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Our last post dealt with bulk, unsolicited – i.e., SPAM – messages pretending to be from banks. Since then, I have come across an additional form of SPAM that is relevant to my interest in plain language: that which claims to be from individuals we know, and which comes to us ‘from’ them via their mail or Twitter account.
These new examples show that just because something’s plain, doesn’t mean we trust it. Other elements always come into play in how we receive the message.
A fish of a different odour…
Both messages resulted from someone hacking into those real people’s actual accounts, then pretending to be that person. So they looked to actually be from an individual I know, not a faceless sender in a large company.
Both are from colleagues in other cities: people I have not yet met in-person, but whom I know from years as fellow plain-language practitioners. I’ve written to both of these folks several times over the years, and participated with them on discussion groups. So, I know how they sound when they ‘talk’ online.
So when I saw the notes ‘from’ them this past week, I knew something was up. They were both clear, so no problem understanding them. They both used short words and a conversational tone. Again, totally plain language.
But what made me smell fish was the tone of voice and choice of words each of them used.
Message #1: The ‘help me get back home’ scam
The first, much longer message was ‘from’ one of them who lives about five hours away. Except it said she was out of the country, and that she had been mugged. She was writing me because, left with no way to get back home, she was hoping I would wire her some money … okay, you already see the commonality between this and other SPAM notices.
But before I even got to the request for money, I already sensed it was a bogus message. First, the context was all wrong. I’d only expect to get a longish message from this person if it was about our mutual work in our professional association. The other thing that tipped me off was the first line, which said ‘How are you doing today? I know this might surprise you, I apologize for not informing you about my travel to England for a Conference…’
Knowing this person in the professional capacity – and knowing her to be an excellent writer – I wouldn’t have expected her to sound like this. Clear and direct or not – I knew I couldn’t trust the message to be authentic; the first few lines sounded ‘canned.’
Message #2: The ‘someone’s saying stuff about you’ lure
The other message was shorter, and sent to me via Twitter. It was from an Australian colleague this time, one with whom I’ve corresponded over the past month or so. It was a direct message to me that said ‘Someone has been spreading rumors about you’ and gave a TinyUrl link.
Again, it looks like a normal tweet, and its meaning is crystal clear. But it still smells like fish. Again, the tone is all wrong for the context. (I was also surprised to see an Aussie spelling ‘rumor’ without a ‘u’ – but that’s a fiddly editor’s matter most normal readers might not notice.) So I did not click the link.
In both cases, even though the message had come directly from these people, I emailed both right away and learned that their email and Twitter accounts had indeed been hacked into.
The point of regurgitating even more SPAM (and of mixing canned meat with smelly fish metaphors) …?
Plain language writers sometimes need to counter the common perception that ‘plain language’ means a ‘dumbed down’ form of language that most people would find patronizing, because it boils the subtleties and beauty of language into monotonous-sounding, Dick and Jane-style narratives.
These two examples struck me in how they were so clear and direct – in fact, overly so – and it was because they didn’t fit with either the senders’ typical tone of voice or the context of my relationship with them that I knew they were fakes.
And similarly, our readers won’t trust what we write if it still does not sound authentic. And, if it doesn’t sound authentic, then it was not truly written with the reader’s needs in mind.
True plain language writing only does its job of communicating effectively if it also captures the human element with the right tone, context and choice of words. Thus, it embodies much more than short words and sentences.
In arguing for why good writing is important to help a company seem credible and trustworthy, it’s often useful to look at the opposite of good writing – and SPAM messages are rife with this!
What’s interesting in the case of notices proporting to be from financial institutions is that it’s clear that the writers are using a voice that tries to sound very official and serious … just like they think a bank would sound. But the stand-out errors in them start to chip away at that vaneer pretty efficiently.
Even people who don’t edit people’s writing for a living will pick up on even minor gaffes and start to feel less invested in a message that was unsolicited to start with (and which may not even be from a bank we actually deal with).
