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Writing rules you should break

June 03, 2011 by Sharon Tanton

Writing rules you should break - screwed up paper

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. 

Three writing rules you should break.

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.

And an even quicker guide to those you mustn’t break.

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!)


Sharon Tanton is an expert contributor to Marketing Donut, a freelance copywriter and marketing consultant and a Valuable Content associate.

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Posted in Marketing strategy | Tagged writing | 1 comment

How to make an exhibition of yourself

June 02, 2011 by Mike Southon

Business men on exhibition floor

The first buds of spring also herald the beginning of the conference and exhibition season, with many companies wasting a small fortune trying to promote themselves to uninterested visitors.

It is not cheap to exhibit at a trade show. The stand space itself is expensive, and then there is the cost of building the stand, developing new marketing materials, plus the considerable staff time involved in just being there.

I often find myself speaking at exhibitions when the organiser’s business model is to sell stand space on the premise that thousands of visitors will be attracted to the event by the top quality keynotes and free workshops on offer.

When I visit the stands, I receive many complaints about the aggressive sales techniques of people selling exhibition space. They complain that these commission-only salespeople provide inflated estimates of the likely visitor numbers and can be very persistent and unpleasant.

My advice to any potential exhibitor is to leave any decision to the last minute, and always to offer a small percentage of what is quoted on their rate card.

But if you do decide to exhibit, it is always good practice to make the sales messages on your stand as obvious as possible. An interesting exercise is to walk down an aisle at a trade show, trying to guess what the exhibitor does just by looking at their stand.

It is clear that many of the stands have been designed by amateurs trying to do their own marketing. Alternatively, they have engaged a marketing agency whose brilliant idea is to deliberately make the messages of the company as opaque as possible. They argue that this will generate curiosity in the causal observer, encouraging them into visiting your stand to find out more. Sadly, this rarely happens in the real world.

People who attend trade shows are looking for someone to solve their problems or meet their needs. If you clearly state those problems and needs and then explain how you can address them, you stand a good chance of attracting a potential customer.

There is also one last hurdle before your company achieves an acceptable return on its investment in stand space, and that is the hapless people on the stand itself. Working at trade shows is an extremely dismal and tiring process. The people you do want to attract will studiously avoid eye contact, while those who deliberately engage your attention are often time-wasters, competitors or students, often with poor social skills.

In my experience, very little business is gained from people causally wandering onto your stand; the key to success at a trade show is in the pre-event preparation. Experienced trade show exhibitors train their staff in good stand technique and do most of their work in advance of the event, contacting potential customers to make specific appointments.

Any spare time at the show is used in scanning the other stands, eyeing up the competition and looking for new leads.

If you do spot a potential customer working on another trade show stand, it is poor etiquette to try and engage them in a sales conversation there and then. They want to sell to other people, not listen to your sales pitch. You should just ask for the name of the key decision maker for contact after the event, and take as much of their sales literature as possible for your pre-meeting research.

You can also drop into the keynotes, seminars and workshops and learn something new. If they have one on how to exhibit successfully at a trade show, then that would definitely be worth a visit.


Originally published in The Financial Times. Copyright ©Mike Southon 2011. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission in writing. Mike Southon is the co-author of The Beermat Entrepreneur and a business speaker.

For more information on what not to do at exhibitions, read Fiona Humberstone’s guide to the 12 reasons why companies fail to make a success of exhibitions — which is full of positive suggestions too!

How do you pick a good design agency?

June 01, 2011 by Fiona Humberstone

Finding a good design agency to work with on your logo design, rebrand or website isn’t easy. Even if we start with the premise that no one sets out to do a bad job (I really believe that’s true), there’s more to finding a good design agency than randomly picking the company that tops the search results.

Finding a great design agency – one that you can build a relationship with over time, one that becomes a partner to your business, one that revolutionises how your current and prospective clients view your business – isn’t an easy task.

It’s also not a decision that should be driven by budget. Sure, budget counts, but if you try and save too much money in the short term, then it’ll definitely cost you more in the long term. False starts cost time, money and heartache so it pays to find the right design agency in the first place.

I suspect that this could be an incredibly long post, so let me just give you a few bullet points to get thinking about.

