Business writing can feel like a balancing act. On the one hand you want to get your point over in an engaging way, on the other you want to appear professional. So how do you get it right?
Here’s my quick guide.
1. Write in proper sentences. Not a straightforward point, and I’m not advocating the death of punctuation. Rather I’m suggesting you treat your sentence structure with a bit of flexibility. I sometimes think of sentences as hand and footholds for the reader, as they climb their way through your writing. Sometimes it’s good to reach an easy one. A very short sentence, coming after a series of longer ones, makes an impact. Like this.
Of course ‘like this’ is not technically a sentence at all, but if it works to make your point, then why not use it? I don’t have a problem with one word sentences either. If they contribute to the flow of your writing and help the reader understand what you’re trying to say, then throw a couple into the mix. Simple.
2. Metaphors belong in poems. Poetry is full of fabulously inspiring literary rule breaking and business writers can steal a trick or two. Metaphors are a quick win. Poets seek images that have an emotional resonance to make lasting connections with readers. Connection is your number one aim with a piece of business writing too.
I don’t mean scattering your website with moonlit walks and hosts of golden daffodils. Rather that you think laterally and creatively when you’re writing. If an image comes to mind when you’re trying to describe a process, or an idea, (like my climbing metaphor in the first point) don’t be afraid to use it. Seek them out and give your writing more impact.
A word of caution. Because metaphors and analogies make real connections with readers, it can get confusing if you throw too many in, or keep switching themes. For example, if you’ve set up your writing with driving metaphors — full throttle, stuck in gear, hair pin bend — and then you change to sailing ones — full steam ahead, stormy weather, choppy waters — your reader will become disorientated. Sea sick, even.
3. Long words impress readers. Your English teacher at school probably gave you a big tick when you managed to wiggle some complicated piece of vocabulary into your essays, but you won’t get full marks for it in business. Simple straightforward words are better. Don’t say “cascade” when you mean “tell”, don’t say “strategize” when you mean “plan”, don’t say “empower” ever. Just don’t.
1. Spelling. Although our language is flexible and evolving, you do need to spell everything correctly.
2. Punctuate. Don’t forget your full stops and capital letters. Your aim is to make your reader understand. Taking away the punctuation is like taking away the road signs — no one knows when to slow down and when to stop.
3. Don’t get your it’s and your its mixed up. People get awfully irate about it. (My rule — see whether its could be replaced by his or her. If it can’t be, you need the other one!)
Read more helpful advice on writing:
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?
In his article 'Why 8% of sales people get 80% of the sales' Donut expert and founder of Marketing Wizdom, Robert Clay reminds us of the importance of good 'follow up'. His research shows that only 2% of sales occur at the first meeting; the other 98% will only happen once a certain level of trust has been established. Incredibly, only 20% of sales leads are ever followed up - that's a shining pile of potential opportunity lost without a trace. For small businesses, what is the best way to keep contact with prospects after sales meetings? What communications strategy can you employ to show customers that your proposed approach is the right one for them? Effective follow up does not mean pushy closing and constant demands for orders or appointments. It's a different mindset: an ongoing dialogue; gently building rapport and proving your expertise, not bashing down doors. At the heart of this approach is good content - meaningful, useful communication that helps to build trust in the eyes of your potential customers, keeping you top-of-mind. Here are 5 examples of useful content you can send to prospects when following up sales meetings:
This is where marketing can really help sales. Produce powerful, customer-focused, helpful content that your sales teams can use to keep contact with customers until they are ready to buy.
