Creative Scriptwriting and Copywriting

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We Need To Talk About Phone Systems

In Uncategorized on November 24, 2011 at 7:56 pm

Imitation may be greatest form of flattery, but satire can move it to a whole new level.

Steve Coogan’s Christmas tie-in – the excellent Partridge auto-biography – almost shares the name of Lionel Shriver’s most celebrated novel, and the replacement of “Alan” for “Kevin” is a bit of a masterstroke linguistically. There’s something brilliantly self-regarding about Norwich’s best-loved radio son appropriating the branding of a critically acclaimed story. Not just because it’s far more highbrow than he’ll ever be, but because the original narrative is a high-stakes tale of a murdering sociopath, in contrast to the hilariously banal meanderings of a regional broadcaster who briefly hit the fictional big time.

But I would argue that borrowing a pre-existing sentence fragment is not always such a great idea, or shows you to your best as a writer when you are looking to brand your own screenplay or TV pitch, or create a tagline or strapline in a piece of copy or advertising. In fact, piggy-backing your concept – whether it’s a product (“Phone Systems”), property (“Mywebsite.com”), or the host of Mid-Morning Matters on North Norfolk Digital – into a ready-made and recognisable linguistic pattern like a book title could even be seen as cheating.

(It needn’t be “Phone Systems”, incidentally. It could be Coca-Cola or the Liberal Democrats or Your Wire-style Hardnosed Detective Character , but for the benefit of our commercial sponsors, as explained in the previous blog, we’re going to use the words Phone Systems as our example.)

For a start, there’s the chance that the line you’ve used isn’t quite so famous as you think it is.

There’s a conspiracy documentary available online which posits how Neil Armstrong never really made his one small step – a kind of non-fiction Capricorn One. It’s called  A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Moon. But you surely have to be a certain age or musical inclination these days to get the link to the1966Stephen Sondheim show (where the storyline occurs en route to the Forum). And if the audience doesn’t recognise the reference, then why not give the Apollo film an unforgettable identity all its own? Especially when the “controversial” (i.e. made-up) events didn’t take place on the journey there, but on the lunar surface?

And that’s the second problem: there’s the possibility that your phrase doesn’t fit comfortably in the existing expression anyway.

Raiders of the Lost Phone Systems. The Good, The Bad and The Phone Systems. Close Encounters of the Phone Systems. We can all share the references here, but they still don’t make much sense.

My final objection is that a slogan well-known enough to be borrowed in this manner, is likely to be heading for cliché territory. Watergate has a lot to answer for. After Camillagate, Squidgygate, Contragate, Irangate et al, inventing “Phone Systems Gate” is not a sign of someone who makes the language sparkle.

This column is brought to you with Telephone Systems Direct

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Super, smashing…

In copywriting, Uncategorized, writing on May 25, 2010 at 10:20 am

As a professional writer I am always on the look-out for the next corporate cliché: this year’s Passion or Solutions.

And there’s one word I’m keeping an eye on that’s really starting to grate.

Great.

In some ways, great is a great word. It’s upbeat and enthusiastic, yet modest and self-effacing.

You can see why a corporate world which increasingly is trying to position itself as approachable and human would latch onto great.

Companies that tell you they have superlative, class-leading, exemplary solutions sound boastful and arrogant.

Companies that tell you they make great products or – two new clichés for the price of one –  great content, sound down-to-earth and chatty.

But there’s also something vacuous and hollow about great in this context. Great is quite a big assertion, not a vague label of quality. Churchill was great. St Paul’s Cathedral is great. George Best was great.

Chances are, you don’t make great websites (Hey – so why not try making one for yourselves?), or great coffee (Nescafe? Really?). If you are La Scala or Carnegie Hall, it may be appropriate to call yourself the Home of Great Music. Are you overselling yourself just a little if you make the same claim for your radio station in Mansfield?

Trust me, your B2B interactive digital marketing solutions aren’t that great. If they are useful, successful or easy-to-use then that’s pretty good, so why not say they are useful, successful or easy-to-use?

