Whatever sector you’re in and whatever role you play in your company, accurate, effective and compelling written communications are a crucial 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 customers that your products or services are right for them
- Unify your team around a strong brand voice and consistent messaging
- Make the right impression with colleagues or managers
Many people are concerned about whether their copywriting skills are good enough, particularly if they usually wear a different hat to do the day job.
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 improve your written business communications dramatically is a little knowledge and effort.
Here are nine ways to start writing like a pro
- Put your customer first
Whether you are writing a case study, a leaflet, a press release or a product description, whatever you’re writing you need to put your customer first. Your brand is brilliant – you know that. But your job is not to tell your customers that you are brilliant. They will find this out for themselves.
Your job is to convince your customers and prospects that you will solve their problem and fulfil their needs, which are steeped in emotions. When you think that 80% of the decisions that a person makes in a day are emotional, according to Deloitte, before you write a word, think about how content could tap into the emotional needs of your customers.
Your customers care about how your products and services make them feel. Function tends to be a secondary thought. You’ll need to first think like a psychologist. Then you can start thinking like a storyteller and writing like a wordsmith.
- Tell a story
Before you start on any piece of writing, also 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.
Human beings love stories – whether it’s a novel, a TV series, a film or online content.
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 your customer is the protagonist at the heart of your story. It may sound a bit far-fetched, but storytelling is a great way to emotionally connect with your customers on a set of shared values.
For example, if you are a fashion brand that has been built on a sustainable clothing ethos, then put the types of people that share the same values on ending throwaway fashion at the centre of your story.
Here are a few questions to think about
- What does your brand stand for?
- What is your brand purpose?
- What values do you share with your ideal customer?
- How can you infuse these values into your copy?
- Write headlines for the incurably curious
“When you have written your headline you have spent 80 cents out of your dollar” – David Ogilvy
Five times more people read the headline than the body copy, according to advertising guru David Ogilvy. If you want people to read your copy, you need to write an irresistible headline that makes them want to read more. There are lots of free headline tools to help you write killer titles.
- Sharethrough – Sharethrough’s free headline analyser tool will tell you the strengths of your headline. It offers suggestions for improvement (headline length, avoiding passive language and using power words etc). The tool also gives you tips on how to improve engagement and impressions (if you’re running an ad).
- Portent – if you’re stuck for inspiration – use Portent’s free title maker tool. Simply add a keyword that you are writing about and the tool will give you title ideas.
- Answer the Public – this free tool gives you visual insights into the questions people are asking about the topic you are writing about. From chocolate to content marketing, dive into the minds of your customers to grab attention by being super-relevant.
- 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, meaningful 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?
- Website content with a clear value proposition will hold people’s attention for much longer. You have got just seconds to convince a user to stay on your page.
- 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.
- 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
- Overuse 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. 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
Makes sure you use:
- Clear headings and subheadings
- Bullet points and lists
- Short sentences (20-25 words) and short paragraphs
Make sure that your writing:
- Is free of unnecessary jargon and abbreviations
- Is written in the active voice
- 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.”
- Think mobile first
Today we use our mobile phones or tablets to view online content all the time. People spend 70% of their internet time on their mobile, according to Google.
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 vital 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.
- 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 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 essential 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. Get a picture in your head of whom it is you’re writing for before you start. If you are developing customer personas this will be a big help here in guiding you on the tone that you should use to speak in their language. While you write, imagine you’re having a conversation with them.
There are several different techniques that you can use to achieve this, including:
- Using short sentences
- Asking rhetorical questions
- Use contractions liberally
- Keep your writing simple
You can also use conjunctions like ‘And’ or ‘But’ to start a sentence. We do this when we speak. We do this to build a narrative. Go ahead, break the rules. Professional copywriters often do this to convey a conversational tone.
Read your copy out loud. If you sound like you are speaking with your target audience, you are using a conversational tone.
- Use images that help you tell your story
Images are a visual anchor in a sea of words. They complement and enhance the text. Images also trigger an emotional response in the reader.
Images also carry SEO value that makes it easier for your website/blog content to be found. Use an alt attribute when uploading images to your content management system to help Google understand the image context for visual searches. These attributes are also called alt text/alternative text.
- Use online tools to optimise your writing
In the points above, we’ve suggested some powerful methods for improving your business communications.
This final point, however, will require minimal 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.
Let’s quickly recap. Whatever your sector or your role within your organisation, by following these guidelines, you can very quickly improve your written communications. No course required.
- Put your customer first.
- Work out how to emotionally connect with your audience through the art of compelling storytelling where your customer is the hero.
- Think about how to answer these questions when telling your stories: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Use killer headlines to get people past the title.
- Write in plain English to make your writing accessible and use online tools to cast a professional eye over what you have written.
- Read your writing out loud to check that you are writing as if you are having a conversation with your ideal customer. You’ll want to be speaking their language.
- Think mobile first It’s how people consume their content.
That’s a lot to be getting on with. If you find you need help telling your story, why not drop us a line?
Meanwhile, what are the challenges you face in writing your business communications? Tell us in the Comments section below.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in July 2015 but has since been completely updated, so it stays relevant, accurate and valuable to our readers.