All posts by Scott Keyser

‘Layering’: a new take on structure

By | Write for Results | No Comments

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In my book and in my workshops, I assert that structure is more important than language. No matter how wonderful your writing is, if the whole document is ill-structured and un-navigable, you’re likely to lose your reader.

Try this for size.

Create a hierarchy: headline – sub-heading – topic sentence – (meaty) paragraph OR WiT (Word in Tables).

Your headline is your big picture, a hint to the content and a hook for the reader. The sub-heading is (or should be) a descriptive, informative summary of that document section. Then you open a meaty para with a topic sentence that’s an emboldened, one-line summary of that para. Simple as. Here’s an example:

PROJECT ABC: what progress did we make in January 2017?

This document sets out an update from our last meeting and some initial research on our latest Project ABC target, XYZ.

Update from our 12 December 2016 meeting

I believe our Project ABC methodology works well. I understand PPR is actively pursuing Target Inc. This was one of the names that the new methodology helped us identify in Project ABC — the AIM-listed work I did with Roger in Q3 2016. I suggest we look at HSA as a priority; Roger is helping me with this.

I have pulled together a team for project ABC. Roger, Debbie and Paul have agreed to help with this initiative in some capacity, subject to other work commitments. While Debbie will help Roger with AIM and FTSE company identification, Paul will help me with our leveraged loan list. We may need another admin assistant later on, but for now we’re OK.

[ Then, if you have even more detail, you can put that into Words in Tables, developed by Jon Moon who offers downloadable templates here. ]


Why we selected XYZ as a target

The loan is trading below par XYZ’s TLB is currently trading at 87.75p in the pound on the secondary market. The 2nd lien piece is trading at 70p. This suggests that lenders hold some concerns over performance and that there has been some value erosion. The situation is not too bad, however, given level of discount on the loan, which means we could be an early mover.
Leverage is high Q3 leverage was 4.5x, albeit down from 7.7x in FY15. This is higher than opening leverage and lease-adjusted leverage is reportedly even higher. FX Partners did a dividend recap in 2014 to take 33% of equity off the table, so any restructuring might have heightened tension between the stakeholders.
Financial performance is behind budget Revenue was 3% behind budget in Q3; EBITDA was 25% behind for the same period. Moody’s downgraded the company to Caa1 in February 2016. 2015 had negative cash flow.
This is a good size company There are more levers to pull and more opportunity for finance (debt and equity) with a larger company. EV at purchase was EUR 343 million, 3rd biggest in the world in its field, biggest in Europe.
We know the sponsor well We have many contacts with TTT partners; attached is the Zapier download. As you mentioned last week, Dev has done some work for TTT on Cato Ltd in the past, as well as DD on STA and BY&F. We have done some German/pan-European work with them for a clothing manufacturer.

What are the benefits of ‘layering’? Your reader can choose what level of your document to read:

  1. Headline only
  2. Headline + sub-headings
  3. Headline + sub-headings + topic sentences
  4. Headline + sub-headings + topic sentences + detailed content

Layering also makes it quicker and easier for your reader to find the relevant stuff and skip the rest. They’ll love you for it.

Time is running out for you…

By | Rhetorica, Write for Results | No Comments

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…to get on my next open course, 23 Feb, central London. This is a sales writing course for all-comers over one day. I’ll be strutting my stuff on the 21 rhetorica ® writing techniques.

This course will show you how to write with personality, persuasion and power, but the early-bird discount closes in a few days. Plus we’re offering 20% off for bookings of three or more. Here’s that link again.

rhetorica® — a toolkit of 21 everyday writing techniques

By | Rhetorica, Write for Results | No Comments

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My book on persuasive writing has been getting some rave reviews. One poor deluded soul even put me in the same class as HW Fowler, Lynne Truss (Eats, Shoots & Leaves) and Stephen King. (Clearly, the bung was worth it.)

I’m now on a mission to take the book and its 21 techniques to an audience way beyond B2B — to young people and students, as well as non-English speakers who work and write in English. It seems to me there’s a huge gap between the basic spelling & grammar taught in primary schools and the increasingly sophisticated writing demanded in secondary and tertiary education. The cliché is that ‘English writing skills are caught, not taught’. Reading Dickens, Shakespeare and Jane Austen — much as I love ‘em — won’t necessarily make you a good writer. As I say in my book, writing well is neither a black art nor an innate gift, but a learnable skill.

If you happen to have any senior contacts in education wherever you are, pls introduce them to me. Thanks. (And if you want to join my mission, get in touch!)