(We have been here before, of course:  Great! Super!)

First Class stamp, please, Mrs Goggins

In copywriting, scriptwriting, Uncategorized, writing on April 8, 2010 at 5:33 pm

How to write a bad company website in three easy stages.

1) Give it a lousy title.

Like Royal Mail Fulfilment Solutions. I thought everyone had agreed some years ago now that the solutions word is the worst kind of empty corporate jargon, but perhaps Royal Mail’s memo got lost in the post. There is a danger that solutions has become so despised a term that it may become ironically trendy again, like the asymmetrical haircut or the rail strike, but I don’t think we’ve reached that moment of crisis quite yet.

Put simply, no-one wants a “fulfilment solution”. Personally, I only came in for a stamp.

And, while we’re at it, Director of Fulfilment is a pretty glorified job title for a jumped-up postman, and should only be used without irony in a Buddhist monastery or a sex clinic.

2) Don’t proof-read.

A lot of the language you’ll find at Royal Mail Fulfilment Solutions isn’t dreadful, but there are too many lines that don’t work, and should have been seen off in a final polish.

“We’ve developed a range of services to help your business[…] meet three of your biggest demands: speed, cost and security.”

Well, no. Cost isn’t one of my demands. Reducing costs might be. Monitoring costs almost certainly is. But bare, bald cost can’t be a demand.

And when I hear Royal Mail’s Director of Fulfilment say “we take speed very seriously at Royal Mail” I’m sure I won’t be the only one picturing a row of straight-faced postmen conscientiously necking their amphetamine ration before setting off on their rounds.

3) Use video. Badly.

The very worst part of the Royal Mail Fulfilment Solutions isn’t the language at all, but it is still the responsibility of a writer.

Someone somewhere decided that what would make their website all modern and zingy and accessible was some slick embedded video. Technologically and visually, they were right. It looks good. It’s clean and clear and intuitive. There is clearly some advantage in allowing a friendly human face to represent an organisation that still has a reputation for Soviet style inefficiency.

But it’s still a terrible idea.

Whoever decided to do it doesn’t understand the nature of writing video.

It’s not about controlling language. It’s about controlling time.

A script or a screenplay or a speech looks a lot like printed copy. But it works in a very different way. Your eyes flick across a printed page. You skim and scan. A video plays out its information word after word after word, and it’s hard to find what you want – you have to wait until it arrives.

Also, the spoken word eats up time.

The first time you hear someone read out words that you have written, I guarantee you will ache and yawn and die of boredom. Everything takes so long.

(The first time you hear a proper actor read out your words, it’s like the above, only doubled. A classical training means being taught to enunciate so that your lines can be heard in the back row of the theatre. )

It’s why the best scripts and screenplays read like haiku or telegrams.

A word here.

A word there.

Quick beats.

It doesn’t matter if it’s soap opera or cinema

On top of that, the internet is unforgiving. If your audience is sitting in a hushed cinema, or an expectant theatre, then maybe you can tease them and stretch them and make them wait.

Even those inane TV monitors at the side of the Post Office queue give you some leeway (and maybe that’s exactly where they got the idea for this).

But online, it’s very different.

A world of more exciting possibilities is only a click away. So the video content you put on the internet better be compelling, engaging, interesting or – at the very least – useful.

No-one on the planet can sit there passively while Mike Brown, Director of Fulfilment for Royal Mail chirps on perkily for 2’26” about Recorded Delivery.

Two minutes twenty six!

Do you know what better minds have achieved in two minutes and twenty six seconds?

You Keep Me Hanging On.

All Day and All of the Night.

The Gramophone Sketch.

Irrefutable PROOF that Neil Armstrong never landed on the moon.

Photograph by TomBK on Flickr.

Soundcheck

In Uncategorized on December 10, 2009 at 11:17 am

Cough, cough.

Ahem.

SQUEEAAAL!

One, two. One two. Testing, testing.

Blog is go.