16 February 2016
On Sunday Telstra sent an email to its customers apologising for network outages the week before, and offering a free day of data as compensation for the stuff up.
I’ll leave the analysis of the free data offer to others (although it seemed to go down pretty well?) As a word nerd, I was more interested in the email itself.
The thing is, good apologies from brands are a bit of a rare beast (we’ve written about it here before). So I’m always intrigued to see how an organisation will tackle an apology like this.
The verdict? Telstra nailed it. Almost.
In fact, it would have approached apology letter perfection if it weren’t for two lines right in the middle. Two lines which, as it turns out, epitomise the mistakes a lot of brands are making with their writing at the moment. So let’s get a little analytical and take a closer look, line by line.
Here’s how the email kicks off.
It’s how every apology message should begin. Saying sorry, taking responsibility, and acknowledging the impact the mistake had on those affected. Nothing more, nothing less. Plenty of other brands could learn from this.
And then this happens.
Aghh! Out of nowhere we’re catapulted into a world of corporate platitudes. The writing is grammatically fine. But the lines are hackneyed, clichéd even. As if they’re lifted straight from an internal strategy document.
“All of us at Telstra take our responsibility to help keep Australians connected seriously”.
Well, yes, you’re a telecommunications company, so I would’ve thought so! It’s such an empty line – and one that we’ve all seen in brand communications a thousand times before.
“We are continually improving our networks. We constantly review, adjust, maintain, and strengthen … “
It’s cut and paste time. The email’s central purpose (to apologise) has been lost, and so has the personal tone. It’s become corporate and distant.
I’ll give whoever wrote this letter an out here. My guess is that someone else inserted these two lines at the last minute, ticking off ‘key value propositions’ or pre-fabricated ‘brand statements’.
It’s something we’re seeing more of these days – words and phrases being inserted because they’re in some central strategy or policy document. Problem is, while it’s often well intentioned, it can get in the way of communicating with the customer clearly and with genuine warmth.
Here’s how the email ends.
Phew! We’re back on track. This is great. The offer is simply explained, the tone is personal, and it doesn’t go over the top. It’s a conversation with a customer again, not a room of corporate board members. Importantly, Telstra’s not claiming to be some sort of saviour here. By labelling it a ‘small gesture’ they keep things in perspective.
On Sunday Telstra customers downloaded the equivalent of 2.3 million movies. In a day. One guy downloaded 421GB before midnight (he has a 6GB monthly plan). So yeah, it looks like the message was well and truly received.
My guess is that, because of the honesty and simplicity of the opening, most people would’ve judged the apology as sincere too.
And those two lines in the middle? I’ll admit, most people would’ve just skipped over it (or blanked it out) in the rush to download their top 40 favourite movies of all time.
But over time, language like this does have an impact. It erodes trust, it reinforces perceptions of being self-centred or out of touch. And it misses the opportunity to connect personally with customers, as the rest of this email does.
Take those lines out (you don’t even need to replace them) and you’ve got the model apology letter.
Head of Writing
6 January 2016
Brands have to apologise for all kinds of things. Faulty goods. Service sans smile. Appropriating a national holiday as a cheap marketing ploy (We still haven’t forgotten, Woolies). And now, an events company in Sydney is having to apologise for spoiling New Years Eve for a whole lot of people. In one of the cities famous for putting on a pretty big show as January 1 kicks in.
After shelling out a significant amount of cash (we can gather between $400-$500 per ticket) for the NYE Above the Harbour Event, attendees were expecting great food, great views, great music, and the great presence of Cameron and/or Andrew Daddo.
As it turns out, they didn’t quite get what they paid for – and were pretty unhappy.
Here’s some highlights (or lowlights, depending on how you look at it), from some of the pundits:
There were many, many comments – some of which were being deleted. (Another social no-no – it’s a surefire way to rev up already incensed customers.) The event drew so much ire, in fact, that it made the news. And while all of this was unfolding, the event organisers were still keeping tight-lipped. Eventually, they broke their silence – with a reply that started like this:
From there, they go on to list a number of facts about the event (did you know there were 48 toilets?). But they seem to have forgotten to include any trace of genuine, human language. It also feels a bit like a “sorry you’re offended, but…” – there are two issues at stake here. It’s not just the awful jargon-y robot language – it’s the underlying feeling that they’re not sorry at all.
They’re not the first company to make an apology feel more like something they’ve been forced into doing, rather than being something they actually want to do. But when you opt for that cold, corporate language, you don’t just run the risk of making your customers even angrier – you could end up losing them for good.
The thing is, event companies – all companies, for that matter – are made up of people. And people make mistakes. Hiding behind corporate jargon, dodging the issues and passing the blame won’t get your brand very far. Sometimes, the best thing to do is own up, and deal with the problem like the people you are. Take these apologies from Apple and Reddit, for instance:
These are both big companies, with big reputations at stake. And in just a few carefully-considered words, they’ve managed to craft an apology that feels authentic. Sure, people might’ve still been unhappy over the events that transpired, but you can’t fault them for keeping it real.
So this year, if you and your brand find yourself in hot water, and you need to say sorry, don’t make it sound like you’re being forced to. Aside from the fact that customers are choosing you as an option, if you’ve not lived up to their expectations, it’s time to swallow your pride and say sorry.
If there’s one resolution we’d suggest for brands for 2016, it’s to keep your language sincere. Especially your apologies. Chances are then that you’ll be forgiven – and not forgotten.
30 November 2015
Write like you speak.
It’s a good piece of advice, but it’s often interpreted a little more simply than intended. After all, people are different – we all speak in slightly (sometimes majorly) different ways. And there are factors to consider before we open our mouths too, like who we’re talking to, and where.
So what does “write like you speak” actually mean? For most of our brands, it’s a unique blend of conversational tones, friendly dispositions and simple language. Something like this:
It’s great to see you opened a savings account with us recently. Unfortunately there were a few technical issues when we tried to set that up for you, so we’ve had to open a new one.
It’s friendly – but not chummy. Conversational – but not colloquial. Simple – but not condescending. It’s nice. But it’s not the only way.
And here’s the proof: three brands who push (even challenge) this trend to create brand voices that really stand out.
Simple means clear, not basic.
Simplicity is an essential part of good communication – but it doesn’t always mean basic vocabulary and uncomplicated sentences. Take this piece of writing from Australian cosmetic brand Aesop. Preoccupied with supporting and exploring the arts, this snippet comes from their Aesop on Design page:
Throughout our 28 years, we have been constantly delighted by the unexpected affinities that have come from the negotiation of differences involved in establishing new stores – by means of immersion in unfamiliar landscapes, investigation of local materials, engagement with local culture and history, and of course development of fertile new relationships. The desire to embrace differences and nurture such affinities is intrinsic to our thinking and way of being.
That first sentence runs on for almost 5 lines, and is full of long words. But it works. It’s eloquent. Literary. Even poetic. It’s how you might speak if you were presenting to an Artistic Director.
The language isn’t simple, but the idea is clear. And that’s what simplicity really is – understanding exactly what you’re saying, and how each word contributes to your message.
Some of the best conversations aren’t conversational at all.
Remember, being conversational isn’t the only way to talk to people. In a recent internal workshop, Hamish (XXVI’s Head Honcho) offered up this example as food for thought from Jaguar’s About page:
Life. It’s not about figures. It’s about feelings. The moments that feed your soul. The occasions that take your breath away. The instances that leave you speechless. These are the moments we live for.
The tone here dictates rather than converses – because Jaguar isn’t positioning itself as an equal. It’s an authority. The language is the type you’d use in a motivational speech: not casual, but engaging.
Friends aren’t always the best company.
Friendliness might seem like a no-brainer – you want people to like your brand don’t you? Well, maybe not. There’s more to positive brand association than likability. Take this headline:
My better is better than your better.
Friendly? Absolutely not. Effective? Absolutely. And there are no points for picking the brand this headline belongs to. Now think about how you feel about that brand. “Like” isn’t even nearly the right word. In fact, they’ve been pulling you up on your shit and telling you what to do for years!
Stay quick or stay home.
Just do it.
Nike isn’t a friend – it’s a trainer. A challenger. Someone you want to beat. And when it comes to fitness, that’s precisely the type of language that makes a difference.
It all comes down to authenticity, consistency, awareness and clarity. Because a successful brand voice can sound like just about anything.
15 November 2015
Sensory experiences are all the rage these days. And courtesy of Volkswagen, I’ve recently created a new one.
Here’s what you need to do. Print the letter below. Find yourself a diesel Volkswagen Golf. 2012 was a great vintage. Turn the engine on, and walk to the rear. Now breathe deeply and read the letter out loud. If you can stomach it, read it again.
Now, what do you feel? Is it relief? Is it trust? Or is it nausea – either caused by the nitrogen oxide, or the words themselves?
Because what you’ve just read stinks as much as the exhaust you’re breathing. It’s slippery, non-committal, and displays all the hallmarks of Volkswagen’s heavy-handed PR and legal teams.
But hold on. After a couple of minutes in the toxic fog, you think it’s actually quite a good letter, don’t you? It’s honest. It’s open. It’s even a little human.
Admittedly, this letter shows how far business language has come in recent years. They now know to take the corporate and legal jargon out. They know to talk in the first person, and to use contractions. They know to appeal to an emotion, and even how to use the word sorry.
But today these are just the basics of brand voice. They’re so easy. And any company not doing those things should count themselves lucky to still be in business.
As consumers, we’re surprisingly easy to fool. I’m as guilty as anyone – when I first read this I thought it was quite nice. But when I break it down, what did it actually say that was of benefit to me?
Reading between the lines
You’ve probably heard that Volkswagen have been tricking the system on their diesel engines, so the emissions readings they’re giving during tests don’t relate in any way to real world conditions. But that’s the easy way to explain it. Since I’m the owner of an affected vehicle, Volkswagen has been kind enough to explain it in a more complex way too:
The Type EA 189 engine built into your Golf is affected by software that causes discrepancies in the values for oxides of nitrogen (NOx) during laboratory testing.
