PSLs and Associates: is your ‘professional’ mindset ruining your writing?

By | Write for Results | No Comments

A few months ago I spoke at the annual conference of an international network of accountants and tax advisors. The setting was the 5-star Parco dei Principi hotel in Rome (nothing but the best for The Writing Guy!), which overlooks the Villa Borghese, a beautiful landscaped park.

Facing an audience of professionals in the Eternal City, it seemed fitting to examine the Latin origins of the word ‘profession’.

From profiteri, its original meaning was to ‘take a vow in a religious order’, but it later morphed into the idea of making a public declaration of competence in a particular occupation. And an occupation — like accountancy, medicine or law — demanding a high level of skill, specialist technical knowledge and long periods of study. Being called ‘professional’ is generally a compliment; being described as ‘unprofessional’ is not.

Trouble is, when it comes to writing, the ‘professional’ mindset does not serve us, because it generates three overlapping myths:

Big Fat Myth #1: ‘I must show my expertise’;

Big Fat Myth #2: ‘The cleverer my writing, the more convinced my reader will be’;

Big Fat Myth #3: ‘The more detail I give the reader, the less risk to me and my firm’.

Big Fat Myth #1: ‘I must show my expertise’

When your intention is to show how expert you are in your topic and impress your reader, rather than genuinely communicate with them, you inevitably talk more about yourself and/or your firm than them. You use the words we, us and our more than you and your. It becomes all about us, not them. I call this ‘we-ing’ all over your reader, which is extremely rude. ‘Writer-centric’ might be a politer way of putting it.

Like the party bore who insists on talking only about themselves and shows no interest in others, readers find this a turn-off. And when they’re turned off, the chances of them doing whatever it is we want them to do plummet. As I heard someone say the other day, ‘If you don’t write for your reader, you won’t have any’.

Another facet of this myth is over-doing technical jargon. Why use ‘equitable estoppel’ if you know that your readers won’t understand it? You risk frustrating, confusing or alienating them. And if your readers are a mix of techie and lay, and ‘equitable estoppel’ is precisely the right term for the context, then use it, and explain for the non-techies what it means.

Big Fat Myth #2: ‘The cleverer my writing, the more convinced my reader will be’

Like Myth #1, this one’s also more about impressing the reader than communicating with them, but with the emphasis on style rather than content. This is a seductive myth: as most professionals are highly intelligent, educated and conscientious (is my flattery working yet?), surely their word-choice and syntax should reflect that?

No, they shouldn’t.

Using polysyllabic, fancy words in long, complicated sentences is not good writing. Needlessly complicating the simple to show how clever or educated you are…is not clever; it’s infuriating. It makes the reader work much harder than they want to to get your meaning, which will likely alienate them from you than endear them to you.

And this links to another mini-myth: that professional writing must be formal.

So rather than saying buy, the writer says purchase. Instead of pay, they say remuneration. Rather than use or apply, they plump for utilise, and so on. We call this high-register language, where ‘register’ is a scale of the formality of your writing. High-register, formal language is solemn, serious, cold, unfriendly and hard to relate to; it fails to build rapport with the reader.

Big Fat Myth #3: ‘The more detail I give the reader, the less risk to me and my firm’

This is A Major Myth, ‘cos professionals tend to be detail people; they’re more at home in the minutiae of a matter than in the big picture. More insidious, perhaps, is the unconscious belief that by maximising the detail, the reader can’t criticise them for lack of information, protecting their firm from client complaints. This smacks of a defensive, unconfident CYA (Cover Your Arse) mindset — not a recipe for clear, concise or compelling communication.

This myth produces ‘brain-dumps’, documents that are dense, unstructured slabs of text, like this:


And that’s only a snippet of the original email! The recipient, a good friend, remarked: “I asked them a simple question. If they think I’m going to read all that, they’re deluded!”

In my book, this is lazy writing. The author is dumping everything they know on the reader with the words ‘There you go. You work it out. I can’t be bothered.’

