Editing a sales brochure recently I came across this line and many more like it:
If required [Company name] can therefore provide an introduction to a solicitor.
This is what George Orwell hated. It is an unnecessarily inflated way to say something simple. Look at all the extraneous parts:
If required – the whole thing is if required. It’s a sales brochure. Just describe your service and let the reader decide if it is required or not.
Therefore is also redundant. There is no need to state explicitly that this sentence follows the previous one in logical argument. If I said: I like plums. Therefore can I have one of yours? – it would make sense. But take ‘therefore’ out and it still makes sense. Human-sounding sense.
Provide an introduction to is one of Orwell’s ‘false limbs’. Keep it simple. Choose the basic verb: introduce.
Orwell deplored this sort of language in politics. It is everywhere in business, inflating sentences to sound grandiose. I call it the faux legal style. It sounds like a contract or piece of legislation, yet is thin in actual meaning. Far from convince, it is more likely to put customers off, by forcing them to read more than they have to for little reward.
What the writer meant to say was:
We can introduce you to a solicitor.
Isn’t that better? Not just for understanding but for tone of voice too?
Ten tips to say lots while saying nothing at all:
In conclusion, therefore, a suitable area for the Reader’s comments upon this subject is afforded space below, should the Reader wish to remark, ruminate or give exposition to his or her thoughts upon the matters raised by the Author in this article.
That is, any comments?
Writers love George Orwell. He wrote this:
Legend. If discovering or being reminded of these rules is what you take away from this post – then my work here is done. However, if you want to know what Orwell was really getting at, read on.
Orwell’s 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, from which the above is an excerpt, makes a more fundamental point than simply how to write good. He is concerned with the effect of language on our ability to think.
He claims that not only do foolish thoughts lead to ugly, stale and inaccurate language – but that ugly, stale and inaccurate language ‘makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.’ He says: ‘if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.’
The more we use poor language, the poorer our thoughts become.
If we don’t have the words we can’t have the thoughts.
Orwell was writing about the language used by politicians. He was concerned, not just that they all get their points across clearly, but that they preserve the ability to have a point worth making in the first place. That, when alone in their minds, their attempt to formulate ideas is equipped with the best arsenal possible – in array, range, and accuracy. That they are able to have the important thoughts in the first place, before they even say a word.
It is easy to imagine that for politicians the thoughts that they have are a matter of life and death to others, because they consider and discuss policies concerning military action, social welfare, security, crime and health.
But what are the consequences of your thoughts? On your business, your relationships, your health, your future, your art, your contribution? The popularity of cognitive therapy suggests that the ability to change what you think about yourself and your environment is crucial to your ability to change at all. But from where will you get the language for those new thoughts?
What if improving your language could unlock a greater range of options for your work? That by learning to speak and write more accurately – as we all can – you might begin to think more accurately too?
Orwell wanted people to say more clearly what they meant. But he wanted them to mean something worthwhile to begin with. Behind his excellent editorial tips lie two principles that should underpin everything that we write:
Something to think about the next time you use leverage as a verb.
What do you think?
I couldn’t help laughing at a gag on the radio yesterday. It was a spoof ad for a compilation CD: ‘Relax,’ said the deep male voice, ‘to the soothing sound of … Vuvuzela Moods.’
If you have no idea what a vuvuzela is, I’m hazarding a guess that you don’t follow football. Switch on any broadcast of the 2010 World Cup and the first thing you hear is the blaring, persistent, invasive drone of what sounds like thousands of cheap plastic horns being raspberried into deafeningly by thousands of untrained lips all at the same time.
Which is what it is.
The vuvuzela is a monotone plastic trumpet adopted by football fans from all nations for the tournament in South Africa. The problem is that no matter what you try to perform on your particular horn, once more than a handful of people are farting away at the same time, the result is a constant, thunderous drone.
It does not rise and fall with the action. It does not rally one team against the other. It does not start a chain reaction or provoke a response from other fans.