To illustrate, here are three of the most odorous SPAM messages that have landed in my Inbox lately (well, of those I actually bothered to open and read …). Included are < my notes in carets > on just what makes them so pungent:
SPAM Message #1
This is an Alert to help manage your online banking access. < the alert is so important that they’ve capitalized it! >
Dear Bank Of Montreal customer < The bank must be important if they spell the word ‘of’ with a capital O >,
Bank Of Montreal Online Security has been receiving complaints from our customers for < complaints for? > unauthorised uses of Online Banking Accounts. As a result we are temporarily shutting down some selected Bank Of Montreal Online Accounts perceived vulnerable to this, pending till the time we carry out proper verification by the account owner < ‘pending till’? >. Bank Of Montreal is committed to ensure the safeguard of each customer personal information, making sure only authorised individuals have access to their accounts. <Whoa, you can tell this one was not written by an English speaker. >
As a first step to have Your < I must be divine, since they’ve used a capital Y >Bank Of Montreal Online Access reactivated please verify your identity by using the link provided below:
http://www.bmo.com/fraud.prevention/account/verification < This link actually takes you to one starting with ‘amourtoujours.net’ >
These instructions are sent to and should be followed by all Bank Of Montreal clients,to avoid service deactivation after the verification is completed < ‘are sent to and should be followed’ – nice use of the passive, and those nice mega-nouns ‘deactivation’ and ‘reactivation’ all in one sentence! >. We apologise for any inconveniences and thank you for your cooperation. . < Oops, they’ve left an extra period here! And don’t we spell it ‘apologize’ in Canada? >
Customers Support Service. <Well, they do support multiple people … >
SPAM Message #2
Dear Bank Of Montreal Customer:
BMO Bank Of Montreal is hereby announcing the New Security Upgrade. < Sound the trumpets! They’ve announced the Upgrade! >
We’ve upgraded our new SSL servers to serve our customers for a better and secure internet banking service < Was it not secure before …? >.
It is very important that you update your account information & other personal information < I’m not sure I’d give any personal info to someone using an ampersand to preface it >, please follow the link below to update your account then ‘Sign In’ to submit your request.
Click Here To Update Your Account < When you hover your mouse, it shows the URL: <http://autozap99.ru/… >
100% Online Banking Guarantee < also links to a bogus URL >
Bank Of Montreal
© 2011 offered by BMO Bank Of Montreal, N.A.
< Well, it must be a professional message if they’ve copyrighted it! >
SPAM Message #3
From: C.I.B.C. – Accounting Services [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Subject: CIBC Business Banking – Statement Summary Report – ’03/01/2012′
< Don’t they know how to spell their own name? >
DEAR CIBC BUSINESS BANKING CUSTOMER < Great, now they’re shouting at me. >
Kindly download the attachment to view your new account summary and confirm recent transactions on your account. < Nothing about why would I do this …?>
CIBC Financial Services < Wait, I thought the message was from Accounting Services. >
As this e-mail is an automated message, do not reply to this email.
No virus found in this message.
Checked by AVG – www.avg.com
Version: 2012.0.1901 / Virus Database: 2109/4742 – Release Date…
< Well, nice to know they’ve gone through the trouble of scanning this message before sending it. They must be trustworthy – look at all that technical info! >
So what’s my point?
We all have laughed about the awful SPAMs we’ve received. But they hold some very good lessons about how we can miss with our own customers if we’re not careful: with inconsistent spellings, bad punctuation, incomplete or uneven information, a tone and flow that doesn’t sound natural . . . the list goes on.
It’s something to think about the next time you’re writing an important message on behalf of your business.
While the above examples use the names of two major Canadian banks, I only leave them in because some of the errors have to do with using those brand names incorrectly or inconsistently.
Had those messages actually come from actual financial institutions (FIs), they would no doubt have been much better-written. And as fraud-prevention folks always say, a legitimate FI won’t contact its customers by broadcast email anyway.
Our last post showed one of the hall-of-fame worst sets of instructions I’ve seen, in terms of their design.
A few days later, I picked up a set that had quite the opposite effect. So it seems only fair to share a really good one, too, especially since it’s likely to be read by the same audience: parents of children ages 7+.
What makes these so helpful?
While they still come in a pretty small package, these ones
- are easy to read and navigate, due to the clean typeface and large-enough type
- have clear visuals to help you picture what playing the game looks like, and
- use good subheads that help you recognize natural changes in topic, some of which contain more engaging calls to action (‘Let’s play,’ ‘You should have:’).
