Friday, November 09, 2007

Last post

I find the subject of persuasive communication endlessly fascinating, so I'm pretty sure I could go on writing this blog for as long as I'm capable of tapping away at a keyboard. But I've decided to bring it to a full stop. This will be my last post. I wonder, though, if I can persuade you to stay with me for just a few more paragraphs while I explain why I've reached this decision?

I suppose the main reason is the obvious one: I think I'm starting to repeat myself. Of course, there's nothing wrong with a bit of repetition in persuasive writing; quite often, it's actually necessary to say the same thing in a number of slightly different ways in order to win someone round to your way of seeing things. But, after a certain point, the law of diminishing returns comes into force, and you start to bore your reader - which, as you'll know if you've read my book, is the second worst crime a persuasive writer can commit. And I'm afraid I may be rapidly approaching that point (if I haven't passed it already).

My other reason for becoming an ex-blogger is, I think, more interesting, since it concerns the medium itself. I've enjoyed writing here very much over the last 15 months or so, but I've never been able to shake off my reservations about the form. Blogging is, for me, just a bit too easy. Take three minutes to get set up, and you're away: no need to think before you write; no quality control; no time to reflect on what you've written before sending it out into the world. No discipline, in fact, of any kind: if I chose, I could interrupt myself right now to give you my mother's famous flapjack recipe, or to share with you the poem I wrote last week. (Don't worry, I'm not going to.)

I'm sure some would say that these are blogging's best attributes; that it's this unboundaried immediacy that gives the best examples of the form their snap, crackle and pop. But, for me, it just feels a bit self-indulgent. And I'm pretty sure I do my best work when there are constraints: a brief to be met, a deadline, a sharply defined objective.

Anyway, I'm clear in my own mind that, in a world where there is way too much information - and where everyone has a vehemently held opinion and the means to express it - one of the biggest courtesies we can show our fellow human-beings is not to communicate with them, unless we feel an overwhelming need to do so, combined with a sincere belief that at least some of them will find what we have to communicate useful, interesting or enjoyable.

Which, of course, brings me back to the main theme of my book: that in persuasive writing, the reader's interests must come first. And right now, my considered professional opinion is that yours will best be served by me shutting up for a bit.

So thanks very much for calling by, and for your interesting comments (I haven't had very many, but their rarity has made those I have received all the more thrilling). Who knows, I might write another book one day, in which case I hope you'll buy multiple copies and give them to all your friends. Meanwhile, if you'd like to get in touch for any reason, I'd be very happy to hear from: just drop me an email from the main Can I Change Your Mind? website (

Bye for now.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Clever stuff, Christians!

Saw this on a sign outside a church today:


Quite clever, no? But I'm not convinced that a word search, however ingenious, is ever going to change a single non-believer's mind.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Beauty for blokes

I'm a huge fan of the language used by the male cosmetics industry. I love the way it tries to reassure us blokes that there's nothing remotely soft or wussy about wanting to take care of our rough horny skin, and generally look our best.

I came across a Logistics range the other day, which has a nice truck-driver-ish ring to it. And words like system and strategy crop up a lot, to emphasise that personal grooming is very much a science rather than an art. My all-time favourite, though, was a bar of soap my wife gave me from a male cosmetics range called Activist - which, for me, conjures up pictures of unkempt protest marchers, or even grimy tree-dwelling eco-warriors, rather than smooth-skinned metrosexuals.

Anyway, I'm still waiting for someone to have the courage to come right out with it and launch a male beauty brand called Absolutely-Definitely-Not-Gay.

Monday, November 05, 2007

The ethics of persuasion

Tell a stranger at a party that you work in the field of persuasive communications, and there's a good chance he or she will ask you how you can sleep at night, when you make your living telling lies on behalf of evil corporations.

Perhaps it sounds naive, but - even after all these years - I'm still always a little surprised to be reminded that so many people feel this way. So let's tackle both halves of the accusation, one at a time.

There's no doubt, unfortunately, that some persuasive communications do tell lies. I'm thinking, for example, of Penelope Cruz and her amazing (but, sadly, fake) eye-lashes. I've never had much time for philosophical debate over what exactly constitutes a lie: if you set out to communicate with people in a way that's clearly intended to deceive them, then, for me, your pants are definitely on fire - whether you're advertising a revolutionary new mascara or talking a nation into an illegal war.

