News is just in that 10-year-old digital agency Lean Mean Fighting Machine (now there’s a good name) has been bought up by M&C Saatchi.
What interested us was the language used to describe the merger.
Here’s what a partner at the digital hotshop said:
“It’s only my wife’s persistence that has stopped me tattooing the Lean Mean Fighting Machine logo on my arm. I love this agency like a weird adopted child. But after ten years, the time feels right to mix things up a bit.”
Whereas the CEO of the bigger agency said this:
“Lean Mean Fighting Machine’s sense of adventure and innovation perfectly complement M&C Saatchi’s entrepreneurial spirit. Likewise, their industry defining skills across all digital channels will augment our extensive digital capabilities, allowing us to unlock more creative opportunities for our clients.”
We know how to write persuasively. You speak to your reader, flatter them, sell your benefits. But Microsoft’s system has gone AWOL. In an ad effectively trying to persuade businesses to ditch Windows XP and upgrade to Windows 7 or 8, they’ve taken a peculiar tone.
Microsoft’s stance has the potential to make their customers feel silly. The article starts: ‘It’s time to embrace the future, not the past’. Now, it’s good to encourage customers to ‘embrace the future’. You sound aspirational – a great way for Microsoft to sound. But it’s the comment trailing behind the comma that shows where Microsoft’s persuasion goes astray. Customers could feel foolish reading this if they haven’t upgraded yet. They won’t have been trying to ‘embrace’ the past, they might have just not got round to updating yet. But Microsoft go further than potentially making customers feel silly.
Microsoft use their artillery to leave customers feeling worried. They bombard them with the risks of not upgrading. They tell them that it’ll be like a ‘fire’. It’ll ‘wreak havoc’. It’ll hold your defenceless data ‘ransom’. And exposed in no-man’s land, you’ll be at a ‘greater chance of attack’. For Microsoft, this does make sense. They do need customers to understand the dangers of using an older system, but in trying to persuade them to upgrade they could use a less scary technique. Rather than worrying customers, they could’ve sold the benefits of Windows 7 or 8 over XP.
Although Microsoft do nothing wrong in warning customers, they might inadvertently end up scaring them. It seems that they’ve missed a trick. Rather than writing negatives and showing their fears that customers will ‘crash and burn’ without them, they should have shown customers how great their new products are.
If you work in brand or advertising, you might remember a story from 2007 about a new TV ad from Guinness.
It was eight years since their 1999 classic, Surfer – which had been voted ‘Best ad ever’ in a Sunday Times poll.
(If you haven’t seen that one, watch it now with the sound turned up. It’s still incredible over a decade on. And so many other great ads – including Honda’s Cog and Cadbury’s Gorilla – are indebted to it.)
Anyway. A hard act to beat.
Everyone tried their best. They ended up making the most expensive Guinness ad ever – in total, around £10 million was put behind it. And the press coverage all led on the ‘how much it cost to make’ angle.
We’ve no idea whether it paid back or not. But for all that cash, it left us cold. (You can make up your own mind here.)
The point is, a big production budget doesn’t guarantee a great idea.
Shoreditch fitness club Frame didn’t have millions to spend. Their yoga promotion wouldn’t even stretch to a photo shoot.
But they did come up with a great idea. It’s funny. It’s cheeky. And it stops you in your tracks.
It was great to see some personal favourites in among the list, too. Like the creepily inappropriate open the kimono. Not yet widespread in the UK, we have heard it in boardrooms of global phone companies along the M4.
And we liked the entry on empower: ‘Also called “the most condescending transitive verb ever.” It suggests that ‘You can do a little bit of this, but I’m still in charge here.’”
Burning Platform is neatly extinguished, too: ‘Jargon for an impending crisis. Better: “We’re in big trouble.”
There’s even a nod to the career-limiting potential of this kind of language. In the words of a top headhunter, “aspiring managers would do well to remember that if you can’t express your idea without buzzwords, there may not be an idea there at all.”
January. Brrr. How are those New Year’s resolutions doing? Hopefully you haven’t given up just yet.
Perhaps you didn’t make any. In which case, we’d like to suggest one that shouldn’t be too hard to keep:
Write more like you speak.
“What? Write exactly like I speak?”
Well, no, not exactly. We’re not suggesting you start dropping lots of ums and errs into your emails – the ‘fillers’ that pepper most people’s everyday chat.
But when you’re at work – writing to a colleague, or for a customer – just think a bit more about the words that you’re choosing.
That’s an important word, too. Choosing. Every word we use is a choice, whether we’ve made it deliberately or not. We say choose the most natural words when you’re writing, instead of the jargon-y, business-speak-y ones we all pick up over time.
Why? Well, it makes things easier to read. Easier to understand. And more likely to have the right effect. More natural writing feels more personal. Put simply, it’s nicer.
Why say alternatively, when or will do?
What’s the point of dispatched, when you can just write sent?
There’s no need to amend. You can update, or change.
Get into the natural habit, and your words will sound warmer.
How can you tell what’s natural?
Easy. Just read it out loud. If the words flow freely, chances are that they’re fine. It’s when they start to sound funny, a bit 1940s-newsreader-like, that it’s time for an edit.
Ask yourself, would I really say that? You know. Out in the real world.
If you’d left your phone in the pub, you’d never say oh no, I’ve left my device at the Dog & Duck. But some telecoms firms still write device, even though mobile or iPhone (if it is one) sound better.
At first, it can be hard to hear the difference between what sounds ‘normal’ and what doesn’t. Especially if you’ve gone a bit ‘native’. A long time in an industry can have that effect.
Or maybe you’re a fast learner, and have just fitted in quickly with the way things are done. (Note to managers: that’s why it’s so important you lead by example.)
If that’s what’s happened, try a second pair of eyes.
Ask someone else to read it through for you. Tell them you’re trying to make things sound natural, and they’ll pick out the weird bits that you might have missed.
It will take a bit longer at first. But soon, it’ll be second nature.