Note that it’s not your entire car that’s the problem, just your engine. Actually, it’s not the engine that’s the problem, it’s the software. And even then, it’s not the software that’s the problem, it’s the laboratory testing.
In just a couple of lines, Volkswagen has managed to reduce its responsibility to almost nothing.
It’s clever, but as an owner of a rapidly depreciating investment with their name on it, it’s not good enough.
The trust issue
Since this story broke in September, Volkswagen has contacted me three times. Each time their tone has been what I’d describe as disappointed reassurance – we’ve let ourselves down, we’ve let you down, we’ll do everything we can to fix it (within reason).
The key link each time has been ‘trust’. It pops up at least twice in each piece, and has clearly been identified as a key talking point.
We are very sorry to have broken your trust and are working at full speed to find a technical solution.
We will keep you informed in a timely and transparent manner, as regaining your trust is of utmost concern to us.
You have trusted in Volkswagen, and we have let you down.
Having people’s trust has been our greatest privilege. Today we begin the task of earning it back.
But does talking about trust actually create it? As a Volkswagen owner, I’m not actually worried about trust. Trust is something a business can earn, but the value of that trust is to them, not to me. As the owner of a car that has now significantly decreased in value, I don’t want them to shower me with empty platitudes – I want action, not words.
The language question
How companies choose to talk to their customers when they’ve been caught red-handed is always an insight into what sort of company they truly are. Because once you peel away all the fancy ad campaigns, the beautiful brand work, and the great deals and sweeteners that are showered on you as a potential new customer, you’re finally exposed to the true core of a business.
And what you often find is that it’s not that great. To have real effect, a company’s words must match their actions, just as their actions must match their words. At times like this all that talk of putting customers first, of customer care, of incredible customer experience, is as shallow as a puddle in a drought.
That’s why in every XXVI brand voice we build in one trait for the brand to fall back on when they have their very worst of days. It’s a roadblock, causing a brand to stop and think hard about what they’re saying, even if the sky is falling in.
You have trusted Volkswagen and we have let you down.
Yes Volkswagen, you have.
And now your language is as toxic as your engines.
Director of Brand Language
12 November 2015
Airlines of Papua New Guinea is not a brand many people would have heard of. And if you had, it was probably for all the wrong reasons.
Airlines of PNG no longer exists. As of last Wednesday, they’ve been reborn as PNG Air – an airline with a new plane, new name, and new design. It is, from the ground up, a new airline.
How they speak is also new. Brand voice is a concept that’s still surprisingly foreign to people in a mature branding market like Australia. In PNG it’s completely non-existent. Proudly, PNG Air is the first company in Papua New Guinea to have a defined XXVI brand voice. Vibrant, dependable and engaging, their voice underpins their promise to connect – and connect with – the people of PNG.
In all the discussion that surrounds a new visual identity, it’s easy to overlook the new name. The change from Airlines of PNG to PNG Air may at first glance seem minor, but the true effect is enormous. It’s a name that practically and metaphorically puts PNG first. And unlike their main competitor Air Niugini, the name wraps around the whole of PNG – a snug fit for an airline that connects more people with more places across the nation.
Alongside Principals, we’ve been involved in many rebrands. This feels like our most satisfying rebirth.
Director of Brand Language
9 November 2015
2015 is going to be a year that’s looked back on for all kinds of reasons. Ireland and America both legalised same-sex marriage. Malcolm ousted Tony from the Prime Ministership. Jurassic World came out, and was awesome.
But if you ask the good folks at Collins Dictionary, there’s one word that sums up the year better than equality, turncoat or Indominus Rex ever could. And that’s binge-watch.
World, we did it. After all those hours spent watching movie marathons, cancelling plans to stay in and watch House of Cards, and making ‘Netflix and chill’ a thing, our habit for spending entire weekends catching up on Game of Thrones has become a part of the everyday vernacular.
Not sure if it’ll stick? Let’s take a look back at the last few ‘words of the year’. We’ve got ‘photobomb’. We’ve got ‘selfie’. We’ve got ‘hashtag’.
They all have a few things in common. The first is that – as ridiculous as they might’ve seemed when they first infiltrated our day-to-day dialogue – they usually manage to hang around. In fact, the more that time goes by, the less ridiculous they seem. After all, who would’ve thought a few years ago that the humble ‘selfie’ would be the domain of everyone from pop stars to presidents?
The second thing you can be sure of is that a whole bunch of brands will try their hardest to shoehorn these words into their comms.
In some cases it might work, too. A fun, cheeky startup could get away with using ‘binge-watch’. So too could a national Telco, if they’ve put the right amount effort into their tone. But when companies who’ve always played it fairly safe with their words start namedropping Jon Snow, it reeks of insincerity. And their customers usually see right through it.
So before you start slipping 2015’s winning word into every possible piece of communication, stop and have a think. Is it consistent with the way you talk? Is it something you’d normally say? And if it isn’t, are you going to start updating your entire voice so that you can get away with it?
‘Brand voice’ might not have been a word of the year (yet!), but it should be the one thing on every company’s mind – especially with the evolution of our language. Because when you try too hard to keep up with the latest slang, it usually ends up looking like a bit of a fail*.
*Word of the Year, 2009.
27 October 2015
When we create a brand’s tone of voice, we make sure it can be used across all channels of communication. We’re talking everything from billboards to text messages, national ad campaigns to internal company presentations. We believe that across-the-board consistency shows people you’re a brand who really understands their core values – and this makes it far easier for a consumer to trust you.
So naturally, we were super interested in the fallout following Airbnb’s recent campaign flop – particularly in the way their use of tone played a major part in the backlash.
But… this isn’t the first time Airbnb have stumbled over their own tone.
Check out these tweets posted earlier in the year.
As you’d expect, they were followed by these suitably twitter-y responses:
The tweets were part of Airbnb’s “Is Mankind” campaign – based around the idea that hosts are kind, relatable people who enjoy having guests stay in their homes. There’s nothing wrong with the idea – but the execution? A little on the creepy side.
The problem with trying too hard.
Not long after, Airbnb Australia and Westpac collaborated on what was, as Mumbrella appropriately names it, “Twitter’s lamest brand moment of 2015”. Both companies teamed up online to launch a campaign targeted at Australian homeowners. It involves Westpac giving away $250 Airbnb vouchers, while simultaneously using the promotion to advertise their home loan packages.
This is how the ‘conversation’ starts…
And then this spontaneous light-bulb moment from Westpac.
And it keeps on going…
Not surprisingly, people couldn’t handle it. Here’s one of many responses.
Get real or go home – it sums it up perfectly. An authentic collaboration undercut by an inauthentic delivery.
When tone of voice misses the mark.
This brings us to Airbnb’s latest tonal mishap. Their recent ad campaign in San Francisco was created in response to Proposition F; a public vote that would see heavy restrictions imposed on the use of Airbnb in the city – and effectively – reduced tax revenue (their angle). But the ads have been labelled as ‘tone-deaf‘ and ‘passive-aggressive‘. The company has even apologised, ditching the campaign completely and explaining it was inconsistent with their fundamental values.
Given that San Francisco is in the middle of an affordable-housing crisis – and the fact that Airbnb only started paying hotel taxes in the city this year – it’s no surprise people reacted so strongly. It was a problematic idea, aggravated by a problematic tone of voice – or perhaps a lack of understanding about what their tone of voice really is.
To put things in perspective.
Airbnb is a relatively young company. They’re also a game-changer in the travel and housing industries, so it might be a while before they really nail their communications. They’ve worked to carve out a unique space with their language… but what they need is the consistency to back it up.
Having a tone of voice that seamlessly gels with a brand’s core values is vital. Not only does it help shape the way they communicate, but also enforces realness and consistency. Language is an important tool in a brand’s inventory. But knowing how and why to use it is just as important.
And if you’re reading this? We can help.
29 September 2015
“The tone and language of social business are most effective when they’re casual and human.”
Hinchcliffe & Kim – Social Business by Design, First Edition.
It’s a simple quote, but one we stand behind. If you haven’t heard of XXVI, we’re a ten-year-old brand voice (verbal identity/tone of voice, whatever you know it as) agency, who have been working our hardest to create unique, easy-to-implement brand voices for brands across Australia… and beyond.
When we look at what a brand writes during brand voice development, we’ve always considered social media.
But recently, we’ve developed a whole language strategy, training tools, and guidelines around it.
Well, the reality is, social language can be as confusing and cold as language comes – and often a stale, robotic, jargon-heavy recognition of the poster’s feedback.
It’s more common than you’d think – just check out some of your favourite brands’ social media posts. Look for their content, and their customer service. Does it sound like the same brand?
That brings us to this morning – imagine our surprise when we see Woolworths responding to a lighthearted post, in an equally lighthearted way… with a stunning grocery parody on Eminem’s Lose Yourself.
This morning we observed how well it was doing at 2,000-odd likes. And as of 5pm? It’s up to 89,062 likes and over 10,000 shares.
Not from a paid or sponsored post. Or because of a promotion.
All because a guy posted some Eminem lyrics on Woolworths’ facebook page, and they responded in the same way. It’s been shared thousands of times, and has people tagging their friends and family to come and see – ultimately – that Woolworths and the people responding to you on their social media actually do have a personality, and actually are there to talk to ‘you’ as an individual.
This is human. It’s meeting your customer. And it’s genuinely having fun with your social media.
And more than anything else? You don’t only have one shot, to borrow a lyric. Brands can find these opportunities to have a great conversation every day – which a brand voice should be doing in the first place.
Associate Director of Brand Language
16 September 2015
According to sources (aka Google), it was the 14th century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta who first remarked, ‘travelling – it leaves you speechless, and then it turns you into a storyteller’. And he certainly had a point.
For as long as people have had the guts to set off into the great unknown, travel – both as an idea and as a practice – has been associated with the creating of stories. The places you see, the adventures you have, the experiences you’ll never forget (and the ones you might regret) – they’re all part of the tale.
So with storytelling so entrenched in the DNA of their industry, the copywriter in me got to thinking – how have travel brands embraced tone of voice? How are they telling their story to audiences?
