Thursday, May 31, 2007

A word I really must stop using

Like everyone in my business, I frequently and unthinkingly use the word audience (often in conjunction with "target") to refer to the people towards whom a piece of communication is directed.

But I really shouldn't. Why? Because it conjures up all the wrong mental images: a large group of people, sitting contentedly on comfy seats, looking forward to the entertainment which they have chosen to spend their evening enjoying, and for which they have probably paid handsomely. True, they may leave at the interval, if they're disappointed in the show; but for the first half at hour at least, they'll be determined to have a good time.

Good persuasive writers don't write for an audience. They write for an individual reader, who probably has better things to do, and who will certainly be off like a shot if her attention isn't immediately engaged.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Can bad be good?

It hurts to admit it, but I suspect that, just occasionally, it can. Take, for example, the home made effort above. "All our time is going to waste" is, by any objective standard, a terrible line. In pursuit of a wearisome pun, our friends at McCarthy Skip Hire have only succeeded in communicating what an inefficiently run business they are. "We're total rubbish" would have been more self-denigrating, but not by much.

And yet. It has a kind of charm, doesn't it? We find ourselves picturing Mr McCarthy, alone in his office late one evening, turning to marketing matters after a hard day's waste management. We see him, tapping out the line above, typing with only two fingers . . . and somehow, we sense his pleasure in his own verbal inventiveness, and the pride he feels in his business. "All our time is going to waste?" he ponders, with a faint smile. "Yeah, that says it all, really."

And, in complete contradiction to everything I supposedly believe, I think he's right.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

No credibility? Borrow someone else's.

A couple of weeks ago, I made a brief appearance on a Radio 4 programme called Word of Mouth, talking about persuasive communication. The following day, my book's Amazon sales rating soared to 371 (up from 870,000 just a few weeks ago).

Why am I telling you this? Partly, I admit, because I'm hoping you'll be impressed by my brief brush with best-sellerdom. (Very brief: I see I'm back down to 23,741 today.) But mostly because I think this story illustrates an interesting point about credibility.

With no false modesty at all, my performance in the interview wasn't particularly brilliant; and, of course, for radio listeners, my name means nothing at all. But the fact that the BBC had invited me to take part in the programme gave my book an endorsement that persuaded quite a few listeners to log on and order a copy.

Sometimes, what you say matters less than where you say it.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Why do estate agents write like that?

We're in the process of moving, which is deeply painful and traumatic. And it's made more so by the horrible and inexplicable abuses that estate agents inflict on the English language.

Yes, I know I'm not the first person to make that observation. But allow me, anyway, by way of therapy, to share you with the Top 6 Things I Hate About the Way Estate Agents Write:

"Benefits from"

A house or flat doesn't benefit from having gas central heating or double glazing, the inhabitants do.


As in "2-bed flat boasting a large open plan kitchen-diner". No!


Completely unnecessary. Nothing is lost by shortening "A Victorian mid-terrace with accommodation comprising 2 large receptions . . . " to "Victorian mid-terrace with 2 large receptions . . ." or even " Victorian mid-terrace, 2 large receptions . . ."

"Having "

As in "a three bed town house having a south facing garden". Why "having"? What's wrong with "with"?


Always redundant. "A period 4 bed semi family home situated in the heart of Redland."


Bizarre. Where do estate agents learn to write "to the first floor there is a large master bedroom . . ."? I've literally never heard anyone else use "to" like this. Oi, estate agents, it's "on the first floor . . ."

Anyway, thanks for letting me get that off my chest. I feel a bit better now. Now, off to find a desirable new residence in a sought after location boasting many period features, while I still have the strength.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Word Watch: fulsome

Look up fulsome in the dictionary, and you'll discover that it's quite a negative adjective. It means, roughly, "offensively excessive". So fulsome praise, for example, isn't praise at all; it's gushingly insincere flattery.

Except that nowadays it isn't. Whenever you see fulsome used these days, it invariably means something like "lavish" or "generous", with no pejorative sense at all.

The meaning of words can change over time. Good persuasive writers understand this. They may know the "correct" meaning of a particular word, but they recognise that insisting on using it in that sense - thereby showing that they know better than their readers - won't help them achieve the result they want.