Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Teasing out a sale

It wasn't the best way to start the day. As I drove down one of Leicester's main arterial roads, I passed an ad for the Leicester Mercury which asked the question: 'Why did city vote Labour?'

The ad took the form of what we call a bill - the A2-sized posters that you see outside newsagents.

This particular bill reminded me of some training I did back in the days when reporters still used typewriters and the only computer in the building was the size of a room and had less memory than my iPhone! We were looking at how easy it is to write meaning one thing, only for readers to see something completely different. The example we were given was this:
Clearly intended to conjure up a picture of disaster at sea, I still can't see the words without imagining a giant of the jolly green variety happily waving down the funnel! It's easy to see at least four meanings of this single bill and I don't doubt there will be those who see many more.

I knew the story behind our bill this morning - our political correspondent Martin Robinson had been looking at why it was that Leicester bucked the national trend in the Euro elections, giving Labour an increased share of the vote in the city at a time when their share elsewhere had fallen significantly. (We concluded that the main reason was that at the last election something like 7,000 Labour supporters in Leicester had voted for the anti-war Respect party, which didn't put up a candidate this time round, leaving the voters to return to Labour).

My problem with the bill was that I read it as if it was castigating Leicester for voting Labour, as if we thought the voters had done something wrong. It might have been a question we would have asked if the BNP had won the vote.

May be I was looking for it because I hadn't liked one of the bills we wrote the day before which read:
I was definitely looking for that one because I'd seen someone laughing at it on Twiterfall, the live feed of tweets from Twitter that I have running in the background on my PC picking up every time somebody says anything about Leicester. The tweeter had a fair point - it's hardly headline news and, worse still, it was difficult to see how it could possibly sell us any papers ... which after all is the purpose of the bills. We're looking to catch the eye of a passer-by, to persuade the casual buyer.

Talking of Twitter, those who use that particular social medium will know just how difficult it can be to get your message across in 140 characters or less - bill writing is a skill that requires you to sell a newspaper in 20 or 30 characters and that's not always easy.

I mentioned that I had been trained in bill writing and in April of this year I did write to the relevant staff at the Mercury with a copy of a training document based on work by Peter Sands, a well-known editorial coach.

That included such tips as:
  • Headlines tell it, bills sell it. They are not the same.
  • Will it sell? If not, find something else. Poor bills drive sales away.
... and my personal favourite:
  • Tease the reader. Don't give away the whole story. 'The bill is like the bikini; what it reveals is provocative; what it conceals is vital' - former Sunday Times editor, Harold Evans.
Clearly, bill writing has not been our top priority, but we spent a bit of time talking about it today and, hopefully, while they might not cause as much amusement from tomorrow, our bills might sell a few extra papers.


  1. The "Poorly Boy Sees Pope" bill caught my attention earlier in the week, although for the choice of language rather than the content. I thought "poorly" was an "interesting" choice - exactly what demographic were you going for with that?

  2. You also had a classic "Tsunami kills local man" headline yesterday - "Bank to close C&G branch in Leicester", as if Leicester was being singled out for special treatment.


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