Setting the Standard: An Interview With Standard Life’s Senior Copywriter Ewan Ashford

Copylab founder Ross Hunter met up with Ewan Ashford, an ex-writing colleague from their days together at the Pru and now a Senior Copywriter at Standard Life. They talked tone of voice, style guides and being a language ambassador in a big company.

Ewan
When Standard Life launched its new ‘Frank and Supportive’ tone of voice in 2011, the company wanted to talk with a fresh voice to customers who had become disengaged from the long-term savings market.

As is often the way with such developments, the project was first launched in the marketing department, and focused on improving marketing communications, brochures, websites and sales materials.

But there are dozens, if not hundreds, of people across Standard Life who write – not just for customers and advisers, but also their colleagues internally. And when it came to encouraging internal communicators to write with the ‘Frank and Supportive’ voice, it didn’t come naturally.

Frank and Supportive in 30 seconds: start with a short, bold sentence that gets your point across with impact; follow up with explanatory copy that explains your point in greater detail, but still uses language that helps readers’ understanding.

As Standard Life’s Senior Copywriter Ewan Ashford put it, “Some people were worried, understandably, that writing this way would come across as artificial or fake.”

Ewan and his teammate Paul Carter run workshops for writers in departments as varied as finance and customer service – even the teams that write the company’s annual report. So where did they start?

Ewan said, “We started with some basic principles: the elements of plain English – short sentences and simple word choices. And then overlaid ‘Frank and Supportive’. Effectively, our use of ‘Frank and Supportive’ is really the personality that gives life to plain English and makes Standard Life stand out.”

“I show people at our workshops the Standard Life logo in varying degrees of distress. I ask them if they would do that to our logo and, when they reply ‘no’, ask them why they would treat their copy in the same way. That’s the ‘ah’ moment.”

“We then give the writers the toolkit they need to put it into practice. We get them to think about what they want to write – before they start putting pen to paper. So we encourage them to think about what they write in the context of three things:

  • purpose (and call to action)
  • application (which media) and
  • personality (who am I writing as?)”

Ewan finds that by getting writers to think about two of these aspects, they can often change their mind on the third. For example, by thinking about the purpose of the document and the personality, writers sometimes reconsider their choice of media for the communication.

Ewan says, “This preparation is key. By investing some time in thinking and planning up front, we’re finding our writers are ‘baking in’ some good work that delivers several positives: better first drafts; fewer changes; happier clients; and happier writers.”

We’ve all still got P plates

Ewan sometimes finds that people are reluctant to receive training on writing. ‘Everyone can write, right’, so the saying goes. But Ewan has a nice analogy.

“I tell people: writing’s like driving. You pass your test but it doesn’t make you a great driver straight away – you’re always learning. I’m always learning and I’ve been doing this for years! It’s a lifetime of improving and wanting to be the best writer you can be.”

That seems to work with a lot of people. And it makes them more open to learning and receptive to Ewan’s ideas.

It’s all in the detail – building a style guide

Ewan and his team-mate Paul wanted to make sure all the people writing in Standard Life had the right tools at their disposal. Even when it came down to deciding on a style guide to govern grammar and punctuation, they went the extra mile.

“We could’ve just picked a respected style guide like the Economist or Oxford. But we decided to build our own. And I think we did it in a unique way.

“We picked three style guides off the shelf: Oxford for a traditional point of view; the Guardian for a contemporary perspective; and Yahoo! for a digital guide. Then, for each aspect of grammar and punctuation, we considered the views of all three and overlaid our tone of voice to decide what fitted best with our brand personality.”

Was this overkill? Ewan doesn’t think so.

“For one thing, it was a robust methodology and it left us with a style guide that is truly ours. Also, it showed everyone in the business that we’d ‘earned the knowledge’ behind each rule rather than just saying ‘we’ll pick that one’. I wanted a style guide that would give other writers the confidence to use it, knowing it complements our brand personality.”

Three years on from that first iteration, Ewan and Paul have reviewed the style guide twice to make sure it stays relevant. They’ve replaced the traditional Oxford guide with the Chicago Manual of Style, and replaced the contemporary Guardian guide with that of Apple.

Ewan and Paul’s quest for writing perfection in Standard Life goes on. In addition to their workshops, they’re building out their toolkit. They work with their colleagues all the time, effectively acting as a writing helpline for Standard Life’s army of communicators. And they write a regular writing and language blog that is shared across the company. Responding to the regular requests they get for advice on certain topics, they’ve written blog posts as varied as ‘a guide to effective writing’ and ‘how to use bullet points’.

“I tell people: writing’s like driving. You pass your test but it doesn’t make you a great driver straight away – you’re always learning. I’m always learning and I’ve been doing this for years! It’s a lifetime of improving and wanting to be the best writer you can be.”

The benefits of the Standard Life approach are evident. Ewan speaks passionately about a growing confidence among the communications teams across the business. And from a customer’s perspective, the work they’re doing has resulted in a distinct tone of voice that is far more consistent across their various media and channels than ever before. Of course, with such a huge business producing thousands of documents every year, this will always be a work in progress. But they’ve clearly taken a big step in the right direction.

We’ll leave the last word to Ewan.

“I show people at our workshops the Standard Life logo in varying degrees of distress. I ask them if they would do that to our logo and, when they reply ‘no’, ask them why they would treat their copy in the same way. That’s the ‘ah’ moment.

“This is the moment when the light goes on, and you’ve got them hooked. It’s then a matter of giving them the toolkit and, vitally, the confidence to write for Standard Life.”

We think it’s great that big companies like Standard Life are committed to better communications. And it’s pretty clear to me their approach to language and writing is anything but standard.