As timing would have it, I’d just begun planning a trip of my own, which made it the perfect time start a conversation with a whole bunch of brands in the travel industry – and see how they spoke back.
First off, it was time to build an itinerary. And where better to start than the go-to resource for getting more familiar with the whole wide world – Lonely Planet.
As I traversed Europe via Lonely Planet’s website, it didn’t take long to get a sense for their brand voice. As you might expect, Lonely Planet speak like a travel addict – the weathered wanderer who’s been everywhere, and seen everything. They’ve got permanent wanderlust – and with their knack for making every single place on earth sound like the greatest destination you’ve never been to, they do a pretty great job of inspiring that wanderlust in their audience as well. Why just visit Norway when you could visit their ‘fabulous fjords, seemingly chipped to jagged perfection by giants’? Hyperbolic, sure – but pretty exciting. I was sold.
So now that I knew I wanted to hike the aforementioned fabulous fjords, it was time to find someone more experienced and far less clumsy to make sure I didn’t get lost in the Norwegian wilderness. And as I stumbled onto G Adventures’ website, it turns out that they didn’t just know their way around a trip, but around brand voice as well.
They sounded carefree, adventurous, and even a little cheeky – as evidenced in little touches like the one below:
Their brand voice even had enough charm to make a website crash an endearing opportunity to show off their personality – as opposed to an inconvenience.
Next up? Time to book flights. I decided to go with STA Travel. As I searched for the right flight, I also found that their brand voice was less concerned with using language to paint extravagant pictures of far-off places – but using human, down-to-earth language to make travel seem accessible to everyone. But no less fun, of course. And when I forked out my hard-earned copywriter’s cash to book that ticket overseas, it sounded like STA were just as excited as I was.
Planning a holiday is fun. Planning a holiday with brands that share the same sense of adventure and love of travel is even more fun. That’s why it was so great to see a sizable chunk of the travel industry using words to paint stories that Ibn Battuta would be proud of.
(And if it’s time your brand did the same, maybe we can help? We’re not always off hiking in Norway).
20 July 2015
I was on holidays in the UK recently – purely for leisure, not work – but as those in the industry may attest to, it’s hard not to notice other writers’ work when you happen to do that sort of thing for a living.
So through my journeys on the tube, my offensively expensive retail therapy (thanks exchange rates), and general big city observations about town, I couldn’t help but notice a bit of a difference in the way we’re speaking to our audiences.
And in honour of the Ashes being held… what, nowish? It’s as good a time as any to have this conversation.
Observation one: Brits enjoy a good naming job.
I’m not sure you’d find many people willing to admit they’re the ‘Blockage Boy’, but that said, it’s kind of endearing. But look, despite this brilliance, with names like ‘Mr Flow’, ‘Drain Master’, and ‘Plumbing Detective’ here in Sydney, we’re still playing in the punny plumbing department.
Observation two: Brits know how to do humour in a PSA.
It’s a simple message: telling people that misleading advertising isn’t on. And this ad shows just how to get a message across in a way that doesn’t just make a point, but makes you want to play cards with Irene.
So, what’s our Ad Standards group saying?
Nothing too funny. But we do have a super concerned lady making a complaint to some happy people, so that’s always nice.
It does make you see there are opportunities to have fun with your advertising if you’re willing. Even if you’re the people who end up reviewing them.
Observation three: Brits aren’t afraid to be blunt.
There’s quite a serious campaign going on at the moment for Gatwick Airport to get a new runway. It’s a huge, quite political (as is my understanding) battle between major airports, and at the time, this advertising material was pretty much on every train and at a few tube stations.
What got me though, was the tagline.
It’s about as close to “Gatwick, duh!” as you’re going to get. But I’ve got to say, without weighing in on any debates I don’t know enough to be a part of, it’s a pretty compelling campaign. Especially with the more conservative campaign Heathrow was running with.
And observation four: British barbers are kind of creepy.
Speaks for itself really.
So with the right mix of creepiness, bluntness and humour, it seems the Brits really do have more fun when it comes to advertising. And with that in mind, how can we encourage our brands to cast off the worry during the sign off process and nudge the limits a little more?
Food for thought. Obviously.
Associate Director of Brand Language
13 July 2015
We all know what it is. We all know what it sounds like. It’s been on our radar for a while now, and it seems like we’re starting to recognise just how unproductive corporate jargon can be. Vague terms like “core competency”, relentlessly hyphenated words like “buy-in”, and blatantly misused ones like “leverage”, are all trends that have seen their day. But corporate jargon isn’t gone, it’s just getting a face-lift – and that face-lift looks exactly like the word “innovate”.
At its core, it’s actually a pretty great word.
The Google definition of innovate reads: “make changes to something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas or products”. So yeah, it’s essentially what every company on the planet is trying to do all the time. Anyone worth their salt in business knows that to stay relevant, you’ve got to stay ahead of the game. So what are they doing? Well, they’re “innovating” – or so they say.
But what’s happening to the meaning of the word?
It’s so overused that slowly, slowly, “innovate” seems to be losing its definition. I hate to see it go, but as a copywriter trying her darndest to help companies cut the bullshit, I feel like it might be time to say my goodbyes. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a wonderful word, and when used to describe actual innovation it’s spot on. But problems arise when buzzwords start to take the place of meaning or action. Let’s be clear, talking about innovation isn’t innovation, and it’s not innovative either when it seems like everyone’s doing it.
So for many of us, it’s time for a new approach.
It’s time to take the word out of the equation and figure out what we’re left with. Maybe you want a more interactive internal culture? Maybe it’s about changing the way you’re perceived in the marketplace? Or maybe it’s all about breakthrough technology? Whatever it is, taking the time to understand exactly what it is you’re looking to change or advance is far more beneficial than slapping a vaguely defined word on it.
So from me, it’s a goodbye for now – but hopefully not forever.
29 June 2015
Our blog serves a few purposes. We use it to explore our ideas, provide commentary on language trends we’re seeing, and hopefully make you smile, once in a while.
But it’s my hope that these blog entries, if nothing else, give you a few pointers that will improve your writing.
So it’s with that in mind that I present you with one tip that will make a big difference to whatever you write, regardless of what industry you’re in. Are you ready for it? Okay, here it is:
Yes. That’s it. It’s not a metaphor. I mean it very literally, as in ‘take air into your lungs, and then expel it’.
This is no secret. From yoga to archery, taking a slow, conscious breath is recognised as the best way to shed distractions and focus your mind – so you can give your undivided attention to the task at hand.
It’s dead simple – and yet, we can see the lack of conscious thought in most of the writing we encounter in our day-to-day lives.
Here, let me show you what I mean.
We were recently asked to rewrite some copy that proposed strategies to “add value to the customer”.
Now, I want you to take a slow, deep breath… and then think about what those words really mean. Don’t just glaze over them, as I’m sure you (very understandably) want to. Really consider them.
Because, unless you’re selling your customers on the black market and bumping up the sale price by bedazzling their noggins with gemstones, you can’t add value to a customer.
So how is it possible to misuse five really simple words?
I suspect that it’s the fault of a corporate culture where people use buzzwords and jargon to mask a lack of understanding. They’re not stopping to consider what the words they’re using actually mean.
We’re creating a workforce that can’t see the trees for the forest.
(That one was a metaphor.)
In this modern world, we’re also seeing people get so excited by their ideas that they’re accidentally letting clearly incorrect phrases slip into their work.
Time for another example. Try to spot the mistake here:
“You need to show the customer the real value of what we can offer. You do that by word power, which generates the right pictures in the mind of your customer.”
You do that by word power? As best I can tell, that’s just a very strange (but impressively concise!) way of saying ‘you do that by making a convincing argument’.
But that’s not the wrong part. You wouldn’t do it by word power. You’d do it with word power. I can certainly understand the creative urge to reinvent the term ‘talking’… but in a professional document, you need to nail the grammar basics too.
It’s probably more important than you think.
Recognising and preventing these issues isn’t about pedantry, or conformity. It’s about being able to communicate your ideas effectively… because whether it’s personally or professionally, being misunderstood can really sting.
Especially when it’s avoidable.
So, yes, the issues in the first two examples weren’t huge barriers to clear communication (at least in isolation). But I’ve got one last example for you that will demonstrate how these thoughtless choices can snowball, leaving you with something nearly indecipherable.
“Going forward, the focus will be on tilting our online team capabilities to serving our customers (while maintaining appropriate risk and governance standards), rather than ‘service’, and operationalising a ‘leads hub’ to ensure customer discussions occur in the best channel on the social media spectrum.”
Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to spot the problems in that. But I do want you to do one thing for me: next time you’re about to put your fingers to a keyboard – stop. Breathe. Think.
Because you shouldn’t just settle for being heard.
You deserve to be understood.
16 June 2015
Tactical, price-based advertising copy is generally pretty dire in this country.
The words ‘Cheap Cheap’, ‘May Madness’, ‘Sizzling Summer Specials’, and ‘Harvey Norman’ send small shivers down the spine.
So it’s nice to see price ads that put away the megaphone from time to time.
Like this ad from health insurer ahm.
It’s nothing fancy. But it gets across its price message very clearly, without shouting, and with a wry smile.
I like the gentle dig at those ads that tell us if we only gave up one coffee a day then we could afford to go to the gym/sponsor a child in Africa/lease a new car/put a deposit on a house. I mean really, how many coffees do these people think we drink?
Aldi’s another brand that’s found a way to focus on price without resorting to hysteria. Their ads are fun, funny and single minded. They don’t even need to use an oversized finger to make their point.
It’s another reminder that it’s possible to tell the world about your cheap (really really cheap) product or service without even having to raise your voice.
28 April 2015
28 April 2015
28 April 2015
It’s coming up on three months now since I joined the XXVI team as a Junior Writer.
I’ve always been a writer in some way, shape, or form, but writing for XXVI has been a completely new experience. Understanding the way brand voice works – and learning how to adapt language so that it suits these unique voices – has been a challenge that I’ve loved tackling.
