Are You Really as Good at Writing as You Think?

Paul Boag

This week on the Boagworld Show, we look at how writing for the web is an essential skill for any digital professional and how it can improve the copy we write both online and off.

This week’s show is sponsored by The Cheltenham Design Festival and GatherContent.


Paul Boag: This week on the Boagworld Show, we look at writing for the web is an essential skill for any digital professional and how it can improve the copy we write both online and off. This week's show is sponsored by GatherContent and the Cheltenham Design Festival.

Hello, and welcome to the Boagworld Show, inaudible 00:00:37 aspects of user experience design, digital strategy and working in digital. My name is Paul Boag, joining me on this week's show is my long-term co-host Marcus Lillington.

Marcus Lillington: Hello, Paul. How are you?

Paul Boag: Yeah, upset if I'm honest.

Marcus Lillington: Upset?

Paul Boag: I'm upset.

Marcus Lillington: Aw.

Paul Boag: Well, the thing is, is my son is starting college next week and I had to buy him a new computer, a laptop. He doesn't have a laptop, he has a desktop because he's a big gamer.

Marcus Lillington: Okay.

Paul Boag: He's ended up with a really nice computer that I'm very, very envious of. The college, apparently, says that he has to have a Microsoft Surface Pro.

Marcus Lillington: What?

Paul Boag: Which is a gorgeous computer. Have you ever had a go at one?

Marcus Lillington: Yeah, we've got one in the office. It's lovely.

Paul Boag: I know, right?

Marcus Lillington: I don't think it's a Pro. Ours is an old one that we borrowed from a client.

Paul Boag: Yeah.

Marcus Lillington: Borrowed.

Paul Boag: Oh, I see, yeah.

Marcus Lillington: I'm still working for that client so it's kind of okay.

Paul Boag: That's all right then.

Marcus Lillington: We use it for testing.

Paul Boag: Yeah. The Pro is just gorgeous. The keyboard is great, you get full Windows experience, you can use a mouse properly with it, it's touchscreen, it's wonderful. It comes into bits and I hate him because he's got something that I want. There you go

Marcus Lillington: What, is it because of the particularly course he's doing?

Paul Boag: Yeah.

Marcus Lillington: Or does every student there have to have a Microsoft Surface Pro?

Paul Boag: Now they do recommend that as the default computer. Apparently it's a investment.

Marcus Lillington: crosstalk 00:02:20, yeah. Because they're worth so much after a few years aren't they?

Paul Boag: Yeah, exactly. No, I think you're investing in his education is what I'm doing.

Marcus Lillington: I see, right.

Paul Boag: But one of the A Levels he's doing is computer science, so with computer science, fair enough.

Marcus Lillington: Fair enough.

Paul Boag: I guess, but it's still grossly unfair. That's the downside to the whole bring your own device culture that is emerging, is that it's a good excuse for the blooming colleges not to pay for their kit.

Marcus Lillington: Yeah.

Paul Boag: Damn them.

Marcus Lillington: Daddy has to pay for the expensive bit of kit.

Paul Boag: Yes. And so it begins. He goes from there to university, and I end up poor for the rest of my life. There you go.

Marcus Lillington: Or he does.

Paul Boag: Or he does.

Marcus Lillington: It's right that he does Paul.

Paul Boag: Yes.

Marcus Lillington: It's his education, not yours.

Paul Boag: Good point, yes.

Marcus Lillington: There you go.

Paul Boag: Good point.

Marcus Lillington: You will still have to fork out loads, but maybe not all of it.

Paul Boag: Yeah. Okay. All right, that's good.

Marcus Lillington: I have a confession to make.

Paul Boag: What's that?

Marcus Lillington: I, because we haven't done this podcasting lark for quite a while, I completely forgot that I have to edit it and make it into a podcast episode that I then hand over to you, that you publish. I realized this about 10 minutes ago. I thought, I haven't done last week's, so I really ought to do that.

Paul Boag: Yeah, yeah. But you have to do this one first unfortunately, so I'm sorry about that.

Marcus Lillington: Yeah, I have to record this crosstalk 00:03:49 first. Yeah, so maybe after the show you can let me know when you need the first one by.

Paul Boag: Well, the weekend is fine. It's all right.

Marcus Lillington: Okay. Phew.

Paul Boag: It's not going out until next Thursday, so you're fine.

Marcus Lillington: Oh, thank goodness.

Paul Boag: Can I just take a little moment to pimp something? Is that all right?

Marcus Lillington: Go for it. Well depends what it is.

Paul Boag: Well for a while now, for the last three or four years I've been cogitating and scheming and evolving an idea in my head about a different way of managing digital projects. What I've decided to do is do a course on it, so I've got an online webinar course, like we're going to be doing it in Crowdcast, exactly like this on a different working methodology. Whether you're an agency, whether you work in-house, I think it's going to have something for everybody in it. Basically, if you're involved in running projects in any way. I won't spend too much on it because we've got sponsors, so the last thing you want is me advertising things as well, but if you go to P-R-O-J man, then you can find out more about it. For those of you in Crowdcast, I have produced you a handy button which you can click below.

