I just didn’t see the omens

Stardust left me with such a warm and fuzzy glow that I felt it deserved a post of its own. That’s why I didn’t mention that I also devoured another Neil Gaiman novel, Neverwhere in the same weekend. This made it very difficult for me to get on with stripping the wallpaper off the walls in my living room (which is what I should have been doing).

It also made me kick myself even harder for not picking up a Neil Gaiman novel before now, as I dimly recall watching at least one episode of this story in its incarnation as a TV drama. I remember a character called Door and the London underground setting, but not much more. I’ve also encountered Mr Gaiman in collaboration with Mr Pratchett (a fellow favourite author) in Good Omens, so I really have no excuse as to why I’ve missed out for so long.

I always relish finding a new favourite author and positively lick my lips when I find one who has such a vast back catalogue. It’s good news for my local bookshop too. I guarantee I’ll use the 15% discount voucher I got for signing up to Borders’ e-mail list before I finish the decorating!

A new favourite author

Something great happened this weekend. I read a wonderful book. It’s called Stardust and was written by Neil Gaiman.

It’s a fairy tale for grown ups. Think about that for a second. Think about the effect that fairy tales had on you as a child. They opened up new and magical worlds in your imagination. Filled them with wonderful, weird, brave, loyal, scary or cunning characters. Fairy tales took you on a journey. They left you scared and anxious in the deep dark woods. They made you smile and feel smart if you worked out the riddles. They transported you out of reality for a while and lingered like the memory of a warm summer day when you eventually had to return to real life.

That’s a pretty rare and special experience for a grown up. So thank you Mr Gaiman. And I’m sorry I didn’t get round to reading your work sooner.

Aristotle the blogger

In one of those curious and convoluted connections that I love so much in the world of the web, I’ve seen two references to Ancient Greek wisdom this week.

Copyblogger.com (one of my regular feeds) presents Aristotle’s Top 3 Tips for Effective Blogging. Tips which work for all types of writing.

And then, in an article about the importance of the ending to the overall experience of a movie, there’s a quote from screenwriter Jan Sardi, who says, “It’s a principle that comes from Aristotle’s Poetics: that the challenge for any screenwriter or dramatist is to surprise the audience with the inevitability of everything that happens. There should be only one way a story can end. The ending is written in the beginning.” [Thanks to Kathy Sierra of Creating Passionate Users who provided the original link.]

I’m going to try and apply some of Aristotle’s common sense advice to my next marketing job. But these connections also reminded me of learning Latin at school and encountering the beautiful poetry of Homer’s Iliad for the first time. I think it’s time for a re-read. For someone who loves the music of language, my poetry intake is pretty much confined to clever lyrics.

In the meantime, is it just coincidence when diverse sources use the same references at similar times? Or are they just smart people?

Customer service – compare and contrast

We recently bought a new fireplace for our home. We ordered it well in advance, paid a deposit and booked a date for it to be fitted. Then the day before it was due to be fitted, the shop left a rather terse phone message reminding us to pay the balance “or we won’t be able to fit your fire”. They couldn’t take payment over the phone despite having already taken my credit card details. So I had to arrange to leave work early and go into the shop before it closed.

The fitters came to install the fireplace but unfortunately it wouldn’t light. They botched a temporary fix and said they’d get back to the showroom to let them know I needed a more permanent solution. After a day of hearing nothing, I called the showroom to explain that my fire wasn’t working.

During that and other telephone conversations (oh there’s more to come…) I would be speaking to the person who answered the phone and asked to hang on a minute whilst they asked another person a question. I’d hear indistinct mumblings whilst it was answered and then have the message relayed back to me. Once I was asked “Did you get that?”, referring to their off-phone conversation.

A new part was ordered and the fitters came and sorted it out. The fix lasted 3 days. Over the weekend, the fire lit only intermittently and once it was lit, put itself out. Since then it hasn’t worked at all.

Monday morning and another call to the showroom. After a long wait I left a message on the answerphone asking for someone to call me back. Later that afternoon I called the showroom and it was obvious they hadn’t checked their messages. Gritting my teeth through the same old performance of Chinese Whispers I did manage to get my point across and they’ve arranged for someone to come out at sometime on Saturday.

I also recently ordered some cardboard boxes via a website. I had a question which I put to them via email and received a phone call the next day to answer it. I placed my order, and received a confirmation email. Today I got a phone call from the box company apologising that they hadn’t got enough stock to completely fulfil my order but that more was on its way. They asked if I would like them to send what they had immediately or to wait until they had all the boxes in stock, which would mean I would get them 2 days later. As I can be flexible about when I need the boxes, I asked to get them all delivered at once. The saleswoman then confirmed the new delivery date together with her name and number in case I wanted to get in touch again.

In terms of service there’s no comparison between these two examples. You might expect a company that deals with high value goods to offer superior service, but they were far outdone by the suppliers of the humble cardboard box.

