Category : Copywriting

photo of two editing books

Five tips to help you compile a company style guide

Whether you’re a sole trader or a multinational organisation that employs thousands of people worldwide, it’s important to ensure your corporate tone of voice remains consistent across all your documents, presentations, promotional print, and social media platforms. However, as you may already have discovered in your own business, this is easier said than done…

Let’s be honest: it’s hard enough to remain consistent in your use of the English language when there’s just one of you generating copy. Multiply that by tens, hundreds or even thousands of texts being written by myriad writers in a larger company, and suddenly the task of remaining consistent in your turn of phrase and terminology escalates to one of gargantuan proportions.

I’ve mentioned before the concept of having a corporate style guide to help address this issue of consistency. So here are five tips to help you start compiling a guide which you can give to anyone writing text for your company:

  1. Decide how formal/informal you wish to sound in your communications with your customers. My previous blog post No ducking out of it: your business needs a consistent tone of voice talked about the different ways you can address your readership (e.g. “you” or “our customers”) or indeed refer to yourselves (“we” or “Messrs Brown & Co.”), as well as examining various other techniques that determine formality or informality of tone.
  2. Compile a list of in-house terminology that has been agreed for use by your company. Every industry has its own jargon and even within individual branches of a business, an in-house vocabulary will evolve.  The interesting thing about jargon is that often those using it are so familiar with this (to them) everyday terminology, they don’t appreciate that someone new to the company might not understand what certain terms mean – far less feel confident about including them in a report or presentation. By providing your writer(s) with  a list of the specialist terms or specific words and phrases that your business uses regularly, you’ll make it easier for new additions to your team to become conversant with your in-house style rather than drown in a sea of unfamiliar vocabulary.
  3. Clearly set out in your style guide any words or turns of phrase that your company does not wish to use (or at least would prefer to avoid using, wherever possible) in its written materials. For example, it may be company policy to refer to people who buy your products as “customers” and never “clients”, or vice versa.  You might wish to ban completely the use of the word “change” in your commercial documents and insist on using “improvement” or “enhancement”, etc. However, you can’t expect a new member of staff to know, without being told, these small – yet significant – details.
  4. Stipulate whether you wish to use UK or US spelling in your corporate communications (e.g. UK spelling “organise” or US spelling “organize”, “favour” or “favor”, “colour” or “color”, “labour” or “labor”…). When you’re proofreading any text that you or your colleagues have written, always run a search for common US or UK variants, depending on which spelling you wish to banish from your prose. And remember to exercise extreme caution when using the search and replace facility – for reasons that I mentioned in a previous post Spellcheckers – the proofreader’s friend or foe
  5. Flag up regular offenders, i.e. words that you’ve noticed staff writing about your company’s products or services sometimes mix up or get wrong. This may vary from company to company or even from department to department, but over a period of time, a content manager or communications manager will begin to identify certain “rogue” spellings or incorrect word choices that pop up again and again. Just to give you an idea of the sort of thing I’m talking about, here are three that seem to dog many people who write corporate copy:
  • Practise vs practice: I’m presuming that most of the people reading this blog will be using UK English in their documentation. If so, “practice” is a noun, e.g. “There is a new veterinary practice opening in town…” or “My music practice starts at 7  p.m. every evening…” The other spelling (with an “s”) is reserved for the verb e.g. “Tomorrow I’m going to practise my golf swing.” NB: American English uses just one spelling for both noun and verb (“practice”).
  • Loose vs lose: In basic terms, if you are referring to the verb that means to mislay something then use “lose”, e.g. “He loses his tie every morning.” If you are describing a new pair of trousers that is too large for you round the waist (I wish!!) then you want the adjective “loose”.
  • 1960s  vs 1960’s: No apostrophe is required if you simply mean the decade of the 1960s, as this is a plural noun, not a possessive, e.g. “I went to every Beatles concert held in the 1960s.”  However, if you are talking about the best-selling record of the specific year 1960 then you would write, “This was 1960’s biggest hit.”

