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What Terry Wogan teaches us about writing

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The much-loved British broadcaster and radio legend died on Sunday aged 77 after five decades in radio and TV. When he retired in 2009 from his BBC Radio 2 breakfast show, his simple goodbye ‘Thank you for being my friend’ spoke volumes about his skill as a communicator.

Despite addressing millions of fans in that farewell, he made each listener feel as if he was talking to them and them alone. He did that by using the magic word you in the second-person singular, and by keeping friend singular, too.

He could have said ‘Thank you all for being my friends’, but that would have betrayed an ‘audience’ mindset. Keeping things singularly personal showed his true mindset: he wanted to speak to each individual. Radio allowed him to achieve ‘mass personalisation’, to establish an intimacy over the airwaves with each of us. As a result, he made us feel special and part of his Radio 2 family.

This simple shift in mindset applies to written communications, too.

Avoid the multiple personality disorder

When addressing multiple readers in a communication — whether an email or an article —inexperienced writers tend to use you in a plural phrase, eg ‘some of you’ or ‘all of you’, as if their readers were huddled around one copy of the document or suffering from multiple personality disorder. When I see phrases like that, I look behind me to see who else is in the room reading over my shoulder.

As David Ogilvy, the great copywriter and founder of ad agency Ogilvy & Mather, said: “Do not address your readers as if they were gathered together in a stadium. When people read your words, they are alone.”

The word audience is another symptom of this disorder.

When I run writing workshops, I often hear ‘I’m writing for my audience’. There are five problems with this word:

  1. ‘Audience’ suggests people are listening (the Latin root of the word audiare), but — despite the fact there is an auditory aspect to writing — our readers read our words.
  2. ‘Audience’ is too broad. It lumps all our readers into the same bucket, implying they’re all the same, which of course they’re not. It also suggests we’re broadcasting our message in the hope some of it lands, rather than personalising it to individual readers or reader-types. It’s the difference between ‘broadcast’ and ‘narrowcast’.
  3. Audiences tend to be passive. Picture an audience in a theatre or cinema: they sit passively, taking in the spectacle; traffic tends to be 1-way. Good writing should feel more like a conversation than a lecture.
  4. Audiences don’t take decisions; individual readers do.
  5. Finally, when you read something do you feel like an ‘audience’? No, of course you don’t. You feel like you: a unique, special, distinct individual and you want to be addressed that way.

When you adopt an ‘audience’ mindset, your connection with the reader is weak. When you have a ‘reader’ mindset (aka being ‘reader-centric’), your connection with the reader is strong. The stronger the connection, the more receptive they’ll be to your message. And that means — if you’re trying to persuade them to do something — they’re likelier to do what you want them to do.

If you have any doubts about the power of personalisation, consider this: if you happened to spot your own name — the ultimate personal word — in a piece of writing, would it make you more or less likely to read it? The answer is obvious.

The more your writing makes an intimate and personal connection with your reader, the more persuasive it will be. That’s why ‘Write for your reader’ is Technique #1 in my RHETORICA® toolkit of 21 persuasive writing techniques. It’s a meta principle, because it supports and informs the other 20 techniques.

You’re writing for an audience of one — your reader. As a natural communicator, Terry Wogan understood that perfectly.

Scott’s book on persuasive writing — RHETORICA: persuasive writing for the 21st century — is due out in April, but you can get a sneak peek at his 18 March open course in central London ( And if you’d like a 15-minute consultation with Scott, to discuss how to improve your comms and get three insights into how to improve your writing, click here to book a slot: 

Case Study: The Economist

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The Client
The Economist Group, an international publisher of analysis on international business and world affairs. The Group includes The Economist newspaper, Intelligent Life, Economist Intelligence Unit, CQ Roll Call and EuroFinance.

 The Drivers
Good writing is a core value of The Economist Group. The Group prides itself on authoritative analysis, editorial independence, objectivity and topicality. It expects every member of staff to be able to write well, whatever their role.

In late 2003, Sally Bibb, then Director of Group Sales Development, decided to source external suppliers of sales writing skills. She turned to Write for Results, a writing training consultancy run and co-founded by Scott and top copywriter, Andy Maslen.

Sally asked Scott and Andy to create a 1-day persuasive writing skills workshop that could be rolled out across the Group to multiple, international teams. The goal of the workshop was to give staff a writing ‘toolkit’ that they could start using immediately and rapidly improve the speed, effectiveness and efficiency of their writing.

