5 things I learnt at an A Thousand Monkeys workshop

Posted on January 19, 2018 By

First of all, I learnt a lot. Far more than just five things. I learnt you’re reading this in an F shape, skimming over my carefully chosen words. I know now that my reader is lazy, selfish and ruthless (no offence). And I found out the meaning of PECS and CIGAR.

Seven of us met for the workshop in London. From different sectors and companies, with different job roles and writing woes. But one important thing in common: we needed to write better, more persuasively.

One person wanted to write subject lines that got their emails actually opened and read. Another needed help writing product descriptions that would nudge people towards a purchase, until they’re teetering on the edge. And someone else was keen to know more about tone of voice, so they could set themselves apart with a strong brand language.

By the end of the day, we’d drunk buckets of tea, played more games than you do at Christmas, and each had a shiny new mental toolkit of tips and techniques that sharpened our persuasive skills right up.

But rather than give away everything we learned, I’ve had a rummage through and picked my favourite five.

1. Imagine who you’re writing to

As a group, we imagined we were writing an email to Steve, a 49-year-old Head of IT. Steve’s got a full inbox, a long to-do list, and is losing sleep over cyber security threats. He’s also married and likes gaming and kite surfing, but doesn’t get to do much of the latter as he lives in London. Seriously.

This might seem over the top, but I’ve found it a hugely helpful exercise. I feel I understand Steve, so understand how to write to him. I come up with a subject line that’ll grab his attention. My tone becomes chirpier, chattier, and I get to the point more quickly. And, because I’m imagining a person reading the email, I write it for an actual person to read.

I’ve used this technique to help me write this post. In my mind, you are a mid-30s professional. Outdoorsy, creative and reading this when you really should be working. You’re also called Amy or Matt. (If I am in fact right about all of these points, please do get in touch. I’d love to cash in on my psychic abilities).

2. Lose your ego and chuck anything down

The day was really interactive, with plenty of discussion and loads of group activities and games. My favourite of these was coming up with new straplines for Mr. Porky’s pork scratchings.

We chose seven different headline techniques from the ones we’d discussed. Then had a minute per technique to think of a new strapline.

After the first minute, with the first technique, I had nothing.

I was being far too precious about it, not wanting to chuck anything down unless it was Finger Lickin’ Good. But I threw that out the window and, as the game went on, the ideas poured out.

Having the headline techniques at our fingertips gave a really clear directive and made thinking creatively so easy. Working against the clock was also a great exercise in losing your ego and just putting any idea on paper.

At the end of the game, when the seven-minutes were up, we had 49 new straplines.

3. Unsmother and de-waffle

I hadn’t heard of a smothered verb before. Now I spot them everywhere.

If you’re unfamiliar, smothering a verb means turning it into a noun. Decide becomes decision. Assume becomes assumption. And investigate, investigation.

Using verbs instead of nouns instantly injects energy and life into a sentence. I love this trick because it’s so quick and simple, yet so effective. It’s one I’ve been using daily.

The same can be said for the tips on de-waffling content.

Richard explained the many different ways people waffle and how to avoid doing it. Before our eyes, rambling, dull sentences were transformed into readable and engaging ones. Like that bit in the second Harry Potter film when the letters in Tom Marvolo Riddle shuffle to spell I am Lord Voldemort and it all dawns on Harry. Again, it was so simple and effective, as soon as you knew how.

4. Check the readability

Having illuminated the art of good writing, Richard then got into some clever sciencey stuff. My favourite of which was the readability check.

I’d heard of this before from one of our blogposts. And since then I’ve compulsively checked the readability of sites with glee.

You’re probably thinking readability sounds made up. Like one of those awful words you get in adverts questioning the bouncability of your hair, or the vroomability of your car. But trust me, there’s an equation and everything:

Don’t panic, you don’t have to actually do this sum. That’s what computers are for. But it does show you all the different things that are taken into account when calculating readability.

I’ve found this tool a really helpful final check. It’s good for making sure I’ve pitched things right. Or that what I’ve written is suited to the audience and medium it’s meant for. And, of course, to see how it compares to famous works on astrophysics and evolution.

5. Make a plan, Stan

Ever heard the phrase ‘write drunk, edit sober’?

Now, I’m not saying that one of the things in my toolkit is a large bottle of gin. Rather, I learnt that organising your thoughts and expressing them are two separate processes. So now understand the logic behind the phrase.

Planning your writing is therefore a must-do. And in the workshop we learnt plenty of ways to plan powerful copy quickly.

One of those involved us imagining we were writing a blogpost about a cat’s jumper. We listed everything that could possibly be said about the jumper. It’s fuzzy, comfy, waterproof, stylish, durable, cheap, and so on. We then grouped these into clear categories: appearance, benefits and information. And, boom, there was the structure for the post.

And that’s why the planning techniques are one of my favourite things I learnt. Because they mean that by the time you’re done thinking, the writing’s already halfway there.

So that’s my five

I really could go on. I haven’t told you about writing instructions for cheese on toast in the style of Nigella or Jamie. Or how to persuade using the power of the expert. You still don’t know what PECS and CIGAR mean. And I didn’t even mention lunch.

We all came away from the workshop bursting with fresh ideas, and with our persuasive pencils sharped.

More than anything, the workshop showed me the art of good writing and the science behind it. When done well, it works a charm and looks oh so easy. You think ‘huh, I could that’. You couldn’t. But after an A Thousand Monkeys workshop, you’ll be a hell of a lot closer.

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This post was written by Meg Dickson