Be a nudger, not a writer

Be a nudger, not a writer

The world is finally waking up to the fact that writing really can ‘nudge’ behaviour in remarkable ways

IT’S ALL over the news. The Government’s behavioural insights team (or ‘nudge unit’), run by David Halpern is chalking up some big wins. And lots of them are because of tiny tweaks they’re making in writing — to letters, emails and text messages. It’s been all over the news in the last few days: a 20 per cent increase in organ donors; an increase in police diversity; better responses to late tax payments. The list is long and impressive. The unit has been going since 2010, and initial scepticism is now turning into enthusiastic bandwagon-jumping; nudge units are now sprouting up all over the world. (The one in Guatemala has done particularly well at getting people to cough up the taxes they owe. I wonder if Greece is planning one?)

It’s brilliant that they’re having such great success, and that they’re getting the recognition for it. Those few tweaked sentences here and there have saved millions of pounds and have helped make the world a better place. The pen really is mightier than the, well, pretty much anything else Governments can throw at a problem, it turns out. As Rory Sutherland is fond of saying, most people (and governments and businesses especially) tend to automatically think that big, complex problems must need big, complex — and expensive — solutions. Finally here’s consistent evidence that it ain’t necessarily so.

And, I’ll admit, I’m a bit jealous, too. Because, well, this is exactly the sort of thing we’ve been talking about at The Writer for years. The whole idea of ‘tone of voice’ is really just about taking the idea that your words are more effective when they sound like they’re really yours and enshrining it across a whole organisation. And how that almost inevitably means that you benefit from small changes having a massively disproportionate effect. Changing your writing isn’t just ‘fluffy’, it’s transformational. Every writer you empower (which these days means everybody in your organisation) is a covert behavioural economist, a one person nudge unit.

And we’ve seen similar successes: a 5 per cent response rate leaping to a whopping 46 per cent by just changing the tone of the calls to action; six million quid saved in contact centre ‘call handling times’ by editing a single 30-second script to make it more friendly; increased employee satisfaction levels through redundancy procedures just by changing the tone of the letters… the list goes on and on.

Now, we work with big companies and smart clients. More and more companies are waking up to this and reaping the benefits. Yet still so often we’re met with blank faces or scepticism. Or more commonly, ‘tone-of-voicing’ is seen as a last minute necessity, to appease the brand people.

Yet of course, if nudge theory tells us anything, it’s that just because an idea is true or big or obvious, doesn’t mean people will naturally take notice of it.

But perhaps this surge in interest in Halpern’s team is the tipping point.

I’m going to stop saying we’re writers. I’m going to start telling everyone we’re ‘behavioural economists’ instead.

Perhaps it’s the nudge we’ve been looking for?