So complex is the process of maintaining a consistent style across hundreds of documents that these pointers are, admittedly, just the tip of the textual iceberg. However, at least they will give you a good foundation upon which to start building your very own company style guide. Good luck!

 

 

 

Can of soup with tomatoes

Manage expectations and avoid disappointed clients

My mum’s home-made potato soup is exceedingly tasty – she calls it “Mother’s Brew” and we, her now-very-grown-up children, have been fans of this tattie-based treasure since even before we could hold a spoon. However, one memorable day, when I was eight or nine, mother informed my brother and me (yes, “me” is correct   – see why here) that we would be having tomato soup for lunch. I should explain that, until that point, tomato soup in our house had always meant the familiar Heinz Cream of Tomato: smooth in texture, vibrant orange in colour, and tasting… well, tasting the way I expected tomato soup to taste.

On the fateful day in question, however, our busy mother had valiantly decided to turn her hand to home-made tomato soup. With the benefit of hindsight (and personal experience of cooking for myriad ungrateful offspring!), I now appreciate her taking the time to make the soup from first principles and how authentically “tomatoey” her homemade version was. I also realise she was probably endeavouring to protect  her offspring from any nasty preservatives that might have been lurking in old-fashioned canned soups.

However, on being presented with her lovingly prepared concoction, my brother and I were… unimpressed. Indeed our reaction went well beyond childish disappointment – we were aghast, and we didn’t hesitate to make our displeasure known, bemoaning the unfamiliar lumpy texture and substantially less sweet taste of this imposter, masquerading under the name “tomato soup”.

Why our seemingly unreasonable and hyperbolic reaction? Well, essentially, because it wasn’t what we’d expected.

And, of course, it’s the same with marketing products and services. Your customers’ expectations have to be managed, and one way of doing that is by ensuring that your website and printed promotional materials convey an honest, no-surprises (unless they’re good ones!) account of what your customers can realistically expect. The truth, packaged in an engaging, interesting way, is far more wholesome than unrealistic promises that are destined to disappoint.

Had my mother warned us in advance what to expect from her homemade tomato soup –  for example, that it would have a different texture and flavour from what we’d experienced before, and that it boasted the benefit of being healthier for us – my brother and I would have been better prepared for, and more receptive to, the alien, tart-flavoured, ruby-coloured, chunky broth that appeared in our plates.

So when you’re pondering the wording for your new website or printed promotional materials, make sure your copy does two things:

  • prepare your customers for precisely what your organisation will supply, using unambiguous, engaging language.
  • tell them why it’ll be beneficial to them by giving clear examples of the advantages of using your product/service.

That way your customers will know exactly what to expect – and there will be no unwelcome surprises.  After all, Yours Truly is the living proof that unwelcome surprises can be remembered for a very long time…

 

 

Top 10 topics for Facebook success in one post – can you do better?

food - one of the top 10 Facebook topics

I was fascinated, earlier today, to come across a list of the top 10 topics on Facebook likely to engage readers. Being a foodie, I was rather surprised to note that “food” came in at 10th place – in fact, to be honest I was even rather disappointed, because in my rare leisure hours I also happen to write a food and lifestyle blog!

Another poor performer in the top 10 was “business”, which was malingering at no.9. You’d have thought, given the importance of business (one way or another) to our lives, that this topic might have come in a little higher. What can we take from this? Probably that people don’t always want to read about your business on Facebook – unless you’re offering them a rather attractive deal (and even doing that too often can turn people off!). So what DO people want to read about on Facebook?

Well, here are the topics that ranked above comestibles and commerce in the eyes of the global Facebook fraternity:

1. Music

2. Television

3. Holidays

4. Software

5. Religion

6. Celebrities

7. Film

8. Books

[9. Business

10. Food]

This set me thinking about the perfect Facebook post – surely one that includes the top ten topics. Unfortunately, this wasn’t going to be an easy task for someone who rarely watches TV or films and thus has a rather unimpressive knowledge of celebrities. However, I do enjoy a challenge, so here’s the best I could come up with… Could this be the ultimate Facebook post?

