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Scott Keyser

How public figures talk about the climate crisis betrays their benightedness

Last week, climate activists disrupted a Q&A session with US Transportation Secretary, Pete Buttigieg, protesting against four proposed crude oil export projects off the Texas coast. If the projects go ahead, billions of tonnes of CO2 will be released into the atmosphere.

Though he heard the protesters out, what struck me was Buttigieg’s bombastic, nationalistic defence of his administration’s climate policy: “…the biggest, most aggressive climate action undertaken by any government of any state in the history of the world”.

I’ve heard a similarly jingoistic tone from my own government in the UK, eg “The UK is leading the world in its net-zero ambitions…”.

It’s as if our political leaders are more interested in sound-bites and in out-gunning their neighbours than in cutting greenhouse gas emissions (at the time of writing, these are still rising). It tells me they see the climate crisis in parochial, nationalistic terms, rather than the all-consuming, global issue it clearly is.

It tells me they don’t get — viscerally, in their guts — the terrible implications of losing the climate.

It tells me they lack the humility to bow down before the immense and overwhelming beauty and power of nature.

It tells me they have scant vision for a new, ‘more beautiful world that our hearts know is possible’ (Charles Eisenstein’s book).

It tells me that, deep down, they think they can get away with business as usual.

It tells me they see it as a competition to be won for their voters, not a collaboration to save all nations.

It tells me they’re complacent, that they don’t think it’s an emergency.

It tells me that we are sleepwalking to disaster.

Mother Nature doesn’t give a shit about our climate ambitions, political grandstanding, the size of our legislative proposals or hyperbolic rhetoric. She simply responds to the physics of the carbon in her lungs, the chemicals in her soil and the pollution in her seas.

If now isn’t the time to put the world on a war footing, I don’t know when is.

How do we make our writing likeable?

Brand Builders TV Scott Keyser Persuasive Writing

“When I find a piece of writing hard to read, I immediately dislike the writer — ‘cos they couldn’t be bothered to make it easy for me.”

Damning words from Sean, an IT consultant who attended a writing workshop I ran this week. Sean’s words got us into discussing the idea of ‘likeable’ writing and, by extension, of liking the writer.

First off, what is likeable writing?

In my book, it’s writing that gives you the information you need in a simple, easy, accessible style, shot through with a touch of flair and flamboyance (from the French, meaning ‘to blaze’ or ‘flame’). Likeable writing makes reading an enjoyable, stimulating experience that endears you to the writer — even if they’re a complete stranger.

So, how do we do it? I think there are three elements:
1. Content
2. Clarity
3. Personality

Content…is king

I’m sorry, but this is an area I can’t help you with.

Assuming you’re expert in your field, you should be able to present information to the reader that is relevant and timely, with intellectual rigour and precision. If you lack that expertise, you’re unlikely to be able to influence their behaviour, emotions or views.

And if you are truly an expert, wear your learning lightly, ie make it your goal to help your reader, not to show how clever you are. Make it all about them, not you.

Clarity (from the Latin, claritas, clearness)

I’m really clear about this (!) Clear writing can be read and understood in one go, one reading. If we force our reader to re-read and re-read our words, we’re gonna lose them. Here are three practical ways of writing clearly:

1. Omit needless words. This is the best way to write concisely. By removing words that add no value, content, meaning or information, we tighten our writing. We make our point in as few words as possible. If we ramble, waffle or meander, our reader will vote with their feet (their eyes?) and stop reading.
Examples:
In order to further her career => To further her career (33% shorter)
For training and quality purposes => For training and quality (20% shorter)
On a quarterly basis => Quarterly (75% shorter)

2. Shorten your sentences. The higher our ASL (Average Sentence Length, in words), the more we’re cramming into each sentence, the harder we’re making our reader work to get our meaning. In general, the harder we make our readers work, the faster we lose them. The science of readability shows that the ideal ASL is 15 – 20 words: higher than 20 and we’re over-taxing the reader’s brain; lower than 15 and our writing risks sounding simplistic or childish. The Readability Statistics in Word calculate your ASL for you, among other useful ratios. If you get stuck, contact me.

3. Use plain English. Give yourself permission to use natural, everyday, conversational language. You’ll sound human. If you use management-speak, BS-Bingo or MBA-itis, you’ll sound like a corporate drone and turn your reader off. This is NOT about dumbing-down your writing; it’s about using simpler language.
Examples:
give assistance to => help
purchase => buy
request => ask
commence => begin, start, launch 
depart => leave
You don’t make yourself sound smart by using needlessly formal language: you just annoy your reader (like Sean).

Personality

This is the missing link in B2B writing.

