Ground pepper day

PepperFor those of you who are only satisfied by salacious revelations from my private life, here’s a bombshell. I bought this box of pepper over the weekend.

I was looking for whole peppercorns but I was in a rush so I didn’t read the box properly. I just looked at the picture of whole peppercorns and thought ‘does exactly what it says on the tin.’ Of course it turned out to be ground pepper. Bloody Ronseal.

Which goes to show that readers often pay a lot more attention to the pictures than they do to the words. So make sure your pictures count.

Being hilarious

We’re re-launching the Carphone help site in a couple of weeks. In preparation for this, I’ve been writing and re-writing reams of copy. And one of the things I’ve been trying to do is make it more amusing. We had a survey of the current site done you see, and a common piece of feedback was that it was dry and lacked personality.

This is a mobile phone retailer’s help and support site remember. Humour isn’t exactly a natural bedfellow. And corporate humour is a very difficult thing to pull off. If you make cheap beer it’s just about possible, but there are thousands of terrible attempts for every half decent ‘Carlsberg don’t do nightclubs’ gag.

A big part of the problem is that anything even remotely risqué is bound to offend someone. And the last thing you can afford to be is offensive. Which traps you in the tricky region between cracker jokes and coming up with something genuinely witty. Regular readers will realise I’ve got no chance of the latter.

The following example illustrates the problem eloquently. I needed to write a strapline for a page explaining what happens if a customer isn’t at home to receive a delivery. I wrote:

What happens if I’m not at home when my delivery comes?

We’ll break a window to get in.

Naturally I was delighted my effort. I strode over to my fellow copywriters to show them my good work and was met with the snotty, short-sighted and probably entirely correct response that I couldn’t write that in a million years. Our target audience is not 20-something drinkers of Danish lager. It’s absolutely anybody, and there’s always a risk that one of these people might get the wrong end of the stick and start taping up their windows using methods unseen since the blitz.

In the end I settled on ‘Don’t worry – we won’t break any windows’, which isn’t nearly as funny (though I’m aware my first idea was hardly something to have Jimmy Carr fretfully turning over to the cold side of the pillow).

Ultimately I hope I can persuade the company that the (slightly) edgier tone is the way to go. I’ve been working a lot on our tone of voice over the last few months, and I think it’s the companies who take the risks that manage to develop a real ‘personality’. There’s a big difference between saying ‘let’s be spiky and out there’ and actually meaning it.

This post doesn’t really have a conclusion. It just goes to show the travails I’m going through to bring you the funniest mobile phone site in the world. Hopefully I’ll be able to bring you a more considered solution in a few weeks’ time.

Once, I too was a blogger…

PenI’ve reached that stage that most bloggers seem to get to. The stage where they realise that writing a new blog every few days is pretty hard work, and give up. 

This lack of self-discipline is pretty disappointing, but I can console myself with the fact that not I’m not the first blogger this has happened to. What I’m planning to do now is to concentrate on quality, not quantity, and write a few decent posts each month, rather than kidding anyone that I’m the kind of blogging king who’s going to be knocking out three posts a day. 

So keep checking back for more thrilling insights into the glamorous world of this hard-living, rule-breaking, self-deluding copywriter. Just don’t check back too often.

I can be your hero baby

herosEveryone needs heroes. Without them there’d be no one to learn from, nothing to strive for, and the Nazis would always end up winning in 1950s war movies. With that in mind, I’ve come up with a list of writers I admire. The list is by no means exhaustive, and it’s heavily influenced by my recent reading. But all of the following are affecting the way I’m thinking at the at the moment.

Gideon Haigh

English born but Australian bred, Haigh’s Ashes blog was one of the best reads of the summer. A wry writer with a great eye for quirks, his blog always provided original insight and stepped off the beaten track – exactly what a good blog should do.

Mike Skinner

The fleeting nature of pop music means lyricists never have time to build a detailed story. All they can do is throw out an image using a few words and hope it captures the scene. Presumably, Ezra Pound would have been a great frontman for a rock band.

Mike Skinner (leader singer of The Streets)  is brilliant at these images – listen to his account of first date awkwardness on Could well be in. I especially like ‘I’m trying to think what else I could say / Peeling the label off, spinning the ashtray.’ For fans, Skinner’s Twitter account is well worth following too.

