Archive for March, 2009
Friday, March 27th, 2009
One job that keeps me very busy each month is writing, editing and managing the editorial content of a council-owned website. My client sends snippets of news or details about forthcoming events and asks me - in his words, not mine - to ‘webtart’ the wording before uploading the stories onto the site.
Tease your web copy into shape ...
‘Webtarting’ is a useful way to think about the process, because there is so much you can do to make your text leaner, cleaner and easier to read online. Here is my 17-point guide to editing copy for internet consumption. It’s personal to me (you may have steps you would add or ignore), but I hope it gives you some ideas.
01. Get rid of any spelling, grammatical and factual mistakes. Check that dates, times and external website links are accurate. Clarify ambiguous sentences (such as this allegedly real headline: “Drunk gets nine months in violin case”).
02. Kick out jargon and complicated phrases. People often wrap simple things up in fancy word-packaging, so try to be as clear as possible. Why say ‘procure’ and ’source’ when ‘buy’ will do? ‘Acquire’ instead of ‘get’? Take a look at our previous entry on 200 banned council words and their alternatives.
03. If you do need jargon, explain it afterwards in simple terms. The first occurrence of an acronym should be spelled out (”BERR - the UK government department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform - says … “) unless it’s something head-smackingly obvious like the BBC or … uhhhh … the UK.
04. Turn passive sentences into active ones by making sure, wherever possible, that the subject of the sentence performs the action in the sentence. “All socks are tested by us” is not as strong as “We test all socks”.
05. Can you edit further? Go on … be brave and lose a few more words. We all over-write when we draft text (bet I’ve done it here). Look out for tautological phrases such as “a wide range of diverse products” or “a large company with more than 1,000 employees” - they’re easy victims for you and your Big Bad ‘Delete’ button.
06. There’s bound to be something a bit silly in there … have you spotted anything? I recently came across a feature that said “More than 33 people came along”. Ummmm - so did they mean 34 people? Beware: the web is full of pedants who will gleefully point out that you’ve written ‘pin number’ when pin stands for ‘Personal Identification Number’ anyway (chuckle, chuckle). Bless them.
07. Depending on your source, there may be superlatives and high-flown adjectives you could take out too. Press releases are often hotbeds for flowery language. Instead of weakening the points made in your article, deleting ‘really’ and ‘very’ and ‘fantastic’ could make it sound more neutral and trustworthy.
08. Hone in on dense-looking paragraphs and either shorten them again, or put line breaks in logical places. People like to see lots of white space when they’re reading online. They tend to ’scan’ for information rather than reading every word, so ideally each paragraph should contain only one idea.
09. Subheadings are useful for giving readers (and search engines) an overall flavour of the content.
10. If your article contains lists or a series of complex ideas, try breaking them down into bullet points.
11. Don’t forget about your readers who can’t see the screen. Lots of people browse the internet using text-to-speech software, so be kind to them and avoid repetition. The phrase ‘click here’ is not useful to visually impaired users, so think of something more helpful for your hyperlinks, such as “Read more about our maintenance services”.
12. Search engines such as Yahoo! and Google like hyperlinks for working out what a page is about, so use your internal links to slip in some relevant keywords: “Learn why 96 per cent of clowns prefer our water-squirting flowers“.
13. Some words and phrases have permissible variants in use (organization or organisation, for example, or e-mail or email), so it’s a good idea to keep a style guide as you go, reminding you which version you chose to use. Being consistent helps to build trust from your readers.
14. Research has shown that symbols and Latin abbreviations are confusing to people when they’re reading online. So use ‘per cent’ instead of the % symbol; ‘and so on’ instead of ‘etc’; ‘for example’ instead of eg. And so on …
15. When it comes to digits, most newspapers spell out the numbers one to ten but show 11 and upwards in numerals. If a number comes at the start of a sentence, though, spell it out: “Thirty nine dogs said they actually preferred cat food … ”
16. Read your text aloud. All sounding and looking good? You may just be ready to upload it onto the web …
17. Oh! Before you do, check that your text is ‘clean’. If you’ve typed it up using software like Microsoft Word, it may contain ’smart tags’ (those purple dotted lines that appear under place names, for example) and other bits which can get transferred over into your web code and cause formatting problems. It’s better to write in Notepad, really. But if you do prefer Word, this clean-up tool will strip out any Word tags for you: http://textism.com/wordcleaner/.
