Ed Miliband error proves why accuracy is important

Oh dear.

Ed Miliband

Uh-oh. B(l)ack to Basics for Ed Miliblunder

The Labour leader must have thought it was such a good idea at the time. “Bob Holness has died: better show people I care by tweeting my respects.”

But in his haste to get the message out there, he made a rookie error that resulted in an embarrassing faux-pas:

@Ed_Miliband Sad to hear that Bob Holness has died. A generation will remember him fondly from Blackbusters.

Ooops. A bad mistake to make at any time, but in the week that you’ve been berating one of your MPs for her own Twitter misdemeanours regarding racial matters, a classic and costly Miliblunder.

On the one hand, you could argue that we’re all fallible and make mistakes, but on the other, ‘o’ and ‘a’ aren’t really close enough on a keyboard to plead user error. And besides, you’re making a public statement as a major politician, even if it is in 140 characters.

Check before you tweet!

The resulting furore has mainly been light-hearted: many people have had a few laughs at Ed’s expense on Twitter via the #EdMilibandGameShows hashtag, but at a time when the media spotlight has been shining so brightly on Diane Abbott and Miliband these past few days, he surely could have done without scoring such an unnecessary own goal.

To compound the error by tweeting a four-letter expletive imploring people to leave him alone shortly afterwards does him even less credit than his shoddy typing and lack of attention to detail.

The ability to proofread, and the importance of accuracy should never be underestimated.

They can save your reputation, and possibly your job!

And if it turns out that his Twitter account was hacked, and the ‘error’ was planted maliciously, as some have suggested, then it’s a timely reminder to take social media security seriously too.

The point remains: a single letter in the wrong place can cause you all sorts of bother!

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Accuracy counts as mistakes cost £millions

Spelling mistake on billboard

A single mistake makes a world of difference.

Yesterday the BBC website featured a story that put a smile on the faces of all of us involved in business writing, as the headline screamed “Spelling mistakes ‘cost millions’ in online sales“.

It’s what many of us have been saying for years, and so it’s quite gratifying to have the importance of accuracy expressed in terms that business people can understand. If you’re sloppy with your copy, it’ll hit you where it hurts. In the bank balance.

Admittedly the article itself presents a slightly less convincing case in terms of empirical evidence than the headline suggests, but that’s not the point.

Accuracy counts

The point is, accuracy counts. And we have now got your attention.

As a business writer and plain English specialist who trains business people how to write more effectively, I am passionate about accuracy, in spelling, punctuation and correct usage. I’m not a pedant, but I value the correct use of the language I love, and I recognise how powerful it can be to communicate ideas quickly and easily when it is used properly.

What angers me is when people don’t think accuracy is important. When they shrug off spelling mistakes and take a weird kind of pride in the fact that they can’t use an apostrophe correctly.

“Because, at teh end of the day, as long as people understand what your saying, whats the problem?”

That’s something such people might write, and leave uncorrected, or not even realise there’s anything wrong with it.

But there is, and it’s hugely important!

Why?

Accurate = professional

The point is of course, that if you are dealing with a business, you expect them to behave in a professional manner, and adhere to certain standards. You would expect, and no doubt often do receive a high standard of customer service from many businesses on the telephone. Indeed many companies spend tens of thousands of pounds to train their staff to perform to exacting standards, and even record and monitor calls to check performance.

But for some reason, businesses pay far less attention to the accuracy of their written communication. Always have done. In the past, they could perhaps get away with it when they sent out letters to customers – who reads letters anyway?

But now, with the prevalence of e-commerce, so many businesses rely almost entirely on written communication through their websites and emails to attract, interact with and retain their customers.

And they are starting to come unstuck.

Good.

It’s about time!

The BBC article quoted William Dutton, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, who said:

“when a consumer might be wary of spam or phishing efforts, a misspelt word could be a killer issue.”

