Ministry of Prose: making words work for your business

One in a semi-regular series of ponderings, musings and contemplations on the interaction of words and psychology in business.



Entertain to inform

May 2014

Much of what I'm commissioned to write these days is for publication on the websites of large corporations with serious reputations to uphold and/or business products and services to sell. It's usually interesting work and I enjoy sculpting text that perfectly matches the brief: right content, right voice, right style, right perspective.

Sometimes, though, it's nice to write an article with a less rigid structure. Obviously I have such freedom while working on my novel (now a trilogy and due for release later this century, probably) but that doesn't have the buzz of immediate publication, which is why I've been enjoying writing a few 'rants' for one of the clients of Ministry of Prose. This started off almost by accident, when I mentioned I could add a little colour to an article about internet companies' use of drones. That led to this:

Taken alongside Google's and Facebook's acquisition of robotics, VR and artificial intelligence companies recently, the obvious conclusion is that these companies are vying to be the first to create a self-sufficient Terminator-esque robot civilisation so that they can enslave and rule mankind. More than they already do, I mean. [...] It's true that Amazon seems to be going down a different route to the other two, and doesn't yet pose a 'killer robot' style threat, but I'm sure its delivery drones could easily be weaponised when the time comes. Out goes the hardback collector's edition of 50 Shades of Grey, in goes a small tactical nuclear warhead, beautifully sealed in cardboard packaging. [read more]

... which in turn led to this on the Heartbleed OpenSSL bug:

I've been an advocate of free, open-source software (FOSS). Not the kind of advocate who knocks on your door on a Sunday morning and asks if you'd like to talk about shell scripting, but certainly the kind who would engage all and sundry in slightly foam-flecked conversation about the delights of genuinely free software that you can compile and modify yourself. [...] "It's free but it's also inherently safe, see? You can read the source code and everything. Not like that proprietary crap where everything's locked away and you don't get to see what's underneath. With FOSS there's loads of people checking the code for errors, all the time. It's just safer, right? No back-doors, no unpatched security holes. And it's free! Why are you leaving?" [read more]

... and then this on smartphone malware:

Consider what people use their smartphones for. All their personal information goes into those tiny glowing slabs. Credit card details, banking passwords, business emails, dodgy home photography, private messages to your partner, even more private messages to the person you hope your partner doesn't find out about, the list goes on. The smartphone is more than a device: it's an adjunct to the brain, a personal assistant and confidante rolled into one, a gateway to the myriad cultural and intellectual riches of the world and pictures of kittens. [...] Android devices appear to be more at risk than iOS machines, a fact that may further raise Apple aficionados' already worryingly high levels of self-satisfaction. [read more]

... with more to come.

I enjoy this type of writing, the challenge of balancing informative content with a presentation style that will hopefully at least make some people smile. If you want to get psychological about it, this is an effective method of content delivery because it assigns a positive emotion to a learning experience, making the knowledge more likely to be retained. And more likely to be shared with others, because some of the feeling of pleasure in reading it will be unconsciously attributed to the person who forwarded the link.

This style of writing is under-used in online prose. I haven't yet worked out whether that's because the benefits aren't appreciated or because most writers have been trained to write more formally and can't break out of their prosaic straitjackets. Or, more likely, because if it's not done carefully it can backfire and insult or offend the target audience. Getting it right involves walking a thin line with great care.

For example, in the third excerpt above, consider the difference between a possible first draft:

"Apple users' already dangerously high levels of smugness."

and the published version:

"Apple aficionados' already worryingly high levels of self-satisfaction."

The first is widely insulting because it applies to users and not just aficionados (the latter we can picture as a smaller, almost fanatical sub-set of users with wardrobes full of black roll-necks); it says they are dangerous, whereas 'worryingly' can more readily be taken to mean we are worried for them rather than by them; and 'smug' is more insulting than 'self-satisfied' since the latter at least implies there's a valid underlying reason for such a state.

Do I think this carefully about every sentence I write? Of course.

I'd like to help more companies benefit from this form of information delivery, which appeals directly to readers' innate sense of humour and fun. It won't work in all circumstances, of course: legal/financial services and corporate reporting are just two of many areas where such light-hearted prose would be unwelcome and counter-productive. But there are many other market sectors offering opportunities for the effective use of this type of writing.

Get in touch with me if you'd like to know more about informing your target audience by entertaining them.

Alex Cruickshank is CEO and Chief Wordsmith at Ministry of Prose and knows where to draw the line.

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