Writing succinctly – lessons from 1863

So much of the content written today must be succinct. Blogs, eDMs, social media posts — their length is measured in hundreds, not thousands, of words. It can be a challenge to boil something complex down to a few hundred compelling words — but if Abraham Lincoln could summarise his view of the American Civil War in just 270, then writing succinctly should be possible!

That speech, given by Lincoln on 19 November 1863 at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, is considered one of the greatest in history. His remarks were supposed to be secondary to the main oration by former congressman Edward Everett. But it’s Lincoln’s 270 words that are remembered today as the Gettysburg Address, not Everett’s 13,000.

Impressed by Lincoln’s concise speech, Everett wrote to him: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

It’s that ability to capture the central idea in the fewest and clearest words possible that made Lincoln’s words so powerful that day, and so memorable since. He used plain, crisp, familiar vocabulary — around two-thirds of the words have only one syllable. But he also knew when to vary his style: using, for example, repetitive triplets to add weight and memorability to key concepts — one of which, “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, even forms part of the current French Constitution.

Perhaps the only mistake Lincoln made during his speech was when he said: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here…”

What do you think? How do you try and make your writing as succinct as possible? Share your ideas and strategies with us on Twitter, LinkedIn, or just by leaving a comment on this blog.

Creeping Britishisms

We’ve all heard about ‘Americanization’ — the influence of the US on our own lingo. But perhaps we weren’t as aware of the influence that our creeping ‘Britishisms’ have on US English.

It’s easy to think that the early American settlers took the English language with them, Noah Webster tinkered with it, and that was it. However, the reality is that the two variants are much more fluid and interwoven than that. Indeed, Bill Bryson talks in his book, Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language, of how modern American English is actually a closer reflection of old English than modern, UK English itself.

US English — more British than you think

Some of the grammar rules I learnt at school are now considered old fashioned here in the UK, but still very much current in the US —handy when I’m asked to write in US English! So where I would still use title case in American headlines, I would most likely use sentence case for UK clients. And the serial comma I wrote about recently — something we associate with American English — is also called the Oxford comma because its use is standard for the Oxford University Press.

Recent reports have highlighted some interesting examples of modern-day language creep. According to this BBC article , words that we think of being typically American, like ‘diaper’ and ‘fall’ (the season) actually fell out of favour in the UK in the 19th century. And in a follow-up article , we learn that Americans are starting to adopt ‘autumn’ in favour of ‘fall’.

Writing for US readers

So where does this leave you if you’re writing for a North American audience? Our advice is to tread carefully when using colloquialisms, particularly when writing business collateral, but to keep your finger on the pulse in these times of person-to-person communications. If in doubt, you can always get your copy professionally localised so you know it will speak directly to your readers.

And if you want to take a deeper look at how we’re influencing our transatlantic cousins, Ben Yagoda, author of How to Not Write Bad, has devoted himself to writing an informative and entertaining blog on the subject.

Tone of voice: giving your copy the rock star treatment

Quick – what do Johnny Cash, Axl Rose, and (potentially) your next piece of copy have in common?

The answer, unless your next piece of copy is going to be performed live, is that both Johnny and Axl had very distinctive voices. From Johnny’s uniquely melancholic baritone to Axl’s falsetto roar, it’s the tone of voice that lets you know almost instantly who you’re listening to. Wouldn’t it be great if your copy got the same reaction?

Some businesses are already creating a unique tone of voice for themselves. Take Skype’s brand book , for example. Read through it, and you’ll notice that it’s – well, it’s just very readable. It isn’t written in the formal language usually reserved for brand guidelines, but at the same time it doesn’t feel too informal or self-conscious – it just reads very naturally, and their company character shines through. Better still, they opt to talk directly to the reader in a human tone of voice, even sharing a joke or two with you. In doing so they win the reader’s trust and approval – turning a potentially restricting manual on what can and cannot be done with their logo into a positive brand experience.

So how can you do that with your copy?

So often in the B2B space, copy can come across as a little dry and a little flat, so it doesn’t take a huge change of tone to put your copy head and shoulders above the rest. Knowing your company’s persona will help you to get the tone right: for example, would your company write supportively or in a way that challenges the reader? If you’re targeting specific decision makers in an organisation, you could go so far as to see what movies and books they like on their social media pages and match your tone to those. Be careful with jokes – you don’t want to upset anyone – and of course try not to create a tone that isn’t abrasive or that might put your readers off . Paying attention to reactions on social media is a great way to gauge your audience’s reaction to your tone, and moderate it if need be. At the same time though, don’t be afraid to take some risks. If you want to make an omelette, as the expression goes, you have to be prepared to break a few eggs!

Done right, your copy could brighten someone’s day, and may even make the phone ring a little more often!

So what are you waiting for? Find your voice, and share it with your customers!

Is your content driving business away?

