There was a post by Seth Godin some time ago that completely changed the way I act on the web (of course, now I can’t even find the blighter).
I went from passively lurking on Facebook and silently reading loads of websites to setting up three blogs, commenting on other people’s content, and starting to yammer on Twitter. Double-yammer in fact. Okay, I confess, triple-yammer.
So what happened? I have quite a lot of introverted qualities. I struggle a bit meeting new people, even talking to them on the phone, even chatting with them online. I’ll admit it – even playing anonymous multiplayer games.
When my friend Roger’s book about psychology and the teaching of Jesus was first published, he reacted to my congratulations by asking ‘is it too late to take it all back?’ That’s how I feel whenever I publish a blog post. Or send a tweet. Or ‘like’ something on Facebook.
It gets easier the more I do it, but the feeling is still there.
So why do I put myself through this? Why not slip back into the silent ranks of people who only watch from the sidelines, or who leave the arena completely?
Seth Godin’s post was about people discovering that their favourite restaurant had closed down, and complaining. His question was – if you liked it so much, why didn’t you say so? Why didn’t you vocalise your enjoyment before it was too late?
You can’t complain about a pub or shop or radio station closing down if you never drank, bought or listened to anything there. If you love those things, you will use them. And, unless you want to keep their pleasures all to yourself, you will also tell your friends. Because it’s fun for your mates and it’s helpful for the business.
I think, although I may be retrospectively applying this emphasis, that Seth Godin pushed it as far as saying you have a responsibility to talk about the things that you like, because it converts into tangible support. Without your word of mouth recommendation, that business, or book, or idea, might shrivel up and die.
And it would be partly your fault.
I’ve never seen this more clearly than when my mate Debs had her directorial debut Africa United released to mainstream UK cinema. Its showing period in the UK was a test case for other countries. If it did well in the opening week here, it would be picked up all over the world.
By seeing it in the first week, I could make a tiny, tiny contribution to its worldwide success. By talking about it on Facebook and Twitter, that contribution could grow to be a bit more significant. I am only one person, but look at the difference I can make, all without leaving my chair. And, by the way, the film is stunning for these reasons.
On the web, consumer purchasing is not the only economy. Attention is the resource so many artists and businesses are competing for, or, more to the point since social media exploded, approval. That’s why a positive review on Amazon or TripAdvisor or Checkatrade means so much to the author, hotel, or tradesperson. There are people whose livelihoods literally depend on your rating.
And it is easier to boost a reputation than ever before. Just click ‘like’ on Facebook or tell your friends in 10 words on Twitter. If you’ve got a bit more time, write a blog post (my Tongues of Men site doesn’t get much traffic but for a while it appeared on the front page of Google for the search term ‘Africa United review’).
By taking half a minute a day on your laptop or phone you could give a little boost to 365 excellent causes, or products, or services, or creations, over the course of a year.
You might even stop some of them from going under.
What these miniscule gestures do is move you from being a consumer to being a contributor. By boosting the good that you see around you, even in tiny ways, you are creating a world that you love, and that others will benefit from too. Your small acts of generosity reward the good things, and allow them to stick around, maybe even to grow.
Even if it’s not the reason that you do it, your generosity will come back round. Kindness breeds kindness. If you spend a little time recommending other people, don’t be surprised when they recommend you back.
And that is what got me over the hump. That’s what moved me from silent observer to blogger and tweeter: realising that not all the people who make noise online are self-obsessed or needy egoists in love with their own voices. Most of them have realised that we live in a participative world, and that by talking up the good, we allow it flourish a little longer.
So if you still don’t understand why anyone would, as my Dad says, ‘broadcast every trivial little thing that they do to the world’, have a closer look at that thing called Twitter. See if you notice any recommendations, sharing of news and resources, positive reviews or simply jokes to lighten up your day.
These people are actively and generously nurturing a world in which they would be delighted to live.
You still just going to watch?