How do we explode the three Myths?

Turn Big Fat Myth #1 on its head.

Rather than showing off your expertise (or your boss’s, if you’re writing for them), show off your understanding of the reader. Get to know them so well you can write as easily about them as yourself; place them front and centre of your writing. I call this being ‘reader-centric’ and it’s the single biggest challenge in B2B writing. But crack it and you’re on your way to being a great writer.

So, how can you get to know your reader?

If they’re internal, ie they work in the same firm as you, go and speak to them; build a relationship with them. If they’re a client, like a GC or a CEO, ask your boss about them; speak to everyone in your firm who knows them; read their blog; Google them; look them up (and follow them) on LinkedIn; go to an exhibition/conference they’re attending or speaking at. (Just don’t hang around outside their home at night: that’s stalking.)

If they’re still as elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel, then you must use one of the writer’s key skills — your imagination.

Have an imaginary conversation with them:

  • ‘What sex are you?’
  • ‘How old are you?’
  • ‘What do you do?’
  • ‘What do you want more of/less of?’
  • ‘What are your values? What motivates you, gets you out of bed in the morning?’
  • ‘What are your fears, hopes, dreams and aspirations?’
  • ‘What are your pain points?’
  • ‘What information is critical to you?’
  1. Your goal here is to think your way into their heads, walk a mile in their shoes, see the world from their perspective, understand what makes them tick. By building a pen-portrait of them (referred to in content marketing circles as their avatar or persona), you can write in a way that engages them and makes them receptive to your message. And if you have several reader-types, then create an avatar for each type.

When we shift focus from ourselves to the reader, something magical happens. We start using the personal words you and your. They cast a spell over the reader, because they make them feel as if we are talking to them, and only them. They satisfy a basic human need to be heard and feel special. Try using you and your three times as often as I, we or us.

Personalised writing is about being so tuned into the reader that they recognise themselves and their agenda in your words. It’s empathic. E rmpathy creates connection. And connection persuades.

As for Big Fat Myth #2 (‘my writing must be clever, and formal’), if you’ve nailed Myth #1, you should be on your way to conquering this one. Long, fancy words in labyrinthine sentences lose the reader and tax their brain much more than short, simple words in short, simple sentences. If you get that, you probably won’t do it. This is about using mid-register, plain English, ie neither formal nor slang. So instead of terminate say end or kill; rather than in respect of/in relation to say about or on; don’t say in order to achieve our goal when you just mean to achieve our goal.

Finally, let’s annihilate Big Fat Myth #3 (‘more detail = less risk’).

Your choice of detail should be a function of the reader’s needs, not yours. So, if you must include lots of detail to explain a complex matter, that’s fine. Just make sure it’s so clearly structured, laid out and sign-posted that the reader will joyfully find the information they need. That includes but isn’t limited to contents lists, sub-headings, topic sentences, pull quotes, tabbed dividers, colour-coded sections and varied fonts.

Structure is more important than language. Inductive logic (ie leading with the main message, followed by the evidence) means front-loading your communication in service of the reader. In other words, lead with what most matters to them, eg your summary advice or the benefit to them of following that advice; your conclusion or recommendation, or the action you want them to take. They can then dive into the ensuing detail if they wish.

Make navigating your document easy-peasy.

What’s the bottom-line?

Top writers understand that persuasive writing is all about the reader. It’s about shifting intention and focus from themselves to their reader(s). Good writing is less about intellect, language or word-choice, and much more about emotional intelligence.


If you’d like to go to the heart of the matter and download three chapters of my book, rhetorica® — a toolkit of 21 everyday writing techniques, here’s the link: Download rhetorica® Chapters


Scott Keyser runs Write for Results, a communications and business development consultancy. Write for Results works with professionals who perform technically complex work (eg lawyers, accountants, engineers), but who sometimes struggle to communicate the value of that work to their market in an engaging way. Scott and his team simply show them how to make their comms — including their bids, tenders, pitches and proposals — clear, concise and compelling.

