Thursday, November 30, 2006

So how will Souped-Up Astra Guy respond to this?

Actually, I set out to snap a "baby on board" sticker - but I came across this first, and I think it may be even more nauseating.

Worse still, from our point of view, it's a disaster as a piece of persuasive writing. To understand why, we need - as ever - to consider the reader and, first, the intended result.

It's possible, I suppose, that some people put these stickers in their car windows for no other reason than to make the unhappily childless feel completely terrible. But, in most cases, we must assume the aim is to persuade other drivers to exercise special care in the vicinity of the vehicle carrying this precious cargo.

So who is being addressed? Logic suggests that it must be the more reckless and antisocial kind of driver; the (usually) young male in the souped up Astra GTi who, especially when lagered up, is more likely than anyone to careen into the side of the family MPV, with tragic consequenes.

And what are the chances that Souped-up and Slightly Pissed Astra Guy will respond to this message: "A baby? Bless! Time I mended my mended my ways, and started to drive considerably more carefully."

Not good, I'd suggest. "Tiny person on board"? You might as well drive around with a sticker saying, "Smug middle class driver. Feel free to cut me up at the lights."

Friday, November 24, 2006

Time to take climage change seriously. The Clangers say so.

Oliver Postgate is a worried man. As you may have noticed, the creator of some of our best loved children's TV shows, has been running a series of ads in national newspapers and magazines, warning us of the perils of climate change.

In many ways, it's an admirable thing to do. He clearly feels passionately on the subject, and he must have spent a fortune on the advertising space. But I'm afraid that, in terms of the persuasive effect of his ads, he's wasting his money. Not because they are badly written: the arguments are over-heated (appropriately enough, you may feel), but quite well expressed.

No, the problem lies in the bottom right corner of the ads - where, in the place conventionally occupied by the client's logo, we see a small pink woolly long-nosed creature, under which runs the line: "Sponsored, anxiously, by THE CLANGERS".

In persuasive communication, provenance matters. As readers, one of the first questions we ask (consciously or unconsciously) as we read is: who is telling me this? And this leads directly follow-up questions like what do they stand to gain? And why should I believe them?

If we want to be informed and warned about global warming, we might turn to George Monbiot in The Guardian. Or visit Friends of the Earth's website. Or go to Google and search a billion learned and not-so-learned sources. But it's pretty unlikely that we'd think of consulting a knitted toy.

So nice try Mr Postgate, but no cigar. The characters you've created have entertained millions of children, and no doubt made the world a better, happier place. But saving the planet? Not even Bagpuss could manage that.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

How the words we use betray us, part 132

The other day I read a letter on a problem page from a woman whose partner had recently left his wife and children, to be with her.

Not content with having won her man, she felt powerfully aggrieved by his insistence on continuing to give a large chunk of his income to his first family - money she felt he should be spending on her and her children by an earlier relationship.

What's more, she had a clinching argument: her new partner's ex-wife was a professional woman with "ample funds" at her disposal.

Ample funds? How, precisely, is that different from "enough money"?

Usually, the reason for using this kind of language is transparent: a desire, on the part of the writer, to make something sound impressive. ("We received in excess of 10 applications for the job", for example, sounds so much better than "more than 10" or even just "11".)

But here, I think, the motive was probably quite different. "Ample funds" sounds coldly formal. "Enough money", in contrast, has an everyday ring to it that brings to mind - well, the opposite of having enough money. Kids going to school in shoes that don't fit. A woman sitting with her head in her hands, wondering how she's going to pay the electricity bill. That kind of thing.

I think that, quite unconsciously, she wrote "ample funds" to insulate herself from the pain she knew she was partly responsible for causing. I'm pretty sure it didn't work, though.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Picture the scene: a harlot is sitting on the back of a fearsome beast . . .

OK, so it didn't succeed in persuading me to leave the paths of unrighteousness. But, as an example of how to write an opening sentence that compels you to read on, it would be very hard to improve on the leaflet thrust into my hands by two fresh-faced Jehovah's Witnesses, the other day. (See above.)

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Hole in the wall? Pah!

Every time I see this I shudder with loathing, and I thought it might be useful to explore why.

The obvious persuasive writing crime being committed here is that, as readers, we feel patronised. "Hole in the wall" is a nickname; and, in part, it reflects a degree of warmth. Broadly speaking, we like cash machines; they are one of the few bits of modern technology that just about everyone (except my mum) has come to accept as an indispensable part of everyday life. On the other hand, we don't much like banks - which is why, like most nicknames, this one also conveys a hint of disrespect. (We know that banks themselves refer to ATMs, which sounds much more technological and important.)

So, in deciding to adopt "our" terminology as their own, this particular bank is manifestly trying to ingratiate itself with us; like the teacher who learns that he is known throughout the school as Old Fishface, and henceforward introduces himself by that nickname to every new class he teaches.

And, anyway, why have a sign at all? No other bank does. They give us credit for knowing that, when we see a machine with a screen and a digital keypad outside one of their branches, its purpose is almost certainly to dispense crisp new currency - rather than to order a pizza or access an online computer dating service.

Patronising and redundant: two more reasons why I'll never throw in my lot, financially speaking, with the Hole in the Wall Gang.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Why teenagers talk loudly on their mobiles in so-called quiet carriages.

Of course, it's not just teenagers who do it. But when the offender is over the age of 25 or so, the explanation isn't very interesting: anti-social tosser pretty much covers it. With younger miscreants, though, I think there's a bit more going on.

My children's generation (21, 19 and 14, thank you for asking) have grown up with mobile phones. They're umbilically attached. Using their mobiles isn't something they do, it's part of who they are. They talk on their mobiles (or text or download clips from YouTube or gamble or check how their shares are performing on them) at all times, whatever else they may be doing.

As a result, they are simply unable to imagine how anyone could possibly object to hearing someone else talking on their mobile. Of course, they see the signs telling them that they are in a quiet carriage and asking them to refrain from mobile phone use; but, to them, the concepts involved in this communication are so outlandishly bizarre as to be utterly unintelligible. Don't talk on your mobile here? You might as well put up a notice reading "Stucco, fish, wimple", and expect them to undersand how they should respond.

However well we use words, sometimes we may have to accept that the person we want to reach just isn't receptive to what we have to say.