Footballer types will be familiar with the Dutch concept of Total Football, pioneered by the great Dutch footballer Johann Cruyff. It was a method of play that meant any player could interchange with another in any position on the pitch. Characterised by space and movement (he says, channelling his inner Alan Hansen punditry), it was a philosophy that unified the whole team.
Communications shouldn’t be any different.
If you think about every single touch point that a business has with its customers, suppliers, employees, and other stakeholders, how consistent are the communications? For instance, it’s all well and good publishing a beautiful new website that embodies the ideas of plain and simple English, but all that good work is undermined when a business renewal letter is sent to a client that is full of ‘herewiths’ and ‘thereofs’ and other intelligible dirge.
What do the signs in your reception say about your business? What about the all staff email from the CEO? The language used on a trade stand? Brochures? The company’s LinkedIn profile? Even the sign off at the bottom of each employee’s email? Employee benefit statements?
You get the idea…every single communication point must not only be consistent in terms of its language and execution but must almost be identifiable with another. There is no point the group communications or marketing team pioneering an approach to communication if it’s not adopted by the facilities department, customer services, sales, HR…
Call it Total Communications.
Cruyff turn anyone?
I’m no design expert but it struck me the other day while looking at my phone, how brilliant the Apple logo is. Yes, it’s obviously an apple – I told you I was no expert – but it’s the bite out of the apple that is the really clever bit.
There are all sorts of stories, myths and legends weaving around the web as to why the ‘bite’ is there. According to one media report some think it’s a play on ‘byte’, others relate it to the famous code breaker Alan Turing who apparently died by eating a poisoned apple. The truth is likely to be the more prosaic suggestion that the designer just saw it as a great way of differentiating the logo from a cherry.
However it got there, the bite makes what would be a rather routine outline of an apple into something far more interesting. It suggests movement, action, even intrigue.
Writing can use the same trick to liven up a piece that might otherwise get lost although this time the ‘bite’ could be humour, creative language, a great picture to accompany the piece, or even an Unconvential. Grammar. Approach.
Next time you write something, take a moment to step back and ask yourself, “Where’s the bite?”
No, I’m not suggesting you go out and rob the local bank, or even (and I’m talking to men here attending industry conferences or going to sporting events) wear red trousers – that really is unforgivable – I’m talking about many of the arcane laws of grammar and punctuation.
Who says for instance that you can’t start a sentence with a conjunction? “But we were taught never to do that,” I hear you scream. And, why shouldn’t you use one word sentences? Don’t believe everything. They. Tell. You.
End with a preposition? That’s the stuff we want more of.
It can be fun to deliberately break the rules of grammar and punctuation to emphasise a point, add a bit of spice to your writing, or just to simply get a reaction. That said, you have to know you’re breaking the rules otherwise how do you know you’re breaking the rules? Where’s the fun in that?
So boldly go to split infinity, stick it to the punctuation pedants and grammar geeks and don’t be afraid to break those laws. Having said that, dangle your modifier and I’ll be coming for you…
*Any grammar and punctuation mistakes within this post are purely intentional (even the ones that aren’t).
Good writing should, quite literally, be quite simple. So why, as we often see, the temptation to over elaborate? Or, to put it another way, why do we succumb to verbosity as a means of conveying our meaning? (Can you see what I did there?)
George Orwell says a scrupulous writer should always ask ‘ could I put it more shortly’?
So here, courtesy of Orwell himself, are his five great writing tips:
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
A nice interview yesterday saw the Managing Director of Customer Experience at the Rail Delivery Group – Jacqueline Starr – face-up to John Humphrys on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Well, nice for the beleaguered rail passenger but I suspect that Jacqueline Starr won’t be buying her media relations team their morning coffees and croissants any time soon.
Hauled on to the show to discuss a Times story that found out of 50 rail journeys it was possible to get a cheaper fare on 33 of them than that advertised (and if you haven’t investigated split ticketing before, I’d strongly recommend you take a look), Starr rather walked into Humphrys’ gleeful clutches with a performance big on media messaging but rather lacking in substance.
The alarm bells rang when Starr’s first response was to laud how the “rail industry is very successful in meeting customer demands”. Things got worse when she then fed Humphrys that awful line about how “customers are at the heart of everything we do”. I can almost see that A4 of key messages given to Starr beforehand.
All well and good to prepare some messaging but you cannot simply hope to paper over a genuine issue with some platitudes that no one, least of all someone as tuned into PR hogwash as Humphrys, is going to roll over and accept.
Towards the end of the interview, Starr finally admitted to the issue and agreed it wasn’t acceptable. Why not do that from the outset? The rail travelling public is a cynical bunch and is never going to buy some stale soundbites about customer service.
Fair play to Starr for fronting up in the first place but a bit of empathy and, when you’ve been caught out, a good dollop of contrition and a commitment to put things right might have kept things on the rails and are what the travelling public (and John Humphrys and his ilk) want to hear.