Everybody's Doing It, Why Not You?

If you've stepped outside since October, it's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

What that actually means to you is as various as people in general. It could mean dragging plastic trees around the house; spending up big and forgetting it until your statement arrives; or you could be of a faith that only observes this bizarre ritual at a distance.

The language of Christmas - and likewise the language of anti-consumerist sentiments in opposition to it - are quite similar. They both try to persuade people into adopting a tradition that only dates back a couple of generations. Christmas as the gift-swapping, Turkey-engorged ritual we observe every 25th of December is as "made up" as Halloween; though detractors of the former will happily embrace the latter.

Many "traditions" are what we'd refer to today as "viral marketing campaigns"; the DeBeers diamond cartel insisting men save up at least 'three months salary' to buy their fiance an engagement ring with a diamond encrusted on top. That was dreamed up by the N.W. Ayer ad agency in the 1900s, to prop up what was once an abundant and intrinsically worthless gemstone.

We as humans (seem to) need ritual, repetition. It feels safe, and it feels predictable. If we arrived home after work each night and our keys worked one time in ten, we'd feel pretty out of sorts. Marketing and advertising around Christmas often depicts the familiar and cozy - even though a snow-driven Christmas is largely a product of the American imagination. Our drink containers, wrapping paper - even Christmas crackers - all show us images of Snowmen, candy canes, and hot cups of cocoa. All this in the middle of blazing summer, on a continent far removed from the frosted-over driveways of Europe or the United States.

Even as absurd as it sounds, this holiday has near universal support. Is that a good thing? Like most decisions we make in life, that's up to us and us alone. It's a weird one, when you think about it!

How To Make Your Writing Out Of This World

The iconic space station, Deep Space Nine.

The iconic space station, Deep Space Nine.

One of my favourite TV shows is Star Trek. My favourite spin-off is Deep Space Nine. My least favourite is Voyager. Let me tell you a story about both of these shows. (Be prepared for a journey through time and space until we land back on Planet Earth!)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was a bold effort in television at the time. (Not as bold as its rival Babylon 5, but that’s another story.) This was a science fiction show using their abundant technology to stay still. Star Trek was, and is, about exploring strange new worlds. Deep Space Nine was set on a space station. Things interacted with it, not the other way around.

Star Trek: Voyager put a twist on what had come before, however. The premise of “exploring strange new worlds” was still the pillar of the show. However, this time the crew of the titular USS Voyager finds themselves stranded in the Delta Quadrant, 70.000 light years from Earth. Even with the futuristic faster-than-light tech that Star Trek relies on for storytelling, this means a 75-year journey back.

During season two of their epic seven-season run, Deep Space Nine began serialising their stories. They introduced a chilling antagonist in the Dominion, bent on destroying the peaceful Federation and her allies. For a show that was set on a space station, their adventures and conflicts took place between people and tough moral situations. This was an age where binge watching and catch-ups weren’t an option (1993-1999). If you missed a week, you missed a vital part. The final season wrapped up narrative threads artfully set up in the preceding five seasons.

Voyager was the opposite. In comparison, Voyager was a cartoon. Anything that blew up the ship, imperilled the crew, or caused mischief in the Holodeck reset the next week. Voyager was indestructible, from a narrative point of view.

Deep Space Nine was created with no endgame in mind. Voyager had an endgame – get back to Earth. In fact, production staff titled the last episode Endgame. As predicted, they returned to Earth. They had to, right?

So what does this have to do with writing and communication?

Back To Earth - Communication with Purpose

Screenwriting is a form of communication – to directors, actors, prop masters, designers, costumers and so on. So is your writing – to managers, customers, distributors, suppliers, and so on.

Every piece of writing you set to create must have an endgame. There has to be a reason for it, and a set of outcomes you want to achieve. If you lose sight of that endgame, people will tell. It’s why fans pilloried Voyager at the time (and still do to this day.)

Some pieces of writing such as an annual report or a request for comment have an endgame baked into it. A request for comment is defined by its title - it’s asking for requests for comment! But the endgame is not enough. It has to reach out and touch someone. This is the basis for all types of writing. Sharing our wants, needs, and experience using the medium of words.

Connecting With Humanity - Communication with Passion

Once you’ve established an endgame, Deep Space Nine, unlike Voyager, had vulnerability. This vulnerability served a purpose. If your message has no heart, it is pushing uphill to connect with people. If you write without exposing yourself as a vulnerable individual with conflicts and feelings of your own, it falls flat.

Vulnerability is how we connect with readers - the Ancient Greeks called it “pathos”, a critical part of rhetoric, or the art of persuasion. You can connect with readers in a book, an essay, or even a simple email. Vulnerability expert, author, and TED sensation Dr. Brene Brown says vulnerability is the beginning of courage, and courage helps us belong in the world. She says:

“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

Perennial business cliche (and he’s a cliche for 74.8 billion reasons) and Berkshire Hathaway founder Warren Buffett always has an endgame and a vulnerability. As he says himself:

“Whenever I sit down to write the annual report, I pretend I am writing it to one of my sisters. Though highly intelligent, they are not experts on accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them. My goal is simply to give the information I would wish them to supply me if our positions are reversed. To succeed, I don’t need to be Shakespeare; I must have a sincere desire to inform.”