With my fear of criticism and mild introspective tendencies, I am hardly the most vocal person online. But I realised that I had to say something. Before it’s too late.
If this is a helpful post for you, or might be for someone you know, I’d be really chuffed if you shared it on Facebook or Twitter. Thanks for reading.
Once upon a time, there was a dashingly important word named Web. He was from an affluent family of capitalised words, the World Wide Web, who had come to prominence in the 1990s. He was the shortest of his brothers, but with a W—- just as handsome, he still garnered many admirers. The three nouns were as proper as you could meet. (Although they used to be in a band called W3, but that’s another story).
Web represented the family business and met many other words through his work. His colleagues included design and browser. He got on well with these ordinary nouns, but they never got too close – it was just business. ‘I have nothing against the lower cases,’ he’d say; ‘some of my best friends are common nouns.’ Each night he would return to the safety of his trademarked ivory tower, alone.
In society, people found it hard to believe he was still single.
Then one day, Web met a noun who was more common than muck. She had been around for years, and had been paired with too many words to recall (there were few she would not go with – she had even been married to camp). Her name was site.
Despite her reputation, from the moment they started working together people said how good they looked. It was an irresistible partnership. And they were successful. She was easy to work with, and they appeared together all over the world. People assumed that they were already an item.
But Web kept his distance. He had a reputation, he was part of a proud family. He had an enormous W—-. She, on the other hand, was from a hard-working home. She didn’t know what to do with a capital letter and felt uncomfortable appearing in title case.
How could it ever work?
Yet they could not stop thinking of each other. At night, from his tower, Web would look at the stars and sing, ‘I want to sleep with common vocables like you,’ while site would appear in public and speak for them both. ‘I am Web,’ she would shout. They were in love. They were seen together in public all the time.
When Web’s family caught wind of the tryst his brothers tried to dissuade him from marrying down. They called on pernickety subeditors to argue the case. They got the grammar Nazis to torture him. Internet worried about what might happen to his capital if Web relinquished his. But it was no good. The proper noun had fallen in love with a commoner, and there was nothing they could do to keep them apart.
Finally, they surrendered to the inevitable. Web and site shunned a long engagement (unlike her tarty friend e who is still dashing around in front of mail without committing) and jumped straight into marriage. The AP Stylebook recorded their union early last year. No pernickety subeditors were invited to the wedding. Web was forced to abandon his capital, but they both agreed that what mattered was being together.
Now website live joyfully as one. World and Wide in their finery have not been seen around so much. And everyone, well nearly everyone, hopes that the lovers live happily ever after.
I shall, from this moment forth, be acknowledging their union on my website.
Happy Valentine’s Day to loved-up words everywhere.
Image from 123pimpin.com
‘What is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures and conversation?’
Show don’t tell is a core design principle here at Endis Solutions. But what does it actually mean?
Given the choice between telling someone something and showing it to them, you should almost always show it. Here’s how, and why:
If you sell, say, wigs on your web site, there is no need to write ‘we sell wigs’ on your front page (nor, for that matter, ‘welcome to our wig-selling web site!’). A picture of a wig with a ‘buy’ button will better communicate what you do and be more immediately useful to someone wanting to purchase a wig.
Why better? Because if you have to explain everything, it is tiring to read. And clamorous. And patronising. And obstructive. It puts an extra step between your customers and what they are trying to achieve.
If you have to explain what and where things are, then your site has failed. Most sites need very few words. Let the graphics and the products and the important items speak for themselves.
You have to give people what they are looking for. Show them the gallery, the archive, the offer, the details. Make it easy to see, recognise, and browse. Give them what they want without talking to them about it. Imagine entering a physical shop and being talked at by the manager before you are allowed to see any of the products!
Just browsing, thanks.
People are after something. If you’ve got it, give it, instead of asking them to solve your web site clue by stupid clue.
After visiting Cambridge for the first time, my father’s overriding impression was of being nagged. Everywhere he walked there were signs saying ‘don’t walk on the grass’ (in 7 languages), ‘no entry to the public’, ‘beware rising bollards’ and ‘bicycles attached to these railings will be removed and sold to students in Oxford’.
