How I learned to love Mondays again

Your monday morning enthusiasm is creating a hostile work environment - WRONG - learn to love Mondays

I’m writing this at 8:43 on a Monday morning. Mondays can be grim. Like most people I find the transition from weekending to working a struggle. Worse: I’ve trained myself to get up early, meaning the day starts with the electric shock of a 6am alarm.

But Mondays can also be wonderful. It’s about attitude not chronology. They’re like the New Year. Anything is possible. That feeling means that, for me, Mondays are a good day for thinking, planning and looking ahead.

Tell me why I love Mondays

Over the last year, I’ve changed a lot about my weekly routine to refactor Mondays along these lines. For example:

  • Book routine meetings. I try to have all my routine meetings on a Monday including regular planning meetings, status calls and client catch-up calls. I schedule Articulate’s weekly traffic planning meetings on Mondays as well as planning meetings with my super-PA, Liz. This helps set the direction and tone for the week without breaking up productive working time on other days.
  • Refresh mind and body. Start with some exercise (I really like Runkeeper – it keeps me on track) and end with some meditation (ideally at the South London Zendo but if not then using Headspace).
  • Keep house. Mondays are also my day for any kind of domestic stuff (I mainly work from home). My cleaners come on a Monday. So does my wonderful cook, Jo, and she fills the fridge with food for the next few days. (Having a cook sounds very Downton Abbey but actually she saves me time and money relative to shopping and cooking for myself. It works well for her too because she normally does outside catering weekends and evenings so I can fill up a blank space in her diary with regular work.) By the end of the day, the house is clean and tidy and there’s lots of lovely food. A great start to the week.
  • Update and review metrics. I collate all our metrics into a report and share it: sales funnel, copy deliveries, HubSpot contacts and website traffic stats as well as some financial data including cash flow and invoicing. This gives me a really clear picture of the state of the business and contributes to our open culture.
  • Write weekly email. If I haven’t already done it over the weekend, I write my weekly email to my colleagues about what has been going on in the business.
  • Set agendas. I also write the agenda for Articulate’s traffic call in a Basecamp discussion. Agendas like this help us have better meetings. For me, it means looking through all our client projects and seeing what copy is due to be delivered in the next week and having a first pass at allocating it. This gives me a really clear picture of the content creation side of the business. My colleague Clare does the same for the blog studio and updates the Basecamp discussion with her contributions before the meeting.
  • Book thinking time. I actively schedule thinking time into Monday. For example ‘prepare for meeting with x’ or ‘think about refactoring y’. This goes in the diary and helps me get my head straight for important things that are coming up.
  • Put the day on autopilot. With everything booked up and a strong routine in place, I don’t have to think too hard about what’s happening next and by the end of the day the rest of the week is all planned out and, hopefully, free of interruptions and distractions.

Instead of feeling oppressed by the start of the week, Mondays help me back into a working routine. Mondays are busy, buzzy and full of routine and familiar, comforting patterns. Refactoring Monday has changed it from the worst day of the week to the most exciting. What’s your Monday routine? What can you do to learn to love Mondays?

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Essential business grammar from Bad Language: lesson one – the building blocks of a sentence

Needless to say, typos and poor grammar will quickly turn a diamond to a rhinestone

essential business grammar: bling written in diamonds

We’ve talked about grammar on Bad Language more than a few times. And with good reason. Get your grammar wrong and not only do you lose your credibility, but you also lose your readers’ attention. Poor grammar is a stumbling block and after a few hurdles most readers will give up trying to reach the finish line.

With that in mind, and the faint notion of resolutions still floating in the air, we thought we’d start our series of lessons on essential business grammar. There will be 20 lessons appearing, one a week, for the next (you guessed it) 20 weeks covering everything from commas to homonyms, hyphenation and prepositions.

So buckle up, get your head down and let’s start lesson one.

The basic building blocks of a sentence

Essential business grammar: ice cubes representing blocks of a sentence

There are many types of sentences. The simplest is the declarative sentence.

A declarative sentence has a subject, a predicate, and an object.

These are the three basic building blocks of sentences. In fact, without a subject and a predicate you don’t have a sentence at all; instead, you have a sentence fragment. Learning to identify these parts of a sentence is the first skill in your toolbox for writing strong, persuasive, and intelligent prose.


The subject of a sentence is the person, place, thing or circumstance the sentence is about.

