How to write superior copy people actually read

Paul Boag

This week on the Boagworld Show we are once again joined by Ellen De Vries to discuss writing engaging copy.

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This weeks show is sponsored by Resource Guru and Gather Content.

This week on the Boagworld Show Ellen De Vries talks with us about writing compelling copy people will actually read.

Paul: Hello and welcome to the podcast about all aspects of digital design, development and strategy. My name is Paul Boag and joining us on this week’s show is obviously Marcus and Ellen. Hello Ellen, nice to have you back.

Ellen: It’s a pleasure to be back.

Paul: Now, I want to briefly, while you are here Marcus wants to apologise to you. Marcus…

Ellen: Oh

Paul: … Apologise to Ellen.

Marcus: Well, I had to confess on the show a couple of weeks back when Paul said Ellen is coming back on the show. I thought, you know, you were dead to me, I would never see, (Laughter) never hear from you ever again so, I ate all the chocolate!

Ellen: You did what! (Laughter) I specifically said you were to share it.

Marcus: Yeah, after I’d eaten it all.

Ellen: Oh, okay. Yes, that is true I may have been a little bit late with that. I suddenly realised that you might have eaten, you might have thought that you could eat…

Paul: Don’t back down that quickly Ellen. “Oh, oh I said it too late.” That’s no excuse. He should have had the common courtesy to share chocolate with me anyway. Without having to even be told.

Marcus: I do have one further defence in the fact that it was me that had to sort the problem out which is the reason why you sent the chocolate in the first place, Ellen, so don’t feel too guilty about it. Actually, I don’t feel guilty about it at all! If I’m honest!

Paul: (Sigh)

Ellen: Maybe we should… Maybe we just shouldn’t have told Paul about the chocolate.

Marcus: Yes, it was just the fact that you were coming back on the show. I thought I can’t ignore it now, I have to say something! Because you will say “Did you like the chocolate?” and Paul will say “What chocolate?” And then that would be, you know…

Paul: That would be even worse wouldn’t it.

Marcus: Yeah, I had to fess up.

Paul: Yeah, doing it that way. Yeah, you did the right thing Marcus, well done! (Laughter) I know it was very difficult for you.

Marcus: It was really nice though, thank you, thank you, thank you Ellen. Yum, yum.

Ellen: You are welcome.

Paul: I think this should be compulsory now, for all future guests, they have to send us a present. I like that plan, I think we need to implement… Now, changing the subject totally, Ellen, last time you were on the show, right, we didn’t get a lot into what you do, right? We talked about the fact that you were at Clearleft but I’ve got some questions, right?

Ellen: Okay.

Paul: Is that all right? If I… I just want to understand a little bit about…

Marcus: It is an interview Paul! You ask questions, you know, that’s what you do!

Paul: I know! Yeah but…(Laughter)

Ellen: I was prepared for that, I have to say!

Paul: You expected there to be questions. I have never had, this is a really embarrassing confession to make but I have never had a proper conversation with someone that spends their life kind of writing copy for digital products and services. I know lots of people who do it but I’ve never kind of asked them about it in any detail which is a bit of a weird thing to do. It’s not something that I have ever done myself so I’m really quite interested in what kind of work you do. Is it literally… is it just the copywriting, are you involved in the information architecture. What’s your average day like?

Ellen: Well that’s very good question. So, how do I work? Technically speaking I am not a copywriter even though writing copy is something that I do a lot of as part of my day job. So I would say that about maybe like 80% of the time I am actually not writing copy but I’m helping organisations to write their own copy. In doing that I need to often create templates or work with designers to give them a starting point and then hopefully they can take all of that stuff and use it as an example from which they can then go and do all of their own work. So that is often with the much bigger organisations. So I find that most of the time I am running workshops and helping people to develop an awareness of their own language, really, rather than actually giving it to them.

Paul: Hmmm, yeah. So when you talk about templates are you talking about content style guides or are you talking about a content template in terms of what content they have got to fill in the gaps kind of thing?

Ellen: So, well, it varies. It depends on the client as to what is going to be most useful to them but really content… My official job title is content strategist which is a very fancy term. On the one hand it means that I’m sort of looking at the strategy of our content or how content flows through a company like on a daily basis or across the whole year and then the strategic end is usually all the stuff that lies between beneath the surface. Like all the people that have to edit content or produce content along the way or the templates of documents that they use to help them do that. So, the documentation stuff is usually the template. So they might use tone of voice guides or messaging frameworks there’s a whole sort of armoury of things that you can use. And then…

Paul: Ooo, what’s a messaging framework? I’ve not come across that.

Ellen: Okay, so they can take different shapes but quite often companies, brands, have lots of different channels so they might have like Facebook and they might have Twitter and they might have telephone customer service people. So a messaging framework is a thing that helps anybody writing content make sure that they are getting consistent messages across all of their different channels. But it can also be a slightly different thing. It can be making sure that you get the right messages out to the right kinds of people depending on where they are coming into the company from. Does that make sense? So it is like a…

Marcus: Hmmm.

Paul: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Ellen: So it’s like you might target different language at children from their parents for example if it is like a game or something. So then you would have completely different templates for each of the different audiences.

Paul: It’s something I… I’ve got to learn so much more about this. It’s something… There’s so much isn’t there that you… Yeah, I struggle to keep up with everything these days.

Marcus: So much you don’t know Paul, is that what you’re trying to say?

Paul: Yes, it’s like the more of an expert I become the less I seem to know, do you know what I mean? (Laughter) The longer you do it the more you realise you don’t know about it.

Ellen: But it’s a whole world of opportunity that’s the way to see it.

Paul: Agh, yes. Yeah, you won’t say that in another 10 years when you’re as old and decrepit as me. (Laughter)

Marcus: He doesn’t believe his own bluster as much any more, that’s what it is.

Paul: No, that’s absolutely true Marcus. I don’t believe my own BS. I mean the big problem I have always found with that kind of stuff that you are talking about is convincing clients to pay for it because everybody thinks they can write which they blatantly can’t. So, is that a problem that you guys come across or are you beyond that now at Clearleft?

