Groovy baby. Can the BBC ever be cool?

Back in the 80s, I had one of the best Saturday jobs in town. Slap bang in the middle of the High Street, in a corner, by the window, was my little kingdom.

Retail is detail

I was the Saturday girl on WHSmith’s stationery counter, a position that provided me with enough wages for my teenage social life, plus a scratchy grey pinafore dress and a skill for changing watch batteries. Kudos, huh?

Even better, I worked in the same shop as my best friend Lindsay. My job on stationery had the geographic advantage: my punk friends would come and hammer on the window, pulling daft faces at me and licking the glass. Normally when I was about to clinch that big Filofax sale.

But even with this plus point, I was a bit jealous of Lindsay. Because Lindsay worked on Sounds.

Fair enough, I could recommend the best model of Casio pocket calculator for any occasion but the Saturday night bragging rights for that were pretty minimal. Lindsay, however, tucked away at the back in Sounds, got to choose music for the shop and unwrapped every new album and single as it arrived.

No-one cool bought their records from WHSmith. That’s what Our Price was for. But still, selling Culture Club cassettes was better than peddling Parker pens for a living.

Trying to be cool?

I’m mentioning it because, as you’re probably aware, the BBC has ditched its iPlayer Radio app in favour of a new product called BBC Sounds.

The idea is to ride the podcast bandwagon, reflect the fact that programming lives on many platforms and chuck speech and music more effectively into the same algorithmic goodie bag. Radio is dead: long live Sounds.

I love a good podcast. Appropriately enough, I was listening to a Stephen Fry piece the other day and chuckled at his thoughts on the migration of the word ‘wireless’. Formerly what your gran called the radio, that meaning has been elbowed aside in favour of a connection for your phone, laptop, headphones… whatever. The plasticity of language is a brilliant thing.

Back at WHSmith, we had a manager who gloried in the name of Mr Bengochea – and we definitely had to call him ‘Mr’. His deputy was very firmly Miss Wright. Not Karen or Debs, or whatever her name might have been.

Admittedly, 30 years ago is a fair old whack of time. But when you remember details like that, it seems like something from Lark Rise to Candleford. It’s a wonder we were in scratchy pinafores and not curtseying to Mr Bengochea in our crinolines.

The sound of Sounds

So it seems odd that the BBC has plumped for ‘Sounds’ as the name of its new app.

I guess that, to them, it doesn’t represent an uncool 80s record department in a slightly stuffy, middle class shop in a dying seaside town.

To the BBC, ‘Sounds’ is a cutting edge kinda word that represents the very latest in aural content, the sort of stuff that’s sure to be greeted appreciatively by the cool kids.

Maybe the BBC has more in common with WHSmith than I realised.

Are you tone deaf? Why you need the right words for your customers

“So the reviewer does nothing but slag it down all the way through, with stupidly arrogant long words. Then goes on saying it’s a OK film. How has this person got a job as a film reviewer??”

“You are not allowed to be a film reviewer unless you are gradually disappearing up your own backside!”

They’re comments from a Facebook group about a review of a film that profiles their subculture. All pretty damning.

The right words in the wrong place

The review wasn’t really aimed at them, to be fair. It was from the Hollywood Reporter, the US film and entertainment industry bible. An insider review of an arty film isn’t in its natural habitat in a Facebook group populated by plain-speaking, working class British blokes.

But the Facebookers’ forthright criticism of the ‘stupidly arrogant long words’ got me thinking. As a writer, words are my currency, my weapons and my friends. I’d read the review without criticism, impressed by its balanced take on the film. But that’s because I spend my days spending, wielding and embracing words.

Not everyone does that.

Brand appropriate

If your customers are more used to wielding welding irons or shifting shovels than admiring elegant passages of prose, content can still be brilliant for your business.

It’s just got to be right.

It doesn’t matter if your clients are dustmen or debutantes, if you don’t authentically speak their language, they’ll run a mile.

It’s not about you

Writing for that Facebook group, I could easily have used many of the same words peppered into that film review, never even thinking that to them, I sound like I’m disappearing up my own backside.

Even when I write social media posts for my scooter club, friends make fun of me, telling me they have to look up my words before they understand what I’m saying.

Conversely, at work, I sometimes cause painful wincing in my more traditional clients who hate the informality of certain sentences. Older people, for example, often can’t shed the (incorrect but hard-wired) school rule that you can’t start a sentence with ‘and’.

Ride the learning curve

I usually work through tone-setting exercises with new clients but everyone has their own quirks, preferences and brand guidelines. When I worked with Wedgwood, ‘crockery’ was, perhaps surprisingly, a banned word. (It’s ‘tableware’, by the way).

Even when we’ve done a ton of exploration about vocabulary, tone and audience, there’s still often a period of bedding in, when we to and fro about certain phrasing until I really understand what’s needed.

Knowing your audience

My journalism tutors used to hold up The Sun’s pithy stories as perfect examples of our craft. Back then, their newsdesk was staffed by gods when it came to finding the angle and telling that story to Auntie Doris and Uncle Fred. I guess Doris and Fred were the olden days equivalent of blokes on Facebook.

I’m not sure the red top still holds the same place in the journalistic firmament but it does still nail a story. Today’s lead yells:

‘JUST SHOOT HIM’ Terrorist kills one and ‘blows up car’ before being shot dead by cops.

Compare that to this intro from Vogue:

Roland Mouret has just published a book about his life and work, Roland Mouret: Provoke, Attract, Seduce, with Rizzoli. The name is an indication of Mouret’s approach to design; just think about that iconic Galaxy dress of his which first appeared in 2005, a glorious form-fitting number that seemed to spring forth from a particularly steamy ménage à trois between fabric, cutting technique, and the female form.

Clunky construction aside, clued-up readers are granted no explanation of who Mouret is – and it’s even assumed that they all remember the ‘iconic Galaxy dress’, designed 13 years ago.

Back when the earth was young, I was news editor of Broadcast magazine, the TV and radio trade paper. Its current splash is:

Disney details SVoD plans

Disney+ will launch in late 2019 with Star Wars and Marvel shows

Baffling to many, but Broadcast’s audience of TV producers and industry insiders can handle the shorthand of SVoD without needing to be told it’s short for subscription video on demand.

But ditch the jargon

Being authentic certainly isn’t carte blanche to drown your content in jargon. It’s about what your readers will understand and engage with, not lazily spouting the buzzwords you chuck around your office or factory.

If your audience thinks long words are for stuck up snobs, keep your articles brief and earthy. Could you share your message through infographics or video instead?

Selling to arty types? Create a compelling visual style and use a typeface they’ll relish.

Working in a highly intellectual niche? Don’t feel compelled to reign in the vocabulary so much – although, beware! The damn thing has to actually make sense. Your message will be lost completely if your reader has to peruse with a dictionary in the other hand.

Get out there. Talk to your customers – and more importantly listen. Keep an eye on social media and take note of what matters to them and how they communicate. Get to know them and what makes them tick. It’s the only way you’ll get them on side and not sniping about you on social media.