Finally, pls diarise 30/31 March for the official launch of the discounted Kindle version (£0.99/$0.99) of the book. All proceeds will go to the two charities I’m supporting: Blind Veterans UK and the Type Archive, a unique collection of 3 million typefaces, fonts and historic printing presses. Both organisations do amazing work and need all the help they can get; I’m just doing my bit for them.

‘Commitment’ and the epidemic of jargon

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“As a premium supplier in healthcare products, our commitment to the highest standards of safety is unparalleled.” [Yeah, right.]

“We are committed to providing you with world-class service…” [Prove it.]

“I am committed to losing two kilos by Easter” [But you probably won’t…]

Forgive my square bracketed cynicism…

January air is thick with words like ‘resolution’, ‘goal’ and ‘objective’ as we gird our New Year loins to be better human beings — or just lose weight. And hard on the heels of this aspirational language is the ever-present ‘commit’.

Let’s look at this abused, over-used word.

‘Commit’ goes way back. Six hundred years, actually.

From the Latin committere, to join, unite or connect, it originally meant to ‘charge in trust, to entrust a task to someone’s care’. This is about giving someone a duty with scant freedom of action. To commit is to make a binding pledge — to ourselves or to others — to a cause, course of action or set of values. It’s an obligation.

When you’re truly committed, there’s no turning back.

From that we get the idea of literally consigning someone to prison or a mental institution, or a body to the earth (‘committal’), or figuratively, as in ‘commit to memory/paper/writing’. We also have the idea of perpetration, as in ‘commit a sin/crime’ or ‘commit suicide’.

So ‘commit’ is not some flippant, fly-by-night, flibbertigibbet of a word. It’s serious, charged with centuries of obligation and responsibility. Let’s not cheapen it and trivialise it by turning it into business jargon to flog products or services.

If your service is genuinely world-class, your customers will be screaming it from the digital rooftops. And if it’s not, stop telling us you want it to be. Here endeth the lesson.

Post script. This is my favourite quote on commitment, from WH Murray, the celebrated mountaineer, author and soldier:

Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.

Concerning all acts of initiative or creation, there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans…that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves. too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have believed would have come his way.

Whatever you think you can do or believe you can, begin it. Action has magic, grace, and power in it. Begin it now.”

rhetorica ® — a toolkit of 21 everyday writing techniques

By | Rhetorica | No Comments

Although my book on persuasive writing is now available on Amazon, I’m launching the Kindle version end March for £0.99/$0.99, with all proceeds going to my two designated charities: Blind Veterans UK and the Type Archive, a globally unique collection of type, typefaces and historic printing presses. Both organisations do amazing work and need all the help they can get. I’ll remind you of the Kindle launch nearer the time.

If you just want to dip a toe into the limpid pool of my book, check out these three chapters.

If you do buy a copy and like what you see, then pls post a review. A few kind souls have already left 5-star reviews, but for the end March launch I want to have amassed dozens. Apparently Amazon promotes books that get a certain number of positive reviews.

The cover of rhetorica ® — which I’m thrilled with and which gets lots of positive comments — was designed by Professor Phil Cleaver. Phil instantly ‘got’ my desire to make rhetorica ® a covetable object. Besides running a design studio in Oxford, Phil is an expert in typesetting, typography and typographic history, and introduced me to the Type Archive. He’s the best designer I’ve ever worked with.

New Write for Results branding: coming full circle (even though it’s a diamond)

By | Write for Results | No Comments

I’ve ditched the bland ‘SJK Consultants’ — it never really did it for me — and gone back to my original brand of Write for Results (W4R), but with a new logo.

I co-founded W4R in 2004 with Andy Maslen, a top copywriter, and for eight happy years we trained several blue-chip clients in writing skills, including staff of The Economist Group. In 2012 Andy decided to devote himself to his copywriting (and latterly novel writing), leaving me with the company.

Phil Cleaver and his team at et al design created and typeset the new diamond-shaped logo.

Next sales writing & design open course: 23/24 February 2017

By | Rhetorica | No Comments

This is a new take on my annual writing skills open course for professionals: I’ve added a design element. Run in the City of London in collaboration with Top Consultant, a management consultancy recruiter, this 1½-day workshop will show you how to write with power and persuasion, then lay out your words so that people want to read them.

Day 1 features my rhetorica ® writing techniques, complete with exercises, debriefs and wide-ranging discussions about writing. The following morning, Professor Phil Cleaver, my book designer, will cover topics like What is type?, a brief history of type, some do’s & don’ts of typesetting, examples of good and bad layout and, for the truly brave, a (gentle) critique of delegates’ document samples for everyone to learn from.