Ellen: Well, I totally agree with you that there is a large part of the population that thinks “I can do this myself.” When I was a freelancer, so I joined Clearleft about nearly 3 years ago and when I was a freelance I just gave up on trying to convince people. So I thought well, the better clients are the ones that know that they need all this stuff. However now I am part of an agency it is a slightly different story. So I have found that the best way to get people to basically pay for content strategy is because often people… They might still think that they can write… But often people are willing to invest in skills development on the one hand…

Paul: Yeah, training.

Ellen: … Like training and getting their team all to understand how to write with consistency and getting all of the kind of tools that they need in place to help them do that efficiently. So that’s one side of it. The other side of it is that people often feel like they could benefit from somebody coming in and just untangling, like, your own sense of what your story is because when you’re on the inside it’s really easy just to use your own kind of corporate terminology and forget that users have a slightly different language. So we sort of come at it from both of those different angles.

Paul: Yeah, I can imagine how that works. The trouble is, I mean, I’m experiencing a great example of this at the moment. To some degree I think I can write, like most people out there. You know, Marcus thinks he can write because he writes proposals. I think I can write because I have written books and stuff. Then I have just sat down, I have been hired to write some teaching material and it’s got to be much more academic in tone and that’s when you suddenly realise that “Okay, I might be able to write in one medium or in one context but that doesn’t mean that I can write in another one.” And honestly, I want to run away and curl up in a ball and cry because I just can’t do it. It’s that realisation that there are so many different forms of writing in different places that just because you can write in one way doesn’t mean you can write in another.

Ellen: That’s really true. We get it often that people attempt to do like web copywriting but really… So we make a big distinction between people who are subject matter experts. So once upon a time I also had to write some stuff for a think it was e-learning for maths GCSE’s or something like that. (Laughter)

Marcus: Wow.

Ellen: I’m like the worst person in the world to write anything to do with maths. Maths is my least favourite subject and so the blessing was that I got to work with a subject matter expert who knew what they were talking about. So I could bring my skill of like being able to structure the content in a kind of easy fashion and between us we managed which was brilliant. But often people… It’s not so much that people can’t do it themselves. Because often people can do it themselves, they just need support in one way or another to help them. Whether that is one-to-one like I did with the maths teacher or having like some guidance or some kind of skills development workshop, so developing an awareness of tone of voice is a skill that you can, you know, get to grips with in a day, pretty much. Like understanding the importance of tone of voice and looking at techniques of how you can kind of shift your tone of voice around. So yeah, I kind of, I like to believe that people can do it themselves but you just need to find the right people to help you.

Paul: Yes, yes. Yes, you’re absolutely right because it’s really funny I’ve just written an article saying that we are all designers to some degree. We are all making design decisions and sometimes people just, you know, we as professional designers need to empower people and give them the tools they need to do it better and that is essentially exactly what you have just said, you know, it’s this idea of yes people can write, they just need some help and the right tools and the right structure in which to do it in a good way. So yes, I totally agree with that. It’s just getting them to realise that they need the help isn’t it, they don’t always realise they need it, you know? Anyway, all of that was a massive tangent. To be honest I don’t think we talked enough about Marcus’s need to apologise to both of us for eating the chocolate. But we will let it go I suppose. How are you Marcus by the way? Are you all right?

Marcus: Stressed.

Paul: Oh dear, is it end of year stress?

Marcus: You’ve got it! Well, end of year now pushing into January, February and… just a nightmare. So I’ve got nothing to add to today’s conversation which is…

Paul: Are you just going to sit there and be grumpy in the corner?

Marcus: Hmmm.

Paul: Well that’s good.

Marcus: Well I have got a joke for the end of the show which is obviously quite light-hearted as they are meant to be. I wondered whether I could come up with a really dark joke for today to go with my mood.

Paul: Oh, you’re going to be a bundle of fun at the Christmas party then aren’t you!

Marcus: No, I mustn’t complain, we’re just very busy and that’s just life, that’s just the way it goes. But yes, is it like this at Clearleft? Do Clearlefts clients all think that there’s this kind of arbitrary deadline of Christmas that things must be done before?

Ellen: I’m not really experiencing the Christmas stress. I don’t know what’s going on because normally I do. Maybe I’m just in denial or… (Laughter) or maybe for once we’ve planned something so that we’re not crazy busy. But yes, it seems to be okay, I don’t want to speak too soon because mayhem may commence as soon I say that so, yeah, I’m going to keep my mouth shut.

Paul: You were saying you had quite a big project on because we had to work out the logistics of getting you back on the show didn’t we. So that sounds quite exciting, something good to get your teeth into.

Ellen: Yeah, it is, it is. I am working for a large and very popular airline.

Paul: Ooo.

Ellen: I was going to say ‘That do international travel’ but that would be… (Laughter)

Paul: That doesn’t narrow it down very much does it.

Ellen: So yeah, it’s… I’m helping them write all of their help section, sort of their FAQs and things because there’s a lot of calls coming into the call centre that they don’t need to be answering that they could easily answer online. So that’s what I’m working on with them.

Paul: Oh, that sounds like a good one. I like the sound of that.

Ellen: It’s a good meaty one, yeah. Yeah, there’s lots of… I get to collaborate with, like, the user experience guys as well so that’s really important.

Paul: Absolutely.

Ellen: Yeah, so.

Paul: Yeah, because there’s just enormous overlap isn’t there between those two disciplines. I mean you can’t really separate them out because content is a vast majority of the user experience, in a lot of cases.

Ellen: Exactly, yes. Yes.

