Time for a reality check

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If your copy achieves only one thing, make sure it rings true, says Tim

Sarah and I are searching for a new car. This is a perpetual activity in our household, which is partly my fault. 20-odd years as a motoring journalist leave their mark. And that means I can’t drive past a garage without craning my neck to see what’s on the forecourt.

Before digital technology became so mainstreamed into our lives, this habit was just about manageable. I would only come home excited by the prospect of some super deal if I happened to have a chance to stop and mooch around a forecourt that had something tasty on display. Sarah then had ample opportunity to talk sense into me: “No, Tim, a 30-year-old Land Rover isn’t a suitable vehicle in which to drive 30,000 miles a year. You found it hard enough when you had that lifted Suzuki Vitara with the massive 33-inch tyres.” Or some such.

Trouble is that now I can find great automotive deals just by spending a few minutes in the company of my iPhone. Because the Auto Trader app really is a work of genius. It’s easy to use, great visually, and puts you in touch with thousands of motor traders (and private sellers) throughout the country.

So, I can see what’s available within, say, 60 miles of the front door, any time of the day or night. And if I’m searching for something specific – my latest fascination is with Mark 3 Golf GTIs (much underrated in my view, and just about to bottom out value-wise) – I can narrow the search terms and widen the search area to drill down to exactly what I’m after.

All of this makes for a restless automotive soul. But like so many people who live in a land of fantasy, I find the fun is the pondering rather than the actuation of my dreams. All the time I don’t buy a new car, I can imagine what it would be like to have any number of vehicles in my life – a classic Saab 900, perhaps, or a minter of a Toyota Land Cruiser. It’s much more fun than actually buying a vehicle, which immediately narrows my options to what I can afford.

But, every five years or so, there comes a moment when I do have to buy something. It’s usually when my existing transport develops a terminal fault, or nears an MOT that I just know it will fail.

That’s pretty much where we are now. And the corollary is that my Auto Trader searches have suddenly taken on a dose of hard reality. Gone are the searches for Porsche 944s or MGB GTs. In their place are searches for Ford Mondeos, VW Passats and (I’m sorry it’s come to this) Citroen C4s.

And thus, finally, do I reach my point. Because I have just one criticism of the Auto Trader app, and it’s this: when you find a car you like and want to share it with someone via email, text or social media, it automates some copy to frame the hyperlink. That copy reads: “I’ve just found my dream car…”.

Now, when the car in question is one of the above-mentioned vehicles of my fantasies – a Saab, Land Rover or Porsche – that’s all well and good. But consider this situation, which was laid out before me this morning:

“Sarah, I’ve just found my dream car… A 2009-reg Ford Mondeo Titanium.”

Not even a Titanium X, you’ll note, which would at least give me leather trim. Just a boring old mid-spec Mondeo: cheap to run, certainly, great to drive over long distances, absolutely, and offering loads of space for dogs and pushchairs, without doubt.

But my dream car? I think not, Auto Trader.

So here’s the thing. If you’re writing copy, try to ensure it rings true. We all know what Auto Trader is getting at with this clever function, and why it phrases the copy in the way it does. It communicates excitement, glee, as if buying a car is like living your dreams.

But for most of us, the chances of actually buying our dream car are at best slim, and at worst non-existent. Which makes the experience of sharing a link to something sensible and cost-effective prefaced with a reference to “dream cars” painfully ironic.

In short, I’m saying this: make your copy engaging, witty and razor-sharp. Have confidence that it creates a sense of atmosphere and motivates action. But also make sure it tells the right story. If Auto Trader had a form of words that said: “I’ve just found a fantastic deal…” that may be rather better for the majority of its users.

Or even, which would work very well for me just now: “It’s not a Land Rover Discovery Sport, Sarah, but at least it will only cost 20 quid a year to tax.”

Three of the best post-Brexit speeches

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Amid the white heat of the Brexit fallout, Tim observed three impressive oratorical performances

Europe was always going to be David Cameron’s undoing. As soon as he urged his party to get over the issue in 2005, he sowed the seeds of his eventual demise. The Conservatives have been obsessed with Europe since the 1970s. One man wasn’t going to change that, and I suspect Cameron knew that as well as anyone.