Most business writing is competent and comprehensible…but dull. And that’s usually because the writer has chosen to leave their innate, unique, authentic, inimitable human personality at the door. They pepper their writing instead with hackneyed, boilerplate, pre-fabricated phrases (We are committed to serving you…We provide leading-edge, market-facing products…Our people are our most valuable asset etc etc). This is the refuge of the lazy or the unconfident writer.

Resorting to lifeless language not only robs the writing of vitality; it also kills any joy the writer might get from writing.

What, then, is writing with personality?

It’s when the writer isn’t scared to go out on a limb and express strong views. The reader may disagree with those views, but if they’re informed and well argued, it can make for an engaging read.

Personality can also take the form of levity, ie light-heartedness; being playful with either topic or language — provided it’s appropriate in the context; not taking ourselves too seriously, poking fun at ourselves.

Finally, using plain English allows our personality to come through our writing. Nothing kills personality faster than needlessly formal, pompous, wordy language. It masks who we really are and alienates the reader.

Do any of the above and Sean might become your pen pal.

~~~

Scott Keyser is The Writing Guy. Writing is a life skill and he’s solved the riddle of how to do it well, with his rhetorica® persuasive writing system of 15 techniques — five planning, five drafting, five editing.

Writing ‘with faith’, ie confidence

Jargon Definition Write for Results Scott Keyser

Delegate feedback on my rhetorica® writing programmeI’ve just delivered another of my virtual rhetorica®  writing programmes to ten IT consultants.

At the end of the third and final session (on Editing), I asked them to post in the zoom chat what they’ll change about their writing, plus the ‘Before’ and ‘After’ scores in their writing confidence.

As you can see from the screenshot, everyone felt more confident at the end than at the start of the programme. Result!

Why confidence matters

From the two Latin words con and fide, meaning ‘with faith’, confidence is often the link missing between dull writing and writing that leaps off the page into the reader’s heart and mind.

When we write with confidence, our words flow fearlessly: we express our (informed) views on the topic in service to the reader and their needs. We feel able to express who we really are, and not hide behind corporate-speak or techie ‘jargon’ (a medieval French word meaning ‘chattering birdsong’). We take them by the hand and walk with them through the landscape of our experience or expertise. They feel they are in safe hands, so trust us. And readers that trust us are likelier to do what we invite or recommend them to do.

How did my training boost their writing confidence?

My rhetorica® writing system of 15 simple, universal techniques (five planning, five drafting, five editing) demystifies what for some is a black art, or an innate skill, ie you’ve either got it or you haven’t.

This is just not the case.

The ability to write with personality, persuasion and power is a learnable skill within the gift of anyone already literate. The cliche  that ‘good writing is caught, not taught’ I’ve disproved by improving the writing skills of over 5000 technical professionals since 2004.

By separating planning from drafting from editing, the rhetorica® system breaks the process down into three discrete steps, with each step containing five techniques that anyone of any background can master.

For instance, one of the five planning techniques is Nail your Objective. For this we use F.F.A. to identify the Facts, Feelings and the Actions we want the reader to take. In other words, we’re breaking down the reader’s desired behaviour change into three dimensions: what we want them to know, feel and do. That drives clarity into the objective or purpose of our communication, influencing our word-choice and the structure of our document.

When we’re drafting, we need to write concisely. The single guaranteed way to write concisely is to Omit Needless Words, ie remove the words that add no value, content, meaning or information. A simple example: instead of saying ‘In order to further her career’, just say ‘To further her career’. That’s a 50% saving in verbiage! (Your reader will love you for it.)

And when we’re editing, in the third and final writing step, one of the things we should do is read our writing out loud.

R.O.L. is a favourite of mine (and of pro writers), ‘cos it’s so darned simple and effective.

When we read our writing out loud — audibly, so we hear every single word — we catch the long-winded, the obscure, the vague, the pretentious, the verbose. If it sounds good to you, it’ll probably sound good to your reader.

What’s not to like?

The Writing Guy’s tip: write with confidence and your reader will have confidence in you.

Planning ain’t sexy…but it IS essential

Humbling feedback from a (highly discerning!) participant in a writing workshop I ran recently for a humanitarian organization in London. (The 100% score refers to the fact that every participant rated the day as ‘Excellent’.)

What did I do to deserve such plaudits?

In part, it was the result of convincing the group of the need to plan, and how to do it.

If you don’t plan, you won’t write with impact

Most people don’t plan before they draft. Many pay lip-service to it, but if they do it at all, they do it badly.

I get it: planning your writing is neither sexy nor exciting. It tends to be a cerebral, abstract process with little or no output, other than maybe a MindMap or some random notes. Often under deadline pressure, technical professionals want to crack on with drafting, to feel they’re making progress. I call this an ‘action-illusion’: it makes them feel busy, but it’s neither effective nor efficient.

