A company recently asked me to review one of their proposals.
I quickly realised they had made the common mistake of talking too much about themselves and their proposition, and too little about its impact on the beneficiary.
So, I used the “find” function in word, and discovered that their 22-page document contained:
Not customer-focused… in what was supposed to be a customer-focused document.
It took me under 20 seconds to find this out. Their response: “We’re devastated. We had no idea. We’ll never write like this again.”
And they haven’t.
How many techniques are there that can change you forever and in only 20 seconds?
Here are examples of what you can search for using “find”:
If your searches uncover things you don’t like, the solutions are straight-forward:
This is one of those tips that you might feel you don’t need. But my customer didn’t think they needed it either. And since it only takes 20 seconds to do, it’s worth trying. You never know what you’ll find.
Choose a document that is complete/near completion. Search for the words that will show you what you need to know about your content. Make the changes you need to transform its impact.
Andy Bounds is a communications expert, speaker and the author of The Snowball Effect: Communication Techniques to Make You Unstoppable. You can sign up for his free weekly tips here.
The golden rules of writing apply whether you are writing a novel or a blog. Your purpose should be to get the reader’s attention and keep it. You want them to go away with a clear understanding of your core message and ideally, be so impressed that they spread the word about what you’ve said.
The recent death of crime writer Elmore Leonard — known as the writer’s writer — has put the spotlight on his significant contribution to the world of fiction and film. His 45 novels — he was writing his 46th when he died — include many titles made familiar on the big screen, such as Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Rum Punch (which was filmed as Jackie Brown by Quentin Tarantino).
Leonard shared his golden rules in an essay on writing. George Orwell did the same. Stephen King wrote a brilliant book called On Writing. So what can these great fiction writers teach us about writing marketing copy?
Elmore Leonard said “never open a book with weather”. In other words, avoid unnecessary scene-setting. So if you are writing a blog, make a bold statement at the top and then expand on it and back it up. On your website, highlight what you offer before you go into the history of your firm.
It’s good practice to wait before you send or publish something online. Read your writing back a few hours later and delete anything that deviates from your main message.
George Orwell said: “Never use a long word where a short one will do. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” These are wise words.
Leonard, King and Orwell also agree — adverbs are the work of the devil and dialogue should always carry the word “said”. In the world of fiction, that means avoiding phrases such as “he admonished gravely”.
What can this teach us about copywriting? Use simple language to make your points clearly. Short sentences are better than long ones. The simplest words are the most powerful. Verbal trickery is a distraction.
Leonard said: “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.” And, for good measure, he added: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip”.
Stephen King put it another way. He said: “Kill your darlings”.
It’s tempting, when you are writing a blog or white paper, to include all your knowledge and expertise. There’s so much you want to say. One way to avoid unnecessary rambling, is to think of your blog or white paper as a story and cut out anything that detracts from the plot.
Leonard said: “Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose." He also said: “Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.”
Orwell said: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”
The message is clear — avoid clichés and jargon. Cliches cause readers to disengage. They skim over these familiar but ultimately meaningless phrases and before you know it, you’ve lost them.
Jargon is another no-no. Sure, every industry has its acronyms and technical terms. But make life easier on your readers. No matter how clued up they are, write in plain English. And don’t forget, your in-house terminology may not be at all familiar to your customers.
Leonard said: “Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.”
You’re not writing an epic novel — so I would avoid exclamation marks altogether. They are a clumsy way to flag up a joke or any strong statement. It’s a bit like saying “ta da” after you’ve spoken. F Scott Fitzgerald said it was like laughing at your own joke. According to the BBC, there's a word for it — bangorrhea.
Above all, exclamation marks distract the reader. The same goes for the practice of adding quote marks to "unusual words" — much better to change the words and drop the quote marks. Similarly, avoid capitals as much as you can. Giving Some Phrases Initial Capitals is another major distraction for readers.
Happily for anyone that writes marketing and sales copy online, there are lots of additional ways to make your messages stand out — ways that novelists may not use.
Headings, sub-headings and bullet points attract readers and allow them to find their way around your writing. Summaries, handy hints, useful links, images and infographics support your messages. And social media, SEO and email give your writing rocket fuel to reach the widest possible audience.
Content marketing has become so powerful today that you can’t afford to miss a trick.
