We’ve been working on two big language projects. One is for a new London icon, the other is an annual report for a FTSE100 company. Although very different pieces of writing, each has required us to use an approach the best writers employ to write truly and clearly about their subject.
In the A-Z of better brand language, we say that "to write you need to know. Or at least put in lots of effort to get to know – go places, investigate subjects, interview from the bottom of an organisation up." In A-Z workshops, which launch this June in-person in the UK and virtually around the world, we share the story of Nellie Bly, the American journalist who in 1884 feigned mental illness to gain entry to and write about the horrors of ‘insane’ asylums. Nellie – like all the best writers – knew the power of immersion.
For both recent copywriting projects, immersion unlocked the language that helped reveal angles and guide creative. Take our work with the brilliant brand folk at me&dave, who asked us to help transform Elizabeth line’s arrival point at Canary Wharf in London. We spent two weekends at Canary Wharf in order to develop the style, tone and messages for the project. Notepads in hands, we walked the sunny boardwalks at Wood Wharf, sat among locals and visitors in Jubilee Gardens, shared a pint outside Grandstand, and watched families throw Frisbees on the lawn. As we explored, a richness of experience and rhythm of life presented itself – which led us to develop a language pattern inspired by parataxis.
Parataxis, a form of run-on sentence, gives equal weight to each word, creating an insistent, flowing style. To develop the rhythm of place we felt as we walked, we introduced conjunctions – mostly ‘and’ – to create ‘freight-train’ sentences. If you visit Crossrail Place at Canary Wharf, you’ll spot our writing at the entrance to Elizabeth line, on walls, through windows and across display ads. For example,
Where kids can giggle and run and play
Dreaming and paddling and serene twilight sailing
Sashimi and maki and robata at Roka
The language, combined with me&dave’s vibrant design work, now welcomes visitors to the neighbourhood. Our agency partner and their client loved the approach so much they began to write their own. This project approached this way wouldn’t exist without us going places and investigating subjects.
Immersion to write the annual report meant something different, as we interviewed experts across the business on topics they’re passionate about; discussed successes and challenges in relation to targets; read research papers; and watched short films about the client’s global brands. It meant getting as close as we could to every subject – but never forgetting our responsibility as writers to make the complex interesting, relatable and enjoyable to the reader.
In the A-Z we say this: "The trick to writing about a subject you don’t know well is to immerse yourself almost entirely. But not entirely. Because then you’ll suffer like the brand you’re there to help." That balance was crucial to the annual report. Go too shallow and our writing would be full of holes and guesses. Go too deep and we risked serving only our client and writing in their language – not in language that would connect with their audience. "You should be so close you can smell the skin," the A-Z explains, "but detached enough to be able to describe it in powerful and original language."