Improving your English language marketing documents – a guide for Chinese speakers

International Marketing

Convince started because we felt that the quality of Taiwanese marketing materials in English was very poor. It fell far short of the excellent level of engineering and manufacturing that we saw everywhere around us in Taiwan. We felt that poor international marketing reduced the profits of good companies. As part of the aim of improving the overall standard of overseas marketing I would like to look at the differences in the patterns commonly used by our clients in Taiwan and China and between native English speakers. Therefore this article is simply my observations over the past 10 years on structural differences between Chinese and English. It is intended to aid you in writing your own business and marketing documents directly in English. I hope that it will also help explain why we would never recommend using marketing documents translated from Chinese for English speaking markets.

The 6 Key points

  • Sentence length – Avoid long Chinese style sentences
  • Idiom use -Use idioms in informal documents only and less in marketing
  • Word selection- be highly aware of the importance of the right choice of words and choose the right level of formality
  • Logical thinking – Add more steps than you would in Chinese and explain logic in more detail
  • Lateral thinking- Use larger jumps of the imagination and clarify less
  • English styles- Focus on selecting the right style of English for the target market for effective communication

1. Sentence length

A common pattern used in Chinese language marketing documents is to create long continuous sentences with commas to separate each part. The intention of this is to develop a momentum and a continuous train of thought. This technique cannot be used in English for two reasons; Firstly, it’s not common in English and therefore uncomfortable to read. Secondly, due to use of words rather than characters text naturally becomes longer when translated to English. We normally estimate that translation from Chinese to English adds 50 – 60% to the length of a document. This means that a long sentence in Chinese becomes unreadably long in English. A recent press release by a major Taiwanese high-tech company opened with a 67 word sentence, I‘m sure no reader got further than that sentence. It would have been better for the writer to have reduced the sentence length and tied them together with rhetorical techniques.

2. Idiom use

It’s not so unusual for traditional idioms to be used on Chinese language webpages or in technology marketing documents as a kind of cultural short-cut. This allows writers to include values and concepts without having to explain them in detail. And it also seems that knowledge of Chinese classical idioms is used as a sign of a good education and intelligence. In English a similar effect is achieved through the selection of more formal or more specific words. But because the origins of many English idioms are trades or popular novels they don’t have the cachet that Chinese idioms retain. In other words our idioms are more slang like so we tend to use them in conversation not formal settings.

3. Word selection

When writing in Chinese we tend to switch to formal grammar words and characters as the document demands. With a million words to choose from this is true to an even greater degree in English. The selection of the correct word is a vital skill, in fields such as marketing the choice of word communicates a lot about the product. As a copywriter I spend more hours selecting the perfect word from a thesaurus (a book containing collections of words with similar meanings) than I do typing. Professional words used business English tend to be very different from the words used in conversation or academia. Conversational words or phrases like “sticks to” will immediately make a commercial B2B document sound unprofessional. But in a B2C print advertisement we might well choose informal words to create closeness. As a quick guide phrasal verbs like “look up” or “put off” are always informal. Formal vocabulary is commonly longer than informal words and must be used in a more specific way.
Remember that in English words are often chosen because they have specific connotations (feelings associated with them) or more detailed meanings, not just for their main meanings.
Let me give you an example: We could say that a cellphone made from reflective metal:

  • Shines –reflects light strongly and constantly
  • Glints –reflects light for a short time as you move it, often like a sword
  • Gleams –reflects light because it is new or clean
  • Glistens – reflects light probably because looks like it is wet
  • Shimmers – reflects light unsteadily often in a beautiful way

Or sparkles, glitters, flashes, glimmers, twinkles…
Depending on the feeling required and exact type of reflection.

4. Logical thinking

Chinese is a context based language, meaning that a lot of information is implied from the background and context that words appear in rather the requiring the recipient to be directly told. This makes it far easier to describe simple processes without needing to explain in detail each stage and allows Chinese speakers to understand the logic of the situation without needing to be told every single thing. In contrast English is quite direct, it implies relatively little and far less is taken from the context. The end result is that to appear logical when writing in English more detail and logical links need to be included, even if they seem obvious. This should be kept in mind when doing business presentations and preparing engineering reports. One of the most significant areas this affects is marketing, where it adds the burden of needing to provide more proof. If we make a cause and effect claim in our marketing document English speakers tend to be skeptical unless there is a “why the cause causes the effect” included.

5. Lateral or creative thinking

Sometimes our Chinese speaking clients in Taiwan comment that the marketing they’ve seen from international competitors seems childish or more often illogical. They don’t really understand what it’s trying to say. To know why this is you need to understand our education system.
Like most Americans and British under the age of 60 my childhood English classes often consisted of creative writing i.e. making up stories. We learned to write by having these stories corrected and got higher grades by being more creative. The rest of our class time we read and analyzing novels in which writers played with words and ideas. We were never taught to memorize and there were no other textbooks. We focused on the creative and lateral use of language, not the structured and logical. We became very comfortable making sideways jumps and "playing with ideas". You can see the results of this education in print advertisements, TV commercials, and direct mail. We understand that the message is often indirect and we’re very comfortable with interpreting the lateral thinking of creative people.
Let me give you an example of how this affects marketing in reality. A recent Volkswagen commercial from Britain showed a car salesman with a stain covered clothes reluctantly giving potential Volkswagens buyers the price of a Golf. The reason that he doesn’t want to give them the price is that he knows that they will be shocked at how good value it is and that the coffee they’re drinking will come out of their mouths in amazement. This is implied by the stained shirt and the sound of coffee being sprayed out when he tells them and we see the price. Because of the ads success in the UK it was shown in other countries including Taiwan. In Taiwan the ad flopped and was pulled, probably because there is no logical connection between the stained shirt, coffee, reluctance, and the price. The shocking affordability is a lateral jump. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R3_m__VF9E4
Does this Western love of lateral thinking matter when you prepare your own marketing material? Yes, because without it your marketing will seem bland, dull, and lifeless, so you’ll have a far harder job of getting noticed amongst your competitors.

6. English styles

This observation is less on the difference between Chinese and English, and more to do with the differences between English language marketing material from Asian companies and that from countries that use English as a native language. I think that it’s quite fair to say that the English marketing documents coming from many companies in the Pacific tend to be very poor at altering the language style to efficiently get their message to target customers. This is maybe because people are writing in a foreign language or because of time pressures, I wonder if it is also because cultures in home markets are more homogenized.
After so many years with business focused on marketing to us western purchasers have become highly tuned to and skeptical of marketers. So that they pay greater attention to the content of marketing material for example a brochure that makes claims quality, but has language errors will be met with sneers and low order levels.
You also need to consider national differences in the language patterns used in marketing. The American marketing style tends to be bold and direct, in Britain you’ll find a lot of humor used even in B2B marketing material, and in Australia there is an undertone of informal equality. Even though it’s in the same language, the material you would write for an American market must be very different from that for India, Britain or Australia. Using a strong American B2C tone in the Indian market would likely turn consumers away from the product. Or using the British style in a press release in America would appear weak. Good quality English in the right style for the target market will always improve response levels and be more effective at communicating your marketing message. If your material does have to be used globally then the best you can do is to bias the writing style towards your key markets.

Conclusion

I hope you’ve found this article useful and that it’s given you a few things to think about when writing your English marketing and business documents. Both Chinese and English are beautiful, but they are very different languages. We understand how hard this makes it when preparing high quality marketing documents. I hope that it will also help you understand why your overseas employees, customers, and dealers complain about the use of translated material. To get effective English language copywriting that raises sales and is actually written in English contact Convince on 03-5453418 or service@we-convince.com