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?’
- 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: http://bit.ly/2f5o6di