To book a slot to speak to Scott about your or your team’s writing, click here:

PSLs and Associates: are you making these five mistakes in your writing?

By | Write for Results | No Comments


Here are the five mistakes:

  1. Vague objective
  2. Waffle and wind
  3. Poor structure
  4. Formal language
  5. Passivitis (over-use of the passive voice)

As this article is Season 1, Episode 1, we’re just dealing with the first mistake here — otherwise it would be an extremely long article and you probably wouldn’t read it! Coming soon to a screen near you, Episodes 2 to 5 will handle the other four mistakes.


Have you ever read an article or blog that meandered from subject to subject, that didn’t seem to know where it was going? Chances are, the author didn’t either.

This is often because the author didn’t take the time to plan, and part of planning is nailing your objective or purpose. This is your magnetic north, the Pole Star of your writing.

If writers do consider their objective, it’s often in terms of what they want to say to the reader, ie their main message. They’re focusing on the communication transmission. The best writers turn that on its head and focus instead on the reception, ie how they want the reader’s behaviour to change as a result of receiving the words. It’s a subtle shift, but it’ll cause a sea-change in your writing.

How to nail your objective

I recommend using an acronym, F.F.A. — Facts. Feelings. Action. In other words, what you want your reader to know, feel and do. I’m going to address the triad in the order of Facts, Action, Feelings.

Facts: what do you want the reader to know?

This will vary enormously, depending on what you’re writing and for whom.

If you’re writing a pitch for instance, there will be many things you want the client to know, e.g. your understanding of their needs; your proposed solution, approach, team and price; the great benefits they’ll get when they appoint you; your track record with similar organisations or contracts.

The challenge with facts is knowing your reader well enough to judge which ones they need and which ones they don’t. In other words, pitching (excuse the pun) at the right level of information and detail. Too little detail and they’ll feel frustrated; too much and they’ll be overwhelmed or bored.

Action: what do you want the reader to do?

The list is endless. You might want them to respond to your blog or client alert, approve your award submission, give you a pay rise (chance would be a fine thing!), sign off your budget application, register for your training course, send you the document you need. The single action you need from the reader is usually obvious.

Feelings: what do you want the reader to feel?

Where persuasive writing gets interesting — and challenging — is in the emotions department.

Many people think that emotion has no place in business. But we neglect it at our peril.

Think about a recent or live document and list all the emotions you might want your reader to feel when they’re reading or have read your document. Here’s my list, in no particular order:

  • Confidence/trust
  • Desire
  • Inspiration
  • Anger, outrage
  • Excitement/enthusiasm
  • Motivation
  • Patriotism
  • Fear
  • Greed
  • Relief/reassurance/comfort
  • Self-value, self-esteem

In the professional services environment you work in, I would suggest that the vital emotions are confidence/trust, excitement/enthusiasm, fear and greed.

A client is unlikely to heed your legal advice if they don’t trust you or have confidence in your ability.

If your document is dull, your persuasion is unlikely to work. We don’t bore people into submission, but we can excite them to action. Hint: they will find benefits to them and/or their business pulsatingly exciting.

What might your reader be scared of or anxious about? If falling foul of a new directive could land them in prison, I think you’ll get their attention.

What do they want more of, are greedy for? Not just money. Maybe they want more time, information, control, power, influence, opportunity, a better image or a sounder reputation.

So, what’s the role of feeling and emotion in persuasion? It’s all thanks to this guy…


… the grandfather of rhetoric, a pupil of Plato and tutor to Alexander the Great. None other than Aristotle.

Aristotle identified the three elements of persuasion that are as relevant to us in the 21st century as they were in the fourth century BC:

Ethos: the character, reputation or credibility of the ‘persuader’, i.e. you, the writer.

Logos: ancient Greek for ‘word’, this is about appealing to the reader’s sense of logic and reason.

