Category Archives: Writing

7 Reasons Why Good Business Writing Matters: No.7

1) Writing poorly is rude to your readers

2) Bad writing makes you look bad

3) Bad writing leads to misunderstanding

4) Writing well saves everyone’s time

5) Writing well can give full expression to your great ideas

6)   The process of improving your writing forces you to clarify your ideas

7)    Good writing makes you look good

Write well and you can get away with a multitude of other failings. If I’m totally honest I would say that throughout my life I’ve been able to get away with being lazy, incompetent and on more than one occasion quite frankly dissolute, simply because I can write well.

People are impressed by the ability to put words together in the right order. It happens with oratory (just ask Tony Blair) and it happens with the written word. It comes back to the point that business is all about personal relations and if you can express yourself eloquently people are more likely to read what you have written, to accept your opinions and ultimately to warm to you.

It certainly helps if you can back up your words with rigorous research, incisive analysis and genuine expertise – just as it’s usually best to remain sober when writing – but it’s not altogether necessary. The power of writing is such that it is enough, on its own, to make you look good.

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Press release of the month: Cable & Wireless Worldwide

This month I’m looking at a press release I received on 9th February from CHA PR. Here it is:

CONFERENCE CALLER CONFESSIONS – CHECKING EMAILS, DOODLING, EATING AND FALLING ASLEEP

SURVEY BY CABLE&WIRELESS WORLDWIDE FINDS THAT:

  • OVER 42 PER CENT OF BRITS CHECK OR WRITE EMAILS AND 32 PER CENT DOODLE WHILE TAKING PART IN A CONFERENCE CALL
  • 24 PER CENT OF THE UK WOULD BE HAPPY TO DEAL WITH A DOCTOR OR HEALTH PROVIDER ON A VIDEO CALL

09 February 2011: Over 42 per cent of UK business people admit to having checked or written emails when on a telephone conference call, while 35 per cent have doodled and three per cent have even fallen asleep, according to research from mission critical communications provider Cable&Wireless Worldwide.

In the UK our concentration and focus on telephone conference calls begins to wane after an average of 23 minutes, but on a video conference call or in a face-to-face meeting our attention span rockets to 35 minutes, putting us on par with Singaporeans who report the longest concentration time on a video conference call at 37 minutes. Interestingly, on regular one to one phone calls the average focus in the UK is just nine minutes, a figure the Germans put to shame with the ability to concentrate for over 16 minutes.

It’s not just those from the UK who have a tendency to lose concentration on a conference call. Over 46 per cent of all respondents from Germany, India, Spain and Singapore check or write emails, while on average 43 per cent surf the net, 17 per cent doodle and 11 per cent have even made another phone call.

Cable&Wireless Worldwide provides telephone and video conferencing solutions to large national and multi-national companies and UK Government departments.  It estimates that the use of managed video conferencing (MVC) saves customers at least 25 per cent on their travel costs. The number of video conferencing units being deployed to customers has increased by 34 per cent over the last 12 months. Internally, Cable&Wireless Worldwide uses managed video conferencing extensively, clocking up over 1.2 million minutes across the business in 2010 with usage increasing 36 per cent in the last six months alone.

Video conferencing and face to face meetings also tend to bring out the image-conscious in us with two thirds of people in the UK saying they would put more effort into their personal presentation by wearing smart business attire, while a third would smile more. Just over 10 per cent of 16-24 year olds would even practice in front of a mirror before!

“It’s fascinating to see the different behaviours prompted by audio and video conferencing,” says Matt Key, Managing Director, Enterprise at Cable&Wireless Worldwide. “Both telephone and video communications have an important role to play, particularly in the workplace. However this research clearly shows that telephone conference calls are best suited for a shorter conversation while video conferencing can ensure that people are focused for longer.

“It seems video calls are better for discussions where it is important to not only hear what is being said but also see how people on the other end are expressing themselves. Video conferencing is particularly well suited to greater numbers of participants and meetings where visual props need to be discussed. It also makes the workplace more stylish!”