  • Peter is our new hire.
  • The car is red.
  • New York is busy.
  • Today is tiring.


The predicate of the sentence tells us something about the subject. To do this, it must use a verb.

For this reason, the simple predicate is just the verb that describes what the subject is doing.

  • Peter applied for the job.

In this sentence, ‘applied for the job’ is the predicate. The simple predicate is just ‘applied’. Since Peter is the subject, we could make a full sentence by writing:

  • Peter applied.


The object of the sentence is the person, place or thing being acted upon. Objects can be direct or indirect.

Direct objects are those objects being acted upon.

  • Mike checked the printer.

The printer is the object in this sentence because it is being checked.

Indirect objects are those people, places or things an action is being performed for.

  • Mike checked the calculations for Grace.

The calculations are the direct object since they are what’s being checked. Grace is the indirect object because Mike is checking the calculations for her.

What happens if the sentence isn’t declarative?

When you join two sentences (compound sentences) or add clauses (complex sentences), it becomes harder to identify the subject, predicate, and object. If one of them is missing from your sentence, no matter how robust it may seem, it is incomplete. The relationship between these elements can also help you determine if you are using active or passive voice.

Ask yourself these three questions to keep track of these important sentence parts.

  1. What or who is doing something? This is the subject.
  2. What action is being taken? This is the predicate.
  3. What is being acted upon? For whom or what are we acting? This is the object.

A complex example of how to break down a sentence

If there is a fire, please follow the evacuation plan posted by the front desk.

In this sentence, the subject is you. Although the word ‘you’ does not appear in writing, the person who would follow the plans is you.

The simple predicate is follow. ‘You follow’ is the simplest form of this sentence.

The plan is the object.

So, can you now spot the sentence fragment in this blog post?

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What makes a great leader: lessons from Dame Stella Rimington

Thanks to franchises like James Bond, an air of glamour and mystery surrounds the British intelligence services. (Cue music.)

This secretive and exciting institution seems so far removed from our everyday working lives that it’s hard to imagine it has anything in common with mundane management or business basics.

The reality, however, is very different from Flemming’s fiction.

Take it from one who knows

Dame Stella Rimington Speaking, what makes a great leader

There are a lot of lessons businesses can learn from the secret services, according to former MI5 Director General, Dame Stella Rimington, who spoke on leadership at Microsoft’s recent Future Decoded event.

It would be easy to assume Dame Stella embodies the stoic, hard-faced ‘M’ from the recent James Bond films, but that’s not the woman who walked out onto the stage.

Instead of the steely figurehead one expected to see, the calm and measured Dame Stella was human and compassionate: characteristics she believes are central to what makes a great leader.

A little case history

During her time at MI5 Dame Stella oversaw and implemented a lot of change, spurred by dramatic changes in society during the 1980s. The ‘old boys club’ was disintegrating and women were working their way up the system, breaking ground on career paths previously denied to them.

There were also fundamental changes in the kinds of threats MI5 faced as the lurking menace of espionage from the Soviet Union during the cold war gave way to the more conspicuous resurgence of the terror attack.

These were turbulent times, inside and outside of MI5, and Dame Stella had no choice but to quickly learn what it takes to be a great leader.

Take responsibility

One of Dame Stella’s most humanising qualities is the importance she places, as a leader and manager, on ‘managing the flack’ and supporting her staff.

Mistakes happen. You make them and so will your staff. A great leader, rather than pointing the finger and focusing on the mistake, will focus on how to resolve the problem and the lessons learned from it.

This is how we all develop, whether we’re an intern or a CEO.

Just do your best

‘Just do your best’ was the advice Dame Stella once received from Prime Minster John Major.

This might seem glib, but what it actually represents is the establishment of a no-blame culture, which is crucial when working with people in a high-risk environment, where failures are bound to happen.

This doesn’t just mean supporting your staff in times of trouble though: a no-blame culture also fosters an innovative workplace. Rather than doing ‘just enough,’ allowing employees to make mistakes can empower them to try something new or propose new ideas to reinvigorate your operations. And growth depends on these kinds of innovations.

Run the risk

You rarely get innovation and growth without some kind of risk, and risk is important, says Dame Stella.

Life doesn’t come with an instruction manual and neither does business. This means every now and again we need to trust our instincts. Risks, of course, should always be calculated and considered, but sometimes a leap of faith is required.

