Styles of the unexpected

by Tom Albrighton 10 April 2012 Copywriting, Copywriting reviews, Tone of voice

Recently, I’ve been reading the ever-thoughtful Tim Rich’s posts on Plain English (‘Plain wrong’ and ‘Tis as human a little story’). As you can see from his pieces, Tim has mixed feelings about the Plain English concept:

Clear writing has its place – and there really are plenty of organisations who should communicate with greater clarity – but sometimes there’s more to life than instructions and information. Clarity is a good first step on the path to effective writing, but in business we should aspire to go further.

As Tim says, Plain English delivers what we need, but not necessarily what we want. And, as a guiding principle, it can lead to a uniform, undifferentiated tone; the price of clarity is similarity.

There’s also something reductive, even oppressive, about the Plain English crusade. At its worst, it leads to mechanistic admonishments to use one word over another – ‘use’ instead of ‘utilise’, ‘before’ rather than ‘prior’, and so on. This is writing guidance for those who shouldn’t be writing at all.

Take care

We shouldn’t criminalise individual words. It’s not their fault; it’s the way people use them. When we roll our eyes at jargon, buzzwords and clichés, the cause of our despair is thoughtlessness. Long words, stuffy words, even overused words – they all have their place. We just need to use them with care.

Take ‘engagement’. Chewed over endlessly by digital marketers, it’s starting to lose its flavour. But that’s because they use it so hastily and indiscriminately, as conveniently vague shorthand for hazily understood ideas.

Look again, and there’s still plenty of juice still to be squeezed out. Engagement can mean physical interlocking; a long-term relationship leading to commitment; the occupation of a room meant for one. All relevant, fruitful ideas, ripe for development.

Expectation and surprise

Making writing fresh is all about expectation and surprise. When we come across an unexpected style that also does the job, we’re pleasantly surprised. We enjoy reading, we want to read more and we remember what we’ve read. Reading becomes, in the parlance of our times, a value-adding experience for us.

The surprising style could mix things up in any number of ways: word choice, tone of voice, structure. It could break some rules, or observe some that are rarely kept. It could say something that isn’t said very often, or it could leave the reader to infer its most important message.

In some situations, the surprising style could be very plain. For some ‘posh’ or ‘real’ food brands, the standard-issue tone is funky and informal (a phenomenon I’ve covered at length). Once radical and surprising, it’s been worn smooth by imitation and is now merely expected. A ‘Plain English’ tone would really stand out.

Expanding the focus to branding, we can see a clear received idiom with online financial brands like Credit Expert, Compare the Market, Money Supermarket, and Go Compare. Each brand is different, but there are many common elements – humorous characters, madcap action, maddening jingles. These brands are all ‘different’ in the same way. Again, there’s a road less travelled here, to ‘reformalise’ one of these brands and make it look grown-up compared to its peers.

Shut your eyes and see

How far could we take go with surprise without leaving the reader behind? In his most recent piece, Tim contrasts standard-issue Plain English with an extract from James Joyce’s Ulysses, from which I’ll repost just one sentence:

So you need hardly spell me how every word will be bound over to carry three score and ten toptypsical readings throughout the book of Doublends Jined (may his forehead be darkened with mud who would sunder!) till Daleth, mahomahouma, who oped it closeth thereof the. Dor…

Joyce’s prose was (and is) surprising in every way: irregular syntax, extreme structure, made-up words, indeterminate meaning. Or, as Tim puts it, it’s stuffed with ‘allusions, delusions and gorgeous profusions’. Imagination and talent permitting, could we write like that in a commercial context?

That fascinating question goes right to the heart of language theory. What does ‘meaning’ mean? What does it mean to ‘understand’ what we read?

How do we ‘understand’ Molly Bloom’s famous stream of consciousness, which closes Ulysses? Is it enough just to soak up the sound of the words, or let our unconscious minds do the thinking? Or do we have to parse the text scientifically, atom by atom, distilling all its elements? If we chase the meaning, does it just move further away?

Cognitive misers

As copywriters – writers with a practical purpose – we want people to ‘get’ every point, understand every thought. So we write in the way that we think will achieve that outcome. What else can we do?

