6 writing blunders to avoid in a crisis (with real ‘bad’ examples)
How to avoid these writing blunders
There’s never been a more critical time to get your writing… right.
This week we’ve been knee-deep helping our clients improve their COVID-19 communications (mainly broadcast emails and social posts).
One poorly chosen word or tone-deaf sentiment could cause your customers and staff to lose faith. Quickly.
And time and again, we are seeing the same mistakes – with too many facepalm moments to mention.
In this post, I have used actual examples (omitting any identifying details) to illustrate these mistakes and how to overcome them.
So here goes: 6 writing blunders businesses are making in this crisis.
Writing Blunder 1.
Forgetting we’re all human (and extra sensitive right now)
We’re all scared right now – which means we’re also more fragile and sensitive than usual.
So although rules may need to be communicated (such as strict hygiene and work-from-home practices), your tone should still be warm and compassionate.
These strategies will help you achieve more humanity in your crisis writing:
- Use first and second person language: Opt for ‘you’ and your’, as well as ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’ wherever possible. In other words, write as though you are talking to them. Face-to-face.
- Avoid pompous formalities: Keep it conversational by ditching formal expressions such as ‘notwithstanding the fact that’ and ‘with all due respect’. You risk sounding arrogant and patronising.
- Ditch the cliches and buzzwords: Only use words and phrases that are meaningful to your audience. Terms like ‘game-changer’, ‘heavy lifting’ and ‘paradigm shift’ make you seem insincere and robotic.
Writing Blunder 2.
Writing WAY too much
People don’t want to read long emails at the best of times. So although brevity is always preferred… right now? It’s critical.
Think about it. Everyone is facing a constant stream of coronavirus communications. Every hour of every day.
So before you send any emails in the coming weeks, take the time to sort the ‘nice to know’ from the ‘need to know’.
Here’s what I mean by ‘nice to know’:
- Irrelevant details: In the ‘before and after’ example directly above, was it really necessary to tell customers they will be ‘offered a returnable form to receive a full refund’? It’s enough for them to know they can organise a refund, without worrying about the actual process at this point.
- Obvious statements: No need to start your email with phrases like ‘The COVID-19 (coronavirus) is having a significant impact on the lives of all Australians.’ Even ‘Summer’ (my 9-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel) knows this.
- Superfluous words: Don’t use six adjectives – when one (or maybe two) will do.
Writing Blunder 3.
Messing with their heads (with confusing, rambling sentences)
We’re all dealing with enough anxiety and uncertainty right now. The last thing we need is more confusion in our lives.
So if you’re sending any form of communication to your stakeholders about this issue, the onus is on you to avoid adding to their stress.
And if you’re writing rambling 30+ word sentences, added stress is exactly what you’re creating.
CLARITY is everything. It brings comfort. It brings credibility.
Here’s what to do to keep your sentences clear and concise:
- Remove unnecessary words and phrases
- Stick to one idea per sentence (or no more than 25 words)
- Turn sentences into bulleted lists where possible and appropriate
Writing Blunder 4.
Structuring that screams HARD WORK
Your audience is inundated with COVID-19 communications at the moment. And they’re checking their social media feeds constantly.
So don’t think for a millisecond that they will want to read your email closely.
At best? They’ll scan it.
That’s why your email or post must not scream ‘hard work’. So be sure to let your text breathe – with these techniques:
- Short paragraphs: Aim for no more than two to three lines if possible.
- Useful subheadings: Apply a descriptive and meaningful subheading before every 2-3 paragraphs to tell your readers exactly what the subsequent content is all about. Subheadings help them navigate their way down the page and find what’s most important to them – quickly.
- Bolded keywords and dates: But don’t get carried away either. If you try to emphasise too much, you emphasise nothing.
- Bulleted lists where appropriate: Remember though: lists communicate efficiency, not emotion.
The takeaway? Your key messages must JUMP off the page.
Writing Blunder 5.
Using apologetic language (without reason)
I have read many apologetic emails in recent days.
But in most cases, I felt the ‘sorrys’ were unnecessary and just added to the clutter of the author’s message.
All businesses are being forced to make tough decisions right now. And in every case, those decisions are based on a single priority: the health and safety of staff, customers and the community.
So in my view? That’s no reason to apologise.
Instead, show empathy. And offer a constructive solution if possible.
Writing Blunder 6.
Ignoring a brand’s tone of voice
Last week, a client (in the commercial cleaning industry) asked us to write a blog post about the steps workplace cleaners should be taking in light of the virus.
And suddenly, we had a dilemma.
You see, we’ve been writing for this client for several months now. And the brand voice has always been light-hearted – and dare I say, funny!
‘How on earth are we going to keep this post about such a serious issue on-brand?’ asked my colleague who was tasked with writing the piece.
Yes, it was tricky. But she did it – by following these guidelines of intelligent execution:
- Use humour if your brand calls for it, but perhaps not as much as you usually do
- Avoid polarising topics – especially regarding politics
- Don’t ‘punch down’ by making fun of our most vulnerable
- If you’re second-guessing something, you should probably cut it
Here’s a sentence from that article we wrote that gets the message across while also keeping in line with the brand’s light-hearted tone of voice:
A final thought on writing blunders in a crisis
Times are tough. And we’re all doing the best we can to say and do the right thing right now. So please, don’t be hard on yourself either. It’s okay not to get it perfect every single time.
And remember, it’s the bigger picture that counts. I’d like to think that if most of your communication is well-pitched, your stakeholders will have your back.
But with these tips to avoid making a writing blunder, my hope is that you can achieve the outcome you want, while keeping your brand reputation intact.
About Vikki Maver
Vikki Maver is a copywriter, content strategist, writing skills trainer and former lecturer for the Department of Marketing at Monash University. Founded in 2004, her business Refresh Marketing is a boutique writing consultancy in Melbourne. From websites to brochures and email newsletters, Vikki and her team write for every occasion under the sun – and for businesses of all shapes and sizes. They know how to use words with impact. And they know how to engage audiences in our cluttered world.
As a leading writing skills trainer, Vikki’s also been running business writing workshops for corporate teams and professionals since 2008.
PS. When you're ready, here are 5 ways help consultants & advisors grow:
1. Web Strategy Planning Template (PDF). Our flagship 1-page tool we co-created with David Meerman Scott. It’s been downloaded over 1 million times and featured on Forbes.
2. Read a free chapter from our book: Web Marketing That Works --- an Amazon #1 best seller.
3. Join our invitation-only 'Web Marketing That Works' group on Facebook. Get to know us, access training resources and hang out with 2,200+ peers.
4. Discover your marketing score. Take our 40 point Marketing Scorecard (in <6 mins) & get a customised report.