Where leadership is concerned what your employees need from you is nerve, resolution and decisiveness. A no-blame work culture will empower your team to innovate and take risks, but by demonstrating your supportiveness you’ll empower them to take those risks confidently and see them through to potential success.

Be brave

Of course your employees aren’t the only ones who will take risks and maybe even make a few mistakes. As a leader you’ll have to go with your gut every so often too.

To lead by example you need to be brave and confident, someone staff wants to get behind and someone who can serve as a figurehead, and be so much more too.

Dame Stella’s advice here is to address criticism calmly and know your employees and environment.

Carpe diem

Knowing your business, environment and employees doesn’t just help you to establish yourself as a leader either; it will enable you to make the most of everything that comes your way and see new opportunities.

One way Dame Stella did this was by reaching out to post-Soviet nations and building relationships with them, following the fall of the Berlin wall.

Knowing the landscape and making decisions in reaction to it will result in decisions and actions others respect. Make lemonade out of lemons.


Dame Stella also spotted a golden opportunity to engage with the press, following her appointment as Director General, and to create more openness in intelligence operations.

Openness, authenticity and honesty are all important leadership qualities according to Dame Stella, and she’s pretty qualified to tell you why. This is the woman who, after all, responded to hounding from the press to uncover her identity by publicly unveiling ‘The Security Service’ booklet. For the first time in history, this booklet revealed details of MI5’s activities, operations and duties, along with her identity.

This put Dame Stella in a precarious position, but rather than fearing it, she embraced the opportunity and used her position as a platform to open a dialogue on national security and the role the press plays in relation to it. A debate that continues today.

If an institution commonly referred to as ‘The Secret Services’ can embrace a culture of openness, all businesses can. Ultimately what it comes down to is authenticity and putting the needs of the many above the needs (or ego) of the individual.

If something is going badly or you messed up, confide in your colleagues. Put your ego aside, be human and talk to them. Not only will you find that they’ll understand, but they might actually be able to help put it right.


Being open should never just be about the negatives though; where’s the fun in that?

Recognition is something Dame Stella cited as integral to good leadership, which is significant given she comes from an institution where praise and credit is notoriously hard to give (they are the secret services after all).

This didn’t stop Dame Stella giving recognition to her spies and operatives though (although sadly she never shared how she managed it). If she can do it you certainly can. Without the need to keep secrets you are unrestrained in the ways you can recognise your staff for a job well done.

What makes a great leader? You.

In a world of tech designed to eliminate almost every conceivable problem, sometimes it’s easy to forget how powerful the human touch can be. You can manage virtually any element of your business with some kind of computer-based system now, but motivating and managing people isn’t one of them.

Take Dame Stella’s advice because while you may never be 007, that doesn’t mean you can’t be a leader worthy of rivalling ‘M’.

(Hat tip to Jon Rieley-Goddard for the photo of Dame Stella)

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Why the next ten minutes are the most important in your whole life

Louis Vuitton super-expensive shiny watch

No watch on earth, no matter how expensive, is going to give you an extra minute of your life. No camera, no matter how elegant, is going to freeze time.

We know this intuitively. That is why blog posts that tell you how to save time and get more time, for example by getting up early are so popular. I have cupboards full of gadgets that promised to make me more efficient. Oh well.

I spent two weeks last year doing a detailed time and motion study on my time. I learned three things about how I spend my time:

  • I flit restlessly between tasks like a child on hot sand, driven by interruptions and my need to tick stuff off a bottomless to-do list.
  • Most of my time is spent on low-impact work: writing emails, tinkering with websites, project management, answering the phone and so on. You know what’s it like.
  • Just occasionally, I did something important. Not necessarily big but definitely good like a seed or a smile.

If you’re lucky or careful, you work for fifty minutes an hour so you can spend ten minutes doing something like this: innovative, productive or exciting.

Here are some examples of things that take ten minutes but which have a high return on the time invested. I want do more of this and less of the other stuff.