Featured Posts

Play Featured Posts at: 15:33

Paul: So what we are going to be talking about today is the idea of getting… writing copy that people actually want to read. Now, we all know that people scan copy and don’t necessarily read it all from beginning to end but some copy is better at drawing you in isn’t it, then other copy. So that’s where we want to focus on today. I dug out a few articles on the subject that I have read at various times that I have found quite useful which we will share in the show notes so you can get at all of these. There is one article on ‘10 writing tips for more engaging content.’ Which actually, believe it or not, I think if you type in ‘engaging content’ on Google you actually get that one up so it’s not a hard one to find. Then we have also got a couple of posts that I have written at various times. One is about… see, after me saying “oh I really need to…” Oh, I didn’t write this one, I’m off the hook. It’s on my site but I didn’t write it, so that’s okay. So Andy Kinsey who we had on the show talking about SEO, not long ago Marcus. So he wrote a guest post for Boagworld a while back which is ‘eight lessons for writing compelling content.’ Again, we will link to it in the show notes. I won’t try and read out your long URL here. But he wrote a really good post about different, well, what it says on the tin really so eight ways of kind of approaching writing more compelling content. So I recommend that you check that one out. It is a really, really good one. Then another one which I did write myself which I think is quite a sobering one and quite good maybe to… Trust me to write the depressing one! Quite a good one to lead into this idea of writing compelling copy is back in 2015 I wrote a post on why we are seeing a decline in content engagement. It mainly revolves around just the content saturation that we are seeing at the moment. The sheer amount of content being put out there. For example there are apparently 17, this is 2015 figures, so what it’s like now but… So in 2015 17 new posts were being released every second. That’s 1.5 million new WordPress posts are published every day.

Ellen: That’s frightening!

Paul: I know, it’s terrifying isn’t it? … And that content is doubling every 9 to 24 months. You know, the amount of content on the Internet, you just think that blows your mind doesn’t it?

Ellen: Yep.

Paul: So obviously the amount of time that we have got available to read all of this stuff has not exactly skyrocketed has it so it’s an interesting read and I kind of give a bit of a lame answer towards the end of the article but it’s not the most convincing of answers. But you might want to check it out because, you know, you want to be cheered up with how pointless and hopeless the whole exercise is. So there we go.

Marcus: (Laughter) So basically what you’re trying to say is ‘Don’t bother.’

Paul: Yeah, don’t bother writing content, it’s a waste of time.

Marcus: It’s a waste of time, yeah.

Paul: Yeah, and Ellen is now out of a job.

Marcus: … Out of a job, yeah.

Paul: Yeah, there we go.

Ellen: I want to know what the answer is, do we have to read the post to find out the answer?

Paul: Oh, my lame answer? Well, I think really the post is primarily written from a point of view of blogging and content marketing which ultimately is what this season is about. The point that I end up drawing out of it is how I… Because I start the post by talking about how I have seen a decline on Boagworld. And I know as well that is the same across all of the major, not that I am a major publication, but all of the major web design platforms like you know, Creative block or Smashing magazine or anywhere else. They are all seeing a decline. And that my personal reaction to it has been to focus more on the community side of things. The building a relationship with followers, you know, and things like my slack channel and via social media and those kinds of stuff. Which is still very much… So Ellen still has a job because you are still creating content.

Ellen: Just about, yes, until people keep writing more content, yeah! (Laughter)

Paul: Yeah, but from a… You kind of deal with social media and how you position yourself on social media as much as you do other platforms one presumes?

Ellen: Yeah, I think I do but well, in an ideal world we are meant to see these things as holistically as possible so that you are seeing the story as it goes from one channel to the next and how people sort of bounce around between the media. You are meant to consider all of the channels as part of one sort of ecosystem really. But a lot of the time in the… Well it seems to be just in the work that I have done recently it has been much more about websites and the tools. I think we see them as being the centre of the system in some ways which is often incorrect really. I mean we worked with Penguin books before they have their lovely new website they really relied heavily on social media to get a lot of their messages and stories and information and marketing out there. So we didn’t want to diminish that at all but we just wanted to help the website to become part of that whole ecosystem I suppose.

Paul: Hmmm, yeah. It is very interesting the kind of… They should all be very interrelated to one another and users should flow from one channel to another and content should flow from one channel to another but you are right, so often it feels like social media is the, sorry, the website is kind of all take really and that everything else is about pushing content to, sorry, pushing users to the website and actually it can drive the other way as well. The website has got so much potential to lead across to social media and to have a journey that moves between these channels. But equally, you look at some social media platforms and you think it’s just flipping press releases, isn’t it? Endless press releases being pushed out on social media which depresses me no end. But anyway.

Ellen: What you were saying just now about community, that’s when you started talking about it I was thinking, yeah, really you just have to go where the community are. So if your community are on Facebook and are likely to be there then actually talking to them and getting a conversation going is the way forward really. Yeah.

Paul: But it is funny how… No, that’s all off topic. We’re going to end up talking about social media and I really want to get into some of the questions about creating compelling content.

Marcus: But, but, but before you go there I am noticing, which I didn’t notice before, do you have a slight West Country accent Ellen?

Ellen: Oh, somebody, yeah. No, no I don’t.

Marcus: Oh!

Ellen: It’s weird, so my dad is Dutch and my mum is Irish and may be it is something to do with the hybrid of those two accents.

Marcus: If you put the two together you get Somerset!

Paul: Awesome!

Ellen: Maybe Somerset is directly in the middle of Ireland and Holland. (Laughter)

Marcus: It probably is! Oh, wow. I wonder if that works in other places. Like the middle point between Spain and Finland or something.

Paul: No Marcus. No it doesn’t! It really, really doesn’t. So where did you grow up then Ellen?

Ellen: I grew up in lots of different countries, so yeah. We moved every three years for my dad’s work so I lived in Yemen for a big part of my childhood.

Paul: Wow!

Ellen: Yeah. And Ireland and then Holland and Germany and Romania and Sudan and we just kept on moving so…

Paul: Okay, I got to say, I just presumed it as well. You sound Bristolian to me or somewhere around there. It’s so interesting isn’t it. Anyway, what left-field question Marcus! That didn’t cut across the podcast at all. We are real professionals aren’t we?

Marcus: No. But that would make us all from the West Country. But we not, so hey.

Ellen: Maybe I’m just chameleon-ing into your accent because I do that too.

Paul: Yeah, yeah. Could be.

Marcus: I don’t have a Devon accent.

