CopyCon rambles #3: Web project woes

January 6, 2016

OK, these really are my final thoughts from last year’s Copywriting Conference

UX marks the spot

One of the most practical talks I heard all day was by Tim Fidgeon, Digital Marketing Trainer and Consultant. It was all about user experience – or UX, as those in the business like to call it – and what it means for great digital copywriting. It’s a big issue now that more of us work online. We writers need to think: how do we write in a way that takes readers on a simple and successful digital journey?

Anyway, the talk was full of fantastic insights, all based on proper research and data. For instance, did you know that it’s harder to read text that is centred, rather than aligned left? (I obviously only learned this after I’d finished my own homepage. Ahem.) And as well as words, Tim also taught us lots about the way design affects UX.

Creativity… at the expensive of usability

So, Tim wasn’t exactly shy about sharing his frustrations when it comes to web design. He worries that designers are too often in thrall to that paragon of brand identity: Apple. And so they do lots of Apple-y design things, like grey text on white background – and while these things look lovely, they actually make it harder for people to take in information.

I think it raises some interesting questions about how writers and designers balance their creativity with the practicalities of working for web. And it’s something I’ve come up against in my own projects…

A cautionary tale: web project woe

I recently helped create a website from scratch. I worked with a team of designers, who came up with some design layouts – which were absolutely fantastic. I wrote copy to fit the layouts. And then our web person started to build everything, according to the designs.

And that’s where the problem started to appear. Some elements of the designs looked amazing on paper, but really didn’t work well online – for instance, big image panels with text overlaid, that worked brilliantly on desktop and iPad but not so well on mobile. A blog layout that looked super clean and tidy, but that actually made it quite tricky to scroll through the content.

My advice: get your heads together

In my experience, people running these projects often divide the work up into chunks: they want the design bit first, then the copywriting, and then the web build. One after the other. But it’s crucial to get all the different parties together, so that they can each spot potential problems that others might not notice.

Build time into the process for people to collaborate: let designers and writers talk about site architecture and messaging together, so that the right messages can sit in the right space. And let them collaborate with the web builders, so that they don’t spend ages creating something beautiful that just isn’t practical.

And, best of all: get some clever UX people involved, right at the start. And tell Tim I sent you.


Comment comment  |  Share Twitter Facebook LinkedIn

CopyCon rambles #2: I swear, by the moon and the stars…

October 15, 2015

Before  I forget, just a little more from last week’s Copywriters’ Conference

The last talk of the day came from Doug Kessler, Creative Director at Velocity Partners. He talked about brands who successfully use swear words in their marketing.

Not awkward cringey swearing like this (eugh). But funny, memorable – and actually clever – swearing. Like the fcuk campaign, which genuinely made people do an Exorcist-style head swivel when it came out on billboards back in the 90s. Like the Kmart ‘ship my pants‘ ad, which does faux-cursing in a delightfully silly way.

(I would at this point make some joke about Doug’s post being f*&king funny, but i) I would be about the five-millionth person to do so, and ii) I am actually too frightened that my mother-in-law might read this post. She’s a sweet, softly-spoken Irish lady and if she ever so much as uttered the word ‘crap’ I think she might turn to stone.  I’ve even gone and used ‘asterisk cheating’ in the first sentence of this para, just to avoid offending her eyes, an option Doug describes as ‘flat-out lame’ and ‘for total p*ssies’. Hi Oonagh. Sorry Doug.

My own mother? Oh, she’s got a mouth like a docker.)

Anyway, I highly recommend Doug’s blog on the subject. Not interested? Well, you go fudge yourself.

Comment comment  |  Share Twitter Facebook LinkedIn

WEP: Whose equality party?

October 14, 2015

When it comes to politics – what’s in a name? How do you show that a party about women’s rights isn’t just for women, but for everyone?

This week I went to a networking event run by the Women’s Equality Party. If you don’t know it yet, it’s a new political party that was formed by Catherine Mayer and Sandi Toksvig after a talk at this year’s 2015 Women of the World Festival. It was actually formed in the bar, which just goes to show that some people never ruddy switch off from being brainy.