  • Find a life-enhancing new blog and subscribe to it. (Try Brain Pickings, Seth Godin, This Charming Charlie, Zen Habits.)
  • Listen to a podcast for a while and get inspired. (Try This American Life, Startup, Radiolab, 99% Invisible.)
  • Contact a friend that you haven’t spoken to for a while. (This is a good use for Facebook. Try also picking up the phone.)
  • Write someone a birthday card and actually post it. It’s a really nice thing to do.
  • Go on LinkedIn, find an old colleague, someone you admire, an exciting prospect and send them a message. You could end up with a new friend, a mentor or a new client.
  • Download a great game and enjoy it for a few minutes. Time you enjoy wasting isn’t wasted time. (Try A Dark Room or the Internet Archive’s collection of 90s classic games. Look at SimIsle or LEGO Loco. I designed them.)
  • Write your diary.
  • Reflect on your new year’s resolutions. You know the ones you wrote LAST YEAR!
  • Turn ten minutes into an hour. Cancel a meeting. Take something off your to-do list. Email someone to say ‘No, I can’t help with that. Sorry.’
  • Pick one thing that’s broken in your company culture, business model, or working practices. Now brainstorm ways to fix it.
  • Write a blog post from the heart and share it with everybody. You get what you give, but sssh, don’t tell anyone!
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How to refactor your company culture in 2015

Company culture: Dilbert strip about corporate strategy 'It's something about leveraging our platforms'

A positive company culture is the most powerful way to differentiate your organisation, motivate your staff and drive your company forward. A Dilbert-style mashup of meaningless jargon words won’t help you at all. And doing nothing won’t help either. You’ll get a company culture – every company has one – but you won’t be doing anything to shape it.

Like any smart tech company we believe in refactoring and so, in 2014, I worked with Deryn McIntosh from Ready Now HR and my colleagues on Articulate’s own company culture.

Cultural revolution

We started with a Basecamp project to share inspiration, ideas, background reading and to encourage discussion. Here are some of the links and resources we shared and discussed:

Everybody reviewed, commented on and discussed these things over the course of a month. It was the longest discussion thread I have seen on Basecamp. Looking back at it now to write this article, I’m very proud of how much everybody engaged and contributed.

We also had a long and in-depth debate about the role of performance appraisals and how we should do them and shorter, more specific discussions around some of the more formal policy documents.

Culture hacking

Culture is a shared, collaborative thing. You can’t impose a culture from the boardroom. The best way to do this is through workshops and Deryn facilitated a great event for Articulate. (One of the things we did was give everyone a company Kindle, like Buffer does. Hey – we’re writers, we should be reading!)

Team Articulate

During our day together, we discussed our culture in different stages. We watched videos of different people discussing their company culture:

Then, using giant Post-it notes, we each described what work meant to us under the categories of learning, doing, being and caring. Then we brainstormed what Articulate *should* be like and finally, we did a card-sorting exercise to express, share and prioritise what our culture should be like.

It’s hard to describe so here are some pictures. It was fun, thought-provoking and very rewarding.

what work means to me
What work means to me

card sorting
Putting our cards on the table

Grouping, sorting, prioritising cards under different headings

After these discussions I wrote up notes and a first draft of our culture. We discussed both at length on Basecamp. This distillation process is important and I think it is a good kind of management contribution to draft a document based on contributions from members of staff. This is an important mechanism for avoiding top-down diktats.

Articulate culture

Employment policies in the UK and more circumscribed and regulated than in the US so there’s less scope for, ahem, ‘creativity’ and our working practices are pretty well described on this blog:

But the core company culture – our fundamental operating system – emerged out of a day together in July. It may make more sense to us than it does to you and it lacks the fizz and ginger of HubSpot or Netflix’s fancy presentations. But it’s ours and we’re proud of it and it sets a high standard for our work together.

We are Articulate

  • We help companies talk to their customers like human beings

What makes us special

Articulate is not just any old marketing agency.

  • We’re very, very good at what we do
  • We focus on the technology sector
  • We specialise in inbound content marketing
  • We embrace metrics-driven, tech-powered marketing
  • We have great employees and a unique culture
  • We have innovative, efficient working practices
  • We deliver remarkable content that customers and readers love
  • We work for market leaders, innovators and rising stars

Our culture matters

  • We do great work
  • We are a high-performance business
  • We’re a great company to work for
  • We set high standards for ourselves

As individuals

  • We don’t do ego
  • We work together individually, like the pillars in a temple
  • We listen exceptionally well
  • We’re passionate about what we do
  • We’re innovative, inventive and imaginative

