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Writing is easy. Because we can spell and build sentences, right? And because we have a laptop. And a pen.
Writing is easy just like photography is easy because we have an iPhone. And writing is easy just like designing is easy because we can use Canva. Yet whilst there’s nothing wrong with nice laptops, globally significant smartphones and design-and-publish online platforms, when we use them, we can still very often end up with a painting-by-numbers solution instead of a unique piece of art.
Expert photographers somehow manage to muster imagery that moves us. Experienced, expert graphic designers craft typography that takes our breath away. And expert writers take us on a journey. Expert writers engage and persuade us. They hold our attention. And make us think.
Or, of course, any of us that consider ourselves able to write, we can use our laptops, our pens and our ability to spell and build sentences to bore our readers to tears. So just how do good writers write so well?
How Businesspeople Can Write Better Things, Better
Let’s focus on businesspeople. Business owners, business founders or people in senior positions in business. People that know lots of things about their own businesses. People that want to say something about what they are and do, and maybe why they do it, to an audience they know, understand, and appreciate. Are there any rules that can help this kind of person to do this kind of writing that little bit better? Yes, there are. And here are seven of them. Some sit together easily. Some pull against each other a little bit. So interpret and use the guidance in the best way for you.
There’s no such thing as writing for the web versus writing for a brochure. Not really there isn’t. Yes, you’ll probably write a bit less for digital platforms than you will for print media. But the tone, sentiment and personality should be the same. If you’re being authentic, that’s all you can do anyway. You can’t help but be you if you’re being authentic. So if you do happen to be writing for the web, drop any pretence, posturing or adoption of some nifty trick you heard from some SEO practitioner on a podcast. Just be you.
I specifically mention the distinction between writing for the web versus writing for a brochure because of some business people’s ideas around shoehorning in words and expressions that they think might bolster the search engine optimisation effort online. It’s unnatural to write this way, and it’s unnatural to read. And even if you do end up with better optimised copy, if the prose is forced and clunky, no one will read what you’ve written anyway. Because it’ll be rubbish. So even if you do manage to increase traffic to your website, there is little point in doing that if the copy itself is tedious and clumsy from a readability perspective.
Problems start when you forget you are meant be persuading, inspiring, entertaining or educating. All of these very soon disappear when we instead start to pack in as many derivatives of lawnmower, lawnmowers, mowers, grass cutters, grass cutting, grass, cutters, lawn, lawns, rollers and lawn rollers.
Whenever and wherever you write, just write well. Write compellingly. Get to the point. Write consistently. And really do think about when you should be educating, inspiring, persuading, entertaining or whatever else. Keep it natural. Keep it ‘you’.
A consistent tone is important as we mentioned at point one. But it must be the correct tone. When you are writing as a business, it’s probably not the best thing to get into ‘teacher’ mode. Your copy is likely to patronise if you do. Over explaining ideas means you’ll come across as just too, well, overbearing. You might make the reader feel that it is in your nature to just take over. You might make them feel that you’ll leave no room for their personality and ideas to come through should you work together.
But you’re not their best buddy either. You’re not their mate. Or pal. Or friend. Well, not yet you’re not. So exclaiming how flipping bonkers they’d be to choose one of your competitors instead of you, or how whacky, jolly and fun it’d be to build a working relationship with you is just plain wrong.
And finally, blend-in is just as bad. The protocols for communication in your category should be noticed, but not copied verbatim. Shift your tone from theirs. Just a bit, though. And in a way that feels natural for you and your brand.
Don’t tell everybody everything. You really should know the thing or things about your product or service that most influence buying decisions and consumer behaviour. Ideally, it’ll be just one thing. And it’ll never be more than three things. That’s where you should focus. You focus on what you know they focus on. And if you are not sure what that is, find out. Because you can’t write anything precise and useful until you do.
A great question to ask yourself before you write something designed to help a reader to understand what you do and why to choose you is, ‘what’s the one thing I want them to remember, more than anything else, once they’ve read this.’ This question will lead you to plan better. It’s all about planning, really. (And as a side note, if you decide that the one thing you want them to remember is closer to ‘what you do’ rather than ‘why you are uniquely better’ – you have a brand problem. Speak to a decent brand consultant about that).
So there you have it. The first three. ‘Write Consistently’, ‘Think About Tone’ and ‘Don’t Overcommunicate’. That advice is a good start point to help business owners, business founders or people in senior positions in business to write better content for their business.
There’s a great game that marketers play. Even though most of them don’t know they’re playing it. It’s called Marketing Bingo. They play it on website homepages, on the first page of brochures, on exhibition stands, in adverts… in fact, they play it anywhere they can write anything. And if they’re really dedicated to Marketing Bingo, they can even play it in the very first sentence. Here’s an example.