Happy writing and happy weekend!
Monday, March 23rd, 2009
Good As Gold has recently (and not before several hours of tweaking and fingernail chewing) hit the ’send’ button-of-no-return on its first quarterly email bulletin. A lot of thought and care went into the design and writing of this e-missive, so we were delighted to get positive feedback from so many recipients, who consisted of colleagues, clients and recent acquaintances.
As a direct result of our gentle cyber-nudge (a quick “hello” to tell people about our new website, with a few copywriting tips thrown in), we’ve been asked to quote for three separate writing jobs and have helped another contact to re-write a press release for maximum editor-friendliness. One new client said he chose Good As Gold over other copywriting agencies because of our willingness in the e-newsletter to “give information that you could charge people for … you were really adding value to your service”.
If you’d like to sign up for Good As Gold’s quarterly newsletter, it’s easy! Simply fill in the form here.
Meanwhile, have you thought about sending out an email campaign of your own? This can be a cheap, easy and fruitful way to stay in touch with potential customers … but there are pitfalls you need to be aware of, especially when compiling your mailing list. It’s easy to annoy people with badly thought-out or ’spammy’ messages, which are damaging to your brand and can even get you into legal bother. For guidance on writing an effective email campaign, please don’t hesitate to contact email@example.com.
Friday, March 20th, 2009
Today is the 40th anniversary of the publication of that much-loved children’s book, Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. To celebrate, Google has changed the logo on its homepage:
Love it. I’ve just found Google’s archive of other ‘holiday logos’, too, in what they call an ‘online museum for your amusement’: http://www.google.com/holidaylogos.html. Enjoy.
Wednesday, March 18th, 2009
I was interested to hear news this morning of the Local Government Association’s list of 200 ‘banned’ words for councils across the country. The list was released to help public organisations communicate more effectively with local people. I scoured the internet for a definitive copy … it was surprisingly hard to find.
This PDF file containing the complete list of 200 ‘banned words’ was sent to me directly from the author, Richard Stokoe. Enjoy!
And in case you don’t have time to open the PDF file, here is a quick A-Z of my favourites:
Across the piece = everyone working together
Bottom-up = listening to people
Cross-fertilisation = spreading ideas
Democratic legitimacy = voted in
Fulcrum = pivot
Incentivising = creating an incentive
Joined up = working together
Level playing field = everyone equal
Meaningful consultation = talking to people
Normalising = making normal
Predictors of beaconicity = ??
Quick win = success
Thinking outside of the box
Upward trend = getting better
Visionary = ideal/dream/belief
Worklessness = unemployment.
Tuesday, March 17th, 2009
And an old Irish blessing: “As you slide down the banister of life, may the splinters never point in the wrong direction!”
Happy St Patrick’s Day to you.
Monday, March 16th, 2009
If you can make it to one of Little Earthquake’s productions of The Haunting, you’re in for a spooky treat. The Birmingham theatre company is “leaving the safe confines of the theatre”, as their website and leaflets say, and taking audiences into the “dark, enveloping shadows of England’s reputedly haunted halls, houses and hotels” for a series of staged Victorian séances.
Steve and I caught a 9:30pm performance at Highbury Hall in Moseley on Thursday (12 March 2009) and found, for the experience alone, it was worth every penny of our £12 tickets.
I won’t say too much - the evening’s magic lay in the mystery of what would happen next - but from the moment the frightened-looking Victorian maid brought us wine in the waiting room and our wealthy society hostess explained her reasons for wanting to contact her deceased father, we were held captive by Little Earthquake’s cleverly wrought and superbly acted spell.
Oh! And their literature contains one of my favourite disclaimers ever (if it’s not too weird to have ‘favourite disclaimers’?!):
“Please note that The Haunting is a theatrical performance. No authentic mediumship will be attempted and no spirits will be intentionally contacted.”
You can find out more at Little Earthquake’s website, www.little-earthquake.com.
Monday, March 16th, 2009
My partner Steve Wilkes and I were disappointed to miss Birmingham’s St Patrick’s Day parade yesterday (15 March 2009), but we were absent for a good cause.
