Blowing off and stamping

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So today I find a mini-brochure from fairly upmarket interior retailer Habitat lying around. It looks quite nice – more to the point it smells quite nice (if you’re like me you’ll love the smell of well-printed and produced documentation) – but the first paragraph in the intro fills me with self-righteous indignant copywriter-fuelled ire.

ocean.jpg

“Our new collection blew in off the Atlantic one stormy night. Materials and shapes echo the ocean, sometimes calm, sometimes wild, sometimes both. Many products are handmade, using techniques that warm the heart and stir the imagination. And a deeply seductive indigo blue stamps its palette all over the show.”

Let’s go through this.

“Our new collection blew in off the Atlantic one stormy night.”

Now this, I actually quite like. The rest of the booklet shows a scene based in a beach hut. I’m not entirely sure why you would want a copper clock or pure white sofa on the veranda – surely sand would get everywhere – but it’s a nice presentational device. So the idea of ‘blowing in off the Atlantic’ has energy and I want to read.

“Materials and shapes echo the ocean, sometimes calm, sometimes wild, sometimes both.”

Can materials and shapes ‘echo the ocean’? I don’t think they can. They might be able to mirror the ocean or evoke the ocean, but I don’t get how they ‘echo’ it. This is a confusing image. You could say I’m nit-picking but for an image to work it actually has to produce an image in the mind. To do this, it has to be consistent and be built up in layers, so you need to continue the Atlantic theme throughout – which this line does – but you also need to make it work in the reader’s mind. I cannot make an image appear in my head in which materials and shapes echo the ocean. It doesn’t work.

And ‘sometimes calm, sometimes wild, sometimes both’. Can something be calm and wild at the same time? Isn’t this a bit schizophrenic? What’s the point of that extra piece at the end?

“Many products are handmade, using techniques that warm the heart and stir the imagination.”

‘Many products are handmade’ is taken directly from the copy brief I suspect. From the gusto of the first line we’re now down to matter-of-factness and it doesn’t sit well. ‘Techniques’ don’t warm the heart either, whisky does. I’ve never seen a glass-blown wine goblet and felt my heart warm. And I seem to recall having read the phrase ‘stir the imagination’ approximately a bazillion times before in my life.

This is getting lazy now. I think the copywriter either did this right at the beginning of the project (never write the beginning at the beginning, do it at the end), or was so fed up by this stage that he/she decided just to put something that the client would agree to, possibly because the client was a pain in the arse.

“And a deeply seductive indigo blue stamps its palette all over the show.”

You don’t stamp a palette. You can stamp your personality I guess, or your mark, but not your pallete. And we have another hackneyed phrase ‘all over the show’. I wouldn’t use ‘all over the show’ to describe a sophisticated interior design collection, I’d use it to talk about how my great aunt tripped over the dog while carrying a pint of Crème De Menthe.

So this first paragraph just seems to me to be very loose and ill-considered. It isn’t consistent, it uses lazy clichés, it changes tone of voice, and it doesn’t employ imagery very effectively.

You could argue that it doesn’t really matter and that people will just read it, turn over the page and look at the pretty pictures. But the copy is important. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t have any. And it’s such an opportunity missed when it’s done badly. Whoever wrote this was given the chance to engage someone and put great stuff in their heads, and they blew it. In off the ocean and back out again.

How would you rewrite it? Yes you, sitting there with your fingers up your fanny. At a rough estimate I’d say I have four regular readers of this blog. Let’s have a competition in which I present the winner with two doughnuts and the runners-up with a doughnut each.

Great speeches change the world

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Is speechwriting the same as copywriting? The former is intended to be spoken – performed even – while the latter is usually just for digesting inwardly, and yet they must share common goals such as evoking interest, stimulating thought and hopefully triggering reaction.

Great speeches do this. Indeed great speeches can change the world, showing that words do have power. The Guardian in the UK is issuing a weekly supplement, beautifully produced, covering great speeches, each with a foreword by a major figure. So for example last week we had Khrushchev’s speech disclaiming Stalin in 1956 with a foreword by Gorbachev; and Nelson Mandela’s address from the dock in 1964, foreworded by P.W.Botha. Yesterday it was Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”.

