Wednesday, 23 November 2016

5 easy ways to become a better writer

The secret to good writing? Good editing. No one gets it right the first time. But if you know what to look out for when editing your own work, you’ll be able to transform your copy from vague to vivacious. Here are five quick tips.

1. Remove ‘that’

The decision that we are faced with…
It made me realise that my earnings were sufficient…
Taking into account new information that I have collected…

If I had a biscuit for every time I removed an unnecessary ‘that’ from a sentence, I’d be the CEO of McVities. This is a writing tic affecting most people. But it’s the easiest thing in the world to correct. Keep your eyes peeled for the T-word.

1. Cut unnecessary words and phrases

Due to the fact that…
Be that as it may…
For the most part…
In a very real sense…
It goes without saying…
Of course…
What I mean to say is…

Inexperienced writers (and everyone, really) often feel the need to ‘elevate’ their writing by using long words and abstract language. But good writing is plain, clear and simple. Look out for these common phrases, and cut them.

3. Use active language

Passive: A freelancer was used to complete the project.
Active: We used a freelancer to complete the project.

Passive language disconnects the action from the actor, making statements vague and non-specific. Things just happen: no one is responsible. That makes writing sound a bit remote. Active language is shorter, more direct and involves the reader more.

4. Stay positive

Negative: Our food isn’t made off-site, avoiding the risk of stale sandwiches
Positive: All our food is made while you wait, meaning it’s fresh every time

The subconscious doesn’t distinguish between the negative and the positive. So if you mention something negative, there’s a risk it will become associated with your brand. So, the next time you find yourself pointing out a downside, stop. Reframe it as a positive.

5. Be definite, specific and visual – and avoid the abstract

When they set out, Microsoft nearly had a mission statement along the lines of ‘Working towards the global adoption of information technology’. But they realised this was about as motivating as a damp biscuit, and found something a little easier to visualise: ‘A computer on every desk and in every home’.

"I meant a Microsoft computer on every desk..."
Their current mission statement, unveiled in 2013, is ‘To create a family of devices and services for individuals and businesses that empower people around the globe at home, at work and on the go, for the activities they value most’. Oh well.

For messages with impact, keep it concrete.

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Thursday, 3 November 2016

Messaging first. Grammar second.

When it comes to choosing between proper grammar and impactful messaging, there can only be one winner. And it ain’t the semi-colon.
Last week, I received an email from my father. The subject line – ‘HAVE YOU SEEN THIS?’ – could mean one of two things. Either a rogue intern had glued down his caps lock, or someone was guilty of breaking the Holy Rules of Grammar. Turns out it was the latter.

Monday, 10 October 2016

8 tips to getting your emails opened and acted on

We train recruiters in how to write first approach emails to candidates they’ve never met. Bit niche? Well, these tips are pretty useful for any ‘cold’ sales email.

Professional networking site LinkedIn has made finding good candidates easy. But it’s also made candidates more discerning. That means you have to work harder than ever to get their attention.

According to LinkedIn, the average InMail response rate is just 25%. Whether you’re a full-time recruiter, or just looking to improve your response rates, these tips will help you cut through the noise.

1. Quality not quantity
A bigger mailing list doesn’t necessarily equal better results. Instead of taking the ‘spray and pray’ approach, concentrate on a smaller number of high-quality prospects.

Stalk them online before you sit down to write your email or InMail. If you know what time they shower in the morning, you’ve gone too far. But checking out their LinkedIn and social media profiles and post for any shared connections or interests is a must. That’s because you need to…

2. Find a connection
If your email looks like a copied-and-pasted job spec, it will either:
A)   Be ignored
B)   Be deleted

Use the information you discovered earlier – like a shared language, hobby or employer – to create a personal connection. Weave it into a catchy subject line. Then follow it up in the first line of the email before getting to your pitch.

