The joy of words

The power of the written word is at last being recognised on corporate sites. About time too, says David Bowen.
 

We have long moaned about the failure of companies to treat their corporate websites as they would their printed publications. They are, when we talk to them, happy to confirm that they are indeed their biggest publications - both in terms of page number and readership. But they are rarely prepared to appoint an editor, an essential for ensuring editorial quality. Ask traditional publishers if their magazines or newspapers had editors, and they would stare at you in bafflement. 

That is why so many of the sites we look at suffer from sloppy writing. Boring, jargon-filled, full of committee-driven 'messages' that are of no interest to the rest of the world. Fine for an internal document. Not for a major external-facing publication.

Part of the problem, as I've said before, comes from word 'content' - a soulless label for anything that fills up the space on a web page. When I was a journalist, 20 years ago, 'content' did not exist as a noun. We produced 'editorial' or - better - 'words'. They were things to be thought about, polished, loved even. Sub-editors (copy editors to Americans) were often aspiring authors (Bill Bryson for one), whose job was to add quality and sparkle where it was needed. Together, the writers and sub-editors produced words that could be painlessly, often enjoyably, absorbed. 

Now, I'm delighted to say, there are signs that some companies have seen the light. Perhaps it started with the current fashion to publish 'stories' online, but whatever the reason it's clear that words are at last being taken seriously. I am competent to talk about only about English; I hope the same is happening in other languages. 

Two home pages I looked at recently filled my heart with joy - even though one of them is from a tobacco company and the other a pharmaceutical group. They may have little else in common, but their approach to words makes them literary bedfellows.

Philip Morris International's home page says this: 'Designing a smoke-free future. How long will the world's leading cigarette company be in the cigarette business?' AbbVie has this (or it did last week): 'A scientist's retirement plan: Sterilize worms, eliminate neglected diseases'.

Why are these good headlines? Because the reaction of most of us will be first to say 'What??', and then to click the link to find out what the headlines mean. They have thus fulfilled the role of a good headline - to intrigue people enough to want to know more. The PMI headline is perhaps a one-off: it reflects a shift in strategy towards less harmful products. But the AbbVie line is pure editorial skill - put the words 'sterilise worms' into almost any sentence, and you are going to get people hooked. It leads through to one of many engaging pieces in its 'stories' section. While not all have strong headlines, enough do to suggest professional writers are in the vicinity: for example 'Could Ireland hold the genetic codes to crack serious diseases?' and 'What do tumors and snowflakes have in common?'.

You might say the masters of the effective headline are the people who write 'clickbait' links to drag us into a site. Buzzfeed currently features '11 books all Harry Potter fans must read' and '16 amazing international Starbucks items you'll want to travel for'. But these are cheap tricks, lacking skill, lacking beauty - and so tired. Won't we get bored of them? I hope so. 

Actually, there is a company site that does have '5 coolest things on earth' on its home page, but I forgive it because of the memorable lines that sit alongside. GE Reports - an online magazine that pumps out General Electric news and features - has some crackers. Today I see 'Physicists are breeding Schrodinger's cat, and it could reveal the limits of the quantum world' and 'Octopus and squid evolution is officially weirder than we could have ever imagined'. Hard not to click on those.

Of course headlines are just the hook - the quality of the words they lead to is at least as important. Although 'stories' are overdone as a fashion, where narrative is really engaging it is hard to beat. The trick is often to zoom in on an individual's story, and tell it with uncorporate gusto. That is what AbbVie has done with its sterilised worms story. It starts 'Howard Morton likes to build things. Decks. houses. Molecules. The Canadian-born scientist retired in December 2012, assuming he'd finally have the chance to focus on decks and houses. And for a year, that's what happened'. Now read on ... you have to really, don't you? This, I would bet my dog, was written by a professional writer, and a good one at that.

My favourite history section was written by a professional writer (full disclosure: he now works for us). It is BP's, and it starts like this: 'The smell was unmistakable. It was a smell you could see. The vapours rose clearly in the sunlight, and stank of rotten eggs. But to the explorer George Reynolds it was the best thing he had smelled in seven years.' That's what I call writing. Not content.