Sunday, 26 February 2017

The unconscious writing habit you may have that sends your readers to Zzzzzz




WE want people to see us as dynamic and active, someone who gets results. But when we write, we often do it in a way that shows us as passive and indirect — all without realising how we’ve sabotaged ourselves.
Carol wrote the business proposal. (active)
The business proposal was written by Carol. (passive)
The business proposal was written. (passive)
These examples show the difference between the active and passive voices, and they’re the only two we use when we write.
 
The first sentences shows Carol taking action — writing her business proposal, and maybe hoping for a pay rise or promotion.
 
The second focuses on the business proposal being written and the third shows how we can lose information that may be useful — dropping Carol from the sentence.
 
When we use the active voice, we show a doer acting on an object. In the active example, Carol is the doer, writing is her action, and the business proposal is the object she acts upon. We’ve written a sentence that’s quick and easy to understand.
 
When we choose the passive voice, we put the doer after the verb and end up with a flat sentence that often uses more words — while also losing writing energy.
 
Active writing carries more impact. It's that simple. Most of what we read in newspapers and magazines, and on news websites, is active: it’s the kind of writing we pay to read. It’s also how we prefer to speak.
 
Passive writing often feels evasive. Where it enables us to avoid mentioning the ‘doer’ it may prompt readers to feel that someone is trying to dodge a bullet.
 
And it also makes the writer seem… passive.
 
So why is the passive voice so common in business writing? Well, it feels detached and formal, and implies objectivity that’s often an illusion.
 
It often makes writing feel boring and obscure. Read anything written by a lawyer, scientist or accountant, and you'll understand why. Yet we may cling to this approach in the belief that it’s more professional, carrying added authority. It isn't, and it doesn’t.


There's also the possibility that we might be afraid to use the active voice because it feels too bold, too definite. We may have an unpleasant truth we feel it might be best to say softly.
 
The point is not to avoid any use of passive sentences, but to make a conscious choice on what we want to achieve.

Mary threw Bob out of the house last night. (active)
Bob was thrown out of the house last night by Mary. (passive)
Regardless of whether Mary is being reasonable, the active version shows her taking action, which grabs our attention and makes the sentence lively. The passive version feels awkward and clumsy.
 
Active sentences don’t have to involve people at all, nor does the action have to be the kind you’d find in a Hollywood blockbuster. But it might be…

Blood covered the body. (active)
The body was covered with blood. (passive)
This is a nuanced choice, depending on where you want to place your focus — the body or the blood. And on how poetic you want to be about something grisly.
Where your building works are concerned, several mistakes have been admitted. (passive)
Boy, is this an ugly sentence. It feels evasive since no one is owning up to making the mistakes. Readers want answers and zoom in on areas where omissions seem part of a cover-up. The writer of this sentence has avoided making a confession but created a new issue — angry readers.
 
You want readers to arrive at the same meaning, even though they bring different baggage to their reading. Who made the mistakes? Workmen? The site foreman? The building company? The architect? The reader? It makes more sense to be direct.

We/I made several mistakes during your building works. (active)
This sentence won't win any writing awards, but at least it's active, direct and less likely to annoy readers — unless the mistakes aren’t fixed. Clearly, it would also make sense to apologise. How can you do that convincingly if you're not prepared to own up to making a mistake.
 
Sometimes, you may opt for a passive approach because you actively want to avoid finger pointing. Be careful... 

A member of the accounts department was accused of fraud. (passive)
If the accounts department has a small enough staff, one of them may feel relieved by the anonymity, while the rest feel aggrieved that colleagues believe them to be guilty. 

Of course, it's possible that legal issues may stop you from being more specific. And that's fine, even if it's a difficult choice that irritates some people. The main thing is to know what you want to say, and take the most honest approach within any obvious restrictions.
 
There are also times when knowing who took action is implied or irrelevant, times when a passive approach doesn't create a loss of writing impact.

