5 business writing tips for non-writersApr 16
Caroline Hampstead, a London-based freelance copywriter and advertising creative, gave this week’s 10 minutes. She based her talk, on effective business writing for non-writers, on the following article:
People often feel daunted by the thought of writing about themselves or their businesses, whether for a newsletter, article, blog post or mailshot. If writing is not your forte it is much better to write something short and simple than to get too ambitious and end up lost in a tangle of convoluted sentences and subordinate clauses. In addition, while the latter may win literary prizes, the former is generally much more effective for business and marketing communications.
You may find the following five tips/guidelines useful if you freeze when presented with a blank page or lack confidence in your writing skills. (Like any rules or guidelines, if you are a master of your craft feel free to break them.)
1. Keep ‘talking’
Try to write more or less the way you talk. Writing does need to be more structured and polished, and sometimes you may need some dramatic effect, but try to think of it as a well-organised, heightened form of speech. By doing so your writing will sound more natural and more personal, and your personality will come through – making what you write immediately more interesting and readable. Where people often come unstuck is that when they write they start to communicate in a way they would never do if they were talking to someone; they become long-winded, overly formal, use too much jargon and focus entirely on themselves rather than the people they are communicating with.
2. Keep it short
- Use lots of short sentences (10 words or less) and short paragraphs (3 or 4 sentences). Firstly, you are less likely to lose track of subjects/objects/verbs etc and get tied up in the grammar. Secondly, your reader will find your writing easier to read, and is, therefore, more likely to keep on reading. Thirdly, this style of writing is web friendly (people skim read online so screen text should be about half the length of its paper-based equivalent).
- If you can say something in fewer words, do so. Be sparing in your use of descriptive words – too many can sound flowery or overblown. Use less ‘padding’ at the start of sentences, for example, ‘in addition’ or ‘of course’. Phrases can often be replaced by a single word, such as ‘to’ instead of ‘in order to’ or ‘cut’ rather than ‘make an incision’.
- When you have finished writing, always read through your copy. There will invariably be words, phrases or even entire paragraphs, you can remove. Also read your finished copy aloud (or, even better, get someone else to). If you find yourself stumbling or running out of breath, you probably need to shorten your sentences. This will also naturally highlight where your punctuation needs attention. If you need to add a pause for the copy to make sense, you may need to insert a comma or semicolon.
- However, there is a caveat when considering the overall length of a piece. While it’s always good to cut out waffle and empty words, if you have persuasive, interesting content, a longer piece can be more effective. For example, research has shown that longer direct mail letters get higher response rates than shorter ones. To make long copy easier to read, if appropriate for the piece, use devices like bullet points and sub-headings to chunk the text into shorter, more digestible sections.
3. Keep it simple
- Abba’s staggering success is a great example of the power of simple language: look at the song titles listed on ‘Abba Gold – Greatest Hits) and you will notice the only words with more than two syllables are proper names. Rather than proving an obstacle, their Swedish roots which meant they used a simple English vocabulary, resulted in lyrics that were very emotional and engaging – eg ‘Knowing me, knowing you’, ‘I have a dream’ or ‘Money, money, money’ (the latter incidentally, also being a good example of a tricolon – the power of saying things in threes). Short, simple words tend to be of Anglo Saxon origin rather than Latinate and give a writer two key advantages. They are easier to read, take in and understand, and secondly have more emotional impact – which is important, as, especially when it comes to buying, people are swayed more by their hearts than their heads. For example, compare ‘buy’/'purchase’, ‘talk’/'discussion’, ‘near’/'adjacent’, ‘dog’/'canine’, ‘drink’/'beverage’ and ‘get’/'acquire’. Do balance this with consideration of your reader; for some target audiences greater use of elegant, formal Latinate words may be appropriate.
- Again this depends on your audience, but generally it’s a good idea to limit your use of technical terms, business jargon and acronyms. For example, rather than ‘granular’ why not just say ‘detailed’? If you think your target audience may not understand a term, avoid it altogether and use an everyday equivalent instead.
- The most effective copy is single minded (think about how much easier it is to catch a ball when just one is thrown at you rather than several all at once). Before you start writing, work out the one key message or benefit you wish to convey – sometimes referred to as a USP /Unique Selling Proposition. It could be ‘we’re an HR company with expertise in construction’ or ‘accountancy recruitment by ex-accountants’, but whatever it is make sure it comes through your copy, particularly at the start and finish. Do weave in other facts and secondary benefits to support this key message, but have one clear thread of thought running through your writing.
4. Keep it interesting
- Make your content interesting. Tell your audience something they don’t know. Entertain them. Tell them a story. Amuse them. Provoke them. Challenge them. Tease them. Whatever you do, don’t bore them.
- Make your style interesting. Vary your wording and your sentence structure. Short words, short sentences and an active voice are generally recommended for business and marketing writing and getting people to act, but do mix things up – otherwise things get very dull, like someone talking in a monotone. So try to sprinkle some elegant, multi-syllable Latinate words in amongst your short, sharp, driving Anglo Saxon words.
- Avoid repetition – whether it’s using the same word twice in a sentence or in consecutive sentences (if stuck get a thesaurus), or simply repeating the same points.
- Grab your reader’s attention and leave them on a high. Make sure your first and last paragraph are as interesting and engaging as possible.
5. Keep 100% focused on your reader
- Most important of all is knowing and focusing on your target audience. Find out who they are, what they do and what they enjoy. Then shape your content, your language and your tone of voice around them, so your writing is highly targeted and, therefore, more effective. A good tip is to visualise your primary target audience embodied as one ‘real’ person and to imagine you are talking to this person when you write. You would probably talk in a very different way to a 50 year-old corporate lawyer than to a teenager, so do the same when you write.
- Features vs benefits vs problem solving. Instead of focusing on your features (eg ‘a mid-size accountancy firm with many staff having previously worked at top City firms ’), spend more time explaining how they actually benefit your reader (eg ‘we offer the same level of expertise but more affordable rates than large City firms and a more personal service’). Taking this a step further, in particular, focus on any problems or concerns you can solve for the reader, because ‘pain’ (rather than pleasure) is the strongest buying motivator. So, for example, our accountancy firm should explain how they can help the reader if they are ‘anxious they are paying too much tax, worried about cashflow and stock control or frustrated by staff spending too much time on accountancy procedures’.
- Use ‘you’. Direct marketing guru Drayton Bird quotes research that showed using ‘you’ and ‘your’ 2 or 3 times as often as ‘we’, ‘I’ or ‘our’, makes copy much more effective. Once again, you are focusing on your reader.
- What would you like the reader to do? Do remember to put in a ‘call to action’ if you need one; whether it’s to contact you via phone or email, visit your stall at a trade show or act by a certain date to take advantage of a special offer.
Caroline Hampstead is an award-winning, London-based advertising and marketing copywriter. Phone: 07947883048. Email: info(at)carolinehampstead(dot)com Website: www.carolinehampstead.com