by Holly Mickelson
A few weeks back, as I was preparing to write advertising copy for a new customer, I asked them what kind of vocabulary they required: Technical specifications? Marketing speak? Corporate terminology? After all, I knew the target group would be knowledgeable professionals who already had some familiarity with the product, so specialist terminology would speak to the target audience more than a generalized vocabulary would.
“We don’t do corporate speak,” the customer answered. “We use SLAP – speak like a person – for all of our marketing.”
SLAP, it turns out, has its roots in the Cluetrain Manifesto, a set of ninety-five theses written in 1999 about the impact of the internet on marketing. SLAP assumes that traditional marketing ploys no longer work in a connected world, because markets are conversations:
“Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can’t be faked.”
In other words, to be heard in a connected world, marketers and companies need to engage customers at a peer level, using the same kind of vocabulary and argument style they do. Big, fancy, juicy adjectives are unnecessary, and word play isn’t really all that popular either.
SLAP helps you write great copy
In theory, SLAP for copywriting is all good. No one wants to be talked down to. No one needs jargon, really. And let’s face it, do people really need to be told – in print no less! – that they have to possess some object to be fulfilled? Personally, I can do without traditional marketing’s aggressive stance and war-like vocabulary, too.
Much like another well-known writing style, KISS – keep it simple, stupid – a well-SLAPped text offers up lots of useful tools, and they aren’t just for copywriting: Active verbs. Authentic language. Empathy (hopefully). Clarity. These are all elements of good writing in my book and I encourage everyone to strive for just that.
Good SLAP, bad SLAP
But if SLAP is so much better, can it be used elsewhere? Of course! And you’ll find examples of texts that reflect honest human speech in just about any genre. There’s a catch, of course. The speech of real people rarely reflects the elements of good writing.
Think about it: when you open your mouth, what comes out? Most of us hem and haw. We fill silences with strange noises. We use ten words where one will do because we’re busy working out what to say next. And, at least for English speakers, we often have a deep-seated cultural unwillingness to say what we want outright without going around the block once or twice first.
In its natural habitat, such speech is fine and even enjoyable. But capture it on paper and you have a mess. Simply SLAPping a text to make it sound like the speech patterns of the smug man you heard on the bus this morning is not going to start a conversation. Or at least not the one you want.
SLAP turns your boss into a brilliant orator … with a little help from your pen
Since most people do not always speak in grammatically correct sentences, simply transcribing what someone says poses a great danger of putting down sentences that make little or no sense and making your speaker look like a blithering idiot. Good journalism practice requires at least some cleanup of transcribed interviews to ensure the intended message comes across.
So if your boss has asked you to transcribe his presentation about the company’s restructuring plans for the employee magazine, be ready to edit a little.
“Well, first off, the first piece to think about is the structure; you know, the simpler organization, the physical space for the people to work out of and then the legal entities that we use for the business. So of course the first element of the centrally-driven transformation is well a simpler organization and underpinning that will of course then be the changes in our property footprint and the legal entities. That’s ‘behemoth’ for those who are working on that project, right?”
Verbatim, this certainly sounds like spoken English. But because we can’t hear the speaker actually speaking the sentences (and admittedly, in this case, it’s very hard to imagine a real person speaking them) it just seems confusing and wordy on paper. It’s full of jargon (property footprint) and management speak (a centrally-driven transformation, a simpler underpinning).
If I SLAPped it, it might sound like this:
“A centralized transformation at our company must begin with the structure. It will be driven by a simpler organizational structure, one that focuses on the physical space where people work and the legal entities we need for our business. This will be supported by appropriate changes in our property footprint and our legal entities. This is a big job for those involved.”
Now it may no longer sound like he’s actually speaking, but at least his point becomes clearer: the company is planning to restructure but will of course take employee and customer interests to heart. I’d have to draft it again to make it suitable for the employee magazine and to make it feel like a conversation was started.
SLAP you can be proud of
The bottom line is that SLAP is by no means a bad idea, but don’t use it in a slap-happy way. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing copy for some new software, or for social media, or while editing the employee magazine – precise, cooperative, authentic text will always trump jargon and empty marketing speak.