But what’s the real cost? Which company have I complained about to my colleagues in the office? Colleagues of a similar age, most of whom have their own, or are planning to buy their own place and be likely to want to improve their homes. And which would I recommend?

How to make sense of marketing – part 1

In my job as a copywriter, I often encounter very long and unwieldy sentences, particularly when my clients are trying to cram as many product features into as small a space as possible. It’s my job to unpick the seams of these sentences and suggest alternatives which are easier to understand and which you can actually read out loud without the need for oxygen!

These lengthy statements often fall into a pattern which I’ve called “Venn diagram style”. If a product or service does all these things AND all these other things, clients often place the product in the middle of the copy.

So for example, I might be presented with the following sentence:

“Designed to help you communicate with your customers, reach new audiences and sell your services more efficiently, Product X can open up new markets, boost your sales and retain customer loyalty to your business.” [NB This is a made-up example].

Fair enough, it’s not impossible to wade through and understand the message, but it does look a bit unwieldy and I’m all for simplicity when it comes to copy.

A simple way to unpack the Venn diagram style is to separate the ideas into two or more sentences. 

For example:
“Product X is designed to help you communicate with your customers, reach new audiences and sell your services more efficiently. Product X can open up new markets, boost your sales and retain customer loyalty to your business. ”

Or the slightly more elegant:
“Product X is designed to help you communicate with your customers, reach new audiences and sell your services more efficiently. As well as helping you to open up new markets, Product X can boost your sales and retain customer loyalty to your business.”

Of course, I often have to persuade my clients that packing all their super-duper features into one sentence is not necessarily the best way to get the message across. Sometimes less is more. More effective. More eyecatching. It has more impact.  

But when the clients absolutely insist that everything’s got to be in there somewhere, unpacking the Venn diagram is a useful tool.

Star Wars memory

My favourite movie magazine, Empire, recently published a feature using readers’ memories of the original Star Wars trilogy. Here’s mine…

I used to spend two weeks every summer with my cousins, a family of boisterous boys. It was during one of these visits that I was first introduced to the Star Wars universe. 

I was an imaginative child who spent hours reading books or creating stories for my toys, and I loved going to the pictures. But until then I’d mainly enjoyed a diet of Disney cartoons. In fact, were it not for Herbie, Empire may have been my first ever live-action film. 

I was hooked from the start. I was lost on the ice planet Hoth, searching its frozen surface. Perhaps even then I felt the first stirrings, but by the end of the film I was certain. I was in love with Han Solo. It was my first crush.

Even now when I think of Empire, it’s those two key scenes that spring to mind. Han slicing the Tauntaun with the lightsaber to save Luke. And Han dropping into the pit to emerge encased in carbonite. “He’s not dead is he?” I asked my cousin as I left the cinema. I don’t think I could have coped if he’d said “Yes”.

In the confused manner of a nine-year-old girl, I loved Han but I also wanted to be him. I longed to wear tight black pants with a white line down them and a holster on my thigh. I wanted Chewbacca to be my best friend. But, as the only girl stuck with a family of older boys, I only ever got to be Princess Leia.

Linking out

So the blog has pretty much dried up despite my oh-so-empassioned bid to try and kick myself into action. Lots of reasons and excuses, but rather than dwelling on those I’m going to get back into posting and to point to some of things I’ve found interesting today First of all, a very interesting post from cybersoc.com – from someone who I consider to be the guru of online communities. (Full disclosure – Robin and I used to work for the same corporation and have met on a number of work related occasions) Not an optimistic view, perhaps but a realistic one.  

Robin says,”Part of the problem was also that, in trying to build up big communities, we were trying to be something for everyone which we all know isn’t a very successful formula for just about anything other than Walmart. In trying to attract anyone and everyone, we failed to create a strong editorial proposition and ignored the small niche communities that developed in the shadows to focus upon the masses.”

It’s well worth reading the whole article. Oh and kudos for mangling an REM song title into a post headline. It made me read it! 

Recently I’ve been looking for blogs related to my new line of work, copywriting and marketing. I think I got lucky and stumbled across some great ones straight off. When I’m trying out new blogs, I stick em in my Internet favourites for a while and check them in down time. If I’m still clicking on a regular basis after a week or so, they go into my aggregator (Newsgator – because I can get it online) Bad Language made the cut pretty quickly – and I need to save this great post about feedback. Oh how I wish I could have pointed certain former managers to this… 

Away with Words has become a regular daily treat. Nancy Friedman always has something interesting, intruiguing or informative to say. In short, she writes the kind of blog I aspire to. Plus she emailed me last time I linked to her blog so she’s paying attention. Hi Nancy!  I still have the reading capacity to add more sites like these to my daily routine, so if anyone has any recommendations, I’d love to hear about them.