Marcus Lillington: A handy button. There it is.

Paul Boag: A handy button.

Marcus Lillington: A call to action Paul.

Paul Boag: I know, right? It's almost like I've done this before. I'm having real problems in my microphone today, it's being very naughty.

Right, Marcus, thought for the day time I guess.

Marcus Lillington: Okay. I shall find it. I believe at the end of the last series, many years ago, I said that I would write some blog posts, so here it is.

Paul Boag: Right, okay. This is you sharing a blog post.

Marcus Lillington: Kind of. No, it was just these thoughts of the day, I figure why not use stuff that you've written about and thought about? This was more of an experience. Because we work in various different sectors, you tend to keep an eye out on new site launches within that sector, especially if in this particular case, it's somebody that I had been courting for a while to do a website redesign and they went with someone else. You just keep an eye on crosstalk 00:06:12.

Paul Boag: Bastards.

Marcus Lillington: Yeah.

Paul Boag: Bastards.

Marcus Lillington: Absolutely bastards.

Paul Boag: You keep an eye out and hope like hell that they fail miserably.

Marcus Lillington: Well, that's a bit harsh Paul, but you want to see what they've done. My first impressions of this site were that they'd done a really good job. Aesthetics are really clean and modern looking, content is well written, what I read of it, it seems to be regularly updated and generally it feels like the site of a really dynamic, thought leading company, which is what this company is.

Paul Boag: Good.

Marcus Lillington: So good, good, tick, tick, and I'm like okay, fair enough. But part of the reason why I was given this impression of it being dynamic is the use of animation to introduce page titles. It was very ooh, that's nice. Not ridiculously, but they sort of float in a bit.

Paul Boag: yeah, I know.

Marcus Lillington: You know, and it's quite nice. It gives a very modern feel. However, I was obviously looking around the site and it only took a few handful of pages before the animation started to become tiresome shall we say. Once I got into double figures, because this is every page title, I was shouting stop effing animating at my screen. If you go to the blog post, which is on the Headscape site called Be Careful With Animation, you can see an example of it in action. I'm not gonna say who the company is, and I've carefully made sure that the video that I took of it doesn't say who it is. But anyway…

Paul Boag: Oh, good for you.

Marcus Lillington: But the site still works, the design and content are good as I've said, but it made me think or made me realize that the whole experience is something that we need to be considering a lot more when we're designing a user journey. We kind of do that. Obviously when we wire a frame, that's that's exactly what we're doing, we're considering the entire journey. But you don't tend to think of things like animation of page titles. That tends to happen when you're at page design, and we tend to look at designing a type of page in a very singular way. Well how does an article page work? Or what's the layout of a product page? What's the layout of a section landing page? We don't tend to think how, when all these things are joined together, what's the experience going to be like?

When I'm saying that I'm thinking well yes we do because we prototype, but it's certain things, and this, well it just screamed at me because after looking at 10 pages, you're thinking this is really tiresome, and nobody had gone through that process of just looking through a few pages. Which I think we might all have been guilty of I think is my point here, because of the way we design pages one at a time. This is we'll do one example of this news page or whatever.

I think there's a simple way of avoiding this is just to ask the question how will this feature that we're looking at affect the experience of users across multiple pages, or if they view it multiple times? To finish off, I think generally speaking with animation, that you shouldn't animate content, and that's what's happening here. The page title is content. Don't make me wait to view stuff basically, that's content. Fine, certainly use animation to accentuate things or to draw the eye or something like that, and animation when it's used like that and done well really adds to the experience, but that's my thought for the day, be careful when you're animating stuff and maybe don't animate content. That's it.

Paul Boag: I think also it flags something else for me, which is how important is to do multiple rounds of usability testing. Because we tend to… well, you get different people. It used to be the stage that people used to do usability testing just at the end of the process, when it was too late to change anything and everybody went, "Oh, that's a shame," and put it live anyway.

Then we've shifted to doing it more nearer the beginning, "Oh we've built this prototype, let's test it," but something like that, often you wouldn't necessarily include in a prototype.

Marcus Lillington: Exactly.

Paul Boag: Actually, you've got to do some testing towards the end as well. Yeah that's good. I like it. But I did send you through, did you see the automation I sent through to you in the show notes?

Marcus Lillington: I did. You must add that in. It's just ridiculous.

Paul Boag: Yeah. It's so sexy, so if you go, you'll be able to inaudible 00:10:44, it's something that somebody did on dribble. I've got to say it's really nice use of animation. But it's a totally different kind of site and a different kind of thing, but it's worth checking out. It's times like this I wish this was a video podcast because that is definitely worth seeing. Anyway.

Marcus Lillington: No one's ever type that URL in without being told it's a good thing to do are they?

Paul Boag: No actually.

Marcus Lillington: I suddenly can't speak.

Paul Boag: Yeah. Well I'm not surprised because you're probably traumatized at the thought of typing in Michelle did. She just went for it. I'm sorry to disappoint you Michelle, but I'm not sexy, but the animation is so that's something.

Marcus Lillington: Yeah, woo.

