Make writing work for you

There’s far too much bad writing around, so taking language seriously can make your organisation stand out

Hearing a news story on the radio a couple of weeks ago reminded me of Douglas Coupland’s book Generation X. It was the story about a McDonald’s petition to remove the term ‘McJob’ from the Oxford English Dictionary.

Generation X has stayed with me, not so much for the story, but more for its wry take on language. It was Coupland who coined the term McJob and used brands as a cultural shorthand for the experiences of his generation. We might have moved on from Generation X to Generation Y, but the link between language and brands is more powerful than ever. Why else would McDonald’s go to such lengths to remove a word from the dictionary?

Organisations that take language seriously stand out. How many times have you heard, ‘We’d like to do an Innocent’? Get it right and customers fall in love with your brand and your product. Get it wrong and you alienate the people you want to charm. We’ve all been there. Think the over-familiar sales pitch, the jargon-laden instruction manual, the impersonal apology. The way a brand talks to you has the power to draw you closer or push you away. You need a great product, but it’s how and when you present it that makes it work or not.

Using the right tone of voice on your packaging or brochure – the stuff out there in public places – isn’t enough. It has to speak out in your letters, e-mails, newsletters, bills, your website. Back to Innocent. Yeah, yeah, the cow vans, Fruit Towers, the banana phone. We’ve heard it all before. OK. So, why don’t we do it?

When Elmwood launched its Wordplay writing workshops a year ago, the idea was to help organisations help themselves. Having in-house writers who are as involved in projects as designers makes for more effective communication. Wordplay is about giving individuals and businesses writing skills they can apply.

It’s also shown us how big the problem is. Participants speak passionately about the business writing they love or hate. Good examples are hard to find. The same names crop up. Bad, on the other hand, well, we’re spoilt for choice. As a pet insurer, writing ‘deleted’ next to the name of a deceased pet on an insurance renewal notice is not the way to endear yourself to a customer.

The challenge for many organisations is in taking the brand experience beyond the marketing department. Who produces the bills, the statements, the renewal notices, the customer service letters, the job offers? Who writes and edits the website? Where many brands fall down is in focusing on the external: a new logo, a glossy brochure, a high-profile ad campaign. It’s just as much in the finer detail, the day-to-day delivery, the small internal stuff, that friendships with customers are won or lost. If your brand isn’t as alive inside as it is outside your organisation, it’s only skin-deep, and consumers spot that.

Writing for digital media is all this and more. Even talented print writers can come unstuck when they try writing for the Web. It’s harder to read from a screen so writers have to be much more economical with the language they use, and think about the way Web users ‘scan’ rather than read. On-line content also has to be found by search engines so it has to be structured so it can be found.

The most beautifully designed websites can be made unusable by writing that doesn’t work. Even if your audience can find you, they may not understand your message. That damages reputations. With the Web an increasingly social space, there’s no hiding place for the insincere or poorly communicated.

Good writing isn’t a luxury. Yes, it makes life more interesting and enjoyable for all of us who deliver and experience brands. But more than that, bad writing is bad for business. McJob anyone?


Jayne Workman is head of writing at Elmwood

• Organisations that take language seriously stand out and succeed
• The way a brand talks to you, what it says and how it says it, can be the difference between helping or frustrating, inspiring or irritating, selling or not selling
• Tone of voice has to speak out in all your communications, from the packaging, ad or brochure to the bill, job offer and customer services letter. Trust is everything. And that means consistency
• Bad writing is a big problem, and a big opportunity. Get it right and there’s everything to be gained
• A brand has to live and breathe inside as well as outside an organisation, not just in the marketing department. It means putting your brand in the hands of many, and giving people throughout your business the tools to express it
• Writing for the Web is a distinct skill. It’s about tone of voice, but also about understanding the ways in which people use the medium

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