A word to conjure with

Oxford Dictionaries have named their word of the year.

And it’s ‘post-truth’.

Like previous words of the year, it reflects our changing society.

Winners in the past have included ‘selfie’, ‘simples’ and ‘bovvered’.

But while these past winners seem to be more social and upbeat, ‘post-truth’ is different.

And when you look at the other words on the shortlist, it tells us a bit more about how the world looks in 2016.

There was ‘adulting’ (behaving like a responsible adult), ‘chatbot’ (a computer designed to communicate like a human) and ‘hygge’ (a Danish concept of cosiness and wellbeing).

All in line with previous years.

But others on the shortlist included ‘alt-right’ (extreme conservative views), ‘Brexiteer’ (I shouldn’t need to explain) and ‘woke’ (being alert to injustice, particularly racism).

There was even ‘coulrophobia’ – an extreme or irrational fear of clowns.

So, what do these choices tell us about today’s world?

For many, the rise of the alt-right in the US, the Brexit vote in the UK and even the need to become more alert to racism show the world is a more dangerous place.

And as for a fear of clowns, the spate of clown attacks around the world just heightens that sense of danger.

But, for me, ‘post-truth’ is the most dangerous concept of all.

The dictionaries define it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

In short, the truth matters less than it did.

If you feel something is true (or false), then it doesn’t matter whether it is or not.

Even if all the evidence is stacked against you.

Which could have major implications.

In fact, it could make things a lot easier for copywriters like me.

In the past we had to justify any claims we made in adverts or marketing materials.

Even when we were appealing to the audience’s emotions.

Now, as long as the audience believes what we tell them, can we say anything?

Some might think so.

And they might start to test the theory.

So, you might ask, what harm would it do if occasionally we let our emotions get in the way of the truth?

After all, there have been plenty of examples of advertisers who did just that, by appealing to what consumers wanted to believe.

And, yes, when you’re talking about yoghurt or breakfast cereals it might seem trivial.

But what about pharmaceuticals?

Or politics?

Because when politicians routinely resort to blatant lies and appeal to emotions over facts, then it becomes increasingly dangerous.

And that’s not just ‘post-truth’.

It may well be post-everything.


Believe. And repeat.

“Crooked Hillary.”

What does that make you think?

It’s a phrase that Donald Trump uses at every opportunity to describe his presidential election opponent.

Without any hard evidence to back it up.

He throws vague accusations and innuendos around about Hillary Clinton’s political past.

Such as using a private email server (something she has been called ‘careless’ over by the FBI, but for which she hasn’t faced any charges).

And he keeps calling her ‘crooked’.

Of course, his supporters lap it up.

Because they want to believe she’s a crook.

But what about the undecided voters?

Surely they’ll see through his tactics.

After all, the facts speak for themselves.

Except, of course, they don’t.

In advertising, however, the facts have to speak for themselves.

You want to say something about an organisation or a product?

Then, as a copywriter, you’d better check your facts.

Again and again.

Because your words will come under intense scrutiny.

In the past, advertising standards weren’t so stringent.

And there are many slogans that would now be completely unjustifiable.

“A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play” even though it’s full of sugar and fat.

“Mackeson looks good, tastes good and does you good” for a milk stout beer.

Yes, a beer that was believed to be good for you. And at one time, was actually RECOMMENDED for pregnant women.


Those cigarettes really soothed your throat. Apparently.

You get the idea.

Then people realised that making these unjustified claims was bad for advertisers, their clients and their customers.

So they brought in regulations that meant you don’t see advertisers making such outrageous claims any more.

Unless they’re so outrageous as to be ridiculous.


(Note the spelling of ‘wiings’. Although it didn’t stop them being successfully sued for not giving a customer wings.)

The thing is, a lot of people believed these advertising claims for years.

Not because they were patently true.

But because the claims were repeated, unchallenged, many times a day, every day.

And the more you repeat a claim, the more believable it becomes.

Of course, it couldn’t happen nowadays.

In advertising.

But in US politics?

Apparently, it can.

Which I think is what’s really crooked.

Really. Crooked.

Why get on the blog?

You might have noticed that I haven’t blogged for quite a while. And the reason? I’ve been extremely busy. So busy in fact, that I haven’t had any time to write for pleasure.

And, believe it or not, that’s what I write this blog for – pleasure. Mine, and hopefully yours.

It’s one of the drawbacks of writing for a living. You spend all of your day (and quite a bit of the evening and weekends if you’re a freelancer like me) writing. So when it comes to writing a blog, you really have to want to do it. Otherwise, what you write feels stale and uninteresting. And if it feels like that to you as a writer, what will your readers make of it?

So, there needs to be something that sets you off.

And today, that something was actually three blogs by three other professional writers, Andy Maslen, Tom Albrighton and Alasdair Murray. They reminded me of another blog I wrote last year about what seem to be an unwritten law that you should be writing a blog two, three, or even more times a week.

