I often say to clients: if you’re selling spades, you should start by writing a heading which says ‘we sell spades, they cost £5 each’ and then build on that, changing as little as you can. (Apple did this really well with its original iPod advertisements: ‘1000 songs in your pocket, $400.’)

Everyone’s a writer – here’s the play what I wrote

One of the great things about the Web is that it turns anyone into a publisher with a global reach. It’s also one of the worst.

Let’s face it: people’s ability to write (or create any form of website content) is varied to say the least. Communication standards may not matter too much on a personal blog, but on a company website they most certainly do.

I do find that – as a general rule – most companies would engage a copywriter and proofreader when creating a company brochure, but for their website (especially if it has a content management system) they will most likely wade in and create the content themselves. (Strange really, considering that most brochures are seen by a few hundred or thousand people, and a website is available to hundreds of millions.)

Well, that’s what a content management system is for, you may argue. I would argue that it isn’t. A content management system is there to facilitate content getting onto a website quickly, cheaply – without the need to drag in a Web developer every time you want to update something. But it isn’t there so that you can abandon all of the structure and quality controls that should apply to your formal communications. It’s that old adage of ‘just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should’.

This isn’t just about grammar and spelling, though of course that plays a part too. It’s more about the clarity of what’s communicated.

Speaking your customers’ language, not your own

I’ve found that many people find it hard to recognise that people outside their own industry don’t as readily understand that industry’s own common terms as they suppose.

I’ll give you some examples.

  • Many training companies like to use the phrase ‘learning intervention’. When challenged, they use it because they feel that what they offer is ‘more than a training course’ and that ‘training’ doesn’t sound important enough. They also feel that their customers, being training buyers, are familiar enough with the phrase to understand what’s being said. That may well be true, but it’s still a more obscure and less immediate way of saying something simple. So, while people ‘understand’ it, it’s still slower for them to process – it makes them think, and not in a good way. Plus, it’s lousy for search engines: who types ‘learning intervention’ into a search engine instead of ‘training course’? Finally, it doesn’t even achieve the dubious aim of sounding impressive – it merely sounds inflated, pretentious and self-important. (If the ‘learning intervention’ wasn’t a course, then just say what it was – a coaching session, e-learning programme, some consulting or whatever.) If you Google ‘learning intervention’ you’ll find it has only around 20,500 hits and all the top hits are highbrow industry papers and research – this shows you where the term is more comfortably used.
  • Some people fall into the trap of being more fascinated with the process of what they deliver than the outcome. Customers are typically not interested in the process, since they are buying the outcome. The process may well need to be covered in some way, but it shouldn’t be the focal point of the copy. I’ve found this to be true with many HR companies, who often go into great detail, using unapproachable industry-speak, about how they operate – and sometimes totally fail to tell customers what will be gained by using their services.
  • Many technology companies describe their products or services in ways that are so inflated that it’s hard to tell what they actually do. Here’s a cracker, from Microsoft: “A comprehensive business management solution that provides midsize and larger organizations end-to-end industry-specific functionality, Microsoft Dynamics AX also is built to make it easier to do business across locations and countries. With Microsoft Dynamics AX, you can be confident that your solution is relevant to the demands of your industry and business.“ What utter garbage. This is the introductory paragraph, so it should pass the elevator test (you get into a lift with someone important, they ask you what you do, you have to tell them before the elevator gets to the next floor). This paragraph contains nothing but pompous marketing fluff – there’s no product information whatsoever!

Make it clear – start with the basic facts

The Web is definitely changing the nature of communications. People want information quickly, and they want it to be delivered clearly. This is especially true of product or service information – when people are buying, they want to make comparisons quickly.

When creating your copy, list the key facts first – the things that are of immediate and direct benefit to customers. Build your copy around those. Avoid the temptation to ‘elevate’ your copy by adding in words that are jargon, unapproachable or plain pompous. They will not make you look more important, they simply obscure your message.

As you can see from my blog, I’m not prescriptive about copy being short, or any specific length. Short is better, but long is often needed. (My blogs tend to be quite long, for instance.) But clarity of communications is always, always needed.