Going solo: what I’ve learned

June 13, 2016

It’s been almost two years since I handed in my key fob, tore up my travel card and became a freelance writer. That’s right – time doesn’t so much fly as screech hysterically through the sound barrier.

There are things I miss about office life: workmates, free digestives, the ignorant bliss of never thinking about tax codes. And there are things I don’t miss – communal fridge full of brown salad-mulch, anyone? All in all, freelance life has been a blast. And I’ve learned A LOT.

Now seems a good time to look back at the projects that went well, as well as some of the curve balls that came along. After all, the things I’ve learned won’t just help me to do better work – they’ll help clients (like you?) run projects that are more cost-effective, more straightforward, and more successful.

So, have a look at my posts about:

1. The perils of asking for a ‘rewrite
2. How to work with a writer on your new website
3. How to give feedback to a writer
4. Why tone of voice is not your problem

And do comment to let me know what you think – and to leave some tips of your own!

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Why tone of voice is not your problem

June 6, 2016

Loads of brands are convinced they’ve got a problem with their tone of voice. They think they need some tone of voice guidelines – ideally featuring some nice adjectives like ‘straightforward’ and ‘friendly’ – to share throughout their organisation. But, for many brands, the problem isn’t so much with how they’re speaking, but with what they’re saying in the first place. And there are other, more practical, solutions to the problem they’re trying to solve…

On the one hand, I love tone of voice jobs. They can throw up some really insightful things about a client and the way they run their business. And, for a writer, pondering and creating a set of guidelines can be really good fun.

At the same time, I’m a bit disillusioned with the whole thing. I don’t doubt tone of voice exists – you could pick a Virgin headline out of an identity parade, for instance. But I do doubt you can teach and apply tone of voice, at least in the way people claim.

And I’m absolutely positive that, for many organisations, tone of voice isn’t the problem. Hear me out.

Why tone of voice isn’t working…

I think there are two big issues with creating a tone of voice:

1. Brands usually want a tone that’s clear, friendly, professional, human… In other words, ideas from the school of the bleedin’ obvious. Which brands want to be unclear, unfriendly, unprofessional? Or inhuman??

As a result, ‘tone of voice’ guidelines often contain the same stuff: writing tips that apply to any brand, anywhere. You know: vary your sentence lengths to create rhythm, use contractions to be more approachable, don’t use ten words when three will do… Great. It’s all good stuff. But it’s not ‘tone of voice’. It’s just decent writing.

2. When a brand is so bold as to want something actually distinctive for their tone of voice – say, they want to be curious, provocative, egregious, whatever – tone of voice is incapable of explaining how to achieve this in practice.

For instance, the University of Leeds has some guidelines that are great for writing tips. They’ve got some decent stuff on how to write in a way that’s ‘straightforward’ and ‘friendly’. But as soon as they start investigating how to write in an ‘imaginative’ way, things start to unravel. They start reaching for other adjectives to describe the original adjective (a mind-bender if ever there was one). One suggestion is to be ‘visionary’:

Remember who you’re talking to. What’s exciting and visionary for one audience may not be for another. Find an imaginative headline or opening sentence to attract and hook your reader.

Sorry, but this is completely impractical. How exactly does the user, who may not be a professional writer, ‘find an imaginative headline’? How do they know what will ‘hook’ their reader? Finding the magical line, the creative flourish, the poetry that makes an idea sing – it doesn’t boil down to a three-step exercise. It takes experience, usually from someone who has spent their career trying to understand the spot where art and craft meet.

…And why tone of voice is not your problem anyway

Even if it was possible to create a perfect, practical set of tone of voice guidelines, they aren’t necessarily what you need.

I recently wrote a post about how I helped a massive financial services company with their website. The client had loads of content – but, they said, the tone wasn’t right. We rewrote the content in the tone the client asked for – clear, friendly. The usual. But the client wasn’t happy. You see, once we’d unwound the endless sentences, tidied up all the jargon and polished the big ideas, it was plain to see: the original content was saying all the wrong things.

And that’s the case for so many organisations. The problem isn’t just how they express their ideas – it’s that they don’t know which ideas to express in the first place.

And that’s where we can add real value as writers. We could have charged the client a serious wedge to create a new tone of voice and a set of guidelines – but that wouldn’t have solved their problem. Instead, we used our experience in understanding readers, in reframing the ideas, in repositioning messages, to come up with some foundations that actually worked. After that, tone was hardly an issue. Happy days.

So what’s the answer?