The words you write shout at people. It is one of the main things I hate about Windows – all those dialog boxes and pop-ups about updates and statuses when all I want is for my computer to be on.
You simply don’t need to talk at your visitors so much. Don’t write ‘click here to download the document’– simply write the name of the document and make it a link. Don’t write ‘to get in touch with us click on contact’ – simply put the word contact somewhere prominent and expected, say the menu bar.
If you can remove an instruction or description, remove it. Just like George says. If you can encourage comprehension through a graphical element such as a button or arrow instead of text, then do.
Grasp this paradox: the more you say, the less people will understand.
And if you’re blogging, don’t make the rookie mistake of writing about your writing. Instead of saying ‘Today I am going to tell you about pigeons…’, just tell us about the damn pigeons. That’s why it often pays to behead your blog posts (and 39 other useful writing tips).
Give your visitors a break and step away from the vuvuzela.
The third application of show don’t tell is that if you’re not showing, then don’t tell.
In other words, don’t make claims that are undermined by your own web site, or as the Argentines might have it: ‘don’t crap higher than your ass can reach’.
Don’t say you pride yourselves on friendliness when your order process is broken and the error messages are accusatory and confusing. In fact, don’t say it at all – be friendly; in your tone, in your messages, in your support and service. Then people will believe you. And you won’t be a hyprocrite.
Instead of saying ‘our customers love us’ display a huge list of recent, affectionate testimonials. Instead of saying ‘the largest in our industry’ demonstrate your size in some way. Instead of saying ‘award-winning’ put the badge (and year) on your site.
Show, don’t tell.
As a content strategist and writer am I doing myself out of a job here? Not at all. Content strategy is coming up with a way for all that content, not just the copy, to work together (and get produced, and continue to be high quality in the future). Secondly, the few words that are necessary on your web site will be all the more valuable for their scarcity. I can help you get them right.
Admit it. Every now and then you want to read ‘how-to’s in a dirty long list. And every now and then I want to write them.
So here you go. 40 tips for writing well, on the web especially. Happy Christmas.
1. Don’t worry about whether you’re a writer or not. Write, and you’re a writer.
2. What’s your point? Have something to say before you start.
3. What do you want me to do about it? Identify a single call to action in response to what you are writing and make it clear.
4. Write in the same voice you talk in. Read what you’ve written out loud. If it doesn’t roll off the tongue and doesn’t sound like you then start again.
5. Worry about your title more than anything else. Spend as long on the heading as all the other elements on the page put together.
6. Write loads and then cut nearly all of it. Edit, edit, edit.
7. Convince me. Everything is an argument.
8. Visualise a single individual to represent your target readership. Address everything you write directly to him or her.
9. Why should the reader give a crap about this? Ask this question at every point.
10. Use a thesaurus to remind you of words you already know.
11. Show what you have written to someone else who writes well and ask him or her how you could improve it.
12. Stick to your person. I/we/you/he/she/they should all refer to the same thing all the way through your article.
13. Stick to your tense. put the whole article in the past or present and don’t muck around.
14. Use words that 13-year-olds understand.
15. Cut redundancies: ‘in my opinion… the fact of the matter is…’ are unnecessary. Of course it’s your opinion – you’re saying it.
16. Vary sentence and paragraph length, keeping the average very short. They should be punchy but not monotonous.
17. Be specific.
18. Avoid repetition of words, rhetoric, syntax, structure, sentiments.
19. Eliminate bland words: very, awesome, super, nice, great, so, interesting.
20. Invent fresh metaphors or speak plainly rather than opt for tired clichés.
21. Qualify what you mean by ‘just’.
22. Argue the opposite of what you have written. If it’s not convincing, your original argument lacks power too.
23. Opine. Whatever the subject, take an angle on it; the more original the better.
24. Crucify corporate buzzwords such as leverage assets. Ugh.
25. Show don’t tell. Cut out everything that you can demonstrate without the use of words.
26. Spend a small amount of time finding the best tools and environment in which to write. After that, stop blaming them if it doesn’t happen. It’s your fault, not theirs.
