THE PLAIN TEXT GAZETTE – Issue 6, March 2003
* When communication doesn’t #6: You’ve got mail!
* Shifting sense: a miscellany of words with changed meanings
Welcome to the first Plain Text Gazette of 2003. It’s shaping up to be an interesting year for language. Recent corporate scandals and the unmasking of the ‘spin’ culture endemic in many governments have boosted the search for plain, unvarnished truth. The web has played an admirable role, with satirical sites and weblogs cocking a snook at the ‘official story’. But I read recently that a US soft drinks brand is recruiting young ‘key influence (web)loggers’ to promote a new milk drink in their online diaries. Can you imagine the result: “And, like, at least there was some Lux-o-Lait in the fridge. Kewl!”
Which illustrates that however unvarnished the language and the medium, it eventually gets subverted. And the consumer’s job of trying to extract fact from hype becomes ever more difficult.
This kind of stuff makes Plain Text come over all (small c) conservative. What’s wrong with having a good product, that people want to buy, promoting it honestly and in clear language; and waiting for the word to spread? Call me naive, but it works for us.
There’s a glimmer of hope, though. A recent column by the FT’s Lucy Kellaway surely sounded the death knell for corporate psychobabble. Her irreverent critique of Accenture’s annual report, which was awash with ‘delivering’, ‘leveraging’ and ‘solutions’, perhaps showed that the consultants had been reading the Plain Text Gazette on case studies for all the wrong reasons.
Talking of our website, we’ve made one minor update this time: adding a client list. Take a look and see what company you would keep as a Plain Text client.
And finally, a brief apology to all of you who are still waiting for a printed copy of the ‘A-Z of Plain Text’. It is a fact of small (writing) business life that we spend much more time on other people’s marketing collateral than our own. We still plan to print it soon and thank you for your patience.
Keep it plain,
Unless someone comes up with a type of written business communication that they’d like us to cover, this will be the last in our ‘when communication doesn’t’ series. To recap, thus far we’ve covered: press releases, presentations, case studies, brochures and writing for the web.
This time, it’s the turn of the humble promotional letter or email, about which we have a few basic things to say in the A-Z of Plain Text.
One would have thought the standard of writing in direct marketing would have been honed to glittering perfection by decades of research into consumer psychology and campaign effectiveness. But what do we get through our letterboxes?
“New! Free stuff coming your way soon!
Dear Mr Waddington
Would you like some new, free stuff? Of course you would. Have we got a deal for you!!”
OK, so this kind of ghastly consumer DM is a soft target. And experts would doubtless tell me that, sadly, the words ‘new’ and ‘free’ in six-foot high letters of fire always work and always will. They would tell me to look at the creative work on most low-cost airline ads if I was in any doubt about it.
The point being made here, though, is that people are massively sceptical of any unsolicited mail, whether in paper or email form. If you want people to read what you send, you need to follow a few very simple rules. Here are three:
1. Talk your prospect’s language
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
This is just a variation on the oldest theme in communications: knowing your audience. I received an email this week asking if Plain Text would like to get involved in “inducing the media bodies to take part in something that is intangible and to vision it in a tangible format.” Anyone who had taken the trouble to visit our website would know that that sort of cobblers is a one-way ticket to the trash folder. (Using ‘vision’ as a verb should, in our view, attract a custodial sentence).
And if you’re planning to use either emails or letters to send a proposition to a broad audience with different attitudes and expectations, don’t. Letters and emails are personal, direct media, through which people expect personalised communication. Buy some advertising space instead.
2. Say something interesting
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Sounds blindingly obvious. But how many letters and emails just launch into the usual exposition of whatever the offer is:
Need some writing doing? Plain Text can write your brochures, websites and speeches and we also do writing training too.
Give us a call.
Er, that’s it.
The best letters and emails *offer* something (relevant, of course) in return for a few minutes of the jaded reader’s time:
The top 100 UK companies spent GBP 3bn creating information in 2002. None of them had a specific budget for editing it.* Is it any wonder that people don’t always want to read what companies write?”
Plain Text blah blah….”
At least this way you’ve earned the ‘permission’ to invade the in-tray.
3. Explain how you can help
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Again, this is nothing new or mysterious. But if you’ve gone to the trouble of finding something interesting and targeted to tell the prospect, you need to go to the extra trouble of telling them exactly how your offering can help. Either with proof, examples, or a strong argument. In an ideal world, the ‘blah blah’ above would be replaced with something like:
“Plain Text has boosted its customers’ intranet usage by up to 70%** by making content more compelling for readers. If you’d like to find out more…..”
So that’s it for letters. Let us know if there’s any business communications we have missed in the last few Gazettes and we’ll give them the Plain Text treatment.
Shifting sense: a miscellany of words with changed meanings
And finally — the constant evolution of language over time is a source of both joy and pain to language enthusiasts and scholars. Slang is often a great driver of this. Some words are so subverted that their original meaning is lost. Others return to their original meaning, or retain several meanings. Here are a few that we’ve identified to date, in various stages of evolution. For overseas readers, we should point out that this list also highlights how linguistic evolution is a localised phenomenon: maybe some of these terms haven’t changed as far, as fast, or at all, where you live.
– – –
Before: the noise made when one cartoon character hits another
New meaning: the act of lovemaking
Now: rapidly losing currency in the face of coarser competition
– – – –
Before: an institution for the mentally ill
Now: political refuge
– – – – –
Before: Perhaps denoting rapid corridor-based hospital transit
n.b. We should also add more entries from the lexicon of British intoxication, which is a positive ferment of changed words: wasted, smashed, faced, trashed, ratted, mashed. We could go on…
– – – –
Before: evil in principle
New meaning: very good
Now: probably very uncool, but Plain Text wouldn’t know because we’re too old
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Before: trousers or undergarments
New meaning: disappointing
Now: definitely uncool, because non-youth TV presenters use it
– – –
Before: a piece of wood or metal, thick at one end and thin at the other
1980s meaning: money
Now: a piece of wood or metal, thick at one end and thin at the other
That’s it for this issue. As always, keep your comments and suggestions coming and please pass the Plain Text Gazette on to friends and colleagues.
Paul & Paul
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