So there I was, all set to read and review a book subtitled ‘How to write powerfully for business’. A handbook, I assumed. Another toolkit for my desk, I imagined.
Then it dropped through the letterbox flaunting a Scandi-noir monochrome cover and, on the reverse, a plug for the thrillingly-named Dark Angels Trilogy – of which this book is the first instalment.
Goodness. Perhaps this isn’t going to be quite what I expected…
We, me, them & it was first published in 2000 “to great acclaim”. Its author, John Simmons, is an expert in helping brands to communicate with their audiences more effectively. He was a pioneer of corporate ‘tone of voice’; a bread-and-butter concept for today’s copywriters, but one that was still gathering traction when this book was in its first edition.
The book comprises four chapters sandwiched between the Introduction and Finale. The chapters discuss each of Simmons’ ingredients of good brand writing:
- Me – the individualism and personality we can each bring to writing
- We – the tone of voice of the organisation for which we are writing
- Them – understanding the audience for which our words are intended
- It – the way the message is communicated.
Unlike straight-laced copywriting books – whose authors are often essentially invisible – the ‘me’ within We, me, them & it is ever present. I don’t mean that Simmons comes across as an egoist, but that this book is almost a memoir; brimming with personality. The chapters are filled with his stories and experiences, including a fascinating 20-page autobiographical letter that he wrote to his children.
He includes several in-depth case studies from his career and leads the reader on an eccentric, twisting journey through his utter joy of words and stories – including his obsession with literary first lines.
But words and pictures alone don’t satisfy Simmons’ immersive style. The book employs quirky layouts and wordplay to illustrate the author’s ideas. As Simmons explains in the Foreword: ‘I tried to set out the message in a way that lives up to…the diversity of life, encompassing emotions of all kinds, using humour and imagery…’
This didn’t really work for me. I found myself having to read sections over and over to make sense of them and, at times, it felt like I was trapped in a game of Dingbats. This was particularly frustrating in the first couple of chapters, before I synchronised with Simmons’ style. However, when I tested my first impressions with a second reading, I did find it flowed more easily (or I flowed more easily with it).
Of course, challenging your reader is no bad thing, but if you’ve picked up this book for instruction about how to be a better copywriter, you may find it as frustrating as I did the first time around.
It’s telling that the testimonials on the back cover are from high-flyers of business and banking, who may enjoy the big ideas but don’t want the detail of how to get the job done day-to-day.
In summary, We, me, them & it is an eccentric, entertaining and thoughtful thesis on Simmons’ contemporary approach to transforming brand communications.
For me, the content was good, but let down by the over-worked layout (and some occasionally sloppy proofreading).
And while it’s not a book I’ll be dipping into regularly for professional tips, it has left me with some slow-burning nuggets of inspiration that I’m sure will find their way into my work.