But there are also some more general lessons I’ve learnt about the art of copywriting – lessons that all budding copywriters can (and should) learn from. It doesn’t matter if it’s an email, a sign in the window or a blog on your company’s website, here are the five things XXVI has taught me about working with the written word.
Simple is better.
It’s been said before. And it’ll be said again. But it’s the most important lesson I’ve learnt so far. A friend recently gave me her first ever university essay to look over. The newbie copywriter in me quickly stepped in – and I found myself splitting sentences, replacing big ‘smart’ words with small simple ones, and ruthlessly cutting anything that was unnecessary. After giving the essay what can only be described as an exorcism, I returned the simplified work to its author. Much to my relief, she was ecstatic. “You’ve made me sound so smart,” she laughed. So by making things simpler, I had made them sound smarter? Funny that.
People write, people read.
Unless you’re writing a personal journal (and even then, you’re not entirely safe), you’re writing for a person – a customer, a client, an employee, a someone. We talk to people every day, so why do we struggle so much when we have to write to them? For some reason, it’s become commonplace to change everything about the way we communicate as soon as we put it into text. ‘Just to let you know’ becomes ‘We are writing to inform you’ and ‘If you need help with anything else’ becomes ‘For more information’. But it doesn’t have to be this way! If you screwed up, why not just say ‘oops’ and then ‘sorry’? If you’re excited about something, be excited. And if you need something, just ask for it. It’s about being honest, straightforward and understanding – and if you feel like a twat saying something out loud, don’t write it down.
Language should be fun.
Information isn’t boring. In fact, it should be the opposite. The way information is presented makes it boring. So make it interesting instead.
It sounds simple because it is simple – it’s changing your mindset that’s the hard part. Why do terms and conditions have to be unbearably long and tedious? The answer is they don’t. Why aren’t you allowed to make a joke? Well, you are. Have fun with language! It’s not as boring as the corporate universe would have us believe.
You’ll never write anything that’s perfect for everyone.
Someone recently asked in one of our workshops if it’s really a good idea to address customers by their first name in a letter, since some older people might find it disrespectful. This is a dangerous way of thinking, and it’s made way for a lot of the empty jargon we see in copy today. Being too cautious might mean you have copy that no one could possibly find remotely offensive, but it also means you’ll have copy that no one could possibly find remotely interesting. So take a chance, use a name, be relatable.
It’s more than just a necessary by-product of running a business. What you say and how you say it is so important. You can contribute to the background noise, or start to connect with people instead. You can tell people things, or start a conversation with them.
And good copy catches on. As soon as you discover the difference for yourself, it’s hard to look back.
20 April 2015
Your alarm goes off. It’s shrill, an unwanted cry from reality to remind you that yes, even though you had a few too many wines last night, it’s time to get to it. It’s time to face the day.
You sit at the table, eating your bland, dry cereal. You stare at the box, and it stares back – giving you nothing, except your recommended dietary intake. And if the sugar content is any indication, you’re off to a bad start.
After that, it’s time to brave the public transport. Looking over a sea of disgruntled commuters, you see signs from your local Public Transport Authority. They’re abrupt, full of rules – and the threats of fines if you don’t pay your fare, leave your bag on the seat, sneeze too loudly, etc. You probably should’ve walked.
During the day, you receive an email from your bank. That credit card you applied for? You got it – but by the time you finished sifting through a sea of jargon, cross-promotion and Ts and Cs, any sense of excitement had well and truly left the building.
The day continues like that – more of the same, less of anything remotely interesting. Plenty of people with products to push – but no sense that they’re speaking to you directly. That’s how it goes – and you’ll do it all again tomorrow. Kind of bleak, right?
Well, what if it went a little more like this…
Your alarm goes off. It’s shrill, an unwanted cry from reality to remind you that yes, even though you had a few too many wines last night, it’s time to get to it. It’s time to face the day.
(Okay, not a great start. Bear with us.)
You sit at the table, eating your cereal, staring at the box. It doesn’t just stare back – it speaks to you, telling you a charming little story about just how great your day can be if you start it off on the right note. About how you deserve to enjoy your morning – and the morning after that, too. And you know what? You believe it.
Next, it’s time to brave the public transport. You’re yawning your way through the morning train ride, when you notice a sign from the Public Transport Authority. Sure, it still has a point to make – you should be paying your fare. But it’s cheeky. It has personality. And while you might not be asking any of your grumpy commuters out any time soon, you’d certainly shout whoever wrote that sign a drink.
During the day, you receive an email from your bank. That credit card you applied for? You got it! And if the email from your bank is any indication, they’re just as excited as you are. It’s the sort of good news that you’re happy to share in – and you’re grinning from ear to ear. Your cereal box would be stoked. They did say they wanted you to have a good day, after all.
Imagine a whole day continuing just like that. You’re doing what you’ve always done – but along the way, those ordinary interactions you have with brands and organisations make you think, or feel, or smile, or even laugh out loud. Much better, right?
This is what brand voice is. This is what brand voice does. What it can do.
Even if it’s just the packaging on your product, the way you communicate important info, or the letters you send to your customers, using genuine, human language is a real opportunity to connect with your audience.
It’s how Bingle have managed to make car insurance fun. It’s why speaking to customers differently from the other banks has made a huge difference for NAB. And it’s how Optus has changed the way the big TelCos talk.
Whatever it is that you’re doing, don’t forget – it’s those little things your brand says that can have the biggest impact.
So go ahead. Make someone’s day. And who knows? You might just make a brand new brand advocate out of them, too.
13 April 2015
Naming. Ask any professional writer about it and chances are they’ll smile nicely, but shudder at the same time. Why? Because naming a product, service or entity is a bit like trying to name someone else’s baby. And no matter how well intentioned, or clever, or phonetically beautiful – chances are that name ain’t ever going to be something a writer in a studio comes up with.
Naming is both a creative and legal process. And an extraordinarily fickle one.
The reason is disarmingly simple; names signify meaning on an individual, subjective basis rather than an objective one. When I hear the name ‘Frank’ for example, I still wince – a guy with that name bullied me for 5 years at high school. Conversely, your favourite cousin might be called Frank – and you may well have far more positive associations with the name. Sigh.
Words can signify different things to different people, based on their individual experience and memory. Little wonder then, that more often than not, people just can’t agree on that name. You know, the one.
The process of naming is actually an enjoyable creative one for the writer. We check things like phonetics (does the name sound nice?) searchability (would someone be able to find this on Google?), personality (does it reflect the brand?), and of course, availability.
Which neatly brings us to the legal bit. Although we do some basic checking to see if your chosen name is available (Company Name, Trademark and URL if appropriate), it’s really important to engage an IP lawyer for an opinion. It can save an awful lot of money (and time) later.
At any time in the process, there’s an invariable disappointment and grumpy client bemoaning as follows, ‘All I want is ONE name! Just come up with something… brilliant!’.
(Which is akin to asking a designer to come up ‘with a colour I LOVE. Just come up with something… brilliant!’)
So here’s our top 5 things to consider when naming.
1) Not everyone has to actually like the name.
We make it a condition of our naming service that the name answers a defined brief, rather than the whims of the CEO’s wife. (We’re not kidding. After 200 suggestions and 3 rounds of sign-off from the entire marketing department of one major client, the CEO’s wife said that very night that she ‘hated it’ and killed an entire 2-month, $25,000 project stone dead right there.)
2) Make the product or service worthy to begin with.
A good name won’t fix a crappy product. But a bad name can break a really good one.
3) Latin names are so last Millenium. Because cringe.
Oh puleasssse. Cui bono.
4) Try before you buy
Live with your name for a few days. Imagine it on your business card. In a newspaper article. Being pronounced over the phone. Or being spoken about at a barbeque. You’re going to live with this name for quite a long time probably. So make it count. And make sure you love it.
5) Make it look beautiful.
Once you’ve got a name you like, spend the time (and money) bringing it to life through the eyes of a graphic designer. Font. Colour. Size. Legibility. Scale (it’s going to look different on an app compared to a billboard). All of these things are important and should be professionally considered.
Naturally, this isn’t a how-to guide – that’s another post altogether. But given time, an open mind and a fair bit of investment, chances are you’ll get a name you’re really pleased with.
(That said, if your parents are Kim Kardashian and Kayne West, don’t come running to us to fix it. We’re looking at you North West.)
Group Director & Founder
30 March 2015
‘Where brands meet people’. That’s the XXVI tagline. We work with our clients to unwind the damage done by corporate jargon and soulless expression, to help them speak like people.
A lot of that work is specific to the client (people are unique, after all), but much of it is universal. Because, as much as we are unique, we’re also bound together by a universal way of communicating. One that’s so ingrained in us that it developed independently in every corner of the world that people gathered: humans communicate using stories.
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing The Iliad or a letter to customers about a branch closure – you need to able to spin a good yarn.
Don’t worry: there’s an easy guide.
Stories have a universal structure. Joseph Campbell called this ‘The Hero’s Journey’. But the stripped down, easy-to-use description I prefer was laid out by writer Dan Harmon. He identifies these steps:
- A character is in a zone of comfort…
- …but they want something.
- They enter an unfamiliar situation.
- They adapt to it.
- They find what they wanted…
- …but it comes at a price.
- They return to where they started…
- …having changed.
And that’s the formula for every story, right there – from Much Ado About Nothing, to that ‘crazy’ pub story your Dad won’t stop telling, to Die Hard.
In fact, Die Hard’s a corker of an example, so let’s use it to break down the story formula and write a corporate communications piece – in this case, an electricity disconnection letter.
Step 1: A character is in a zone of comfort…
Die Hard: John McClane’s plane touches down in LA.
The letter: Hello Holly,
That’s all we need to do establish that the protagonist of our letter is the reader. Identifying that it’s for them grabs their attention, and they’ll instinctively know that we will try to remove them from their zone of comfort and inspire them to act.
Step 2: …but they want something. + Step 3: They enter an unfamiliar situation.
Die Hard: John McClane yearns to reconnect with his estranged wife (his want), but the tower they’re in is seized by terrorists (the unfamiliar situation).
The letter: Headline – We’re about to disconnect your electricity.