You can find the series here, together with transcripts and audio, and the Guardian will come with a CD of the speeches in early May.

So if copywriting and speechwriting are similar, is lecture-writing related? Judging by the current Reith lecture series on Radio 4 I would say so. There’s something in the language used by the lecturer Jeffrey Sachs that is clear, profound, reflective and gently forceful, which lies also in his direct and powerful delivery.

He also covers the power of speech to change history. In the current (third) lecture of the series there are frequent references to Kennedy’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’ speech, as well as commentary towards the end from Theodore Sorensen who played a large part in the writing of the speech.

You can hear all the lectures in the current series on the Radio 4 website as well as download podcasts and read transcripts at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2007/

New media causes asymmetric PR

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Do you remember the term ‘asymmetric war’? It’s been around a while but entered our popular lexicon when describing the capabilities of insurgents to resist the efforts of the West in its ‘War on Terror’. In so doing it encapsulates how a militarily disadvantaged yet widespread and interconnected population can employ successful tactics against large, centralised agents bristling with sophisticated weapons and techniques.

Earlier this year I touched on blogging and the war, reporting on the phenomenon of soldiers in Iraq giving often graphic first-hand accounts of their daily lives in a way which the (often necessarily) sanitised mainstream media simply does not. As a counterpart to citizen journalism I coined the phrase martial journalism to describe it, and indicated that no one else had used it at the time (although it now pops up twice – once from me, and once from a strange Russian website, so it looks like I narrowly missed out on being a Googlewhack) . But then no one reads this blog so you all missed out.

Blogs and war. They share properties. Which is why it occurs to me that isn’t our current situation with regards to PR – that we represent or elevate opinions on behalf of our often large corporate clients while coping with a huge weight of opinion distributed among many thousands of bloggers – another example of asymmetry? In which case are we not in an environment of asymmetric PR? This phrase does seem to have been invented already but not exactly in this context.

In directly substituting one term for the other I’m not implying that ‘PR is war’. What I am saying is that the two situations seem to me to be analogous. We’re trying to put out one viewpoint when it is then interpreted, and reacted to, by many separate agents.

If this is the case then can one shed light on the other? It is to be hoped that the US – and the UK – will eventually realise that the conventional military solution just isn’t working, and that they will eventually engage rather than wage (Professor Jeffrey Sachs touches on this subject in the latest of his current brilliant Reith lectures series). Fortunately it seems PR people are a little more sophisticated in their thinking than George W Bush, and so while we haven’t declared a ‘War on Blogging’, we certainly haven’t had the courage to engage yet.

The way forward is to realise and respect the ideas of ‘individuality’ and ‘difference’ – on both our behalfs. While bloggers are largely unaccountable we have to help them understand that they don’t have to constantly criticise and cynicise – there are two sides to every argument and they would do well to realise it. OK, so blogging necessarily, and rightly, involves putting out an often controversial viewpoint but I do think it is almost always negative towards big messages. Sometimes the big messages are valid.

The best way to do this is to join them in dialogue, thereby removing the perceived corporate ‘threat’ that drives the fear that causes this reaction. But dialogue necessarily works both ways. If this is asymmetric PR in action then they must accept the necessity for companies at least to attempt to manage their PR, and that this involves influencing as well as engaging. In turn we must learn that the idea of the big message is being turned on its head: we need to address the many small messages people want to hear.

To complete the war analogy, if Dubya is reading this then the message from PR must be: don’t beat ‘em, talk to ‘em.

Justin.TV – Online all the time.

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Many years ago I thought how cool it would be if you were to go out with some friends each with a camera strapped to our heads, record an afternoon then to play it back on a split-screen.

You’d see what each person was focussing on at any time. Imagine a car journey for example: one person might be looking out of the window while the other three are engaged in conversation. Then suddenly that person might zone into what’s being talked about, and who’s to say, maybe their contender in the group would then zone out. Maybe the leader would be the person looked at the most: or the least. One person might be totally involved in the group. Another might be slightly distanced. Or perhaps the entire group would react the same way. It would be illuminating. It would be fascinating.