That may explain the catch in his voice when he announced his resignation early on Friday morning. With the nation processing one of the most unexpected results in the UK’s electoral history (no one really believed Brexit would prevail, did they? Even Boris Johnson and Michael Gove looked shocked at the outcome), the soon-to-be ex-Prime Minister gave an eloquent, understated speech that was a model of effective communication.

Like him or loathe him, it’s hard to overstate just what an accomplished performer Cameron is when it comes to the big occasion. Remember that conference speech he gave without notes in 2007 (“It may be a bit messy, but it will be me”)? Or the brilliant “big, open and comprehensive offer” speech to the Lib Dems in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 General Election?

Did you hear his performance on Radio 4’s Today programme last Wednesday? The one where he magnificently chastised John Humphrys for his aggressive questioning? “If you interrupt me any more, John,” he pointed out, “you’ll be interrupting yourself.”

Oh yes, Cameron is a masterful user of the spoken word. Someone who’s so clever at it you don’t even realise how good he is. But his crafting of phrases, his composure in delivery and his eloquent cadences point to a man who has found his metier, and inhabits it with confidence.

That is why Cameron’s speech was so good. Even non-Tories I have spoken to remarked upon how gutted they felt for the Prime Minister in that moment. How he seemed like a genuinely decent bloke who was trying to do his best for the country he loves. And that was about more than the words he used. It was about the clever way he ordered them, and the even sharper way he delivered them to communicate a message that would evoke sympathy and support, rather than hostility and blame.

It was a similar story with the speech delivered moments later by Bank of England governor Mark Carney, another talented public speaker. Just as the nation was going into full panic mode, Carney stepped forward with reassuring, mellifluous words of calm. “We are prepared for this,” he soothed in his commanding baritone. “We have the reserves to deal with whatever comes our way.” It was like having deep heat applied to a sore muscle – instantly relaxing, a much-needed salve to the histrionics of the world.

As with Cameron’s speech, Carney’s performance was as much about the mode of delivery as the content. He was steady, assured, laid back. A man who we could trust to safeguard our financial future, even in unchartered waters. He got the tone exactly right, and the markets did (for a while, at least) begin to settle.

And so it was left to Boris Johnson, a man renowned for his rhetorical excitability, to deliver the third standout post-Brexit oration in as many hours. The striking thing here was that Boris didn’t do a Boris. Which is to say that there weren’t any references to Greek mythology or obscure classical works in his speech. There were no ad-libbed comical asides, and arm waving was kept to a minimum. It was a sombre, serious, reasonable speech. The speech, as news outlets intimated the following morning, of a statesman. A Prime Minister in waiting.

Say what you like about Johnson and his behaviour since, but he got this speech spot on. The tone, the texture and the delivery were conciliatory, a stark contrast to Nigel Farage’s triumphalism of earlier in the day. If this was the unofficial launch of his campaign to lead the Tory Party, he nailed it.

Whether Johnson becomes our next Prime Minister or not is moot, especially with Theresa May enjoying a bounce in the polls. But there’s one thing you can say with confidence: he knows what it is to deliver an all-important speech, to use words that persuade and inspire, to create an atmosphere by his delivery, to judge the mood of the audience and pitch his message accordingly.

In this respect, at least, he still has common ground with his old school friend and rival David Cameron. And with the help of Mark Carney, they provided a welcome bit of alternative interest amid the Referendum reaction on Friday morning.

Whatever the future of our country, we’ve had a masterclass in the art of communication these last few days. It’s just a shame we didn’t receive it earlier in the campaign.

What can a copywriter learn from Tony Blair?

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The ghost of Tony Blair continues to haunt the Labour Party, and provides an interesting lesson for copywriters, too

I’m wary of writing a blog that’s too political. But I think the Labour Party’s leadership election throws up an interesting issue concerning the relationship between substance and style.