I wholeheartedly support the big objectives behind the WEP and think it’s inspiring to see these smart, dynamic women standing up for positive change. In fact, I’ve been banging on about the WEP for a few weeks now. But a question keeps cropping up in the conversations I have: why is it called the Women’s Equality Party, and not simply the Equality Party?

Women’s equality is better for everyone

The question about the name even appears on the party’s Wikipedia page. Which means it must be A Thing. So, at last night’s event, I asked a lovely woman called Chris – who works for the Hackney and Islington chapter of the WEP – for the answer.

Chris explained that it’s because there’s still so much work to do to achieve equality for women – and that, when women are truly equal, the whole of society will be better off. This certainly makes sense. But, if they’re going to get everyone on side, I think the WEP will have to be a bit careful about the way they talk about themselves.

The problems of ‘we’ and ‘them’

You might assume that it’s easy to write about the WEP’s objectives, since – for those of us with more brain cells than a digestive biscuit – they’re so manifestly necessary. But, when selling the idea, it’s actually quite tricky to find the right balance between ‘we’ the party, ‘we’ as women, and ‘we’ as society.

I think it’s legitimate to ask: does the name as it stands alienate certain people – in other words, men? Young men who presume that a ‘women’s’ party must be for women? Young men who are the ones we most desperately need to convert? The key thing is that this is a men’s party as much as it is a women’s one – men will play a crucial part in making the WEP’s vision a reality. We can’t build a successful society unless they play their part too.

Just as a thought, why not the Equality for Women party? A tiny change, a totally different feel. No, it wouldn’t make as jazzy a logo, and they wouldn’t be able to use the whole ‘WE want…’ concept in design.

But it might have made the message sharper, and more accurate.

In the end, there’s a problem with ‘we’: it can mean ‘me and you’. Or it can mean ‘us and them’. There are enough bone-headed people out there who will, on some old-fashioned, deep-seated impulse planted by the patriarchy, flinch from the WEP and all it stands for: Daily Mail readers who use the word ‘feminazi’, who think it’s sad when women swear and wear their hair short. People who prefer to think that feminist campaigners are all angry lesbians who want to put a tax on testicles. In other words, there are plenty of people who think that the WEP is full of people who are different to them, and who want different things.

And the key thing is not for the party to say that ‘we, over here, need change’. It’s to say that ‘we – all of us, everywhere – need change’. And that really will be better for everyone.

Selling a political party is about selling ideas. And ideas are made of words. With the right words, the WEP could make a real statement – and change people’s minds and actions for the better.

Comment comment  |  Share Twitter Facebook LinkedIn

CopyCon rambles #1: What does Twitter mean for tone of voice?

October 13, 2015

How come some brands’ most successful tweets are, in many ways, completely off-brand? And what does that mean for us writers who create tone of voice guidelines for clients?

At last week’s Professional Copywriters’ Conference, I heard a talk by David Levin: a social media shaman whose company That Lot writes fantastic – often hilarious – tweets for big-name brands. He gave some tips on how to write shareable content that customers really respond to.

One thing really stood out for me: many of the star tweets – the ones that earned lots of retweets and new followers – were, arguably, off-brand in terms of the brand’s tone of voice. Yes, they were funny and clever. But, technically speaking, they shouldn’t have got past the brand guardian and their guidelines. Let me give you an example:

Argos: a sick case study

David showed us an example from Argos. It began with a tweet from the enigmatic Immy ‘Badman’ Bugti, who said:

@Argos_Online YO wen u gettin da ps4 tings in moss side? Ain’t waitin no more. Plus da asian guy whu works dere got bare attitude #wasteman

Unfazed, the Argos team replied:

@BadManMugti Safe badman, we gettin sum more PS4 tings in wivin da next week y’get me. Soz bout da attitude, probz avin a bad day yo.

And Twitter loved it: at my last count, this reply had more than 6,000 retweets and more than 3,000 favourites. Even Badman was pretty impressed, and tweeted once more to declare that Argos was ‘safe’.

Now, I love what Argos did here. But if their brand has a tone of voice document, I doubt it gives staff licence to apologise using words like ‘soz’. It’s much more likely that an individual at Argos with a sense of humour took it upon themselves to have a bit of fun – to be a bit imaginative and break the rules.

Your voice or mine?