The reader’s in an unfamiliar situation – they’re about to have no electricity, and the unwritten but obvious want is to not lose their electricity. We need to introduce that as soon as we possibly can, to get the story kickin’ – so it’s best to stick it straight in the headline.
Don’t try and soften the blow by being vague (with something like ‘Regarding your electricity account’). This doesn’t present new information, so it’s not engaging, and you risk losing them right from the start – a failure of your duty to communicate. Remember, nobody would remember Die Hard if John McClane arrived at Nakatomi Plaza at minute 55 film of the film.
Even if they do keep reading your letter past a vague headline, when they find out about the disconnection a few seconds later, they’ll only be miffed you weren’t upfront. It’s a high risk/no reward choice.
Step 4: They adapt to it.
Die Hard: John McClane manages to hide for a time, but soon has to go on the offensive against the terrorists.
The letter: We’ve tried contacting you several times about the $1,998 you have outstanding on your account. But since we haven’t heard back, we’re going to have to disconnect your property’s electricity on Saturday 24 December.
If this happens, having your energy reconnected will incur a $140.70 fee – so it’s important that you get in touch and pay your outstanding bills before this date.
Our reader gets off easier than John, since you’ve done the hard yards by presenting them with all the information they need to adapt to the situation (the who, what, when and where, as succinctly as possible).
This is when the action of the film is rising – so you should be showing how dire (or great, if it’s good news!) the reader’s situation is. Both because they deserve to know, and because they need to be motivated to act.
Step 5: They find what they wanted… + Step 6: …but it comes at a price.
Die Hard: John’s now in a situation where he can prove how much he loves his wife (both to her, and to himself), by heroically facing almost certain death to save her from Hans Gruber’s men.
The letter: Subhead – Call us now to stop the disconnection.
There’s still time to avoid being disconnected. All you need to do is call our Billing Team to pay your bill over the phone or discuss the payment plan options that are available to you. They’re available anytime between 8am and 8pm weekdays on 02 9999 7777.
We hope to hear from you soon,
Our reader is in a similar situation to John: they’re in a bad spot, but they’ve been given a chance to overcome it. And the only price they have to pay to get what they want (electricity) is $1,998.
Step 7: They return to where they started… + Step 8: …having changed.
Die Hard: Having dramatically overcome Hans Gruber and his men, John McClane returns to his much more pedestrian life – but now, he’s reunited with his wife.
The letter: <Nothing!>
If you’ve done your job, the letter has inspired the reader to act, and they’ll now take care of steps 7 and 8 themselves – they’ll take action to change their circumstance (by paying their bill, in this instance), and return to their lives having changed. This is something most marketing and communications people understand: you should end with a Call to Action (Joseph Campbell called it a ‘Call to Adventure’), and leave the ending up to the protagonist.
Die Hard also shows us that, once the protagonist has faced their challenge, the story should wrap up fast. It takes about four minutes to go from Hans’ defenestration to the closing credits. Compare that to the ending(s) of the last Lord of the Rings movie.
So don’t end with a spiel about how much you appreciate them being a customer, or what other services you offer. They need to gun down Hans Gruber and rescue their wives, man. Don’t bog down the story.
Your turn, cowboy (or cowgirl).
So what did John teach us? To make sure your next comms piece is clear and engaging, follow basic story structure, and power through it as fast as you can. Y’know, like a cowboy. Yippee ki-yay.
9 March 2015
It’s a funny thing, social media.
It’s a source of constant conversation (read: heated debate) between people in branding and advertising. We’re often hearing arguments for and against its effectiveness. How is it making us money? How do we correctly measure it? And how many likes did that hilarious meme we designed get?
But who’s focusing on the language?
Actually, we are.
One of the biggest issues with many of today’s social media teams is that they’re so big, varied, and serve such different purposes – all through multiple channels. You’ve got customer service. Proactive sales. Tech support. Content. Media. The list goes on.
But even if you do the world’s best brand voice workshop (#humblebrag) and have your social media team do all the training in the world, all it takes is for a few brand voice rules to be broken, a few new starters to start manning the keyboards, and a few logins to be shared before the game is ruined for everyone.
You know the drill.
Someone from Corporate Affairs has been told to tweet something quickly. The social team has to send a response to an irate customer to legal for approval. The CEO is particularly controlling and needs to see every tweet (we’ve heard a real-life account of this happening.) Suddenly, every person in the business has access to your social media accounts, and they’re all talking in a different way.
It can be a little confusing – and all of a sudden, we’re out of the security and consistency of a brand voice and we’re into every socialite for themselves.
Have a look at this. It’s a major Australian brand, Woolworths, that has a massive number of followers on their Facebook page – and undoubtedly a huge number of posts to respond to each day.
Here are three examples of customer service responses from them.
1. A standard, mass-produced response…
2. A slightly OTT, corporate-sounding response.
3. A warm, human, playful response.
In terms of inconsistency in social media language, it seems that customer service suffers most – and it’s understandable. People want to say the ‘right’ thing, are often pressed for time, and have rounds of sign offs to get through. But isn’t it really important if people like your brand after interacting with them? To us, that’s worth that 30 seconds extra to humanise your post a little.
(And for what it’s worth? Example #3 up there by far had the most positive response from the affected customer.)
We’re not by any means saying that more serious complaints shouldn’t be addressed with a more serious side of your personality. But that’s why your personality traits should be flexible enough to work in any situation. The mistake that’s often made, is that ‘serious’ means reverting to cold corporate jargon to express your authenticity.
But, I’ll leave you with this observation. There’s something in the fact that people invite you into their personal news feeds as a brand when they like, follow or subscribe to you on social media. How often are you on your phone? How many platforms are you subscribed to? I’d guess you know your stuff if you’re reading this – and I’ll bet that you like at least one brand on your Facebook.
So why did you choose to follow them?
The overarching answer is you want to hear from them, or have access to them when you need it.
So isn’t it better if they speak to you the way you speak to them?
Since brand voice is at the heart of everything we do, we believe that once a brand has a defined personality, they need to carry it through to every. Single. Word. They. Say.
Even when it’s a response to a request for more cheese and bacon.
Associate Director of Brand Language
2 March 2015
D’oh. Bugger. Shit. Crap. Sorry.
They’re the sorts of words we’re all guilty of using when life doesn’t go to plan.
Poke yourself in the eye. Drop a tub of yoghurt on the kitchen floor. Lose your weekly wage on the pokies. They’re all things that happen to real people, every day. And when it happens to you? All you want to do is swear and curse and kick the wall, and then apologise to all those around you with a liberal use of the word sorry.
So if that’s the simple, direct and concise reaction we have as everyday people when things go wrong, why do businesses make the business of bad news so complicated? Why can’t they just act normal – and even without the swearing, say something that makes them just a little bit real?
Here we shine a light on the five most common problems we see when businesses are forced to tell the world some bad news:
1. They forget who they are
Businesses love good news. It lets them show how fun and happy and helpful they are, and how much they ‘get’ their audiences. More often than not, this is the side of the brand that a consumer – or even an employee – signs up to.
But what happens when that same brand has to hassle their customer about paying a bill, tell them their flight’s been delayed, or fire a few hundred of their back office staff? Few companies are able to do it while staying true to their brand.
While most of us are aware of the ups and downs of life, it still seems to come as a surprise to brands when bad things happen. So instead of making sensible use of pre-defined personality attributes that give them the stretch to engage with bad news in a positive way, they’re left floundering without guidance.
And where do they turn? It’s always the lawyers.
2. Getting the lawyers involved
Here’s a rule every brand should follow. When you have bad news to share, don’t call your suit-wearing buddies down the hall in the legal department. With class actions and regulators and ‘reputational issues’ to consider, in-house legal teams are a guaranteed bad news nightmare. Never forget how much five years of university can do to complicate a very simple process.
Mind you, it’s easy to blame lawyers for the poor state of business language. But in 2015, it also seems like a cheap cop-out when brand, marketing and comms teams wield their fair share of power in most organisations. The truth is, very few brands – or people within those brands – are brave enough to do something different in this space when it’s easier (and safer) for them to just dump it in the lap of the in-house legal team.
Which leads us to our next problem.
3. Let’s get complicated
When things go bad, you’d naturally think a company would prefer to say less rather than more. Surely it’s safer that way, isn’t it?
More often than not, businesses can’t stop themselves talking. Once they’ve half-explained the failings in their ATM or mobile network, then they tend to do it all again using a different set of terrible words. The worst thing is, very few of those words are actually ‘sorry’.
You see, once lawyers get involved the word ‘sorry’ becomes loaded with all sorts of terrible connotations, and may well be responsible for the end of the earth as we know it. But in the absence of sorry, it gets very hard to say what needs to be said – leading you down a dangerous path of talking in obscure corporate wankery.
Announcing a ‘deep dive’ into problems in a major business division might seem like action to those on the inside, but to everyone else it’s complete and utter bullshit.
4. It’s not personal
Or is it? These days most brands pride themselves on their ability to speak not as a corporate monolith, but as real people. Some are more successful at this than others, as the following extract from a 2012 Queensland public service agency redundancy script demonstrates:
Firstly I’d like to explain why you do not have a role in the new structure. Following the change in structure, it was determined you were not the most capable person for the available role. I know you have made a significant contribution to the department and have done some good work, but unfortunately there were other individuals who were deemed to be more suitable.
There’s no more personal interaction than telling someone they’ve just lost their job – unless you’re an enormous government department.
5. Try to sell your way out of trouble
A client of ours once found out they’d been charging their customers hundreds and thousands of dollars for a product they never signed up for. When the company discovered the mistake, they sent out a long, complex and far from genuine letter that had a strangled apology buried deep in the third paragraph. That’s completely expected corporate behaviour.
The real kick in the nuts came at the end of it all, when they tried to flog that same product back to the customer who’d just been getting gouged. It’s the sort of thinking that can only happen in a big business, where bad ideas fester in a terrible ‘group-think’ environment, and no one stops to question the sanity of the decisions being made.
Finding the good in bad
There’s no doubt that most businesses operate in a complex and difficult environment, when saying the wrong thing can make doing the wrong thing even worse.