The apparent incommensurability of these two concepts has been associated with Labour ever since the reforming years of Tony Blair. People said he was all about the latter over the former, yet he won the party its biggest ever election victory after years in opposition. And he kept it in power for an unprecedented period, even after that damaging Iraq war.

Now, for some people, Blair sounds like a figure from history. If you were just old enough to vote in this year’s general election, you would have been born at the time of his famous landslide in 1997. He is to the new generation of voters what Margaret Thatcher was to mine – a totemic politician, but one who doesn’t any longer seem relevant. It was the same for my parents with Winston Churchill.

But here’s the thing, because such is the influence of these people, it continues to be felt for years after they’ve left office. Thatcher (and Churchill, for that matter) still haunts the Tories, and Blair very definitely still hovers over the Labour Party.

Consider his speech last week, telling the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn to get a heart transplant. Basically, what he said was this: if Labour wants to regain power at any point in the future, it should occupy the centre ground. It shouldn’t lurch to the left.

That’s all well and good, but it did leave me with one thought. Isn’t Labour meant to be a left-wing party? So shouldn’t it be expected to vote for a left-wing leader?

If that means the UK public doesn’t vote for the party, this seems at some level unimportant. Because if Labour changes its political colours, as it did under Blair and as he suggested it needs to do now, then hasn’t it lost its, well, substance?

So here’s my point: in a job like mine that’s all about persuading people to make certain choices – send your kids to this school, buy this type of car, go to this shop, or whatever – it’s tempting to concentrate on style. Life would be so much more straightforward if clients simply became what we’d ideally like to say about them, thereby making it easier to persuade the public of their merits.

But actually, our task is different. We’re here to tell the truth, in a way that’s nonetheless engaging. We want our copy to have substance as well as style, so that when people make choices off the back of it, they’re not disappointed.

Which leaves an interesting challenge for Labour. Maybe the reforming years of Blair and his supporters were a faulty endeavour? Despite the apparent success of that era, perhaps it was an intellectual cul de sac for the party? Because it sought to change Labour’s DNA, and thereby discarded its substance.

In short, Blair and his cronies were like bad copywriters. They changed their product because it was easier than thinking about how to sell what was in front of them.

So the task for the party now is this. Be what you are. And if you’re confident you’re right (or left, as the case may be), find ways to tell the voting public. Persuade them not by changing your colours, but by communicating your ideals in ways that resonate and inspire. At least then you’ll stand for something.

With a spring in our step…

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Here at The Writing Hut, we love the spring. It’s a time of new growth, colour, longer days and warmer weather. It gives us a feeling of positivity, and a sense of optimism for the year ahead. What better time, then, to launch our brand new look? It’s been designed by the talented Lizzie at Teapot Creative, and we love it.

When clients ask our help in devising a content strategy, we often advise them to show, rather than tell. By this we mean giving concrete examples of the services they provide or the products they sell, rather than making general claims. This is because real-life stories enhance reader engagement. They draw people in; make them want to find out more.

That’s why storytelling has become a bit of a theme on our new website. Our portfolio pages are full of projects that tell the story of our business, through the eyes of our clients. They showcase the services we offer, the sectors we’ve worked for, and the feedback we receive. Please do take a browse, to see for yourself.

We also tell the story of the people behind the words. That’s me: Sarah, and Tim: my husband and fellow wordsmith. Between us, we’ve been writing professionally for more than 30 years – as well as doing a bunch of other stuff that you might be interested to read about.

Then there’s your story, in whatever way you’d like to tell it. This might be in print, on the web, in person, or – if you’re feeling daring – on the screen. If you’d like to find out more about the services we offer, take a look here.

We’ve also set up a new Twitter profile, which we promise to use more regularly than our last one. The link’s at the top of the page, so please do follow us.

We’d love to know what you think of our new website, so do get in touch with feedback. And if there’s anything in particular you’d like us to write about in our blog, just give us a shout, and we’d be happy to oblige.

Know your compounds

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Don’t worry, we haven’t branched out into the teaching of chemistry. I’m talking here about compound words. These are words composed of two other words – ‘copywriter’, for example. Compound words may be written as separate words, one word, or connected with a hyphen.

I’ve noticed a lot of people using compound words when, in fact, they should be using a verb or adverb phrase. And, as you’ll see in a moment, they often do so on behalf of organisations that should know better.

This is a pretty dry subject, I’ll admit. So instead of boring you with rules, I’ll simply share some of the examples I’ve been gathering recently (which says a lot about me, I know).

Everyday/every day

Everyday: a compound adjective meaning (e.g.) commonplace or ordinary

Every day: an adverbial phrase describing how often something happens

So this:

Picture 3

Should read:

‘Every day, British farmers supply 31 million pints of milk, 19.5 million eggs and 11.6 million loaves of bread!’

Unless, of course, the Cheshire Show means to make a distinction between run-of-the-mill farmers and extraordinary ones.

Set-up/set up

Set-up: a noun describing (e.g.) the way that something is organised or arranged

Set up: a verb phrase meaning (e.g.) to build or construct

So this:

Picture 1

Should read:

‘We will inform you as soon as we know a train is more than 5 minutes late. Set up an alert between Hayes (Kent) and London Waterloo East. Set up alert now.’

Login/log in, logout/log out

Login/logout: both nouns

Log in/log out: both verbs

So this:

Picture 6

Should read:

‘To file the return online, simply log in to…’

(You’ll notice that I’ve also done away with the tautological ‘via our internet site’).

And this:

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 10.07.19

Should read:

‘You are about to log out of www.debenhams.com.’

Go-ahead/go ahead

Go-ahead: a compound noun, describing (e.g.) authority to proceed

Go ahead: a verb phrase, meaning ‘to proceed’

So this:

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 10.15.50

Should read:

‘Phase one of controversial high-speed rail line between London and Birmingham will go ahead, UK government says.’

Of course, had the controversial high-speed rail line been ‘given the go-ahead’, that would have been another matter.

So next time you’re tempted to glue two words together, take a second to think about it. You just might find you don’t need to…

 

Less fewer

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Less is more… apart from when it’s fewer

Few pairs of words cause as much confusion as ‘less’ and ‘fewer’. While both have the same meaning (a reduction in quantity), ‘less’ often steals the limelight – leaving ‘fewer’ out in the cold.

To redress the balance, here’s a quick rule of thumb that will help you remember which to use, and when:

Use ‘less’ with singular nouns, and ‘fewer’ with plural nouns. (Or, use ‘fewer’ for things you can count, and ‘less’ for things you can’t count.)

Examples:

“There are fewer people in the pub tonight”

“You should eat fewer biscuits”

“She makes fewer mistakes than me”

“He has drunk less beer than me”

“There is less water in the bath”

“There is less milk in the bottle”

“There is less sugar in the jar”

 

Remember that expressions of amount, distance and time can also confuse things, with phrases such as “we paid less than £500 for our car”, “we’re less than 20 miles away” and “we’ll be there in less than four hours” being perfectly correct. This is because, in each case, the plural sums function as a singular unit. We don’t regard £500 as a collection of £500 individual pounds, but rather as one sum of money. Similarly, 20 miles is regarded as one total distance, and four hours a single period of time.

 

So next time you’re tempted to use the word ‘less’, stop and think for a moment – ‘fewer’ just might be the better choice.

Reflexive pronouns

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Me, myself and I

This trio of personal pronouns causes no end of bother. And, more often than not, it’s at the expense of little old ‘me’.

Consider these sentences:

  1. He gave the money to John and I.
  2. He gave the money to John and myself.
  3. He gave the money to John and me.

Which of these constructions is correct? The third. Which is most commonly used? I expect that it’s a close run thing between the first and second.

Here’s a quick explanation of the rules:

Subjective personal pronouns

These are I, we, you, she, they, he, and it. They’re deployed when the pronoun is the subject of the verb. For example:

I went to the cinema.

He ate some cake.