And like editing, planning is optional.

You don’t have to plan, like you don’t have to edit. But your writing won’t have the same impact. The only thing you must do (obvs!), if you want to produce a written document, is draft.

What are the risks of not planning?

The biggest risk of diving into drafting without planning (‘premature drafting’) is you get halfway through your document and realise your ideas are half-baked, there are gaps in your knowledge, you don’t know your reader as well as you thought or you’ve disappeared down an intellectual rabbit hole. So you throw your draft away and start again. We call this a ‘re-write’ and it’s a disaster: you’ve wasted time, energy and morale, which in turn puts you under even more pressure. Using drafting to clarify your thinking is an abuse of process. Big No-No.

What are the benefits of planning?

If our instinct is to avoid planning, we need to motivate ourselves to do it by reminding ourselves of the benefits. I think there are five big ones:
1. Impact. You engage your reader and hold their attention throughout, because your content is relevant, well-structured and organized.
2. Clarity. Because you’ve done your research, developed your arguments and clarified your ideas. You’ve thought it all through before pen hits paper (or fingers hit keyboard). Head clarity generates page clarity.
3. Effectiveness. Thanks to 1. and 2., you change your reader’s behaviour. Persuasive writing is not about pretty words or clever language: it’s about getting the reader to think, say or act differently.
4. Efficiency. By re-drafting less and avoiding re-writes altogether, we save precious time, writing a stronger document faster.
5. Confidence. When I’ve planned well and know where I’m going with my document, I feel more in control of the process. This relaxes me and gives me confidence to start drafting.

“Great, Scott, we’re convinced of the need to plan. But how do we do it?”

Aha. That’s for next time.

In my next blog post, I’ll share the five planning techniques of my rhetorica® writing system, summarised in the acronym S.T.O.R.M. — Structure. Timing. Objective. Reader. Message.

Till then, good luck with your writing!

The Writing Guy’s tip: time spent planning is never wasted.

Best email subject lines

best email subject lines scott keyser

Today, I’m covering the remaining five techniques for writing headlines and email subject lines. I have identified nine techniques for crafting these, and I covered the first four in Email subject lines that work.

 

5.  The number

Quantifying a fact implies authority, precision and completeness. It reassures the reader that we know what we’re talking about. Received wisdom suggests that odd numbers are more memorable than even ones. And within the universe of odd numbers, at least in the West, 7 has been voted the most popular number, according to a survey done a number of years ago by the mathematician Alex Bellos. He surveyed about 50,000 Europeans. So, the number 7 (or numbers with 7 in them) are more useful and tend to be more memorable.

As an example, we might say, “Whistle blower disclosures up 17%”, or, “37 tips for getting your blog read”, or, “7 simple six-pack exercises”, (using the alliteration of three Ss), or, “17 ways to generate more leads”. And, of course, the most famous of all, the strapline for my first book, Winner Takes All, “Seven-and-a-half principles for winning more bids, tenders and proposals”. The half principle being crafting a powerful executive summary.

 

7.  The twist or surprise

This is also known as the pattern breaker, pulling the rug from under the reader. It leads them down one thought path, only to abruptly change direction at the end.

The Economist staff are masters at this. This was on a well-known outdoor poster (now known as an OOM…out-of-home medium): “I’ve never read The Economist…management trainee, age 42”. The implication is that if you don’t read The Economist, your career will stall and falter. You’ll end at the tender old age of 42, still being a trainee.

Another Economist one is, “In opinion polls, 100% of Economist readers had one”. It’s quite cheeky, in that reading The Economist enables you to be opinionated, or at least to have an informed opinion about what’s going on in the world.

Another pseudo-quote, “Economist readers welcome”. And underneath, “Sperm donor clinic”.

Finally, a more popular example of the twist, the surprise or the pattern breaker. “In February, Kanye West gave Kim Kardashian a diamond-encrusted Rolex. Three months later, they were divorced”. What that does is lead the reader down one avenue, or thought path, and then we’re abruptly changing direction.

 

8.  Juxtaposition, or contrasting pairs

An example of this might be, “Probing the cause of diabetes, one pizza at a time”. Or, an actual headline for a life insurance product: “Cash if you die, cash if you don’t”. And here was a open university subject line: “Get to the green without going to U”. The juxtaposition is that you can get a degree without actually going to university.

The next one is from an academic paper, around proletarian political policies. “Live working or die fighting: how the working class went global”.

Then another Economist headline, when Barak Obama was the U.S. president. “Putin dares, Obama dithers”. So you’ve got the pause in the middle caused by the comma. And you’ve got the alliteration of the two Ds.

We can also use word play, double meaning or double entendre (to use the French). We might say, “Wake up to the importance of sleep,” or, “Old age: a thing of the past?” And this is an old one. In the era when Volkswagens had the reputation for never breaking down (this is a sweet one, because Volkswagen owners are a bit cultish), “Ever heard people talking about their Volkswagens? They go on and on and on”.

 