But at the end of the day, your customers and employees aren’t stupid. So if you have bad news to share, you’re best to get it done in the most authentic way possible.
Sometimes that means you just have to say it straight.
We fucked up.
Director of Brand Language
15 February 2015
This blog came about in response to recent articles about Wikipedia’s ‘Grammar Warrior’.
XXVI Group Director Scott weighed in with his opinion first, before Principals’ strategist Ed Elias replied in defence of grammar.
The argument against grammar
I should acknowledge this upfront – I don’t care much for grammar. Like Stephen Fry I think it IS the realm of pedants.
However, I do think a very (very) basic understanding of grammar is useful. Primarily as a framework for the language you need to learn in primary school, rather than any form of adult pedantry point scoring. I think a bare-bones grasp of grammar is entirely good enough to function for a lifetime of good and sound communication.
Grammar pedants put too much emphasis on complex and irrelevant things; they have this weird fear that lack of grammar will destroy the first world and the entire canon of English literature. It’s plain silly. (While all the time doing nothing about people getting their heads chopped off in the Middle East. “Ooooh did you see how badly written that ISIS death threat was? Terrible…the subjunctive verb structure was just plain wrong!”)
Relatively speaking, most people couldn’t give a shit about grammar. And I doubt it has affected their lives in ANY way. I don’t think that’s ignorance. I think it’s because grammar became rooted in a system of class, dominance and those able to afford a good education. Grammar made itself irrelevant to people, rather the other way around. But that’s another thesis…
People who are obsessed with the correct use of grammar should, of course, deploy it in all their personal communications if they so wish. (In the same way that my guests who smoke can do so outside on the patio with the windows closed. Preferably in the rain.) But maybe just quietly, rather than give themselves high blood pressure over the fact that a past participle has appeared in the wrong place. (I secretly love it when they get angry too! A writer of ours once slammed the office door and walked out one afternoon… over an argument about singular collective nouns. He was technically correct, but it sounded clunky and unnatural. So common sense won the day. Client loved it. Nobody cared.)
Honestly, it would be like seeing the timeless majesty of the Grand Canyon for the first time and then coming away entirely disappointed… because you spotted a non-native weed.
Another good comparison might be architecture. The Classical system (the ‘laws of good architecture’) was around for thousands of years. But if we still stuck to the ‘established rules’, we would never have had Gehry, Corbusier, Hadid, or Utzon’s Opera House for that matter. Yes the ‘grammar and vernacular’ is an important part of the narrative history of architecture. But it’s barely even used or referred to today, and definitely isn’t by those architects. And the same should be true for language.
I actually feel sorry for grammarians. (Is that a word?)
I also think, while I’m on a roll, that the broad use of formal grammar will be completely redundant – a fossilised relic of language – within our lifetime. It’s already half-dead. Barely anyone knows or cares for it.
It won’t go away altogether mind you. But it will definitely change (especially as technology does).
And you know what? As someone who writes for a living, that doesn’t even sadden me in the slightest. It means we’ll have new forms of language written in new ways for a new generation of readers and writers (‘MileyCyrese’ anyone?)
Language is a living thing. As long as human beings are alive, language will flourish. But it will be made and remade in many many different forms. With many different ‘grammars’.
I just hope we don’t inherit a new breed of navel gazers with it.
Group Director & Founder
In defence of grammar
I agree that sticking rigidly to grammar for its own sake is the realm of pedants. (Admittedly, a realm I sometimes enter.) Languages change as they develop and flourish, and that’s exciting: new words and new ways of saying things are often to be admired rather than rejected. No one has a problem with the words Shakespeare invented.
But a disdain for ‘grammar’ is used too often to excuse poor use of words and phrases. In this way, using language in a way that is interesting, thoughtful, or intuitive – ‘To boldly go’ or ‘humblebrag’ – get dragged down to the level of ‘must of’, ‘literally’ (not literally) and errant apostrophes.
Even though error is a driver of language change, not all errors are to be commended or excused.
For example, I find it more difficult to read sentences where apostrophes are used wrongly. It jars, and I have to re-read the sentence to check I’ve understood it correctly. Also, when I come across that kind of mistake in published material, I think slightly less of the author (or editor). Not from snobbery, but rather a feeling that the writer didn’t care enough to take the time or energy to get it right. I would have the same reaction to a painter who leaves a splattered floor after painting a wall: they’ve done the job, but obviously didn’t feel their client was important enough for them to pay attention to detail.
The ‘Wikipedia warrior’ is spending literally thousands of hours correcting a single phrase. That’s pedantry to the max, and no doubt his time could be better spent elsewhere. But one of the reasons he gives for doing it is to make articles easier to read: ‘Many writers use ‘comprised of’ to intentionally make their sentences longer and more sophisticated. In these, a simple “of”, “is”, or “have” often produces an easier-to-read sentence. Example: “a team comprised of scientists” versus “a team of scientists”.’
If he’s trying to make language clearer, he’s to be (quietly) applauded. Now I just hope his next crusade is to stop people saying ‘myself’ and ‘yourself’ instead of ‘me’ and ‘you’ because they think it sounds clever.
Then he’ll be a true hero.
9 February 2015
When I’m introduced to an interesting new brand – through a great ad, or a striking piece of copy – I generally track down the terms and conditions.
Not because I’m particularly litigious. More because I’m interested in how far the company has been willing to take its brand voice. It’s one thing to produce a billboard with a playful turn of phrase, or a 30 second TVC with an inspirational sense of purpose. Much harder to embed that same personality across every piece of customer communication.
We take it for granted that a brand uses its logo, its colours, and the other bits of its visual identity consistently on every piece of communication – from an annual report to a promotional coffee mug.
But the idea that a brand’s voice should be just as consistent is only just gaining traction.
The thing is, a brand that’s funny, or intelligent, or thought provoking when you first meet it, but then straight-off-the-production-line boring every subsequent time you interact, lacks authenticity.
It’s like meeting someone hilarious and charming at a bar, only to find later that they were plastered and actually can’t hold a conversation sober.
There’s a distinct feeling you’ve been had.
Putting on a persona might be worth the risk on the dating scene, but it won’t work for your brand. The relationship you have with your customers is made up of hundreds of conversations. Once they discover you’re not actually who you say you are, or worse, that you’re just like the other brands, all that hard work (and money) you’ve spent on creating something unique is instantly undone.
A brand that can imbed its tone of voice across everything – above, below and through the line (and not just on the expensive TVC), is more believable; and the bond you create is much stronger.
It’s not easy. It requires a systematic review of every piece of communication. It involves guidelines and staff training. But above all it takes commitment and conviction.
Which brings us back to terms and conditions. My theory is if you’ve taken the time to re-write a piece of copy that hardly anyone will read, there’s a fair chance you’ve got every other piece of communication already sorted.
In other words, if you’ve confronted sentences beginning with ‘notwithstanding’ or ‘aforementioned’, you’ve no doubt already tackled the emails, signage and web pages that your customers read, but which are often overlooked when brand voice is considered.
And if you’ve managed to convince your legal team of the value of clear, compelling English with a dash of personality, well, God knows you’ve already convinced the rest of the company.
22 December 2014
Well, there you have it. Another year, done and dusted.
On the language front, 2014 was anything but dull. Our esteemed Prime Minister gifted the nation with the word of the year (have you tried to ‘shirtfront’ anyone, yet?), while Oxford Dictionary HQ was busy adding ‘hot mess’ and ‘bae’ to their ever-growing repertoire.
And in writing agencies all over the world, copywriters were left scrambling to keep up – frantically looking up ‘humblebrag’ on Urban Dictionary, and wondering if ‘normcore’ was a new style of music.
So as we say goodbye to another year of trends and changes, it’s time to look ahead. To brace ourselves for what’s next.
Here are 5 predictions for the challenges copywriters will face in 2015:
1. With the rise and rise of digital juggernauts like Buzzfeed and Upworthy, all headlines will now need to be written in click-bait style, to ensure the best possible results for each campaign. Get ready to be punching out enticing phrases like this:
He just got a brand new phone plan. You won’t BELIEVE what happened next!
I didn’t know I needed a new car. Then I saw THIS.
2. After years of being called out by us copywriters for their stuffy, jargon-filled language, the corporate world will strike back with something new – post-jargon.
Gone are the days of ‘touching base’, ‘cascading the message’, or even ‘reaching out to stakeholders’. Instead, we’ll be finding our way around words and phrases like ‘enterprisynergy’ (What?) and ‘legalegalese’ (even the lawyers don’t understand it).
3. 90’s slang will be back in a big way – meaning products will now be described as being ‘radical’, ‘bodacious’, or ‘so sick, you’ll eat your shorts’. We hope you’ve held on to your light up sneakers!
(On a completely unrelated note, 90’s kids will become the year’s biggest spenders.)
4. In keeping with the spirit of 2015 being the official ‘Year of Light’, designers everywhere embrace the ‘Year of Light on Copy’. The less written about this, the better.
The designers agree.
5. Writing and branding agencies across the globe will go head-to-head for the biggest naming job of the year – Royal Baby Number Two. Commissioned by the Queen herself, the Royals will be looking for something that teams the nobility of the past with the excitement of the future. I’m pitching ‘Willizabeth’.
So there you have it. 2015 – it’s set to be amazeballs (or, you know, whatever next year’s equivalent is).
18 November 2014
In 1999 three mates set up a stall at a music festival in London.
Up for sale was a range of smoothies they’d been perfecting in their spare time (they all worked full-time in corporate jobs). To get some real-time feedback on their creations, they put up a sign asking festival goers whether they should quit their day jobs and make smoothies instead. There was a ‘Yes’ bin and a ‘No’ bin and punters were asked to vote with their empty cups. By the end of the day the ‘Yes’ bin was overflowing and Innocent Drinks was born.
There was a time when you could ask just about any Brit under the age of 50 about Innocent, and they’d not only tell you how much they loved the brand’s juices and smoothies, they’d also re-tell the story of how it all began. That simple, against-the-odds start-up story captured the imaginations of a public worn down by over-glossed corporate language. The brand was, and still is, a huge success.