The Cable&Wireless Worldwide survey also found that almost 24 per cent of people in the UK would be happy to deal with a doctor or health provider on a video call. This number rises to 54 per cent in India while in Singapore more than 36 per cent would be happy to talk to a school teacher through a video call.

Luan de Burgh, a leading voice and presentation coach, says: “The way people present themselves, visually as well as verbally, has an enormous impact. It’s always been the case in traditional face to face meetings but with the increase in the use of high definition video conferencing in the workplace and personal video calls, people need to consider how they look on screen as well.”

NOTES TO EDITORS:

Cable&Wireless Worldwide conducted a survey with over 4,800 consumers and business respondents in the UK, India, Spain, Germany and Singapore about their communication methods and habits.

Luan de Burgh who has lectured on the prestigious voice studies course at the Central School of Speech and Drama and is a leading voice and presentation coach.

Now, I’m going to disappoint you and admit that I think this is a very good press release. I wouldn’t really expect anything less from CHA – they’re a bright bunch who I deal with frequently and who by and large hit the mark with their press releases and pitches. So, what do I like about this press release?

– I can’t spot a single error of spelling, grammar, maths or fact, so I can focus on the point they’re making

– they make that point clearly and directly, with some good, solid stats to support it

– they give some vivid examples that I (and more importantly my readers) can identify with: who hasn’t checked e-mails or come close to falling asleep on a conference call? (Just me? Well I’ve been on some truly dull conference calls!)

– the subject is entirely relevant to me and the titles I write for, and they’ve found an interesting way of promoting their client’s services

Good job, CHA. A final comment on surveys….

People on my copywriting course often ask about the use of surveys in press releases and I think they’re a useful tool, which can help to add credibility to a point. However I offer a few caveats:

– the survey has to be credible; this means it’s conducted by an impartial third party and it involves a statistically relevant sample

– be careful with numbers, especially percentages; they don’t come easily to us wordy types, but we do need to make sure they all add up

– avoid tedious comparisons between regions and countries; I can understand the need to include regional comparisons if you’re sending the release to local media as they are popular with those titles, but I would steer clear of using your survey results to reinforce tired and irrelevant national stereotypes

How did this press release fare against those criteria?

– 4,800 is a good sample, but C&W did it themselves which makes me question how far I can trust these figures

– as far as I can see C&W and CHA have got their maths spot on

– is it really interesting that, according to this survey, Singaporeans and Germans can concentrate for longer than Britons? I don’t think so.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this press release and on the use of surveys in general. Do you agree with my caveats? Are there others you would add? Do you think conference call concentration could make it as an event in the 2012 Olympics?

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Press release of the month: Giveacar.com

Here is the press release I’m dissecting this month. It arrived in my inbox on 8th February:

“Young entrepreneur answers David Cameron’s call for Enterprise

In July last year David Cameron launched the ‘Big Society’ campaign to empower members of the public to play a greater role in the prevision of services in their local areas. This ambitious plan has sought to reinstate the entrepreneurial spirit and culture of volunteerism the Conservatives believe dwindled under Labour, as well as to loosen the restrictive grip of Whitehall over those who would like to influence the direction of services in their local communities.

The Big Society programme has come hand-in-hand with the spending cuts highlighted by the Prime Ministers as an essential step in creating a sustainable state. It is hoped that charities and social entrepreneurs will step into the void created by reductions in local spending to soften the blow of diminished public services. In addition, the Prime Minister sees the creation of a new generation of entrepreneurs as an important part of creating jobs and generating growth on the path to economic recovery.

One young entrepreneur and founder of the social enterprise Giveacar, Tom Chance, has heeded Mr Cameron’s call. Chance started the car donation service in January 2010 just as the economy was slowly emerging after an 18 month-long recession. His organisation arranges for the scrappage of old and unwanted cars, a service traditionally operated by local authorities, and donates the proceeds of the scrappage to charitable causes.

In the 12 months since its birth Giveacar’s popularity has grown rapidly. Attracted by the simplicity and the chance to make a donation to their favourite charity more and more people are utilising Chance’s scheme each month.