We spent the weekend in Bath, where Steve ran the Half Marathon for Birmingham Children’s Hospital’s Kidney Kids campaign. He completed the race in just over two hours … that’s my boy!
Victorious ... and more than a little sweaty. Steve (right) with our friend Ad Wyre.
Friday, March 13th, 2009
… and win more business!
Whenever I write website content, advertising copy or a new brochure for a client, I start by researching their competitors’ literature. It’s important to see what other people are saying and doing … and then make sure my client’s copy says and does more.
I’m always amazed by how much waffle there is out there, though: empty words, clichés and meaningless phrases about how “with 326 years’ experience, we’re uniquely qualified to bring you quality solutions and a personalised service”. Now what does that actually mean?!
With a little more thought, it’s easy to turbo-boost well-worn words and phrases and make them work harder for you. The trick is to extend the features of your product or service into benefits for your customers. Sometimes you have to - not hit them around the head exactly - but really spell things out for them.
So here are my top ten ‘empty phrases’, and ideas for charging them up …
So - you’re local. How does that benefit people? Can you offer them a better price? Maybe your customers like the idea of supporting the local economy, or prefer their goods to have a lower carbon footprint.
Also consider your use of the word ‘local’ when writing for the worldwide web (the clues are in ‘world’ and ‘wide’!).
- “Because we’re local to you, it’s easy for you to come and see us.”
- “Being local means we can offer you fresher cabbages and, with so few food miles, a cleaner, greener conscience.”
- “We like being local - it means we can build great relationships with our clients.”
A bit of a ‘nothing’ word unless you expand on it … high quality, superior quality, excellent quality! The word ‘quality’ is also over-used, so may be meaningless unless you explain why your product or service deserves acclaim.
- “We offer a quality service.”
- “Because our leather is of such high quality, it lasts for years, offering excellent value for money.”
- “You’ll know instantly that our service is of a superior quality because our receptionists are always smiley.”
- “The reason our snowmen accessories are of such a great quality? We use only the finest carrots and coal.”
These days, everyone seems to be offering ‘bespoke services’. A more personalised approach to business can only be a good thing, but unless you shout about them, the benefits of your tailor-made offering are in danger of being overlooked by potential customers.
- “Our products are bespoke.”
- “Because we offer a bespoke service, the final result will be uniquely yours.”
- “Our sofas are bespoke, offering you your perfect size, shape, fabric, colour and level of sinkability.”
- “All our training programmes are bespoke, addressing the particular needs and goals of your employees.”
04. MARKET LEADERS
It’s great you’re at the top of your game. But being a ‘market leader’ doesn’t mean much unless you say why you’re the best, or who deems you the best. For all your customers know, you might be market leaders in taking extended tea breaks and leaving callers on hold.
- “Having spent 20 years proving ourselves to be both reliable and innovative, we are proud to call ourselves market leaders.”
- “We believe we are market leaders in writing Christmas-cracker jokes because we go that bit further than our competitors.”
- “Our loyal customers deem us the market leaders, so we work hard to maintain our reputation.”
Flexibility is an asset - it means you listen carefully to your customers and respond to their needs. People appreciate that. But how can you make your copy sing and dance about your willingness to please?
- “We take a flexible approach.”
- “We keep our approach flexible, constantly listening to what our clients want from us.”
- “We’re flexible: simply tell us what you like in a doorknob and we’ll design one to suit your budget.”
- “We welcome fussy clients! Our flexible way of working allows us to create spot-on solutions for everyone.”
Expertise is important; often it’s your strongest selling point. But everyone’s an expert in something! Make sure your expertise sounds relevant to your business, and is backed up with further information.
- “Our staff are experts at what they do.”
- “Having undergone rigorous training, our staff have the expertise and confidence to deal with your every enquiry.”
- “Our experience and proven expertise in cat grooming means you can relax, knowing your furball is in safe hands.”
- “Our expertise comes from ten years’ experience and a continual desire to learn; we’re keen for you to benefit from our knowledge.”
‘Unique’ is what is known as an absolute adjective, so saying something is ‘completely unique’ or ‘very unique’ adds nothing to the meaning (and may even weaken what you’re trying to say). Try to reserve ‘unique’ for when something really is one of a kind.
- “We offer a unique service.”
- “As far as we know, this service is unique - you won’t find it anywhere else.”