Sir Winston Churchill

I’ve been gradually working my way through Churchill’s The Second World War since Christmas. That’s not to say it’s not great, but it was a very long war and the book is too heavy to take on the tube.

Churchill has a fittingly majestic style but is always very readable. The part where he goes to Russia to persuade Stalin to change sides is extraordinary. He weaves the domestic details of the trip in amongst an account of a conversation that ultimately decided the fate of the entire world. Very rarely do we get such a personal insight into history.

Seth Godin

I know this is hardly an original choice. And I know there’s already more than enough Godin fawning on the internet, especially as he spends most of his time recycling the same ideas over and over again.

But Godin is massively successful, and I think his great secret is his accessibility. He writes plainly, avoids getting overly technical, and above all he keeps things brief. His 200 word posts are perfect for skim-reading during a working day, and then discussing endlessly around the water cooler or on Twitter. If there ‘s one thing I will do with this blog, it’s to start writing entries of  less than 300 words where at all possible.

Kebabs uncovered

kebabVisiting your local kebab shop generally amounts to taking your life into your own sambuca stained hands. But as someone with inside contacts in the industry, I thought it was important for the public to realise just how bad the conditions inside these ‘restaurants’ can be.

Everything that follows is true, and has been told to me by a herbert of my acquaintance who runs a kebab shop. I’m not suggesting that all shops are like this, because frankly they’re not. I’m also not going to reveal the location of the shop. The people who eat there have it bad enough as it is.

Anyway, here’s a selection of his views…

On sourcing ingredients:

“I went down to Greenwich market the other day ‘cos we needed some skate. And I went all the way round and I couldn’t find any anywhere. But the last stall I went to had some in the freezer. And I said: ‘Oi mate, how much for that skate?’

And he said: ‘Can’t sell you that mate.’

So I said: ‘No I need it. How much?’

And he was like: ‘Nah mate, I can’t sell it. That’s dodgy skate, it’s been off for days.’

And I said: ‘I think I’ll be the judge of that. How much?’

And I got it well cheap.”

On food hygiene tests:

“My dad rang up the other day and said: ‘We’ve had a letter from the council, they’re coming to do an inspection. Hide all those rat traps, it makes the place look bad.’”

On winning a prestigious food award:

“This bloke came in the other day and said he was going all round east London to find the best cod and chips. So I gave him cod and chips and he said it was the best he’d had so far and he was going to put it in the paper.

And when he was gone, I was like: ‘We don’t buy any cod, that was haddock you mug.’”

On lighting:

“Last night this woman came past and she looked like she was going to come in, but then she looked at me like she was disgusted and walked past. And I thought it might be ‘cos I was standing behind the counter with my hands down my trousers, but I thought: ‘how can she see me if it’s dark?’

And then I realised that I had the light on inside so she’d be able to see me from outside.”

On making chicken nuggets:

“First you take your turkey and cut it up for all the fried chicken. And then you pull off all the meat that’s left on the bones and mince it up for the burgers. And then you sweep up and put whatever’s left in the chicken nuggets.”

Writing by numbers

numbersJane Penson has written an interesting blog about the Flesch reading ease index. So interesting in fact, that I’ve spent a large part of my lunch hour working out how ‘readable’ my own writing is.

The Flesch index is a formula that decides how easy it is to read your work. The formula is based on the length of your sentences and the number of syllables in each word – fewer words and fewer syllables equals easier reading. If you’re interested, there’s lots more info about how it works here.

The formula produces a score out of 100, with a score of more than 40 being reasonably clear. Maths enthusiasts may enjoy working out the score for themselves, but Microsoft Word will do it for you. Just select Tools > Options > Spelling and Grammar and tick the Show readability stats box. Your Flesch score will then appear after you’ve run a spelling and grammar check.

The good news for me was that a couple of pieces chosen randomly from the Carphone help section did well. This page explaining how broadband works scored 71.4, while this one about online billing got 73.1. According to Jane’s blog, a typical article from The Sun scored 62. As we’re using simpler language than Chelsea, 22 from Essex, it’s safe to assume we’re not baffling anyone with our verbosity.