27. If spelling mistakes get through you have a process problem not a writing one. Everyone makes mistakes. That’s what spellcheck, dictionaries, proofreading, and editing are for.
28. Copy the style of writing on web sites that you find useful. Not well written, but useful.
29. Assume that the people you are writing for are kind and well-intentioned but with very little time on their hands.
30. Be kind. It pays off better than being arrogant, cynical or mean.
31. Clarity, above all.
32. Never use a long word when a short word will do. Orwell said that.
33. Write in active sentences rather than passive. The dog ate my homework, not my homework was eaten by the dog. It’s more vigorous. Hemingway said that. Kind of.
34. Don’t tell your reader what you are going to write and why. Just write it.
35. After you have finished, behead your writing. Remove the first paragraph: it is almost always redundant and dull.
36. For punctuation, read your text aloud. Where you pause slightly there should be a comma, where you break for longer there should be a full stop. Don’t use any other punctuation unless you really know what you’re doing.
37. Never write ‘click here’.
38. Get a decent grip on the main rules of grammar so that you can break them for effect.
39. Insert scannable elements: subheadings that make sense, hyperlinks, bullet points and lists, numerals (41 instead of forty-one).
40. Never publish immediately. A hiatus gives you fresh eyes to see how you can improve what you’ve written.
“Very useful …
lots of good stuff”
– Rhys, Talis
What stops you from writing more? It’s not just the copywriters who write in our organisations: we all do – managers, administrators, technical staff – whether we have been trained to or not.
Most roles require some level of writing skill, and increasingly for publication on the web. How can you get your staff writing clear and compelling words that work on and offline, to tell a consistent story to your customers?
One of the problems is confidence. People think of themselves as non-writers, and the process of writing as difficult. But it only takes a nudge of encouragement and a few key writing tricks to get them creating bolder and more effective copy. The ‘How to Write Good‘ workshop will help you to:
The workshop can be run as a 2-hour or half-day event in your workplace. It is fun and interactive – a conversation about writing applied to the real work that you are doing.
‘How to Write Good’ workshop costs £180 / £350 (2-hour / half-day).
Prices do not include travel or VAT.
I just learned the Yiddish word ungapatchka. An ungapatchket house is filled with too much junk. A girl can be ungapatchket if she’s going out all dolled up. It has the sense of a good thing ruined by adding too much on top, like too many sprinkles on the cake or, at this time of the year, a glut of child-made decorations on the tree.
It makes me think of the way in which many businesses want to present themselves through their web sites.
To you, your business is a complex organisation, with a history, with staff, with processes and systems and targets. It is a many-tendrilled thing. You almost daily have challenges and triumphs, great ideas, and mistakes from which to learn. You invest in training or new software or take the staff out for team building. You get recognised in an industry award or perform way better than this time last year or have a great story to tell about your new management structure.
The question is, how much of all that do your customers need to know about?
Let’s start with absolutely none at all.
The main difference between you and your customers is that they do not care a monkeys about your company. Harsh, but true.
So when you create a new web site, they simply don’t care about your history or your team training. About your new recruits or internal reorganisation. About your annual goals or your stated core values. Even, about your new web site.
What they care about is whether you are useful to them, right now, for doing what they are trying to do.
Everything else is noise. Adding everything else to your web site is the certain way to make it ungapatchket. You are not sharing the love; you are hiding it behind an ornamental clock made of shells that you picked up on holiday because there was nothing else to buy at the airport.
Instead of starting with all the things that you could say about your company – start with absolutely none of them. Nada. Zip. Now ask yourself, what one story should you tell your customers about how they can accomplish something on your site better than anywhere else, right now?