“Hello Tony! I hear you’re a fellow craft beer enthusiast…”

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Why tone of voice should be about the brand - not just writing well

Tone of voice guidelines should help make a brand unique. But all too often they consist of generic writing advice arranged under me-too values. Here are five common brand values along with the standard advice that’s typically offered up.


Also known as ‘Warm and friendly’, ‘Approachable’ or ‘Personable’. Guidelines with this brand value encourage you to use accessible, non-corporate language and write like you speak. You’ll achieve this by referring to your organisation as ‘we’ instead of the company name and using contractions like ‘it’s’. To sound friendly, you must address the reader as ‘you’ rather than with the remoter, third-person ‘his’, ‘her’ or ‘they’. All good advice, but every consumer brand and most B2B ones are doing this. It’s hygiene. You won’t differentiate your brand with this one.

Barnaby Benson tone of voice


Also goes under the names ‘Open’ and ‘Honest’. Advice for sounding ‘Straightforward’ include favouring short words over longer ones, avoiding abstract words, explaining technical terms and making sure you stick to just one idea per sentence. Commendable writing advice – essential, even. But it provides nada for a brand hoping to stand out from the crowd.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Let advertising direct your tone of voice

Any tone of voice guidelines should look to the brand’s advertising for direction. Most don’t and their TOV suffers for it.

Let me state two true observations. Then see if you can spot the glaring inconsistency they reveal.

  • One: any brand’s advertising campaign is the highest profile communications a brand has. It therefore sets the tone of the brand’s voice as it’s the thing most consumers think of when they think of the brand.
  • Two: most tone of voice guidelines are not written by the advertising agency and do not significantly influence the creative direction of the brand’s advertising.

The disconnect between these two statements struck me last week when I was asked to create a tone of voice guide that stipulated the advertising headline style and structure – very precisely. Wow, I thought, the ad agency isn’t going to like this! We’re telling them what their next campaign will look like. More than that: we are telling them what all their future campaigns will look like.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The delicate art of writing LinkedIn copy

This month's blog discusses the dos and don'ts of LinkedIn language. Whether it's news, networking or negotiation - it's not just about what you say, it's about how you say it.

Though the social media credentials of LinkedIn were much maligned by the Twitterati when they heard how much Microsoft had paid for it, Linkedin is a useful medium.

It’s great for unabashed professional networking. And it’s perfect for setting out what your company does and what makes it different. However, it is a strange beast which requires a certain style of writing.

So, who’s getting it right on LinkedIn?
According to LinkedIn, who’ve released their own top 20 list of the best company sites, Coca Cola and IBM are examples of best practice - they’ve become go-to sites for industry news, staff incentives, employee opinions and job vacancies. And all using clear, concise copy.

However, The Four Seasons Hotel made it into the top five by publishing a weekly caption competition. While we’re sure this draws more consumer visits than a typical company profile, it isn’t very businesslike. And that reveals one of the dilemmas of business communications: how much should a company let its hair down and have a bit of fun when going social?
Don't let your hair down too much

The problem with most social media is that it calls for companies to be as informal as everybody else is online – and as garrulous. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter rate the frequency with which users post, rather than their actual content. But most businesses are fairly serious activities – with shareholders to serve, employees to support and customers to satisfy. Do these groups really want to see you messing about? 

How to speak LinkedInian
LinkedIn’s tip is to treat your company profile like any piece of marketing material and ‘make

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Five great websites that use copy to stand out

Our previous blog post – How to stop long-scrolling websites looking too samey – gave you the key to differentiating your brand: copy. But getting it right takes more than just a cheeky colloquialism. We’ve picked out five brands whose web copy puts them a cut above.

Evernote is a great little app that functions as a kind of collaborative to-do list. Its copy is razor sharp. As soon as you land on the page, you’re hit with the key benefit – Remember Everything. Instead of bombarding you with features and bells and whistles, it simply paints a picture of a world with Evernote. And in just 15 words, the subheader establishes the need for the product, the solution to that need and how the product will provide that solution. All in all: concise and compelling.