I never actually achieved this because at the time VHS cameras were the size of bricks and apart from the logistics involved – gaffer-taping bricks to our heads, incurring neck pain and instant, premature, substantial, painful hair loss – it would probably also have influenced our behaviour. But now technology is unobtrusive enough to allow such experiments to happen. And now we have broadband streaming video access, someone has taken advantage of Tuvalu’s fortuitous domain name to turn themselves into a media brand.

Justin.tv is a guy walking around with a video camera strapped to his head. All the time. Right now I’m watching him at the laundromat.

I heard about him earlier today on The Message, a Radio 4 programme covering the media from the viewpoint of journalists, producers and writers. David Quantick roundly criticised Justin’s activity, calling him a ‘dork’, his site ‘mind-numbingly dull’ and – amusingly – suggesting that it would be more interesting if he had a camera in his head and no one had told him.

David Quantick is an arse. What he doesn’t realise is that this is ultimate TV. Everyone who speaks to Justin knows what’s going on. He’s the Ultimately Famous Person. Everyone who talks to him sees their potential stake in his brand. When they nurture him, they nurture his brand, and therefore themselves. It’s exactly the same as real life except they know that they’re being watched by many people online. Person and brand – online, one-to-many brand – become indistinguishable. It’s the closest thing to really Being John Malkovich currently available.

This isn’t wrong, and it isn’t right. It just is. Justin just is, and you can see him being. I’m not suggesting for a moment that our lives are so empty that we must live them through Justin. But we know what he’s looking at and listening to and if you want to walk around in someone else’s shoes – which after all is what Harper Lee urged us to do many years ago – then you can do it, now.

OK, so he may be a moron. But we owe it to ourselves to know what it’s like to be one.

Blueprint for a *really* intelligent search engine

Today I was searching for specific news on a very specific topic,  based on one web page I’d found. I was having difficulty getting results because they seemed to rely on combinations of words that I just couldn’t nail down. Each combination just wasn’t returning the right hits. Clearly Google’s referral system couldn’t hack it, for some reason.

I thought to myself, “If only I could just say to Google ‘Look Google, I’m interested in this page. Now go away and find stuff related to it for me, why don’t you.'” And then I realised, wouldn’t that be an amazing feature? If somehow a search engine could scan a page, or set of pages, work out the semantic threads in it, and then do the same for other pages and cross-reference? I don’t think we’re talking meta-text here. We’re talking context.

Perhaps this will be a step closer when vertical search engines take off – I mean, really take off, so that they supplant Wikipedia as the first Google hit  for the term. I don’t consider the current candidates any ‘smarter’ than their horizontal cousins: for example researchindex.com seems more a portal (with annoying pop-under ads and a home-page set feature – despite my link you’re better off not going there), and Jumbo doesn’t seem to know anything about Eniac.

If anyone does invent this, don’t forget, it was my idea first. It’s not a search engine either. It’s a semantic motor – smarter and faster. And it’s got to be called CON_text. Trademark.

Maven, guru, matrix, mesh, net, slash. We need better words.

Why are geeky words either obscurely spiritual to describe people, or outwardly aggressive to describe tech?

From my copywriting feed (feel free to subscribe, to the right of this page, scroll down a bit, there you are) comes an article on ‘Life’s a pitch say advertising mavens‘. Maven. Hmmm, maven. Swill that around a bit, sniff its bouquet. What a strange word. It sounds more like a small Welsh village than a person. I only came across it fairly recently at a conference on word-of-mouth brand avocacy. While everyone accepted it unflinchingly I desperately concealed my panic at not actually knowing what the word meant. Now I know: it’s a Yiddish word to describe someone with special knowledge. And now you do too. You’re a maven maven.

It’s the same with guru. I used to be called an HTML guru. Then I became a design guru. Now I’m apparently a copywriting guru. Yes, I seem to get called these things but I’m not, as the dictionary puts it, ‘a preceptor giving personal religious instruction’. I just tell people where to put hyphens and apostrophes whereas once I told them not to use ten different fonts on a page or how to close href tags. 

