Audio Version 11’30”
A Vital Success Tool, Now More Than Ever
Want to know the most essential, scalable success tool for 2020 and beyond? Whatever field you work in. Is it … TikTok For Business? No sorry Gary Vaynerchuk, it’s writing.
Writing helps you get nice things. It’s won us major contracts and awards just by writing better than others.
People will work with you if they like you. It’s more important than your skills and qualifications. The best way to do that is in person, but you can only work so many rooms each year.
Write well, and you can get an unlimited number of people to feel that they like you. That they share your values, and find your ideas worth the time.
Writing can get you through the gatekeepers now that nobody will take your phone call.
It’s not all epic documents, either. The way you come across in every email, message or social post builds up like a coral reef over years to create your reputation.
Isn’t It All Pictures Now?
Pictures are important, but for the 99% of business that’s outside the Insta influencer realm, it’s words that do the heavy lifting.
Try winning a commercial contract with a picture book. Or building company culture. Try pitching for investors using photos only. (Business writing includes using numbers to tell a story, not just dumping tables on people and expecting them to get it).
Writing Gets To Places You Can’t
You may have done a business pitch presentation where you were on fire. Your potential new clients hung on every word. They nodded in all the right places. They asked about the little details. They may as well have lit up a giant neon sign saying ‘We’re Buying’.
Then … they tell you they just have to run all the proposals past their boss upstairs.
Bad, bad news. You just know they will suck in the re-telling of why you’re the ideal choice. Now it’s all down to the document, which will be read in a cold vacuum by upper management lizards, stripped of your personal warmth and charm.
Safest to assume that’s going to happen every time. Your writing needs to stand alone.
Writing is Thinking
Above a certain level in business your progress depends on the quality of your ideas and judgement. Ideas are hard to get across and prone to being screwed up by people who don’t quite understand. Particularly if there are subtleties.
The act of writing your idea down clarifies it. How will it get interpreted when you’re not there to explain? An idea that works on paper is stronger, clearer and stands a much better chance of surviving out there in the wild.
I miss the old 140 character Twitter limit. Squeezing a complex idea into that space was really good writing practice. If you can’t fit an idea into a small space, it’s not an idea. It’s just some words.
So a few tips on writing better.
1. Long Paragraphs Kill Attention
My lifelong hero died last week. I’ve written of Clive James before, and that’s why I’m writing about writing now. Since then I’ve been on a Clive binge, and … I’m letting him down. I used to smash through his books. Now, my attention span is shot by reading on phones.
These are random pages from Unreliable Memoirs, the lightest of his books. Look at those forbidding, nearly-full-page paragraphs. The reading game has changed.
Assume whatever you write will be read on a phone screen. Your long paragraphs are making people’s brains tired. Pathetic but that’s how it is.
2. It’s All About The Opening Line
Work hard on it because if it doesn’t grab them, they’re not reading any further. Let’s look at the first magnificent line of this Marina Hyde article on Boris Johnson being unable to say how many children he had.
If I wrote that line I’d just take the rest of the day off.
Our web site opens with “Scene Change is probably the wrong AV company for you”.
What? How can that be marketing? They’re going to read more just to ease the disorientation. (For the full story check out Needy vs Confident – Which Are You?)
Either entertain them – harder than it looks – or ask yourself what’s in it for them? Tell them up front, in vivid terms that they can picture.
OK: Choosing our enterprise software will get you that promotion.
Better: Wave your workmates goodbye boarding the plane as you turn left.
3. Put Yourself In The Shoes Of The Reader
We won these industry awards.
Partly because we do good work. But to be fair so do others.
It’s also because I wrote every one of those 40-50 page award submissions while thinking: some poor judge has to read a fat pile of these, late at night, after a hard day’s work.
They have to read endless ‘our range of premium solutions delivered unparalleled customer satisfaction in 2018’ etc. It’s just subjective word soup, garnished with nauseating self-praise.
Instead of reaching for the adjective shaker, learn to find hard, objective facts. And good numbers with a story behind them.
We probably won half those awards because they were the only entries the judges could stay awake through.
Same with contract tenders. The art is in putting those essential, what’s-in-it-for-them facts up on a spotlit pedestal, rather than burying them in the standard dense jungle of corporate filler.
4. Read It Aloud
It’s the ultimate test of clear writing.
