Category: Business speak

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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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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You can build a business – but what about a voice?

January 13, 2015

A couple of guys I know have just started their own business. I’ve been chatting to them about their customer comms.

These guys are great. As well as having a brilliant business idea, they’ve got bags of personality. They’re articulate, funny, and seriously know their onions. I reckon they’ll go far. Even so, a strange things happens when they deal with their (brand new) customers.

They start writing weird, sales-y things in their emails. They start saying awkward, scripted things on the phone that they’d never say to their friends or family. And, ultimately, they start sounding like salesmen, rather than the lovely, easy-going, genuine blokes they really are. It’s as if, in putting on their suits and ties, they’ve left their personalities at the door.

So why does this happen? For a start, we’re surrounded by pushy advertising and marketing speak all day, every day. Most of the corporate comms that drops onto our doormat or into our inbox is mediocre or worse, but we get used to it. And when we go to work, and flick some kind of mental switch that says we have to start being ‘professional’, all that corporatese starts coming out of our own mouths. We start signing off emails with ‘best regards’, even though the phrase itself makes us want to headbutt the water cooler.

And these two guys, like most people in their position, are instinctively reaching for this kind of recognised business-speak. After all – even if it’s not very good, and not really a reflection of who they are, at least it’s familiar.

All this makes me think of a singing teacher I once had. She said that singing isn’t about doing the right things – it’s stopping doing all the things that get in the way. Instead of trying to do something, she said, we just need to focus on our breathing and tell the story. It’s not easy to explain, but it made sense: for instance, on those high notes it’s no good straining and tightening the neck and throat – you’ve got to get all that tension out of the way, and just let the voice out.

And I suppose the same is true for these two guys. They don’t need to build a tone of voice so much as strip away all the stuff that’s stopping their real voice getting out. For them – and for many others like them – I wonder whether it’s less about creating something new than freeing something that’s already there.


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