When you reveal yourself as a real person through your writing, you make every instalment an unmissable piece of your story. It must have passion, and it must have purpose.

So in your writing, what will you be? Deep Space Nine, or Voyager?


Want copywriting that's out this world for your business?

Turning Phrases, Turning Heads - Seminar Part 1

Part 1 of my Bayside Business Network seminar, Turning Phrases, Turning Heads is now available on YouTube! I will make Parts 2 and 3 available to seminar attendees next month (October.)

The first part of the seminar covers bad writing, how to make bad writing good, and improving business relationships by looking at how you write and to whom.

I'm also conducting a pared-down workshop-style seminar at NAB Village on 14 November, 2016. Strictly limited spots! If you want to attend, sign up now!

Are You Too Far Away to Persuade?

First off, thanks to all who attended my BBN Seminar at Sandringham Yacht Club on Monday, 9 May. I very much appreciated it! One of the more resonant pieces from my talk was about distance and wordiness. Wordiness - adding too many words for the sake of adding words - creates more distance between yourself and your audience.

The thing about wordiness is this: it creates more flaming hoops to jump through for your reader. If your reader has to sit there, his or her eyes scanning the page waiting for crucial information to leap out at them, they will eventually give up. If people can’t understand the value of your product or service, it may as well have no value.

I had a client that was all into arts and crafts – her business was making custom greeting cards, candles, gifts, that sort of thing. She knew her website content wasn’t working, so I looked through it. Her writing seemed stilted and impenetrable. I didn’t understand what she was selling or why she was selling it. As part of my usual process, I conduct an interview with my clients to get information on the business. It allows me to get to know who they are as people, so I can better express their unique point of view. The person I talked to was such a departure from the “person” on the website, I was almost beside myself. Jamie, or Freckles as her friends call her, was colourful, bubbly, friendly and her website was grey, static, lifeless. It didn’t make sense!

Freckles didn’t play to Freckle’s strengths. Freckles made a craft corner in her bedroom into a hobby business, which is now her full time business. She had that playful, youthful energy about her, and it wasn’t anywhere on the website. That’s because her copy didn’t cut to the core of what Freckles was about – making custom candles and gifts for you is your gift to her. It didn’t come through because there were just too many wrong words on the page for people to get a sense of her.

A lot of writing is cutting. Stephen King said it best – writing (or any creative endeavour) is all about “murdering your darlings” – cutting the unneeded words, sentences, paragraphs. However, the process of writing as writing isn’t thought about as talking onto a page. That’s kind of what it is – we’re substituting our ears for our eyes. What we can't hear we see, and what we're told to see, we imagine. We want to lead our reader down a path toward understanding, familiarity and above all, trust.

It works with business, it works with dating, it works with any human interaction - if you're writing, just be yourself first! It closes your "credibility gap" from page to person.

What do you think? Does wordiness turn you off?

A Word Sparking Star Wars and Real Wars

Star Wars: The Force Awakens drowned us this summer, with merchandising ranging from mascara to oranges on store shelves. Once I saw the new film, I wanted to see the original theatrical versions, undiluted by George Lucas’ meddling. Lucasfilm insists they no longer exist. Of course, legions of fans took it upon themselves to reconstruct the films using a variety of sources. The most controversial change in the first film takes place in the Mos Eisley cantina scene. (spoiler alert – but really, you should’ve seen Star Wars by now!) Green gilled and bug-eyed Greedo corners smuggler Han Solo. Han’s a marked man and Greedo’s itching to collect. In the original version, (after stalling and Han drawing his blaster) Han shoots Greedo “in cold blood.” Here’s what the shooting script says:

Suddenly the slimy alien disappears in a blinding flash of light. 
Han pulls his smoking gun from beneath the table as the other patrons look on in bemused amazement.”

Later revisions show Greedo shooting first, then Han and Greedo shooting at the same time. “So what?” you might think. This visually insignificant change is one that contains multitudes.

It’s supposed to inform viewers that Solo isn’t so trustworthy. Ben and Luke have put in their lot with this low-life braggart. We’re supposed to feel uneasy about this hasty alliance. It changes the tenor of the film. Han could have sold Ben and Luke if captured by the Imperials, left them for dead at any time, etc.

Another far more tragic example of subtle changes having long reaching effects was during the last gasp of World War II. Japan, threatened by invasion from the United States and fast running out of resources, was determined to fight until the last man. The “Big Three” (United Kingdom, Soviet Union and the US) issued an ultimatum for surrender to the Japanese. The Japanese responded in the negative, but suffered from mistranslation. A word – mokusatsuhas two meanings in Japanese. The first being “ignore” and the other, “refrain from comment.” It was the difference between “let us think about it” and “We refuse!” If the message was translated as “no comment,” the Japanese and US may have arrived at a surrender deal, preventing the twin atomic horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This misinterpretation struck consequences far beyond the imaginations of its writers and readers.

It’s a chilling lesson for clarity and precision in communication. We may think that subtle differences make no difference, although we're proven wrong time and time again. If you believe that words are your ally, do – keep in mind words might turn on you without provocation. Remember always: "Expect to misunderstand and expect to be misunderstood."