Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Sleeping Pill

I wrote this for a column that never got published. Two years ago! In line with all my writing some how finding its way into this blog I shall be featuring my column articles from time to time.

I recently received an offer to buy doodles. Doodles, I ask you! To personalise my sales letters. The one selling these doodles had found a way to commoditise his doodles so that each sales letter looked like it had been written over. So that it had “personality”. And seemed warm and friendly.

…anything you can do to make your copy look more personal couldn't help but build rapport between you and your prospects, increasing the level of readership and response.
One of the most striking and effective ways to create these effects is to mess up your copy with hand written notes, scrawls, doodles, and drawings. Done right, these attention grabbers can dramatically increase your sales, especially on the web, where people are conditioned to scan, skip, and scroll.

Of course, this came from one of my many US-based mailing lists.

It never ceases to amaze me the lengths that these people will go to be up close and personal with customers. Even in something as boring and generic as a sales letter.

Of course there was no way I could use these doodles.

Not here.

Not now.

Not yet.

I checked my office inbox and sure enough, there was a letter from one of our department heads. He needed me to edit it and “warm it up”. But just a little. Not too much. Not an over-the-top warming up that would turn it from a serious document into an adolescent ramble.

I sighed as I tackled the task, changing a word here and a word there, but generally maintaining the tone of the boring letter. Good day. Allow me to introduce myself. I’m so-and-so company. I offer such-and-such product. Zzzzzzzz. Oops, sorry, must have dozed off.

I grinned as I wondered how the head of department would have taken to me adding doodles to his very serious, very important, and extremely boring (though trying not to be) letter.

Luckily most CEOs are not like me. If a person bores me, I make my excuses and walk away. If a letter or email bores me, I toss it into the bin, or delete, delete, delete. Malaysian CEOs, on the other hand, probably read these potent (anything but) charged-up missives (or at least, get their secretaries to read them) and accord them due attention.

A friend told me over a roti canai at Anggerik that they were now doing seminars about adding heart to the Malaysian corporate sector. I looked at her in surprise. Adding heart?

“You mean warming it up?”

“Adding heart, Jenn, adding heart,” she said.

As they say on that ad on Astro, way to go Captain Obvious! But I was pleasantly surprised that the Malaysian corporate sector had actually recognized that it needed heart. It reminded me of Singapore’s then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong giving a speech in which he said Singaporeans were boring and they needed to learn how to have fun. What insight!

As they say in all good twelve-step groups, the first thing is to recognize you actually have a problem. The second thing, of course, is to form committees with impossibly serious and boring names (i.e. The Committee for figuring out how you’re going to tackle said problem and the implications of not figuring out how to tackle said problem and the possible impact on our GDP).

I have a theory (but of course, what would life be without theories, conspiracy or otherwise?). I think our ability to bore the recipient to tears when we put pen to paper (or more accurately, fingers to keyboard) comes from a lack of confidence.

We go out of our way not to sound like our natural selves, because we think our natural selves are unimpressive. So we throw in vague words with plenty of syllables which are probably Latin in origin to impress the heck out of our readers. The less the reader understands our letter, we figure, the more impressed she’ll be.

We go out of our way to sound like a management consultant report, you know the kind that large companies fork out millions of ringgit for?

So what do we do about it?

For starters, I think we need our own vesion of the American doodles. It wouldn’t feel natural to us to employ doodles, but what we do have, homegrown, no less, is Manglish. Never heard of Manglish because you speak perfect English? Just pepper your letter with the occasional “lah” and “ah”. Maybe end a sentence with “izzit” or “izzenit”. If you’re interested Kit Lee has a whole Manglish dictionary which is available on the net.

And maybe can avoid passive constructions (it’s so lame) and write in the active. I killed her. Rather than, she was killed by me.

And to further Malaysianise it, maybe we could reference Lat cartoons (in lieu of Gary Larson). Tell you what, here’s an idea – maybe someone can design the Malaysian version of doodles and smiley faces and make a killing on the stock market when they take their company public. They can call it Whateverlah Sdn Bhd.

Just a thought.

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