Why does good writing on websites resonate? Often writing strikes a chord because the writer seems to encapsulate something you were already thinking. They capture an idea that was swirling around in your mind, and they skewer it perfectly. That’s it, you think! That’s what I meant to say! That’s what I need to do!
The intimacy that this kind of resonance creates is powerful. We trust people that understand us and share our view of the world. We want to get closer to them.
So how do these writers do it? What’s the secret for writing so it feels like a one-to-one conversation?
Sadly there is no magic formula, but there are some techniques you can learn which will give your writing more power, and make more people feel that you are genuinely talking to them.
Picture someone you know well — a client you’ve been working with, a colleague you know inside out — and tailor your writing precisely for them. This act of visualisation will set the right tone. You want writing that feels like a conversation, not a lecture.
Don’t tackle too broad a subject. It’s better to be deep than wide. You worry that fewer people will read it? Perhaps, but it means that the people who do choose to read it are already in the zone. Your niche headline will pull in the right readers, who in turn are more likely to share it with their circles of like-minded contacts. Try and be everything to everyone and you end up pleasing no one.
There’s nothing like a spot of confession to make people feel more inclined to warm to you. I’m not suggesting you fill your business blogs with your deepest darkest fears, but revealing something of yourself instantly makes your writing feel more intimate. If you want to see this done brilliantly, sign up to Chris Brogan’s newsletters. He’s the master of copy that feels like it’s written just for you.
Don’t be afraid to tackle difficult subjects. Some of the strongest writing touches us deeply because it taps into things we’re not even admitting to ourselves that we’re thinking. It’s a cliché to ask clients what keeps them awake at night, but writing that addresses those issues in a helpful way demonstrates that you understand, and will be welcomed.
If you know your clients well, you’ll know precisely what it is that they’re searching for, and you can provide the answers or guidance that will help. The right article, at the right time, creates that buzzy serendipitous feeling that gives your writing power.
We write a lot about the need to talk about your business in a way that’s free from jargon, in language that your clients understand. It’s all about being likable and making connections.
Stories, rich in plot and studded with metaphors, like those you remember from childhood, can help you build even deeper roots into the hearts and minds of your clients.
Writing your business story is a creative exercise. It’s not like any of the other writing you do — very different from blogs or sales proposals — and you need to approach it in a different frame of mind. Fire up your imagination, prepare to be playful, and silence your sensible side for a while.
Five steps to finding your business story
1. Once upon a time
All stories need a beginning. Where did yours start? Describe the world that existed before your business burst into the world. Use metaphors and analogies. Were your clients stumbling around in the dark before your services lit up the path ahead? Were your customers tangled in a mire of misery before your products transformed their lives? You have permission to be silly here — no one’s going to see this draft so write as freely as you can, without inhibition. Go off at tangents. Dig for emotions. Make yourself laugh.
2. Your hero
Your story needs a character, and yours is your client. What are they like? Mild-mannered and meek? Powerful but lost? Embattled under siege? Jot down as many ideas as you can. Don’t censor yourself. Think in archetypes. The knight in shining armour. The soldier on the front line. The earth mother. At this stage it’s perfectly permissible to have a hero who is a cross between Basil Fawlty and Mother Theresa. Go with the flow and keep going.
3. The obstacle
What is standing in your hero’s path? A fire breathing dragon? A bottomless pit? A 3,000-strong braying mob? Describe the hero’s obstacle in a way that captures its emotional power. Bigger obstacles make for better stories. Overcoming one cross wasp isn’t going to grab anyone, but make it a buzzing cloud of killer bees and people will keep listening. (Yes, I know, in reality your client’s problem is just slow running IT or a difficult ex-business partner, but focus on how that obstacle makes your hero feel.)
4. The final battle
The climatic point in any film and the page-turning dash to the resolution of a great book. Describe the final battle. How does your hero slay the monster? How does she solve the giant Rubik’s Cube that’s standing between her and the door to paradise? Which powers does she use? What does that power feel like?
5. The happy ever after
Describe the world after the battle’s been won. How is it better? What does the resolution do to the landscape? Think of the words that best capture the spirit of this new age. Is it calm? Ordered? Peaceful? Joyous? Throw in some analogies — “like the day after the great storm”, “the first rain after drought”, “dawn breaking after a long night of the soul”. Don’t be scared of pushing it — this exercise is all about searching for words and images with the emotional power to resonate with your audience.