Paul Boag: Right, let's talk about our topic for the the episode. I want to talk about writing for the web. We did toy didn't we, with the idea of talking about other forms of writing as well? But later on in the season we're going to come on and we're gonna be talking about selling yourself and sales and marketing and that kind of stuff. I figured that the kind of thing Marcus was talking about covering there, we can we can do when we get to that bit instead of talking about it now.

Marcus Lillington: This is great. I can just sit back and drink tea for the next 45 minutes.

Paul Boag: Well, oh yeah, because you've never written for the web have you Marcus?

Marcus Lillington: Oh, I just was doing that wasn't I?

Paul Boag: Yeah.

Marcus Lillington: I was covering what I'd just done.

Paul Boag: You'd literally just been talking about that.

Marcus Lillington: All right then.

Paul Boag: Okay. First of all, let's talk about why I think this is a skillset that everybody needs, and in particular why? Because we can write can't we? We have to write for all kinds of different parts of our our job, but writing for the web is something that sooner or later most of us have to do, whether it's a blog post, whether it's a bit of copy for a site, whether it's a micro copy, we all have to write at various times for the web. Writing for the web is very different. Just because you think you can write elsewhere doesn't mean you can for the web.

This should almost not need saying to the kind of people that listen to this show, but let's quickly run through the case to explain to other people why they can't write for the web just because they can write well all right? I know you know it, but this is the case you need to make. First of all, that people don't read, they scan. Pretty much a no-brainer there. We also know that reading on the screen is harder, it's more difficult to do because it's projecting light in your eyes. We know that when people are looking at our websites, they're faced with information overload. Their cognitive load is very high because they're doing multiple other things. At the same time. They've got half a dozen different tabs open, they're not giving it their full attention. Also, people are very cynical online, and so I think the way that you present yourself and the way you convey information has to be very different as a result.

Also I think one of the biggest things for me is that oftentimes, not always, but oftentimes when people arrive at your content and are seeing your content online, it's often on a very different premise. What do I mean by that? Well, if you send a document through to someone, or you send an email through to them or whatever, other forms of writing, normally there's not specific questions in mind. Possibly writing a proposal might be an exception to this, where they ask specific questions, but most of the time, when people are reading web content, it's in response to a specific question that they've asked of Google in a lot of cases. All of these different characteristics of the online reading experience means that we have to write in a very different way, so it means that we have to write with a reading level that would be lower than we would normally write because we don't have people's full attention. People misunderstand stuff and basically people reading online are a bit thick, so you have to write for them.

That's all of us. We're all a little bit thick when we're online, so we have to lower our reading level as we write copy. We've got to write for the fact that people are paying less attention, that we've only got a few seconds to grab their attention, that people are less forgiving of a boast copy, so we have to get to the point quicker. That on the internet, we have to build trust very quickly with people, and we can undermine that trust very easily, and that people want specific questions answered. All of these reasons are reasons why writing for the web has to be very different.

Marcus Lillington: Different.

Paul Boag: And it's very difficult as well. But there you go.

Marcus Lillington: It can be. Can I add a point Paul?

Paul Boag: Yeah, of course.

Marcus Lillington: Actually it goes back to your point about users being cynical. People have become very cynical online. This is, if you remember not last time, the time when I was doing the thoughts for the day, so a couple of years ago whenever it was, when we redesigned that the Headscape site, I went through and talked about us looking at the way our previous copy had been written. It was a bit over chummy and it was a bit oh, that kind of made my teeth go a bit funny when I was rereading it. I can't think of an example off the top of my head, but they weren't great. All it means, well I suppose that all that means is be genuine. Don't be all chummy if you're not. If you're quite a serious bunch, I suppose we are fairly serious, bunch of old men, reflect who you are otherwise people are going to see straight through it with their cynical hats on.

Paul Boag: Absolutely. I do a whole section on the workshop where I do a conversion rate optimization workshop on building trust, and the fact that people are inherently cynical and the way that you need to address that. One of them is by being open and transparent and real and human, and all of those kinds of things, which I think we're pretty bad at.

I think the last thing to say really, in regards to why everybody needs to learn to write for the web is because to be honest with you, even if you don't write that often for the web, this is still worth learning because it's going to improve all of the writing that you do.

Marcus Lillington: That is so true.

Paul Boag: Because to be honest, just because someone's reading a proposal that Marcus sent through to them, doesn't mean they're giving it their full attention. They're just as easily likely to be distracted. It's like designing for the lowest common denominator isn't it? By writing for the lowest and most difficult situation, you're going to make it better for everybody. Sorry Marcus, you're going to say something.

Marcus Lillington: It's okay. I was just going to say certainly in proposals, I try to do all of the more layout related things about writing to the web, about keeping paragraphs short, keeping sentences short, all the stuff that I said I don't like about the Hemingway apps and things like that.

Paul Boag: Hemingway app, yeah.

Marcus Lillington: But I still do try and do that. I try and bear in mind, am I losing the reader here? Am I making them go off on too many tangents that they have to keep up with? And all that kind of thing. Yes, if you write for the web, I think it will definitely help people understand whatever it is you're writing.