What’s wrong with ‘expert’ or ‘specialist’ or ‘authority’? It doesn’t need to be veiled in pseudo-spiritualism.

So much for people. Now things. The other day I was doing the Guardian crossword – the easy one, not the hard one, I can’t do the hard one – and a clue was ‘mesh’, seven letters. Not ‘matrix’ or ‘web’ then. ‘System’ didn’t fit. No, it was ‘lattice’. Now there’s a good word to describe the web. It conjures images of apple pie or maybe a nice Melton Mowbray porkie, not huge dirty great spiders. Let’s call it the World Wide Lattice. And the Radio 4 Today programme once tried calling the slash in a lattice address ‘stroke’, so instead of bbc.co.uk SLASH Radio 4 SLASH Today, it was all stroking. Nice.

Maven, guru, matrix, mesh, net, slash. These words are the essence of geekdom. Geeks like spirituality yet conversely they also want it peppered with violence. Graphic novels exude this, as do a lot of manga films, of which Akira and Ghost in the Shell are probably the best-known examples. So does this mean they see people as spiritual but technology as violent perhaps? Or are they all adolescent males?

Join the Friendly Ghost. Keep things nice and simple. Nice is apple pies and stroking. Simple is experts and specialists. Chuck out the gurus, away with your mavens, we don’t want to be trapped in a web, we all just want to be Friendly Ghosts. In the Shell.

Click, double-click, ALT, TAB, ENTER. What makes a good interface?

Despite not working in the field anymore I do keep seeing interface design issues popping up recently.

In my copywriting feed – feel free to subscribe to it on the right-hand side of this blog, it takes lots and lots and lots of copywriting feeds and syndicates them out – comes a piece on the rate at which most people scan Google pages. It averages out at 140 words in 6.4 seconds. This can surely only be enough to pick out a few words of interest and, as Chris Hoskin says in his post, it must be too quickly for a ‘rational’ decision to be made.

My take on it is that people will tend to return to that search page if the link they choose isn’t right for them, so it’s probably several ‘chunks’ of 6.4 seconds which isn’t quite as random, and through this repetition people start to make better decisions as they become more familiar with what’s presented.

So perhaps the real way to judge an interface really isn’t in its immediate intuitiveness but eventual familiarity. My father  – who used to program in Mobol using punch cards – is trying to teach my 70+ year-old auntie how to use a computer. I think it’s admirable that she wants to get into it but he says it’s a real eye-opener. He has to teach her how to use the mouse, how to click, how to open and close windows and start applications.

These are second-nature operations to us graphics-interface-savvy users but you tell me: what exactly is the difference between single-click and double-click? Why do we single-click menus but double-click icons (I’m talking Windows here)? I can only come to the conclusion that you double-click a picture and single click text, but where does that leave the Start menu, with its combination of icons and labels? Why don’t we double-click hyperlinks? Suddenly it doesn’t seem quite as obvious anymore.

Way, way back I started on the path of enlightenment with a ZX81, graduating to a ZX Spectrum. The ‘interface’ for that – a very quirky command line – was really pretty dreadful, with arcane and obscure key combinations for picking out commands and operations. Yet I was able to churn out code really quickly with it. This wasn’t because the interface was well designed. It was because I got used to it.

The key is a combination of learning curve, consistency, and the adaptability of an interface to work around the user. If the curve is shallow and you can do things in several ways without getting lost, you’re working with a good interface.

You’d avoid using Lotus Notes if you were me – Part II

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Not so long ago, with my interface/application designer’s hat on (yes, I designed the interface and wrote the documentation for this), I posted a whinge about Lotus Notes. Thomas Adrian was kind enough to comment, and I can understand that he was displeased because from what I can see on his site, he’s big on the subject (although, hats off to him his English is better than my Swedish).