9.  Standfirst under the headline

We can grab the reader’s attention with a dramatic headline, then give an explanatory one-liner, known as a standfirst, underneath it. The Economist uses standfirsts a lot in their articles.

We might say something like, “HMRC is closing in”. That’s your headline. Then the standfirst could be, “New tax laws are making it harder to set up off-shore tax havens”. So we’re giving the reader a little bit more information.

Another one. The headline could be, “It’s a class act”, followed by a standfirst, “New UK class-action procedures come into force 1 October”.

A third and final example of a standfirst would be a headline, “Leaders in driverless cars”, followed by, “What happens when left-wing politicians confront new technologies?”

 

This is how the best email subject lines are created

Now we have a total of nine ways of grabbing the reader’s attention with a headline, or in the case of an email, the best email subject lines.

I hope you’ve found this useful and interesting. Let me know how you get on with applying these techniques on the Facebook page.

I’m Scott Keyser, The Writing Guy, helping smart professionals to find their voice, write Human and get the results they want from the words they write.

 

Email subject lines that work

email subject lines scott keyser

The other day, I was speaking to a client who does a lot of cold calling. He’s a franchisee who works for an organisation that specialises in procurement and cost reduction. They are experts in what they do. Typically the franchisees rely on cold calling, but since the onset of the pandemic, they’ve been relying on email subject lines that grab attention.

With lockdown and the advent of hybrid work, more and more people are working from home. We know that to be a fact. Even though people are beginning to go back to their offices, the decisionmakers may only be going in one or two days or week. So they’re working from home. If you try to call them, the only way to reach them is through their mobile phone. So if you don’t have that number, it can be very difficult to reach them.

There was a time, pre-pandemic, when you could legitimately call the organisation’s switchboard or receptionist. They may not put you in touch with a senior decisionmaker, but they would at least connect you with that person’s executive assistant or secretary.

If you were able to sweet talk that person, you may then be able to get a slot in the decisionmaker’s diary—to speak to them at a later date. Obviously, while these people are working from home, getting in touch with them has become even more difficult.

What I’m saying—in a rather long-winded way—is that this makes email subject lines that work even more important.

 

A greater need for effective email subject lines

Chris, this client of mine, was saying that he’s sending far more emails. Those emails need to be even punchier, relevant and precise than before. He reckons that when communicating with most senior decisionmakers, he’s got between five and ten seconds to get their attention.

That’s not very long. So we were talking about the importance of the written word in headlines and email subject lines. Obviously, I have views on that. We talked about how an email’s success relies heavily on the quality and impact of the subject line.

Now I’d like to share with you nine techniques for crafting powerful email subject lines and attention-grabbing headlines. These are the same nine I share with people in my workshops.

 

Nine ways to grab readers’ attention

1.  Ask a question

A colleague of Chris’, a fellow franchisee, asked a question in the subject line of a cold email. It read, “Can we really save 20% on your fleet costs?” The organisation he was contacting operates a shipping fleet. If you ask a pointed question like that, you must then answer it immediately in the first line of the email. You’d write something like, “Yes, we can. And in fact, we did it only three weeks ago for a company very similar to yours…”.

Asking a question in the subject line is a tried-and-tested, technique. Obviously, the question you ask must be relevant and interesting to the reader. Good questions engage the reader by piquing their curiosity or sparking a mental image.

I remember the days of the .com boom and bust. I had received an email with a subject line that read, “Where have the .com profits gone?” It was very simple and effective.

 

2.  Ask a question and use the magic word

The magic word is you/your. I read an amazing one the other day. It said, “Do you close the bathroom door, even when you’re the only one at home?”

That’s a closed question, because the answer is either yes or no. But, in fact, it was a subject line for Who Gives a Crap, a company that supplies green and sustainable loo paper. In fact, I can fully recommend them. Their product is very gentle on the bum and gentle on the planet.

Using the words you and your make the reader feel as if we’re talking to them personally. Combining these with a question that addresses the reader directly on a topic that interests them is likely to engage them.

 

3.  Give a command or instruction

In essence, you’re telling the reader what to do. You’re using a verb in what’s known as the imperative mood. An example might be, “Click here to register for the course”. That’s a command or instruction. “Apply now for your early bird discount”. Notice I’ve used the magic word ‘your’. “Apply now” uses ‘now’, a powerful word. “Find out more about a career in teaching”. Again, giving a command. Or, “Fix your high staff turnover”.

 

4.  Quote a killer fact

These are memorable stats or statements that cut through the details and stun the reader into action…the action being that they actually read the article or email. They’re known as killers because they kill off opponents quicker than a worthy study or well-researched report.