The obvious question to ask is: ‘is the Flesch index useful?” Like all formulas, it only measures success according to a few select criteria, and with something as abstract and flexible as writing that doesn’t seem a good idea. The other problem with using Flesch is that you’re likely to end up manipulating your copy purely to get a better score, which isn’t necessarily conducive to the initial aim of making your writing clearer.

That said, I’m sure I’ll obsessively check my work from now on to see just how ‘readable’ I can become. There’s nothing like the introduction of a scorecard to get the competitive juices flowing. And in the interests of research, I did get a Flesch score for Sonnet 18 by Shakespeare. I was sure that nothing so old could fare well according to a ‘readability’ formula. It got 81.9.

Which goes to show that beauty definitely is simplicity. And that Flesch maybe has a point.

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;

Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Lily Allen, the Ashes, Twitter and the big fight

agnewAmongst all the post-Ashes euphoria, it’s been easy to miss the feud that’s developed between Test Match Special commentator Jonathan Agnew and Observer sports writer Will Buckley. As it all revolves around Lily Allen it’s pretty interesting. What makes it very interesting is how important Twitter has been in fuelling it.

The spat started when Buckley wrote a comment piece about Agnew’s interview with Allen on Saturday. You can read the piece for yourself, but the long and short of it is that Buckley described Agnew’s interview technique as “firmly on the pervy side of things.”

Agnew took offence at being labelled a ‘pervert’ (though strictly speaking that’s not true), and demanded an apology from Buckley. With an apology unforthcoming, he then used Twitter to launch a viral campaign against his tormentor:

“I gave Will Buckley 24 hrs to apologise for calling me a pervert, and he has declined. If you feel moved by this….

“his boss is brian.oliver@observer.co.uk”

The background to the whole story is that Agnew has spent the summer delivering potted updates from the Ashes on Twitter. When Allen mentioned she was watching the cricket in one of her own Twitter posts, Agnew invited her to appear on A View from the boundary. Her upcoming appearance then became Twitter’s worst kept secret as she Tweeted about the attractiveness of Graham Onions, Stuart Broad and anyone else who owns a thigh-pad.

The interview itself featured Agnew playing up his love-struck schoolboy act and asking lots of questions that weren’t entirely about cricket. It was exactly what you’d expect of an interview between a middle-aged cricket correspondent, and a 24-year-old pop star who had only recently started watching the game.

I don’t want to get into the rights and wrongs of the interview or of Buckley’s article, but I will say that the interview was entirely harmless and that most people seemed to enjoy it. Buckley then wrote it up using language that was probably more inflammatory than was wise. However, I don’t see Buckley’s article as a personal attack – it was meant to be funny, and it only really exaggerated a persona that Agnew himself had adopted during the interview.

What has been astonishing though is the reaction of the Twitter community to Buckley’s piece. At the last count 235 people had left mostly negative comments on the Observer website, and Agnew’s Twitter feed has been inundated with messages of support.

But interestingly, the article itself isn’t the only thing Buckley has done to cause offence. The Twitter community seems to have taken umbrage with Buckley because he hadn’t bothered to find out the back-story of how Allen and Agnew had regularly sent each other Tweets before the show.

Agnew is on Twitter, and has won the hearts of the community by answering their questions and taking part. As Buckley isn’t on Twitter (as far as anyone knows), there seems to be a general feeling that he shouldn’t be attacking one of Twitter’s best beloved. Here are just a couple of posters on the first page of Buckley’s comments section:

“It’s terrible when a story like this is written when the author doesn’t know or understand the background. Everyone who regularly follows TMS and @aggerscricket would know how Aggers (and Tuffers and David Lloyd) has built up this interview for the last week.”

“As regards Buckley’s piece above, it is a nasty, jealous dig typical of journalists who are scared that Twitter and Web 2.0 will put them out of a job.”

Which just goes to show the power that Twitter has at the moment. If such a groundswell of opinion can be generated by some fairly harmless remarks, imagine what could happen if something serious was to occur. Not being on Twitter to take part in the conversation seems – in some Twitter users’ eyes – to be a serious offence, and one that renders non-participants unworthy of even expressing an opinion.

This is probably because everyone likes to feel part of something, and once they do they’ll angrily pounce on anyone who attacks one of their crew. This is clearly a massive over-reaction from the Twitterati, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

So watch out – Twitter is powerful, and it’s very easily offended.