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presenting skills

Are you an Accidental Writer?

Write for Results


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?

Write for Results

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!

How to win a business pitch

How to win a business pitch blog

How do you take a business pitch from good to great?

I recently worked with an international team of engineers to help them prep a major business pitch to senior managers.

The purpose of the pitch was to get funding for their division to invest in the next 5-year wave of technology and convince the panel that the new guy in charge of the division had a clear and coherent strategy. (And when I say ‘funding’, I mean 100s of millions of dollars. Stakes were high and time was short.)

Trouble was, here was a team of engineers presenting to former engineers. The temptation to get sucked into detail was huge. So one of my challenges was to elevate their thinking from below ground to about 50,000 feet, and remind them what the panel was most interested in — organisational and business benefits.

Hired at short notice, I started work on a Monday, with the 3-hour pitch scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

Can you win a business pitch in two and a half days? You can, but it was tight.

I helped them to slash their slide count from 278 to 49, clarify the overall aims of the meeting and each presenter’s key messages, craft the ‘killer’ slide and simplify the rest, prep the Q&A, perfect the timing and running order of the presentation, and hold numerous rehearsals. Oh, and I gave them a few tips on presentation skills.

Ironically, what took most concentration was deciding when to step in and when to shut up.

Most of the technical discussions flew over my head, so I spent lots of brain juice trying to get the gist and make the right call. Part of my job was to keep the process on track and re-focus them on what the audience would find most persuasive.

The upshot was, their presentation to the Big Cheeses went well and the new division head was pleased. They secured 90% of the funding they sought. Job done, what lessons did the assignment reinforce? There were nine reminders of how to win a business pitch:

1. Nail the story, then the slides.

Too many pitch teams launch PowerPoint before brainstorming, planning and structuring their story. Work out what you want to say first, then design the slides in support of that. (If you can do without slides altogether, the client panel will love you forever).

2. Limit each presenter to three or four high level messages.

There’s a limit to how much information we can absorb orally. So presenters must exercise self-discipline when deciding what they’re going to talk about and what they’re not.

3. Hold the most detailed slides back for the Q&A.

Related to point #2, keep your most detailed content in your back pocket to help answer the panel’s burning questions in the Q&A after the presentation.

4. Keep your slides spare, clear, simple.

The more information you cram onto your slides, the harder your audience will have to work to get your message(s). Make it easy for them. Keep bullets to one line and no more than six words. Use simple graphics that tell a clear story. Less is more.

5. To win a business pitch, practise.

Many senior managers mistakenly think they don’t need to practise or rehearse. They’re either arrogant and don’t think they need to, or they’re worried about showing themselves up in front of their team. But the best leaders show vulnerability as well as strength. Mastery and confidence only come through practice.

6. Focus on the end and the beginning of your pitch.

The theory of recency says that your call to action at the end will stick in the panel’s mind and have most impact on them. The theory of primacy says that how you open a pitch engages the audience and sets the tone for the rest of the meeting. If you blow it at the front, you may never recover.

7. Think about the pitch from the panel’s perspective.

If you show them you’re viewing their world through their eyes you appeal to their self-interest and make them more receptive to your message. So walk a mile in their shoes, talk more about them than you. It’s not about you; it’s about them.

8. Craft a killer slide.

No sales pitch or business pitch should be without one: a single slide or page that summarises the major benefits of your offer, request or ‘value proposition’. Begin each bullet point with a verb (word of action) and emphasise not what you’ll do, but what the panel will get.

9. Ask rhetorical questions.

Framing your talk with simple questions like ‘Why this?’, ‘Why now?’ and ‘What’s the cost of not doing it?’ can be thought-provoking. They force you to describe the benefits of your proposal, outline the risks and costs of not doing it and introduce a sense of urgency around timing. This appeals to different motivational styles in the audience: the ‘yellow hats’ are drawn towards the positive; the ‘black hats’ want to move away from the negative.


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Thanks for reading!