You might write something like, “Two works of man are visible from space: China’s Great Wall and the Amazon fires”. Sadly and tragically, you could also say, “The California fires” or “The U.S. fires” or “The Greece fires” or the “sudden Spain fires”.

Another one might be, “A child dies every four seconds from preventable causes”. I’ve seen this approach deployed a lot by voluntary charity organisations.

 

Grab attention with email subject lines that work

There you have four ways to grab attention with headlines and email subject lines. We can ask a question, ask a question with the magic word, give a command or instruction, or we can quote a fact that will shock, surprise, intrigue…or give them something to disagree with or rub up against.

That’s only four of the nine ways we can write attention-grabbing subject lines and headlines. For the other five, be sure to read part two, Best email subject lines.

If you haven’t heard, I will be conducting workshops that include valuable writing information such as this, plus new and exciting content. The best way to stay informed about all that’s happening at Write for Results is to Like and Follow the Facebook page. Join the conversation, learn to write Human and get the results you want!

I’m Scott Keyser, The Writing Guy, helping smart professionals to find their voice, write Human and get the results they want from the words they write.

Nailing your elevator pitch

Write for Results

For the past few weeks, I’ve been coaching a coach — a lovely lady called Andrea. We’ve been working together on her value proposition and elevator pitch. She’s a highly experienced and talented executive and leadership coach.

This week we’ve made some good progress on her elevator pitch. Within that, I’ve helped her to nail what I call her soundbite. Essentially, that’s a 20- to 30-second articulation of the essence of what she does — the core of her work.

I’d urge anybody who’s running their own business or who’s a business owner to nail their soundbite, whether working with me or someone else (this isn’t a sales plug!). It’s so important to do that.

Anda (Andrea’s nickname) and I have nailed that in one paragraph. I want to share it with you because I think it’s instructive to anybody who leads a team or runs their own business.

Anda’s elevator pitch

Here’s the 30-second elevator pitch that Anda and I’ve developed:

“I’m Coach Anda, and I’m a leadership coach. I work with strong, driven leaders who are already good at what they do, but who want their team to be great. If they want to have a great team, however, first they have to be a great leader. That’s why we start with self-mastery. Whatever storms of change are swirling around them and their team, self-mastered leaders stand quietly in the eye of the storm, responding wisely to new threats and opportunities. I help good leaders become great ones, because great leaders lead great teams.”

That’s 94 words, and runs to almost exactly 30 seconds in length. Now I’d like to unpick it, particularly the beginning where she says she works with ‘strong, driven leaders.’

For any soundbite to stand out and not be bland, you need to evoke some kind of problem, issue, pain point, challenge or conflict. What Anda experiences is that strong, experienced leaders come to her, essentially saying, ‘Help me fix my team. I want my team to be great.’

What she does is throws that back to them with, ‘If you want your team to be great, you have to be a great leader.’ I’ve tried to capture that in the soundbite. So what we’re doing is modeling the message.

Juxtaposition in the opening

Within that opening, there’s a mini-conflict, or juxtaposition.

Let’s look at it again, with the ‘good/great’ juxtaposition in bold:

“I’m Coach Anda, and I’m a leadership coach. I work with strong, driven leaders who are already good at what they do, but who want their team to be great…”

Placing responsibility

Then, she throws the onus back on the leader:

“If they want to lead a great team, however, first they have to be a great leader. That’s why we start with self-mastery…”

In Anda’s work, to put it crudely, she helps the leader to fix themselves first, before they fix their team. This makes perfect sense because the leaders sits at the hub of that system, if you like. She’s throwing the ball back into their court.

More Juxtapositions

Then it’s time to bring out the idea of change:

“Whatever storms of change are swirling around them and their team, self-mastered leaders stand quietly in the eye of the storm…”

That’s another juxtaposition, or contrasting pairs of words or phrases. There’s the idea of being in the middle of a maelstrom, but ‘self-mastered’ means quietness, calmness and composure in the eye of the storm.

After that, I threw in the idea of ‘responding wisely’ because one of the things Anda had said to me was that leaders who haven’t achieved self-mastery tend to make reactive decisions. So I wanted to contrast the idea of reacting (a sort of knee-jerk reflex) with the idea of wise responses:

“…responding wisely to new threats and opportunities…”

The elevator pitch’s punchline

Then the punchline is another juxtaposition. At the end of the 30-second elevator pitch, she says…

“I help good leaders become great ones, because great leaders lead great teams.”

In that one line, we’ve captured the idea that she works with both the leader and their team.

A final word on the elevator pitch

I hope this has been instructive, interesting and helpful to you. The bottom line for us, as communicators and writers, is that if what we’re writing or talking about has no inherent pain, issue, problem or challenge, it’s going to be dull.

