The Power of the Written Word

Have you ever asked a child who has just made some not-quite-comprehensible statement “What do you mean?” only to get the retort “But I know what I mean.”  Children, and this extends into their teens, don’t always realise that speaking is about communication, and that if the person on the end of their words doesn’t understand them, then they are not communicating.

Businesses often make that mistake also.  For businesses communication with their customers is often written; emails, letters of all types, advertisements, website copy, proposals, quotations, tenders, and instructions.  The list goes on and on.  Of course, businesses use other forms of communication, such as by telephone, face-to-face, radio and television advertisements etc. but today I want to concentrate on the power of the written word in business.

The written word can be very powerful, and make a real difference.

More than ever, today small business owners have to write.  And the words you use can either attract or repel customers or, for that matter, get your staff offside. 

I’m not concerned about writing grammatically correct sentences, although that does help.  What I am concerned about is writing in a way that communicates, that has an impact, that makes your business stand out, that builds relationships with your customers and your staff.  You need to write in a way that is engaging if you want people to read it.

If they don’t read your advertisement, or your webpage, or your tender doesn’t capture their attention customers will be going to your competitor, not you.

I’m sure you were taught to write in English classes at school, analysed essays and short stories and hopefully given a modicum of grammar, but that doesn’t necessarily help in business.

Don’t get me wrong.  Grammar and spelling are important.  Nothing stops a reader more quickly than a typo or poor grammar.  Can you see the Assessor of a tender you submitted, following your flow, giving you the ticks.  Then they run into poor grammar, the wrong word used, or a typo.  It’s like a pothole in the road.  Their mind becomes uncomfortable.  They have lost the tempo, the flow.  There are now vague unasked questions in their mind.  That you don’t want.

There are a couple of issues here.

The first is clarity of expression. 

Writing well is an increasingly valuable skill.  It means being able to express yourself clearly and concisely on paper.

Here’s an example of what not to do from Drayton Bird’s blog:

As he says, this opening paragraph from a sales letter is incredibly long and sloppily written:

There are a lot of misunderstandings and misconceptions regarding the management of profitability in ‘Agency’ businesses.  This research highlights a number of the issues and yet more remain hidden.  The biggest reason for many firms never quite getting a grip on profitability is their failure to really understand the basic principles of doing business by selling time.  Take Client (or Account) Profitability for example, (an area where conventional ‘Agency’ wisdom and the principles of selling time oppose each other) an area where over-servicing rears its ugly head.  We all know that eliminating over-servicing would improve our client profitability and so we spend a lot of effort trying to do just that.  However let’s just assume that through our diligence we have been really successful and eliminated over-servicing entirely so that every account is delivering our targeted profitability, does that mean that we are now a really profitable business?  Well, no actually.  Because just by killing over-servicing all we have done is create lots of unsold capacity!  The real secret to business profitability is People Profitability – ensuring that every client-facing person is needed and properly utilised on ‘paid-for’ work.

Drayton goes on to say:

“Sloth and incompetence lurch through every phrase.  Note the redundant quote marks round the wrongly capitalised word Agency.

It is poorly organised, full of jargon, lazy, and doesn’t begin to answer all those questions I had in mind.  It is amateur night at the opera.  It killed my interest stone dead.”

Thanks Drayton.  You can see why poor clarity of expression can kill interest.

Now for the second issue – writing style. 

While there will always be a place for formal writing in reports, contracts and other legal documents, such writing is not engaging, it doesn’t make communication easy or encourage people to read.

The way to do that is to write conversationally, writing in a way that the person reading, the potential customer, feels that you are personally speaking to them.  Use simple language, shorter sentences, more "I", "we", "you" and "us".  For marketing material in particular talk directly to the customer.  Use “you” and “your” rather than “we”.

Keep paragraphs to no more than three or four sentences.  In other words, we need to write how we speak.

Whether you think you can write and do, think you can and don’t, or think you can’t and don’t, working to understand how to write well is a path worth pursuing.

You put yourself at a huge advantage when you take the time to educate yourself on the art of good writing because so many businesses don’t pay attention to their writing.

Let me finish with a quote from a bloke called David Ogilvy.  He was one of the really big names worldwide in advertising.  This is a memo Ogilvy wrote to staff 35 years ago

The better you write, the higher you go in Ogilvy & Mather.

People who think well, write well.

Woolly minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters and woolly speeches.

Good writing is not a natural gift.  You have to learn to write well.  Here are 10 hints:

1. Read the Roman-Raphaelson book.  Read it three times.

2. Write the way you talk.  Naturally.

3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.

4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally.  They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.

5. Never write more than two pages on any subject.

6. Check your quotations.

7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it.  Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it.

8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.

9. Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.

10. If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want.

What do you think about this?

I’d be interested in your thoughts, and the challenges and fears you face when writing tender responses.  What have you found, what are you looking for to help you, and what have you learnt?  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

I’m working on a new online course to help people transform their success rate in tendering, while reducing the time and stress involved, and would like to build your experience into the design of the modules.

If you would like to discuss your experience with me, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

And if you would like to understand more on my approach to tendering you might like to download my freebie – “How to Overcome the 19 Most Common Mistakes in Tendering”.