Paul Boag: Absolutely. It's the same reason as something like making your site accessible is a good idea, because if you make your site accessible, you're making it better for everybody, not just people who are disabled. It's the same principle here. If you make your copy simple, it's going to be easier to comprehend by everybody always.

Anyway, right. That is writing for the web. Now we're going to talk, or why you need to do it. We'll go on and look at what exactly you need to learn, and then also some resources to get started in a minute.

But you do you want to just talk about our first sponsor, but before I even do that, Marcus, tell us about the meetup that you've organized for when we go to Cheltenham.

Marcus Lillington: Okay. Well that is going to be when…

Paul Boag: You're making this up on the fly.

Marcus Lillington: When we when we meet up when we go to Cheltenham, and it's going to be great. We're going to have a really good time, and at the moment it's just in the planning stages.

Paul Boag: Okay. You haven't done it? You haven't done it. You've had a whole week

Marcus Lillington: I didn't even edit last week's podcast Paul, if you remember, so the short answer, no, I didn't. I can't even remember when it is. You're about to tell me aren't you? Yeah, so that's okay.

Paul Boag: I am about to tell you, which is a good job because otherwise it wouldn't happen. I'm speaking in Cheltenham at a design festival that's happening there from the 1st to the 3rd of November, and I'll tell you a little bit about the festival in a minute. But if you decide to come to it, because it's really good value for money, it's not very expensive, it's a nice easy place to get to, we'll probably get together. We'll all go out to the pub or something together. If you can make it, just drop me an email or drop Marcus an email to

Now, yes, Michelle has just asked me what day I'm speaking, which is a very good question. He says, desperately going through his calendar. I think I'm speaking on the Friday if I remember correctly. Yes, Friday the 1st because it's over the weekend, so I'm speaking on the Friday.

Marcus Lillington: Over the weekend? Oh, that's different.

Paul Boag: Well no, no, no, because we'll do our thing on the Friday.

Marcus Lillington: Okay.

Paul Boag: Why do you think I'm speaking on the Friday? Because I hate weekend stuff. But for a lot of people that's really good because a lot of people can't get the time off of work et cetera.

Anyway, I'm supposed to be doing the sponsor slot for them.

Marcus Lillington: Do the sponsor shot. Shot? I can't speak today.

Paul Boag: Shot. The Cheltenham Design Festival is really all about exploring the importance of creative thinking in our daily lives, and how it's going to shape our future. The kind of premise is that design is for everybody and that we can all contribute to the design process, and it can help everybody, make our lives happier et cetera. It will be exploring what the role of a designer is, whether their job is just to make things look pretty or solve complex problems. Spoiler alert, it's the latter. We'll talk about what the role of design is. How deep does it go? How far does it expand? It should be quite a interesting area. We're also going to talk about what it means to be a designer in today's world, how that role evolves, and why design and creative thinking is becoming more important than ever.

If you fancy finding out more than that rather poor description on my part, that leaves out fundamental details like who's speaking, why you might want to attend, what exactly is going to be covered, things like that, if you want to know that kind of stuff, go to Apparently typing in Cheltenham is too much, so it's just

There we go, that's that one. I'm looking forward to doing that. We haven't done a meetup for ages, it'd be good if a few people could come along, and yeah, that'd be nice.

Right, back to writing for the web. Yes. What you need to learn. We've established that it's worth doing and all the reasons why even though you think you can right now, you can't, for the web. Let's look at the things that you need to consider. The big one when it comes to writing for the web is about reducing cognitive Load. Steve Krug, Don't Make Me Think. The less people have to think the better.

How can we do that? Well, first of all, we can make things easy to find. We can make the piece of copy, the piece of information within that copy easier to find, and we can do that through, as Marcus was saying a minute ado, scanability. Using your headings, using your pull-out quotes, using bullet points, all of that kind of stuff to break up the copy, so you don't have these big chunks of intimidating text. That's number one.

Second thing you can do is look at reducing the reading level, so making your copy just easier to understand. Use plain English, use numbers like 1 and 2 rather than the words. Write in short sentences, so include really only just one idea in every sentence, and use active language like John loves Mary or not Mary is loved by John. Try to reduce the amount of punctuation other than full stops, so don't have multiple commas within a sentence. Split it into multiple sentences. Obviously use bullet points to break up difficult information. Avoid jargon. Let me say that again, avoid jargon. Don't abbreviate, don't write don't, write do not because that's easier to process. Actually, interestingly-

Marcus Lillington: Is it really? I am not sure about that.

Paul Boag: It is, and I can tell you why, because that list I've just given you isn't my own list.

Marcus Lillington: Right, okay.

Paul Boag: That list comes from-

Marcus Lillington: It's by a real scientist person.

Paul Boag: From Mencap.

Marcus Lillington: Okay.

Paul Boag: The mental health charity. Actually, it's a list that has been created for people with learning difficulties, dyslexia, autism, that kind of thing. But actually, as a result, it's also very handily reduces the cognitive load for all of us.