  1. What’s the brief? What do you need doing? Is this a design project? A development project? A branding project or all three? Don’t be blinkered about what you think the real brief is either — be prepared to listen to the experts.
  2. Don’t be too prescriptive. We recently met with a start-up who was out of love with his logo before he’d even launched! He was on revision seven and had just given up by this point. How sad! He explained that he’d told the agency “exactly what he wanted” and it was only when he saw that, he realised he didn’t like it. We never ask the client to tell us how we want a logo to look – instead we spend time understanding their brief, their objectives and the impression they want to create and we use our expertise to deliver something waaaay above and beyond the client’s imagination. If they really insist they know what they want, then we’ll always show one version alongside two of our own.
  3. What questions are they asking you? How interested do they seem in your business? Are they passionate about what they do? Are they excited about what they can do for you? Do you get the feeling that they’re just going to deliver what you’ve asked for? Or are they going to listen to your brief, think creatively about how to solve your challenge and deliver something that really adds value to your business?
  4. How do you respond to their portfolio? Are you inspired by it? Does it have you thinking excitedly about the possibilities for your own business? Is it creative? Is it diverse? I always say that you don’t need to like everything in our portfolio but you do need to like the reason behind it. You need to like our approach – and you should like a good chunk of the portfolio if you’re going to work with the agency.
  5. What’s the team like? There are pros and cons to freelancers versus an agency. Clearly an agency is going to cost a lot more than a freelancer - their overheads are higher. The flip side is that the world doesn’t stop turning just because they land a big job or go on holiday and I believe that the diversity and vibrancy of a creative team is essential to generating ideas that are ahead of the curve. Also consider whether they have designers/developers in-house or do they outsource?
  6. Are they producing powerful design? The concept of powerful design is not easy to put your finger on — it’s about everything from creative flair to producing designs that enable you to win more business. It requires robust processes and a clear insight into a client’s business.
  7. What are their strengths? And how does that fit with what you need? All too often we’re asked to redesign a site that has been designed by a web development agency – unsurprisingly it lacks the creative flair, vision and design edge that a design/branding agency can deliver and it’s that flair that’s essential to ensure that your site engages your target audience.

Fiona Humberstone is an expert contributor to Marketing Donut and runs her own creative consultancy.

How a Scotsman can help you qualify a prospect

May 31, 2011 by Craig McKenna

Qualifying a prospect is probably one of the most important elements of selling if you are a small business. The time you can save by not trying to sell to prospects who ultimately never would have bought anyhow is invaluable, as well as the mental advantage that can be gained by being able to focus only on the right prospects.

The eight key stages that should be followed can be remembered easily using the term SCOTSMAN.

(S) Solution — Have you clarified if your prospect understands what it is that you wish to sell them. What is your solution and why will it work for them?

(C) Competition — Have you an awareness of whether there is anyone competing with you to sell to your prospect or for the money they may use to buy from you? Your competition could be internal as well as external.

(O) Objective — Have you a clear understanding on what your client is looking for, what are they in the market for? What is important to them now and in the future? Do you improve their services or processes, or do you save them money?

(T) Timescales — Have you clarified what timescale the prospect is working to? Can you deliver within that timescale? Does the timescale work for you? Is there a timing factor that could be used in your favour, for example a financial year end?

(S) Size — Is the potential size of the deal worth the effort going to be needed to win the business? Have you a clear picture on what size the deal will be? Is it smaller than ideal but could open doors? Is it too big and may have a detrimental impact on your business?

(M) Money — Does the prospect have the money in their budget to pay for your solution? If they don’t have a budget, can they find the money or do you need to consider walking away?

(A) Authority — Are you speaking to the decision maker? The person who ultimately will sign the cheque? Are they even aware that you are speaking to their company? It is no longer imperative to deal with just the decision maker, there is a value in dealing with another contact within the business but very few pieces of business are completed without the main authority signing off on it.

(N) Need — Does the prospect actually need your solution? Very few deals happen in the current climate without a clear need. There are many reasons why they may need your solution and it is key that you find out which one is relevant and focus on it.

