Wednesday, 18 November 2009


... to a stylish new residence:

... please do take a look.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Three ways to make your writing

A document lands in your inbox. You’ve got to make a decision based on what it says.


You can tackle the contents in any order, skip bits, scribble notes and drink as much tea as you like.

But whichever way you choose to read, however much you skip between pages (or screens) you’ll always be forced to follow a single line, one word after the next, from left to right and top to bottom of each text chunk. And there’s a speed limit, set by the rate you process the incoming line of information.

If this is how we read then how should we write? Here are three ways to make your writing more user-friendly for hard-pushed readers:

Start with the conclusion

If you’ve written a document that ends with a recommendation then I dare you to move your humble opinion up to the start. Try it. Suddenly, everything you say is supporting the opening idea. And if it doesn't …

Dump anything that doesn't support your opening idea

If in doubt, cut it out — no matter how long it took you to craft that line. Be as merciless as the Emperor Ming.

Chop it up and spread it out

The way text looks matters — especially on a screen. It’s dead easy to make your structure clear to the eye after (not before) you’ve worked out what goes where. You can use bold, bullets and any gizmo you like, but remember: the best quality is space. Empty screen or page space. Room for each point to breathe. And making space is easy: just bang the return button a few more times.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Beware the layer cake of negativity

Language and attitudes reinforce each other. If people in your organisation write using passive language then you may have a passive work ethic to address. Compare:

‘I’ll fix this’


‘This will be fixed’

The first statement is active. The action and the person doing it are made clear. And the writer has taken ownership for fixing. It says here’s a positive, hands-on working culture where people naturally think, speak and write in an active way: ‘I’ll check that for you; I’ll follow this up; we’ll work it out…’

The second is passive and unclear: who will fix it? It’s the talk of an impersonal, disengaged work culture: ‘this will be reviewed; arrangements have been made; a resolution will be reached…’

People still say ‘it’s more than my job’s worth’ without irony. This is a passive statement about being passive to a passive situation. Any taste of action or involvement is lost deep in a layer-cake of negativity.

If Mr. Jobsworth is slumped at the passive end of the spectrum of engagement then who’s at the active extreme? Jamie Oliver. Yes sir.  If you want writing supersaturated with active statements then have a peep at The Naked Chef:

“I do love food – I’m obsessed by it. I think about breakfast in the evening and dinner at breakfast. I often daydream about family dinners ten days in advance… It goes a bit like this: English asparagus has come in, the peas are sweet and bursting in your mouth, the mint in the herb box is growing like the clappers and strangling the rosemary, leafy Sicilian lemons are about – bloody hell, this is great – I know for a fact that I’ve got some extra virgin olive oil stashed in the back of the cupboard at home, some great Arborio risotto rice, some tagliatelle or spaghetti even, I’ve got fresh organic eggs which are double-yolkers and golden and I’ve got a couple of those goose eggs from Mr Turnip down Borough Market. I could make a frittata with some Pecorino and Parmesan, or maybe some goat’s cheese. My mouth’s beginning to water; right, I’ll buy those peas mate and I’ll have that asparagus. I’ll eat some of these peas raw while I’m waiting to pay.”

Now you may not want to resemble Jamie Oliver in any way, but his writing has qualities of energy, confidence and ownership that are there for any organisation to harness, just by changing a few habits and making the switch to active language.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Toxic language

Language that failed to explain is partly to blame for the state of our economy. The system that relied on confidence fell to a confidence trick, because it trusted jargon that hid the truth about value at risk.

If this brand was a person...

Here's some essential reading for anybody in the business of helping large organisations develop a consistent written tone of voice.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Clear out your content

Depressions bring fresh breezes. Now is the time to clean up and strip back your communications to a point where your message is clear. To do this, look at everything you give your audience to read, and for each document ask the question: what’s the point? What is the purpose of this piece of writing? And is this the best way to achieve it? The brand team at E.ON applied this test and cut the annual volume of mail sent out by about 860,000 letters. When Royal Mail reviewed the purpose and design of its redirection instructions about ten years ago, it led to changes that reduced admin costs by £10,000 a week. If everyone could do this perfectly then junk mail wouldn't exist. That would be a real spring clean for our world.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Don't blame the messenger

Professor Michael Shayer of King's College London recently repeated a study first done in 1976 to test the problem-solving abilities of 800 secondary pupils. He found they’ve got better at quick-fire descriptive responses, but worse at more complex reasoning.

Text message culture is widely blamed for this ‘dumbing down’, but let’s not accuse the medium — telegrams never made us stupid. What matters is the writer’s intent. More than 350 years ago, Blaise Pascal felt compelled to apologise for a long letter because he hadn’t time to make it short. Being concise is hard; it takes effort to pack a tight snowball.

Texts, Twitter and other messaging services force the writer to be brief, so we inevitably use them for speed. But what happens, what has always happened, when you ration the words of a writer with creative intentions? You get poetry. Consider haikus — ancient Japanese poems with a strict format, most commonly one verse of three lines, with five syllables in the first line (re-frid-ger-ra-tor — that’s your lot) seven in the second and five in the last. They’re popular as ever today for the way they pack meaning. Ten years ago Salon magazine began a mini subculture with a competition to rewrite Microsoft’s on-screen error messages as haiku poems:

Something you entered

transcended parameters.

So much is unknown.

Your file was so big.

It might be very useful.

But now it is gone.

Three things are certain:

Death, taxes and lost data.

Guess which has occurred.

A crash reduces

Your expensive computer

To a simple stone.

The average character count for each of these is 65. That’s a lot less than the 160 you get to write a text message, or even the 140 allowed for ‘tweeting’ on the microblogging service Twitter.

So it’s unfair to blame lazy language and shallow thought on Messenger, Twitter or any other technology that forces conciseness upon us. The expansive Stephen Fry has become an unlikely champion of Twitter. Last week he found himself stuck with his mobile and time to kill, but took no more than his 140 character allowance to convey it all — fact, feeling and personality — in what has already become a classic 'tweet':

'OK. This is now mad. I am stuck in a lift on the 26th floor of Centre Point. Hell’s Teeth. We could be here for hours. Arse, poo and widdle.'