“Established for over 25 years, we are Nottingham’s leading legal firm, Binghams Solicitors, providing great quality, complete and innovative solutions for any legal requirement via our successful, friendly, passionate and committed team of experts.”
Established. Leading. Quality. Complete. Innovative. Solution. Any. Successful. Friendly. Passionate. Committed. Experts. BINGO!
Marketing Bingo is a rubbish game. Because the more you say, the less you say. The more you give people to remember, the less they actually remember. The more broadly focussed your narrative, the less people you appeal to. The confidence you think you are exuding by listing the same old things that every other pointlessly posturing, blend-in also-ran lists, the less confident you sound. Because you are hedging. You are proving that you have no idea what your customer values most about people like you. And nobody wants to work with any business that does not understand its customer.
(Oh, and there’s a useful built-in test in this point, too. It’s a way you can test whether your Marketing Company is any good. Basically, if they write anything like the example above – sack them. Immediately).
Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced ‘bouquet’, of course) is the exaggerated and farcical central character from the sitcom Keeping Up Appearances. Keeping Up Appearances is a 5 series, 44 episode-long British sitcom created by Roy Clarke that initially aired on BBC1 from 1990 to 1995. Two specials followed in 1997 and 2008.
This sitcom is a simple premise. Hyacinth is on a constant quest to elevate her social superiority and to buddy up to those she considers to be upper class. In actual fact, in typical sitcom style, Hyacinth’s exaggerated and farcical behaviour very often achieves the exact opposite. A work of fiction, this is a relatable surmise, yet not something that we’d ever see in real life. Or is it?
Do you want potential customers to feel free to peruse and consume the content of your website at their leisure? Or would it be great if they’d take a moment to have a look around?
Would you be delighted to receive any potential prospect to your recently refurbished establishment? Or do you welcome drop-in visits to your new showroom any weekday between 9am and 5.30pm (we have fresh coffee too!)
A more conversational tone is generally that little bit more engaging and real. Shorter words mean more to a reader, are faster to read and easier to remember. Because we learned them first. And if you use longer or more obscure words, you somehow distance yourself from the reader and run the risk of killing a working relationship before it’s even started by causing embarrassment or confusion.
As a general rule, if you can’t imagine yourself saying it – don’t write it.
If there was an award for stating the bleeding obvious, this piece of advice would win it. Nevertheless, it is astounding how many times a business will tell us things about which we have absolutely no interest. And because these irrelevant things are sprinkled amongst the things that we do want to know, we then have to sieve for the good stuff.
You are the most interesting subject to you. That’s just the way it is. But in business, we don’t need to know all there is to know about you. We just need to know that which is most influential in relation to my behaviour as a consumer and, in most cases, as I approach buying decisions.
It may well be true that your journey to doing well in business today has been a hard one. We appreciate that it took a lot for you to get here. It is a shame that the business nearly went under in the 70’s when the third generation of leadership lost their way a little, largely because new (and thankfully temporary) legislation meant that your cost base doubled overnight and put terrible pressure on the management team at the time. They had to make people redundant. Some were family members. It was devastating. But you recovered, which is commendable. And all of this makes you stronger and more resilient and more grateful today. In fact, you are so proud of the way that your family came through these hardships and built the foundation of what customers see before them right now that you retell the story on your website, in your brochure and in person. Even when all I really want is a new bathroom suite. In Ivory. Delivering and fitting. Sometime in the next four weeks. Please.
You have to know the most important thing to tell your customer about what you do. This forms the basis of your leading-edge proposition. It is where their motivation to buy will initially come from. This is what you talk about. Because all else is secondary.
This is similar to point six (Tell Me What I Want To Know), but shines a light on how you make decisions about storing or ‘filing’ content with your business communications. Sometimes, a website can feel like an online filing cabinet. It is little more than a place for the business that created it to host, store or file all the things it might need to help build a client relationship. Every individual piece may be laid out in a logical or chronological order, based on how the business thinks that a prospect might want to learn. Which all sounds great. But websites are not linear. We don’t spend that long there. And we rarely read anything to the end.
Flooding readers with too much information is a bad thing. A website homepage should immediately tell me just four things. What you do. Who for. Why you are different and better. What you want me to do next. That’s it. And if you can do all of that in one or two sentences (you really should be able to, by the way) then all the better.
Yes, once I know those four things, I might want to dip into this, that or the other to investigate deeper. That’s where simple, consistent and intuitive website navigation comes in. But all too often, websites and brochures are written assuming that the reader will read the content end-to-end. It’s hard for me to dip on and out at different points. And there’s just too much to wade through anyway.
When you are writing as a business, you really should be able to write just enough so that I want to learn more. Ideally by me arranging to talk to you. We live in an overcommunicated world. The more efficiently you speak, and the faster you say it, the better.