Writing well involves so much more than putting words to paper. People write to communicate ideas and emotions to challenge and motivate people to action, to reinforce common beliefs or deconstruct perceptions. The intentions one brings to writing can be as varied as the number of words in a dictionary.
Business writing is no less a challenge than writing a piece of fiction or an article for a newspaper. In all cases, the writer aspires to write clearly, enhance understanding, inspire action, and lead the reader to a desired conclusion or reaction.
For example, writers of training materials want readers to learn how to do something the right way or the best way or the quickest way. The goal (i.e. the conclusion) is that the trainee will be able to perform the function or tasks that the training materials were created for in the first place. The wrong words, bad organization, or incomplete messaging will result in poor training.
Writing marketing and communications copy for a website involves a similar process. The writer wants to inform people about the business, articulate the benefits of a product or service, aptly describe the problem that a product can remedy, and lead the reader to a desired conclusion, which in this example is to purchase the product or service or at least inquire about things further.
If you are trying to move people along a sales process, your writing should focus on what it will take to move a prospect from one stage to another in the process. For instance, if the way you close a sale is through face to face contact with a consumer, your writing on your website would best focus on getting your prospect to call and request such contact.
The goal at this stage is not to sell as much as it is to move the prospect into a situation where closing can take place. Does that sound a tad like manipulation? Perhaps. But that would be a negative spin on what I believe is a sound and responsible communications process.
People need a reason to act. In this case, that action is to call and ask to meet with a sales person or account executive. They need to know enough about the product and service to motivate them to want such a meeting. Giving them the information they require to make that decision (i.e. to call or not to call) is responsible writing – as long as what you communicating is truthful and real.
You can be promotional. You can write with a bias that favors your product or service. Everyone expects that. In fact, most people won’t buy things based on dry facts and figures alone. If you are not enthusiastic about what you are pitching, why should they be? Remember, people buy more than the product. They buy image and identity. They purchase recognition and esteem. They want products that work well but that also make them feel good or satisfied.
In the long run misrepresenting a product, over promising benefits, or just plain being deceitful will harm your sales efforts. You don’t just want a customer. You want a happy, content customer, not someone who goes home with a product or a promise that just doesn’t live up to their expectations
Over the years, I have written copy for brochures, reports, radio, television, training films, websites, and a host of other marketing collateral. Here is what I have learned – my ten principles of writing to inspire action.
Understand the target audience – Can you describe them by age range, gender, income status, political persuasion, areas of interest, or a combination thereof? If you are writing to a young adult audience you should focus on messaging and words that would likely not work well for a target population of senior citizens.
Understand what you are writing about – Don’t write anything until you fully understand the product or service you are writing about. Figure out what the benefits are. Determine what makes the product or service unique or at least different from others. Is it quality? Is it price? Is it the customer service behind the product or service? Is it status? Is it distinct features? Understanding what you are writing about and then identifying how to differentiate it from the products or services of competitors is key.
Identify key messages – Once you accomplish number two, take the time to identify your key messages. If the product has a slogan, work with it to build complementary messages in your narrative. For example, when I headed up the educational programs at DevStudios International, our main slogan was real world education. A secondary slogan was Learn. Grow. Succeed. Each slogan could stand alone, but together they worked even better and provided a great touchstone for writing our promotional materials.
Organize yourself – You need an opening paragraph that introduces your product and its key benefits or features, but you need to do so in a manner that conveys confidence, excitement, and the desire to read on. What follows is the body of your copy. Here you can spend time elaborating further on benefits, describing the guarantee, and pitching a promotion or a free offer. At some point it is important that you link the product to the image and identity of your business and the quality of service you provide post sale. The order of all of this is more of an art than a science.
Create momentum – All of the above should create momentum towards the desired action. If writing for the web, do you want the reader to download something, sign up for a newsletter, request a product demo, phone you, or actually place an on line order. Create a sense of urgency using words and phrases like “Call now”; “Sign up now”; “Pick up the phone and call us.” You can set up urgency by offering time-limited offers or discounts.
Create a powerful headline – I usually wait to pen a headline for my article or promotional piece until after I am done with the writing. Others identify the headline first as a guide for what they write. There is no one way. Do what works for you. However you do it, the headline has to grab the reader.
Use paragraph headlines – Consider using paragraph headlines throughout your piece or in key sections like I have done with this list. Doing so identifies themes for the reader that are easy to spot. It is unlikely people will read everything. Make it easy for them to see your various topics so they can hone in on what might twig their interest. Notice that the headlines used here are calls to action. “Create momentum” is better than “Momentum.”
Use the right graphics or photographs – Include a photograph of the product – preferably being used by someone – or a graphic of your logo. If a diagram makes sense, have one professionally produced. Don’t harm your great writing by including amateurish looking images.
Review, review, review – Spelling errors, convoluted sentence structure, confusing jargon, wrong punctuation, misused words, and incomplete expressions are among the common mistakes made by writers. To check your writing, read it out loud. Does it flow well when you hear it? Is everything easy to understand? Do you stumble over long sentences or words? The best writing involves rewriting. If you are a bad speller, have someone who is a good editor check your work. Don’t rely on your spell checker. I once produced a draft report for a client that provides services to the deaf. In the draft, I referred to the agency’s services to the dead. Thank goodness the document was aptly proofed before going to press!
Include your contact information – Don’t bury it somewhere. Make it noticeable, and give people many contact options, such as local phone number, your 1-800 number, email addresses, or even your MSN address. To make it easy, provide them with a form they can fill out and write their message in.
There you have it – my ten principles. Is this all it takes? No, of course not. Writing well involves more than adhering to this guide. It takes practice and patience. If you don’t have the time for that or if you just know that writing is not one of your strengths, then you might be better offer hiring a writer. But even if you do, these ten principles will help you articulate what you want from him or her.