But here's my defence. Actually, very little business communication does deliberately set out to deceive. As persuasive communicators, we're paid to tell the most compelling story possible on behalf of our clients, which will, of course, mean accentuating the positive, focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses. But that isn't the same as deliberately trying to deceive people. In fact, far from imagining our readers are so stupid that we can easily dupe them, we're crediting them with the intelligence to listen to the case that we are presenting as sceptically as they wish, and to reject it if they feel it isn't strong enough.

And there, in that last sentence, is why good persuasive communicators don't lie. It isn't because we are unusually virtuous people. It's because we know that trying to deceive people is too risky. We may get away with it in the short term; but, sooner or late, we'll be found out; trust will be destroyed; and with it our chances of building a lasting relationship with our audience.

So let's spell it out: persuasive communications that lie are bad persuasive communications. They don't work.

As for the evil corporations, my view is that this charge can only really be made to stick if the person levelling it is a hard-line anti-capitalist, living a subsistence lifestyle and eschewing all the temptations waved temptingly under our noses in a modern consumer society.

Unless that describes you (and much respect if it does), I honestly don't think you have any right to take issue with the principle that any business (or other organisation) engaged in legal activities must be entitled to communicate with its customers, or anyone else who might be interested in what they have to say.

Of course, you absolutely have the right (see above) to be unpersuaded by such communications; to be annoyed or offended by them; or to ignore them completely. But would you, if you had the power, make it illegal for the florist's shop opposite your office to put a sign in their window on Mother's Day? Or for your dentist to take an ad in Yellow Pages? Or for your local pizza place to take orders online via their website? No? Then you really can't deny that Nike or Starbucks or Esso or NatWest - or even those tossers at Barclays - should be allowed the same freedom, on a rather bigger scale.

I hope what I've said doesn't sound amoral. I may accept in principle that any legitimate business has a right to tell its story (within any relevant regulatory constraints), but that doesn't mean that I necessarily want to help them find the right words. And, over the years, I have occasionally turned down work for "ethical" reasons.

I've refused work from tobacco manufacturers, on the grounds that there is nothing at all to be said for cigarettes (unlike alcohol, which I have occasionally helped to sell). I said no when I was approached by the tourist board of a country whose government, I felt very strongly, had no respect for the human rights of a sizeable minority of its population. And quite recently, I declined the opportunity to write a series of ads persuading teenagers to spend large amounts of their parents' money on a service sending them texts allegedly from Hollywood A list celebrities (on the grounds that I have teenage children and would be seriously pissed off if anyone tried to flog them such a thing).

To be honest, none of the above demanded any great moral resolve on my part. I didn't want to do the work, and I was probably busy working for other less ethically dubious clients. But a few years ago, I did make one much harder decision.

Having done an enormous amout of work for car manufacturers over 15 year or more, I decided to withdraw completely from the automotive market. Part of the reason, if I'm honest, was boredom: I'd written several thousand ads, mailers, brochures, web banners and radio scripts featuring exhilarating performance, head-turning looks and super-glue handling, and I was in serious danger of becoming jaded. (All right, perhaps I had become jaded.)

But there was an ethical dimension to my decision, too. No, I don't think motor manufacturers are evil and, yes, I do own a car (although it's very, very old and I try not to use it more than I have to). But, generally, my strong feeling is that there are more than enough cars on the roads of this small, polluted island; and, more specifically, I think that communications heavily featuring exhilarating performance, head-turning looks and super-glue handling tend to increase the likelihood of people driving like sociopathic dickheads.

Anyway, these days I won't touch anything on four wheels (or two, for that matter) - and I feel better for it, though also quite a bit poorer since cars used to account for a big chunk of my income. But, then, as the great Bill Bernbach observed, "a principle isn't a principle until it costs you something".

I hope what I've said here doesn't sound smug. I'm certainy not suggesting that my ethical standards are particularly high, or that anyone else should adopt them. My only point is that, as grown-ups earning our living in the business of persuasion, it's up to each of us to decide what we feel comfortable with, and what we don't - and to draw the line accordingly.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The poetry of persuasion

I seem to remember writing somewhere - quite possibly in the opening chapter of my book - that persuasive writing and true creative writing have nothing in common. But it occurs to me that one of the best known poems in the English language has a very persuasive look about it.