This reminds me of another piece of communication that went viral a while back. Three-year-old Lily Robinson wrote to Sainsbury’s, confused as to why their tiger bread was so named when it patently looks more like a giraffe. Customer Manager Chris King melted our hearts when he wrote back to her, saying that renaming the product ‘giraffe bread’ was ‘a brilliant idea’, and offering her a gift voucher for some ‘sweeties’. It was a great response from him – and and a social media hit for Sainsbury’s.

But again, the interesting thing: he’s not using the Sainsbury’s tone of voice. Not even close, in fact. He’s just using his brains, and responding to the letter-writer in her own language. He’s following his own voice, not the Sainsbury’s voice. I agree with this blog – and many others – which argued that it worked because it was a less ‘managed’ response to the customer.

So what now for tone of voice?

All this it begs the question: when we create tone of voice guidelines for clients, how do we leave room for these special comms cases, where an individual’s personality creates something that stands beyond the brand? How do we help teams to write in a consistent way, without stifling the imagination and creativity that really connects with people?

Do tone of voice guidelines really work any more?

Stay tuned for another blog which asks whether tone of voice is really your problem or your priority…

Comment comment  |  Share Twitter Facebook LinkedIn

Lessons in creme pat, cream horns – and creativity

October 8, 2015

Before we start: this post contains spoilers about the finale of the Great British Bake Off. So, for those of you haven’t seen it yet, for the love of god DO IT NOW.

And for everyone else…

I hope you were as thrilled as I was to see Nadiya crowned champion of the Great British Bake Off 2015. Honestly, that lady is as delightful as a Tunnocks teacake. As well as being supremely talented and deeply humble, she’s the only contestant who has ever been able to rival Mary Berry in the field of dramatic facial expressions.

Also, like other GBBO winners, she made amazing progress throughout the series. And this reminded me of an important truth about creativity. Allow me to explain…

In week one, Nadiya came last in the technical challenge when the icing on her walnut cake ended up being grainy (we’ve all been there, right guys?). When in week four the contestants had to make a Spanische Windtorte, Nadiya was forced to confess that she ‘produced what they wanted, just the ugly version’. Her penchant for wacky flavours like bubblegum and cream soda was at times dangerously left-field, and her early bakes just didn’t shine as brightly as her competitors’ – they were eclipsed by bobby dazzlers like Paul’s lion / Mick Hucknall bread, which practically broke the internet.

But at week five she started to look like  a serious contender. She was named Star Baker, partly thanks to a cracking ice cream roll, partly thanks to the gluten-free pitta pockets (erm, yummy?) which placed her top of the leaderboard in the the technical challenge. She topped the technical again in week seven, with a smashing set of mokatines.

There’s no real secret to how she made this happen. Like other champs, she just worked ruddy hard, refused to give up – and became a deserving winner. It all makes me think of the famous Ira Glass interview, in which he talks about the tough early stages of creativity – the time where there’s an initial, inevitable ‘gap’ between a creative person’s ambitions and their ability.

Glass explains that creative people have good taste – and so they’re quick to recognise that their own work is flawed. From here, they can either convince themselves that they have no talent, and just give up. Or they can plough on, and keep producing work until the works starts to shine. Pretty much every creative goes through those early days, when their work just seems a bit underwhelming, or even a bit crap. And it’s the people who just get through those days, who simply keep working and producing stuff, who make it in the end.

The interview has been turned into some nice videos

It’s funny, isn’t it – none of us viewers would expect a baker in week one to be turning out a perfect religieuse a l’ancienne (a choux pastry tower in the shape of a nun, presumably dreamed up by a cook who had foraged the wrong kind of mushrooms). But, as creatives, we punish ourselves when we fail to produce D&AD winning work IMMEDIATELY.

And when we punish ourselves too much, we shut down our creativity altogether. So end up producing nothing at all.

Maybe we should all take a leaf out of Nadiya’s book, get our game faces on, and tell ourselves as she did: “I’m never going to say I can’t. I’m never going to say maybe”. And, in time – like the best souffles – we will rise to the occasion.

Comment comment  |  Share Twitter Facebook LinkedIn

airbnb: changing the world with a word

June 9, 2015

Last week I went to the School of Life‘s Business Wise conference: a day where some scarily brainy speakers explored how business can help us to lead more fulfilling lives.