Does it roll off the tongue comfortably? If not, rewrite it until you can say it like you’re talking to someone.
Each week I record the audio version of these tales. Not once in those 90-odd weeks have I got through it without having to stop and rewrite some clunky rough edge.
5. ‘Cleverness’ Is Overrated
Non-writers think good writing is full of ‘clever’ plays on words but actually it’s pretty tiresome. It’s a fine line that depends on personal taste.
I saw a pest control truck in small town in California that said Zero Return On Infestment and I thought it was great.
I saw this in my hotel shower and thought: what are you saying? Are you calling me pretentious? While I’m showering? This feels weird. And I’m a hotel towel re-hanger.
It’s not as charming as businesses think it is. If someone came up to you in a bar and their first line was some sort of wordplay, you’d be creeped out.
When in doubt, just keep it normal.
Simple Works Even For Big Companies
Ten years after it appeared, the famous Netflix company culture statement is still the gold standard in simple, tell-it-how-it-us corporate writing. And they’ve done quite well since 2009. It’s well worth a read. A couple of random gems:
“In many organizations, there is an unhealthy emphasis on process and not much freedom. These organizations didn’t start that way, but the python of process squeezed harder every time something went wrong.”
The python of process. I love a good reptile metaphor, and hate process strangulation. Top work.
More from Netflix:
“You might think that such freedom would lead to chaos. But we also don’t have a clothing policy, yet no one has come to work naked.”
Compare that to Accenture’s marketing home page.
Accenture helps Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) drive growth and achieve high performance by developing superior marketing strategies, planning the effective implementation of these strategies, and executing these plans flawlessly, quickly and efficiently.
Leveraging leading-edge digital marketing capabilities as foundation, high-performing marketing organizations identify promising value propositions from customer data, develop the most compelling and profitable offers, and engage customers across physical and digital, direct and indirect interaction channels. From digital marketing to customer insights to experience innovation and more, Accenture offers the capabilities to help clients achieve digital-led and customer-focused marketing strategies that drive profitable growth.
This is the language of people who in the end will deliver mainly Powerpoint decks. Meetings were had over those paragraphs, and those people went: that’s perfect.
I won’t get forensic on it other than to point out a major reason shit gets unreadable is Double Verbing.
Double verbing is when you try to shoehorn all those exciting things you do into one overburdened line.
Here’s Accenture pulling out a double-Double Verbing:
Accenture helps organizations chart a path to high performance by developing and implementing marketing strategies that transform the way organizations interact with and engage their customers.
More is less. Particularly that second one. Interacting with and engaging are the same. Please don’t do this.
How Do You Get Better At Writing?
Duh, by writing.
There’s this mythology that you need to be in a certain frame of mind for your writing muse to strike, as if you’re Lord Byron leaning back on a chaise-longe in an opium den.
“Not today, I’m not feeling it. Perhaps tomorrow.”
This lazy-ass mindset will stop you getting better at it. Sit down. Now. Write a terrible first version of your tender document, Tinder profile, soon-to-be-viral resignation email, novel or whatever’s in your head. Rewrite it.
And keep going. The more you do the better you get at it.
It’s the same as exercise. There’s no clickbait shortcut sorry.
The best thing I ever did was hired an ex-major newpaper editor to go through some pieces I’d written. He did not spare my feelings as he cut it down to 72% of its starting weight.
The embarrassment made my writing tighter from that moment on. Old school editors have never been more affordable, I really recommend it if you’re serious.
Open With Why, Move To How
Explaining why upfront gets their attention. Then telling them how provides something useful.
That’s how this story is structured. If you’re wondering how to get started, try that.
If you liked this you might enjoy Words, Not Numbers, Make You The Money.
If you’re new here, I do a story like this each Tuesday. A secret society of high level business achievers gets it in their inbox rather than using browser bookmarks like a pleb. Drop your email here and you’ll join the elite.
Really cool advice thanks Ian
I am sorry about Clive. He is a great loss.
Love the python metaphor.
I thought I was the only one who read things aloud to test them – it makes such a difference.
I really need to work on the double verbing issue though…
… And where did you find your ex-newspaper editor?
Yeah Clive not gonna lie it made me cry, despite the decade-or-so notice. Which was partly self-pity, it was like the death of my youth. Found editor thru an author friend, he did a book for me, DM if you want his details cheers