As a boy, I would try to work out cycling round-trips that were all downhill. Needless to say, it was a complete waste of time and effort. And many of our marketing responses to recession are in exactly the same spirit. Marketers have flooded the channels with ‘recession-beating’ deals, as if this government-humbling downturn could somehow be beaten. Agencies present the recipe for ‘marketing in a recession’, which turns out to be pretty much the same as the one for marketing in a boom, but a bit smaller. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they. We have an innate longing for growth, creation and gain. But to mature, we have to deal with the flip side – decline, destruction and loss. If we can’t accept that ‘all things must pass’, we’ll end up with what Buddhists call dukkha – a pervasive sense of ‘unsatisfactoriness’. I’m not saying that the recession is a breeze. Nor am I laughing off the very real suffering it’s causing. I’m simply making the case for ‘skiing downhill’ by taking the opportunities that this unprecedented period presents, instead of trying to fight it or wish it away. It’s a bad time to make money. But it could be a great time to make friends. B2B marketing that promises customers a useful working relationship, instead of trying to persuade them to spend, may have a better chance of success. There’s nothing wrong with cutting prices, but don’t patronise customers by taking about ‘beating’ the recession. They’re not stupid, nor will they buy just because something is cheap. Stay competitive, but keep communicating the value you offer too – even if people aren’t buying. Companies who do this successfully are the ones who emerge from recession with a dormant but loyal customer base ready to be reactivated. As a copywriter, I’d make a strong case for writing as a key recession-marketing tool. Instead of splurging on media exposure, why not pick up a pen and quietly revisit your value proposition in the light of the new economic reality. You might turn up some great new marketing angles – or even ideas for more far-reaching changes that could help you go with the flow instead of wasting your energy swimming against the tide.
If you’ve been keeping tabs on some of the groups of marketing professionals on global social networks over the last few days, you might have heard mention of a World Wide Rave. It describes something you’ve probably experienced, although you may not realise it. It’s also something that you should find out more about if you’re responsible for marketing for your business.
Online marketing expert and bestselling author, David Meerman Scott, is in the process of launching his new book. I suppose by now you can guess what it’s called?
World Wide Rave is all about the way in which people can start and spread a World Wide Rave about their business or cause by getting other people excited about telling stories.
Like his other books, World Wide Rave is likely to be an international best seller pretty swiftly. A quick Google search will uncover that he’s the author of The New Rules of Marketing and PR, and that has done very well on the business/marketing book lists, as well as being translated into over 20 languages.
Anyway, to mark the launch of the World Wide Rave, David has produced a video which itself, documents a World Wide Rave that he created. And the video itself may even become a World Wide Rave. I’ve pasted the video below, so that you can check it out.
You can check out David’s blog post about the video here. The blog also includes a free eBook which explains more about the making of the video. Are you starting to get the drift of a World Wide Rave yet?
I should disclose that I and many of my colleagues are on the team of people involved in making the video - but there were also hundreds of people involved as you will see when you watch the video. We’re proud to have been involved, and we are certainly looking forward to watching the process of both the book and the video over time. But regardless of our involvement, this is a very interesting aspect of the huge connectivity that we can all get access to online, particularly when we find a clever way to get other people to tell stories about us!
Food for thought...
P.S. David has really thought this through. Here's a little badge to prove our involvement!
Marketing copy should not be about features, but benefits: the good things that will happen when someone uses a product or service. This is sometimes summed up as ‘sell the sizzle, not the sausage’.
Imagine a customer seeing your marketing for the first time. It’s a bit like a conversation between you and them – a sort of commercial blind date. When the conversation is over, they’ll decide whether they want to take the relationship further. So what do you talk about?
Yourself. Stuff about the company, how long it’s been trading, who runs it, where it’s located, its principles and vision. This is the marketing equivalent of telling your own life story on the first date and, needless to say, should be avoided. (Stick this stuff in ‘About us’ on the website.) Your products and services. Better, but don’t overdo it. This is a bit like describing your house, car or family to your date. They may be riveted, or bored stiff – it’s a gamble. Benefits you offer. Effective copywriting spends most of its time here, starting with customers’ concerns and explaining how the product will help them, in words they’ll understand. This is as near as you can get to listening instead of talking with your marketing.
Companies who write their own copy usually focus on themselves and their product, because that’s where their heart is. The copywriter brings a fresh perspective by (politely) asking questions such as:
How does that help me as a customer? How does that affect my decision to buy, or not buy? As a potential customer, why should I be interested?
Any points that are too inward-looking should be reworked into benefits or, failing that, scrapped. The end result should be text that talks directly to the customer’s own priorities.
It can be helpful to count the number of times you mention ‘you’ as opposed to ‘we’ or ‘us’. Aim for at least twice as many mentions of the customer as of the company.