And now what?
Read through what you’ve written. Look for threads — ideas and thoughts that can be linked together to form a narrative. Now’s the time to edit hard. Words or images that are too left field can go. They’ve served their purpose. Stick with the ones that feel right to you. Trust your intuition here. What would you feel comfortable saying? (Say them out loud and see which ones come easily and which ones make you stutter.) Which ones would help explain what you do to your dream client?
The power of a good story is it is memorable; easy to tell and retell. It grabs people, burrows deep and stays with them. What’s yours?
Guest post by Tom Albrighton
Modern marketing is a lot like a party. Work the room right and you’ll attract interest and new contacts. Fail to shine and you’ll be going home alone. Here are the ten marketing partygoers you never want to meet – or be.
1. The counsellor is full of unwelcome ‘why don’t you’ advice for everyone she meets – she’s the answer to a question nobody asked. Marketing moral: expertise is becoming devalued; cultivating strong personal connections may work better than positioning yourself as an expert.
2. The egotist holds forth interminably on his favourite topic: himself. Marketing moral: focus on the customer, not yourself. (See this post for more.)
3. The wallflower stands shyly on the sidelines even though her best friend could be introducing her to plenty of guests if asked. Marketing moral: proactively cultivate and request referrals and testimonials.
4. The geek batters you into submission with an enthusiastic but crashingly dull monologue about his phone, computer or other gadget. Marketing moral: don’t confuse technical features with customer benefits.
5. The clown keeps the jokes coming even if they’re not appreciated, appropriate or even funny. Marketing moral: Humour doesn’t travel and should be used with care – can you guarantee the reaction you’re hoping for?
6. The miser brings Liebfraumilch but drinks Moët. Marketing moral: In modern marketing, particularly social media, you have to give something (of yourself) before you receive.
7. The butterfly is always looking around the room for someone more interesting to talk to. Marketing moral: don’t neglect here-and-now customer needs in the quest for new connections or business.
8. The gatecrasher shouldn’t even be here at all but he never misses the chance to party, even if he doesn’t know anyone. Marketing moral: don’t waste time and money making a big splash when you really need focused exposure.
9. The nervous hostess flits between conversations, asking everyone if they’re enjoying themselves (and the vol-au-vents). Marketing moral: don’t over-regulate the conversation about your brand or content; allowing criticism shows strength and confirms authenticity.
10. The chatterbox just won’t shut up! Marketing moral: We can’t talk and listen at the same time; make time for learning as well as pushing out content.
Guest post by Tom Albrighton
The other day, a client facing a big marketing setback confided to me that he was going to go home, have a glass of wine and try to think it through.
I nodded sympathetically. Many’s the time I’ve combined work with leisure by doing some copywriting over a drink in the evening. A drop of something can often loosen up the flow of words, particularly when something expressive or colourful is required. (However, it can also cloud the judgement, so I always wait until the morning to send the results to the client.)
No-one who enjoyed Under Milk Wood, Sgt. Pepper or 'Kubla Khan' could deny that alcohol and drugs can enhance the creative process. Some of our greatest cultural works had their genesis in altered states. And they reached even those who never touched anything stronger than tea.
Yet I’m not sure how my clients would react if I revealed that their copywriting had been done under the influence. Even those who liked a drink themselves might be disquieted. And if I told a client I was going on a week-long acid binge to get ideas for their slogan, I’m pretty sure they’d be looking for another copywriter. (Not that I ever would, I hasten to add.)
The serious point I’m making is that although we know of many factors that boost creativity, we often deliberately exclude them from the workplace. We might grudgingly allow a few pictures over a desk, or a radio on in the background, but these are intrusions of leisure into the world of work, not deliberate attempts to stimulate our minds. Even something completely wholesome, like spending some time in a natural environment, is only allowed in the rigid structure of the corporate ‘away day’ (if at all).
Those in the creative industries often make more effort to stimulate creativity through the working environment (although one suspects that it’s also partly for show). In my view, all work is creative – not just marketing, but every other business function too. We all have innate creativity that we use in solving the problems of our day. Why don’t we do more to let it flourish in the workplace?