Paul: No, but you wish you did, because you wish you lived there because you know we live in the best part of the world.

Marcus: Yeah, but I am so pleased that my parents moved out because yeah… ’Cause.

Paul: ’Cause, there we go. Can I do the sponsor now?

Marcus: Well, yeah if you have to. People are much more interested in West Country accents surely.

Paul: No, because it is a good and relevant, relevant, sponsor which is more than your waffle about West Country is. Gah. So it is GatherContent who has been supporting the entire season. And Ellen, you’ve done stuff with them haven’t you. You have written a book and things.

Ellen: I have, yes.

Paul: Aren’t they based in your part of the world as well? Aren’t they?

Ellen: Well one of them is. I think they are distributed all over the place but James Dear he lives down here, yeah.

Paul: It’s James I’ve been mainly talking to, that’s why got that impression. So, GatherContent is such a good tool for getting and managing the content that you need for your websites, your apps, your social media campaigns, whatever. Let’s be honest doing that is a pain in the neck most of the time and probably the most horrible part of any project is extracting content. So I in particular, tend to work on a lot of very content heavy websites and you can almost guarantee that it is going to be content production that’s going to cause the delays. In fact in my experience it has been the single biggest barrier to delivery in a lot of situations which is why I get on so well with GatherContent and find it such a useful tool. It was actually born out of an agency that just got frustrated with the experience of getting content so decided to do something about it which is always the best product isn’t it. Scratching your own itch. They are a really nice group of people, they are really open and responsive, they are incredibly helpful and they have now got thousands of teams worldwide that they help to organise content and produce website content for. So it is perfect for website redesigns, new website builds, new website content sections, new FAQs as Ellen is currently working on. They have got a 30 day free trial. You don’t need a credit card or anything like that. Go and try them out for yourself at


Play Discussion at: 26:52

Paul: Okay, so as we have already established we are talking about how to make content more engaging, how to get it to stand out from the crowd. We have learnt that actually we are all doomed because there is far too much content out there already but most of it, thankfully, is pretty rubbish. So how do you get your content, Ellen, to stand out? How do you create content in such a way that it is engaging and compelling? There you go, there’s a nice easy question! If you could just sort that out for us that would be brilliant.

Ellen: Well here is the definitive answer! (Laughter)

Marcus: That’s a big old question!

Paul: Yeah, now I’ve read it back… It looked fine when I wrote it down but now I’ve actually said it out loud I realise that that is may be asking a bit much but you said you’re going to answer it so…

Ellen: I’m going to have a go.

Marcus: I suggest you keep it to yourself Ellen! Or the real answer anyway.

Paul: Yes, just give us a watered-down one.

Ellen: Yes, have you got an hour! So, there is this really cool activity that I do with my clients.

Paul: Ooo, this sounds good.

Ellen: Yes, and I love doing it because it is so revealing. So, for example we worked with a school recently and we wanted to make sure that they stood out from the crowd because it is a highly competitive… It is a private school so there are quite a lot of private schools around and apart from results and things like that it was quite challenging to make a school stand out against all the other schools. So I went through all of the kind of competitor schools and basically stripped out the little bits of copy from their about page where they go ‘we are a school who believes in integrity and personality…’ and whatever, whatever schools believe in. I went acreoss all competitor websites and took out that text and basically put it into a presentation deck. One piece of copy per page without any branding across it so you can basically…

Paul: I know where this is going! This is going to be great, sorry, sorry, carry on.

Ellen: No, I hope it is going to be great!

Paul: I’m grinning from ear to ear. Yeah.

Ellen: So basically… And then I put theirs in there as well, their existing one. So basically you print out all of those slides and it is just bare text. I put them out in front of the people, like on the table, and you can see really clearly without any kind of visual branding how people’s tone of voice is like falling down on how they are managing to differentiate themselves, or not managing. Or how they are either sounding to pretentious or not pretentious enough. So it makes that tone of voice really, really explicit to the school, or to whoever you do it with. But they also sometimes don’t even know that their own text is in there as well.

Paul: Yeah, that’s what I thought was… That’s where I thought you were going with it… Yeah, that they are all the same or you know, they’ve got very similar…

Ellen: Yeah, and people love taking a red pen to things so it’s a perfect way to get people to say exactly what they don’t want and then out of that you build… The great thing about that is that you learn or I learn or they learn what the major kind of differentiators are and what your values are as a result of saying what you don’t or what you’re not. You learn more about what you are. So, yeah.

Paul: That’s really interesting… Go on Marcus.

Marcus: Sorry, I was going to say do you think that there is a difference between what people say to you in workshop situations and what they actually really want? I have found that on a few occasions, that people sort of maybe become a little bit more left-field in a workshop and then you have to kind of dig down a bit deeper and may be over the next few weeks you will realise that this kind of cool thing that they wanted really wasn’t them and it is not their brand. Is that something that you suffer from the content world?

Ellen: I find that quite often with start-ups. So if I am working on a brand that is really new and they don’t really know themselves because they are still making up their story effectively, it’s really hard in a workshop situation to get the definitive answer out of them I think. So yeah, you can decide one thing in the room one day and then they sort of take it out of the room and wear it a little bit. I often say to people is a little bit like putting on a new coat, just to see how it fits and then they might take it outside of the workshop and five hours later be like “Err, that wasn’t as comfortable as we thought it was going to be.” And then… But that’s really more often to do with the fact that the story is so young and you can’t really kind of articulate the culture yet because they don’t have a culture yet because it is such early days.

Marcus: Okay.

Paul: The other thing I find that happens a lot when you do exercises like that where you compare the competitors is that everybody just kind of blur together into the same homogenous thing. But everybody, I mean we do look at a lot of work in higher education and they all say the same thing. Right? They all say things like ‘We care deeply about the student experience.’ A little exercise that I always do with them is say ‘If you reversed that statement would any university on the face of the planet say the opposite?’ Right?

Ellen: Yeah.