Police arrested a 35-year-old man today for the murder of… (active)
A 35-year-old man was arrested today for the murder of… (passive)
Here we are more interested in who has been arrested than we are in who made the arrest — we understand this is usually the police.
 
Breaking into a sweat over a single misplaced passive sentence is overkill. But a document riddled with them will drive readers away.
 
The active voice is easier to read than the passive one, and your first task with any document is to keep people reading until they reach the end.
 
It may take time to diagnose whether you have a passive sentence habit, and that discovery may shock you. It's the hardest writing habit to change because it's so ingrained, but you can gradually shift to a more active approach if that feels comfortable.
 
Microsoft Word can be set to highlight possible passive sentences and I’ll show you the pros and cons of software analysis in a later post.
 
For now, look for the word was in your verb and you may be looking at a passive sentence. It’s not a fallible guide — as in the building works example given here — but it’s a start.

Bob was thrown out of the house last night by Mary.
The body was covered with blood.
Where your building works are concerned, several mistakes have been admitted.
A member of the accounts department was accused of fraud.
A 35-year-old man was arrested today for the murder of…
If you find yourself clinging to a passive writing approach you've only just discovered you had, ask yourself why you're reluctant to change. Are you afraid to be upfront? Feathers sometimes need to be ruffled for good reasons. And you’re making roughly the same point, even with the passive voice — you’re just trying to make it more palatable by disguising it. If you’re not prepared to be direct, should you say it at all? It's your choice, and your writing reputation.
 
Being direct is not the same as being blunt. You aren't going to become a troll as long as you choose your words with care and aim for balanced writing.



Ultimately, you are what you write. if you develop an active voice approach, and feel comfortable doing so, you’ll become a more active person — as well as a better writer.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

A few words from the 'crazy' brand show us how ambition and aspiration can conquer the world





THE notion that words can transform the world may seem a little grandiose. Yet writing is a powerful transformative tool, sometimes in a quiet way and sometimes with a fanfare.
We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
These 35 words from the American Declaration of Independence may seem a little dusty for modern language tastes, but they're one of the most influential sentences in the English language.

How does writing as a world-changing craft apply to creating stellar companies and global brands? There is no better example than Apple's 'Think Different' campaign.
Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits.The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. the ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
THE STORY BEHIND THE WORDS
You may see little in these words that's prophetic or delusionally ambitious. Apple, after all, is the world's largest music retailer, has more than one billion actively used products, and was the first American company to be valued at more than $700 billion. 

But these words would have struck you differently in the late 1990s when Apple's fortunes were bleak. Having previously been forced out of Apple, Steve Jobs had been wooed back to save the company he'd co-founded years before. Apple was three months from bankruptcy. It needed a miracle.

Jobs and Lee Clow, the creative director of ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day, had worked together before and agreed on the need for a brand image campaign that would remind people of what was distinctive about Apple. Despite its financial woes, Apple was one of the top five brands in the world, thanks to some faithful customers.

But it had a fundamental problem. 'We at Apple had forgotten who we were,' said Jobs. 'One way to remember who you are is to remember who your heroes are.' This realisation was to kick off a campaign that become known as the 'crazy ones', a campaign praising those who 'think different'. 

Even with a simple core idea, it wasn't an easy plan to pull off. Consumers were already holding back from replacing old Apple computers thanks to the publicity about Apple's financial woes. And Jobs was known to be uncompromising, someone notoriously hard to please. He hated the first draft of the TV ad, but agreed it carried a brilliant idea, confirming the ad agency's view that the soul of the campaign was there from the beginning.
  
Ultimately, the final draft used the 101 words shown above as a voiceover by actor Richard Dreyfus, a dedicated Apple fan. Black-and-white footage of 20th century icons — the likes of Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr, Richard Branson, Muhammad Ali, Mohandas Gandhi, Alfred Hitchcock and Pablo Picasso — provided the visual backdrop.