So how do I get out of that, then? Not easily. But I think I can just about extricate myself from this apparent self-contradiction. Because I don't believe that Andrew Marvell really wrote To His Coy Mistress with the aim of getting his girlfriend to go all the way, as I believe they used to say in the 17th century. In fact, I don't believe that he necessarily even had a girlfriend at the time. I think he was writing the poem to capture in words something he felt about the fleeting nature of human longings and pleasures in the face of mortality. His main motive, in other words, was not to influence another person, but to express himself.

Anyway, I think it's worth taking the risk of undermining my own argument if it gives me a pretext for including this gorgeous-but-in-my-view-not-truly-persuasive piece of writing:

From To His Coy Mistress, by Andrew Marvell

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapt power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Sunday Worst?

I can't decide which of two ads in yesterday's Observer magazine depresses/enrages me more.

The first shows a shiny black car, with a headline that reads:

"attract plenty of interest (without paying any)"

Can the agency really not have seen that play on the two senses of "interest" in a car ad several thousand times before? No, they must have done; in which case, did they think, "Sod it, it's good enough for another crappy finance ad. And the kind of punter who spends 18 grand on a car isn't going to notice if we flog them a retread."

And here's exhibit 2. A gormless and unshaven bloke, helpfully identified by a caption as Joe Cole, holds a camera. A handwritten headline reads:

"My world is all about great shots"

Would it, theoretically, be possible to deliberately create a worse celebrity testimonial ad than this? I really don't think so. What credibility does Joe Cole have in the world of digital photography? Why, conceivably, might anyone other than a rabid Chelsea fan be impressed by the fact that he apparently endorses this particular camera?

And just how astoundingly limp is the attempt at a verbal link between endorser and product? I'm not a huge football enthusiast, but even I know that Joe Cole is a midfielder who only very occasionally shoots at goal, and mostly attempts to create scoring opportunities for his strikers. So, no, his world isn't all about great shots - and even if it was, that would still be an utterly useless and unengaging line.

So which is my Sunday Worst? I think the sheer can't-be-arsed laziness of the first just shades it over the dinosaur-dumb stupidity of the second. But only by the length of Joe Cole's perfectly art directed stubble.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Is it breezy?

Have you come across a book called The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E B White? It's long held classic status in the US, but I only stumbled on it recently, and I'd very warmly recommend it. Just 100 pages long, it's a guide to writing muscular, flab-free English prose, densely packed with rather ferociously expressed advice, most of which I strongly agree with.

To take just one of many examples, Strunk and White are hotly opposed to nouns being used as verbs, which I also rage against in CICYM. (We were tasked with assessing how this initiative impacts the business . . .") It's interesting and a little sobering to note, though, how quickly usage turns unacceptable barbarisms into everyday language. Writing in the late 50s, Strunk and White strongly objected to both host (as in hosting an event) and chair (as in chairing a meeting), which I'd suggest even the most fastidious prose stylist would use without hesitation today.

Anyway, to the point of this piece, which is that out of all S&W's suggestions and strictures, the one that struck me most forcefully was this:

"Do not affect a breezy style."

Breezy? For some reason, the word sent a little tremor of guilty recognition through me. Without needing to read any further, I felt pretty sure that breeziness was a sin I had sometimes indulged in.

And here, when I did read on, is how the magisterial S&W described a breezy writer: " . . . he obviously has nothing to say, he is showing off and directing the attention of the reader to himself, he is using slang with neither provocation nor ingenuity . . . he is humorless (though full of fun), dull and empty. He has not done his work."

Well, I hope I don't often write in a way that would leave me open to that damning catalogue of charges. And I think it's also worth noting that we live in a different age, where drawing attention to oneself - failing to be self-effacing - is no longer considered quite such a manifest virtue as it was half a century ago.

But, that said, I think it's undeniably true that a huge amount of commercial persuasive writing (including, I'm afraid, some produced by me) could justifiably be accused of breeziness; that's to say, of adopting a light-hearted and jokily facetious style in an attempt to conceal a lack of true substance.