Paul: You know, we all care deeply about the experience. Is there ever going to be a university that says we don’t give the shit about the student experience? (Laughter)

Marcus: Even if it might be true! (Laughter)

Paul: Yeah, you know, so if you can’t… If there’s not going to be anybody that can take the opposite opinion or a radically different opinion then you’re not really expressing an opinion are you? You’re not really standing out because you are just saying the same as what everybody else is going to say.

Ellen: Yes, totally. It’s to be avoided. I think that’s a really good way of doing it. Yeah.

Paul: Yeah, so a big part of it… Are there any more little exercises like that that you do? Because I am always fascinated by the little exercises people do workshops? Sorry, that wasn’t a question that I gave to you beforehand was it so…

Ellen: That’s okay, no, no, that’s fine. No, well I love running workshops though so I’ve got my toolkit. But there’s a really nice one actually that I only just started doing maybe in the last year or two. It’s called Archetypes for branding. There’s this book, it’s like a beautiful deck of cards that are wonderfully designed. They look like tarot cards, and it’s just such a refreshing activity. So you sort of set up the room and you lay out all these cards and they are all archetypal characters. The idea is that the client looks through all of these archetypes and narrows them down to really think about what kind of character they are portraying to their users. So it is more about… It is less about defining your own archetype because that in itself isn’t all that useful. But it’s more about the conversations that people have. So they will say “We are not a magician, but we are a little bit more like a detective because…” It’s the story they tell when they are choosing the cards. It’s like “We are a detective because we like go into people’s offices and…” I don’t know, I’m trying to think of an example.

Paul: I know what you mean. That is so similar to an exercise that Headscape does, doesn’t it, Marcus? With the famous person thing?

Marcus: Yes, although I’ve kind of dropped that recently because I found that it’s too hard to do… It’s the kind of exercise that you don’t want to spend hours on and you can… What I found is that people end up, because it’s open, people end up just saying anything that kind of just about vaguely fitted. But what I really like about this, and I’m currently on Amazon buying them is that you’re making suggestions. Because… Pick a famous person…

Paul: Explain what the famous person exercising is.

Marcus: Sorry, yes. Basically what we used to… It was to do with trying to understand the character of the client or the client’s brand. The idea is that if you can come up with a famous person that everybody recognises… We had one where they picked Joanna Lumley which was perfect and that really worked. It basically gives us, as designers or Ellen as somebody who writes copy to think that the character of what they are designing or what they are writing about would be around Joanna Lumley who everyone in the UK knows who that is and knows what they are about. But what I found is that you ended up with kind of, a lot of the time, as I just said, people just go “Oh, I can’t think of anything so will go with that.” And it was like ‘I’m not sure of the value of this any more’ so I’ve dropped it lately.

Paul: Yeah, yeah.

Ellen: But maybe, because there is another activity that could relate to that and maybe this is a way of doing it, again, is printing out lots of pictures from like the BP national portrait awards so it’s basically like a massive kind of selection of images of people with lots of different characters. So you’ve got the kind of like bald upright people or young playful children. So also something about them being paintings makes for people using their imagination a little bit more rather than it just being like stock photography or images of people who are like are famous or who exist. So maybe that is something. Yeah.

Marcus: Yeah. We had too many Barack Obama’s and Stephen Fry’s and it’s just ended up… We do another exercise, I am going off on a tangent here and it’s to do with design, we covered it in the last series actually Leigh came on to talk about where we are trying to get the character of a design from the aesthetic point of view? There is a point to this by the way, where we asked people to kind of… Rather than thinking about kind of website design of buttons and navigation and all that kind of thing we ask them to design a reception area for their organisation and have various questions around that.

Ellen: Nice.

Marcus: What would the walls be like? What would be on the walls? Blah, blah, blah. All this kind of thing. You do get an awful lot of “It’s bright and airy and clean” and all that kind of thing. But what we found that one is that it is a worthwhile exercise because what you’ve got to kind of look for are the things that you are not expecting. So when I’m going through the exercise, summarising the exercise after they have done it, I am really looking out for those kind of “Oh, I wasn’t expecting that.” And we will focus in on those words afterwards. So yeah, a little bit of a tangent.

Paul: I’m gutted, I am gutted. They are not available anymore those cards. Archetypes of branding card deck.

Ellen: No way! Oh no!

Paul: I’m looking on Amazon and they are currently unavailable.

Ellen: That’s because they are so popular. Maybe… Oh. That’s…

Paul: That’s really annoying. But they might reappear, it seems to be quite a big thing, there’s loads on there about it. Wow! There is a book.

Ellen: Yeah, there’s a book. Personally I haven’t read the book I just use the cards.

Paul: Yeah, I don’t blame you.

Ellen: Yeah.

Marcus: Never read the instructions, no.

Ellen: No, just look at the pictures! (Laughter)

Paul: No, you don’t want to do that!

Marcus: You’ll probably find out it’s to do with devil worship!

Paul: Yeah, absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with…

Ellen: Oh, what have I advocated. Ah oh.

Paul: Anyway, that’s good, I like that one. That’s very good. So, here is a follow-up question, right? One of the big problems when you’re trying to write compelling content is that you traditionally, if you look at other mediums you want to draw someone in and you want to excite them and get them into it, you kind of, there is a rhythm and a flow to the copy, isn’t there, where you kind of build up to a crescendo and where you do the “And this is why this is the best, whatever it is, in the world.” And you kind of lead into it. But when you are dealing with the web people scan copy. They don’t really read it, they are jumping around and… How the hell do you deal with that when it comes to writing something that is compelling and engaging?

Ellen: Yes, so we had a big discussion around this when we were writing our case studies for the Clearleft website. Because we were, well, we’ve got some users that would be more inclined to sit and read a good long case study and there are others that are really aren’t interested or haven’t got the time and they just want to go in and pick out the bits that they think are interesting. So, it was quite a challenge because how do you structure a piece of text so that it sort of flows on the one hand and has a story, as case studies inherently do, but also cater for people that scan text. So, yeah, basically my great philosophy is chunking. It’s basically all about chunking. It is a word that I say day in day out. So chunking is basically about dividing pages into chunks of text and giving those chunks of text logical and leading subheadings so unlike in the newspapers where headings are kind of catchy and have puns in them and I’m like “Oh, that’s clever.” It’s… my philosophy is all about clarity really. So the clarity is the first thing and then if you can zhuzh it up a little bit then go ahead.