Now each of them have a slightly different take on whether a writer should be writing a blog. And, to be honest, they each make points that I agree with.

Andy’s main argument is that writers only write blogs to avoid doing other more important stuff. Like getting on the phone and selling their skills. It’s a comfort blanket, disguised as marketing – you’re sitting at your keyboard, producing beautifully crafted sentences, just like you do every other day.

Tom, on the other hand, sees your blog as a showcase for the full range of your writing skills. His view is that it’s a valid marketing tool. And it seems like it’s working for him.

Alasdair is less inclined to see his blog as either a comfort blanket or a showcase. Instead, he uses it to raise issues that matter to him when something sparks his interest.

So, what’s my view? Well, I can see that each of them has a point. Andy’s argument that the blog is just an easy way for writers to avoid actively marketing themselves by calling and even meeting potential clients is a valid one. But, if you’re a writer, as Tom says, it can also be a shop window. I’ve known writers who have been far more eloquent on the page than in person, so why shouldn’t they use that talent to market themselves? After all, that’s the skill the client’s buying in the end.

So there’s an argument for blogging to advertise your wares – although it shouldn’t be the only way you market your skills. But I think Alasdair nails it. As a writer, your blog should be about things you’re passionate about and have a valid opinion on.

I chose this as my career because I actually enjoy writing. And doing it professionally means I spend the vast majority of my time writing about stuff that other people tell me to write about. So, when it comes to writing my blog, I’m only likely to do it when I have the time. And I’m going to choose a subject that matters to me. Sometimes that subject might relate to my professional work. At other times, it might be about a news story that’s caught my eye or my favourite football club (Chester FC, in case you were wondering).

But today, it was about this.

The problem with jargon

Jargon, buzzwords and meaningless expressions

Jargon, buzzwords and meaningless expressions (Photo credit: Gavin Llewellyn)

I saw an interesting infographic from Monster.com today, which showed that candidates are turned off by jargon in job ads. This came as no surprise to me. As someone who’s made a living out of writing recruitment communications of all kinds for 26 years, I’ve always tried to avoid using jargon.

Why? Well, according to the dictionary, jargon is defined as: “Special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.”

In other words, jargon is deliberately confusing. So why would you choose to use it in a context that requires clarity? Particularly when you can’t even be sure whether the jargon you’re using is something other people in your industry would recognise, or if it’s specific to your organisation.

A lot of my recruitment communications experience has come in business sectors that thrive on jargon – IT, investment banking, accounting, But this doesn’t mean other sectors are immune from it. Local authorities, government departments and the NHS all have jargon of their own that can alienate someone who isn’t in the know. And that’s the problem with jargon – it alienates people, which is the last thing you want from a recruitment ad.

Having said that, there are certain occasions when it can actually be useful. If you need to recruit someone with specific skills and you don’t want to waste your time reading through applications from people who don’t have the right industry expertise, then jargon can be a useful filter. But only if you know for certain that the right people will understand it.

I’ve taken briefs from clients who litter their conversation with jargon – acronyms are a particular favourite in certain business sectors. And the rule I’ve always stuck to is that if I have to ask what a particular piece of jargon means, then the majority of the audience will need to do the same. Which means it shouldn’t be in your marketing.

So that’s why I wasn’t surprised by the news that candidates were turned off by jargon – I’ve always regarded it as common sense not to use jargon. But it’s nice to have the stats to back up what I’ve been telling clients for years.

4 tips on researching what you write

In my 25 years of writing copy for a variety of organisations, I’ve always been known for the thoroughness of my research. Because I firmly believe that understanding my clients as well as I can gives me valuable insights. And that makes my copy more real, more persuasive and ultimately, more successful.

Of course, I’ve relied a lot on my imagination and creativity, too. But it’s thorough research that’s given me the scope to be creative by giving me more information and more stories to play with. So much so that a number of clients have commented that I seemed to know more about their organisations than they did. One global company even sent their new recruits to me so I could teach them about every aspect of their business. Why? Well, as their lead copywriter, I was one of the few people who dealt with – and, more importantly, understood – all the different business areas and what they did.

So, what methods do I use to give me this in-depth knowledge? A lot of them involve common sense. But follow these four basic tips, and I don’t think you’ll go far wrong:

1. Look at the website

This might seem obvious, but corporate websites are still the best source of information on most companies. As well as getting a good grasp of what they do and how they do it, you can find out a lot about how well the organisation’s doing. But you need to go deep. Many sites will allow you to download the latest annual reports. These will give you an unbiased view of the state of the company. And links to press releases are a good way to see what’s important to the company right now, too.

2. Follow them on social media

Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are great sources of information, but you have to look at them with a critical eye. Obviously the official feeds will give you the corporate view. But try to monitor relevant hashtags and any customer service feeds – these will give a better view of how highly (or otherwise) the organisation’s regarded.

