Category Archives: Write for Results
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.
…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.
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.
“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.”
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.