Instead of paying for some tone of voice guidelines (which, too often, languish either on a server or in the bottom of a drawer), I reckon clients would be better off spending their money on some great foundations: core stories and key messaging documents. These help explain what a brand does, and why it matters, in a way that really means something for customers and staff.

Then, clients could arrange regular training for staff, to help everyone understand how to use these documents to create other great content. And some training on straight-up ‘good writing’ – that will help too.

And above all, clients should really value good writers. And they should make space for great writers on their team. At the moment, too many junior marketing execs – who have no desire to be writers themselves – end up writing tons of content for big brands, on everything from email campaigns to social media stuff. And it’s partly because their bosses think writing is easy, or at least easy to learn quickly. It really isn’t. Would-be writers need time to learn, and proper support from great mentors. (I certainly wouldn’t be making a living as a writer now had I not worked with awesome people who happily let me steal their best ideas.)

If you’re a writer, tell me: what do you think about tone of voice work? And if you’re a client, let me know how you keep your tone of voice on the straight and narrow…

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Why ditching that last draft is a false economy

June 3, 2016

There are lots of ways to cost a writing project. You might agree a fixed fee with your writer. Or you might ask them to work on a ‘taxi meter’, where the costs are based on the number of hours they’ve notched up. In some projects, a writer and their client might agree on a maximum number of drafts. This is perfectly fine – but it’s worth making sure that everyone understands how the writing process works, and why some drafts are worth more than others.

The other week I was working on some brochure copy for a client. We’d agreed a price based on me writing three drafts – but, just as I was about to start writing, they asked: if it turned out that we didn’t need to do all three drafts, would that reduce the cost of the job?

(This is actually a trickier question than you might think. Yes, my fee was based on me writing three drafts. But that can get hazy – it’s fairly typical to end up doing ‘half drafts’ or ‘just a few last tweaks’ without asking for more budget. That’s no problem. The three drafts I’d outlined were primarily there to keep everyone focused and on track. Also, does this kind of arrangement actually discourage writers from turning in an awesome first draft, nailing the brief and saving their client valuable feedback time? It’s worth thinking about. Anyway.)

I didn’t mind keeping the costs flexible. But I did need to flag a couple of things that some people might not have thought about:

Different drafts do different jobs

When I cost a project like this, I don’t attach the same cost to each draft. The first draft takes by far and away the most time – it’s the one which involves all the upfront research and brainwork, and it’s the only one where I’m starting with a totally, intimidating-ly blank page. So, depending on the size of the project, this first draft could cover a big part of the cost.

The second draft, and those that come after it, are usually easier, since there’s at least a framework for the writer and client to knock about. So, even if there are big changes, they probably won’t take as long as writing the first draft from scratch. Later drafts should just be about polishing and tidying. And the final one often doesn’t take very long at all.

So, you could ditch the later drafts. But you might not save as much budget as you expect. And in saving a relatively small amount, you might end up making a false economy…

Don’t fall at the last hurdle

You might think: well, if the last drafts are easier, we can do them ourselves in-house. But I’d advise against it. Those last bits of polishing can make the difference between a line that sings and a line that falls flat. I’ve often had a well-meaning designer tweak something in the final copy, only for the parallel structure to become unbalanced, the alliteration to be lost, or for some other very clever thing I was trying to do be unintentionally and completely cocked up. Someone once said to me that hiring a writer and tinkering with their final draft was like employing a mechanic to fix your car but then trying to sort the exhaust pipe yourself. I’m no driver (got three majors on my first test, lucky for you I never took to the driving seat again), but it’s kind of the right idea.

So, even if the first draft is pretty good, think about going through a few more, refining as you go. Sometimes, in those later drafts is where the magic happens.

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How to give feedback to a writer

May 16, 2016

Some things really put a dampener on my working day. Scary brown envelopes from HMRC. My printer eating a whole sheaf of paper in the five minutes before I need to leave, with handouts, for a presentation. And fluffy feedback. However… Focused feedback makes my little heart sing – and it helps me get a job done quicker, with a lot less back-and-forth with my client.

When you give clear, considered feedback on a piece of work, it’s much more likely that your writer will nail the next draft. But if you’re vague or unclear, they’ll struggle. For instance: if you highlight a headline and simply say ‘I don’t like this’, your writer will be left wondering: why? Is it too jokey? Too serious? Too technical, or just a bit too long? And until you’re more specific, you’ll both trudge despondently from one draft to the next, your writer sobbing: is this what you mean?