You can see the ad here

Few companies could have pulled off such an audacious plan, associating a nearly-bankrupt brand with a host of world-changing figures. But Apple backed its 'Think Different' approach and the campaign was instrumental in the company's path back to profit. 

The words defined the company's target audience at the deep level of values and philosophy, and declared its purpose of changing the world. Unusually for a tech company, the campaign used not a word of jargon.

In time, Jobs and Apple would transform five industries — personal computers, mobile phones and tablet computing, digital publishing, and animated films. You could argue that Apple made a dent in retailing too, by launching stores radically different than those of most retailers. But it's a path few have dared to follow.

So how do the words work?

PURPOSE
There's no quick fix here. No computers, technical specs or prices. Instead, we have long-term vision, a reflection of Jobs, the man, and Apple, the company. The campaign foreshadowed the company's mission... 'The people who think they can change the world are the ones who do.'

Apple would follow through on its ambitious declaration by creating and selling revolutionary products to people intent on making a difference in the world. That's where we came in. And, let's face it, we'd all like to believe we can change the world a little before we die.

READERS/VIEWERS
We've all been through times when we felt different from the crowd, out of sync with the accepted norm. 

And we identify with the rebels and heroes who stand up for their beliefs, no matter what the consequences. We admire them for getting back up when they fail, dusting themselves off and having another go. We wish we had their courage, persistence — and their eventual success.

The Apple campaign invited each of us to become a crazy, genius disrupter, someone made of the right stuff — creative, courageous and full of vision. How could we resist? 

RESEARCH
Jobs was not a man keen on research and focus groups, preferring to trust his gut instinct and personal vision of how the world ought to be. More often than not, he got what he wanted.

But Apple also had an existing product niche in the creative industries. The company had evidence to support the belief it was already a magnet for those crazy rebels who wanted to make a difference. The goal was simple: make that group bigger.

STRUCTURE
These words are in the style of a toast being delivered at an industry event just before a lifetime achievement award is handed over with smiles and greeted by rapturous applause.

A clear idea, carried by simple words, building with momentum, emotion and punch.

LANGUAGE SKILLS
We may feel this to be the area where all the writing happens, but the heavy lifting had already been done. Apple had a huge vision and clear target audience, along with a workable structure — the only job left was to choose the right words to express its message.

We all recognise good writing when we read it or hear it. Our reaction is both visceral and intellectual. With great work, we don't mind if the writer breaks grammar 'rules', and the chances are we won't even notice, so caught up are we with the power of the vision.

Apple showed the confidence to break a couple of language conventions:
  • sentence fragments — at odds with grammar 'rules'.
  • sentences that start with conjunctions — something most English teachers would tell students to avoid.
Since Apple's target audience were the crazy genius types, it was unlikely they'd object to breaking a couple of 'rules'.

But where it was important, those involved in the 'Think Different' campaign grappled with anal detail as well as big-picture vision. They even debated the grammatical issue of whether 'different' was being used to modify the verb 'think'. Was it an adverb? A grammatical mistake? Should it be 'Think Differently'?

Jobs insisted he wanted 'different' to be used as a noun — as in 'think big' — not an adverb — as in 'think differently'. It was no mistake, but a deliberate choice.

It's important to remember that the message of the 'Think Different' campaign stretched beyond potential customers. It targeted staff too, becoming a touchstone that reminded everyone of Apple's philosophy. 

Given the parlous state of the company's finances, the campaign risked scorn and laughter. Instead, it marked a turning point in the company's fortunes. It told staff what they needed to do to keep the company on track, reminded existing customers why they bought Apple in the first place, and wooed new ones with an ambitious, appealing vision.

This handful of words is simple and brave, aspirational and inspirational, shows clarity and purpose, and demonstrates the confidence to break some language 'rules'.

Whether we're building a world-class company, rallying a cause, or trying to turn a complainant into a follower, these words show that we don't need a thesaurus of words to make a strong case that enlists readers to your purpose. We just need smart ones.