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February 2016

10 top writing tips from RHETORICA® – Tip #7: turn features into benefits

Write for Results

In this series of tips on persuasive writing, I’ve stressed the importance of talking more about the reader than yourself. Instead of describing what you’re going to do, describe what the reader gets as a result. Instead of talking about the features of your product or service, talk about the benefits to the reader.

If benefits are the way to go, let’s clarify three key terms:

A feature is a characteristic, attribute or property of your product or service. The reader may or may not value it.

An advantage is what your product/service does that others don’t do, ie what differentiates it from the rest.

A benefit is how your product/service makes someone’s life better in a way that they will value. It’s about the recipient getting a desirable, positive outcome, resulting in more persuasive writing. Example benefits include a well-behaved puppy, a good night’s sleep, a sizzling sex life, an ROI improved by 20%, staff turnover cut by 42%, twice as many leads converted into sales.

Too many writers confuse benefits and features, or simply list features without converting them into reader benefits. There are three ways to make that conversion:

  1. ‘So what?’
  2. ‘This means that you…’
  3. ‘This gives you…’

Persuasive writing, example 1:

Feature: Our firm has 3,000 competition lawyers in 20 jurisdictions around the world.

‘So what?’

Benefit: You get relevant, practical and current advice on competition law from local people who know the latest regulations and, in some cases, even know the regulators. What that means for you is insight into which of your new branded products will best satisfy the law in each particular jurisdiction and which ones carry the greatest risks in terms of anti-competitive activity.

Persuasive writing, example 2:

Feature: Our journal is peer-reviewed.

Benefit: This means that you can rely on the content, currency and intellectual rigour of every academic paper in our journal. Not only has it been written by an expert in that particular field, it’s been reviewed by one. Authors know that their work will only be published when approved by our review panel. So when you subscribe to BioGenetics Gazette, you know you’re reading scientific papers of the highest quality.

Persuasive writing, example 3:

Feature: We only publish the results of double-blind, randomised, controlled trials (RCT) of medical products.

Benefit: An RCT is considered the gold standard of clinical trials. This gives you the most objective test results, with minimal bias, that you can reliably base critical clinical and business decisions on.

The bottom-line on persuasive writing: when we talk about features, the predominant words are we and our. Yet when we talk about benefits, the predominant words are you and your. Using these magic words in your writing shows that your mindset has shifted to being reader-centric — another reason to major on benefits.

Scott’s book on persuasive writing — RHETORICA: persuasive writing for the 21st century, published by ReThink Press — is due out summer 2016, but you can get a sneak peek at his 18 March open course in central London (). And if you’d like a 15-minute consultation with Scott, to assess your/your team’s writing and get three insights into how to improve it, click here to book a slot: 

What Terry Wogan teaches us about writing

Write for Results

The much-loved British broadcaster and radio legend died on Sunday aged 77 after five decades in radio and TV. When he retired in 2009 from his BBC Radio 2 breakfast show, his simple goodbye ‘Thank you for being my friend’ spoke volumes about his skill as a communicator.

Despite addressing millions of fans in that farewell, he made each listener feel as if he was talking to them and them alone. He did that by using the magic word you in the second-person singular, and by keeping friend singular, too.

He could have said ‘Thank you all for being my friends’, but that would have betrayed an ‘audience’ mindset. Keeping things singularly personal showed his true mindset: he wanted to speak to each individual. Radio allowed him to achieve ‘mass personalisation’, to establish an intimacy over the airwaves with each of us. As a result, he made us feel special and part of his Radio 2 family.

This simple shift in mindset applies to written communications, too.

Avoid the multiple personality disorder

When addressing multiple readers in a communication — whether an email or an article —inexperienced writers tend to use you in a plural phrase, eg ‘some of you’ or ‘all of you’, as if their readers were huddled around one copy of the document or suffering from multiple personality disorder. When I see phrases like that, I look behind me to see who else is in the room reading over my shoulder.

As David Ogilvy, the great copywriter and founder of ad agency Ogilvy & Mather, said: “Do not address your readers as if they were gathered together in a stadium. When people read your words, they are alone.”

The word audience is another symptom of this disorder.

When I run writing workshops, I often hear ‘I’m writing for my audience’. There are five problems with this word:

  1. ‘Audience’ suggests people are listening (the Latin root of the word audiare), but — despite the fact there is an auditory aspect to writing — our readers read our words.
  2. ‘Audience’ is too broad. It lumps all our readers into the same bucket, implying they’re all the same, which of course they’re not. It also suggests we’re broadcasting our message in the hope some of it lands, rather than personalising it to individual readers or reader-types. It’s the difference between ‘broadcast’ and ‘narrowcast’.
  3. Audiences tend to be passive. Picture an audience in a theatre or cinema: they sit passively, taking in the spectacle; traffic tends to be 1-way. Good writing should feel more like a conversation than a lecture.
  4. Audiences don’t take decisions; individual readers do.
  5. Finally, when you read something do you feel like an ‘audience’? No, of course you don’t. You feel like you: a unique, special, distinct individual and you want to be addressed that way.

When you adopt an ‘audience’ mindset, your connection with the reader is weak. When you have a ‘reader’ mindset (aka being ‘reader-centric’), your connection with the reader is strong. The stronger the connection, the more receptive they’ll be to your message. And that means — if you’re trying to persuade them to do something — they’re likelier to do what you want them to do.

If you have any doubts about the power of personalisation, consider this: if you happened to spot your own name — the ultimate personal word — in a piece of writing, would it make you more or less likely to read it? The answer is obvious.

The more your writing makes an intimate and personal connection with your reader, the more persuasive it will be. That’s why ‘Write for your reader’ is Technique #1 in my RHETORICA® toolkit of 21 persuasive writing techniques. It’s a meta principle, because it supports and informs the other 20 techniques.

You’re writing for an audience of one — your reader. As a natural communicator, Terry Wogan understood that perfectly.

Scott’s book on persuasive writing — RHETORICA: persuasive writing for the 21st century — is due out in April, but you can get a sneak peek at his 18 March open course in central London (). And if you’d like a 15-minute consultation with Scott, to discuss how to improve your comms and get three insights into how to improve your writing, click here to book a slot: