I’m grappling with a problem. A recurring problem…
I’m working with a long-standing client of mine, who runs a growing and ambitious digital consultancy. He wants to refresh the brand to reflect changes in both the market place, and the services that they offer.
His preference is to devise a slogan that is descriptive, accurate and brief.
I agree that it should [always] be brief, but my urge is to craft a caption that is pithy, provoking, and memorable. More “Diamonds are forever” than “Washes whiter”
More “Good food costs less” than “Never beaten on price”…
What do you think? Can we really generalise about which approach is best, or does it depend on all those familiar variables, such as: market, profile, competition, heritage, media context, etc., etc.?
I don’t think so. I believe in two things that have shaped my view on this.
1. People are smarter than you think. So don’t spell it out for them. Let them “get it” in their own heads, so that they feel more accomplished, smart, informed, and therefore more receptive to your brand. Being too literal also actually discourages the reader from continuing to read, as they’re likely to feel that they already know, all they need to know.
2. Great slogans stand on their own. Like the examples above, a memorable, distinctive and clever slogan is its own self-contained message. It may work better because it plays against what everyone else is saying, but it must have its own truth to really succeed.
The reality – based on experience – is that my client and I will probably reach a compromise. Then it will be down to me to polish the words so that they stand out and sparkle in the market.
And that after all, is what I enjoy most.
As always, test your own writing skills and win a free e-learning course of your choice with our Caption Competition.
It’s okay to use jargon when you are talking to your colleagues. But it is never a good idea when you are trying to reach a general audience.
Take this letter I received from a local estate agent.
It was addressed to the homeowner. They know nothing about me except that I seem to have a house that they would like to rent out on my behalf.
It started off well.
We currently have huge demand from high calibre tenants applying for properties in and around your street (and they named my road so that was good).
Then they lost me on the first line of their pitch
Why choose us?
Void period between lets of only 4 days, compared to the average of 20 days
I’m not an estate agent so I don’t know what a void period is. I can guess, but I shouldn’t have to when the writer is trying to persuade me to do something.
There was more but I didn’t read it.
The jargon finished it for me.
Great introduction sentence and structure to The Guardian article on the Glasgow pub story today on the paper edition on page 1. Can’t find it online, which is a pity.
It was on the front page, written by Lexi Topping. It is a narrative intro:
“Saverio Petri, one of the owners of the Clutha Vaults in Glasgow, wasn’t meant to be in the pub on Friday. But a band he liked were playing that night and, knowing the pub would be busy, he decided to help out. Which is why he was behind the bar when the police helicopter plunged through the roof of the building. Its rotor blade missing him by half a metre.”
A human dimension
This is a narrative opening to writing: it plunges into the details of the story, already known, and gives it a human dimension. See how she gets the reference to the bigger story in at the top. And then punches home the close shave Petri had at the end of the intro paragraph?
Wicker reporting: Topping giving human interest
Compare this with the story I reviewed last week by Tom Wicker of the Kennedy killing which you can access though the blog roll:
“Dallas, Nov 22 – President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin today.”
Wicker got the classic structure: Lexi got the guts
He’s got all the who, where, what questions answered. Lexi has gone for the human angle because we know the story already. She asked if Petri would talk through various media and did not expect a reply. But on Sunday he answered her calls and there’s the story.
Lessons to be learned here:
- When a story is running look for a personal angle; and
- Make that call: somebody may come back and give you just the story you want.
Use the person for the story: look for the anecdote
I remember writing a series of stories about start ups in the UK IT sector for Computing. How dull could that be? Geeks mouthing on. But I interviewed a man with an Asian name and asked how it was that he was here. He told me that his mother put him on a boat from Vietnam with $10 and said “goodbuy” hoping he would survive after the Communist victory. The boat was ambushed by pirates who stole their water. But he survived and was adopted by a family in Canada. Then came to the UK. Did I have my intro!
So look for the story in the lives of people and you can tell an interesting tale. As long as it means something to the overall story, which the Lexi’s story in The Guardian does.
One of the finest classical news stories ever written was crafted 50 years ago on the killing of President Kennedy. Every writer of any genre can learn from it.
Tom Wicker was a White House reporter for the New York Times. Nobody, apart from Oswald, knew this would happen. But Wicker was able to craft a clear and complex long news story from what he understood and saw of the events. Under great pressure.
Get to the point
Take the intro, the opening. “Dallas, Nov 22 – President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin today.” Who, what why and where are all answered. It is sparse, no emotion. And there is no emotion in the story apart from his observation of others’ emotion.
Use what you see
He was in a press car behind the President’s car, taken swiftly to the hospital and briefed. He then left the briefings and walked to the back of the hospital, he told me when I interviewed him about writing the story. There he saw the casket taken out. And he wrote:
“Mrs Kennedy was in the hospital near her husband when he died, but not in the operating room. When the body was taken from the hospital in a bronze coffin at about 2pm, Mrs Kennedy walked beside it.