Yeah, so apparently contractions, it takes slightly longer for the brain to process than the word separate out. It's all minor points, but you get the idea. Okay, so that's one thing, we want to reduce cognitive load, and we can do that by reducing reading level.

We also need to keep copy short as possible. I always add that bit on the end because the usability people go, "Now don't write anything."

Marcus Lillington: crosstalk 00:25:41.

Paul Boag: Yeah, I know what they're getting at. You need to you write as much copy to achieve the aim that you need to achieve, and sometimes that is persuading people or explaining a difficult concept, so your copy may end up getting long and that's okay. The key, I think, rule, is to avoid repeating yourself.

I find that this is particular true with persuasive copy, so when people are trying to persuade other people, you do it in arguments all the time, Marcus, I want you to come to Cheltenham. I talk about what we're going to do, and then I'll end up saying the same thing again in a slightly different way.

Marcus Lillington: Yes, to really persuade me, yeah.

Paul Boag: Yeah, maybe if I say it this way round, it'll be more convincing to you. That's where you end up with a boast copy. If you just avoid doing that you're in a much better position.

Marcus Lillington: It's about, just to cut in there.

Paul Boag: No, go for it.

Marcus Lillington: It's about providing complete meaning, because if you cut things down too much, and this was one of my criticisms of Hemingway, you can lose meaning. Then it's like well okay, it might be a shorter sentence that's less effort on your brain to read, but if it's less meaningful then surely that's worse, so there's a balance here basically. Yes, of course reduce things as much as you can, but not at the expense of meaning. I even went as far as not at the expense of character as well, if that's something that you want to get across in what you're writing.

Paul Boag: Yeah. Because absolutely, character is part of building trustworthiness, which is what I'll come onto in just a minute. But the other thing I wanted to say is think about creating a hierarchy of information content within a page as well. For example, it goes from must knows down to nice to knows. Your title should convey the most important piece of information that people need, followed by the summary. Then your headings should convey important pieces of information, subheadings, slightly less important pieces of information, and your section copy is where the detail is. You create a inverted pyramid going from must knows down… I'm not explaining it very well. Am I explaining that well? Did that make sense?

Marcus Lillington: Totally Paul. Stop though. Don't repeat yourself Paul.

Paul Boag: Don't repeat myself. Don't say it different ways, absolutely. Obviously you want to consider your readability level as well. Fine. That is actually where an app like the Hemingway app is very good because it gives you a nice readability score, which is based on, I don't know, there's an official scoring system that I can't remember it off the top of my head.

Then the last thing is try getting rid of copy and using video or imagery instead. I think sometimes we can be very lazy because copy's easy, but actually, sometimes there are better ways of communicating information than using copy. That's one thing, reduce cognitive load using all those ideas.

Then the other thing that you need to do with your copy is build trust. This is where character comes in that you were talking about. There's several ways, one, two, three, four, five ways that I do that. The first one is to write like a frigging human being.

I want to read you a little but of copy from a university website I worked on when I was back at Headscape. This is from a university. As well as ensuring students make the most of their potential through their academic studies, the University of Essex also provides an environment which caters for all the needs of its students through a range of accommodation, catering facilities, an active student union, sports and the arts. Now setting aside that that is one sentence.

Marcus Lillington: I was going to say, you had to take a few breaths on there didn't you?

Paul Boag: Yeah. The other thing is it reminds me of Silence of the Lambs.

Marcus Lillington: What?

Paul Boag: I don't know. Did you ever watch Silence of the Lambs Marcus?

Marcus Lillington: Not for years, but yes, yes, I have yeah.

Paul Boag: Right. In Silence of the Lambs there is a mass murderer.

Marcus Lillington: Yes. I know that.

Paul Boag: He kidnaps women, and in order to not become attached to them, he refers to them in the third person. "She will take off her clothes. she will shower. She will eat." That's exactly what this copy does. Students, not you. Not you reading this, but students. Not me, but the University of Essex. It's dehumanizing it the whole time, so I just rewrote it. Student life is about more then studying. We support you in everything you'll be looking for, from accommodation and catering, through to an active student union, great sports facilities and an engaging arts program. What a difference in terms of making that-

Marcus Lillington: They should hire you Paul.

Paul Boag: They should do. Well they did, so that worked out well. They did fix it. That's one way you can build trust, is by being human in your copy.

The other one that I quite like is telling stories. It always sounds so pretentious, oh yes, we need to be storytellers. Yeah, exactly.

Marcus Lillington: I'm hearing it quite a lot at the moment, but yeah.

Paul Boag: Yeah. You need to be a storyteller, and it sounds so there are good reasons, stories, we engage with stories, we imagine ourselves in the role of the protagonist. They draw you in, we're biologically programmed to pay attention to stories. They build trust and rapport and that kind of things. But it also always sounds so abstract when you talk about that, so let me break it down into four stories that I like to use when I write copy.

One is I'll tell the story of the company, so we all know the story about how Apple started in a garage, or that Marks & Spencers was a barrow boy, you know?

Marcus Lillington: Yeah.

Paul Boag: These kinds of things humanize the brand. The fact that Apple is now a multi-billion dollar company, yeah, but they started in a garage and it was all very scrappy.