As Prof. Phil says, ‘There’s no point writing the most persuasive words if they’re so badly laid out they’re not inviting to read’.

Here’s the link to find out more.

Post-election review: ‘rhetoric’

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As the world holds a post-mortem on Trump’s post-truth victory, I’d like to put the word ‘rhetoric’ on the slab. Not because it’s dead, but because it needs reviving.

Bandied about by politicians and pundits both sides of The Pond, it’s become a dirty word, implying exaggerated, hyperbolic language of half-truths designed to manipulate people.

That is one definition of ‘rhetoric’.

The flip-side is ‘the art of using speech or writing to persuade or influence’ (Collins English Dictionary). While both definitions overlap, of course, this second one is often misunderstood, so I’m going to shed some light on it.

When we step into the garden of rhetoric, what do we see?

We see tall trees, and tiny flowers.

The trees are the planks of this vast subject, ie the art of arguing, proving, inventing, memorising and delivery. The flowers are what we call the figures of speech.

These are literary devices created by the Ancient Greeks, added to by the Romans (and plundered mercilessly by Shakespeare) that influence listeners and readers. They have a dramatic effect; they work.

These devices range from the familiar alliteration, assonance, hyperbole and rhetorical question to the more obscure epizeuxis, catachresis and polyptoton, taking in tricolon, anaphora and anadiplosis on the way — to name a few.

Now, in case you think I’m showing off, this is what the Greeks and Romans called these devices. To use a phrase invented by Shakespeare, don’t dismiss them with ‘It’s Greek to me’, because they surround us every day; we just don’t know them well enough to recognise them. They’re in political speeches (Obama was a master of rhetoric; the jury’s out on Trump); they’re in the ads we read in the underground as we go to work; they’re in the leader articles of The Economist. (That’s a tricolon — grouping things in threes — by the way.)

They work because they’re invisible; they sneak in under the radar of our intellect, because they instinctively resonate with us. In the case of the tricolon, for instance, lists of three have been used in the earliest human communications, as they relate to how we process information. We recognise and respond to patterns, and three is the smallest number of elements needed for a pattern. So ‘blood, sweat and tears’ has entered the lexicon, as well as Julius Caesar’s ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’. Maybe divinity’s at work here, too, at least in western civilisation: the Holy Trinity has been a pillar of Christian belief for millennia.

As for alliteration — repeating consonant sounds — you’ll recognise that from poetry and Shakespeare (‘Full fathom five thy father lies’, from Ariel’s song in The Tempest). But alliteration abounds (there I go again) in ads and everyday language, too.

Instead of saying ‘death-avoiding’, ‘death-defying’ sounds better. Instead of ‘furniture made to look old’, we say ‘shabby chic’. Rather than ‘cowardly’, we might say ‘lily-livered’. And so on. Alliteration wires words and concepts together, because the patterns of consonant repetition sound better on the ear.

A final example is anaphora — starting each sentence with the same words.

When Winston Churchill spoke to Parliament in June 1940 about defiance in defeat, he said:

We shall fight on the beaches

We shall fight on the landing grounds

We shall fight in the fields and in the streets…

And Martin Luther King nailed anaphora in his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech in August 1963. Delivered to over 250,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., the speech ends on a peroration (another rhetorical figure), launching each new point with ‘I have a dream’. This is the 21-gun salute, the climax, where King cranks things up, tears down injustice with his words and moves us with his vision of a just and equal society.

So, good writing is not the preserve of rare geniuses. We can write well by using the devices that have been around for 2,500 years. That’s why in my recent book I say that ‘writing well is neither a black art nor an innate gift, but a learnable skill.’

Nail your pitch in 2017

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We are living in crazily uncertain times. Things change at warp speed. Markets are unstable, the future unpredictable.

Entrepreneurial minds will see opportunity in this turbulence, while others will hunker down.

It’s never been more important for business owners and corporate team leaders to stand out in their marketplace, to exploit those opportunities. But I see too many SMEs and corporate leaders who haven’t nailed the main plank of their marketing communications — their elevator pitch.

When asked ‘What do you do?’ at an event or a meeting, they gabble something forgettable on the spur of the moment. These days, that’s just not good enough.

Work with me to craft and hone a compelling 20-second sound bite and 60-second elevator pitch — in one day (plus a bit of pre-work). Email me (scott@scottkeyser.com) if you want to know more.