The fact is, customers are much more careful when transacting business online. They are wary of being caught by scams, identity theft, or security threats to their computers, so they tend to look for websites they can trust. Ones that look professional. If the home page of a site features spelling mistakes, consumers could be forgiven for thinking “Well, if they don’t care whether their own website is spelt correctly, how much are they going to care about looking after me?”.

And who can blame them?

We all make mistakes, but only some of us correct them

People make mistakes. We all do. It’s part of being human. No blame there. But there’s no excuse for not checking the accuracy of what’s been written and making corrections.

The entrepreneur in the article found that revenue on one of his sites doubled after a spelling mistake was corrected.

Sometimes it’s not because people can’t spell, or don’t care, but just lack of attention to detail.

Many years ago, a company I worked for came up with a new mission statement that they were keen to share with their customers and the general public. It was quite good, as mission statements go, but as soon as I saw it I realised that there was something seriously wrong with it. About halfway through it referred to offering “complimentary services”. What was meant of course was “complementary services” – services that would complement the company’s primary business offering. What they’d said though was “complimentary services”. As in free. Gratis. Not paid for.

Which was not what they meant at all. In fact, had the mission statement gone to press and been published on the website as it was intended to be, it would have at best been an embarrassing PR faux pas. At worst, the company could have ended up having to give away a lot of things for free.

I pointed out the error, and thankfully the crisis was averted. But it could have easily slipped through. And the reputation of the company would have suffered as a result.

You can’t guess in finance

Accuracy always counts in financial matters, so why not in writing? Can you imagine a senior management team presenting their annual report and accounts to their auditors with a note saying:

Some of the figures might be wrong, there’s a few decimal points in the wrong place and some of the calculations are a bit haphazard, but you get the general idea..”

Of course not! It would never wash. Which is why companies spend lots of money employing accountants and auditors – financial experts who are qualified to iron out any inaccuracies and ensure that everything is spot on.

Which brings me to my final point. As fellow writing professional Richard Hollins blogged yesterday, good copywriting is more than just spelling. We’ve established that spelling and correct punctuation is important, but let’s face it, those are just the basics. There’s far more to effective communication with customers than that. You need to engage them, enthuse them, excite them, entertain them even. And make sure you explain to them clearly why they need you and how you can help them.

Get professional help

It isn’t easy. Not everyone can do it. Which is why it’s a good idea to call in an expert to help you. Someone who spends all day, every day producing messages for a wide range of audiences that are pitched in just the right tone of voice, and use just the right words to attract, then keep their interest.

Someone who is a professional writer.

An accountant doesn’t  simply ensure that the figures are correct. They do much more than that. Clever financial things, with budgets and projections that help businesses plan for the future, manage their resources effectively, receive the maximum return on investments and make the best profits they can.

In the same way, a writer can do so much more than just ensure that your communications don’t contain mistakes. They can conjure magic with their words, transforming run-of-the-mill messaging into something compelling and persuasive. They can make your customers sit up and listen. Make them smile. Make them buy. Make them tell others how great you are. While you get on with doing what makes your business great in the first place.

Can you afford not to hire a copywriter or business writing professional?

It seems a lot of businesses think they can, and they’re not even getting the basics right.

Can you afford to lose customers?

There, their and they’re – there’s nothing to it!

My article earlier in the week about the difference between ‘affect’ and ‘effect’ garnered a couple of comments from readers, which was very nice.

Particularly as they were both complimentary.

One of them however, contained a heartfelt plea for me to: “rid the world of the incorrect use of ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’“.

Well, I’m not sure I can promise to do exactly that, but it did get me to thinking, And as I have been pondering for a while what kind of articles I should include on the site, I decided that a series on the importance of accurate English might be useful.

But in the spirit of Just the right words, I wanted to make it a little different. Quirky, with a dash of creativity.

So here’s my response to the distinction between these three, in the form of a poem:

There, their, they’re – don’t despair!

There are quite a lot of people who really do not care
a jot about the difference between there, their and they’re.
They couldn’t give a monkey’s that their slap-dash approach
causes groans of disbelief and murmurs of reproach.

