There are a number of machine readability widgets online. They make for quite a satisfying way to check the before and after of a piece of text you might be editing. Reds are bad, greens are good. The report on the left was for the URL of a law firm. The report on the right is the the readability index of the copycourse site. Why make life difficult for your readers?
Rather than asking “What are you trying to say?”, it helps if you ask: “If you had a magic wand was is it that you’d ideally like to achieve?” For example, one of the most useless messages in the world is “Give up smoking!”
So if you stop and ask what are you trying to achieve, the answer is obviously helping people to give up smoking. You then decide what you have to say in order to achieve that. The magic wand question focuses people on the change in behaviour, not the message. Creating the right message is a seperate part of the process.
You might come up with a much more powerful piece of communication than just “Give up smoking!” You might approach it from a more strategic direction, like this campaign by Richard Foster at AMV BBDO to make people become responsible for passive smoking.
This process also allows you to break down a mammoth task into much more manageable chunks. For example, create a patch trial initiative, as one part in a four part process. In which case your change in behaviour is picking up a patch from the chemist. Once you give up the notion that’s there’s something to say, and think in terms of a change in behaviour by things you can say, you can become a better communicator.
There are your best case histories from five years ago, whose important features now look stale or no longer relevant to the problems of today.
Then there are other case histories which while showing brilliance on the part of your organisation remain so classified and secret you can’t breathe a word of the brilliance to anyone.
And there still more case histories which while very good are quite incomplete or partial. Somehow telling them seems to feel like the story ended too soon, or started too late or other players did the important chunks of it and steal the thunder.
It’s often very difficult to curate a decent show from what’s left, after you’ve culled the ones that won’t see the light of day. The result is many case histories become short and inconclusive; others are hard to follow, and leave a reader, or new business prospect, none the wiser.
So how do you create convincing, engaging case histories that don’t drop anyone in it and feel like they belong to today?
Write 3 seperate drafts
One really simple approach is to split the task into two or three clear and distinct phases, each of which needs its own mind-set.
The first mindset you’ll need is an investigative historian or journalist.
Use this to write a Warts-and-All version first, on the sacred internal understanding that you’re showing it to absolutely no-one externally. But get a case or set of cases written so they’re clear, readable and true without having to worry about other considerations. If necessary, interview the people involved with a tape recorder so you can fully concentrate on what they’re telling you and ask questions that probe what really happened.
Then, when that’s done change your hat to that of a doctor; rewrite your Warts and All text as a sanitised version.
Change the client names, the product names, the industries.
No confidences betrayed, no clients made to look stupid. Transforming it in that way isn’t always a straightforward task but it’s much easier to do when you’re at least clear about what actually happened.
After you’ve written the sanitised version you are free to go one step further.
The hat you need now is a dramatist and or teacher.
You can work backwards from what clients have started to ask the business for. This is the idealised version where you combine different elements of cases that you’ve successfully managed in the past and bring them together so demonstrate solving the problems of today.
Make up the presenting problem, roll two elements from different cases into one, exclude confusing subplots, streamline the story. Do what ever it takes so the story while not literally true is authentic. You may need to write a disclaimer for this, but your audience will usually understand this automatically anyway, just from the genre.
There may never have been a case exactly like this but all the essential features are your company’s bread and butter. The fluency with which you describe the cases communicates your mastery over all the issues, and that’s the real point of the writing.
You will need to give yourself some creative licence to do this, but it’s a good way of showing just how much knowledge your organisation really holds.
When you’ve finished this not only will you have a valuable new business tool for future business, it will also serve to educate new people starting today the triumphs of the past.
In David Attenborough’s short trailer he demonstrates how to launch an argument and sell in documentary in just a few powerful seconds. If you’ve done the Copycourse you’ll recognise the structure he uses a mile off.
David Attenborough: I am David Attenborough and I am 93. I ‘ve had the most extraordinary life. It’s only now that I appreciate how extraordinary. The living world is a unique and spectacular Marvel. Yet the way we humans live on earth is sending it into a decline. Human beings have over run over the world. We are replacing the wild with the tame.
This film is my witness statement about my vision for the future. The story about how we came to make this, our greatest mistake. How if we act now we can yet to put it right. Our planet is heading for disaster. You need to learn how to work rather nature rather than against it. And I’m going to tell you how. In cinemas 2020.
The Fiat Coupe ad, copywriter Gideon Todes, art director Sally Bargman agency DMB&B 1995
When the ad launched, the car sold out and the second hand price of the car exceeded the list price for a new car. The ad itself was shot on what was then regarded as an unfeasibly small budget and the toys car you see in the middle of the commercial was actually sourced from my parents attic.
A few years ago organisations suddenly woke up to a question proposed by this man, Simon Sinek. He asked what is your Why? He pointed out that in a world where every product is on the way to being a commodity, the only thing that differentiates it, is the ethos and the why of the company that’s creating the product. And that if you start from the Why and works outwards you get more compelling communications than when you start at the commodity end and forget the why. The why of an organisation is really another way of saying what role does it want to play in our lives, and the biggest clue to that is the tone it uses to speak to us.
In the world of celebrity chefs there is plenty of competition. Nigella Lawson has created a niche for herself as the lover brand of chef. She can’t resist temptation, loves chocolate, the recipes may or may not work if you’re being precise, but hey, precision takes second place to passion. One of her most telling quotes is that she never understands people who forget to eat. “I never forget to eat,” she says.
And so all the passionate love of food with a hint of sexual desire get transmitted in her TV and writing. Here it is brilliantly spoofed by Private Eye’s Craig Brown.
This is a brass plaque that used to live where the post office was in Kentish Town, London. It remains one of the most improbable and impenetrable sentences I’ve ever read. And yet it exists and presumably makes sense in some kind of context. That context will of course be a legal one, and to some lawyer maybe from another century it makes perfect sense. The point is, this communication is best and perhaps only understood in terms of a contract that lies outside the communication itself.
One question that is very useful to ask is: What’s the contract that surrounds a piece of text? Is it a coercive context like a legal framework? Or is it a persuasive context like an advertising poster? Every piece of writing has a contract and it’s usually implicit.
A broadsheet newspaper might be: Pay to read this and we will give you thoughts ideas and information that is reasonably accurate and will make you look more informed in your social and business interactions. We will be interesting enough for you to want to read.
A parking ticket and parking signage has a very different contract: Read this carefully or not, it’s up to you. Fail to understand what we mean and we’ll tow your car away anyway.
The less well a parking signage is written the more revenue the council can collect. It’s one of the reasons signage is often so difficult to fathom.
Over control and obsession with health and safety is the biggest killer of creativity. And it seems parents in the UK have become masters of it, but not so in Germany and Denmark. Maybe as this video suggests, because they were able to observe what kids were doing on bomb sites after the war. It’s tempting to link this with a lower child suicide rate in these countries too. Whatever your parental notions are, the lessons for creativity are clear. It’s a messy business and if you over protect you ultimately stifle.
In his eloquent argument for the hands on physician, Verghese also gives us a masterclass in case history telling, weaving as he does, one story into the next. He also touches on the quintessential case history expert, the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. Enjoy.