It just drones.
What happened to roaring? Chants and counter-chants? Silence? Yells of relief? Rattles, whistles and airhorns? The end result of a thousand people blowing the same trumpet is a continual buzz that deafens the crowd and distracts the teams.
Your web site makes a sound. It has a voice. Every piece of text that a visitor sees on your site she forms into internal sounds for comprehension. The more she has to read, the more noise you generate in her head.
Many websites fall into the vuvuzela trap. They try to say too much. They try to emphasise every point to the detriment of all. They give instructions or explanations for every little thing.
The end result is an ear-splitting racket where nothing stands out and visitors quickly switch off. Here’s how to avoid the vuvuzela effect on your web site:
Resist the temptation to put copy on every page, or instructions for every action. If some pages absolutely must be read, let others rely on the graphical elements to get their message across. Where possible, show, don’t tell.
The paradox is that the more you explain, the less is understood. Why? Because people stop reading. Don’t blow your horn ever harder. Stop, and let them think.
Frame your copy with plenty of room, use fonts that are easy on the eye, well spaced, large, and high contrast.
Then, like an eye-catching football banner or a spur-of-the-moment chant, have a small handful of items that stand out from the rest. They could be offers, vital information, or your calls to action – the important thing is that only a few are emphasised.
What is the one thing you want each page on your web site to do? Emphasise that. And nothing else.
The vuvuzelas sound the same, whichever fans are wielding them, all of the time. But footballers want their fans to be singing their songs, responding to their movement on the pitch, cheering them alone toward victory.
Put some thought into what makes your business unique and reflect that on your web site. Not just in what you offer but in how you sound. Even the smallest tweaks to the microcopy on your site can create a voice that people are not used to hearing online – friendly, honest, cheeky, elite, earthy, funny, suave – just anything but over-confident and corporate.
There is a Portsmouth Football Club supporter in England who has become famous for standing at the games ringing a hand bell. Why does he get the attention? Because it sounds good? No. Because no one else is doing it.
It remains to be seen whether the vuvuzelas have a detrimental impact on teams’ performances. Portugal’s Ronaldo has said ‘It is difficult for anyone on the pitch to concentrate … A lot of players don’t like them’.
The point is this: remember what the goal of your web site is, and create a voice and experience that leads directly to it. It may be tempting to get sidetracked into justifying your company, or write ego-boosting press releases, but if these things do not lead the site to succeeding – then cut them out.
Finally, if you really can’t do anything about the sound of the vuvuzelas don’t worry – you could always sell earplugs instead.
Getting a web site for your business is a challenge. You know that you should have a site, because increasingly your customers and market are online. But you don’t know much about web technology and you don’t want to be taken for a ride.
All this talk about SEO and social media strategy and domain names and information architecture … can’t you just have a basic site that works?
Of course you can.
What businesses are beginning to realise though, is that content strategy is part of the basic package.
You wouldn’t commission a web site without graphic design. And yet the graphics are only the means of presenting … what exactly? What is the web site there to say? What is it there to do? And how is it going to say and do those things?
Content strategy answers these questions. The story of the expensive camel introduced us to its importance for small businesses. We looked at the first four problems that it overcomes for you. Now let’s go through the next four.
Print is a one-off, fixed medium. Your web site, however, will probably be updated. It may have a blog. The public may make comments, add suggestions. Or perhaps your staff will update the articles every now and then or add new events or listings.
Unless you have an editorial guide, detailing the tone, style and formatting of content pages, then the chances of your site remaining as good as it looked at launch are zero. And back to the budget question: if you want your web site to be effective with your customers over time, then how much is it worth to have the editorial help – either one-off or ongoing – to make sure that this happens?
What use is buying a swimming pool if you never have it cleaned so no one can swim in it?
There are many reasons why a blog can be a good idea on a business web site. It allows you to display your expertise, gives you control over the tone and personality of the site, works wonders for the search engines and brings your web site to life.