As a team

  • We take our work seriously but ourselves not so much
  • We’re fun, friendly, warm, collegial and supportive
  • We’ve got heart (like the Scooby gang or Gryffindor)
  • We’re excellent colleagues – we respect and empower one another

As an organisation

  • We are phenomenal writers
  • We don’t just ‘bang out copy’ – we articulate ideas and stories
  • We induce epiphanies
  • We value expertise over hierarchy
  • We are always learning, questioning and developing
  • We have scalable, agile, efficient processes that help us do great work
  • We refactor frequently, taking time to reflect and improve the way we work
  • We are open and communicative, among ourselves and with our customers
  • We understand and value context (‘rules and models are the enemies of genius and art’)

For our clients

  • We are approachable, efficient, responsive and uncomplicated (we’re user-friendly)
  • We are a safe pair of hands (no drama)
  • We are never just one person; we bring our best team effort
  • We ‘solve for the client’ even if it means taking the hard route

Our role models

  • Basecamp – for their working practices
  • Pivotal Labs – for their methodology
  • elBulli – for their repeatable creativity
  • McKinsey – for their applied expertise

Culture in practice

Of course, having a written company culture isn’t very helpful if it doesn’t actually inform the way you work. In the six months since we adopted it, I’ve seen first several really powerful examples of its influence:

  • It rippled through the creation of role descriptions and competencies and informed their creation. For example, company culture is actually included as a category of competencies so that interns are expected to ‘understand Articulate’s culture’ while, say, senior writers should ‘act as culture role models for others’ and ‘initiate changes to company culture and processes when required.’
  • When Clare started work on refactoring our blog studio in November, she started the discussions by reciting some of our principles and used them to hold our blogging to account. ‘We don’t just ‘bang out copy’ – we articulate ideas and stories.’ Exactly. No polyfilla.
  • I’ve found it very helpful, along with the competencies and role descriptions, in making appraisals and staff development discussions more productive. It gives me a way of talking about attitude, behaviour and interactions that is not based on my gut reaction or personal feelings but on what being a good Articulate employee is like.

Sharing and developing the culture

A company culture has to be a living, evolving thing. It’s not set in stone forever. But first it must be shared with new employees. To do this we have a couple of training projects on Basecamp. For example, this one for interns. Of course, the written formal part is only an element of the training – there’s a lot of mentoring and modelling by colleagues too.

Articulate culture intern training tasks

For me, putting the culture in place was a milestone for the business. It’s the foundation for our staff policies, the core content on our new intranet and it underpins our competencies, role descriptions and training processes. To quote Matthew Collings talking about art and civilisation, it’s our imaginative proposal of who we could be if we were as good as we want to be. ‘It’s the way we ask questions about ourselves.’ What does your culture say about your business?

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Get our new (free) 10-minute guide to inbound content marketing

Inbound content marketing: leads going into a funnel

From the writers of Bad Language comes an ebook so full of inbound marketing knowledge and know-how you’d be crazy not to read it.

We like sharing what we know

If you’re a regular reader of Bad Language you’ll know that we’re fans of writing, marketing and technology. And where do those three things converge? Inbound content marketing.

Here at Articulate we’ve spent the last 18 months reading, experimenting, completing HubSpot certifications and rolling out campaigns using the inbound marketing method. And we’ve learned an lot in the process.

So now we’ve decided to share some of that hard-earned knowledge with you in our new, free ebook, ‘The 10-minute Guide to Inbound Content Marketing’.

What we’re sharing

This new guide covers all the basics of inbound content marketing, including:

  • The business case for inbound content marketing
  • What exactly ‘inbound’ is
  • What content you can use and how to create it
  • How to pick the right agencies to help
  • Where to find the right tools and technology

We’re honestly excited about inbound, and we hope that once you’ve read our guide that you will be too. So what are you waiting for?

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Tools for writing: Microsoft Surface Pro 3 first impressions

surface pro 3

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 is an important device for its maker: a showcase for Windows 8.1, a role model for other OEMs (original equipment manufacturer) and, finally, a source of profit. And, more than a tablet that can replace your laptop, it is also a challenge to Apple’s MacBook Air, as Microsoft’s ad confirms.

So when mine arrived this week, I was excited to see whether it lived up to its promise. (Full disclosure: Microsoft kindly loaned me the unit and they are an Articulate client but this is my own review.)