The second thing you do is talk about the product, and again, Apple is great at this. Whenever they announce a product, you've always got that video where what's his name? The designer guy whose name's gone out of my head at the moment.

Marcus Lillington: Yeah, I really don't like him though. He makes me not want to buy their products.

Paul Boag: It's all right, he's left now, so that's fine.

Marcus Lillington: What is his name?

Paul Boag: I don't know. It's really annoying. Someone will put it in chat in a minute. You always had these videos, but those videos are talking about the journey that they went on, the experience of creating the product.

The other thing you can talk about is your people. I really like this. For example, I remember when we worked with Wiltshire Farm Foods, and we were working on blog content and that kind of stuff, and we decided to feature one of the guys that worked in the freezer room, the warehouse. He worked on minus 20 all day. That was a really compelling story about what he did and what he was involved in.

Then finally you could talk about your customers, so you can talk about their story. Not even about your own company, but hey, look at all these cool people that work with us, therefore by extension, we must be cool. There's lots of ways of telling stories.

Marcus Lillington: My feeling on this one though is you've got to be careful. It's a bit like this, I'll go back to the everyone's cynical, I think if it feels a bit forced, oh, we better tell a story, then you've got a problem. If the story's great, then yes, but don't invent them for the sake of it I guess is where I'm coming from.

Paul Boag: Yeah. That's the key isn't it? It's like everybody latches on to one or two specific things. Oh, now we've all got to be storytellers, and everybody tries to crowbar it in. You've got to pick the right tool for the right job basically.

Another tool that you can pick is to tackle issues head on. What do I mean by that? Well a lot of copy is about objection handling. It's the fears that people get in their heads about why they shouldn't buy your product, what might go wrong. What we tend to do is we cross our fingers and hope that they don't think of the things, because we all know the things. We know the concerns people might have, but we hope that they don't. But actually, there's something to be said by tackling them head on.

McDonald's does a really great job at this actually, because we've all heard the rumors haven't we, about McDonald's? That chicken nuggets may contain chicken, but what parts of the chicken is it? Or that the fries don't actually contain potato and all of these kinds of things. Now McDonald's aren't stupid enough to say, "Some people say that our product doesn't contain chicken," but their website does specifically lay out that, "We only use chicken breast," and they even say, "And that includes our chicken nuggets." They're tackling the issues rather than avoiding them. That objection handling is very powerful and helps to build trust because it shows an understanding.

There's a knock-on with that, which is don't make people hunt for these answers. Let's take, for example, I'm signing up for a newsletter, what is one of the objections that might put someone off of signing up for a newsletter are what are they going to do with my email address? That's inevitably buried somewhere in a privacy policy that's probably in the footer, and it's probably written in legalese. I'm not going to go searching for that, I'm just going to conclude oh, well they're going to do bad things with my email address. But if you put a little message right by the newsletter signup, then it's a lot more compelling because I'm not having to go and search for it.

Then the final bit of advice I would give, which I touched on earlier, is to be open, to be honest and to be real. Flickr did a really great example of this very early on in their life. Right very early on in their life, they had all kinds of server problems, and their service was down a lot and people were beginning to get a little bit frustrated. Then the unthinkable happened and they actually lost a whole load of user data, so they lost people's photographs. There was this huge, huge backlash.

Now if that had been a grownup company, for example, after they got bought by Yahoo or someone else, the lawyers would have got involved and drafted this document, kind of apologizing, but really just covering their arses, and it's got that whole dishonest, slightly awkward thing about it. Instead, Flickr just wrote this brilliant blog post that started, "Sometimes we suck," and the very first line of it, that was the title of it, the very first line is, "We just have to unconditionally apologize." Then they went on to explain exactly what happened, said that, "Look, that's not an excuse, but so you understand what happened, this is the steps we're going to take to put it right." That was so powerful because you took the wind out of everybody's sails because you weren't defending yourself.

Yeah, all of that will build trust, so let me just recap. You want to reduce cognitive load with your copy, you want to build trust. The final thing you want to do is make your copy user-centric. Now what that means is first of all start with the user's questions. What are they asking when they come to the website? That is always how I start all of my copywriting. Even the blog posts I write, I start by thinking what have they typed into Google? Then what other questions come out of that? Always start with user questions. Actually, that's a brilliant way to overcome that flashing cursor on a blank screen, when it's like oh, how am I going to do this, you know?

Marcus Lillington: Yeah.

Paul Boag: Just write a list of questions and then put bullet points as answers to each of those questions. Such a good way to start writing.

Marcus Lillington: Boom, you've got a blog post.

Paul Boag: Exactly. It's that easy. But it's a good starting point at least.

The second thing is show empathy. A good thing to do in copy is talk about the customer's pain points. What they're struggling with. Do you remember working for GetFeedback?

Marcus Lillington: Oh, yes.

Paul Boag: Do I mean GetFeedback?

Marcus Lillington: Yes.

Paul Boag: Yes, I do don't I?

Marcus Lillington: Yes. Wow, that's going back some.

