What’s your website’s personality?

Is your website a wallflower, a braggart, a bore, a weirdo or a conversationalist?

Every website has a personality. Whether you realise it or not. And that personality plays a big part in whether your website attracts and engages new customers or whether it turns them off and sends them to your competitors.

Listen to this podcast to find out how to avoid the personality flaws that send people packing, and understand the importance of a web personality that focuses on your customers, speaks their language and keeps their attention.

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Putting words in people’s mouths: a ghostwriter speaks

Ghostly hands on keyboard

A talent for mimicry is a gift to a ghostwriter
[Photo: striatic shared under Creative Commons]

I’m a natural mimic. Always have been.

At least since the age of 7. Can’t help myself.

Thankfully, I’ve learned how to use this gift responsibly. As a ghostwriter and tone of voice expert.

In fact, I’ve been putting words in people’s mouths since 1975.

To find out more, read my guest article for the Verbal Identity blog.

If you’d like me to use my ghostwriting talent on your behalf, please get in touch!

Either email me – garethcook@justtherightwords.co.uk or call me on 07972 018366.

Five things I’ve learned in my first freelance year

Just the right words was one year old yesterday. It’s probably appropriate to mark this milestone with a bit of reflection. So, here are five things off the top of my head that I’ve learned in my first year as a freelance writer.

Balloons

1 – Freelance is fun

The past year has flown by and been one of the most enjoyable of my life. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been hard work. But it’s also been tons of fun. I am loving the variety that comes from working for a number of clients on a wide range of different projects. No two days are the same.  The range of writing tasks and audiences I’m communicating with means that I never get bored.

After ten years working as writer for a not-for-profit organisation I was desperate for a change, eager for a new challenge. Starting my own business was not even in the back of my mind. However, it turns out that being freelance suits me down to the ground. It can feel precarious at times, but it’s still fun. There’s something tremendously liberating about being my own boss and not being frustrated or distracted by office politics. The buck stops with me, and I’m happy with that.

Liquid

2 – Freelance is fluid

It didn’t take me long to discover that being a freelance writer almost guarantees you won’t have a regular workload. It’s more of a workflow, or work-ebb-and-flow, to be precise. Although I’d secured a couple of regular clients before taking the freelance plunge, after working on a few initial projects I’d accumulated, there was a distinct tumble-weed period. Inevitably the panic began to set in at that point, but after speaking with a few of my peers I began to realise that this fluidity of work is completely normal. Once I accepted that I felt a lot calmer, and sure enough, within a week or so things suddenly started picking up and I had plenty to be getting on with again.

The remainder of the year followed a similar pattern, with droughts giving way to periods when I’ve felt myself drowning and struggling to keep my head above water. The trick is to keep doing what you’re doing, and take the long-term view. Once you’ve accepted the cyclical pattern of work, and recognised that a dry stretch is only going to be temporary, you can stop worrying and actually use those quiet periods constructively. Do some marketing. Update your website. Or even give yourself a few days off. It’s hard to give yourself permission to take a break, but during a busy period that simply isn’t an option. If you see a lull, treat yourself to a little holiday. Whenever I’ve done that I have returned full of energy and enthusiasm, and usually to a full inbox and a plethora of new projects!

Pile of work

3 – Freelance is frantic

When it’s busy, it’s very busy. I think I’d learned within a month that as a freelance writer you end up doing the jobs that nobody else wants to do. Or the jobs that nobody else had time to do. As a result, clients tend to turn to you for help when they are perilously close to a deadline.

Several times in this past year I’ve received a brief for a job that needs turning around the same day, or within 24 hours. On those occasions, instead of muttering in my head about the lack of planning that has led to such an ‘unfair’ deadline, I’ve gladly accepted the challenge and relished the opportunity to turn things around quickly and ‘save the day’ in the process. Such tasks may involve an impromptu display of juggling other projects, priorities and clients but the adrenaline rush, job satisfaction and appreciation when you’ve come to the rescue usually compensate for this.

Fakir balancing on pole

4 – Freelance is flexible

What a shocker! I know it’s a given, and one of the main reasons for going down this route in the first place, but until you experience it for yourself, it’s hard to appreciate just how freeing it is to work in a flexible fashion. I’m not just talking about working hours, though it is great to be able to start later in the morning and work on into the evening if you want to, and I’ve personally loved being able to break up my working day with regular exercise at lunchtime.

I’ve also been impressed by how easy it is to work exactly wherever and however I want to suit my needs and preferences. Working in a quiet environment, or one where I control what noises I listen to has made me much more productive than I was battling to concentrate in a busy open plan office. I started off working from home and then after a couple of months had the opportunity to work from a friend’s house with a bigger office and found that suited me even better and helped me to keep more regular business hours.

But perhaps the best flexible factor of all has been the sheer variety of projects I’ve worked on. As a creative type I get bored easily, and ten years of writing within the same industry had drained me considerably. In the past year I have worked for eight different clients, within six different industry sectors in three different countries. I’ve worked on a huge number of projects, ranging from video scripts about pensions to websites for small businesses in Oxfordshire to employee benefits handbooks for blue chip corporations to advertising copy for a social media start-up in the United States.

Flexibility keeps me fresh and means I haven’t even considered returning to a 9 to 5 salaried post for a single minute in the last year. Not even once.