But there is a caveat: if you are not going to blog consistently with useful, interesting and well-written articles, it is better not to bother at all.
Blogging is harder to do than you think. After a while, ideas are hard to come by. Writing time is tricky to justify when there are a million other things you need to do for your business. The whole write—edit—check—format—check again—publish—promote cycle is much bigger than just jotting a few thoughts down. But anything less makes you look like an amateur.
If you have help, it’s a different story. Either great training and editorial guidance to begin with, or even ongoing support – a small price to pay for consistently publishing articles that bring your business to life online.
No matter what ideas you start with, when you see your site being formed you will probably change your mind or have further ideas about it.
If there is no strategy behind what appears on the site from the beginning, this process will get tiresome and expensive. The web company will be spending time – paid for by your money – on creating a framework, structure, navigation, design – based on guesswork. When you see it and decide you really wanted something else, be prepared to get your wallet out. At this stage change is difficult, because the web site is a system of many interconnected elements. Change one, and you have to change them all.
It’s like seeing a house being built and then deciding you don’t like the shape of the kitchen or the location of the bathroom. You can’t change the architect’s plans when the house is half built.
Content strategy gets the plans accurate at the beginning. A content expert helps you to know what you really want and what will work; what content needs to be nailed down from the start and what can be changed easily later on.
Content is not the only element that requires careful planning – get things straight with the developer and designer too. But it is often the part that gets overlooked, leaving clients wanting to change it when it is too late. Talk to a content strategist at the beginning, and save yourself thousands of pounds of reworking later on.
It is often the boss who throws new ideas into the mix when it is too late to incorporate them. She may not be sensitive to the planning and building process so far – she might just be fixated on a particular concept or outcome.
She might suddenly want new sections of content or additional media, or something given priority on the front page to satisfy her ego or her latest creative idea. Whether or not these things are good ideas in themselves is less important than the negative impact on the development of the site – like wanting solar panels on the roof when the house has already been built to take electricity from the grid.
The problem here is that it takes a very brave employee to stand up to his boss and deny her right to play around with the web site even though it is already in production.
In our experience, it rarely happens.
Because you don’t say no to your boss. Especially if your boss is you.
A content strategist knows how web sites work and can stand up to your boss’s latest ideas for the sake of your business. He or she is a third party who helps you all to stick to the plan, as well as taking the better suggestions from your boss and converting them into features that will actually work.
At Endis Solutions we make web sites for small and medium sized businesses, and we see clients get into these difficulties time after time. Content strategy as a core part of your web site project holds it all together, keeps the site doing what you need it to do for your business, and prevents you from having to pay your way out of a mess later on.
That’s why content strategy is part of the basic web site package. You can’t afford not to have it.
You’re running a small business so you want a web site but you can’t afford to waste money. You’re wary of snake oil salesmen who might try to exploit your inexperience with technology. You can only justify expenditure for services that obviously benefit your business.
So when someone offers you “content strategy” as part of a web site, you’re going to be suspicious, right?
Perhaps he tells you that if you don’t get help with your content right at the beginning, you’ll pay for it later. Perhaps he tells you a story about camels to back up his point.
You should be. You should ask, quite bluntly, what problems does this content strategy solve for me? Seriously – what will actually go wrong if you don’t have it?
Here are the first four problems that content strategy overcomes. The next four are published here.
Content means the text, photos, videos, audio, forms and the like on your site. You’re a small business so you want to cut corners. That’s fine. But publishing copy that is full of mistakes, badly written, waffly or childish is not saving you money in the long term.
When your content is too long for the attention of users on the Internet, when it is repetitive, unclear, written in the wrong tone or inconsistently voiced – then you lose customers and undermine your brand by appearing cheap and unprofessional.
You wouldn’t write a magazine. Why do you think you can write a web site?
One way around the first problem is to reuse existing copy from your print media. You’ve got brochures and fliers – why not just put those words and pictures to work on the web site?
