I recently listened to a podcast by The Writer, where Robert Lane Greene, columnist for The Economist, talked about all things language-related.

While it was largely geared around The Economist's famous style guide, I think many of the points raised can be applied to industries outside of publishing.

Here’s a bit of expansion on what I found interesting and the reasons why brands of all kinds should take heed.

Simplicity doesn't mean ‘dumbing down’

The first topic up for discussion was how businesses and brands can instantly improve their use of language.

The general consensus seemed to be that, instead of thinking about the writing itself, the first step is to consider the person reading it.

It’s a simple tactic, but certainly one that finance-related brands in particular fail to execute, with many using unnecessary jargon or complicated language to convey the message instead.

Of course, there is the argument that the language used is a by-product of a complicated industry (like banking or technology, for example), and that making it any simpler would be a case of dumbing down.

But on the contrary, I think it is the smartest approach. Often the most successful companies are the ones that speak in the simplest and least-complex terms. And as well as engaging and attracting consumers in the first place, this can also lead to a superior customer experience.

Experian is a great example of a brand that uses clear and concise copy to aid the user journey.

It is designed to be as simple as possible, replacing standard words and sentences with conversational phrases to help users understand better. Even its login form is designed with this in mind, giving the user a subtle nudge in case they've forgotten their username.

Avoid the ‘curse of knowledge’

The ‘curse of knowledge’ is a term used to describe when an individual unknowingly assumes that the people they are communicating with have a certain level of understanding on a given topic.

Often, this is the reason behind unnecessarily complex copy.

One thing that The Economist does is make its writing as tight and succinct as possible, often cutting down first drafts to avoid arguably redundant words like ‘top’ and ‘very’. By writing in this way, it ensures that a naïve reader is more likely to understand it, as well as someone with an existing amount of knowledge.

Online investment management company, Nutmeg, also uses language to convey a sense of clarity and transparency.

Instead of explaining what it can offer the consumer, it steps into their shoes, highlighting the questions they are likely to have and providing answers in a straightforward way.

What's more, it does not try to hide potential pitfalls (such as the questions of the user doing it themselves) but deliberately points them out - something that the user will instinctively appreciate.

Below is a great example of how Nutmeg deliberately avoids the ‘curse of knowledge’. Instead of assuming that the reader knows what diversification means, it provides the definition at the beginning of the sentence. 

Write like you speak

Finally, onto the question of how and why brands often misjudge their tone of voice.

Speaking about language bugbears, Robert gave the example of airline companies placing a heavy stress on verbs when communicating with passengers, e.g. “Unfortunately, ladies and gents, we ARE experiencing a delay. This means we WILL be remaining here for the time being.” 

This type of thing doesn’t just happen when words are spoken out loud. One of my own bugbears is how brands attempt to reach a younger demographic by using certain slang words or phrases they think will resonate.

Of course, this can be incredibly effective for brands that are built around a very specific tone of voice (and target a certain age bracket). Fashion brands like Missguided and ASOS, for example, use colloquialisms to reach a millennial audience – and they do it well. 

However, there are a lot of brands, again often financial, that sound superficial when they alter or change their tone of voice to try and reach a younger audience. It often comes across as cringy rather than cool.

Alternatively, the best examples are brands that do not dumb down or try to be edgy, but ones that aim to be direct and relevant.

Barclays is a good example, often discussing topics like student finance and graduating without being patronising or pretending to be cool. Its LifeSkills series – designed to help youngsters get the skills they need to succeed after school and university – is particularly good. 

As well as being customer-centric, asking users exactly who they are and what they want from the service, it is engaging and conversational whilst being informative at the same time.

If you'd like to improve your skills in this area, check out Econsultancy's Online Copywriting training course.

Nikki Gilliland

Published 3 January, 2017 by Nikki Gilliland @ Econsultancy

Nikki is a Writer at Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (2)

Tom Parnell

Tom Parnell, Head of eCommerce at Oliver Spencer

Hi Nikki -- thanks for an interesting article. Could we have a link to the podcast you mention in your intro, please?

over 1 year ago

Nikki Gilliland

Nikki Gilliland, Writer at EconsultancyStaff

over 1 year ago

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