Paul Boag: Yeah, it is, but do you remember the copy on their website?

Marcus Lillington: No.

Paul Boag: No. To be honest, I'm not surprised. I don't even think you were involved with the project, but what was that? Probably eight years ago, nine years ago.

Marcus Lillington: Even probably more, but yes crosstalk 00:39:27.

Paul Boag: Probably more. But I remember their copy.

Marcus Lillington: Wow. That is impressive.

Paul Boag: Not all of it obviously, but I remember one page in particular, and the reason that I remember it is because it started off they did a story. It started off, "It's 4:00am and you've just seen the email that says the CEO wants a report by the next day."

Marcus Lillington: Right, yeah.

Paul Boag: That's how they started. Yes, they did a bit of storytelling there, but they immediately empathized with the kind of situation that we all find ourselves in, that suddenly it's oh shit and that kind of panic mentality. Showing some empathy is really good.

The other thing that I would really encourage you to do is focus on benefits as well as features. We're really bad at making connections in our minds, so I could-

Marcus Lillington: I've got to interrupt Paul. Sorry, I've got to interrupt. GetFeedback, we worked with them 14 years ago.

Paul Boag: I still remember that piece of copy.

Marcus Lillington: Yeah, how about that.

Paul Boag: I'd love to say we wrote it. They wrote it, so they were very good at writing copy. Yeah, so focus on benefits as well features, because we're really bad at making that kind of connection.

For example, I'm sure that Marcus could list me all of the characteristics of one of those guitars on the wall.

Marcus Lillington: Yes.

Paul Boag: How many strings it… Well, they're all going to have the same number of strings aren't they? I don't know.

Marcus Lillington: crosstalk 00:41:06.

Paul Boag: I'm showing my utter ignorance at this point. But you could give me its specs no doubt.

Marcus Lillington: I could.

Paul Boag: But that isn't going to be enough in itself to sell me the guitar. What sells me the guitar is the benefits that those specs have. A richer sound or you just look cool holding it.

Marcus Lillington: That's the only reason to play the guitar. There are and other reasons, you just look so cool.

Paul Boag: Yes, it's to attract a partner isn't it? I thought that was the…

Marcus Lillington: Yeah, playing in a band, that's the only reason.

Paul Boag: Yeah. But that's fundamental. For example, I remember an ad from Apple at one point, which read something along the lines of, "A 12 hour battery life so it won't stop until you do." Notice, what I like about that, a lot of marketers go, "Oh, it's all about benefits," just as I've said, but then they leave out the features part, and it all seems a bit hollow and a bit, you know. Then your cynical brain kicks in and goes, aw, it lasts as long as I do. Well what if I do an all-nighter? What works about Apple's statement is that it pairs the two. You get the feature, but you get the benefit too.

The very last thing I want to say on stuff that you need to get better at when it comes to writing for the web is to encourage a degree of interaction. Actually talk to people as if you were having a conversation. That's going to make it much more likely for them to reach out and contact you and do this kind of stuff, which obviously moves them forward in their engagement.

There you go, that is a whole load of ways that you can improve your copy.

Marcus Lillington: Cool.

Paul Boag: Let's talk about our next sponsor, which is a very appropriate one this week. We've got GatherContent back on the show. Yeah, they've sponsored us before, and if you haven't come across GatherContent, you can find out more about them at

What's really interesting about content and writing for the web is that the challenges around producing the content for your website are not just the challenges of writing good copy. It's also the challenges of getting the content, creating the content, moving it through. Writing great content for the web is just the beginning, you've also got the pressures of production, that oh, we've got to turn this round really quickly, we haven't got long to do it, and so that starts impacting the quality of the content we produce.

Also, I know nothing about this part of the business, I need to talk to someone who does, and I need their time and their feedback on what I'm writing, and I need some bullet points from them to start. Also, our content management system isn't finished yet and we've got to start creating content, and also my content's got to be approved by my boss because my boss is a complete tight micromanager. You need a tool to help you deal with all these kinds of issues, and that's where something like GatherContent could be so helpful, because it gives you a workflow, a methodology, and a place to create this great content.

They call it a content operations platform, which I think sounds a bit pretentious, but I know what they mean. It's a place to help teams produce effective content at scale. Some of the websites we work on have got hundreds of thousands of pages. They probably shouldn't have hundreds of thousands of pages, but they do, so yeah, they need something like that.

Yeah, they've got, basically it's a platform that allows them to manage people, processes, all the things for producing effective content to meet their user needs and their business goals. If that sounds like the kind of thing that might be helpful to you, then you can go and find out more at

Right, let's wrap this baby up with a few resources to get you started. GatherContent. There you go, there's one. See, this is really awkward because I would have to admit to GatherContent I would have probably already included them at this point, but this way I've got them to pay me too, which is a bonus. I should have done that with all the people on this list. Let's hope they don't listen to this hey?

Marcus Lillington: Maybe they will listen to it and just send you money anyway Paul.

Paul Boag: What, the others?

Marcus Lillington: Yeah.

Paul Boag: Yeah.

Marcus Lillington: It's possible.