There’s much to like:

  • Super-high-resolution screen. Text in Word looks noticeably crisper when I’m writing thanks to the 2160×1440 pixel screen. Some MacBook Pros and the gorgeous but expensive iMac with Retina display have similar resolution but the Surface is cheaper. It’s hard to go back to a conventional monitor with visible pixels after using it.
  • The kickstand. The adjustable kickstand makes the Surface work brilliantly as a tablet and it’s a masterpiece of design. I always found the full-size iPads too unwieldy. But with the Surface you can set it up for typing or for vertical view at different angles and the stand is built-in so it’s always available.
  • Aesthetics. I like the black and metal look of the Surface and my keyboard cover is also black so it looks very good on my desk. It’s the tablet Darth Vader would choose. I’m not quite so sure about the faux-suede feel of the keyboard cover.
  • Size and weight. The gorgeous screen makes the device feel bigger than it is, Tardis-like. But it’s almost exactly the same size, weight and shape as my 11” MacBook Air. That means it’s very portable.
  • It’s Windows. I like that it runs Windows and Office. I’m familiar and happy in that environment: it’s all coded into my muscle memory. So, as a writing computer, it runs the right software for me. I have an Office 365 subscription so it took me a couple of minutes to stream all the familiar Office apps down to the Surface. Easy peasy.
  • Expansion. There’s a microSD card so I can add more storage, a USB 3.0 socket so I can plug in accessories such as cameras or external keyboards and a Mini DisplayPort socket for projectors and external monitors. I was able to use an Apple adaptor to connect it to my desktop VGA monitor. This is way more connectivity that I got with my old iPads. A docking station would go a long way to making it also a desktop replacement. Apparently there is one.
  • Performance. Unlike my aging desktop PC, the i5-powered Surface is sprightly. It starts instantly, loads applications in a flash and I haven’t noticed any lagginess at all.

There are few things I’m still getting used to. I think they might be good but I’m reserving judgement until I’ve had a chance to live with them for a while.

  • Windows 8.1. I’ve never been keen on Windows 8. I’ve only ever used it on machines without a touchscreen so most of the new stuff felt clunky and awkward. It makes more sense on the Surface but when the keyboard is attached, I still find myself using the mouse pad rather than reaching for the screen. Let’s see if this old dog can learn some new tricks.
  • Pen. The addition of a pressure-sensitive pen seems like a winner. You can hand write notes and doodle in OneNote (which I love). You can also use it to mark up text in Word. But there is no slot for the pen so it’s almost certain to get lost. A replacement is a staggering £44.99. In contrast, Samsung manage to find a niche for their pen inside the slim Galaxy Tab Note.

I think the Surface has a lot to offer and I’m excited to see how it performs under fire in the next couple of weeks.

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How we work: open book project management

open book project management: bright 'honest' sign

At Articulate we strive to be approachable, responsive and ‘no drama’, which often equates to being honest to the point of transparency with our clients. This is why our project management process is totally open.

We work collaboratively and write in pairs, but we are also a virtual company so it’s important we keep everyone in the loop about what we’re doing and when. Transparency makes sense to us.

By transparency we mean using open book project management so everything within a project is available and viewable for everyone, colleagues and clients alike. Here’s how we do it.

What we use


We manage all our projects using Basecamp. It suits our remote work style and we can invite clients onto our projects too, so they can see our progress for themselves.

How we use it

We don’t hide.

When we start a project we encourage our clients to use Basecamp (if they don’t already) and we invite them onto our project for the work they’ve commissioned. This gives them pretty much the same access to what goes into that project as we have.

Basecamp gives the option to hide discussions or files from clients. This isn’t an option we use much. On the occasions we do, it’s not for the reasons you might think.

We use it mainly for streamlining. Some projects require a bit of internal communication which would be irrelevant (and probably uninteresting) to someone not directly involved in the writing process. To avoid spamming clients’ inboxes with stuff they don’t want or need to see, we sometimes keep our internal conversations private.

Another notable example is interview notes. Interviews are private, even when the interviewee is a customer of our client. We really benefit from having more than one set of interview notes, though, so typically all writers who were present for an interview upload their notes to Basecamp, which we keep private in the interest of the interviewee’s privacy.

Aside from these two examples we put everything out there for the client to see. If we do 60 drafts before we’re happy to submit an official first draft to them, they can see them all.