Now don’t take this as a personal attack Thomas, but here’s more Lotus Notes inadequacy:

  • Copy from an HTML or rich-text document, then paste into a Lotus Notes email. Then wait. And wait. And wait a bit more. After several seconds (or several more) it will eventually paste. Why not immediately? What on earth is taking Lotus Notes so long to paste metatext?
  • So you’re typing along quite happily when an alarm window pops up for a meeting. I don’t object to alarms – they’re very useful – but they do introduce when you’re mid-flow. They also respond to key depressions so if it happens that you press ENTER or ‘O’ for OK you suddenly find it’s closed the window and the following stream of characters have been interpreted by whatever underlying application you were running. I’ve very nearly lost work with this happening. Not good. Also, why call it an alarm? Do I want to be alarmed? No. Call it an alert instead, so that I’m alert and alerted, not alarmed.
  • Why can’t I delete labels? When I first started using Lotus Notes I would occasionally type the wrong thing or mis-spell words, and anyway my work has changed since I started so I’d like to delete or rename labels please. If it’s possible then please tell me how. But don’t blame me for not finding out how to do it myself because I’ve looked through the online help and the web and apart from finding one other people with the exact same problem, there’s no mention of how to do this.
  • And finally, another alarm problem. Why, if I have several at the same time, am I reminded of them all in one alarm? Because to date I also haven’t figured out how then to set different ‘snooze’ times to each alarm because there’s only one ‘snooze’ field. So I have to set them all to the same value, which seems to separate them out into individual alarms, to which I can then set different times.

I shouldn’t have to do this. Irrespective of operating system, I shouldn’t have to wait to cut and paste, or nearly lose work, or be unable to delete labels or take several steps with multiple alarms. The version I use (at work) is at number 7. Why weren’t these usability issues addressed in versions 1 to 6?

Granted, it’s a stable package but as I said before, these usability issues can only be because it isn’t given sufficient priority within the development team. They will probably tell me it’s my fault for not figuring it out, or that there are ways around the problems that I’ve found. Well, I shouldn’t have to figure it out, or work around it. It should just work. Properly.

Give me Outlook any time. No, really.

Five ways not to treat copywriters.

In a world of dynamite PR movers and shakers it’s often painfully obvious that no one really knows what to do with copywriters. So we have to educate and inform, often while we’re finding out what’s going on ourselves. I see a lot of advice on how to work with them but very little on the things to avoid. So here’s some friendly advice:

  • Don’t tell us a piece of work “won’t take long”. Inexperienced copywriters will believe you – heck, it’s only 1000 words, how long could that take? – then 3 days later they’re still working on it because 1000 words really can take that long. Experienced copywriters will have the skills to ask the right questions and then tell you how long it will take. But don’t take that chance: just present the work and elicit from us how much time is involved.
  • Don’t let us get away without a copy brief. Generally copywriters will insist on one simply because it’s the best way to work, but occasionally we’ll be pressed for time, or you will, and we’ll both think we can just wing it. Sometimes this will work but more often than not, it won’t. If this happens ultimately it’s the copywriter to blame but you need to share in it too. Don’t put us under pressure to the extent that you obviate the copy brief.
  • Don’t use the work in progress to figure out what you want. It’s really annoying when we’re asked to write an authoritative thought-leadership piece which turns, by drafts, into a chirpy advertorial because you didn’t really know what you wanted in the first place. Tone of voice is not an insignificant matter: it can involve a total rewrite. Most changes will need a complete rethink. It’s at the copy brief stage that these issues should be addressed, not draft 8.
  • Don’t devalue us. We’re the ones who work with messaging, tone of voice and the balance of issues for clients day in, day out. If there’s doubt in your mind whether we’ve really produced what was needed then sometimes, give us the benefit of that doubt. You might be pleasantly surprised. The client might really like that quirky turn of phrase or personal insight.
  • Don’t ignore us. We’re not just here for writing. We can help you with almost any aspect of writing – grammar, spelling, phrasing – as well as further back in the process such as message development. We can also perform basic tricks for biscuits.

Don’t forget, this blog is called Friendly Ghost for a reason. I’m a copywriter who operates on the principle that when communication is good, you don’t see it. It’s only when it’s bad that communication becomes apparent. And I’m friendly really. All copywriters are friendly. We’re all Friendly Ghosts.