3. What do employees say about the company?

On the careers pages of the website, you’ll usually find profiles of employees from different areas of the business. Take a look at the people the company’s chosen to represent them. How diverse a group is it? What have they got to say about their roles? This’ll give you the official view.

Then go to a site like glassdoor.com – in the review section you’ll be able to find out what former employees have to say about the company. Just keep in mind that these kinds of sites tend to attract people with a grievance, so comments can sometimes lean towards the negative. With both the corporate and unofficial view, you’ll get a balanced picture of what the company’s about.

4. Keep your eyes open

It always amazes me when people working on corporate accounts aren’t aware of what’s going on with those businesses. Maybe it’s my background in journalism, but I keep tabs on the national and global news – I listen to the Today programme each morning and take a look at a number of news websites, making a note of any stories that might affect my clients. And not just stories about them directly, but also stories about their sectors or key markets. For example, one of my clients was a major bank in Africa. I passed on details of projects in Africa that I thought would interest them, which they greatly appreciated.

No matter which of these tips you follow, it’s important not to take the information you discover at face value. Always look at things with a critical eye and question what you discover. And always try to verify your findings using different sources.

Follow these simple rules and you’ll soon find your clients appreciating the additional knowledge and insight you bring to your working relationships.

What counts – age or ability?

A fellow writer, Alasdair Murray, recently wrote about his experience of redundancy in the recession that hit the UK in the early 1990s (you can read the full blog here). It seems like things were very different in those days.

I recently went through the redundancy process, too. And, at the age of 51, my main concern was where on earth I was going to get another job. Thankfully, things have turned out pretty well. In fact, I’d have to agree with Alasdair that it’s not only made me stronger, but it’s actually improved my life. And I think part of that’s down to a big change in attitudes since he faced a similar situation 20 or so years ago.

People on the outside looking in assume that advertising’s a young person’s game. And, yes, if I’m honest, when I was working at my last agency, at the age of 51 I was one of the oldest people there. And definitely the oldest in the creative team. But thankfully, I’ve always found that if you’re full of good ideas that are right for your target audience, people don’t care how old you are. They’ll always judge you on the quality of your work.

But until recently, this attitude to age wasn’t universal. There were many industries, particularly those that were more physically demanding, that only wanted fresh young things. If you lost your job at 50+ you were virtually on the scrapheap.

Phil 2


So, what changed? Well, with the age discrimination legislation introduced by the last Labour government, I think employers in general are more inclined nowadays to judge you on your ability, rather than your age. And if they don’t, they could be taken to court, as this recent story about John McCririck shows. As someone who specialised in employment communications, I’ve had a number of discussions about this with clients over the years. And many responded to the legislation by focusing on people’s competencies during the recruitment process.

Now, as it happens, I didn’t go out and get a job with another agency. Instead, I set myself up as a freelance copywriter. But I still have to deal with the same concerns as if I was looking for a permanent role. In fact, although I’m regularly employed and am building a good list of clients, almost every day is about searching for the next job. And, although I seem to have a decent reputation, that means selling myself to people I’ve never worked with before and wondering if they’ll see my ability or my age first.

Fortunately, I think attitudes have definitely changed for the better. And, as I’m discovering, most people are prepared to put up with the grey hairs when they discover that I’ll do a damn good job.

Getting things right

As a writer, I’ve always thought that one of my strengths was my attention to detail. I think it harks back to my first real job in this industry as a proofreader. And, when it comes to checking grammar, punctuation and creative expression, it’s something that just seems to come easily to me.

So it always amazes me when people flaunt their lack of attention to detail in public. It’s not that I’m astonished that anyone could make these kinds of mistakes. After all, I live in the real world and I’ve known plenty of people who find it difficult to spell, punctuate or understand grammatical rules. But what does surprise me is that people like this are given responsibility for writing public messages.

For example, this image was posted on Twitter recently:


Which I thought was just shocking.

If this was an isolated example, it wouldn’t be so bad. But just a few minutes on Google will lead you to thousands of similar examples. And while many are small businesses who rely on the ability of their sole proprietor, the guilty include a lot of big brands. Such as Lego:


Even the person who corrected this seems to have missed the apostrophe in kids’.

So it’s a real minefield. And because of this, major brands should take some time to negotiate it. Or at least employ someone who can lead them through it.

But, as the thousands of examples posted online show, they often don’t. I’m sure you’ve got your own favourite.

Now, I’m not trying to be a grammar Nazi. As I’ve already mentioned, I accept there are people who find this kind of thing tricky. And I’m happy to break no end of grammatical rules if it makes my copy more readable. Such as starting sentences with ‘And’.

But, in my eyes at least, these kinds of mistakes just devalue brands. And when they’re big brands, the cost could be substantial. So I think it’s about time they started paying more attention.

What do you think?