The reason for that goes back to the ancient origins of drama: conflict creates drama. Without conflict, you don’t have drama. You don’t have interesting theatre, if you like. This came from the ancient Greek dramatists and its wisdom holds true today.

That’s it for now. I’m Scott Keyser, The Writing Guy, helping technical professionals to find their voice, write Human, and get the results they want from the words they write. Be sure to visit my website and my blog for exciting news, tips and wisdom on writing.

 

 

Technical writing using S.C.O.T.T.

technical writing scott keyser

On the 28th of July, I ran my first live event on WebinarJam – a one-hour webinar on how to give your technical writing more impact. It included five writing techniques for technical professionals. We had about 90 attendees. If you were one of them, thank you so much for joining us. I loved doing it. It was such a buzz.

Technical writing confidence

We kicked off the webinar with a poll. I asked people to plot their confidence in their technical writing on a scale of one to ten. It was a very typical bell curve distribution, with the rump of people landing between 4 and 7 on the confidence scale. There were no 10s. This is what I would have expected. I guess you could say that anyone who rated themselves a 10 wouldn’t need to be on the call.

Then I shared with the webinar group a really horrible piece of writing. It was a 200-word piece of corporate gobbledygook, as I like to call it. We dissected it. I colour-coded various issues, like Nounitis, Passivitis, long sentences, wording…so that the whole thing was just a riot of highlighted colour.

Then we scored its readability. Actually, according to the readability stats in Word, it scored a Zero. It was pretty damning. What I proceeded to do with the group was rewrite it, using my Big Five Writing Techniques.

That took the readability from 0 to just under 74 per-cent. When we used the Flesch Reading Ease score, the contrast was stark.

Confidence, round two

Then we ran a second poll. I say “we” because I was assisted technically by a great guy called Ben Smith, who’s an expert on WebinarJam. To be honest with you, without his help, I don’t think it ever would have happened. He ran all the behind-the-scenes technology, which was great. I just showed up with the content.

In that second poll, we asked people to plot their confidence again. This time, the overall ratings went up. There were far fewer people in the 2-to-3 and 4-to-5 brackets and many more in the 6-to-7 and 7-to-8 brackets. I think there were even a couple of 10s as well.

That was amazingly gratifying to me, to see that in the space of an hour, we were able to boost people’s confidence in their writing.

The Big Five Writing Techniques

Next, I shared with the group the Big Five Writing Techniques that I had applied. I also imparted a new acronym to help them remember those five techniques.

That acronym?

S.C.O.T.T.

  • Shorten Your Sentences. Your ASL (Average Sentence Length) should be 15 to 20 words.
  • Cure Nounitis with Verbitis. Nounitis is the overuse of nouns, and we cure that using more verbs than nouns.
  • Omit Needless Words and Phrases. Remove any redundant, needless or unnecessary words and phrases that are not adding any value, content, meaning or information.
  • Turn Your Passives into Actives. Many people are not aware of the difference between the two. As a result, a lot of people (and you may be one of them) write unconsciously in passive voice.
  • Trust in Plain English. That’s the best way to simplify your writing and your language. Don’t equate plain English with dumbing down your writing. The two are very different. Using plain English is about making your language simpler – as opposed to making it simplistic, which is bad. Simplistic means dumbing down and undermining the intellectual rigor and the quality of your content. That’s the last thing I want you to do.

A technical writing offer

Finally, there was a simple offer at the end of the webinar – to jump on a discovery call with me. It’s a no-obligation, non-threatening, relaxed way to get to know you and your writing, for people who might want to explore different ways of working with me and engaging me. Only a few people took me up on that offer, but the whole experience was just brilliant.

I loved sharing my S.C.O.T.T. acronym with people. I’m on a roll, and I can’t wait to do my next live event.

I may also run a writing clinic, where I just show up and you can ask me anything you want about writing. It can have to do with planning, drafting or editing. It can be about one of my 21 writing techniques, editorial policy or how to write winning bids and tenders. Maybe you have questions about pitches, proposals or sales letters. Absolutely anything. I welcome all-comers. If I can’t answer your questions there and then, I will get back to you with an answer within 72 hours.

I think that will be my next gig, and you will be the first to hear of it.

S.C.O.T.T. for all kinds of technical writing

What does S.C.O.T.T. mean for you and your writing?

The acronym S.C.O.T.T. represents the Big Five Writing Techniques that are guaranteed, without exception, to improve your readability if you apply them properly. That may sound like a bold statement, but I stand behind that. Use them in your technical writing, and you will notice a marked improvement in your results.

I am Scott Keyser, The Writing Guy, helping smart professionals to find their voice, write human and change the world with their words. I invite you to browse my Write for Results blog to learn more about how to further improve your technical writing (and all types of writing for that matter). And if you like to absorb your information in audio format, don’t forget about The Writing Guy podcast.

Has remote working changed business writing skills?

Write for Results

business writing skills scott keyser

