Say it simply, say it fast
The Edit Part IX
Continuing The Edit, our series on language in modern communications, with a manifesto to improve the way brands talk.
Here at Highbrook we think the way businesses communicate has to change fundamentally. New channels, time pressure and cultural shifts demand a smarter way of writing – concise, clear and less formal, but no less intelligent.
Hence our slogan: Clever Content. Made By Humans.
None of this should suggest dumbing down. Quite the opposite. A great idea is one that can be expressed simply. If it's messy and complicated, you're not doing it right. Astrophysicists, after all, could explain a whole universe in a few formulae.
There are many ways of looking at this – much research has been done on how the human eye scans text when reading on a smartphone; content editors can obsess about exactly how many characters should appear in a heading or opening sentence for the ideal search result. But important as these things are, the basics of good communication are more fundamental.
Here are three pieces of advice for getting your message across.
1. Say what you want to say upfront
The Yahoo! style guide advises Subject-verb-object (“Cat sits on mat”) is the best structure for a headline, because it puts the actor (subject) and the action (verb) first. That’s a tip aimed at SEO, but it’s not a bad manifesto for any piece of writing and indeed is the traditional approach to newspaper headline writing.
Ask yourself what is the most important thing you have to say and put it at the front of the sentence. Compare these two openings:
"Dozens of Monsoon and Accessorize stores could potentially close after advisers were called in."
“The company behind the Monsoon and Accessorize fashion brands has called in advisers to work on the potential closure of dozens of stores...”
The first emphasises what is important. The second obscures the main point: it is the store closures that really matter, not the advisers, much as they are no doubt noble people.
Try to make your point before you put your spin on it. Don’t write: “In a move that will delight cat owners everywhere and horrify rival manufacturers of feline sanitary products, ScoopFirst today launches its 10-day litter bags."
Instead say: "A cat litter that lasts 10 days without changing is today launched by ScoopFirst." Then tell us why it's a good thing.
2. Use rhythm
Short sentences are good. They are easy to understand. Use them often. Don’t overdo it. It becomes monotonous. Readers will be put off.
The reason great poetry is memorable is because it has a rhythm that carries readers along with it. They go with the flow. Varying the length of your sentences will help you to achieve the same affect.
3. Be funny
When the Prime Minister offered to resign but still failed to get her Brexit deal through Parliament, Nicola Sturgeon called it “the day Theresa May tried to fall on her sword. And missed”. We have a hunch that, like the best jokes, that one will live on long after May, Sturgeon and even Brexit are forgotten.
Who can remember who described an attack by a political rival as “like being savaged by a dead sheep”? (Denis Healey of Geoffrey Howe.) And what prompted Nye Bevan, when somebody said his Cabinet colleague Herbert Morrison was “his own worst enemy”, to retort: “Not while I’m alive.”
The best barbs lodge in the memory. A lie may be halfway round the world before truth gets its boots on, but a good joke will outlast them both.