By Aidan Clifford, Creative Consultant, The Writer
‘Words of the Year’ are a Distraction
Allyship. Perseverance. Vax. Vaccine. These words were recognised by the big dictionaries as saying something important about 2021. Collins’ shortlist was particularly eclectic. It included NFT, cheugy, climate anxiety and metaverse. And Grammarly’s extended to sayings like hybrid work and the great resignation.
Can brands use these insights? Not really. Staying relevant isn’t as easy as talking about non-fungible tokens or filling your copy with Gen Z slang. To prepare for 2022, you have to look at the trends behind the words. And, taken together, the dictionaries’ lists describe a year of social protest and excessive screen-time.
So, a question for anyone who works with brand language: how can you write for a reader who is, at the same time, pricked by their social conscience and pinged by their phone? These are our suggestions:
1. Write for Everyone
When millions of people take to the street, it tends to start a conversation. And brands are still grappling with the questions and objections raised during the summer of protest in 2020. While progressive brands like Ben & Jerry’s delivered impassioned statements about racial justice and white supremacy, others felt unable to cast stones.
Since then, brands have had the time to act. They’ve reviewed policies, overhauled hiring practices, and changed their approach to marketing. They’re looking beyond preconceived notions about who might use their products to speak to a wider audience.
Take Etsy as an example; their ‘Gift Like You Mean It’ campaign told the stories of people in minority groups to make a point about customising gifts to the individual.
The stakes are high. Consumers are calling out organisations that aren’t inclusive enough. A year ago, the UK government withdrew an ad after it went viral for being sexist. It encouraged people to stay home and save lives. But it illustrated this message with an image of women doing chores while a man relaxed on a sofa.
So, if you write for a brand, remember you’re writing for a broad audience of potential buyers. And show respect for your readers through the language you use. Here’s how to make a start:
Use Pronouns Properly
When you’re speaking in general terms, it’s usually best to use they and them in your sentences. For example, you could write ‘When an athlete laces up our trainers, he will immediately feel the difference’, but more people would identify with ‘When an athlete laces up our trainers, they will immediately feel the difference’.
Put People First (Most of the Time)
People can’t be reduced to our race, age, gender or sexuality, because they’re all of those things at once — and more. So try to look beyond a single trait. And avoid labels like a dad or an alcoholic. Instead, think ‘person first’ and use phrases like a person with children or a person with alcoholism. (See how the person comes before the characteristic?) Now, there are exceptions to this rule. Many autistic people have chosen to call themselves just that — autistic people — for example. So pay attention to how people describe themselves.
Ditch Outdated Terms and Phrases
Once you start interrogating your language, you’ll be surprised at how many common expressions support problematic ideas. ‘Who wears the trousers?’, ‘man up’ or ‘boys will be boys’ uphold sexist stereotypes, for instance. Then there are terms that are simply misleading. Lunatic shouldn’t be used, because it comes from a time when people thought the phases of the moon affected mental health. When you learn a phrase is outdated or excludes people, our advice is simple: once you become aware, stop using it.
2. Keep it Brief
Grammarly were on to something when they chose hybrid working as a phrase that defined 2021. The daily traffic for video conferencing has quintupled since the start of the pandemic. And that total includes calls for pub quizzes and murder mysteries as well as meetings about quarterly projections.
The internet has been a precious source of education, entertainment and social contact through successive lockdowns. So it’s no surprise that, for many of us, screentime has doubled. But living online has had an unintended consequence: it’s changing the way we read.
Research by Ziming Lui from San Jose State University suggests skimming has become the norm. Readers’ eyes scan over text in F or Z patterns when it’s presented on a screen. They take in the headline and flit over the first sentence of each paragraph, but generally they’re browsing and word-spotting.
Brands can’t fight this change in behaviour, so they should facilitate it. If they want consumers’ attention, they need to make their writing easy to scan. Here’s our four digestible tips:
- Keep your sentences below 20 words. Longer statements are harder to process.
- Replace long words with shorter ones. Your writing will sound more conversational.
- Use subheadings that summarise each section. Make sure even the laziest skimmer takes away the essential information you want to deliver.
- Ask readers to do one thing — and one thing only. Don’t make them choose between many possible actions.
As a bonus, following these tips will also make your language more inclusive. Your writing will become accessible to people who speak English as a second language or who have a disability like dyslexia.
This Could be Your Year
Before you finish your list of New Year’s resolutions, add a couple about brand language. Write in a way that’s simple and inclusive — and rise to the challenges of 2022.
About the Author
Aidan hunts down arresting words and evocative phrases for brands and businesses. How? Scribbling on Post-its, mostly.
His career started at BT. As a founding member of their in-house creative team, he worked on whitepapers about cybersecurity, odes to key workers and ads for the national press. You can still see his fingerprints on the company’s purpose, strategy and tone of voice. (And yes, he can still fix a router.)
Before he found copywriting, his heart belonged to internal communications. The profession gave him permission to play with ideas: throwing music festivals in call centres, hosting radio shows for engineers, touring the country with a mannequin called Ian. Aidan’s campaigns were as ambitious as they were effective.
Throw him a brief and he’ll show you his favourite trick: turning the sticky notes on his desk into banknotes for your business.