A couple of weeks ago I delivered a Lunch ‘n Learn session about business writing skills at a property client. The session was called — perhaps prematurely — ‘How to write Human in a post-COVID world’. (The attendees still gave it a satisfaction rating of 96%.) One of the things I asserted was that b2b communications have changed as a result of the pandemic. People are being forced to work from home. Seems to me that the line between ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ has blurred, which is a good thing if we want to improve our writing skills.

What do you think?

Business writing, unfiltered

A couple of years ago I was speaking to Laura, a client who was creating a training course in proposals best practice. In the opening section of the course she mocks the honking proposal cliché. You know the one, where the bidder thanks the client profusely in the covering letter for giving them the opportunity to bid. She refers to this as ‘the grovelling opening’.

This really made me laugh, because it’s exactly what bidders do: ‘We are ever so grateful for the opportunity to bid for this esteemed piece of work…’ or some such rubbish. (Clients don’t care how you feel. They don’t care how pathetically grateful you are for being allowed to sweat blood to respond to their onerous tender. They just want you to get to the point.)

But my client — having lambasted ‘the grovelling opening’ — then blew it by saying she’d probably have to get it ‘professionalised’ by my manager.

In the nicest possible way, I hit the roof.

The left-field opener that Laura was considering in her training course is exactly what I mean by ‘personality’ in written comms. It’s that slightly cheeky, light-hearted, real, human tone that gives business writing its flair. Calling out that honking great cliché — rather than towing the party line — would have made her training course stand out.

The remote-working effect

And that’s got me thinking about the Lunch ‘n Learn session I delivered for the property client. For the past 18 months, many of us have been working from home under lockdown. We’re all zooming or MS Teaming with colleagues and clients, trading sharp suits for tracksuits, T shirts or, in some cases, cleverly disguised pyjamas. I wonder if people are more forgiving of — maybe even reassured by — this enforced informality. Is remote working altering how we perceive each other and how we communicate?

Picture the scene: your baby wakes up and starts crying when you’re on a Zoom call. Or your dog’s barking in the middle of a Facebook Live (which has happened to me more than once!). Maybe your teenagers are fighting over the PlayStation. Or the washing machine is pinging because its cycle has finished.

In those circumstances, can you really, in all honesty and with a straight face, write with MBA-itis? Like ‘We are a partner-led, full-service law firm with 35 offices and 17,000 staff around the world, offering unrivalled best-in-breed advice on a wide range of multi-jurisdictional, pan-regulatory, anti-competition issues for our global clients’?

Can you really get away with that business jargon or management-speak?

We’re now operating in a setting where the personal and the ‘professional’ have merged like never before. Those lines are fuzzy. It was always a false distinction anyway. People actually realise that by bringing their whole personal selves to work — even if it’s at the kitchen table — everyone benefits.

Business writing skills are personal

I’m reminded of the mastermind I joined last year run by Penny and Thomas Power, which was called ‘Business is Personal’, because to me it is. If you don’t bring your whole person, your whole personality to your work, to your business, to your writing, your words won’t land. You won’t make that connection with the reader.

Remember that live BBC interview with the American Professor Robert Kelly, who was talking about South Korean politics?

If you recall, he’s answering the interviewer’s questions, with gravitas and erudition. Then his four-year old daughter, Marian, sashays in unannounced and stands behind him. He’s trying to push her away while keeping a straight face. Clearly, he’s agonising over whether to ignore or acknowledge her while responding to the interviewer’s questions. Trouble is, now the door to his office is wide open. Suddenly his nine-month old son, James, trundles in in his baby stroller to join his big sister. He doesn’t want to miss out on the fun.

business writing skills scott keyser

Enter Character #4, stage left. The Professor’s Korean wife hurtles in to the office, crouched low to stay out of the camera shot but in full view of millions of viewers. She grabs the kids and pulls them out of the office. But she’s left the door open so, with one arm lassoed around her kids, she hyper-extends the other arm to the door handle and pulls it shut. You can only imagine how many of the Professor’s synapses were firing as this farce unfolded.

The video went viral (more than 44 million views on YouTube to date). I’ve just watched it again: it makes me laugh every time. My point is that we accidentally got a hysterical insight into the Prof and his life. That he’s a regular, normal, loving, family guy, husband and father made people see him as just another human. Suddenly, he’s just as vulnerable as the rest of us. People fell in love with him. Now he’s famous…just not for South Korean politics.

How to improve business writing skills

What does all that mean for us as writers? How do we use that to improve our writing?

It’s about giving ourselves permission to be human, warts ‘n all. To get over the myth of ‘professionalism’, which forces many unintentional business writers to leave their personality at the door, or at the top of the page. World-class writing combines great content with personality. To do this takes courage.

Take heart. Your business writing skills will be transformed.