Find the message, the thread, the line, that explains simply to an online visitor why they should give a crap about your product or service.
Once you’ve got the story, share it simply and clearly. Start by showing it, with a few images – a way to visualise the story. You’ll need a few words, too, but only a handful. Use sparingly. You need to interrogate mercilessly every element that wants to be on the site, grilling it on how it helps, uniquely, to tell the customer story. Otherwise don’t let it anywhere near.
Too many websites are trying to lift the iceberg to show customers what goes on at their companies, when customers need only see the tip.
And my solution for an ungapatchket Christmas tree? Buy two. A small one for the kids to have in their own bedroom on which they can hang anything and everything that they once made/found/ate, and a family one in the living room which has stringent editorial guidelines to keep it looking pretty.
There must be somewhere else you can hang all that other stuff.
This new-to-the-market blog post comprises of a charming argument against writing poetic property descriptions, leading to the sought-after conclusion that people prefer facts. The post benefits from some delightful subheadings and convenient access to illustrative examples. It is deceptively spacious and lends itself to retweeting. Not suitable for children or pets.
On the one hand, I’m guessing few of us are enamoured by the language of estate agents. Although clichés can be useful for getting a standard set of information across to a loyal audience, the problem with estate agents’ lingo is that there are simpler, more honest ways to say the same thing, if it needs saying at all.
So should we be rejoicing that one estate agent, in an effort to desist from trundling out the same-old phrases, sent their staff on a poetry course? Instead of ‘direct sea views’ we are told ‘without feeling lonely, the room has an echo.’ Or try this:
Crossing the threshold
Passing into history
Near seafront and shops
Cobbles and tarmac meet
Historic Hove and the new come together in a mews house, light, comfortable and homely … and with parking.
As a lover of the way poetry shuffles about in ordinary words and situations, I think this is fun. As someone with an eye on marketing I see that the stunt has generated widespread publicity for the company. But will it sell more houses?
Estate agent owner Paul Bonett said he was fed up with the ‘meaningless jargon that potential buyers could see through in an instant. Boring old clichés like immaculate condition, delightful, compact and bijoux are hindering, not helping sales.’
So he wants property descriptions that we can’t see through?
At Endis Solutions we have worked with a few property agents now, as well as hunting for properties ourselves. We’re beginning to get a feel for what people want from an estate agent’s web site. And it’s not poetry.
Most people looking for properties online are trawling through hundreds of descriptions, trying to filter out the irrelevant ones as quickly as possible, flicking through what’s left to see if any of them meet their requirements and desires. It is not particularly fun and they do not have all day to do it.
Anything that slows down the process – animated picture galleries, long download times, unclear or protracted navigation, confusing text – is a pain in the neck the first time, never mind the fiftieth. And then for people to have to decipher a poetic riddle that does not actually tell them what the house is like – what a terrible idea.
Home-hunters do not dislike ‘compact’ because it is boring. They dislike it because it’s disingenuous. And no, they would not rather read draws the evenings into charming cosiness – they would prefer an agent to come out and say: it’s small. And ‘bijoux’? What’s that supposed to mean? ‘Delightful’? Isn’t that up to the customer to decide?
The problem is not that we’re bored with estate agents’ clichés, it is that they are unhelpful and unnecessary at a time when, rather boringly, we just want the facts, and fast.
Or at least they shouldn’t have to. If our clients are to be believed, people go straight for either the photo gallery or the floorplan to find out what a house is like. The best thing you can do on the property description page as an estate agent is make your gallery large, prominent and full of decent photographs that are easy and quick to scroll through, with a big, clearly labelled, detailed floorplan next to it. Here’s a good example.
Apart from the square footage for city dwellers, that’s pretty much everything we need to know. At a glance. It’s a classic case of show don’t tell.
It’s great to hear about estate agents getting creative in the way they present properties. My tip: give visual information, quickly. If you have to write anything after that, bare facts will do just fine.
Or am I just a killjoy? What do you find helpful when looking for properties online?