In addition to reducing the burden on local councils across the UK to deal with unwanted and abandoned cars, Giveacar, which Chance started from his bedroom, also provides employment for three people at its office in London. With demand sky high Chance is looking to add to his staff to cope with the mounting number of donations.

“It is great to contribute to the UK economy, even if only in a very small way. The charity sector, like other sectors, has been hit hard by the spending cuts, and never before has the demand for innovative schemes like Giveacar been higher.” Commented Chance.

The Giveacar scheme, now operating for one year, is supported by 250 charities, and has made donations exceeding £250,000. A drop in the ocean for the UK economy, but an indication that graduate enterprise has a lot to offer.

To find out more about Giveacar, visit www.giveacar.co.uk or call 020 0011 1664.”

SEVEN WAYS TO IMPROVE IT:

It’s an interesting business in a very topical area, but this press release isn’t doing justice to it. It could be vastly improved.

In my training course How to Write Copy That Journalists Actually Use I outline 20 steps to improving press releases. These are in four sections: getting the basics right, simplifying your language, telling a story, and making it relevant. I can straightaway identify seven improvements to this press release from just the getting the basics right and simplifying your language sections:

1) Sort your spelling out. First sentence: “prevision” should be “provision”. It looks sloppy and many journalists will stop reading right there and then.

2) Sort your grammar and punctuation out. To give just one example, there’s no need for hyphens in ‘hand in hand’. Again it looks a bit amateurish.

3) Get someone to proofread your copy. Why have we got an ‘s’ after Prime Minister? I know Cameron and Clegg are fairly indistinguishable, but I’m pretty sure there’s still only one Prime Minister.

4) Don’t waste time on unnecessary background. Everyone reading this is going to know what the Big Society is, and is just going to be bored by this fairly turgid explanation. Cut it.

5) Get to the point. This press release only begins to get interesting in the third paragraph. Why not cut the first two paras down to something like: “With Government spending cuts begining to bite and private sector recovery remaining tentative, it is more important than ever that social entrepreneurs step forward to deliver not only the Prime Minister’s Big Society agenda but also economic recovery for the UK….” – then get straight into the interesting stuff about what Giveacar.com does

6) Simplify your language. “This ambitious plan has sought to reinstate the entrepreneurial spirit and culture of volunteerism the Conservatives believe dwindled under Labour…” Er…. what? Any never, ever use “utilise”. Use is perfectly fine.

7) Be specific with figures. “In the 12 months since its birth Giveacar’s popularity has grown rapidly.” By how much? If it is an impressive figure why not include it? The fact that it’s not there makes us think it’s not that impressive.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

That’s just 7 ideas off the top of my head and from the simpler half of my training course. There are many more ways this could be improved.

To win a free place on my training session on the afternoon of Friday 4th March, and find out how I’d improve this further by telling a story with it, and making it relevant to the reader, e-mail me or comment on this post suggesting another way to improve this press release – the best suggestion wins the place.

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7 Reasons Why Good Business Writing Matters: No.6

1) Writing poorly is rude to your readers

2) Bad writing makes you look bad

3) Bad writing leads to misunderstanding

4) Writing well saves everyone’s time

5) Writing well can give full expression to your great ideas

6)   The process of improving your writing forces you to clarify your ideas

Good writing is not only a result of clear thinking; it is also a cause of it. The process of writing forces you to plan and structure your thoughts, to clarify exactly what you mean, and to make your case in a logical and persuasive way.

Very often when I’m writing an article or a report I will change my opinion on the subject during the writing. You might expect this would happen during the research – that I would read around the subject, speak to experts, and then form an opinion – but that’s not always the case. In fact very often I find that where I do form an opinion at that stage, once I start writing I find all sorts of holes in my argument.

Pushing half-baked opinions and viewpoints through the white heat of the writing process can cut out our lazy assumptions, it can make us rigorously question our beliefs, and it can drive us to nail down exactly what we want to write. The outcome is that when we do write it, we are much more confident and vastly more compelling.