You can tell that this company takes the effort to ensure that their instructions make sense to befuddled parents like me, who can only get the straight dope on how to play without cheating if they read the instructions. You see, my daughter has her own version of some games, with rules that seem to evolve as she begins to fare worse in the game.
But then, you’ve got to watch out for those times she gets a hold of the instructions themselves. Despite how well-written this little booklet is, I’m still not completely sure I am playing correctly, since she’s clearly following in her mom’s editor footsteps … see for yourself:
The instructions below came with an mp3 player my daughter received for Christmas.
Look at the words in relation to my hand. How close to your face do you think you’d need to hold this, to be able to read it?
The designers might be thinking that only people under 20 need to read instructions for these products. Or, maybe their priority was getting them to fit into the tiny package the player came in.
Either way, they’ve clearly forgotten that most of their customers are probably grandparents or parents of younger kids (who got the cheaper model ’cause they were worried the kids would break the higher-end one).
Maybe it’s too late to still be referring to the holidays, but packaging below was from a couple of our kids’ Chanukah gifts – and it sure is funny:
Our household continues to recover from a flu-and fatigue-ridden holiday, so these examples somewhat reflect the depth of my own communications skills at the moment.
You may also notice that the sizes and alignment of our images lately seem a bit wonky. It may just be time for a new (read: for-a-fee) blog platform for SimplyRead – or at least to get up-to-date already on the WordPress interface upgrade.
We look forward to sharing info of greater substance soon, so please do keep us in your bookmarks while we continue to work out the kinks.
It popped up in my Inbox again today. But this time, the salutation read: “Dear Black.”
If my credentials were that impressive, I’m thinking they’d have at least have gotten my name right by now, no?
Happy Friday – and if you’re in Canada like me, have a happy Thanksgiving!
Take a break from your workday to come Celebrate and learn about plain language, during the first-ever International Plain Language Day, Thursday October 13! Join me and other clear-minded folks for an informal beverage and discussion, at the INGDirect Cafe at 111 Gordon Baker Road (Finch and 404 area).
My father-in-law, who works in real estate, is fond of quoting something he’s often heard from people he’s worked with during his 40+ years in the business (Imagine a thick Italian accent):
“Don’t worry. Just order the concrete.”
I’m led to think of this statement when I think of an e-mail I’ve received a few times recently. I only realized that it was junk mail after reading through the whole thing because – unlike most such messages – it used simple and correct spelling and grammar, spoke to me, flowed well, and had no strange or distracting formatting. In other words, a decently-written, positive-sounding note.
I didn’t recognize the sender, but that isn’t always a barrier, since I do after all hope to hear from interested new clients from time to time.
But it became clear once I had that this was a “boilerplate” broadcast message. Why? It was its abstract, unspecific nature of the message that tipped me off that this was a form letter destined for a huge group of people…and which intended to flatter us into responding.
Read for yourself and see what you think:
“Hello%%FirstName%%, (Yes, they even forgot to insert my name!)
I’d love the opportunity to talk to you about your resume! Your credentials are very impressive, your background and track record closely resemble some other highly successful individuals. We have worked with many such professionals and helped them realize their dreams to become successful entrepreneurs. Based on your resume, I can see that you are quite accomplished in your field and may welcome the chance to apply your expertise in a more entrepreneurial setting.
Recession has touched us all, but some industries have turned it into a business growth opportunity. Franchising is one industry where success, profitability and economic stability have actually made incremental strides. My role is to carefully select and personally invite qualified individuals to explore franchising in all its potential and you fit the profile.
With your background in management and leadership positions adding weight to your credentials, I am confident that you are likely a great fit.”
Do you see why I call it ‘abstract’ and ‘unspecific’?
There’s nothing here that says what I’ve specifically done, or what my “field” is. And there are no concrete examples, numbers or other details to back up their claim about the success of the franchising industry or their stake in it: just a stack of conceptual puffery in the holy trinity of “success, profitability and economic stability.”
In other words, the message could really benefit from an order of concrete.
The writer might indeed be from a legitimate business and be writing for the the reasons they say…or they could be aiming to scam me or phish my information, using flattery to lure me in. Either way, I won’t be taking the time to find out.