Why we do it

Not only does being open book give our clients a sense of security and comfort, knowing they can monitor our progress and make direct contact easily; it also aids us with the delivery and feedback process.

Basecamp provides a direct line for communication. We can deliver the work in Basecamp itself, with all the context around it and it provides our clients with one platform to give us feedback, edits or redraft info.

Everyone that’s working on the project will get all the messages (unless the sender chooses otherwise), so it’s simple and easy to move a project forward or tie it up.

What we get out of it

  • It sets the tone. When we’re open and honest with clients they extend us the same courtesy. This can mean the difference between briefs and expectations that are thorough and fair and those that perhaps aren’t so much.
  • More eyes on a problem, more brains applied to it. People can view a project’s progress, ourselves included, through all stages of the project. Problems can be picked out early and briefs re-established – everyone can add to it so time needn’t be wasted due to misunderstandings or miscommunications.
  • Constructive communication. We document everything (important) on Basecamp, so everyone has all the information they need in one place.
  • Trust. People trust people who are honest with them. Enough said.

What our clients get out of it

  • Empowerment. Being open with our clients empowers them to get involved with our process. They have a direct line of contact with us during the writing process and emails are sent whenever a project is updated, so it’s easy for clients to see what’s going on and get involved if they want to.
  • An education. With such an insight into how we work, our clients get a better idea of our time frames, how we communicate with each other and what information we use and discuss. All of this provides them with a clearer idea of how to approach work with us in future.

Making headway

Our process, as far as open book project management goes, is still a work-in-progress. We’re still learning how best to get our clients on board with Basecamp and how best to encourage them to engage with it.

We’re also working out what to explain, how and to whom. What elements of Basecamp need explaining? Is it worth providing guidelines for working with us through Basecamp? If we did would we give them to all clients or perhaps just those who are likely to be long-term?

These are all questions we’ll be working through as we hone our process in pursuit of a perfectly productive, transparent project management process.

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The 8 best lists of all time: why lists work and how to do them better


The listicle – an article built around a list – is a hugely successful format. For example, alongside ‘how-to’ articles, they are the most popular form on Bad Language.

It’s not just a blogging thing, either. Historically, lists have been very popular. In no particular order here are a few that have worked:

  1. The four noble truths
  2. The ten commandments
  3. Seven deadly sins
  4. Seven wonders of the world
  5. The 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous
  6. The noble eightfold path
  7. Benjamin Franklin’s 13 virtues
  8. Ummm, Craigslist

This got me thinking. Why do lists work?

Others have also observed that list posts work. As Niccolò Brogi says: just Google ‘25 ways’. Psychologically, lists just ‘feel better’ with a clear promise and an easy-to-absorb format. They’re concise and scannable. Readers like them because you can measure your progress and stop or start whenever you want. Certainly, for writers, they’re easier to create: just start with a numbered list and fill in the blanks.

Here are the top ten ‘top tens’ on Bad Language:

  1. Top ten tips for top ten lists (a very good place to start)
  2. Ten tips for better emails
  3. 10 ways to slim down obese copy (my favourite headline on Bad Language)
  4. How I trained myself to get up earlier
  5. 10 provocative questions that will bend and blow your mind
  6. Seven website mock-up tools
  7. 10 things I wish I knew before I redesigned my website
  8. 9 essential marketing insights about typography
  9. 10 surprisingly simple tips for better headlines
  10. 62 ways to improve your press releases (a BIG list but this led to a trip to Sweden and a new client so lists really do pay)

But one thing we’ve learned at Articulate when using lists in client copy is that you can’t just end on the list. You need a close with a kick too. Readers probably won’t finish your article, according to Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, but your editor and your client definitely will.

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Why stories sell and feature lists don’t

Selling points and stories: Teddy telly story to girl in rocking chair

We’ve said it before and we’re going to say it again: features don’t sell, benefits do.

Your product might have the fastest gigahoozit, or your service might rank number one in the Totally Amazing awards, but none of that means a thing to your potential customers.

Customers don’t care what you have or what you’ve done. Like everyone else, they’re only really interested in stories – most often their own.

Stories sell

Keith Queensbury of Johns Hopkins conducted an analysis of 108 Super Bowl adverts. He found that, ‘regardless of the content of the ad, the structure of that content predicted its success.’ In other words, telling a story was better than listing features (or anything else for that matter).