We’ve spoken before about how you should keep your content relevant , but we’ve not addressed the dangers of not doing so. Irrelevant content won’t get read by customers or targets, of course, but it could be holding your business back in more damaging ways than that.

IDG recently released a report in which 79% of business buyers said that content relevance affected their opinion of a brand, and 55% felt that irrelevant content delayed their ability to make a decision. Perhaps most importantly, the report stated that irrelevant content made vendors 25% less likely to be shortlisted by buyers on average. So irrelevant content doesn’t simply get ignored – it actually can make your customers less likely to buy from you.

When the stakes are that high, relevant content isn’t something that’s just ‘nice to have’ – it’s a competitive necessity. It’s not enough to assume that you know what your audience thinks is relevant, either; you need to be sure. If you haven’t checked on what your audience is interested in for a while, it might be time to gather some customer insight and see if anything’s changed. If the idea of gathering insight from your customers is a daunting one, our ebook on customer insight has some great advice on how to go about it . Whatever you choose to do, it’s clear that your business cannot afford to get it wrong.

Before we get too depressed though, the good news to come out of all this is that, because buyers are frustrated with the lack of relevant content out there, by providing content that is relevant you can gain a real competitive advantage over your competitors.

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The inverted case study: starting with the results

You only have to read the two-page prologue to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History to find out that Bunny Corcoran was killed by his student friends. The rest of the novel explores the circumstances leading up to Bunny’s death, and the lasting effects it has on the group of students of which he was a part.

It’s a genre known as the ‘inverted detective story’ — not so much a who-dunnit as a how- or why-dunnit. Way back in the 1970s, the American detective series Columbo popularised this approach: the audience would see the crime take place at the beginning of each episode and know who was responsible. The enjoyment came from watching Lieutenant Columbo work it all out.

There’s a strong argument for writing case studies in a similarly ‘inverted’ way, especially as companies increasingly move away from the traditional challenge–solution–results case study structure. If you have a really great outcome or result to share — like 20% revenue growth or 30% operational savings — putting it right upfront in the standfirst is a powerful technique for hooking your audience, enticing them to read on and find out how and why it was achieved. Using an outcome in this way will give your case study much more impact than simply including it in a ‘results’ section at the end.

Imitation — the sincerest form of consistency?

When Sebastian Faulks was asked to write a James Bond novel to mark the 100th anniversary of Ian Fleming’s birth, he was lucky enough to have a copy of Fleming’s article How to Write a Thriller to hand. This helped Faulks follow Fleming’s journalistic style of writing, and even copy his routine of producing 2,000 words a day.

But a Bond novel is a Bond novel — even if Devil May Care tackled a new theme (drugs) and was set in a location never used by Fleming (Persia, now Iran). With her novel Death Comes to Pemberley, on the other hand, PD James set herself a very different challenge: to write a murder mystery — a type of novel that doesn’t feature in Jane Austen’s oeuvre — that would read like a natural sequel to Pride and Prejudice.

As a lifelong Austen fan, James had many rereadings of Austen’s work to guide her. In her novel, she successfully recreates the world of Pride and Prejudice, reflecting Austen’s narrative style and the original book’s themes of manners, morality, marriage, class and self-knowledge.

Using a consistent style, or tone of voice, and staying ‘on message’ — as both modern-day authors have done — was critical to maintaining the ‘brand image’ of the authors they imitated and to keeping faith with the original authors’ readership.

Staying on brand and on message in all your sales and marketing communications is just as critical to maintaining your organisation’s brand image with your audience — especially if you’re producing a new type of collateral. An up-to-date set of editorial, branding and messaging guidelines will go a long way towards helping you achieve that objective, by supporting the creation of consistently styled and themed content of all types across all your communication channels.

What do you think? How do you ensure your new content stays consistent with what you’ve produced before? Let us know in the comments section, or get in touch on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Selling on features? Why some copywriting rules were made to be broken

OK, it’s time to make a confession: although I now make a living out of copywriting, I wasn’t always a natural. I started out as an enthusiastic engineer who liked to write, and it took me a long time to understand that selling purely on features is a no-no — they’re nothing without an associated benefit.

“It has a red LED!” I’d scribble enthusiastically.
“So what?” the sales director would reply.
“You can see it’s switched on!”
“So what?”

You get the picture. I soon learnt that if a feature didn’t make money, solve a problem or otherwise improve quality of life for my customers, it was most probably not worth writing about at all.

When it comes to copywriting, it doesn’t hurt to learn a few rules, especially when you’re starting out, but then come the exceptions. As Tom Albrighton of ABC Copywriting points out, Apple’s famous tagline for iPod, “1,000 tunes in your pocket” is most definitely a feature, not a benefit.

