In this post, I would like to share with you just three of the basic rules of writing great corporate content. It’s an important skill: unless your business can survive on business cards alone, at some stage you’re going to need to talk effectively to your customers.
Here are just a few typical applications:
- Emails and newsletters
- Website content
- Press releases and public relations materials
If you want to spend your evenings scribbling your next blog by candlelight, that’s just fine: the following advice will, I hope, help you get it right.
If, on the other hand, you want to get a professional in, you’ll be well equipped to spot the good, bad and ugly amongst writers, copywriters and PR agents. I’m afraid to say that plenty of these professionals fail to implement some of the basics of effective communication, and this can cost you dearly.
1) Write for your audience, not for yourself.
This comes first, because it’s crucially important – and all too easy to forget. I have written for some of the world’s largest technology companies, and they are particularly good at being unnecessarily confusing.
If you’ve ever been handed a brochure with something like this on it…
“The Hokey Cokey 3000 is the latest in MegaCorp’s Executive Systems Suite, featuring 64GB dual-core processing and twin chipset architecture…”
…you’ll appreciate the problem.
The thing is, you’ve lived with your product (or service). It’s your baby – your pride and joy. It’s incredibly tempting to throw everything you’re proud of into your corporate literature.
You must resist this temptation, stick to the key facts, and, wherever possible, tailor your comments to the needs of your audience.
A highly effective method of achieving this is to think about benefits instead of features. Features are just bells and whistles. Those bells and whistles are only useful when they become benefits to a specific audience:
“Brian’s Bicycles have loud bells on”
is nowhere near as meaningful as
“Brian’s Bicycles’ loud bells help urban riders stay safe”
Be sure to learn who you’re writing for; understand their concerns, and phrase everything you do in terms with which they will identify and empathise.
2) Be interesting. It demands clarity and structure.
I despair at the number of PR specialists who still believe that anyone will spend their time reading promotional puff. We live in a time-poor world, where information is available free of charge online, and where everyone is jaded from over-exposure to advertising and marketing.
Standing out from the crowd therefore requires you to say something interesting, and that in turn requires some discipline. The following approaches have never let me down.
In most cases, my natural starting point when writing corporate journalism is very simple: I assume that nobody would want to read it. Only when I have created a piece which is sufficiently interesting to revise that point of view can it be deemed good enough to publish.
Another useful mental exercise is to imagine the reader signing a contract, in which they ‘officially’ give away ten minutes of their time for reading your material. The question is very simple: once they have read your stuff, would they want their time back? If the answer is yes, then you should return to the drawing board.
So, what makes an article, blog, or newsletter interesting enough to pass these thought experiments? Here are my top suggestions:
- Give something to the reader! This blog itself is a bunch of tips, which I hope you and other readers find useful. And you’re still reading, right?
- Present an argument. If you have bothered to understand your audience and the challenges they face, you will also be able to take them by the hand and offer them a cogently argued route to a solution. A well presented argument like this:
“One of the main challenges faced by small businesses is…”
“Many people think that…”
“Other experts tell us that…”
“Here at MegaCorp, our research shows that…”
“Therefore we conclude that…”
“To solve this problem in three simple steps…”
is automatically interesting. Construct your argument clearly – presenting any conflicting viewpoints and evidence. In doing so, you are empathising with your reader – they are facing exactly the same challenge in their heads. Help them establish the route to a credible solution, and you will emerge the hero.
- Clarity and simplicity are intrinsically of value. Life is confusing enough as it is. I have found, time and again, that both consumers and businesses value simplicity in itself. If you can explain complex concepts in a simple and accessible way, you will already be on your way to building trust and earning a reputation. There is a reason why TV scientists (e.g. Brian Cox) or doctors (e.g. Dr Christian) are popular: they are credible and charming, but, above all, clear.
3) The rules of writing come second to the rules of communication
The rules of communication are mutable and ever-changing. Language never stands still. Here are just a few of the rules and misconceptions of language which I believe currently apply:
- Twenty years ago, when I first began my journalistic career, businesses felt the urge to posture wildly. Their brochures and newsletters were often long, complicated and hard to read. Sometimes they felt like academic papers, as though they were designed to confuse ordinary people.
This is no longer the case. The sole purpose of writing is to communicate effectively, and I am pleased to say that today’s marketing materials are conversational, snappy, and designed entirely to connect with their audience. If you re-read this blog aloud, you will see that it is written in a style which is entirely conversational – as though we were having a chat across a table. There are, of course, many variations on this theme, but you should never aim to confuse the reader: they won’t be impressed.
- Violent argument has raged amongst writers for about two decades now, over spelling, grammar and syntax. I am something of a fence-sitter. I believe that spelling is important, particularly in business writing. Apostrophes in the wrong places make me feel a bit queasy.
However, I don’t care a fig for some of the old rules of good writing. Apparently, the word “And” should never begin a sentence. And it should also never follow a comma. I’m happy to slash my way through both of these rules and many more.
- Some writers still claim that there is a difference between writing for printed materials and online. I strongly disagree. The design (fonts, graphics, etc.) may be different, but effective communication requires the same use of language, no matter what the medium.
If you write with a confusing lack of clarity, it doesn’t matter whether you are writing a thesis or a bumper sticker. Think first before putting pen to paper. Refine the argument you intend to present to the reader. Get the thinking right, and you’ll succeed whether you are working online or offline.
Guest post by Nick Saalfeld. Nick is a corporate journalist and entrepreneur with over 20 years experience. He’s also responsible for much of what you read here at mikesouthon.com. You can send flowers or contact to him at firstname.lastname@example.org