Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Tools of the Trade

Perhaps what separates a writer from normal people is an unholy fascination with words and language and a quite unnatural ability to get lost in a reference book for hours. It's very strange, I'm sure, for a normal, healthy person with a simple question like, "what is a neologism?" to end up, two hours later, prostrate on the sofa contemplating the derivation of the term "couch potato". I had to sit up to write this.

And what is the deal with however? Why can't it be an conjunction like but? Well, it can, but it isn't meant to be. However is, first and foremost, an adverb. That puts it firmly in the same camp as such words as totally, profligately, animatedly and beautifully (and firmly, just quietly - see what I did there?). However is a little weird though. It means "in whichever manner". So you can write something however you like, but you're not supposed to use it to mean "although" or "nevertheless". This is pretty hotly contested stuff among nerds of English and, frankly, my dear, I fall on the side of its comfortable use, sometimes, as a conjunction.

Losing sleep over however is not a good idea. You're far better off losing sleep over the things that matter. Like food, your health, the roof over your head; Maslow's hierarchy of needs comes to mind. But for those of us who write for a living, or even for fun, or even just to annoy our family and friends, or all three; language matters. It matters because it carries meaning. Meaning is the end-game of language. My words reach your brain in this magical telepathy thingimywhatsit and bingo! you've got my message.

If the words are wrong, or the grammar incorrect, the meaning will be unclear and it's likely that my message is not the same as your message. That is, what I thought I was conveying is not what you have understood, which is a big problem. Major conflicts in the home, in the boardroom, on the playing field, at the pub and sometimes between nation states, arise this way.

Clarity is the hallmark of good language usage. If your words are wrong, they're not doing their job. So if you have a message to convey, and limited space to convey it in, then you'd best get it right. Which is why I have these books, and spend stupid amounts of time pouring over them. It may be unnatural, but it is interesting and it helps me help people get their message across to their audience effectively.

(And don't, please, start on me about ending sentences with a preposition... or starting them with a conjunction for that matter. It is something up with which I shall not put.)

Monday, 25 July 2016

People read interesting things...

...and you can sell your services or products at the same time.

It's important that you share. Give people information. And if they like that information, it may spur them on to buy your service. This is the brave new world of marketing and advertising - content marketing. Really, the days of in-your-face, unwanted advertising are over. Advertising is still useful for brand awareness, but what will really encourage your customers is a story. Something useful. Something entertaining.
If you hit your customers with annoying ads, guess what, they'll get annoyed. Annoyed customers are not paying customers. Paying customers are what you want. But you need their permission first. The permission to ask for their custom. That means giving them something first. In the modern era, that thing is information. So you need to tell them a story, give them some insight, tell them about your day, share a report, be generous with information, and ONLY THEN tell them how awesome you are at fixing whatever problem they have (especially if you've just created that problem for them, a classic sales technique that even in 2016 still works).

Yes, it is a little more time consuming than shouting "BUY MY PRODUCT/SERVICE!" from the rooftops, but it is far more effective, and arguably the only way to cut through the noise these days. After all, the best viral marketing gets people involved and wanting to share without any further prompting at all. Give them a reason to share what you say, and spread your word. That's where products and services fly.

It's The Story, Stupid!

It’s a beautiful thing when the copy taps your story. I saw this advertisement today in Kings Cross, Sydney, while I was waiting for a shuttlebus to take me to the airport after four and a half weeks with a hire car. It was a long trip, and just as it was over, I had to negotiate a refund on the early return of the vehicle, which meant sifting though my wallet for the exact credit card that I had used to pay for the car. No other credit card would work in the circumstances. Needless to say, the ease with which payments can be made was on my mind.

The ad stands out for a couple of reasons. First, it is wordy! No three-word slogans here. And this on a major city road! I imagine that a two-word slogan such as “Innovative Payments” might have been tried here, but no, we get an eight word statement. A driver, whilst negotiating the snarl of Sydney streets, is being asked to digest a complete English sentence. Isn’t that a risk to both the driver and the advertised message?
I think not. Which leads me to the second feature of this ad. It tells a little story. More precisely, it can’t help but sneak in to YOUR story. Yours is the big story, after all, and you are the chief protagonist in your grand adventure. You like it when things just work, which is why when Honda used a Rube Goldberg device in a TV ad with the line, “Isn’t it nice when things just work?” You said to yourself, “Yes! It is!” and then went and bought an Accord. Ok, maybe not, or maybe you’re too young to remember that ad. Perhaps Honda isn’t for you, maybe a Honda is not part of the story you tell yourself about who you are and who you want to be. Narrative. It’s what makes the world go round, and we could all do with painless payments, right?
None of this takes you long to ponder. If you can read English, you can read an eight word sentence in probably less than a second. Trust me, you’ve parsed those words, even if the message takes a little longer to sink in. That train of thought happens naturally even as you get upset with the cab driver stopping suddenly in front of you. Suddenly, thanks to eight words, a better payments system seems… “right”. Better than a slogan, don’t you think?

I write, a lot, and story is what it’s all about. Really, without a narrative hook, nothing is going to get into that fabulous brain of yours. So, if you need to sell something, or get a message across, remember to become part of the hero’s journey. It’s worth paying for.