Oblivious and arrogant they drive us to despair,
when it comes to being accurate they’re simply laissez-faire.
They plough on making blunders without the least regard
for how it makes us others feel. It isn’t even hard!

‘There’ is geographical, referring to a place
Or use it with the verb to be, as in ‘there is your face’.
‘Their’ with an i is used to indicate possession
so their mistake to spell it ‘there’ is quite an indiscretion.

And they’re is ‘they are’ shortened; what is known as a contraction
To use that one instead of ‘there’ drives people to distraction.
So now there can be no excuse. Please pass this on to share
a way of being accurate with there, their and they’re.

There.

Simple as that.
There, their and they're - not the same T shirt

Been there, (not their or they're) got the T-shirt

Effect Affect Problems and Edgar Allan Poe

Effect Affect Problems

Teacher with 'affect' and 'effect' on blackboard

So, which one is it?

Effect or Affect?  Affected or Effected?

If I had charged a tenner every time I had been asked that over the past ten years in my job, I could probably have funded my first six months as a freelancer at least!

As the renowned words man, the only person in the company with the job title of ‘writer’, and the one responsible for ensuring everyone used clear, accurate and understandable language, I was used to getting asked questions about grammar, punctuation and correct usage of words. I actively encouraged it.

However, I was always surprised by the unremitting regularity of this particular conundrum – whether to use ‘effect’ or ‘affect’, ‘affected’ or ‘effected’. It used to happen once at least every couple of weeks. In a company that employed around 120 people.

But the most surprising thing was that it was always the same people who asked the question.  About 10 or 12 of them.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised, as we all tend to have the odd ‘blind spot’ when it comes to selecting the right option when words sound the same, but are spelled differently. As well as the ‘effect/affect’ ensemble, there were also the ‘principal/principle’ posse and the ‘stationery/stationary’ squad who contacted me to resolve their particular query on a slightly less regular basis.

I did my utmost to try to help those affected by the effect/affect problem, and make the distinction between them as clear as I could. I explained as clearly as possible, with examples and occasionally diagrams, that affect was in almost all cases used as a verb, and that effect was in almost all cases used as a noun, apart from in certain sectors of the banking industry where the almost Dickensian phrase ‘to effect a transaction’ was still in use, to their eternal shame.

Affect or effect? The pies have it ....

The penny would then appear to have dropped, the baffled expression on their face replaced with a smile, and everything would be right with the world again.

Until the next time.

In most cases, people were confused about the verb form, rather than the noun. They couldn’t decide between ‘affected’ and ‘effected’, or how something would ‘affect’ a situation or ‘effect’ it. For some of them, instinct said ‘affected’, but they just didn’t have the confidence to make the choice when they put fingers to keyboard.

And that’s the key to it I think.

Confidence.

If you have a choice between two similar sounding words and you know you struggle to tell the difference between them, human nature tends to remind you of the weakness and undermine your confidence before you’ve even started the sentence.

Memory jogger

That’s where you need a little extra help.

And where a mnemonic, or memory jogger can provide you with the boost you need.

For principal v principle, thanks to the prevalence of The Simpsons, the mere mention of ‘Principal Skinner’ and the image of Bart sat outside his office, is sufficient to encourage people to make the right choice.

And for stationery v stationary there’s the old stand-by of ‘e for envelope’, which I always follow up with ‘a’ for ‘ain’t moving’ to make doubly sure of the distinction.

But affect v effect is a little tougher on that score. I tried gamely to seal the ‘effect as noun’ distinction by urging them to think of ‘special effects’, but it didn’t really seem to do the trick. And the fact that ‘affected’ is also a fairly commonly used adjective only served to cloud an already foggy issue.

Then a few weeks ago, I came across a possible solution, in the form of a huge black bird.

A raven

RAVEN (Remember Affect Verb Effect Noun) or CROW (Can't Remember Obvious Word)?

Raven Mad

A few weeks back, I spotted that someone I follow on Twitter who regularly posts business writing tips (Clare Lynch – @goodcopybadcopy) had included one that made me sit up and take notice.