The benefit of music on the go is something we are all familiar with — those of us of a certain age were introduced to the idea by the Sony Walkman. Of course, nobody would be seen dead with a Walkman now, hence the beauty of the iPod fitting in your pocket. Apple didn’t need to spell it out to us, we worked it out on our own.

Of course, it’s not just the Apples, BMWs and Rolexes who can afford to imply the benefits of their products. Working in B2B and end-user communications for IT companies, we often find it’s completely unnecessary to explain that 2TB of storage will allow you to well… store more stuff!

What all this highlights is the importance, as always, of knowing your audience. One thing that hasn’t changed is the need for them to understand the benefits of your product or service — if they already do, great, if not, the skill is to whet their appetite without sounding condescending. And if that’s something where you could use some help, then do please call us on 01628 622187.

Can strategic email sloppiness win business?

When this story about strategic sloppiness hit our inboxes, it sparked a bit of debate here at HN HQ. The story goes that Evan Spiegel, CEO of Snapchat, sent Mark Zuckerberg an email which “didn’t have a proper greeting, failed to follow proper punctuation rules, and even included an emoticon.”

Was he being arrogant and cocky, or was he being strategic? He knew after all that Zuckerberg was interested in buying up Snapchat, and perhaps he wanted to set the scene for any negotiations by letting the Facebook CEO know that he saw himself as an equal.

Certainly, being casual is one way to stand out from the crowd but whether it’s a successful technique or not depends on whether it fits in firstly with your brand and secondly with your target audience. And that’s where it sometimes helps to err on the side of caution.

For example, if you’re invited to a business event and the dress code is ‘casual’, the chances are you still won’t see any Megadeth t-shirts — unless you happen to wonder down to the IT support desk, of course. And when you attend that new client meeting, would you rather be overdressed or underdressed? Which is the least risky strategy?

Another approach is to fit in; to look like part of the community you want to influence. If you want to go this way you need to be sure of your facts. Collect evidence and emulate the house style; it’s a form of customer insight.

The same goes for tone of voice. It always makes sense to do your research and find out what will resonate with your target audience — it’s something we do here on a daily basis — but if you’re not 100% sure, then it’s probably best to leave out the emoticons and laissez-faire attitude. Unless, like Spiegel, you have no intention of making a sale — in that case, you can go to town.


Cut, to keep your content relevant

When the Guardian asked a number of authors for their top ten rules for writing fiction, the responses were intriguingly varied. Many of them mentioned the importance of reading widely (although a few disagreed). Many focused on the discipline needed to stick at the task, perhaps by writing an allotted number of words a day (The number varied.) Some said, keep a thesaurus handy (others expressly forbade it). But the one point that many agreed on was that anything superfluous should be removed.

Hilary Mantel: “First paragraphs can often be struck out.”

Sarah Waters: “Cut like crazy. Less is more.”

Diana Athill: “Cut… only by having no inessential words can every essential word be made to count.”

Even though these authors were talking about writing fiction, almost any type of writing benefits from concision. Many forms of expression in today’s connected world are limited in length, whether by design (such as Twitter’s 140 characters) or custom (blog posts tend not to exceed a few hundred words). Whatever we’re writing, the key is to get the message across in the fewest, most compelling words possible, in order to hold our readers’ attention through to the end.

As Elmore Leonard so deftly put it: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

Writing for humans

Whenever I watch old episodes of The Good Life, I smile at Margo’s grim determination to climb the social ladder — and I breathe a huge sigh of relief that women are no longer expected to host elaborate dinner parties to boost their husbands’ careers. If they were, my family would be destitute as charred pizza and under-heated garlic bread are about the best I can do.

The “deformalisation” of the workplace, or the start of it at least, can possibly be traced back to the advent of email. That’s when we stopped relying on secretaries with their second-to-none grammar and business etiquette skills, and “Dear Sir” quickly became “Hi”. It still took a while to get to where we are now though — even a few years ago, I was being asked if I had business-to-business or B2B skills; whether I had experience of writing copy for consumers. Now, people ask, “Who do you work for?” and, “What kind of stuff do you write?”

At last, we have stopped pigeon-holing our customers and started treating them all as people — individuals — and I say, “Hooray!”

Of course, this means that we have to work even harder to profile the people we’re writing for. It’s not enough anymore to put your B2B hat on and get writing; you need to be able to visualise that person, feel their pain, understand what motivates them and what ticks them off too. But when you get writing, your piece will make so much more impact than if you’d written for a faceless person in a suit.

Just remember not to go too far the other way — one well-known broadband provider took to chatting with its customers as if they were teenagers on Twitter, using words like, “cool”, “dude”and “wow”. I would name and shame them but they’ve rather sensibly taken down their old tweets and adopted a far more appropriate tone.

And that’s the main point, really. Our customers want to be treated like real people, but not bessie mates… ’K? If your communications need a more human touch, we can help. Give us a call on 01628 622187.