It’s fair to say Innocent’s story is as important as the ingredients that go into its products. Brand stories work because they provide a connection to our own experiences (who hasn’t set up a dodgy stall selling home-made drinks before?) They add a human quality, reminding us that even the biggest brands are started by ordinary people. And because each brand’s tale is genuinely unique, they are one of the most effective ways of providing an enduring point of difference.
Stories are powerful because they are remembered and retold.
In an age when mainstream advertising channels are dying, that makes them more significant than ever. You’re much more likely to remember the story of an 18 year-old Carolyn Creswell buying out her employer for $1000, doing deliveries before uni lectures and growing Carman’s Muesli into a global brand, than the nutritional benefits of the company’s products, impressive as they may be.
And the media is always more willing to tell the interesting story of how a brand began, or changed or grew, than promote their latest sales promotion. Good stories spread, without the need for big marketing budgets.
Stories tie companies to their roots. Lonely Planet’s story of two daring young Brits, a beat up old car, an overland trip to Australia and a stapled-together guidebook written on a kitchen table, captures the adventurous spirit of the brand and sets it apart from its competitors. The story has endured to this day (it’s still printed inside the cover of every guidebook) and has perhaps to some extent buffered the brand against cynicism in the wake of the company’s global expansion.
Too often, brands are afraid to tell their story.
They’re hidden away in an ‘About Us’ link at the bottom of a webpage. Or they’re not told at all.
There’s a fear that the naked truth of how a company began, or how it grew, or how its early failures shaped it, or what it’s people are doing in the office right now – are too real or too human and therefore somehow not professional. But it’s these quirks that actually make a brand authentic, different and endearing.
Stories don’t have to be rags-to-riches, or against the odds, or even inspiring in order to work. They just need to tell the truth. Because the truth is always interesting.
So what’s your story?
26 October 2014
A very serious document.
It’s understandable. Clients have a tendency to be worried they won’t be taken seriously.
But when we drop some charm, humanity or even humour into our writing, we’re not being frivolous. We’re doing our best to communicate an idea – and to us, that’s a serious responsibility.
It’s the oldest lesson.
Some of our earliest thoughts about morality were communicated by wrapping them up in tales of Gods of Thunder using enchanted hammers to thump the stuffing out of Frost Giants.
You can tell someone ‘don’t be greedy’, but that’s not going to stick as well as you recounting the tale of King Midas to them. Tell it right, and your tale (and message) lives on.
That’s why the God of Thunder (now played by Chris Hemsworth) is still beating up Frost Giants in our stories, just like he was when we were huddled around campfires. It’s something that the best storytellers have understood since stories were first told – your audience won’t be informed if they’re not engaged.
Anything can be made more engaging.
The US Army used to publish a magazine called ‘Preventative Maintenance Monthly’. If you hadn’t already been put to sleep by the title, you’d find information inside about making sure your mechanical whatnots were properly cared for.
You don’t get a topic more bone dry than that. But there must’ve been someone extremely canny editing that tome, because they hired renowned cartoonist Will Eisner to inject some of his personality into the proceedings. Check this out:
He took a bit of information (for ‘dopes’, evidently) about keeping truck batteries clean, and added romance and sex appeal (…sort of). Is it light hearted fun? Absolutely. But it’s a safe bet that it stuck in the heads of those soldiers who would’ve otherwise flicked past the page.
You don’t have to go too far.
Just remember – you’re trying to communicate your message, not get in the way of it. It’s a difficult balance, and something we’re always conscious of here at XXVI. Here’s a page from a Welcome Booklet we did for Foxtel:
It’s about using various Foxtel functions. To jazz it up a bit, we framed them as superpowers, backing that up with imagery from Spider-man – a film available through the service at the time.
It adds a bit of interest, it’s relevant to the topic, but when we got into the nitty gritty of the functionality, we didn’t harp on the theme. The flavour doesn’t detract from the function.
Just write for people.
It can be surprisingly easy to forget, but all writing is intended for people. It doesn’t matter if they’re lawyers or tradesmen or investors – they’re all people, and all people pay more attention (and take in more information) if they’re being entertained.
Be bold and engage them, and it’s much more likely that your message will be digested, that they’ll bond with your brand, and that you’ll foster some good will.
Bore people, and it won’t matter that you’re not offending anyone’s sensibilities, because no one will be reading it. And that’s a fundamental failure of your communication.
When playing it overly safe guarantees failure, the only sensible action is to take a risk. So why not try throwing in a Frost Giant?
21 October 2014
You might wonder what the honest truth is when you’re working as a professional writer.
So amidst the word documents, briefing templates and lunch breaks, we’ve dug up a few little home truths that we suspect may ring true for copywriters everywhere.
1) “Sprinkle your magic on it” does not a thorough brief make.
Though flattery will generally get you everywhere with a writer, if that’s the entire brief we have to work with… don’t get mad if we send you a dramatic manifesto, a quirky acrostic poem, or the next 50 Shades of Grey.
Look, you didn’t tell us not to.
2) “I don’t like it” doesn’t constitute constructive feedback.
We like to think we’re pretty open to feedback. In fact, regardless of the fact the writer ego is one of the more delicate in the creative world, at XXVI we pride ourselves on writing copy that our clients really love.
That’s why you need to tell us why something isn’t working for you. Needs to be tweaked for this audience? No dramas. Needs more swear words? We’d be more than happy to oblige. Needs less hilarity? Well… we’ll try.
But if you simply “don’t like it”?
Well quite frankly, we don’t like your attitude, young lady/man.
3) Your legal team is mean.
We know they have a job to do, but we’ll fight to the death to prove you don’t need to use complicated robot language to cover all the legal bases. In fact, check out this snippet of the Tumblr Terms of Service nestled in between the compulsory stuff to prove our point.
(Shout out to our law-practising pals. We really do love you. You’re very important and you keep people from getting in trouble and sued and all of that career-ending stuff. And no one uses words like “must” and “reasonably” like you guys do.)
4) Copy is more important than design.
Okay, so maybe this is one of those times where we need to learn to coexist peacefully with our crayon carrying brothers and sisters. Best not to get us started on the ‘what comes first, the design or the copy’ question. It probably won’t end well.
But if you want our real thoughts on the matter, let’s just say we’re not just there to turn some weird Latin copy into something that doesn’t compromise your silly MS paint job.
Let’s work together.
Let’s make every job all killer, no filler.
5) For the love of all that is holy, never ever ever change our copy before it goes to print/air/cyberspace or the twittersphere.
Seriously. Adding a few words here and there can be the difference between us wanting to show the finished product to our mums and our Facebook friends, and us telling everyone our competition wrote your copy.
We’re here to help you find the right words. We’re here to help you find your brand voice. And above all else? We’re here to make you look good.
6 October 2014
Food for thought?
People are always talking about great dining ‘experiences’. Where food, atmosphere, décor, and service are all stirred together and served up in style (with the perfect wine to match).
But how important is brand voice to that experience? Is it an essential ingredient? A garnish? Or can it be left off the menu entirely?
If you ask me, it comes down to where you book your table.
Take the world of fine dining. You know the places – the three-hatted haunts of culinary wunderkinds, serving up edible art while you sit in silent admiration (and wonder how you’re going to pay for it all).
After scoping out a few of the top restaurants in Melbourne*, I kept finding the same thing. Dishes that were so beautiful you wanted to ask for their number. Service fit for a king. Sleek, seamless design – from the wallpaper and the furniture, right through to the menus themselves.
But no real brand voice.
In fact, there was hardly any language used at all. Maybe they’re believers in the old adage – that the food speaks for itself. And maybe, for these sorts of venues, that works just fine.
After all, not every meal is going to have something new to say.
But the other day I found myself in a little eatery in Fitzroy – Phat Brats. They didn’t specialise in 8-course degustation menus, or the latest culinary fad. They specialised in hot dogs. And while their take on a classic consisted of more than a bratwurst on a bun, they certainly weren’t adding chesnok red garlic, or nasturtium (what?), to their dishes. So what made the meal so memorable, then?
It was their brand voice.
Personality was practically dripping off the menu, like the salsa on my hot dog (the delightfully named ‘Ey Hombre’). Even their website tells it straight – that they’re not just about ‘fries that will literally change your life’. They’re about the whole experience, before, during and after the meal. And with a name like Phat Brats, I should’ve known.
I tip my hat to them – and to every other restaurant that’s brought a smile to their diners’ dials by having something more to say than ‘bon appetit’.
And sure, comparing a 3-hatted restaurant to a local fast food joint might be a little like comparing apples to in-season blood oranges from the Bay of Naples. But it goes to show – when you season your dining experience with a dash of humour or a dollop of personality, there’s every chance people will be coming back for seconds.
*In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t actually get to eat in any of these fancy restaurants. I read the menus, and stared in through the window – usually until a maitre’d chased me away with a broom.
15 September 2014
I crouched to look at some copy on the XXVI coffee table.
“Feel free to pull up a chair”, I was told.
“No thanks”, I said. “I’ll just squat.”
I rushed to start a new sentence but it was too late. Hamish was squirming. Carrie was making mature, fake gagging noises. So I stood, walked back to my desk and started writing this blog post. They wouldn’t have heard another word I said anyway. Not unless it happened to be hump, damp or suckle.
Don’t get me wrong – I get it. In the right (wrong?) context, those are some manky-dank words. But why do they affect us the way they do when we’re talking about something else entirely? Why is it that anytime anyone uses one of these words, we all shudder?
It sounds sexual.
Not everyone giggles at terms like thrust, organism and penetrate. Some people just laugh on the inside.
It sounds wet.
Sure, we’re okay with flowing, trickling and cascading. But what happens when our water goes rogue? Seepage, gushing, squelch. I can only imagine our ancestors drank from one bog too many.
And while I’m at it – moist. Does it really deserve its status as the most cringe worthy word of all? It’s defined (by lord Google) as “slightly wet”. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, damp is defined exactly the same way. Yet it doesn’t make your eye twitch.
It sounds ugly.