It was, simply: RAVEN.

Remember: Affect Verb Effect Noun.

That’s pretty good, I thought.

And then, shortly afterwards I thought: “But what if you can’t remember ‘Raven’? How helpful would it be then? What if you were suddenly hit by big black bird block, and found yourself with a CROW instead?

Can’t Remember Obvious Word.

And even those of you blessed with a visual memory, can you honestly say that you can truly distinguish between a raven and a crow, even in your mind’s eye?

On balance, I decided that although the RAVEN was good, I needed more. There had to be more associations, an extra layer that would secure the bird in my memory and convince me that the mnemonic would work for the sometimes verbally challenged folk out there.

And then it hit me.

Edgar Allan Poe

A sudden flashback to my student days, at Warwick University, and a book I found in the library that utterly fascinated me. It was by Edgar Allan Poe, and explained in detail how he had written his famous poem, ‘The Raven’, and why he had chosen the words he had at each stage of its progress.

So for me, ‘The Raven’ is forever associated with Edgar Allan Poe.

And then I spotted it.

Edgar Allan Poe has the same initial letters as the Effect Affect Problem.

So when you think of the Effect Affect Problem, think of Edgar Allan Poe, which will lead you to The Raven, which will provide you with the memory jogging answer.

It might be a bit of a stretch, it might be a little contrived, it might complicate the issue even further.

But it might just work.

And if it does, if it helps one or two of those people out there who battle with the Effect Affect Problem on a monthly, weekly or even daily basis, it will all be worth it.

Because then they will enquire of me “Nevermore!”

Words’ worth

Wordsworth.

William Wordsworth

Mmmm ...what rhymes with 'skinny hand'?

Someone called me that today at work. Well, via the gift of instant messenger to be more precise, as I was working from home today. It was meant as a compliment, and came from a colleague who has benefited from my wordsmithery, plain English, punctuation and spelling expertise on a number of occasions.

I liked it as a term of endearment, it’s not a bad nickname, and I’ve been called plenty worse in my time. As Romantic Poets go, I’m much more of a Coleridge man myself, although Wordsworth did apparently contribute to my favourite stanza of “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner“, thus:

“I fear thee Ancient Mariner, I fear thy skinny hand/for thou art long and lank and brown, as is the ribbed sea sand.”

What are words worth?

But it got me to thinking. What are words worth? Do people value them? And if so, how highly?

This is a subject close to my heart at the moment. I’m currently on the cusp of transitioning from full-time employment as a writer into the wonderful world of freelance business writing. It’s a very exciting experience, if a little daunting, but I am sure it’s the right thing for me. However, it has forced me to do some serious thinking about what my words are worth, and to put a value on them. For the first time in my career I have had to look at my skills in a new way, been forced to recognise the true value of what I do and then put a price on it. It felt really weird to do that. Especially as you naturally need to charge more on a freelance basis than you would as an employee.

I’m a very good writer – so people tell me! I have a lot of experience and plenty of practice of writing across a whole range of styles for a host of different audiences on a variety of diverse topics. But I think I took those skills for granted and assumed that they weren’t out of the ordinary. Everyone can write, I thought. This is clearly not the case. The freelance writing community wouldn’t even exist if that was true of course.

What has been revelatory and very encouraging to me during the past week though, is that there are plenty of businesses, organisations and individuals who really value the expertise of professional writers and are prepared to invest in those skills. Thankfully there are plenty of people out there who are great at growing their businesses, but recognise that they need a little help with getting their message out to their customers and beyond. And that’s where we come in.

A community of talent

I say ‘we’, because something else I’ve been particularly conscious of and grateful for this week, is that I am not alone. There is a lively community of hugely talented, enthusiastic, creative  writers out there, doing fantastic work. Joining 26, an association of professional writers, has been a very positive experience for me and given me access to useful resources (cracking books on copywriting by John Simmons and Roger Horberry) as well as introducing me to some very helpful people (Tim Rich for starters). And taking the plunge into the Tweetosphere in the past week or so has made me very conscious of just how many like-minded, witty, creative souls are out there making their living through words. Today I stumbled across the tweetings of Clare Lynch (@goodcopybadcopy) and was excited to discover someone equally passionate about good quality, accurately written business copy with a sharp sense of humour.