Her face was sorrowful. She looked steadily at the floor. She still wore the raspberry coloured suit in which she had greeted welcoming crowds in Fort Worth and Dallas.
But she had taken off the matching pill box hat she wore earlier in the day, and her dark hair was windblown and tangled. Her hand rested lightly on her husband’s coffin as it was taken to a waiting hearse.
Mrs Kennedy climbed beside the coffin. Then the ambulance drove to Love Field, and Mr Kennedy’s body was placed aboard the Presidential jet. Mrs Kennedy then attended the swearing-in ceremony for Mr Johnson.”
Using the seen emotion of others
Just look at the observation. “Her face was sorrowful.” He did not know how she felt. He described how she looked. Great observation. And expressed in simple sentences.
Wicker started writing the article in the bus on the way to the airport on his portable typewriter. The news desk at the paper inserted the news about Oswald killing a police officer, which, you will see, comes out of place.
He was great at crafting transitions. We move along with the story as it unfolded and then he uses a person or event to take us to another part of the story. He, as all writers are, was the master of time. He could rearrange the way events happen in time to tell us the more important parts in his own sequence.
These are the key lessons from Wicker’s story:
- Get to the point as soon as you can.
- Write short direct sentences.
- Use transitions to carry the reader on.
- Use what you observe to give colour: image the immaculate Jackie’s hear windblown and tangled.
- You are a Time Lord: do not get bogged down in narrative as it happened. Present it from the most important to the least important.
He told me he had made a mistake in the story. The Judge who administered the oath to Johnson on the plane did not use the regular version but an old version of the oath. The only mistake he made in a sensational piece of writing.
Last night I was lucky enough to see the new film Gravity.
At the London iMax, on Britain’s largest cinema screen.
In digital 3D.
With 12,000 watts of sound…
As you can imagine, I’m still recovering, in an exhilarated and post-traumatic kind of way.
Today, I wanted to recall the experience, and of course pen this blog. How to make a connection? How can I use a visual rolle-rcoaster of a movie to illustrate a point about written communication?
You can’t, except of course in the realm of the imagination…
Because Gravity pulled off a fantastic double trick. On the one hand it fulfilled your rational expectations (in this case, of what working in space is really like), while magnificently and totally stimulating your sensory and emotional spectrums.
So an incredible piece of creativity and craft.
In the same way that really good writing can be.
It’s a very tall order for any writer to accomplish. Give the reader what they want, and expose them to hitherto unimagined possibilities.
A tough challenge. But not impossible.
Go see the film.
Buried in the 60 points which the Chinese Government issued on Friday after a mammoth session on reform was point 39. It will bring joy and woe to publishers of content in other countries.
The joy is in the last phrase of the last sentence, here in bold:
39. Further transform State-owned, for-profit cultural institutions into enterprises. Encourage the development of non-public-owned cultural enterprises, allowing them to participate in overseas publishing and online publishing. Expand government subsidies and procurement, and strengthen copyright protection.
China is a member of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). It signs up to the WIPOs rules on copyright. Even North Korea does. But how is copyright implemented in China? Poorly is the answer.
USA was a laggard on copyright…
Any country with little intellectual property generation has, historically, broken copyright. It’s in their interest to do so. The USA, now stern in its defence of copyright, was awash with copyright infringing content in the 19th century. No less than Charles Dickens and Gilbert and Sullivan railed against infringements in the USA. No sooner was a copy across the Atlantic than a chapter of Dickens would be printed or a light opera staged. And no payment of rights to the authors.
But when generated content became a copyright backer
But then the USA started to develop content of its own. So it is with China now: it is starting to create content of its own and so is now interested in implementing copyright laws. And has a UK office to help.
That’s the good news: China will take copyright protection of its content and the content of others more seriously.
Here’s the bad news: there’s new competition coming
Now for the bad news: it plans to become a major developer of content and on an international scale. That’s a threat to any content creator outside China. It will have an increasingly educated work force, with increasing numbers literate in other languages. Vogue is now a big seller in China: it feeds the appetite of the growing rich for fashion and up-market goods.
Coming to your market: Chinese content
Vogue was created in the USA as it emerged as an important content creator at the end of the 19th century. How long before Chinese-originated content floods outside of China on the back of its government-subsidised “cultural enterprises”? The “west” did not do well in defending its own manufacturing industries. It did not take long for China to become a hub on manufacturing: it will come faster as a creator of content.
Good writing gets to the point – not like this sign that I saw recently.
The speech bubble gets the message across. The text below is repetitive.
And even worse it uses bizarrely formal language that is more likely to leave the reader scratching their head than anything else. What exactly is ‘a period of use’?
I’m always looking for examples of interesting writing to share.
Have you seen any?