Paul: Zhuzh it up!

Ellen: Technical.

Paul: Is that a professional term then. Just to check? (Laughter)

Ellen: Yes, I don’t even know how you spell that.

Marcus: Oh as content expert, got to come in on that. How do you spell…

Paul: Oh for crying out loud!

Ellen: Oh here we go! It’s like a spelling bee. All right, go for it.

Marcus: It’s not, I’m just being silly. It’s silly words, somebody said to me the other day short for ‘pleasure treasure,’ they said ‘pledge tresh’ ???? and I thought how on earth do you spell that? I still don’t know.

Ellen: Pledge tresh? What pledge tresh?

Marcus: It’s short for Pleasure Treasure.

Paul: That’s not, I don’t… Shut up Marcus! Just shut up and stop speaking.

Marcus: I’m in a chatty mood today. I’m not in a happy mood in any way.

Paul: You’ve cheered up. Ellen has cheered you up.

Marcus: Yes.

Paul: Yes, next question then so chunking… I totally… He’s just destroying the flow of this. This is supposed to be a professional interview, anyway. I wanted to ask you, you see the other problem that I find really difficult is some subject matter isn’t the most interesting is it? Some of the clients you get they’re not, you know, like interesting! You know, what they do and that kind of thing.

Ellen: Yeah.

Paul: How do you deal with that, how do you go about making something more engaging and compelling then perhaps it naturally is without kind of just lying? (Laughter) Do you know what I mean?

Ellen: Yeah. It’s a challenging one. I guess, yeah, once upon a time I had a… I was running a blogging workshop and it was one of those workshops that anyone could come to. Companies sent their marketing person to come and learn about blogging, kind of thing. This woman arrived and she said I have to write a blog about door hinges. (Laughter) So it was basically like a building materials company and they specialised in hinges for doors and garages. Then I was like “Wow, that’s really… That’s challenging.” So, yeah. But I think even when it is door hinges I think that people really notice an effort to make something that you are writing about more lovable. So, for example I was looking online for printer ink a while back and I noticed how very boring the subject of buying printer ink is. Because every company has put a good lot of effort into SEO-ing, you know, getting the keywords so that printer ink and their printer ink company comes at the top of the listing. But then what actually made me want to buy the ink more was that some of the companies had interesting names. Or they put a little bit of effort into their copy and made it a little bit… tone of voice. So it’s a bit like Moo cards, you know, inherently the business of business cards is really boring but Moo just did this genius thing where they just used amazing design and lovely copy and lots of love-ability to completely make their brand stand out against the crowd. So, yeah, with printer ink you know, if you call it, I don’t know, what’s a good name for a printer ink company? Inky! Pinky Ink! (Laughter)

Paul: That’s not bad for a spur of the moment one, I’m quite impressed with that, well done.

Ellen: Well, you know, it’s little things, little effort to make you completely differentiate. It’s a hard thing to do though if you’ve got a dry subject matter.

Paul: Yeah, you know, there are some companies that seem to really get that, of adding personality around their brand and some that don’t. Some of the techniques I see, yes it can be adding a little bit of humour or a little bit of character. For example MailChimp and Freddie or Moo. Even something like firebox. I love their copy, you know, they’ve always got a bit of humour in it. But you can’t always go down the humour route I guess because it is not always appropriate or right for a particular brand. But something like that door hinges example, I always think sometimes it’s about talking around the subject. Especially when it comes to blogging. So instead of talking directly about hinges you talk about, you know, house renovations or the things that sit around the product that you are selling. Does that make sense?

Ellen: Yes. It also comes back to what you were saying before about building up your community around that product. So, if it is door hinges then you need to be specific about who your community are. So are you trying to appeal to builders or are you appealing to… Who is it who buys the door hinges? And give them whatever they need to hear in order to make them think that you are the experts and the people who care the most about door hinges ever.

Paul: Yeah, yeah. And also…

Marcus: Sorry. It strikes me slightly odd why you would ever want to write a blog about door hinges in the first place? Hmmm

Ellen: Yes.

Marcus: There is actually a very interesting thing about door hinges, I won’t go there because I’ve already had too many tangents. But there is! (Laughter)

Ellen: Now we will never know.

Paul: No, we won’t. It will be a secret forever. Perhaps he will reveal it on the Christmas special at the end of the season! That probably isn’t going to be very special but there you go. Because I’ve planned nothing! No, often times it’s around SEO isn’t it. People think “Oh, if we blog we are going to get SEO traffic on door hinges.” I’m not sure it always works like that but anyway.

Ellen: Yeah.

Paul: So, yeah, you talked about chunking earlier as a way of kind of dealing with that problem that people are scanning. But is there any other particular approach that you use for kind of structuring the content that you are producing in order to make it more engaging and accessible to people or is chunking your go-to thing. What about things like front-loading? Where do you stand on on that, instead of in traditional marketing you would maybe build to the offer rather than go in and immediately say what it is that you are going to offer. But maybe on the web when you front-load stuff is a bit different. Do you know what I am getting at there? Does that even make sense?

Ellen: Yes I do. Yeah, I think it completely depends on the context and it depends on the kind of story that you are trying to tell. By context I mean if you are in a FAQ section or somewhere where you are just looking for information then front-loading would be really important because people want to get their information and then they want to go. So, whereas if you are reading a medium article for example then you might want to kind of do a bit of what we call foreshadowing. So at the beginning of your story you would say “oh,” like what you did, about the door hinges is “You might get to hear about the door hinges in the Christmas special.” That there was foreshadowing so… So basically if you are trying to tell a compelling story and you are hoping to string people all the way along until the end or until the next episode then you wouldn’t obviously front-load with the punchline. So you have to write your story according to what your user needs are really.