If you can answer all of the questions in a positive manner, then your chances of closing the deal are significantly higher than if you can’t. Very few deals will actually happen if one or more of these eight key stages are missing, and the time you may waste on chasing shadows is valuable.

It can be easy to get sucked into thinking that every deal will happen, and there is also a sort of comfort that some small businesses value in having a large pipeline that “could” close but I would encourage you to qualify properly and allow yourself to focus only the deals that have a chance. You are better off closing three out of five good prospects than two out of ten prospects as your focus was stretched thin.


Craig McKenna is a managing partner at The Growth Academy.

Brand survival and the brand iceberg

May 27, 2011 by Berry Burgess

Branding, is like an iceberg — it exists mostly below the surface. The visible brand messaging accounts for what we see above sea level. The invisible brand – the company culture, the customer experience — is the mass below the surface

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin came back from the moon, the first thing they were greeted by was a huge neon sign that said "Welcome to Earth — home of Coca-Cola". That is how powerful a brand can be.

But your company doesn’t have to be the size of Coca-Cola or Mercedes to have a brand. In fact, every business has one. And by building yours into a strong one it can become one of your most valuable assets. Branding is a simple representation of who you, your company or your product are. One of the key fundamental steps to begin this process is to implement some honest self-analysis to discover your brand truth. The results of this establishes your unique brand identity if you are true to yourself.

Branding ultimately creates that all important first impression in your customers mind. A dynamic branding and product positioning formula is one that will invite new customers, and propel them into a desired action.

Remember, a brand is not a name or a logo or a colour scheme or a design layout or a tag line or an advertising theme. A brand lives in the customer’s perception. A brand is not what the marketer says it is; it’s what the customer thinks it is. A brand begins and ends with the customer, and most important to the customer’s perception is the customer experience. Customers will believe their own experience before they believe the advertising.

Advertising works only when it is supported by the customer experience, and strong brands are built one customer experience at a time. Effective branding is what causes people to walk past all the no-name, on-sale colas at the grocery store and pick up the six-pack of Coca-Cola that costs twice as much — just ask Neil Armstrong.

Berry Burgess is an expert contributor to Marketing Donut, and managing director of Armadillo Creative.

Posted in Marketing strategy | Tagged branding | 0 comments

How to hire a social media consultant

May 26, 2011 by Chris Street

Chances are, if you’re an entrepreneur or marketing director of a small to medium-sized business, you’ll have been dipping into social media platforms and hopefully getting engaged by now.

One of the biggest issues I regularly come across for those involved with, or looking to get involved, with social media for business usage is that of not having enough time to do it thoroughly, or not having enough expertise to get engaged effectively.

Agencies, in particular, are having trouble providing powerful social media services for their clients – as they are so busy doing the daily stuff, many have been left well behind the curve on blogging, social media, and micro-blogging developments.

Solution? Hire a social media consultant.

Here’s a few tips from me on how to hire well – or, to put it another way, my 6 P’s of things to look for when hiring your social media consultant.
Remember, it’s their job to make you look absolutely brilliant online, and draw attention to your door:

1. Passionate

Is the social media consultant passionate about social media? Are they passionate about getting you results on social media platforms? Can they demonstrate their passion for social media?

2. Professional

Is the social media consultant professional in their outlook to social media platforms? Have they delivered professionally for other businesses and agencies on a variety of relevant social media platforms? Is their own social media presence professional?

3. Prompt

Is the social media consultant prompt in the social media presence? Are they blogging, tweeting and adding powerful content promptly, consistently and with a proven track record? Is their social media promptness provable for other existing clients?

4. Personable

Is the social media consultant personable? Is it apparent that they have a social and professional personality which will translate well for your business if you put them in front of them? Is their personality appropriate for social media engagement on your behalf?

5. Practical

Is the social media consultant a practical deliverer? Can you see a track record of ‘sleeves rolled up’ by them? Are you confident that they will work hard, consistently and diligently on your behalf on social media platforms?

6. Price

Now, although we’re all looking for a bargain, is your social media consultant too cheap? After all, if they charge peanuts, what do you think the results will be? Are you looking for a cheap, non-effective social media presence, or have you allocated a workable budget for your social media consultant to deliver on your behalf?

Chris Street of Bristol Editor

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