~~~

Scott is The Writing Guy, helping smart professionals find their voice, write Human and get the results they want from the words they write. In other words, to help you improve your business writing skills.

Listen to the podcast episode 152 related to this topic, ‘Has working from home changed how we write?‘. Then subscribe to The Writing Guy podcast to learn more about business writing skills and how to improve your writing.

How to improve writing skills with Verbitis

Write for Results

Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with a friend called Vicky Ross, a talented coach, therapist and NLP Master Practitioner. We were talking about language, its fascinating patterns…and of course, that led me to thinking about how to improve writing skills.

Vicky helped me to better understand the idea of Nounitis. I’ve spoken about Nounitis in the past. It’s the overuse of nouns, particularly abstract ones.

To take you back to school with a quick reminder, a noun is a naming word, and the cure for Nounitis is Verbitis, or using more verbs than nouns. Verbs are words of action and doing.

Nounitis is rife in B2B communications. Someone might say “She has responsibility for the implementation of the project.” What the hell does that mean?

“Implementation” can mean so many different things. It’s a vague, abstract term.

I want to take you through a little exercise. I’m going to give you a series of words and I want you to observe how your brain computes those words. There will be three different types of words:

  • tangible, concrete, common nouns (things you could put in a wheelbarrow)
  • abstract nouns (adjectives or verbs that have turned into nouns)
  • verbs (action words)

Are you ready?

Learn how to improve writing skills:  an exercise

how to improve writing skills scott keyser

For each of the three types of words, I want you to observe what happens in your brain. Notice, too, how your body reacts.

First, the common nouns:

  • bed
  • chair
  • apple
  • pen
  • book
  • computer

Just observe how your brain deals with those.

Now for some abstract nouns:

  • freedom
  • democracy
  • liberty
  • consideration
  • implementation
  • responsibility

That’s the second list. Again, notice how you reacted to them.

And for the third list, verbs:

  • running
  • writing
  • speaking
  • jumping
  • walking

There you have three very different types of words.

What did you observe happening to your body when you read them?

When Vicky and I did this mini-exercise, I looked up to the right when she recited the abstract nouns. That’s how my body responded when trying to make sense of those words. The verbs seemed easier for me. I looked straight ahead or slightly to the left.

The point I’m making is that the common nouns are things we can see and touch. The abstract nouns are much harder to compute because they’re intellectual, abstract concepts and demand more processing power from the human brain. Since verbs are words of doing and action, they have movement attached to them.

Neither type of noun had movement. They were static. They didn’t go anywhere. There was no energy to them. In contrast, the verbs had energy — but you would expect that.

The benefits of Verbitis

There are two benefits when using more verbs than nouns. how to improve writing skills scott keyserFirst, they literally give your writing more energy. Second, verbs conjure mental images in our brains, with little or no effort.

With abstract nouns, the brain has to work to associate some kind of image from our own experiences. That’s why verbs, Verbitis and curing Nounitis are so important if we want to improve our writing skills.

There’s one more point: the relationship between movement/motion and emotion. Static, abstract nouns — for me, at least — have no emotion attached to them. There’s neither motion nor emotion. Whereas the verbs lend themselves to emotion.

For example, if I gave you the abstract phrase, “freedom from slavery,” (two abstract nouns, “freedom” and “slavery”) I can say that I agree with that concept. Like most decent people, I don’t agree with slavery or servitude. Contrast the impact of that with the sentence, “The plantation owner unchained the slave and freed him.” I’m using more words, but I’m also using two verbs (“unchained” and “freed”). Clearly, I’m creating a picture, depicting a scene.

You might say we’re losing brevity — and of course we are — but I know which type of writing I’d prefer to read.

How to improve writing skills for better results

Using verbs and simple language while leavening and scaling down the amount of abstract language you use is going to improve your writing.

I hope this was useful information and that it will lead you to new ideas on how to improve your writing skills. I know it’s spurred me to learn more about NLP and patterns of language — particularly ‘nominalisation’, or turning words into nouns.

If you’re interested in learning more about my Big Five writing techniques, including Verbitis, connect with me on LinkedIn and join us for my LinkedIn webinar on the Big Five, on the 28th of July 2021.