The answer is simple: the web is a completely different publishing environment to print. You’ll be pleased to know that people have studied how different they are. I’m not making this stuff up.
Your print copy will be too long. It will be written for a surveying and page-turning experience rather than a scrolling and clicking one. It will probably be too formal and it certainly won’t be written so that Google picks it up in search results. It will not have the essential pieces of information in the parts of the page where your visitors’ eyeballs go, nor will it have microcopy that represents it all around the web. It will assume that people will take time to read it, when online they won’t. And it won’t direct people towards their next action online.
In short, it will fail.
Print copy is a seven course dinner for guests only. Web content must be a space pill for anyone who drops by, or no one will swallow it.
It’s hard enough as a professional writer to meet deadlines, even with an editor’s reminders or a team to collaborate with. So what happens when your administrator, manager or trainee is suddenly expected to churn out quality writing in a short space of time?
She’ll freeze. He’ll stall. They’ll try to get someone else to do it or just keep putting it off. The project deadline will pass and they will eventually send incomplete or substandard work to your web team, and we’re back to problem one.
Only now it’s really late.
Good content is hard to write and it takes a lot of time. If you try to produce the content yourself because you want to save a bit of money, and then end up delaying the web site launch for months because you are strugging to produce it, then you are costing your business money by holding up the project.
Was this web site important to your business? Would you like it to be? Because expecting your staff to produce the content is like asking them to produce a TV show. It will take them ages to learn how it all works, never mind actually produce anything worth looking at.
Who is going to write the metadata? The microcopy? The messages and labels? I’m not inventing these – metadata for example, is the information about the web page, such as the page title, page description, metatags and web address, some of it behind the scenes, all of it essential to the success of your content online. And all of it needing to be carefully written.
The visible words on the page are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to web content. But what is under the water is desperately important, in particular for online search. You need to get the metadata right to improve your site’s findability and usability.
The default, when you don’t get help with your content, is for the designer just to make something up. She may or may not be very good at it. Writing, editing and advising on content is not what she does. She may leave whole portions blank. Is that a risk that you want to take? – did you want a web site that does more than just look good?
If no one can find it or it’s confusing to use, then you’ve wasted the money you paid for it.
In our business of making web sites, we see these four problems over and over again. You can’t afford not to have a professional help with your content. The content plan is the glue that holds the web site design together.
Content strategy is not about fleecing you at your point of uncertainty – it’s about saving you money in the long run, ensuring that the whole fee you pay for a web site is not wasted.
Basically, pay now or pay later. Just like the camel on Mount Sinai.
Next week we’ll look at four more problems that content strategy will solve for your business. Until then, why not grab a free sample of my work, or get in touch to explore how a focus on content now will bring returns for your company in the future?
Our group started the ascent of Mount Sinai at midnight. Climbing through the blackness, safe from the burning heat of the day, we expected to reach the summit by dawn. Dark shapes loomed suddenly either side of the path: our torches picked out local Bedouin, offering camels to carry us up the mountain.
We all declined. We were just starting off. We were full of energy and keen to climb through the night. Why waste money when we could just walk?
The local men followed us, never far away, stepping into the torchlight every few minutes to ask ‘camel?’ For the first hour this seemed like an insult. The second hour was tougher, and at the half way stage some of the party had to rest for a little while. Then, towards the end of the ascent, with the dim pinnacle in sight, the path grew steeper and one woman began to struggle. Forward jumped a figure:
‘Yes! I need a camel!’ she panted. ‘How much?’
‘Fifty dollar’ said the Bedouin, no hesitation.
And she paid it.
There are some services that you don’t know you need, and by the time you do, the price is much, much higher.
With professional content help, it’s not that the price is artificially inflated (cunning move by those Egyptians, don’t you think?). If you don’t have advice and guidance on your content right at the beginning, your web project is likely to get so messy, and delayed, and diluted, that rectifying the result will cost you far more than the help would have done in the first place.