So, some people really understand what words are worth and are prepared to pay a competitive price to secure the talent to write the copy they need to sell their products and services and engage and enlist their customers.

Cant spel, wont spel

But what about the ones who don’t really care? Who place little or no value on the accuracy of their writing, and seem to have no understanding of the effects that has on their corporate brand? More (April) Fool them. There seem to be a lot of people out there, and a surprising number of them in the corporate world, who think that proper spelling and correct usage of punctuation is unimportant (it almost killed me to put that heading in). Their argument tends to be that nobody worries about that sort of thing these days, apart from the pedants or the syntactically obsessed.

Rubbish.

Customers’ expectations of service standards have never been higher – most consider great service a basic human right – and they have never had more channels to vent their collective spleen if they are treated badly. Most businesses would never dream of taking a half-hearted approach to their product range, delivery systems or even the telephone skills of their customer service staff, so why are written communications not treated with as much care?

Whilst there’s little empirical evidence to suggest that customers are leaving a company or supplier in their droves because of a spelling mistake or a misplaced apostrophe, a consistent lack of attention to detail in corporate communications will definitely have a long-term impact. We are not yet a nation of complainers, and we do tend to have a lot of patience with poor service, but surely it’s not just the professionals amongst us who wince when they see  a badly spelled, mistake-ridden website, email, leaflet or brochure.

What’s your reputation worth?

Accuracy costs nothing. Apart from a little time, care, and possibly a few quid judiciously spent on employing a professional to supply just the right words. However, consistent inaccuracy as a result of disdain for correctly punctuated, well presented English could cost a brand their reputation. I surely can’t be the only consumer out there who thinks “if they can’t get a few sentences of text right, what chance have they got of providing a high quality service?”.

I’m proud to be a ‘Wordsworth’. I appreciate the beauty and the power of words, and understand their impact. And I care enough to use them properly.

I’d sum up my thinking on this subject as follows:

They say: “I never know where to put an apostrophe, so I don’t bother. Who cares if I get it wrong?”. I say: “I’m the same with decimal points. My day rate is £25000.00.”

What do you think? Do you care? Does accuracy matter in the age of txt-spk?

Answers in a comments box please ……

Just the right name

Choose carefully!

What’s in a name? When it comes to company branding, the answer is ‘pretty much everything’.

With so many businesses vying for customers, across an ever-expanding range of media, trying to grab people’s attention has never been harder, or more critical to a company’s success. Of course, a catchy name is no guarantee that an enterprise will flourish, but in terms of attracting new custom within a fiercely competitive sector, a memorable moniker can give you a vital edge.

Standing out

Look at any business directory, whether it be a Google search or a good old-fashioned Yellow Pages and a brief look for any generic service or trade will yield hundreds, if not thousands of entries. Most of which will look frustratingly similar on screen or paper. How on earth do you choose between them? This is where a carefully chosen name can make a big difference. Something that stands out from the crowd and demands attention and further investigation. A little island of irony, an abstract archipelago boldly protruding from a sea of corporate blandness. Just something that demonstrates a dash of creativity and offers a hint of quirk.

For instance, imagine you are trawling through the swathes of local furniture removal companies in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the United States. And you happen upon a listing for Hernia Movers Inc. Now, you’re not likely to have been expecting that. You would probably take the time to click the link, or read the ad. And by the time you’d clocked the company strapline: “The Potentate of Totin’ Freight” you may well have dismissed the competition and be ready to give them a call! OK, maybe just me then. But it would certainly make you stop and look.

