7 problems with texts that make potential customers go elsewhere

Have you ever clicked away from a website because the text was hard to understand or poorly written?

Many businesses spend a lot of time and money on their visual branding, but some forget that the message that they communicate through the text on their site is equally, if not more important. Here are some important questions to ask before hitting “publish” on a text:

1. Has the text been checked?

Some things are easy to fix – the mistakes came about because the person just didn’t check their work. I’ve seen plenty of hurried out-of-office responses that say things like “I’ll be back in the office on 219th August”, or references to the month of Julyne, because it was originally June, but the extra letters weren’t taken away. I’ve also seen things that have clearly got through the spell-check, such as “click here to sign up for the curse” (not course), and even “lick here” instead of click here. Reading the text through once more could have prevented these errors. There’s no point spending ages on a text if you don’t give it one final read before publishing it!

2. Was the writer too familiar with the text?

This often happens with longer texts. In English, we say “you can’t see the wood for the trees”. If you’ve been working on something for a long time and you’ve read the text over and over again, sometimes you just don’t see the mistakes. Then it can help to have a fresh pair of eyes to look over the text and spot any mistakes that you have missed.

3. Was an automatic translation tool used?

I’m in Amsterdam as I write this and I have used Google translate on occasions when I couldn’t work out what something was on a restaurant menu. That’s fine. But I’d never use it for a text on my website or a message to someone. I’d argue that if a company has used an automatic translation for the English version of its site, it would be better not to have an English version at all, or to have less information in better English. However good the content was originally, bad automatic translations are a massive turn-off and they don’t convey the message that the company is professional or trustworthy.

4. Did the translation follow the original text too closely?

Sometimes you can tell that someone has really tried. They didn’t go to Google translate, but they tried to translate the original text word for word, so the English translation sounds a bit strange. Maybe the sentence structure isn’t right. Maybe idioms have been translated that don’t make sense in English. Maybe new words have been created. For example, German is full of compound nouns that we don’t have in English, so you can’t just string a load of nouns together and get the same meaning across.

Sometimes the differences are more subtle – there are cases in English where we would use active sentences, whereas in German, it would be fine for the sentences to be in the passive voice. Sometimes we use verbs, whereas the German text uses nouns. If you’re aware of these differences, it’s easier to spot them and make sure that they don’t interrupt the flow of your text.

5. Is the Choice of language right?

Most people understand that they need to know whom the text is for and what language would be appropriate for the audience. The problem is that sometimes it’s harder to get this right in another language. I’ve seen formal texts sprinkled with slang terms that are usually reserved for friends, and more chatty texts peppered with words that have obviously come straight from the dictionary and which most people wouldn’t understand. Neither of these texts succeed in creating a good impression – the first one looks unprofessional and the second one confuses people.

6. Is the text culturally appropriate?

This is more relevant for companies that are writing for an English market than those who are using English as an international way to communicate. If you’re writing for an English audience, you need to keep the text free of clichés and stereotypes, otherwise the reader will think “ok, this obviously isn’t for me” and leave the site. We don’t all have log fires in our homes, as I was once told, most of us don’t have time for afternoon tea on a daily basis, there are actually days when the sun shines and we don’t all eagerly follow what’s going on in the royal household. Downton Abbey is not a representation of life in England today!

On a more general note, part of being culturally appropriate is also making sure that the language is up-to-date and not past their linguistic sell-by date! There are some really good business English resources out there, but there are also ones that were good maybe 30 or 50 years ago. If people use the vocabulary in these resources, people may wonder if they’ve just come out of a time machine. This doesn’t create a good, authentic impression for the reader.

7. False friends

English words are often used in other languages, particularly those related to technology or new social media trends. However, an English speaker won’t know what a handy is, and if you say you want a beamer for your meeting, they’ll wonder why you want a BMW in the meeting room. The request for a projector will make much more sense to them. The word handicapped has been adopted into the German language, even though it’s a word that informed English people try to avoid, preferring the more objective term “disabled”. Body bags are for dead bodies, not for the living.

Those are just some examples to show why you should watch out for words that look familiar – some of them have a completely different meaning for native speakers!

How about you?

I hope that has given you some ideas and things to consider when you’re writing texts in English.

If you’d like some help, either with ongoing work or specific projects, my English good-to-go service might be what you’re looking for! In October 2016, I am offering 10 30-minute, free taster sessions, so contact me if you are interested in finding out more. One session per person, subject to availability.

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Kirsty working with students



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