Pathos: ancient Greek for passion or emotion. Aristotle believed this was the king of the three.

The bottom-line

The reason why Feelings in F.F.A. are so important is this: logic makes people think, but emotion makes them act.


If you’d like to go to the heart of the matter and download three chapters of my book, rhetorica® — a toolkit of 21 everyday writing techniques, here’s the link: Download rhetorica® Chapters


Scott Keyser runs Write for Results, a communications and business development consultancy. Write for Results works with professionals who perform technically complex work (eg lawyers, accountants, engineers), but who sometimes struggle to communicate the value of that work to their market in an engaging way. Scott and his team simply show them how to make their comms — including their bids, tenders, pitches and proposals — clear, concise and compelling.

To book a slot to speak to Scott about your or your team’s writing, click here:

PSLs and Associates: how to score your readability

By | Write for Results | No Comments

Now you know what readability is and what the Readability Stats on your screen look like… how do you access them?

To score your readability, follow two steps: 1) activate the stats; 2) run the Spelling & Grammar check. Let’s deal briefly with step 1 in Microsoft® and Apple.

Activating the readability stats in Microsoft® Word

Click on ‘File’ in the toolbar, ‘Options’ in the left-hand column, then on ‘Proofing’. The dialogue box that appears looks like this:



Towards the bottom, under the heading ‘When correcting spelling and grammar in Word’, are two options: ‘Check grammar with spelling’, and ‘Show readability statistics’, which is greyed out. To activate the stats, tick/check the ‘Check grammar with spelling’ option. The ‘Show readability statistics’ option below it should then automatically be ticked/checked; if not, do it manually.

Make sure as well that the drop-down box alongside ‘Writing Style’ says ‘Grammar & Style’ (as above), and not ‘Grammar only’.

Activating the readability stats in Microsoft® Word for Mac 2011

In the toolbar under ‘Word’, go into ‘Preferences’: under ‘Authoring and Proofing Tools’, click on ‘Spelling and Grammar’. You should then see this screen:


Tick/check the box marked ‘Show readability statistics’ and make sure that the ‘Writing style’ drop-down box says ‘Standard’ or ‘Grammar & Refinements’. Click ‘OK’ and you’ve activated the stats.

How to score your readability in the above programs

Place the cursor at the start of your body copy or highlight the text you want to score. Run the Spelling & Grammar check (‘Tools’, in the toolbar), accepting or rejecting the options as you wish (click on ‘Ignore’, ‘Ignore all’ or ‘Ignore rule’ to get through them quickly). At the end of the S & G check, a dialogue box asks if you wish to check the remainder of the document – click ‘No’ and the readability stats appear.

Trouble-shooting problems in the readability stats feature

If you get odd scores (0% readability doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer!), it may be because…

… your document has lots of graphs, graphics or bullets (the stats work best on body copy/narrative text, i.e. prose of complete, punctuated sentences);

… your word count is too low: the stats struggle with text of fewer than 200 words;

… when you activated the stats in the dialogue box shown above, if you’re on a PC you should have opted for ‘Grammar & Style’ in the ‘Writing Style’ drop-down box, rather than ‘Grammar only’ (otherwise the ‘Show readability statistics’ option may be greyed out).

Word of warning: the stats work best on fully punctuated body copy of at least 200 words; they don’t work well on titles, headlines, subheadings, bullet points and captions. If your document has lots of these, save it as a text-only file and run the stats on that for a truer score.

If you struggle accessing the Stats, ping me an email:

Don’t let the tail wag the dog

When I show people on my training courses how to use these readability stats, they run around like frisky puppies editing their work to edge their FRE score over the magic 60% plain English line and beat their colleagues. I like to see healthy competition, but don’t let your new-found toy blind you to its limits. The stats only tell you what’s going on in your writing mechanically; they don’t assess the quality of your content.

You could be writing complete rubbish; you’ll only know it’s readable rubbish!

