Maintaining the tone in every contact

If your website’s main content has a consistent tone throughout, that’s great; but don’t forget those other points of contact with your readers or customers. This might be rarely needed web pages (such as the 404 error page) or following up on an order.

I recently ordered a couple of t-shirts online from howies, and the company’s warm, informal tone (with a hint of dry wit) continued throughout the process. It really felt as though one person was speaking to me throughout.

For example, from the order confirmation:

A big thanks for your order […] We will be burning the midnight oil to make sure your order is dealt with to make sure you’re not waiting too long! (By the way your card will not be charged until your stuff leaves our warehouse.) […] A despatch confirmation e-mail will be sent to you as your order leaves us down here.

And from the despatch email:

Just thought you’d like to know your order is heading out of Cardigan Bay as we speak. And it’s heading your way. …

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I’m not sure what you’re on about…

Nice rant in the newspaper recently about the art world’s inability to discuss its works in a way that normal people can understand. But as one poster so accurately put it:

It’s not just the art field; it’s most fields. People should be able to express complex ideas plainly, but they confuse complexity of language with complexity of thought. Or maybe they just aren’t saying anything real or don’t know what they’re trying to say. As Mr. Canter says, abstract nouns are one hallmark of empty writing.

Lots of companies are guilty of doing this with their web copy, for example. They think that by using longer words where simpler ones would do, they make their offering sound superior.

It doesn’t though. It alienates a lot of people and confuses them…

I can certainly remember reading descriptions about art shows and not really understanding what was being said. It went over my head, I assumed the show wasn’t for me and so I didn’t go. Imagine if that’s …

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Just say what you mean

Why faff around with pompous-sounding words that don’t help the reader and probably aren’t even used correctly? The use of ‘seeking’ has popped (maybe ‘pooped’ would be more appropriate!) up again today and it seems to be a bit of a trend in business writing.

On this occasion, it’s the Guardian’s new Sustainable Business section (a fantastic idea). It describes itself like this:

Guardian Sustainable Business is a new source of news, data and intelligence for professionals seeking to make their organisation sustainable. Powering the service is the Guardian’s leading team of editors and business analysts seeking to give you the best platform to make your business sustainable.

(Have just noticed they’ve even used it twice within this short description. Gah.)

Technically, it can be used in this way; my dictionary defines ‘to seek’ as ‘5. to make an effort (to do something); to try or aim (to do it)’. So why not just say ‘trying’ or ‘aiming’? Keep it simple; don’t fall into the trap of trying to be too sophisticated.

And the use …

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Writing for your audience: overseas students

One of my Spanish ‘intercambio’ friends has recently booked a place on a summer course in London to improve her English (which she speaks to a good level already).

She’s also booked a room with Nido, accommodation for overseas students. She received the following email from Nido, but asked me for help because she couldn’t understand all of the details.

Original letter

We are happy to inform you that your application has been successful and we have provisionally booked a room for you and your application is now pending. [Is the application successful or is it pending? This is confusing.]

In order to confirm your reservation, you will be required to make payments as outlined in your payment plan.

The refundable damage deposit and 2 weeks rent in advance is due first, shortly after receiving this acceptance email.

Please note that your damage deposit will be refunded on the same method it was paid.

A copy of your payment plan is attached.

There are three method of payments accepted:

Credit Card: Attached is a copy of the credit card authorisation …

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A great interview: Dan Germain, Innocent

I love reading interviews with people who work with words, from copywriters to translators. It’s always interesting to find out how they got to where they are today, the path they took. Roger Horberry’s interview with Dan Germain of Innocent fame is no exception.

I think lots of writers stumble into their profession via a muddle of other roles: some are related, most are not. But it’s still refreshing to read about the success stories that many of us still spend a large proportion of (billable) hours daydreaming about…

Dan “went to university with the three chaps who founded Innocent” and started off “driving vans and delivering smoothies” before moving on to writing the ‘blurb’ on the bottles. And ten years later, he’s head of creative services. He comes out with several words of wisdom; here are my favourites.

“Brilliant copywriting doesn’t demand any explanation. It’s short and sweet and hits the spot first time.”

On golden rules for writing: “…you have your first idea – great, but don’t use it. 90% of people will …

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Commenting, manners and etiquette

Lots of us have done it: we ‘read’ a post or an article that we disagree with in some way, then leave a hasty comment before speeding off to some other task. More often than not, this takes on a different tone than you intended. So what is correct etiquette when leaving a comment?

I started thinking about this yesterday, after doing exactly what I describe above. I followed a link in an e-newsletter and read the article (about unscrupulous SEO practices) like a typical web user: scanning for bits of interest, jumping from header to header.

How (not) to comment

I disagreed with several elements, so I left what I thought was a level, reasonable comment:

I think that many businesses do not understand what SEO is and how it can actually benefit their business. While ‘black hat’ SEO practices do exist and are unethical, this is a missed opportunity to explain what SEO is, how it can help small businesses and provide some positive tips, rather than focusing on …

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