They worked hard.

Objective personal pronouns

These are me, us, you, her, him them, and it. They’re used when the pronoun is the target of the verb. For example:

He gave the present to me.

They wished us well.

He gave her a drink.

Reflexive personal pronouns

These are myself, ourselves, yourself, yourselves, himself, herself, itself, oneself, and themselves. Generally, they’re correctly used in two situations:

  1. Reflexively – when the object and the subject of the sentence are the same. For instance: I burnt myself on the iron. Here, the object and subject are the same person (me), so it’s right to use ‘myself’.
  2. For emphasis. For example: Adam said he’d complete his tax return himself. The sentence would be complete without the reflexive pronoun, but it its addition emphasises that Adam won’t be giving his tax return to anyone else to do.

There seems to be a growing acceptance of the use of reflexive pronouns in place of objective personal pronouns. But you won’t catch me doing it.

Why the confusion?

First, let’s look at I vs me.

“It’s Jane and I, Sarah, not Jane and me.” Do these words sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. I’m betting that, during our primary school years, most of us were rebuked at least once for the misuse of the objective personal pronoun. So is it any wonder that it causes so much confusion in adult life?

If the sentence that incited the reproach had been “Me and Jane are going out to play, then fair enough. The reordering of the subjects (me and Jane) is a matter of manners, the replacement of me with I one of grammatical correctness.

But, for some, the fear instilled by the educators of their youth was obviously too great. These people have developed a lifelong aversion to the word me. They utter sentences such as:

Give the money to Tim and I.

James invited John and I to his party.

In both cases, me is the correct pronoun to use. And if you’re ever in any doubt, there’s a simple way of checking. Just remove the other person from the sentence, and see if it still makes sense. Applying this to the examples above, we’d be left with “Give the money to I” and “James invited I to his party”. Enough said.

As for those reflexive pronouns: I think some people just can’t resist the extra syllable. Perhaps they think it sounds more educated, more elegant, than plain old you or me. Call me a bore, but I don’t agree.

 

Features and benefits

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Copywriting tips: features and benefits

The latest Terrain Explorer has four-wheel drive, a 2.5-litre turbo-diesel engine, a six-speed manual gearbox, side-impact protection, ABS and EBD, airbags, climate control, diff locks, air suspension, traction control, built-in Sat Nav, climate control, a leather interior and seven seats.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? A car that’s packed with features, and sure to appeal to anyone in the market for a 4×4.

But, as it stands, this copy is unlikely to make Terrain Explorer’s order books swell. Why? Because it describes the features of the vehicle, rather than its benefits. In other words, it tells you what the car has, rather than what it does.

Features tell, benefits sell

When it comes to writing sales copy, it is the benefits that matter. They tell your prospective customer what a product or service will do for them, and why they should invest in it.

Take the example of the Terrain Explorer:

  • Its 2.5-litre diesel engine makes it powerful, yet more economical than a petrol model. So it will get up to speed easily, and won’t cost the earth to run
  • Its airbags, side-impact protection and ABS make it safe. This gives you peace of mind
  • Its six-speed gearbox helps with fuel economy. This keeps running costs down, and your wallet fuller
  • Its seven-seat design makes it spacious, which means there’s plenty of room for the whole family
  • Its leather interior and climate control make it comfortable. This makes for an enjoyable ride
  • Its 4×4 capabilities make it reliable off-road, and in extremes of weather. So, it won’t let you down

Now imagine that the Terrain Explorer is being targeted at young families, whose main concerns might be safety, space, economy and reliability. These are the benefits to focus on in the sales copy, which might read something like this:

A safe haven for your precious cargo

Fill the Terrain Explorer with your loved ones, and trust it to get you safely from A to B. Its economical 2.5 turbo diesel engine spirits you effortlessly to your destination, without breaking the bank. And, with seven seats, there is space for everyone to enjoy the ride.

Visit our showroom, to make the Terrain Explorer the latest addition to your family.

Now this car sounds ideal. Just a shame that it’s a figment of my imagination.