The workshop also had to be practical, interactive and enjoyable.

The Programme
The resulting workshop, piloted in The Economist’s Third Avenue office in a snow-bound New York in January 2004, was an instant hit.

Spanning the three steps of the writing process – planning, drafting, editing – the workshop covered dozens of writing techniques that are the stock-in-trade of The Economist’s journalists, such as how to open strongly, grab your reader’s attention and hold it from start to finish. Other techniques included: the best way of writing concisely; how to dramatise, emphasise and invigorate your writing; how to produce a better first draft faster and how to score the readability of your (and other people’s) text.

Interactivity came in the form of five writing exercises, with detailed debriefs on each, plus private feedback from the trainer to delegates on their writing samples. The workshop culminated in a ‘Show & Tell’, where delegates shared with the group what they had changed in their writing. Whoever showed the most radical improvement won a small prize (a leather-bound Moleskine diary).

The New York pilot was the prototype of a workshop that, over the last decade, we have now delivered to over 400 staff at The Economist Group.

The Feedback
The workshop gained a reputation within the Group and was always over-subscribed. Attendees rating it never gave it less than 4.5 out of 5.0, or 90% satisfaction, as exemplified here by a small selection of testimonials:

“Excellent course. Probably the most interesting, engaging and influential one-day course I’ve ever attended. Thank you, Scott.”

“Scott is an excellent teacher. I will definitely recommend this workshop to my colleagues. I’ve learnt a lot today.”
“Most useful training course I’ve taken while at The Economist. Excellent content and an excellent instructor. Thank you!”
“This workshop is excellent.”
“Excellent program. Great learning experience. I am looking forward to implementing the strategies.”
“Good blend of structured and on the fly. Very engaging.”
“Scott is an excellent presenter!”
“Very engaging and great tips.”
“Engaging, lively, great reminders.”
“The presenter made the topic interesting, the information is useful and will definitely be used from tomorrow. Thanks!”
“This class surpassed my expectations. It was fun and informative. I will be able to make positive changes in my writing immediately!”
“The instructor was excellent – very helpful!”
“You offered invaluable advice. I really enjoyed attending! I especially appreciated your patience and response to questions and issues. Good luck to you!”
“I liked the trainer’s energy levels and his way of interacting with us.”
“Very important and useful advice on effective techniques for communicating better with people.”
“Great class!”

#Scott’sMusings 14/07/15

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Overall, it’s been a good month for SJK Consultants. We’ve delivered: four writing skills workshops to teams in two of The Big Four accountancy firms in London and Geneva (average 95% satisfaction); a successful writing workshop to the PSLs (Professional Support Lawyers) of a ‘magic circle’ law firm; and four writing workshops to defence & security consultants (93% satisfaction). We also won a bid writing coaching programme with a small, innovative pensions consultancy, and helped a GP Federation get shortlisted for a London borough NHS contract.

But it’s not all been plain sailing…We worked with a professional services firm on a major bid and failed to even get shortlisted. They’d over-estimated the quality of their relationship with the buyer. It was like being slapped in the face. But what did I learn from it? That bidders must assess with brutal honesty the quality of their relationship with each buyer, and bid consultants mustn’t accept the bidder’s initial assessment at face value!

Amusing note: the other day I was looking a consultancy website that preaches the merits of personalized communication. Guess what their email address was? info@domainname.

You don’t win a bid from behind a computer

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Over the last 13 years we’ve observed or been involved in 100s of bids, tenders, pitches and proposals, from a range of organisations across many industries. The beleaguered bid team pour their heart and soul into writing the bid, working late nights and early mornings, often at the expense of their personal and family life. But that’s the wrong thing to focus on; it’s often too late by then. Too many firms over-emphasise the bid document and under-emphasise the relationship with the buyer. You don’t win a bid from behind a computer. The process of winning starts far in advance of this step and the stats seem to back this up.

Most businesses we talk to strive for a win-rate of 75%, ie they’re winning three out of every four pitches they go for. If you were offered this you’d probably take it, wouldn’t you?

Our win-rate is 86%. So what are we doing differently for our clients to hit this rate?