It was just brilliant. We heard how startups like BlaBlaCar and TransferWise are contributing to a Sharing Economy, where customers are responsible for delivering the brand experience to others. We explored the idea that great new businesses offer the highest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – instead of things like shelter and transport, which are already well catered-for, new brands such as airbnb offer friendship and connection.

I’m particularly fascinated by this airbnb example. On the surface of it, going on holiday and staying in a stranger’s house is, well, kind of insane. (Although perhaps not so crazy as letting a bunch of strangers come and sleep in your spare bedroom.) And if the airbnb pitch had been about all the functional stuff – the house you visit, the bed you sleep in – maybe the idea would have sounded crazy too.

But, obviously, that’s not the airbnb pitch. The pitch is about feeling at home, anywhere in the world.  It’s about being part of a community.

In fact, airbnb sum it up in one word: belonging.

I really, really admire the single-mindedness of airbnb’s thinking. They’ve hit on something that all of us, wherever we are in the world, truly yearn for. And, crucially, they’ve focused their comms on this one idea. They don’t constantly muddy the waters with other messages about quality accommodation or easy booking – even though these things are very much a part of their brand experience. They use the idea of belonging as the golden thread running through everything they say. Just have a look at the Belong Anywhere video on their homepage.

It reminds me of something I read in Made to Stick, a ridiculously useful book about comms by Chip and Dan Heath. The book talks about ‘finding the core’ of a brand – as well as guiding your comms, this core acts as a filter for all the decisions you make day-to-day. For example, Southwest Airlines has decided to be ‘THE low-fare airline’ – and so they don’t offer extra-cost things like mid-flight snacks, even if some customers say they’d like them. This might seem extreme. But it means that customers are absolutely clear about the offering, and therefore more likely to remember it.

Lots of brands try to say too much about their offering – and, as a result, people remember nothing. Airbnb have filtered their thoughts down to a single word. And that’s something we won’t forget in a hurry.


Comment comment  |  Share Twitter Facebook LinkedIn

Ice bucket campaign lands charity in hot water

June 1, 2015

The people of Twitter are disgruntled again. No, it’s not Katie Hopkins this time. In fact it’s an unlikely villain: the charity Motor Neurone Disease Association. It seems that the public don’t find the charity’s latest campaign touching or inspiring – they find it ‘highly inappropriate’ and even ‘revolting’.

The campaign in question is called Last Summer. It has its own hashtag, natch. And it looks back to a time when we all, decked in our swimming costumes and dressing gowns, took to our gardens and hilariously risked cardiac arrest as part of the ice bucket challenge. The campaign idea is fair enough. But as Brian Whelan, Channel 4’s deputy digital editor, pointed out in his tweet, the execution is somewhat lacking:

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 13.54.27

The copy seems to imply that Michael’s motor neurone disease diagnosis has something to do with him skipping the ice bucket challenge last year. Which is obviously absurd. And Twitter responded to say as much:


Last year, I didn’t take a no make-up selfie. Now, I have leprosy.

And my personal favourite:



Of course, the ad is terrible. The logic is so clearly screwy, and I’m surprised nobody picked up on the sinister karmic overtones before it went to print. I certainly wouldn’t have signed it off, and nor would any of the creatives I’ve worked with. But is all the righteous indignation doing more harm than good?

First, I don’t for a minute believe that anyone at the MNDA really intended to say: DONATE OR ELSE. It’s just a clumsy, ill-though line that shouldn’t have made it onto the campaign posters (and it’s certainly not the only one of those you’ll see today as you squash yourself into the next Northern line carriage). But many Twitter comments suggest that it’s not just a piece of bad creative, but that it came from bad people – or at least a bad impulse:

Appalling guilt baiting charity advertising.

I don’t give to charities which guilt-trip people. Fuck off.

That’s the first time I’ve ever wanted to say fuck off to a charity fighting an awful disease

I mean, these guys aren’t Protein World. And in some ways, the ad is almost right – for instance, imagine it said something like:

“Last summer, I never thought about motor neurone disease – I didn’t even do the ice bucket challenge. This year I was diagnosed.”