Please: don’t be one of Those Clients. Take a look at my tips on giving great feedback:

1. Start big, then zoom in

It’s easy for a writer and client to spend draft after draft tinkering with individual words and phrases within a paragraph, with the writer buffing and polishing until everything is just so. And then the client realises that, actually, the second paragraph should move to the end, and the stuff on the third page needs to come sooner… So everything needs reworking, and all that tweaking was a waste of time.

Always start by agreeing the big, structural stuff. Do you like the general shape of the draft? Is it missing something, like an intro paragraph, a case study, a video of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Boris Johnson chatting awkwardly in a cable car? Once your writer has sorted that stuff, you can happily move onto questions like whether your readers would prefer the word mellifluous or euphonious.

2. Don’t ask your whole extended family for their opinion

A designer recently told me about a private health company who wanted some print ads. First drafts done, the client decided it would be a good idea to ask a random handful of patients what they thought of them. This was, in fact, not a good idea. It resulted in unhelpful feedback – built entirely on personal bias – like ‘I don’t like pink’.

Only get feedback from those people in your team who really need to give it. After all, the more feedback you gather, the harder it is for your writer to collate and act on. And make sure your commenters are working to the brief, not personal preference. No, they may not like the headline, but if it’s linked to your latest campaign then it might be a good idea to use it.

3. Get yourself a moderator

I once got a document back from a client’s team. One person had highlighted a line, saying: ‘I like this.’ Another person had highlighted the same line, saying: ‘I don’t like this.’ It was hard to know what to do with that.

If there are several people in your team commenting on a draft, make sure there’s a moderator who’s going to collate and rationalise any contradictory comments. Otherwise you’ll be bombarded by phone calls from a writer desperately trying to work out whose comments carry the most clout…

4. Remember: tracked changes are the Devil’s work

Picture the scene. I’ve written a document about a financial product, which includes the line: ‘And you can increase your payments whenever you want to.’ When the client returns the document, the line has been changed to: ‘This dynamic product flexes to suit your changing lifestyle.’

Now, what do I do with this? Did the client cut ‘and’ because they don’t like starting sentences that way, or did they not even think about it? Is the ‘dynamic’ idea the same as increasing the payments, or are there other product features I don’t know about? Is the substance of the line actually any different, or does the client just like macho words like ‘flex’? I need a phone conversation to get to the bottom of it.

To make things simpler, leave your feedback as comments in the margin of the document – it’s easy to do in Word docs. Instead of making the changes yourself, explain why you want the words to change, like: ‘This makes it sound like the payments are the only flexible thing. But customers can change their investment options too.’ It means I know what needs to change, and why – and I won’t make similar mistakes elsewhere.

Oh, and one last thing: feel free to highlight the bits you like as well as the bits you don’t. Just because, you know. It tells me what to do more of. And it feels kinda nice too.

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Why asking for ‘a rewrite’ is A Bad Thing

May 13, 2016

Sometimes clients say they’ve got a website, or a report, or a speech, and the copy is OK – but it’s not in the right tone of voice. The ideas are there. But it just needs to be friendlier, shorter, simpler, or maybe all of the above. In other words, the client needs a rewrite. Oh, and since it’s only a rewrite, the job should be quicker. And cheaper.

This way, friends, lies strife. For everyone. Because, in so many cases, it’s not about how you’re saying it – it’s what you’re saying in the first place.

Last year, I worked with some other writers on a project for a global financial services client. This client wanted us to rewrite their website. They wanted us to use the content on each existing page, and rewrite it in a clearer, more conversational way.

And that’s exactly what we did. We rewrote a few ‘test’ pages, and – feeling pretty pleased with our work – sent them to the client for approval. We felt the tone was spot on. Which is why we were surprised when the client got in touch to say that they, erm, kind of hated what we’d done.

The problem wasn’t that we’d failed to make the original copy clear. The problem was that we had managed to make it clear – and, in doing so, we’d made it possible to see that the original content was rubbish. For instance, once we’d got rid of all the corporate waffle and silly jargon about the products being dynamic, flexible and customer-centric, and explained what the customer could actually do with them, the client realised: er, we can’t say that, because the product isn’t really very dynamic, flexible or customer-centric at all.

The pages didn’t need a rewrite. They needed a rethink. In the end, it took a HUGE amount of time speaking with product managers, marketing teams and other stakeholders, to agree what content needed to be on the page. And that was before we’d written a single word of the final ‘friendly’ copy. A quick rewrite turned into a much more complicated – and more costly – job.