“How does something sound ugly?” you ask. “After all, Meatloaf sings like an angel.” Trust me – some words sound as bad as the image they concoct in your head.
On its own, chunk shouldn’t bother us. Nor should secrete or squat. But when you consider what they’re often associated with – the bits in our vomit, the pus from a pimple and roadside bathrooming – it’s not surprising that they do.
And we’re missing out.
Would you ask a friend to help erect your tent? Please. You wouldn’t touch that word with a ten-foot pole, even when you’ve got four completely unmanageable ones at your feet. It doesn’t matter that it’s probably the most appropriate word for the situation – it’s completely off limits.
And that’s stupid, because really there are no dirty words.
Just dirty, dirty minds.
5 September 2014
Many people dream of being a writer. Not just of stories or screenplays or best-selling novels, but of commercial words for the banks, telcos, insurance companies and retailers of the world.
I know this because whenever we advertise for writing positions, we’re flooded with fresh, innocent and unfailingly enthusiastic applicants escaping lives in less creative pursuits. And while we’re always willing to accept new members into the fold, before jumping in they at least deserve to know the truth of life as a writer.
Everyone picks up on your typos and grammatical errors
Ever come across a mistake in an accountant’s arithmetic? You pounce on it like a fat kid on a lollipop, taunting them and their calculator gleefully until they beg for mercy. Quite understandably, this kind of torture happens to writers who misspell something, confuse their homophones or misuse an apostrophe.
To be fair, we probably deserve it. As craftspeople we hold ourselves to an incredibly high standard, particularly when it comes to the basics of spelling and grammar. This is why we all suffer so terribly when our lapses are pointed out by a client, account manager, or at worst, a designer. But while it’s a cause of great shame to even the most junior writer to have ‘effected’ something when they really should have ‘affected’ it, it’s a torment we’re all going to have to endure at some point in our career.
You pick up on everyone’s typos and grammatical errors
It can’t be helped. Such is our concern about making our own mistakes that we’re always on the lookout for someone else’s. Whether it’s in the newspaper, an email from the boss or a copy deck from another agency, we take pride in finding fault in the writing of others.
And once we do, accepted norms of behaviour are abandoned. This is our opportunity to swing merrily from the rafters as we revel with our best writing friends in someone else’s grammatical calamity.
You know how they say that it’s the bullied that becomes the bully? This is exactly like that.
You feel pressured to write the best message on the office leaving card
It starts with an email. Jane from accounts is leaving, and we’ll be marking her departure with a communal present and oversized card – a card that will stalk you until you commit your well wishes to paper.
The leaving card is a writer’s kryptonite. Because no matter how hard you try to manufacture a knockout farewell message, in a dull sea of ‘we’ll miss you’s’ and ‘good lucks’ it’s difficult to rise above and meet the expectations you have of yourself. Too soft, too sappy, too mean, too frivolous – producing a clever, unique and utterly hilarious message about a person you barely know can be crippling. Never mind that Jane from accounts is hardly going to be judging – the risk that some smart-ass finished artist might out-write you is real and truly terrifying.
Your friends want you to write their blog, Linkedin and Tinder profiles (for free)
Restaurateurs and bar owners have been blaming their business failings on freeloaders for years. And while we thankfully don’t have to put up with our mates quaffing our booze every night of the week, being the natural backup plan for every word your friends and relatives need written has its challenges.
Apart from the absence of payment, freebies for friends are exactly the same as jobs for clients. They start with a bad brief. Receive a lukewarm response when what you’ve written fails to meet their expectations. And then go through rounds of alts while they use your time to discover what it is they really want to say.
If you’re lucky, at the end of it all you’ll get a bottle of wine, a peck on the cheek – or a poorly written thank you card.
You’re expected to know your adverbs from your adjectives
Get out the textbook. As soon as you say you’re a writer, the intellects of the world will start bombarding you with observations, questions and theories about nouns, verbs, pronouns and prepositions. But apart from English professors and literary wankers, who actually remembers what these things are?
I get it – grammatical terms and definitions are something we probably should know. After all, they describe the tools and methods of our trade. But do we really want to be tested on our theoretical knowledge of these things on a daily basis?
No, thank you. As you can see, we’ve got enough challenges to deal with already.
Director of Brand Language
5 August 2014
What’s a corporate blog post without a corporate blog image?
A funny thing happens when you take up a job in the corporate world.
You start saying things like “synergise” and “deliverables” and “end-to-end”.
You ask people “where we landed”, even when you’re not travelling.
Phrases you haven’t used since primary school become part of your daily conversations (I remember when ‘end of play’ meant you had to pack up your toys).
And you start touching other people’s bases. Every day. (If there isn’t an HR Policy & Procedures Document that prohibits that, there should be.)
Before you know it, you’re asking people to “Cascade a deck and loop back later with a best-of-breed solution”.
How the hell did it get to this?
When, exactly, did we start talking ‘to’ things (or ‘around’ things), rather than about them?
Where did ‘decisioning’ get its last three letters from?
And why does the phrase ‘moving forward’ even exist at all? (Remove it from almost any sentence and it makes absolutely no difference to its meaning, unless there’s some suspicion that you might otherwise be moving backwards.)
I suspect it’s about fitting in.
Like picking up an accent in a foreign country. Or swearing more when you’re at the pub with sweary mates.
Just as you’re more prone to dropping the F-bomb over a few beers with your foul-mouthed friend, you’re also more likely to pull out “outcomes-focused” in a boardroom meeting with senior management. I’ll let you decide which is more offensive.
The ‘fitting in’ theory would explain why each office has its own slightly different take on corporate language; a local dialect if you like. New words pop up and then spread across departments, floors and whole buildings. At one place I worked ‘push back’ (roughly translating to ‘totally ignore’) was a popular catchall. At another, ‘symbiotic’ was in vogue.
For a lot of people, fantastically convoluted corporate language is borne out of a fear of appearing ignorant.
“I don’t know” becomes “I’ll need to get up to speed on that”.
“I couldn’t be arsed to read the background documents” turns into “Let’s park that conversation for now”.
“I’ll need to ask someone else” morphs into “I’ll have to get a steer from Corporate Affairs before taking a view on that”.
And “Whoops, I just realised I’ve left some really important information out of this presentation” becomes “This is a living, breathing document”.
Sometimes, corporatisms are about not appearing too direct; or they’re used to deflect responsibility.
You’ve probably noticed how “you” becomes “we” – as in, “Do we know why that campaign was a total cock-up John?” Or “Can we get those twelve presentations updated by end of play Jenny?”
Jargon is often used to make something apparently serious sound more, well serious. “I’ll have a chat to a few people about it” becomes “I’ll set up a dialogue with our stakeholders around that”.
Instead of saying “can I see that?” we’ll say “can I get visibility on that?” which means exactly the same thing but sounds a lot more important.
It’s used to broach supposedly tricky conversations, particularly about money. “How much does it cost?” becomes “What’s the cost attached to that?” Imagine saying that at your local supermarket.
But I’ve got a hunch that, more than anything else, people use corp-talk because they think it makes them sound more intelligent.
‘Ideate’, ‘future-proof’ and ‘cross-functional’ would never exist otherwise.
Here’s the good bit though.
You don’t have to talk like that at work. In fact, you probably shouldn’t.
You wouldn’t swear at your boss, so why tell her that you don’t have enough bandwidth right now?
Plain English is one of life’s most wonderful inventions: it’s served us well for hundreds of years. And in a world of “customer-facing”, “scalable” “low hanging fruit”, it’s now more powerful, more persuasive, and more impressive than ever.
Try it in your next meeting.
It could be a game-changer.
25 July 2014
Few things in this world are as written about as words. Like fighting fire with fire, it’s odd that words can be both the focus and the vehicle of so many of our most combustible discussions.
Whether it’s sensible or not, many more words about words will be created and shared here. We have no choice – words are all that XXVI can talk about. We don’t do design, we don’t make ads, and despite our name we certainly don’t claim any expertise in numbers. We’re word people, pure and simple.
Actually, perhaps it’s not so simple. Because while there are a thousand and one agencies out there who can write you a letter, a brochure or some packaging copy, how many can actually create the framework that links all those words together? And by doing so, ensure that they all sound consistent, interesting, and most of all different?
That’s the beauty of what we do here at XXVI. We don’t just do words, we do thinking too.
Sure, we’ll happily write your letter, brochure and packaging copy, but what we’d really like to do is make you sound different to everyone around you. And not just during a product launch or through one campaign. We mean in everything you write or say, to everyone you talk to.
This is what brand voice is. From your welcome email to new customers, to your collections letters, annual report and toilet signage, we think all your customers, staff, partners and even shareholders deserve to recognise your brand in words. Even more importantly, they deserve to be spoken to like real people, in real human language. That means no corporate jargon, legal nonsense, PR slipperiness or vacant platitudes. We believe brands should say what they mean, and mean what they say.
On these pages we’ll be holding ourselves to this same standard. More than just an opportunity for us to free our writing from the conservative grip of clients, we’ll be sharing our insights into the trends, theories, challenges and possibilities of modern language.
But don’t just take our word for it.
Director of Brand Language
1 July 2014
It’s shamefully true. After nine years of looking at the same website, we figured we should finally change things around a little. After all, 2014 represents a huge milestone in the history of XXVI, with genuinely exciting changes already underway, not least this site.
We started in Sydney in 2005 as Australia’s first, and only, dedicated brand language specialists. We chose to focus on the way brands talked – especially through their writing. Word spread and as our clients got bigger (and more international) so did we.
Today, we work with some of the biggest brands in the world. And we’ve three offices with full-time professional writers in Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland.
Hamish Cargill, our Director of Brand Language now looks after the Australian studios. And I’ve now crossed the Tasman (with my dog, Skip) to base myself in my beloved New Zealand. It’s my job to guide all the XXVI offices towards the same, simple goal we’ve always had – to liberate the planet of dull meaningless corporate language, and replace it with simple, powerful and empathetic words.
We might not change the world.
But we’re having a hell of a lot of fun trying.
Group Director & Founder
6 May 2014
6 May 2014
19 June 2013