What I want to cultivate in you, rather, is your writerly judgment, your ability to assess your own writing. If you’re happy with what you’ve written and reckon it hits the spot as far as your reader goes, then whether it scores 59% or 61% is immaterial.

The bottom-line

Get into the habit of scoring your readability, to track how your writing is improving. And show your colleagues how to do it!


If you’d like to go to the heart of the matter and download three chapters of my book, rhetorica® — a toolkit of 21 everyday writing techniques, here’s the link: Download rhetorica® Chapters


Scott Keyser runs Write for Results, a communications and business development consultancy. Write for Results works with professionals who perform technically complex work (eg lawyers, accountants, engineers), but who sometimes struggle to communicate the value of that work to their market in an engaging way. Scott and his team simply show them how to make their comms — including their bids, tenders, pitches and proposals — clear, concise and compelling.

To book a slot to speak to Scott about your or your team’s writing, click here:

Are you an Accidental Writer?

By | Write for Results | No Comments


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:

  1. You know you could write better, but it does the job and you’ve got other priorities.
  2. ‘You’ve either got it or you haven’t’. You believe that good writers are born, not made.
  3. 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):

nov blog pic

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.

The Bottom-Line

So, if you’ve identified yourself as an Accidental Writer, apply these five cures to the above ills:

  1. Get to know your reader and write about what most matters to them, ie focus on them, not you
  2. Include only information critical to the reader and ditch the rest (or hyperlink it to another page)
  3. Help your reader find that critical information through a clear structure
  4. Write in plain English, eg build vs construct, help vs assist, ask vs request
  5. 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 Thanks…and good luck with your writing!

Are you we-ing all over your clients and prospects?

By | Write for Results | No Comments

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!

9/11 poem

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

A strange thing happened today.


Out of the blue

A ladder of light came down from Heaven

And with it a firefighter from 9/11.

The new day was dawning

— sunlight glinting on his helmet and boots, fresh with Heaven’s dew —

Just as it did that perfect, Eden morning.

His face was old but his eyes sparkled, like a new sun.

He brought us news.


“Down by the Hudson did I weep

At the slurry wall that stops the river’s seep,

My pain as wide as it was deep.


At our twin temples we fed Mammon, fast and loud

Capitalism unfettered, unshackled, unbowed.

Everything made by man that had been made,

Vaulting ambition, two soaring towers of trade.


Suddenly, from that perfect sky, silver birds flew into our temples

And threw them to the ground.

A wound so deep, so profound

That our nation shook.

Terror clamped our hearts, like a mortal mist

As the towers sheared off from the Manhattan schist.


All in Ladder 3 were killed,

Our bodies crushed, our hearts stilled.

We were crushed, reduced, pulverised

Scattered, splintered, a.t.o.m.i.s.e.d.

Jumpers shattering on the sidewalk — that terrible sound —

Rang like a rattle through my soul.


Then silence.


A gentle cloak of dust covered all

Like grey snow or Belsen ash, a ghostly pall.

Ground Zero.


That was then.

Time has marched on, for you at least.


Now there are twin pools to collect your tears

Cascading, trident-shaped, down sixteen years

Runnelling your sorrow and your fears

Into the marbled earth.


And I am free.


Now I dance among the spheres and stars:

Electrons, protons, Jupiter and Mars.

Here, now and forever, time and space don’t exist.

Despite the awful human cost

Nothing is wasted, nothing is lost.

Go figure!

We are all energy re-configured.


I am light among the atoms

I ride the particles and waves,

I plumb the depths and fathoms

I feel the music of the staves.


And know this.


We all are loved.

Even the pilots of the silver birds

Who twisted the message, the love unheard.

We all are loved, make no mistake.

We choose to love; we choose to hate.


Beyond the lives and loves undone

The daily round of work and play

The weft and warp of life unspun

The passage of clouds on a summer’s day.

Beyond all that grows under the moon and sun

Beyond the binary of all or none

Beyond what’s ended or begun —

We are all one.”


And so be it.