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.

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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!