Freytag's pyramid

‘Freytags pyramid’. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The more complete the story being told in the ad, the more successful the ad. In fact, the more of the five elements of the traditional dramatic structure, shown in Freytag’s pyramid, that were included, the better the ad did.

This five-act storytelling structure dates back to Aristotle and is exemplified in Shakespeare’s plays. It might not be new, but it remains as effective as ever.

So, well-told stories sell, but why? As Harrison Monarch argues in the HBR, ‘A story can go where quantitative analysis is denied admission: our hearts. Data can persuade people, but it doesn’t inspire them to act.’

Storytelling’s secret

Human beings are natural storytellers.

We instinctively build a narrative: whether it’s of our lives, what’s happening outside our window or even the dramatic encounters of geometric shapes on a screen.  As Frank Rose explains:

Just as the brain detects patterns in the visual forms of nature — a face, a figure, a flower — and in sound, so too it detects patterns in information. Stories are recognizable patterns, and in those patterns we find meaning.

Not only do stories help us link points of information together and create cause and effect explanations of the world around us, they also trigger something important in our experience.

‘The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated,’ says Annie Murphy Paul. When someone describes kicking a ball, our motor cortex lights up. When someone describes a singer as having a ‘velvety voice’ our sensory cortex lights up. And so on.

So when we listen to a bunch of bullet points, we hear a load of language. When we listen to a story, we live it.

Selling your selling points with stories

So a story lights up our brain and inspires us to action. How does that link to sales? Well there’s a little more to the story…as it were.

Research at Princeton, led by Uri Hasson, has found that the brains of a person telling a story and a person listening to that story can synchronise:

When the woman spoke English, the volunteers understood her story, and their brains synchronized.  When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too.  When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.

Alongside this ability to influence is that fact that people automatically link stories to their own experiences in order to make them more relatable.

This means you can build your selling points into a story that tells the tale of a frustration or problem that the listener can associate with their own experience. You can then ‘plant’ your business as the happy resolution to that story. Once you’ve planted that idea, the listener will continue with the narrative of their own experience and ‘come up’ with the idea of using your product or service to solve their issue.

Even better, if you tell your story with positive sensory descriptions then your selling points will elicit those positive experiences for your listener too.

So rather than:

  • My widget speeds up data processing by 20 percent

You say,

I was struggling for time, constantly running and feeling the pressure of clients demanding data I simply didn’t have ready. So I decided to do something about it. I developed this widget, which processes the data 20 percent faster, and all of a sudden I had time to breath and my clients were praising me rather than hounding me.

You need more than a good yarn

What makes a good story, great though? Is just telling a story enough? Why do some stories catch our collective attention while others make us shrug with indifference?

‘Good stories are strange…Good stories are startling…The narrative excitement of the great scientific theories, far from residing in their reassuring simplicity, lies in their similarly radical exclusions, their shocks,’ argues Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker.

Take the image at the top of this article: it immediately makes you want to know the story behind it. It contains familiar elements, but rearranged in a startling way. It makes the idea of being held captive by a story tangible and of course, the outcome isn’t obvious.

And as the Super Bowl ads and Shakespeare prove, you also need your five acts, (as shown above). Don’t ruin the story by skipping directly to the happy ending: good stories require controlled suspense. That’s what keeps us engaged.

Personas make it personal

Personas have come up quite a lot on Bad Language lately and with good reason. They’re really important for figuring out not just who your audience is, but what exactly it is they want to hear.

When you pitch your product you have to make it seem as though you are weaving it into every reader’s personal story. Trying to appeal to everyone with a general story, however, will resonate with no one. Personas let you be specific to an audience: general to a particular group as it were.

Personas help you hone in on the problems your typical customers face and common objections they throw up. They also tell you a little about their likes and dislikes, lifestyles and personalities. This gives you a clue as to how to shock and startle and what tensions will resonate best with the people most likely to buy from you.

A final word of caution

Storytelling is eternally effective; but how we tell stories changes.

Research suggests that overused phrases, even if they contain an action or feeling, don’t light up any part of the brain other than the language processor. They use the example of having ‘a rough day’, however there are plenty of other clichés and stock metaphors out there that you should avoid.

Keep your storytelling fresh: and as you tell the tale of your selling points make your audience feel as though they are biting into a juicy, tart raspberry rather than munching on some stale, flat pancakes.

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