Category Archives: Write for Results
Speed Read: thousands, maybe millions, of professionals around the world — native and non-native English speakers alike — find themselves in roles where writing occupies a disproportionate amount of their time. ‘This is not what I signed up for!’ they cry. But it falls on deaf ears as the deadline for that important email, client alert, executive summary, business case or thought leadership piece looms. They do their best, but many feel there must be a better way. There is.
If you’re a professional — lawyer, accountant, engineer, architect, consultant — you probably chose your field because of its inherent technical content, such as interpreting legislation, auditing company accounts or designing a building. You probably didn’t choose it to write about it.
Yet that’s precisely what most professionals end up doing.
In an age when we can ‘publish’ our own content on a whim, the written word has never been so important. When clients receive several alerts from law firms on the same piece of legislation, how do they decide in that nano-second which one to open and read? Probably the one with the most engaging subject line and readable content.
Like it or not, we are all writers now.
Yet many professionals — bright, educated, thoughtful, conscientious — struggle to write well. And you may be one of them. You’re technically great at what you do, but you’d be the first to admit you’re not a natural writer. Maybe you never really got your head around conjunctions, prepositions and gerunds at school — and few of us learn to write by reading Shakespeare, Dickens or Eliot (much as I love them). The written word has become a vital, but unpublicised, part of your role.
You’ve become an Accidental Writer.
Accidental Writers tend to fall into one of three camps:
- You know you could write better, but it does the job and you’ve got other priorities.
- ‘You’ve either got it or you haven’t’. You believe that good writers are born, not made.
- You sense there is a better way, but you don’t know what that is.
If you’re in Camp #1, fair enough.
If you’re in Camp #2, I’m afraid I disagree. Like cooking or swimming, the ability to write with impact, power and persuasion is a learnable skill. I should know: using my 21 rhetorica® techniques, I’ve shown thousands of professionals around the world how to produce engaging written communications, sometimes with astonishing results.
If you’re in Camp #3, I agree with you: there is a better way.
Accidental Writers make the mistake of thinking that:
- The more detail they put in, the less risk to them and their firm
- They must show how clever and expert they are
- They must write in a formal style
The result of The Detail Myth is long, turgid, often unstructured documents that dump on the reader and say ‘There you go, you work it out. Pick the bones out of that.’ Not unlike this (the original was even longer):
A bed-fellow of The Detail Myth is the ‘CYA’ mindset: the writer is more concerned about covering their backside than genuinely communicating with their reader.
The ‘Look-How-Clever-I-Am’ Myth produces documents that are writer-centric, not reader-centric, ie they talk more about the writer/the writer’s organisation than about the reader or the reader’s challenges, issues or needs. They think that impressing the reader with their expertise is the same as convincing them; it’s not. Like the party bore who’s more interested in themselves than in others, writing like this turns readers OFF.
Formal writing (technically referred to as high-register language) is a biggie in B2B comms. Professionals full of personality, insight and fun leave all that behind when they write. So they use purchase when they just mean buy, remuneration when they mean pay and utilise when they mean use or apply. The net effect is stiff, pompous, lifeless language that turns the reader off (again).
Nothing kills personality faster than formal writing.
I think uber-formal style is a throwback to school, where many of us were taught that ‘serious’ writing meant formal. But serious doesn’t have to mean dull.
So, if you’ve identified yourself as an Accidental Writer, apply these five cures to the above ills:
- Get to know your reader and write about what most matters to them, ie focus on them, not you
- Include only information critical to the reader and ditch the rest (or hyperlink it to another page)
- Help your reader find that critical information through a clear structure
- Write in plain English, eg build vs construct, help vs assist, ask vs request
- Keep high-register or technical language to a minimum
Note from Scott: I hope this blog engaged you. Pls let me know what you think by dropping me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks…and good luck with your writing!
The other day I ran a bid writing workshop for an international professional services firm (no name, no pack drill). When reviewing their proposals, almost without exception the first thing their bid documents talked about was themselves and their firm, not the buyer. I call this ‘we-ing’ all over the client.
Are you guilty of this? It’s rather rude. Here’s a vlog with some tips on how to avoid it. Enjoy!
The other day I ran a bid writing workshop for an international professional services firm (no name, no pack drill). Suffice to say, in their field they’re a household name; everyone’s heard of their firm.
Having split the delegates into groups, I asked them to list all the topics that a proposal should talk about. They came up with all the main ones: Services, Programme, Design Concept, Fees, Benefits, Understanding of Client & History, Client Brief, Approach, Team, Credentials, History of Firm, Deliverables, Terms & Conditions.
As some of these overlap or are subsets of others, they then grouped them into meaningful categories, so we ended up with this list:
- Approach (methodology, services, programme, team, deliverables, benefits)
- Client Brief (understanding of client needs/objectives; the firm’s history with them, if appropriate)
- Design Concept (the proposed solution)
- Credentials (track record, firm’s history, ie why the buyer should choose them)
- Ts & Cs
Next, I asked them to rank these topics in order of importance to the client. They produced this list:
- Fees (=1st)
- Client Brief (=1st)
- Design Concept
- Ts & Cs
I then asked them the $64m question: “DO YOUR PROPOSALS REFLECT THAT ORDER OF IMPORTANCE?”
