Whatever sector you’re in and whatever role you play in your company, accurate, effective and compelling written communications are a key factor in success.
It might be a press release, a new product launch presentation, training materials for sales staff, product descriptions or any customer-facing copy – whatever you’re writing, good copy has the power to:
- Convince your clients that your products or services are right for them
- Ensure your team or even your whole organisation is on the same page
- Make the right impression with colleagues or managers
Many people are concerned about whether their written communication skills are good enough, particularly if they’re communicating in English as a second language.
If that’s you, then you may have even thought about enrolling in a course to improve your writing and language skills, or employ a copywriting agency to work for you.
Both are viable options. Both take time and money.
However, all it takes to dramatically improve your written business communications instantly is a little knowledge and effort.
Here are five ways to start writing like a pro:
1. Adopt the inverted pyramid structure
If you’ve ever read a newspaper or a piece of online journalism, you’re already familiar with the inverted pyramid style of writing.
The inverted pyramid refers to the practice of putting the most interesting, important and relevant information at the very start of a piece of writing, following this with other significant details, and leaving less vital background information until later in the piece.
There are several main reasons for using this style.
- It hooks the reader right from the start. It gives them the ‘gist’ of the story before they read on.
- It means that they can exit reading the piece at any point but still get the general message behind it.
- It makes it easy for editors to simply cut lines or paragraphs out from the end if they need to conserve page space.
So why is this relevant for communicating with customers and colleagues?
According to the web usability expert Jakob Nielsen, “Users often leave web pages in 10-20 seconds, but pages with a clear value proposition can hold people’s attention for much longer.”
The same is true of business emails.
People are bombarded with dozens, even hundreds of emails every day, so get straight to the point. Support the main points with strong evidence as quickly as possible. There’s no time for teasing or suspense.
How to use the pyramid style:
When writing anything, consider the following questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?
- ‘Frontload’ your content or email by putting everything people need to know into the title headline and the first paragraph.
- That way, the reader can quickly work out whether they want to read on. If they don’t, then they’ve already got the message you wanted to convey.
- Use sub-headers to signpost the rest of your content.
- Elaborate on and give evidence for your main point with statistics and quotes where necessary. Cross-check statistics to make sure they are accurate and up-to-date.
- Make it easy for the reader to stop reading at any point but still come away with the ‘meat’ of your content.
2. Write in plain English
Jargon is a turn-off. It’s often used in a business environment in an attempt to appear intelligent or to impress by making something simple appear complex.
Unnecessary use of jargon can harm your writing. This is because it can make your content difficult to understand, resulting in a dry and lifeless style that sends the reader to sleep, or to your competitor’s website.
There is a place for jargon of course, particularly when communicating complex concepts to an expert-level audience. Generally though, if it is possible to use a simpler, more common word you should do so.
It’s not just jargon that causes communication problems. Other barriers to easy communication include:
- Overly long sentences and paragraphs
- Sentences with lots of clauses
- Over-use of ‘buzzwords’, acronyms and abbreviations
The antidote to this is to write in ‘plain English.’ That is, English which is easy to understand by anyone on the first reading.
Mark Morris, Head of Clear English at the Department of Health, wrote on the Government Digital Service blog about a survey which found that 80% of people preferred sentences written in plain English when reading a legal document.
He continues, ”The more educated the person, the more specialist their knowledge, the greater their preference for plain English”.
Morris concluded that, “In work, we write so we can do something. If you want your writing to achieve its goal, then do all you can to make life easy for your reader.”
If people don’t understand what you’re saying, they’re unlikely to take the action that you desire.
How to write in Plain English:
Make sure that your writing:
- Is free of unnecessary jargon and abbreviations
- Is written in the active voice
- Is composed of relatively short sentences (20-25 words) and paragraphs
- Does not use complex words where simpler ones will do
- Explores only one topic or idea per paragraph
- Is written with ease of reading in mind
To paraphrase Albert Einstein, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
3. Think mobile first
Today we use our mobile phones or tablets to view online content all the time. Research by Smart Insights shows that 80% of Internet users today use smartphones to search and browse the Internet.
This is changing our relationship towards information.
We want instant answers to small questions, and we’re promiscuous with our information sources.
Online businesses need to evolve their communications in line with this shift towards shorter attention spans and casual access of information while doing other things.
How to write for mobile first:
When writing your content specifically for mobile users, consider how the reader will view it via a mobile phone or tablet screen, and write accordingly.
This means you should:
- Keep it short – Aim to write roughly half of what you would normally for desktop. Sentences and paragraphs should also be kept short to make it easier to read.
- Use sub-headers and bullet points – These improve scannability, so people can find the information they want quickly and easily.
- Get to the point – Because people are accessing your content on the move, it’s even more important that you don’t keep them hanging around. They won’t.
Remember EVERYONE lives in the mobile world ALL THE TIME. We are becoming used to consuming information in that way so even when writing other types of communication, whether it’s a sales presentation, a training manual or a press release, WRITE AS IF YOU WERE VIEWING IT ON A MOBILE DEVICE.
4. Use a conversational tone of voice
When writing for consumers or for a corporate audience, it can be tempting to adopt a very formal, rigid tone of voice to convey the impression of professionalism.
This is particularly true when the author is not a native English speaker. However, writing in an overly serious and business-like style can actually turn people off, as it can appear to be dull, cold and impersonal.
US-based copywriter E.T. Robbins says that, “A conversational style is the most effective form of copywriting… Why is it so effective? Simple. Your reader doesn’t have to struggle to understand the message. This ‘Brain comfort” is important when you consider all the different messages vying for our attention every day.”
When you talk to people in a conversational tone of voice, you sound more like a friend – someone the reader can trust.
How to write in a conversational way
When writing conversationally, simply try to write as you would speak to the person if they were there. There are a number of different techniques that you can use to achieve this, including:
- Using short sentences
- Asking rhetorical questions
- Use contractions liberally
- Keep your writing simple
Get a picture in your head of whom it is you’re writing for before you start. While you write imagine you’re having a conversation with them.
5. Use online tools to optimise your writing
In the four points above we’ve suggested a number of powerful methods for improving your business communications.
This final point however will require very little effort on your part. Once you’ve written your first draft, simply run it through one of these online tools to further optimise it.
How to use writing tools to improve your work:
Hemingway – Ernest Hemingway was renowned for his simple and direct writing style. The app named after him builds on this approach.
Simply feed in your content and Hemingway will highlight words and sentences that are overly complex, too long or use adverbs. It will also give your content a ‘readability’ score, which rates how easy it is to read.
Grammarly – Particularly useful if English isn’t your native language, Grammarly will automatically detect and instantly fix grammatical errors in your writing. Not only will this help to make your individual pieces of writing better; it can help you to learn from the mistakes that you commonly make so that you can eliminate them in future.
Whatever your sector or your role within your organisation, by following these guidelines you can very quickly improve your written communications.
One final thought. Before you start on any piece of writing, ask yourself:
“What’s the story I’m telling here?”
There’s a reason that much of the information we consume is presented in story form, whether a novel, a TV series, newspaper article or a piece of online content.
Human beings love stories.
We want to make sense of the information in front of us, and neatly packaging that information into an easily digestible story is a powerful way to do that.
In all of your business communications, consider what story you’re trying to tell, and how it fits into your wider brand story.
If you need help telling your story, why not drop us a line?