- “Each of our hand-painted fishbowl castles is unique, making an excellent gift for the fantail in your life.”
- “Every dress in our boutique is unique, so you’ll never encounter your ‘twin’ at a party.”
Ah, innovation! All well and good so long as it benefits your customers … some people don’t like change, remember? So show ‘em why it’s for the best.
- “Our approach is innovative.”
- “We’re innovative - unafraid to be different in order to improve.”
- “We are innovative, constantly researching ways to make getting dressed in the dark easier for you.”
- “This innovative approach to lunchbreaks makes for fewer arguments and happier employees.”
A lot like expertise, really. If you or your employees are highly skilled, then don’t be shy about saying why and how.
- “We are skilled in this area.”
- “Our skilled staff have undergone training to a high level, ensuring they can deal with every eventuality.”
- “We pride ourselves on being experienced and skilled in balloon modelling; able to create whatever shape of animal you request.”
- “Our skilled employees have inside-out knowledge of the industry, in order to give you the best service.”
It’s OK to boast a little about your company’s achievements - that’s how you attract bigger customers and orders. But it’s not enough just to say you’re successful. Tell the world why you’re successful too (and make them want to see for themselves).
- “We are a successful team.”
- “The reason we’re so successful is that we’ve worked hard at making customers happy.”
- “We’re successful because of our first-class ambience and friendly waiting staff (and also because our chocolate puddings are massive).”
- “We’ve found a successful formula for running our business: ensuring you, the customer, always come first.”
I hope this helps when you write the content for your next brochure, website or advert. Just don’t be afraid to blow your own trumpet sometimes, and always turn the features of your product or service into benefits for the customer.
Please feel free to add comments/suggestions below, and don’t hesitate to contact me if you need further guidance: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday, March 6th, 2009
Yesterday (Thursday 5 March) was a big day for Sandwell. finditinsandwell (Sandwell Council’s initiative to encourage local companies to inter-trade) organised a day of free networking at the Bethel Convention Centre in West Bromwich, followed by an invitation-only, black-tie dinner at The Public in West Bromwich.
Both events were aimed at introducing big regeneration partners to the diverse, capable range of manufacturers right on their doorsteps. As Councillor Bob Badham pointed out in the early days of finditinsandwell, “Why [should local architects] source from China when everything they need to build a house can be made here in the Black Country?”
He’s right, and that’s why the finditinsandwell team invited around 40 local manufacturers to showcase their wares to the most influential people in the borough.
I (hope I!) earned my ticket to the evening event by helping out in the morning, joining the finditinsandwell team on the door at 8am to welcome more than 700 delegates to the half-day of networking and seminars. The interest in the event bowled us over; unfortunately the Bethel car park couldn’t accommodate everyone and attendees abandoned their cars up to half a mile away on Kelvin Way. A sign that people truly value the chance to meet face-to-face with other local businesspeople.
During the opening speeches, I was especially proud to watch the premiere of the short film, ‘Made in Sandwell’, starring charismatic Brummie historian Carl Chinn. I’d helped finditinsandwell’s Steve Massey plan the script (we knew from the outset that Carl’s local knowledge and insight were far superior to our own, so we let him bring the sparkle), alongside Smethwick-based Nachural Corporate Communications, who filmed, edited and spun our ideas into something much more coherent and exciting.
Someone bluntly pointed out in a feedback survey afterwards that there would be no BAFTA awards for the ’stars’ of the film, but I thought the Black Country interviewees brought the piece to life. Especially the West Brom pub landlord who was asked by Carl Chinn whether manufacturing was still alive and well in Sandwell:
“Oh, Christ yeah!” he said.
Phil Spencer dances with Made in Sandwell guests
The evening event at The Public, Sandwell’s newest (and much-knocked) landmark building. was very special, with most of the magic (the flowers, the table favours, the pianist and the band) sourced locally through finditinsandwell.co.uk. The lovely Phil Spencer (of Channel 4 Location, Location, Location fame) was our after-dinner speaker. He spoke about the “synergy” between the construction and manufacturing industries, shared anecdotes about working with Kirstie Allsopp (”And no, we haven’t”, he said), then downed several glasses of wine and spent the night bopping away with the rest of us to the sweet sound of Roy G. Hemmings and his Dictionary of Soul band.