They had to admit they didn’t.
When they re-read their most recent submissions, almost without exception the first thing their bid documents talked about was themselves and their firm, not the client. The tell-tale sign was the preponderance of the words we, us, our and the name of their firm, and the absence of the words you, your and the name of the client. The contrast was stark.
I call this ‘we-ing’ all over the client, and it’s not very nice. In fact, it turns clients off, ‘cos it’s saying to them ‘We think we’re more important than you.’
Would you buy from someone who gave you that message?
Scott Keyser — aka The Writing Guy — shows professional services firms how to use language to connect with their reader and get the results they want, such as win a bid, sell an idea, attract investment or change someone’s mind.
The other day a WaterAid leaflet dropped onto my doormat. The centre-spread featured a story written by a Thames Water employee, Mumin, recounting his experience of helping a small community in Malawi access clean water. It was movingly simple.
But being interested in language — especially in ‘register’, the scale of writing formality — I decided to bastardise it, as you can see.
From the extremity of ‘pompous ass’ to the WaterAid version, where are you on the writing spectrum? If you’re already writing like Mumin, hats off to you. But if you suspect you’re veering the other way, get in touch. I may be able to help.
|Pompous Ass version||WaterAid version|
|Upon disembarkation at Kasungu, I was thronged by weeping children and mothers whose aspect and demeanour suggested a melancholic state of mind. This made a deep impression on the neural circuitry in my pre-frontal cortex.
When a representative sample of extracted water was presented to me, I was overcome with incredulity — it appeared to contain an inordinate proportion of contaminants. The risk, however, associated with this soiled water sample lay also in its transportation itinerary and the source wells from which it had been extracted.
A key consideration for the imbibers concerned was the lack of options available to them — I am loath even to verbalise my thoughts in this regard — in the event that they fail to ingest said sample, they run the elevated risk of a rapid demise.
That notwithstanding, I was able to bear witness to the difference afforded to them by the provision of de-contaminated water.
In the proximity of Kasungu in Malawi, a tapstand was constructed, with the requisite funding provided by WaterAid supporters and labour provided by local inhabitants.
Children expressed happiness facially, denizens caroused and imbibed water that had attained the necessary levels of sanitation and hygiene.
Children can now attend educational institutions and their progenitors monitor their emotional, psychological and physical development, reassured of the likelihood, nay probability, of desirable future options. It’s more than a combination of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. It’s the foundation of a biologically viable existence.
My chest swells with emotion commensurate with high self-esteem and self-respect deriving from my membership of a team that is furnishing the world with water that meets appropriate standards of cleanliness. I entreat you to subscribe to our growing ranks.
In grateful recognition of your attention to this pressing matter.
|From the moment I set foot in Kasungu, all around me there were children crying and mothers with sadness in their eyes. Something I’ll never forget.
When I first saw the water they had to drink, I couldn’t believe it — it wasn’t even dirty, it was filthy. But it’s not just about drinking dangerous dirty water, it’s the dangerous journey to get it and the dangerous wells it comes from.
The worst thing is they don’t even have a choice — if they don’t drink the diseased water, I hate even saying it, they will die.
I also saw the amazing difference that clean water brings.
Near Kasungu in Malawi, a tapstand was funded by WaterAid supporters and built by local people.
Children smiled, people sang and they drank safe, crystal-clear water.
The children can go to school to get an education, and the parents can watch their children grow up, knowing they have a future. It’s far more than water to them. It’s life.
I feel so proud to be part of the team who are bringing clean water to the world. I hope you’re inspired to join me.
A French raiding party landed in London this week, bent on charming financial services away from the City post-Brexit. As you might expect from the language of love, their only weapons were words.
Pitching to a bunch of hard-nosed bankers — many of whom probably own apartments in the 16th arrondissement anyway — was never going to carry the day with talk of Coq au Vin, the Rive Gauche or the Folies Bergères, n’est-ce pas?
Valérie Pécresse, President of the Parisian region, former Sarkozy budget minister and seductress-in-chief, had to be more commercial than that. So her brochure (an 18th century French word meaning ‘pamphlet, or sheets stitched together’) listed the business benefits of crossing the Channel: lower income tax for ex-pats, lower commercial rents, a deep talent pool and two international schools near the business areas of Paris. There was even a humorous swipe at their arch-rival: ‘When was the last time you thought of taking your partner for a nice weekend in Frankfurt?’
But the London bankers weren’t so easily won over. They were concerned about political uncertainty and how hard it is to fire people in France. Perhaps they had visions of Marine Le Pen brandishing a French tricolour atop the barricades of economic nationalism, promising French jobs for French workers.
Valérie and her team came here to lure (‘attract a hawk by casting a lure or decoy’) business to the City of Lights, to woo, court, tempt, enchant, charm, beguile and fascinate — all words related to seduction and witch-craft.
Did the magic work? Only time will tell. The affair has not yet been consummated.
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:
- Headline only
- Headline + sub-headings
- Headline + sub-headings + topic sentences
- 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.