Writing is thinking

The thing is, it’s pretty much impossible to separate words and ideas. I’m reminded of a quote from the very clever Lindsay Camp:

‘…when a writer runs into difficulties, it’s very rarely words that are the real problem. Almost always, confused and over-complicated thinking is to blame.’

And there’s absolutely no way of getting the words right without getting the thinking straight. Imagine your document as a house: a rewrite is a bit like painting the walls. But if japanese knotweed has played havoc with the foundations, no amount of Farrow & Ball is going to make you move in.

If your thinking is clear, your words can be too. But if you don’t really know what you’re trying to say, you can’t connect with your audience – whatever tone of voice you use.

My suggestion

Happily, the whole thing has an easy fix:

Project Managers – ask your writers to have a good look through the original documents before planning any rewrites with a client. And make sure everyone understands exactly what is meant by ‘rewrite’. Is the client really happy for your writers to use the existing content on the page, and no other content whatsoever?

Writers – when you’re looking at the document, ask yourselves: do I really know what this is trying to say? And is it saying the things it should say? Do I need to factor in some time to find new content, or can I just sweep away the abstract nouns and chop up the humungous sentences?

And, clients – remember never to skimp on the thinking time. It’s worth far more than friendly words.

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How to work with a writer on your new website

May 12, 2016

Website jobs can be tricky. Understandably, clients have questions like: what’s the optimal word count? How many SEO terms are acceptable these days? And writers get obsessed with juggling keywords, desperate not to sound like an over-briefed Mili-borg.

But step back from the detail. Because a good writer can help not just with the words on each page, but with the messaging across your whole site. It just takes some cracking project management.

There are so many people involved in creating a website – some planning the content, others building wireframes, others writing draft web pages – and so there are lots of places where things can fall through the cracks. For example: a writer writes a web page, and then passes it onto the designer. Then the well-meaning designer trims a few words to tweak the word count – and all of a sudden, the copy loses its clarity and character. Lots of hard work, unintentionally undone at a keystroke.

Here’s how I think everyone can work together more successfully:

  1. NEVER skimp on the planning

Which comes first? Design or content? Ah, that old chestnut. The writer often wants to see some designs first, to understand how many words to play with and how to organise them. But the designer  wants to see some words first, so they can think about how to fit everything on the page. It’s tempting to ask your writer to start scribbling, just to get the ball rolling – but if a writer starts writing before the page design or site structure is fixed, you’ll end up with a lot more drafts. And a bigger invoice.

So, start by planning the content across your whole site. Do you want just one homepage, or different homepages for different audiences? Do you need separate pages about your products and services, or just one to cover everything? And crucially: ask your writer to help you map everything out. A writer can think about how your story will flow from one page to the next, and how that might affect things like the menu headings. They can help you decide what messages appear on each page, and where these should point to.

Then, if you can, get an information architect to check that your plan makes for a sensible user journey. They’ll spot the subtle things, like whether you should reduce clicks here or add a page there.

This should give you a proper site plan, showing which messages you need on each page. You’ll be able to see whether a particular page is going to be text-heavy and complex or simple and clean. Only then can you start to explore how many different types of page, or templates, you need your designer to build – and the designer can also start to see whether you’ll need specific design elements: buttons, icons and so on.

Bear in mind: the writer hasn’t drafted a word yet. But they’ve given invaluable input into the planning stage, looking at the overall structure and the story you’re telling your reader.

  1. Review along the way…

When your designer knows how many types of page they need to design, they can create some rough templates. Once you’re happy with the rough designs, the designer can move onto the wireframes. And when these are done, your writer can really start drafting the copy.

Best of all, your writer will already have your content plan as a starting point – they’ll know exactly which messages to put on the page, and they’ll know where to signpost other content.

Once your writer has got some first drafts, your designer might like to review some of the design elements. For instance, now that the first draft copy is in place, they’ll be able to see: do we really need so many different icons? Do we need to create a new design element, perhaps to highlight certain things like bulleted lists or quotes?

I’d suggest that, at this point, you finalise the design elements, and afterwards give feedback to the writer. The writer can then use the updated designs AND your feedback to create second drafts. Of course, after this point you can do as many drafts as you like – but, by following this process, you can avoid any huge design change throwing the design out of whack, or vice versa.

  1. …And review again at the end

Once your site is up, do give your writer a bit of time to check everything and see that it flows properly. It’s one thing writing a site page by page, but it’s very different seeing it all working together – and having your writer walk around the site, making sure everything feels right as you click from one page to the next. This is a time for last tweaks and little touches that will make the user journey more comfortable.

