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Three tips on how to write through the crisis

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In a crisis, good communication matters more than ever. 

From supermarkets to airlines, brands are having to find the right words to set out their position and help customers make sense of the world right now. 

As a copywriter, I know how quickly brands, marketers and advertisers are having to get these communications out. There’s simply no time to craft every word. But you can get the basics right. 

Here are three top tips to improve your writing during the crisis.

Be Clear

Coronavirus has introduced a whole new language. It’s mainly the government’s job to make new terms like ‘social-distancing’ and ‘furlough’ easy to understand, but writers and brands can help too.

Financial advice website MoneySavingExpert.com does a great job of simplifying jargon. Their section on employee rights tells readers to ‘think of furlough like a job being put on standby’, for example.

Clarity is also about making sure you get the most important information across quickly – rather than burying it in a lot of waffle, as Royal Mail did in this email. 

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Everyone knows the Royal Mail is an essential service. They don’t need to be reminded (again and again). Instead, they could simply have said something like:

We’re still open for business, collecting and delivering your mail as always.

If you deluge your reader with information, it’s much harder for them to find what really matters. Sometimes all the information is useful, but needs re-ordering to highlight the key points. Often, whole paragraphs can simply be cleared away.

Stay True to You

When you’re writing about something serious, it can be tempting to retreat into formal, corporate language. It can feel like the safest place – the option least likely to seem inappropriate. Trouble is, that language tends to be cold, impersonal – and often actively confusing.

In a crisis, as at any other time, you should stay true to your brand and voice. Don’t turn into someone else – that can only confuse and alienate your audience. Stick to your guns, and trust your common sense and empathy to keep you sensitive.

The Prince Charles Cinema in London has made its quirky and irreverent voice work for the new world we’re all living in. 

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In an email, they told cinema-goers:

‘You mean the world to us and we can’t wait to fling our doors back open, fire up the projector and enjoy a night at the pictures with all of you.’

McDonald’s, on the other hand, seems to have abandoned its usually bright, friendly tone of voice in its crisis communications. This letter from the President of McDonald’s USA reads like an internal corporate memo.

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‘We sincerely thank you for your continued business’ is a far cry from ‘I’m lovin’ it’. 

Before you revert to bland formality, ask if that’s what your customers really expect, or want, at this time. If your brand is normally lighthearted, look for opportunities to stay cheerful – even make jokes. People need a laugh as much as ever, and probably more so.

Being authentic in a crisis is also about staying in your lane. How many emails have you had in recent weeks from brands telling you what they’re doing about COVID-19, or offering the same general advice as everyone else? How many have actually told you anything useful or reassuring?

You help your audience most by focusing on what you do. Like energy company Bulb has:

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The last thing people need during a crisis is waffle or grandstanding from brands. Check yourself before you hit send.

Sound Like a Human

In difficult times, we all prefer hearing from a human than a faceless corporation. A personal message is always warmer and more reassuring than cold, corporate language.

Ryanair missed the mark in this email to travellers:

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They’ve got an important message to communicate, asking passengers for help, but it’s buried beneath complex, formal language. It even comes across as passive-aggressive: ‘we ask all passengers to cooperate fully’.

People are looking for answers and clear information right now. But they also understand how hard running a business is at the moment. Revealing your humanity – even your vulnerability – feels like an honest, empathetic thing for a brand to do, and helps bring people along with you.

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This letter from Tesco’s CEO feels both human and branded. It’s written in simple, direct language, but the admissions of vulnerability – ‘we now have to accept it is not business as usual’ and ‘we need your help’ – add a vital human touch. 

Of course, they could have taken a more formal, corporate approach like this — as dozens of others have. 

‘For over 100 years, Tesco has been committed to maintaining the highest levels of service. However, due to this unprecedented crisis, Tesco has decided to implement a number of operational changes in order to ensure adequate supplies. Customers are thanked in advance for their support and patience.’

But they didn’t. 

Wherever possible, speak directly as a human being about your own experience, or show some understanding of your readers. Don’t fall back on the ‘accepted phrases’ that have sprung up – ‘unprecedented events’, ‘uncertain times’, etc. If a corporation as big as Tesco can do it, anyone can. 

Like so many other parts of life, the rules of good communication are sure to change over the coming weeks and months. But if you speak to customers with clarity, authenticity and humanity, you’re off to a good start.

If you’d like to know more about the essentials of better writing – from editing to collaborating – sign up for Reed Words’ free weekly webinar Better Words.
 

Orlaith Wood is a senior writer at Reed Words.

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