We help our clients to pre-empt the bidding process and tilt the odds of winning in their favour. We do this by front-loading the process, in five steps. We help our clients to:

  1. Nail their value proposition. Without articulating this clearly, the odds of success are against you.
  2. Identify the organisations they want to work with, and the individual buyers in those organisations.
  3. Raise their profile with those buyers and get to know them.
  4. Understand those buyers’ major headaches and put together a proposal for how to overcome them.
  5. Rinse & repeat.

Compare this proactive approach to the typically reactive response of many businesses to RFPs, ITTs and EOIs. Our approach is about playing by your own rules and time-scales, not someone else’s.

So my message to you is this: if the client doesn’t know, like and trust you and your organisation when they issue the tender, your heroic efforts on the bid document are likely to be in vain. The harder you work at the front of the process building great relationships with buyers pre-tender, the more business you’ll win.

Trouble is, most people are poor at building rapport, asking great questions and listening whole-heartedly to the answers, without an agenda. The micro-skills of client relationship building are the biggest business development challenge facing professional services firms today – especially fee-earners who are great technicians but not natural communicators. But that’s for another blog…

To learn more about improving your win-rate, download a free chapter from SJK Consultants Director, Scott Keyser, by clicking here.

Solved: Why most business writing is dull

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Sleeping young businessman

Having trained thousands of business people all over the world in writing, I’ve identified three elements of good writing:

Top Content – I can’t help you with this. It is up to you and your business to apply your expertise through research, consultation and thought.

Clarity – if an idea is clear in your head, it will be clear in writing.

Personality – this is what I want to focus on. This is what most business writing lacks.

Many business writers suffer from The Myth of Professionalism.  They believe that to write well it must be ‘professional’, resulting in formal language. The problem with formal language is that words tend to be long, hard to spell, less understood and create a gap between the writer and the reader.

Formal writing is de-humanised and makes the writer sound like a corporate drone. Business writing is too formal and that’s why it’s dull. What do you think?

To read this post in full, click here

What’s more persuasive: head or heart?

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Comic Relief

Last Friday saw the UK charity Comic Relief raise an impressive £78 million for individuals in need in the UK and Africa. As I sat, with my family, watching the programme without donating, I felt un-moved. That is until a story came on describing how a 72-year old Grandmother and her granddaughter search for food every day in a mountain of rubbish. The young girl was stalked by men trying to abuse her as she and her frail Grandmother rummaged through the waste for scraps of food. As I watched and listened to the TV, I felt outraged that anyone should have to live like this and it ‘moved’ me.

The language here is key; I was ‘moved’ to donate. ‘Move’ is a multi-layered word meaning ‘motivated to act’ and ‘affected emotionally’. This story is living proof that logic provokes people to think but emotions make them act.

Therefore, when writing, if you don’t affect your reader emotionally, they are less likely to do what you would like them to do.

One technique in my 21-technique toolkit is ‘Establish your objective’ using the acronym K.F.C. What you want your reader to Know, Feel and Commit to doing.

Knowledge is all about wanting to inform your reader, Feeling is about the emotions you want to arouse in them in order for them to take action and Commit to something as a result of reading your words.

To read this post in full, click here

Is the frog in your throat choking your bids?

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I recently reviewed a client’s proposal for public sector funding. The first, most important question, asked for a summary of the project, including that telling phrase, “Why should we give your our money?”.

The client’s first paragraph described the background of the project. The funding organisation already had access to this information, so this was a waste of space and paper. The second paragraph continued to develop upon the background of the project so wasn’t much better. The third paragraph began unpromisingly: ‘Whilst we are aware that…’. This didn’t sound like it was about to summarise the project, and it didn’t. Eventually, in paragraph four, the proposal was outlined. The only reason I kept reading was because the proposer is a client; if I had been the evaluator, I would have given up and marked them down.

So what is my point?

The first three paragraphs were the literary equivalent of the writer clearing their throat before writing something relevant and interesting in the fourth paragraph. This is not an isolated case; I regularly come across this when I am reviewing bids, tender and proposals.

Ineffective writing like this is usually caused due to poor planning and an unwillingness to get straight to the point.

Try this approach to avoid similar mistakes:

  1. Define and explain what you are proposing in one sentence – you can give more detail later
  2. Describe what the reader/client will get if they appoint you (benefits/outcomes)
  3. Show why your proposal matters to them by linking what the client/reader could receive, and how this will help them to achieve their agenda and objectives.

If you would like to see this post in full click here