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 email@example.com. 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!
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.
A gentle cloak of dust covered all
Like grey snow or Belsen ash, a ghostly pall.
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.
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.
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.
People often ask me to summarise my top tips for improving their writing. What are the shortcuts that can transform it fast?
I tried to keep it to five, but in the end identified seven that take writing to the next level.
Here are the top 7 writing tips from my book rhetorica® — a toolkit of 21 everyday writing techniques:
To read the book in full, you can purchase it from Amazon here.
I hope you found my tips useful. I also came across an article, Technical Writing Tools: The Ultimate Choice of 83 Experts by Ferry Vermeulen, which shares the technical writing tools that are favoured most by 80 experts. Give it a read.
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.