And, unlike the woman on Mount Sinai, my experience of people with small businesses and tight web site budgets is that they can’t afford to buy themselves out of the mess near the end. They settle instead for a half-hearted, chaotic, unfinished or imbalanced web site.
They never make it to the top.
I’m too honest to pull the camel trick on you. My climbing companion wished that the traders had been candid with her at the start. If she had realised she was likely to need the assistance later on, she could have hired the beast at the foot of the mountain, for a reasonable price, and simply jumped on when she needed it most.
So I’ll be straight with you. I won’t hide the reasons that you will wish you had a content strategy from the beginning. Over the next two weeks I’m going to publish two blog posts covering the 8 most common problems that content strategy solves for small businesses.
As I’m being honest, here is the list. I know that some of them will make you cringe but please don’t go into denial. I’ve seen these played out again and again. Hopefully they will help you to realise that you do need help with your web content, and that it pays to get it from the start.
You’ll pay one way or another – either at the beginning so that help is at hand, or at the end, over the odds, breathless, and in pretty bad shape.
If you’re a developer in Cambridge you’ve probably heard about Red Gate’s crazy offer: a free iPad if you interview for one of their Engineer roles, whether you get the job or not. Of course it’s not crazy at all compared to recruitment agency fees.
It’s a clever campaign because it gives the impression of a largesse that can afford to be abused (let’s apply just for the tablet!). In reality, Red Gate are in complete control of how many Apple vouchers get given away, carefully screening applicants pre-interview. The iPad is just a ruse to get the best candidates into the building, where they witness the company first hand, and perhaps end up with the dilemma of an attractive job offer in their mitts …
What impresses me more than the offer itself is how they have spread the word around. One Monday they bought Cambridge lunch by issuing an online voucher redeemable at eateries in the heart of business areas around the city. This carried the same feel of careless generosity as the iPad offer, with unlimited vouchers. And it was smart – there is only so much people can eat in one day, and the costs small compared to traditional advertising.
More importantly, the buzz that it created was palpable.
Whether people were grateful, suspicious, keen to game the system or just hungry, Red Gate’s target market (good developers already in jobs in Cambridge) ended up talking about the offer and the company. The idea spread virally. I got two free lunches and an ice-cream just from watching Twitter.
The news spread to the very centre of the community who needed to hear it.
And the news was not just information. It was an experience: in a free lunch, people were sampling something of the company’s culture of benefits, freedom and fun, right where they worked.
I love the way Red Gate do things. Last month I trained a load of Red Gate staff in how to write great blog posts, and more recently met their adroit Content Strategist Roger Hart (hurrah – there are now two of us in Cambridge). What strikes me about the company is that their values are carried by all of their members, even the new folk. That clever marketing was not just a strategic ruse: it was an extension of who they are and how they do things.
Endis Solutions are recruiting developers too. We’re a much smaller company than Red Gate and can’t afford to buy you an iPad (besides, what do you need two for?). But that’s the crucial difference.
You can go and enjoy the culture of a larger organisation or you can get stuck in to creating the culture in a small one.
There are currently six of us at Endis Solutions. We build web sites for SMEs. We’re looking for a developer who has some flair and vision to come and make the company awesome.
Our culture so far involves finding genuinely good clients and building them genuinely useful web sites. We provide so much more than a site template, because we want our clients to succeed. We custom-build. We give business advice. We learn. We create stunning content and design. This means close collaboration between design, development and content, which you can do in a small company.
We’re smart – but it has to lead to something useful.
There are other things (like coffee, Spinal Tap and lunch at the Red Lion) but I hope you get the picture. We’re fun, we do good work, and we’re looking for a developer to come and be brilliant with us.
To create a big future like Red Gate’s – and beyond.
So here’s our bet: when you interview for the web developer role, we’ll offer you a job. If you’re good enough. No gimmicks, just a great role in a great company.
After all, you can’t eat an iPad.