Yellow smiley faces

5 – Freelance is fulfilling

The nay-sayers, doom merchants and scaremongers would all have you believe that becoming a freelance writer is “a big risk”, that “you’re on a hiding to nothing”, and that if you’re self-employed “there’s no safety net” and “it’s all down to you.”

I say, ignore these pessimistic spoilsports and concentrate on the flip-side. Focus on the positives of freelance. If you’re a success, it’s all down to you. When you get a new client, when you complete a project and know you’ve done a great job, when you get client feedback that confirms you have – you get all the credit. Living off your wits sharpens your skills, focuses your efforts and gives you a sense of achievement and job satisfaction that is second-to-none.

Of course, not all clients may appreciate your efforts. They may frustrate you beyond belief with their ‘constructive’ criticism and ‘helpful’ edits. They might not even say anything, and just send you the next assignment without any feedback.

But when you get those appreciative emails or grateful telephone calls from delighted customers, there’s nothing like it. You know that your expertise, skills and sheer hard work have made a difference. And it feels great.

Finally…

These are just five things I’ve learned in my first year as a freelancer, that all just happened to begin with ‘F’.

I’ll be sharing a few more things, more briefly, in due course.

If you’ve learned similar or different freelance lessons, please feel free to share!

The waiting game

Freelance is great … apart from the wait

WAIT sign

What are you waiting for?

I’ve been a freelance business writer now for just over 8 months. It’s almost certainly been the best thing I’ve done in my career.

I love it.

I love:

  • the chance to work on a wide variety of projects
  • the flexibility of the working hours
  • working with clients in a number of different industries
  • getting great feedback from satisfied customers
  • being my own boss

But there are some things I’m still getting used to. In particular, the ebb and flow of the workload. And the unpredictability. Even with three regular clients, some weeks it’s hectic, and other weeks it’s eerily silent.

So, what do you do when the work doesn’t come in?

That is rarely, if ever, an issue when you’re an employee. Up until last May I worked for ten years as a writer for a technology company and never had a single day when I wasn’t busy. At least a bit busy. And when things were slack, there were always lots of colleagues you could talk to.

But the nature of freelance means that there are peaks and troughs. Days when no-one needs you.

How do you handle that?

What do you do while you’re waiting?

I’d be interested to hear from more seasoned freelancers about what they do in such situations. As a newcomer, I’ve found this quite a challenge. Yes, I can hear all of you who aren’t self-employed grumbling “nice problem to have”, “wish I could have a day off” etc.

But the point is, you don’t get a day off. You just don’t get paid.

I follow a lot of copywriters on Twitter: many of them are freelance, and some of them talk about staying in bed, going to the pub or just having fun on days when they’re not busy. They may be joking. But if not, I envy them.

I still have that ’employee’ work ethic that doesn’t let me relax and take the day off when I don’t actually have any work to do. That’s not a humble brag: it’s actually a right royal pain in the arse. I’d rather just turn around and say: “Right, I’m having fun today. I’ll take my phone in case anyone calls or emails, but I’m taking the day off.” But I don’t. I try to. But then I start to feel guilty. Naughty, even.

So, what do I do? I sit at my desk and wait. While I’m waiting:

  • I tweak my website
  • I write the occasional blog post
  • I check my email and phone
  • I research potential new business opportunities
  • I read a book in between checking my email and phone
  • I go to the gym at lunchtime
  • I do my accounts and admin tasks
  • I get lost in Twitter
  • I turn Twitter off because all the other writers seem to be super-busy and still have time to write kick-ass blog posts
  • I check my email and phone again

And that’s OK. Because it’s usually the odd day here and there, and then all of a sudden things are busy again.

How do you respond when your patience is tested?

But just recently the trough has lasted a little longer. I’ve just finished two big projects for regular clients, and there’s nothing else coming through for a couple of days. I am also waiting to see if my quote for a significant project for a potential new client has landed me the job. It was nice to be asked to quote for it, but in doing so, I’ve had to curtail my usual chase for new business to ensure I have time to do the job if I get it. Nothing unusual there, that happens when you’re freelance. But when there’s a work lull at the same time, the waiting game takes on more significance, gets more frustrating, and tests your patience just that little bit more.

Except this time, I’ve changed tactics. I’ve had an epiphany. Instead of waiting, I’m going to get on with some writing. Just for me. Just because. The path that has led to me going freelance started when I took a three-month sabbatical in May 2010 to start writing a novel. I’d never done it before, but loved it. I worked really hard every day and even at weekends. For no money.

I got a third of the way through it, including some ruthless redrafting and then I had to go back to work. The draft has stayed on the shelf and in the Dropbox ever since.

You’d think it was a no-brainer to go back to the novel whenever the work dried up a little, but it wasn’t. I’d think about it, then the cycle of feeling guilty and naughty would start again. So I went back to pingling and waiting again. Until yesterday.

Give yourself permission to get creative

Yesterday I resolved to give myself permission to start writing my novel again. I’d got stuck at a certain point, and after allowing myself to go back and investigate things yesterday afternoon, I realised what I need to do to get unstuck. I need to rip up a chapter and a half and start them over again. By the evening I was getting excited by the prospect, and started having new ideas for the first time in ages.

And today I’m getting stuck into writing my novel again. As soon as I’ve blogged this. Until the work starts trickling, or flooding back in again.

Wish me luck!

Are you waiting patiently?

How do you handle the waiting game?

Is it time you gave yourself permission to do something you’re really passionate about while you’re waiting?

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!

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?

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 ……