Second, the furore could damage more than MNDA’s donations. OK, maybe the charity will be more careful next time. And that’s good – but only to a point. It’s not good when brands start playing safe with their campaigns, creating work that’s designed to dodge bullets rather than win plaudits. Fear of making mistakes is the death of creativity – and that fear is only accentuated in these days when social media can serve up some of the roughest justice, deserved or otherwise. Critical analysis is one thing – but sweary rage is bruising, demoralising and not constructive.

To anyone who called MNDA out on Twitter today: I totally agree with you that the ad is rubbish. It’s your right to flag it in public, and I actually think you’re right to do so. But, when you do, please show a little compassion. At the end of the day, we all want better work – not bland stuff that leaves us cold.

Comment comment  |  Share Twitter Facebook LinkedIn

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.


Comment comment  |  Share Twitter Facebook LinkedIn

Words, meaning, and looking like a weapon

January 13, 2015

The English language is a subtle thing. A single word can send many bells of meaning ringing in your head. For instance, a couple of years ago I was horrified when a wedding venue emailed me to confirm the details for my ‘function’ (function?? Like a day of boring chat in a smelly room with a bad carpet? Didn’t they realise they were talking about MY BIG DAY? *diva strop*).

That’s why Ed Miliband has got himself into so much trouble. He’s accused of telling a group of BBC executives that he plans to ‘weaponise’ the NHS – something the Prime Minister describes as ‘a disgusting thing to say’.

The problem for Ed is that ‘weaponise’ is of course an extremely resonant word – it strikes a vivid chord. It’s a word of war, and – as such – brings to mind all the horror that comes with it. Troops mobilising, cities falling. And, thanks to the suffix, it’s got that cold-blooded, jargony-y flavour – that whiff of corporate speak (‘yeah, guys, we need to incentivise, verbalise, patronise and dehumanise. Action that’).

More importantly, we all accept that the words we choose say something about what we believe. I inferred lots of things from that measly word, ‘function’ – it was a clue that those smiley wedding planners who had spent all morning feeding me champagne and cooing over my engagement ring were not actually as excited about my wedding as they claimed to be, but were – in fact – just rolling another sale through the books. And Ed’s detractors have decided that this one explosive word says something about how Ed sees the NHS: not as something to make people better, but as something to wield against his enemies. Something to cause hurt and humiliation. Which is, as we all know, the opposite of everything the NHS stands for.

With this one little, loaded word, Ed has really shot himself in the foot.

Comment comment  |  Share Twitter Facebook LinkedIn

Don’t take it from me – take it from a brain surgeon

January 7, 2015

When I run writing workshops , I encourage people to spot – and avoid – the kind of heavy, corporate prose that turns readers off. I explain why it’s a good idea to ditch long words and business-speak, and instead choose simple words that strike a chord. Why torture people by ‘aligning departmental strategic objectives’ when you can ‘make sure all teams are working to the same goals’?

However, at this point in the workshop, at least one person starts to freak out. ‘Our work is complicated. Isn’t that language too… simple?’ they say. ‘Don’t we need to write in a way that’s more professional?’

No. We need to write in a way that is clear,  and – most importantly of all – human. And if you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe the leading neurosurgeon Henry Marsh (CBE), whose book Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery manages to illustrate this point perfectly.

Marsh tells us about a time he chastised a junior colleague, a Senior House Officer who was giving an update about an elderly patient:

He turned a little sheepishly to face us.

‘Apparently she lived on her own and was self-caring and self-ambulating.’

‘Self-catering as well?’ I asked. ‘And self-cleaning like an oven? Does she wipe her own bottom? Come on, speak English, don’t talk like a manager. Are you trying to tell us that she looks after herself and can walk unaided?’

‘Yes,’ he replied.

The reason I love this is that Marsh is probably one of the brainiest people on the planet, and is doing the most complex and important work imaginable. But he doesn’t try to demonstrate this by using jargon and complicated language – in fact, he shows his deep understanding of his position through clarity and humanity. He reveals the truth of the situation by using real, everyday language. Unlike his junior colleague, who talks about the patient like an electrical appliance, Marsh reminds us that she’s a person, a lady, who lives alone but doesn’t need anyone to look after her.

Marsh’s language doesn’t make his message sound too simple, or – in fact, it only shows that he really ‘gets it’. It shows how smart he really is.

Comment comment  |  Share Twitter Facebook LinkedIn