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6 writing blunders to avoid in a crisis (with real ‘bad’ examples)

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. 

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. 

BEFORE
Any team member returning from overseas will need to self-isolate for 14 days in accordance with yesterdays announced travel restrictions. No physical attendance in the office will be allowed during that time, although we will look to arrange working from home where possible.

AFTER
If you are returning from overseas, you will need to self-isolate for 14 days. This is in line with yesterday’s new travel restrictions. As you won’t be able attend the office during this time, please talk to your manager about working from home options.

BEFORE
Members and patrons who have booked online for future sessions will be contacted shortly and offered a returnable form to receive a full refund. 

AFTER
If you have booked a future session online, we’ll contact you shortly to orgnanise a refund. 

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.

BEFORE
It is normal to feel sad, stressed, confused, scared or angry during a crisis.

AFTER
It is normal to feel scared and confused during a crisis.

BEFORE 
Like other businesses, we’re asking our team members to maintain high standards of hygiene and cleanliness.

AFTER
Our team is maintaining strict standards of hygiene.

BEFORE
We will only communicate with you as necessary as we understand there are many other sources of information being circulated and made available to you.

AFTER
[DELETE]

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

BEFORE 
As our investments team’s role is of utmost importance to your retirement outcomes, we’ve put additional measures in place to ensure they can continue to function effectively, from any location, through the COVID-19 crisis.

AFTER
Our investment advisors play a vital role in your retirement outcomes. So please be assured that they’re working just as hard for you during this time.  

BEFORE
We have established a work from home policy for our employees in our U.S. based offices and are accommodating employees in other office locations to work from home based on current circumstances.  

AFTER
We have a new work-from-home policy for our US employees. However, we’re doing whatever we can to make it easy for you to work from home too – wherever you’re based.

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. 

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.

BEFORE
As the health and wellbeing of our students and staff is our priority, we have cancelled all our face-to-face courses until further notice. We are extremely sorry for any inconvenience this has caused.

AFTER
Your health and wellbeing is our priority. We have therefore cancelled all our courses until further notice. Although we are sure you’ll be disappointed, you may like to consider our online learning options. 

6. Ignoring a brand’s tone of voice

Last week, a client (in the commercial cleaning industry) asked us to write or 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:

You should also periodically wash the walls and ceilings. Yes that’s right, ceilings. Even if you don’t frequently have Lionel Ritchie dancing on it, your ceiling can accumulate mould and fine dirt – which can cause illness.

A final thought

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, my hope is that you can achieve the outcome you want, while keeping your brand reputation intact.