"Hernia Movers" furniture removals van

Not likely to forget a hernia in a hurry

Paws for thought before plunging down the pun hole

Use of humour, or the unexpected can be a path to success, providing you tread carefully. One man’s funny is another man’s tumbleweed. If your potential customers don’t get the joke, it’s your brand’s reputation that will be the laughing stock. Avoid puns at all costs. Even the good ones have a very fleeting shelf life. By the time you’ve finished smiling the impact has been lost and soon after that it becomes plain irritating. However, try telling that to the owners of Britain’s most pun-tastic business names. Thomson local directories ran a competition last year to find the ‘punniest’ company names which yielded a top ten that included the restaurants ‘Jamaican Me Hungry’ and ‘Wok This Way’ and a carpet firm called ‘Get Laid Professionally’…

Too clever by half

Another potential pitfall is the temptation to be a bit clever. There’s nothing wrong with an intelligent approach to business, or conveying that through your brand. In fact, it’s a sensible idea, providing you don’t get carried away and try to overreach. Nobody likes a smartarse, or goes out of their way to do business with them. If you need convincing of this fact, the Consignia debacle should be all the proof you need. Why on earth take two perfectly good, solid well-established brands, Royal Mail and the Post Office and try to replace them with a name that the vast majority of the Great British Public would struggle to spell or even pronounce properly, let alone understand or appreciate. I have similar misgivings about Aviva – what was wrong with plain old Norwich Union? Regardless of how much importance you place on the general populace appreciating the nuances of a brand’s identity, surely you’d have to agree that it’s in everyone’s best interests for them to at least understand what the word means, or is meant to signify.

Maybe in this digital media age, with its veritable smorgasbord of cool but odd-sounding online brands, the meaning is less important than the identity that is built around it. Judicious use of logo, corporate colours and a brilliantly designed and user-friendly website certainly play their part, and when those elements all combine with a unique offering and slick customer service, perhaps the actual word or words used for the company name are only a secondary consideration. Back in the days when Google was just a misspelling of Goggle and Twitter was strictly for the birds no-one would have sworn undying loyalty to those brands based on name alone – they had to match their identity with a game-changing product. And for every Lastminute.com and YouTube, there were plenty of Boo.coms that fell by the wayside when the reality of the consumer experience failed to live up to the hype.

Expert help?

There certainly is still plenty of evidence to suggest that people are taking company names very seriously though. Not least, the fact that there are a number of agencies that specialise in company naming. I have to admit I was quite surprised by this discovery, and even more so when a quick online search revealed that two of the most popular such companies revel in the names of A Hundred Monkeys and Igor, respectively. At the risk of appearing churlish, and not in any way wishing to denigrate these fine companies, I do wonder whether they chose their own appellations wisely. The former brings to mind the number of simian scribes to be matched to typewriters in the pursuit of Shakespearean perfection, and the latter conjures up a vision of a leering, hunchbacked simpleton serving at the behest of Dr Frankenstein. Both may have been deliberately chosen for those resonances of course – I don’t claim to have the mind of a marketeer!

Genius at work

Perhaps it’s better to enlist the services of someone who just has a knack for this kind of thing, who has an instinctive grasp of what works and what doesn’t. Someone like Tim Rich, who has written a great post on his blog ‘66,000 miles per hour’ about the art of naming. He’s the clever chap behind the name 26 for the professional writers’ organisation I recently became a member of. He also cites another moment of naming inspiration:

“A few months back I was briefed to name a lively new firm of consultants and accountants who specialise in advising arts institutions and creative agencies about money. The founding partner used to sing/shout in a punk band, and they wanted to sound more like their clients than their competitors. As I put the phone down the name Counterculture lit up in my mind.”

For me, that is an example of naming genius. In a single word, he has summed up the essence of the company, their background and their remit, and the very word chosen evokes an interesting, bold concept that suggests a business that will deliver, but in their own way, and stand out from the crowd.