Paul: It’s interesting that you mentioned story there. I hear that all the time. “Ah, storytelling, it’s a great way of engaging people and drawing people in.” “You need to tell a story.” But what does that actually mean in practice? You know, in terms of how do you write a story when you are talking about door hinges?

Ellen: Yeah! (Laughter). Okay!

Paul: The door hinges example might be a bit too tricky but you know, do you know what I’m getting at? People say it but they never go into any detail about what that means in practice.

Ellen: I know, it’s very mysterious isn’t it. So, I have a bit of a thing about this storytelling because you’ve got two, in my view, you’ve got two ways of telling a story. The traditional, like since the beginning of time, since people were sitting around campfires and practically just grunting at each other. The earliest form of story is like this heroes journey which is basically a person who overcomes an obstacle in order to achieve something and then likely gets married at the end. So, you’ve got a hero that is called on a mission to like save the village and then has to go and fight a bear because the bear is in front of the village. Then they save the village and then they get married. (Laughter) That’s like the earliest and most basic form of storytelling and there is something about our human brains that is wired to kind of light up when we hear a story. It is the same with the archetypes that we were talking about earlier. So when you recognise a character, when you recognise that someone has magical powers you are like “Ooh, magician, that’s interesting, I know who that person is and I know that I want to hear what their story is.” So, that’s… in the oldest form we are used to books and linear stories so, you start a book at the beginning and you read it all the way to the end. But then now you’ve got digital storytelling which completely blows everything out of the water. Because, like, a digital story is no longer a linear thing because you can’t account for where your users are arriving and looking at, you know, where your users are first sort of touching your story and where they are going next. You can do lots of things like user journey mapping and make sure that you are serving up the right piece of story along the way but it is just not linear any more. So, instead I think it is more about this idea of having a consistent set of principles or qualities or attributes or, like, your brand language. So making sure that every one of your channels, whether it is Facebook or Twitter or your website or the work that people are doing out in the field or the people on the phones that they are all telling a similar story about your brand. So that you are just developing that consistency so that it is not like one person out there, like being rude to someone and then on the website it says, like, “We are the friendliest brand on earth.”

Paul: Yeah.

Ellen: So, it’s much more about building or sort of weaving this kind of whole tapestry rather than just the hero’s journey from start to finish.

Paul: That makes a lot more sense. You know, I can very much get that. It is about creating a consistent narrative, a consistent image of your brand and your company and how they are viewed by the world. In the same way as this podcast gives a certain image of the work that I do and who I am and what it would be like to work with me and, you know, alongside my blogging and it all has got a similar flavour to it for want of a better word. Yeah. Okay, let’s do one last question. What is the one mistake you see people making most when writing to the web just bugs the crap out of you? This is therapy for you now, get it off of your chest, have a little rant and what people can do about it.

Ellen: I think that the biggest thing is leaving the content writing till the last minute.

Marcus: Hmmm.

Paul: Yeah.

Ellen: And like, just not having enough time and you’ve got four days before launch and you know, half the content isn’t there. Yeah, so that is very painful for everyone concerned. So yes, in an ideal world if you are going to create any kind of web presence start with content. Now that is not content in its polished most beautiful form it’s… I’d like to think that your content writing a bit like clay, you know, like artists, they just get a lump of clay and then they stick it in front of them and then they like sit and look at it for a while and then they start poking holes in it there like “Oh, okay this could be a head this could be feet.” And it is the same with content. You can just get all the lumps of material and words and sort of bundle them all together and look at what you have got first. It doesn’t have to be in any formal format. Then start designing and start working with it and moulding it as you go rather than, like, the opposite which is basically to just create buckets and then expect someone to pour content magically into it by the time you are done. So.

Paul: I talk about that, I’ve got a blog post that we will link to the show notes about the process of… I talk about it from a UI design point of view of iterating and improving UI design. But in that I talk about as you prototype you should not only be evolving the design but you should be evolving the content and the copy as well so that to begin with it might just be a load of pages that you know you’ve got to create with just a bullet point list of the questions you are going to answer on that page. Then you might add in a few bullet points of how you are going to answer each of those questions. Then you might throw in maybe a link off to the old site that had some answers to that particular question. Or you might grab some rough and ready copy. And you, like you say, you mould it over time rather than “Okay, I’m going to sit down, there is a flashing cursor on my blank page and now I’m going to write perfectly wonderful copy.” You know, it’s a much better way of doing it because it takes off that pressure of “Oh, I have to produce something perfect straight out of the gate.”

Ellen: Totally.

Paul: Anyway.

Featured Apps

Play Featured Apps at: 56:21

Paul: Cool, let’s just quickly talk about our second sponsor and then we will… I am very quickly going to rattle through some apps before we wrap up the show. So, ResourceGuru is our second sponsor. Hopefully after listening to all that we have heard today you are excited about maybe spending a little bit more time in creating the quality content that your site deserves. Maybe taking a step back and looking at style guides and brand and all of those kinds of things. But before you can do that you first of all need to figure out how you are going to fit that into your work schedule. You may or may not know if you have got capacity over the next month. Do you know if you have got people available to work on this kind of stuff? Do you need to bring in a freelancer to help you with it? Do you need to hire Ellen? So project planning is hard and it’s even harder if you don’t have the right tool for the job and spreadsheets and legacy systems don’t often cut it. They’re all a bit rubbish really and that’s where something like ResourceGuru can come in. It gives you an accurate up-to-date view of the big picture of what is going on, who is busy, who is available, who is away from work, all that kind of stuff. When things change, which they inevitably do, you can just drag and drop what people are booked in around and you can reschedule things so everybody instantly knows, so everybody in your team instantly knows when you have made updates and changes so you can be confident that your products will be on track. That you have time to do what you need to do. It is used by a load of different companies from Apple all the way through to the measly Headscape. You can start your free trial by going to where if you just use the coupon code Boag2017 you will get 20% of the lifetime of the account which I just think is awesome.

