Speaking with forked tongue
It’s time to minimise the difference between how we speak to customers verbally and how we communicate on Web pages
- by Peter Labrow
When writing copy for a client, there’s generally a point at which I have to equalise my vocabulary with theirs. After all, I’m writing ‘as if I am them’ so it’s important that I speak using their vocabulary – it’s part of the normal process of being a copywriter.
What I generally find, though, is that a company has more than one vocabulary. There’s the way that the company speaks when communicating informally (such as in e-mails, conversation, presentations and the like) and the way it speaks when communicating formally (such as in brochures or on a website).
The difference between these two vocabularies is often immense. Verbally, companies are usually direct, clear, honest, funny, personable, helpful and reasonably succinct. Formally, companies are often almost the opposite: indirect, unclear, optimistically promotional, dry, standoffish, take-it-or-leave-it and, quite honestly, verbose.
There are usually four underlying reasons for why there’s such a big disconnect between these two modes of communications.
- Informal communications ‘just happen’ and aren’t copy-written or policed, whereas formal communications are scrutinised and controlled.
- Companies feel that informally written brochures and websites don’t make them sound ‘important’ enough, so want more grand words and phrases.
- Companies will try to say too much. You don’t give someone your life history on a first date, unless you don’t want a second. So, as an example, a sales brochure doesn’t have to contain all of the facts about a product or service, just enough to generate a response.
- Despite knowing that the Internet is a place that’s driving faster, less formal communications, marketing departments and top management just haven’t caught up with what this means to them.
It’s a conversation I have with many clients. Interestingly, most see the point and agree to change, but once documents are submitted for review, the old ways creep back in – by degrees, depending on the client.
It’s easy to see why companies agree that their language needs loosening up. No one wants to be dry, standoffish or verbose. When you look at the four reasons above for the ‘disconnect’, it’s also easy to see why subsequent edits can actually make a document less effective.
Because a team is working on a document, multiple viewpoints and writing styles are introduced from the various stakeholders. Many of these will not be skilled writers, and won’t have thought about the issue of clarity versus complexity. Stakeholders tend to be embedded in the process of delivery and make the assumption that this is interesting to clients and prospects, so write it into the piece, usually with a liberal sprinkling of industry-specific terms and buzzwords. They forget, or have not got sight of, the fact that buyers don’t buy the process, they buy the end result – so that’s what you need the writing to focus on.
Then we have some grand language added. Most people would cringe if they added such words or phrases into a conversation but think that a Web page or leaflet is somehow different. We’re talking about words and phrases such as ‘funding streams’, ‘level playing field’, ‘place-shaping’, ‘procurement’, ‘service users’ and ‘sustainable communities’. Yes, the words/phrases make sense (er, just). But ‘procurement’ doesn’t communicate as effectively as ‘buying’ and ‘customers’ is far more understandable than ‘service users’.
The various copy iterations can lead to a creep in the use of language that is more than a bit uncomfortable.
Of course, customers have to review their texts. After all, a copywriter is not typically going to be a subject-matter expert, so most reviews will correct certain facts, expand topics and so on. And it’s not the job of the copywriter to block all of a client’s changes – after all, a living has to be made. There’s plenty of stuff on the Web that I’ve written, that I’m not 100% happy with. I don’t think that makes me either a flawed writer or a weak person – it just means I acquiesce to my clients’ wishes to give them a piece that they feel happy with. This is important: it’s not my website or brochure, it’s theirs. I can express my views, but it’s theirs that carry the final vote.
There’s a saying that “if it won’t fit on a t-shirt don’t put it on a slide” – to encourage people to provide information succinctly. When it comes to writing formal copy, I’d say: “if it isn’t what would come out of your mouth, don’t let it go on your website/brochure”.
There are two main reasons to support this stance. Each reason is focused on your website’s two main visitors: people and search engines.
The first reason is that website usability research shows clearly that people do not read Web pages. At least, they don’t read them end-to-end, they scan them looking for the information in which they are interested. When scanning them, they do so using direct words – the language they use verbally and mentally. So important-sounding words just get either ignored, or contribute to the person leaving the Web page because he/she can’t find what he/she came for. Those grand words didn’t make you sound better, they just lost you the sale. The nature of website communications is not unlike that of a questioning session. The visitor comes to the site with a question in mind; OK, you don’t know the actual question, but it is going to be focused around the visitor’s needs. The visitor doesn’t need to be overwhelmed with paragraphs about how great you are – the visitor wants products, services, jobs, facts and information.
The second reason is feeding search engines lots of hype is like adding white noise behind a music track. Some of these words are known as ‘stop words’ – words that search engines don’t pay much attention to because they are so common: words such as ‘the’, ‘and’ and so on. But the main issue is that plenty of words have no search engine value – words such as ‘solution’, ‘global’, ‘paradigm’ and so on. These have no value because (firstly) they can be applied to anything, so are too general to form part of a useful search string, and (secondly) people simply don’t use words such as these when searching.
So, for search engines and visitors, a good percentage of your website content can be just noise. Important-sounding noise perhaps, but noise just the same.
There’s a simple checklist to apply when writing or reviewing:
- Does this word/phrase add any real value: does it actually convey more information or is it simply padding for another phrase?
- Is this something that the reader needs to know about now (or indeed, at all)?
- Will it help to generate a response?
- Is there a simpler/shorter way of writing it?
- Would I use the same words verbally? (If I did, would people think I was perhaps being pompous?)
- Does the phrase contain words that people would use when searching?
Sounds simple? Give it a try – it’s actually quite difficult, and can lead to some brutal but very effective website editing.