Just the right fit

And that’s what I think lies at the heart of a great name. It captures your attention and holds it, and at the same time reveals something of the character of the company behind the brand. This was a major consideration when I was recently selecting a name for my fledgling freelance writing project. Certain practical factors played their part, not least the availability of a co.uk domain name to match, which cut out most of the more obvious word-related phrases. Eventually though I plumped for ‘Just the right words’ because it just felt right. It’s a name that gets right to the heart of what I do, and what I can offer, and it’s entirely in the spirit of someone who specialises in creative copy that engages readers through use of plain English. No frills, nothing fancy, just the right words. Obviously that simple message hides a huge amount of skill, energy and creative effort – hopefully the capability is implied. As is the message that I won’t provide you with any wrong ‘uns.

My mission is to free up clever business people to do all the stuff that makes their business work by writing the words that tell their existing customers and lots of potential new ones just how good they are at what they do. In just the right words.

I’m also more than happy to have a stab at choosing them just the right name!

Heading for success

Grab their attention with a clever headline

There’s a lot to be said for a great heading, a snappy title or an eye-catching headline.

It just gets things off to a really good start. It can even lure in an unsuspecting reader who may otherwise never have ventured near the text written beneath it.

A clever, punchy or witty heading can liven up even the most pedestrian paragraph – not that you should ever settle for such a state of affairs of course.

Grabbing attention

Quite often we can get so carried away with producing vast swathes of copy that we neglect the sheer impact a carefully chosen sub-heading or title can have on our readers. It’s the written equivalent of a cheery wave, or a sudden shout from an unexpected source: “Hiya – you’ll never guess what…” It grabs your attention, forces you to take notice, and intrigues you to read on.

I was faced with this kind of challenge to liven up proceedings when designing and delivering a two-day training course on effective business writing. Day one covered the basics, including a brief refresher on proper use of grammar and punctuation, and the principles of writing in plain English. The purpose of the course was to equip customer service staff within the Internet industry to write clear, concise emails that met their customers’ needs without baffling them with technical jargon. A tall order you might say, and not on the face of it the most thrilling of topics to teach, or to learn for that matter.

Colonic irritation and apostrophe catastrophes

Well, it wasn’t my only weapon of choice – I employed humour, anecdotes and real gaffes to good effect as well – but I did throw a few carefully chosen headings into the mix to liven up the timetable and get people to focus on the PowerPoint slides.  The session on commas, full stops etc was punctuated (ouch) by headings such as ‘Colonic irritation’ and The Apostrophe Catastrophe’, and the exercise that highlighted the confusion caused by words that sound the same but are spelled differently was entitled ‘The principle principal and how its effects affect us’.

I saved my personal favourite for the last session of the day, as attention was naturally flagging a little by then. It covered why writing an email has to be approached differently from writing a letter, and the pitfalls you can face if you don’t take sufficient care over language, tone and style. Only one title could cover those nuances in an interesting way: ‘The email of the species is deadlier than the mail’.

Day two was a bit more interesting, and far more interactive, as people were tasked with putting their learning into practice and writing engaging, grammatically accurate and perfectly plain English emails. There was not quite so much need for livening up, but I did allow myself the indulgence of ‘Rebel without a clause’ for the session on why it’s sometimes OK to break the ‘golden rules of Grammar’ we learned at school.

Headline news

Similarly a news story or press release can be significantly improved and enlivened by a carefully crafted headline. I’ve not been able to get away with very many in the day job, but I have certainly noticed the effects of a good headline when writing articles for my music blog – How Life Should Sound. When writing a piece about the music streaming service Spotify, I plumped for the controversial heading ‘Is Spotify really killing music … already?’ My article refuted that assertion completely, but using such a provocative statement paid off. It’s still my most read and most searched for article on that blog.

My all-time favourite newspaper headline will take some beating. After John Barnes proved his managerial ineptitude when presiding over Celtic’s Scottish Cup defeat to lowly Inverness Caledonian Thistle, some genius hack or sub-editor had the presence of mind to crown the occasion with the utterly majestic:

“Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious”

To adapt MasterChef’s Greg Wallace: “Headlines don’t get better than this.”