The Green Sheet Online Edition
February 23, 2009 • Issue 09:02:02
How to write right
By Nancy Drexler
If you're like many people in the payments arena, you fall into one of these three categories: You think you're a great writer; you think you're a good enough writer; you are successful enough to hire someone else to do your writing.
To each of you, I say:
- You can always be a better writer; the better you are, the more successful you'll be.
- Good writing connotes education, intelligence, sophistication, maturity and attention to detail. The better you write, the more trustworthy you'll seem.
- At least once in your future you will have to write your own thank-you note, sales letter or speech. The better you are at the task, the more successful you'll be.
Here are some pointers for making your letters, sales materials, ads and other written communications more effective.
- Talk to the reader. If you want me to read what you've written, write it as though you are talking to me face to face. Writing is read by one person at a time; no matter how many people will read what you've written, each reader must feel as though you are speaking solely to him or her. Take a letter (or ad, or e-mail) you've composed and read it aloud. If it feels awkward, difficult or even a little embarrassing, try rewriting it.
- Respect the reader. Your readers are busy, harried and consumed with making their lives (not yours) better, easier, more effective and more efficient. Show them how you can help them do that, and they may continue to read what you've written. If you have something to add to their lives, let them know. Tell them clearly, quickly and upfront about the value you offer.
- Get it right. Find out the gender of people you're contacting before you reach out by phone, e-mail or letter. Spell their names correctly. Avoid using nicknames until you know it's OK to do so. Make sure the titles you use are current. And proofread at least once. Today there is no reason, ever, not to spell check.
- Get right to it. You are writing something for a reason. Regardless of what you learned in high school, you don't have to "tell them what you are going to tell them; then tell them; and then tell them what you just told them." Just get to it.
- If you wouldn't say it, don't write it. You would not want to deal with a customer service rep who says, "I am the person whom you may call to resolve any dilemma in which you find yourself." It is grammatically correct, but these days it is also very unnatural.
I am not suggesting you pepper your communications with grammatical errors. I'm just saying that it is perfectly appropriate to keep your tone conversational. Your writing should reflect who you are. Don't say, "Me and you should get together." But don't worry about ending a sentence with a preposition.
- Tell your reader what to do. Every communications piece should feature a call to action. If you don't tell your readers what to do, don't assume they'll figure it out for themselves. Instead, provide an easy-to-find, specific set of instructions for their next steps. Make these instructions urgent, and include a reminder of the benefits to following them.
Say something in a print ad along the lines of, "Call me today for your free quote," followed by the correct telephone number.
A postscript is a very effective place for your call to action. Letter readers often read the first line or paragraph and then the P.S. before reading anything else. While you want to keep your postscript's tone conversational, you must also be concise.
- Edit. Delete. Edit. Your job as a business writer is to capture your readers' attention and draw them, through your copy, to your call to action. Your words must convince them that taking that action is in their best interest. To accomplish that, the best writers pay as much attention to the words they remove from copy as to the words they add.
- Don't ask a question you don't want the answer to. Copywriters are taught to engage their readers with questions, conflicts, or situations that attract their attention and draw them in to the rest of the message. But be careful.
If the answer to your question isn't more than likely to be the one you want, you probably shouldn't ask the question. For example, don't start a letter or direct mail piece with, "Interested in the best new terminal?" or "Want to get more from your processor?" The answer to those questions could easily be "No" or even "Not right now"'; if so, your message could be tossed aside.
- Don't be too clever. There is a fine line between funny and not funny. Don't start a written piece with anything that can turn readers off. If you think you have a novel idea, try it out on a few colleagues before implementing it. And make sure any gimmick you use enhances your brand and the reason for the communication.
One of my favorite ads contains a four-color close-up of the torso of an elderly woman. Just above her left breast is a large "tattoo" that is the signature of Jimi Hendrix. There is no headline or copy, just the picture of a BIC permanent marker. Could this ad be considered offensive? Possibly. Does it catch your eye? For sure.
But what makes this ad brilliantly clever instead of gimmicky is that the visual draws you in and, without using copy, lets you know that if you write with a BIC marker, your message will last until you are old and wrinkled. The gimmick makes the point in a strong, memorable way. Similarly, good writing uses wit to enhance a message, not compete with it or detract from it.
- Don't shout. Speaking of gimmicks, can't you smell one from a mile away? What do you do when you see the word "free" in all caps? Or "Just for you" in an e-mail subject line? How do you respond when a communication is replete with bold letters and exclamation points?
Like a pushy salesperson, a pushy letter or sales piece can be annoying or completely counterproductive. So don't shout. Keep your tone conversational. Don't use trite phrases that underwhelm because they are overused. And don't count on bold letters and exclamation points to generate interest or excitement. Your writing will have to do that.
Tune it up
The best writers are great editors. Never wedded to a word or turn of phrase, they are able to delete any writing that doesn't push the narrative forward in a logical and convincing way. Good business writers don't emulate poets. They use simple, straightforward language. They know never to use a long word when a shorter one will do.
Effective writers replace the words "I" and "me" with "you" and "your." Instead of talking about what makes them great, they focus on what will benefit readers.
Clearly presented information is far more engaging than cleverly presented information. Tuning up your writing skills to concisely convey your message will pay great dividends.
Nancy Drexler is the Vice President, Marketing for SignaPay Ltd., an ISO headquartered in Dallas. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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