“There I was, alternately listening to Céline Dion and watching Poirot on the first night of my annual summer jaunt to San Tropez when suddenly the software on my high-tech media system failed catastrophically. ‘Oh God!’ I shrieked. ‘Now I won’t be able to watch Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge tonight. I guess I’ll just have to resort to reading Duncan Bannatyne’s ‘How to be Smart with your Money’ while munching a bag of Minstrels instead.'”

Now I’m fairly sure you  could do better than this. So sure, in fact, that I’ll post a little packet of Galaxy Minstrels to the writer of what I deem to be the best effort (max. 75 words)  – at a UK address of his or her choice. Just post your offering on the EurowordUK Facebook page and like the page by 5pm on Friday 11th July, and over the weekend I’ll pick the post that this particular reader finds most engaging.

PS: Remember that your post needs to feature all 10 topics (or allude to each of them in some way) and  in the correct order. Over to  you…

 

 

 

 

The age-old question: John and “I” or John and “me”?

delicate grammar points

Mondays can be a delicate time for our grey cells as they gear up for the week ahead, so here’s a little “gramm-ercise” to ease us in gently…

“John and I…” or “John and me…”? Well, it all depends on whether John and you are the subject or the object of the clause or sentence. Here are a couple of examples to help you decide next time you’re torn.

John and I are going to eat fish pie at home this evening.”

Using “I” is perfectly correct here, as John and I are the people who “are going to eat” – in other words, we are the subjects of the sentence.

It would not, however, be correct to say, “John and me are going to eat fish pie at home this evening”.

And why is that?

Simple: because “me” is the pronoun that we use when the “I” (whoever “I” may be) is not the subject of the sentence, i.e. not the person who is (in this case) going to eat the fish pie. Let’s look at an example where “me” would be correct:

“My aunt is not a kind person. She and my uncle do not like my brother and me.”

Here “me” is the right choice – not “I” – as the people doing the liking (i.e. the subjects of the sentence) are “She (aka my aunt) and my uncle”, whereas the writer’s brother and the writer are the people who are on the receiving end of the dislike (so they are the objects of the sentence).

One quick way to check whether you should use “I” or “me” in a sentence is to remove the other person from the equation. Let’s try that with the first example. If we were to tell John to leave the house and were planning to eat on our own, we’d say, “I am going to eat alone.”

If English is our mother tongue, we would somehow know instinctively not to say “Me am going to eat alone.” Of course, you could still use that version if you wished, but there’s a distinct risk you might sound like a two-year-old… You’d know it sounded better to say “I” when you are the subject of the sentence, and you are still a subject of that sentence if we add John back into the equation – hence “John and I are going to eat…”

Next, let’s try the same technique with the second example. If the writer didn’t have a brother, with the result that the aunt and uncle had only one person to dislike, it would sound rather odd for the writer to claim, “She and my uncle do not like I” – we would instinctively know to use “me”. So all we need to remember is that we still need to use “me” if our brother is also one of the objects of the sentence – hence “(they) do not like my brother and me”!

A new addition vs a new edition

photo of ewe nuzzling new lamb

Put simply: one bleats and the other is published

When I’m wearing my private tutor’s hat, I always advise my pupils that if they hear a word they don’t know the meaning of three times within a week, it’s definitely time to look it up. My theory is that if they’ve heard a word that frequently, it could easily rise spectre-like from a Higher English close reading paper to haunt them.

Being a consistent soul, I feel duty-bound to extend my vocabulary rule of thumb to editing advice as well, and that’s what has prompted this quick “heads-up” post. The phrase I’ve seen used incorrectly three times in the past week is “a new edition to the family”, whereas what the writer almost certainly meant was “a new addition to the family” (i.e. a baby or a pet).

So I thought it might be helpful to clarify the difference between these two, albeit similar-sounding, words…

Addition (noun): The act or process of adding OR something that has been added to something else, e.g. The black  lamb was a new ADDITION to our flock.

Not to be confused with…

Edition (noun): a specific form or version of a published text, e.g. I prefer the previous EDITION of this book.

Dictionary in library