I was just going to mention a few tools before we wrap up that I use when it comes to writing copy for me but I want to caveat all of these tools before I mention them because they are all kind of tools that help assess and improve your writing. Because they are all automated tools it means that they are potentially all a bit shit because nothing replaces a real human spending time analysing and thinking about your writing. But they are useful. One that I find really useful is something called co-schedule headline analyser which helps you write better headlines. Now, it gives you a score and all that kind of crap which may or may not help you but I think what it does is just by simply getting into the habit of running your headlines and your titles and your section headings through a tool like this, it makes you pause and think about your headlines, right? And to put a bit of effort and thought into them. Also it gives some good advice about how to write some more compelling headlines and points you in the right direction, but nothing more than that. Another tool that I use a lot these days is Grammarly because my grammar sucks and my spelling sucks and especially because I am not particularly experienced in writing in different styles, Grammarly you can set to check your work in different styles. For example, as I said earlier, I am doing some academic writing at the moment so I have switched it to academic writing and it is now pulling me up on a load of things that previously it used to let me get away with. So I find that quite helpful tool just to guide me through. And another one that I have mentioned back in the day is something called Hemingway. The Hemingway app tool has got a lot of drawbacks to it, it doesn’t necessarily encourage the best writing in the world but what it does do, which I like, is it encourages you to be concise and to the point and focused in your writing. So I am not claiming these tools are magic tools that are going to turn you into a wonderful writer but I think they at least make you stop and think about your writing rather than just ploughing on regardless. The trick is not to get so hung up on the tools you write to make the tools happy rather than writing to make the user happy. If that a fair… Because normally you tell me off Marcus when I start banging on about these tools. Device efficiently caveat their role?

Marcus: Yes. I think for those people who are nervous about coming up with copy or anything like that they can be useful. I had to turn Grammarly off, it’s just… As you know, I have written about Hemingway and how much I don’t like it. Grammarly is better but it is just like this thing just tapping on the side of my head all the time, so I just had to turn it off, go away! So, but…

Paul: So do you actually write… So, that’s interesting, so you were writing in Grammarly as you went were you?

Marcus: No, no. You can pop it into your browser and you know, if you are writing a blog post directly in WordPress it is there annoying you while you are doing it.

Paul: Oh, no, no, no, no. No, I would write it and then pass it through a tool like that because otherwise you would want to kill it, you know because… yes.

Marcus: Yeah.

Paul: Ellen, what do you think of these kinds of tools? Because I am torn over them but sometimes they, I find them useful just because it just makes me pause and think.

Ellen: I personally don’t use them but I can definitely see the value in using them. If there was one tool that somebody introduced to me and now I have briefly forgotten the name of it but it is basically a tool that if you stop writing for long enough it erases your text.

Paul: Oh yes, I’ve heard of that.

Marcus: I’ve heard of that.

Ellen: Which is just so funny.

Marcus: That is just evil. (Laughter)

Ellen: So there is a guy in our office Ben Sauer and he is writing a blog, I think, so he’s challenged himself to write a blog, I think it’s called slapdashery.something, sorry, I can’t remember any words now but he is basically writing this blog with this tool so that he just doesn’t stop writing. Yes, he has a ???? Way with words.

Paul: That would terrify me.

Ellen: It is terrifying yes. So it is quite nice to do these things as a challenge sometimes and just to come at things… from a different… It freshens things up a bit but I think maybe I’m too scared!

Paul: You’re scared of what it will say, it might undermine your confidence in your own abilities.

Ellen: Well that’s it, yes.

Paul: And it can do that actually. These tools do have a little bit of that kind of impact on you so yes, you do need to be a little bit careful. Do you blog Ellen?

Ellen: I don’t, well, yes, no, I’m lying! I don’t have my own personal blog. I did but I often I spend more time blogging for the Clearleft site so occasionally I write a medium article or sometimes I blog because people have asked me to blog on, you know, on their site or for a particular thing. So that’s what I spend most of my time writing. Then I write articles like net mag articles and things like that.

Paul: It’s a bit of a busman’s holiday for you isn’t it really kind of running your own blog.

Ellen: Yeah, I suppose I spend so much time writing elsewhere that by the time… Yes, then I’ve run out of steam when it comes to my own blog.

Paul: I don’t blame you, that sounds eminently sensible.

Ellen: On my phone I have like a bullet point list of all the blogs that I may one day write. Yes, it might happen.

Paul: You never know, these things happen. So, if you want to find out more about Ellen you can check her out on Twitter at, how on earth am I going to say that. I will spell it. So her Twitter ID is E L D E V R I. You also might want to check out the book that she wrote on collaborative content production for gather content which is Anywhere else though people should check you out?

Ellen: The Clearleft site. There’s quite a bit of my writing on there, yeah.

Paul: That’s a good one, so that’s

Ellen: It is.

Paul: Next week we are going to talk about email as we draw towards the end now. We are getting towards the end of this season so this is number nine and there are 11 in total so two more to go. See, I can do maths, on-the-fly!

Marcus: And everything!

Paul: I know, right! Marcus, what’s your joke?

Marcus: You can have a joke or you can have what’s interesting about door hinges.

Ellen: Ooo.

Paul: Oh go on, tell us what’s interesting about door hinges then!

Marcus: Well, the distance from the top of the door to the top door hinge is about half what it is from the floor to the bottom one. So every door is basically providing you with an optical illusion to make it look like they are the same distance..

Paul: Why, what, why do they do that?

Marcus: So that it… If you make it so that they are equal, so that the distance between the top of the door and the top hinge is the same from the floor to the bottom hinge it looks wrong. It looks like the bottom hinge is too close to the floor.

Paul: Because it depends, because of the angle from which you’re viewing it. Ahh!

Marcus: Yeah.

Ellen: Wow!

Marcus: There you go, that is quite interesting as a kind of QI type of thing.

Paul: Yep, yep. We will give you that. Certainly it is better than the joke, let’s put it like that, let’s leave it with that. Okay, Ellen, thank you so much for joining us.

Ellen: Thank you.

Paul: And thank you dear listener for joining us too. It is good to catch up again. And we will talk again to everybody else next week. Thank you very much and goodbye

Marcus: Bye.

Ellen: Goodbye.