Paul Boag: Yeah, that's a great idea.

Marcus Lillington: Highly unlikely, but possible.

Paul Boag: Right, so here we go. We mentioned Hemingway half a dozen times during this blooming podcast, so they definitely should pay us. Even though you were moaning about it. This is, which is a great application for really aggressively forcing you to write effective web copy. Now Marcus has pointed out it's not perfect. Sometimes I think it's too aggressive, but it's a really great tool for proving a point to other people. If you've got an academic or a businessperson or a marketer who thinks they can write good content, put it into Hemingway and it'll go multicolored with lots of errors and messages that say it needs to be improved.

Marcus Lillington: Paul, I would never, ever do that after I'd written the post about the things I don't like about it. That's a lie, I've probably done it about five times since.

Paul Boag: Yeah.

Marcus Lillington: Look at this. Red.

Paul Boag: Yes, exactly.

Marcus Lillington: It's far too difficult to read.

Paul Boag: Now, there is an alternative to Hemingway for those people like Marcus that find it slightly aggressive, and that's Grammarly.

Marcus Lillington: Yeah, I've used Grammarly.

Paul Boag: Now Grammarly has updated recently, which is why I'm bringing it up now, because yes, it'll check your grammar and all the rest of it, and it's always done that and it's always been very good at that, but more recently it's started to identify hard to read sentences, which is one of the things that you really want to pay attention to when writing web copy. Grammarly is definitely something that you might want to consider as well.

I'm also, in the show notes, I'm going to put links to several articles that you might be interested in, so the show notes, if you go to, go to season 24, select episode two and you'll find all of these in there.

The first is an article that I wrote called Seven Ways a Great Copywriter Creates Compelling Web Copy. It's a really good article for basically saying, "Look, you don't know how to write copy as well as you think you do for the web, and that actually, really we probably should get a grownup to do it. Somebody that can actually write copy, and web copy in particular."

Marcus Lillington: Not condescending at all in any way Paul.

Paul Boag: It doesn't read like that when you… I didn't write it like that. I'm saying it like that because this is something that everybody needs to… Sooner or later you're going to have to have that awkward conversation aren't you? This article helps with that a little bit.

The second one is actually, the American equivalent of the digital government service here in the UK, have written a really nice little checklist of things to consider when you're writing copy. You might want to check that out because it's very, very short, here are things, so you could almost write a bit of copy and then look at that and go, "Oh, I haven't done that, I haven't done this."

If you want a slightly more comprehensive list, just to read over, Econsultance… Excuse me. Burping in the microphone, that's always pleasant. Econsultancy have written a longer one, 23 Things to Consider When Writing for the Web, but they're both really good so check those out.

Then the final article that I want to point you to is one that I've written, which is How to Write for Online Audiences That Hate to Read. Again, this is just advice about how to make the content as good as possible. I think that's ample to keep people going on writing for the web.

Marcus Lillington: Marvelous Paul is what it was. All of it. Every word, especially my words.

Paul Boag: Why does it sound so sarcastic coming out of your mouth?

Marcus Lillington: Because I've been doing this too long probably. Also, I gigged on Saturday and I've still got a really deep voice from when I did too much singing, so maybe that adds to-

Paul Boag: Yeah, you've got that gravelly, sexy voice haven't you? Yeah.

Marcus Lillington: It adds to the sarcasm no doubt.

Paul Boag: Right, so have you got a joke for us?

Marcus Lillington: I have. This one's from Daryl Snow. What do you get when you cross the Atlantic with the Titanic?

Paul Boag: Go on.

Marcus Lillington: About halfway.

Paul Boag: You're mocking the death of many hundreds of people.

Marcus Lillington: I am not Paul, I'm just rereading a joke that somebody else sent to me.

Paul Boag: Ah-ha?

Marcus Lillington: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Paul Boag: Yeah.

Marcus Lillington: Yeah. Nothing to do-

Paul Boag: Yeah, you're just following orders aren't you?

Marcus Lillington: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Paul Boag: Yeah.

Marcus Lillington: Yeah.

Paul Boag: Exactly. Next week we're going to be looking at the subject of presenting, so I think that might be quite an interesting one because obviously me and Marcus present in… Well I do the kind of presenting that Marcus does, which is the sales presenting, but I also do other types of presenting like on a stage or workshop. Well you do workshops as well. Of course you do workshops.

Marcus Lillington: Do workshops, and very occasionally I'll do standing on a stage, but that's fearsome stuff. Unless I've got a guitar, then I'm fine, but no.

Paul Boag: I know, isn't it weird how you've inaudible 00:51:32. If you put me on the stage with a guitar…

Marcus Lillington: Sing Paul, sing now.

Paul Boag: … I'd wet myself. Nobody wants that. I think it'll be quite interesting because our styles are very different as well. I think that'll be quite an interesting conversation, so we're going to talk about that next week anyway.

Marcus Lillington: Cool.

Paul Boag: But until then, thank you very much for listening and thank you very much for those if you who've joined us live inaudible 00:51:56. Until next week, goodbye.

Marcus Lillington: Goodbye.

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