And then you’re done. You can now launch your shiny new website, to much applause and acclaim.

I suppose I should add one final point: be realistic. The points I’ve outlined show how a project can work in an ideal world. But we all know how extra pressures like time and budget can get in the way. The main thing is that each person on the project needs to see the bigger picture – to look up from their designs and drafts, see how they fit into the wider process, and work collaboratively. It saves time, it saves money. And it makes the job a hell of a lot easier.

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What happens when your vision is unclear

May 10, 2016

Generally, I don’t much care for Facebook groups. There’s a group for our block of flats, and it’s mostly passive aggressive messages about dog poo in the communal gardens.

But then, in a PR and journalists’ group, someone shared this cracker of an article – and all was forgiven.

For those of you who haven’t clicked the link yet, the article looks at a PDF presentation that has been created and shared by a US startup. The presentation includes the kind of language that clients often feel they should include in their own work – jazzy adjectives like ‘powerful’ and ‘breakthrough’, big abstract nouns like ‘positive global impact’ and ‘massive global change’. The problem is, they’ve forgotten to explain what the startup actually does.

A reminder never to let ‘style’ get in the way of substance…

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A painful conversation

May 9, 2016

Not long ago, one of my friends had a hospital appointment with a consultant. She asked me to go with her for a bit of moral support.

Now, this appointment was a big deal. My friend had been in pain for months, and had already had several fruitless appointments and many frustrating phone calls trying to find the cause. So when we got to the appointment she was, understandably, quite stressed.

And one exchange in particular between her and the consultant really didn’t help matters.

Take care with words

My friend mentioned that she wasn’t happy with how she’d been treated so far. She didn’t feel like anyone had really listened to her concerns or understood her situation. The conversation went like this:

Consultant: So what you’re saying is…

Friend: I want you to treat me like a person.

Consultant: …you want individualised treatment.

Friend: Treat me like a person.

Consultant: Right. Individualised treatment.

Friend: Treat me like A PERSON.

It was fascinating – the consultant clearly thought he was saying the exactly same thing as my friend. But he wasn’t. He was talking about the treatment, the thing he could deliver. She was talking about herself, her experience, her life – she wanted the consultant to know that she was no longer sleeping at night. She wanted him to know the devastating impact that the situation was having on her work as a musician. She needed to know that he would react to all these things in a sensitive and sensible way.

The fact that each of them kept repeating their own phrase, as if the other hadn’t heard, showed that the two of them weren’t on the same page at all.

Use words to show your common ground

I’ve already written a bit about the jargony business-speak of medicine – and how one of our cleverest brain surgeons rejects it. And if you want to read more about how better communication in the NHS can save costs, achieve better results and make patients’ experiences better, then this report is a good place to start.

But there’s another thing to think about. I’m positive the consultant had the brains and experience to help my friend. But, for a moment, his language was stopping him from building the thing that is so crucial between two people, especially between doctor and patient: a good working relationship.

By revealing the way we truly see the world, our words either bring people closer to us or push them away. And whether we’re a brand manager or a brain surgeon, that’s something we can’t afford to forget.


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Oi, Barclays. Have a word.

April 6, 2016

The other day, I was in a bit of a flap. My niece’s birthday was coming up, and I’d left it VERY late to order the 3D Magic Maker she was expecting. And when I got a puzzling message from Amazon saying that for some unknown reason they couldn’t process my payment, I had to get on the phone to my bank – sharpish.

After the seemingly endless automated security questions, I was a bit stressed out. Even so, I was determined to be nice to the person at the end of the line when I finally got through (having worked in a call centre in my youth, I know how bloody awful it is to deal with stroppy customers). However, the man at the end of the line managed to wind me up in about a nanosecond, thanks to a single word.

So which word?

The guy on the end of the line immediately asked me the security questions I’d just answered. I thought it was kind of weird (and was a bit worried that I might somehow be knee-deep in a scam). So I told him that I’d already been through the questions. No, not in a stroppy way. In a puzzled way. At which point, he said:

‘I know, but I have to ask. So, if you could just co-operate.’

Co-operate? CO-OPERATE? Let me explain why, at this sensitive point in the conversation, this one word made me mad.

Words that resonate

Every word resonates, or chimes, with us in a certain way. For instance, the words ‘help’ and ‘assistance’ technically mean the same thing, but we choose different words depending on the context and the emotional effect we want to create. That’s why you won’t hear anyone stuck down a mine shaft calling: please, someone assist me!

