtime” to a minimum. This is because I want to spend time with my family and also relax and re-charge my batteries. This is important for staying fresh and creative – which in turn helps to keep my clients happy, of course.
Good work is all about meeting the brief in terms of timing, budget and creativity (as a minimum) – and trying to exceeed expectations wherever possible. It’s also about being as helpful, approachable and knowledgeable as possible: to be the “go to” guy for a client’s copywriting and marketing communications needs.
Good luck is about being in the right place at the right time, knowing or meeting the right people, or hitting on an idea that resonates with a client at just the right moment.
And the moral is? Doing the first two things consistently can help you get your own slice of good fortune more regularly.
- Published in Uncategorized
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