But we know from our own experience that readers’ attention does not live up to the care we put in. We don’t process text in a linear, logical fashion. Most of the time – and especially with commercial messages – we read intermittently, inattentively and impatiently. What we do to most ads probably doesn’t qualify as ‘reading’ at all.

Arguably, devolving to the expected style encourages this. When we encounter something written exactly how we expect, we ration our cognitive investment in it. Since, at some level, we already ‘know what it says’, we feel we can get away with skim- or speed-reading. Similarly, when we see the latest comparison-site ad, no matter how nutty and anarchic it is, we’re on familiar ground. Therefore, we don’t ‘lean in’, in Luke Sullivan’s phrase – there’s plenty of incident, but less intrigue.

This could be the most damning criticism of Plain English. It can never transcend our expectation, or capture all our attention, because it lacks the crucial element of surprise. All the nutritious ingredients have been diligently added, but the lack of spice or seasoning means the dish might never be finished.

Levels of meaning

Let’s say we shake things up, and start writing in completely unexpected ways. What if people don’t understand? Surely it’s madness to gamble with their attention?

One answer to that is that there are different levels of meaning and understanding. First, there is the meaning in the Saussurean or structuralist sense: the fixed, absolute and final ‘centre’ of the text, which we reach by decoding a complex system of linguistic signs. However, there is also meaning in the Derridean or post-structuralist sense, which is relative, endlessly deferred, and located beyond the boundaries of the text.

For an example, have a look at this post discussing the long copy on the packaging for Kiehl’s Ultimate Strength Hand Salve. Few people will read the copy from beginning to end. But it still communicates important brand messages of seriousness, authority and ‘scientificity’, simply by virtue of its existence. These meanings reside not in the words themselves, but in the tension between the text as an object and the culture that it’s part of.

A century ago, it might have been merely informative; in another country, it might look utterly bizarre. But right here, right now, it sends a very clear, very deliberate message that doesn’t depend on the literal meaning of the words.

Clean and pleasant brand

Here’s another example (again, from my bathroom). It’s the packaging copy for Anatomicals’ Norfolk Lavender Hand Soap (tagline: ‘England’s clean and pleasant hand’):

patriotism comes in many guises. bravely fighting for your country in wartime. saluting the flag and singing the national anthem. or extreme forms of nationalism as whipped up by maniacal dictators. only in England though could patriotism come in the guise of a hand wash. each time you use this glorious cleanser, you’re reminded of rolling hills, the Queen, tea and scones, cricket, Oxford, Cambridge and Churchill. never in the field of lavender was so much, picked by so many…
we only want you for your body

So what does this text ‘mean’, in the context of a purple plastic soap dispenser? The literal meaning is the footling meditation on patriotism, with its tenuous link to the key ingredient of the product. But that’s only a small part of what we’re meant to infer. The real meat is meta; that is, implied messages such as:

  • Our product is valuable enough to warrant 87 words of copy on the side – and it doesn’t even say anything important!
  • We’re clever.
  • We’re funny.
  • We’re different from boring soap brands.
  • We’re so radical and creative, we don’t even use capital letters at the start of sentences – although we do, intriguingly, grant them for proper nouns.
  • Because you’ve bought this, you share our values. You’re clever, funny and interesting for choosing us. Congratulations!

The reading age of the text is about 13. That’s probably lower than yours, but it’s still three years beyond what most tabloid newspapers aim for. And it’s a high-risk strategy if you want to be widely understood; it restricts your audience.

I’d wager that relatively few readers will understand the word ‘maniacal’ or pick up the allusions to Churchill’s wartime speeches (70 years ago now) and Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’. But that only matters if we’re concerned about the literal meaning, which in this case is pretty much irrelevant to the brand. In other words, this text works despite – perhaps even because of – the reader’s lack of comprehension.

OK, this is a fairly extreme example. But you take the point. At best, Plain English can only communicate values of honesty and straightforwardness. Those are laudable values – but, in another sense, they’re simply the least we would expect. Plain English is the baseline, not the finish line.

That’s why I agree with Tim that clarity is overrated. Let’s see more writing that dares to really say something. And more clients who dare to commission it.

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