And ‘co-operate’ has its own resonance. It makes me think of a policeman manhandling a greasy yob into the back of a squad car, asking them to co-operate. In other words, it makes me think of people who are behaving really badly, getting a telling off. But I was not behaving badly, and I really didn’t need telling off. So the word didn’t resonate very well with me.

My Big Day

Another example: a couple of years ago, my husband-to-be and I finally found our wedding venue. We were still in a froth of excitement, dreaming of canapes and champagne (gloriously unaware of the hideous minibus spreadsheet that was to come). So I was fizzing with excitement when I got a letter from the venue, confirming our booking. Well, I was – until I read the line:

‘We’re glad that you have chosen us for your function.’

FUNCTION? This was my BIG DAY! I’m not trussing myself up in twenty metres of tulle for a FUNCTION.

Joking aside, it did take the edge off. More importantly, it made me feel like the venue didn’t really see my wedding in the way I saw it – which surely wasn’t what they wanted me to feel.

Choose your words wisely

Think about how the words you choose might resonate with other people. Think about the images they evoke. Because when that word chimes, it will bring its baggage.

By the way, you’ll be glad to know the 3D Magic Maker arrived on time. And my niece didn’t offer her gratitude, or express her appreciation – she gave me a lovely ‘thank you’.




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The EU: explaining the little things in a big issue

January 18, 2016

I’ve been meaning to point you in the direction of this episode of Woman’s Hour. Specifically, the first ten minutes or so. There’s a great discussion about the EU referendum, where Deborah Mattinson from BritainThinks points out that neither the ‘in’ or the ‘out’ camp are presenting their arguments in a way that means something to ordinary voters.

All voters want to know is: what does it mean for me?

The fact is that most people still aren’t interested in the politics of the EU. And that’s because politicians – on both sides of the divide – have done a rubbish job of explaining what it would mean for voters if we stay, and what it would mean if we go. As Deborah says in the interview, the debate is being conducted in an ‘asbtract, slightly nerdy, tribal context’ – and only those with geek levels of interest (and deep knowledge of the Maastricht treaty) can feel involved.

Radio 4 presents this as a women’s issue – not because women need a different kind of communication to men, but because they are twice as likely to be undecided about how to vote. So they could swing it. And, according to Deborah, women feel that ‘the issues that matter to their lives are not being talked about… their kids, their grandkids, their jobs – they want to know what it’s going to deliver.’

That’s the nitty-gritty, granular stuff campaigners will need to speak about if they’re going to help people understand why this referendum matters. And no, this doesn’t just apply when talking to women – it works for everyone.

It got me thinking about a very useful writing technique called…

The Ladder of Abstraction

It works like this: imagine a ladder, stretching from the ground all the way into the sky. At the top of the ladder are big, abstract ideas: for instance, economics. At the bottom of the ladder are concrete details: say, the price of milk rising by 20p. Good writing constantly moves up and down the ladder, touching both on the big ideas and the gritty, granular stuff.

Take this really simple example:

If an employer says they’re ‘improving working practices’ and ‘developing a new vision for the company’ there will likely be raised eyebrows among the staff. It sounds nice, but nobody is saying anything concrete to back it up. As a result, it doesn’t sound credible.

And if an employer tells staff that they’re ‘offering flexible hours for new parents’ and ‘offering more training’, it all sounds nice – but it doesn’t sound like a major change in direction for the company. It doesn’t sound like a single, inspiring idea.

But imagine the company said:

‘We’ve got a new vision for our company. It includes improving the way we work: for instance, offering flexible hours for parents and extra training for all of you.’

All of a sudden, the big idea is backed up by the detail. It starts to sound like something we could get behind…

Talk people through the ups and downs

The idea is that good communication constantly moves up and down the Ladder of Abstraction.

So, yes, talk about trade agreements. But explain what they mean for restaurant owners buying Spanish-made chorizo and French wine. Talk about fishing quotas – but say what they’ll mean for the crews of trawlers in Cornwall, and the customers who buy their cod and chips. No, you can’t explain what ‘in’ or ‘out’ means for every single voter. But you can help us all to understand by moving up and down the ladder, helping everyone see the tangible effects that these big ideas will have on particular people’s lives.

Because, campaigners: these people aren’t just ‘your target audience’. They’re the people who will be standing in the voting booth, pencil in hand, ready to put a cross in one box – or the other.

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