Sometimes the result of this process is that I discover I don’t have anything worth writing. I find out that my view on the subject is either hackneyed or ill-informed. In those cases I stop writing on the subject. At least it’s me who finds that out, not my readers.

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7 Reasons Why Good Business Writing Matters: No.4

1) Writing poorly is rude to your readers

2) Bad writing makes you look bad

3)    Bad writing leads to misunderstanding

4)    Writing well saves everyone’s time

Badly written documents tend to be long, dense affairs that take hours to read and often do more to confuse than to clarify. Instructions remain unclear so either the reader goes ahead and probably does the wrong thing or they have to go back and seek clarification from the writer. Either way this adds in time to the project. Someone somewhere has to pay for that wasted time.

The brief is unclear so either the company wastes time producing a proposal that fails to meet the mark or they have to go back and seek clarification. Again, poor writing adds in unnecessary steps. It makes business less efficient.

Think of any type of written business communication and in every case writing well would save time and increase efficiency. Of course  it takes  time at the beginning to learn how to do it well, and then it requires that little extra effort planning, crafting and editing the  document to get it right first time, but it saves time in the long run.

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7 Reasons Why Good Business Writing Matters: No.3

1) Writing poorly is rude to your readers

2) Bad writing makes you look bad

3)    Bad writing leads to misunderstanding

Bad writing lies at the heart of so much misunderstanding in the business world. It could be you choose an ambiguous word, or even the wrong word, and then wonder why the person who works for you doesn’t do what you want them to.

It could be imprecise grammar that means a prospective customer misses the key point of your sales pitch. Or it could be an ill-considered structure that means your boss never gets to the end of your report and so fails to notice the good work you’ve done.

There are so many ways that bad writing can damage not only your business relationships, but also your business revenues. I firmly believe that good business writing is all about clarity of communication. It is about avoiding ambiguity.

The fundamental point is that good business writing is all about good business. Be clear, be accurate, be direct and you will reap the benefits.

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7 Reasons Why Good Business Writing Matters: No.1

In the last few blog posts I’ve explained to you why I’m writing this book on business writing. I’m now turning my attention to why you should be interested in it. Why exactly does writing well matter?

Some wonder why this question needs to be answered. “Rules are rules,” they tell us – “They’re meant to be obeyed”. I don’t subscribe to this view. Just because rules exist it doesn’t mean we have to follow them.  Personally I always need to see a clear, logical reason why I should do something, and I’m assuming you’re the same.

If you’re not, if you prefer to keep your life simple and follow rules just because they’re there, then you can skip this chapter. Lucky you -you can spend more time focusing on how to get it right.  If though you are like me and need first to understand why you should get it right, here are seven reasons why I believe good business writing matters.

1)    Bad writing is rude to your readers

I might not believe in rules but I do believe in good manners, and asking someone to read badly written text is just plain rude.

If you fail to use the correct punctuation you make it hard for the reader to know when sentences end and finish, what is speech and what not, where one idea ends and another begins, and so on. It’s the equivalent of someone asking you directions and you mumbling something about it being “up there, somewhere a bit further on”. It’s not very helpful.

Poor structure and clunky flow means the reader has to stop, re-read, and try to put your thoughts into a logical order. You shouldn’t be asking them to do that; you should be polite enough to do it for them.

Perhaps the worst of all is forcing your readers to wade through a morass of jargon, management-speak, vague words and generic phrases. We all know how that feels: it’s mind-numbingly dull. Your mind wanders, you have to fight to pay attention, and you constantly feel that perhaps it’s you, the reader, who is just too stupid to understand this complex, dense text.

If they have the option they’ll probably stop reading, but if they don’t then you’ve condemned them to spend time being bored. What could be ruder than that?

Number two follows tomorrow….

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The five types of non-writer

This post is part of my series on business writing. In the last post I concluded by saying that over the 15 or so years I’ve been in the business world I’ve identified five types of non-writer.  Of course everyone has  their own personal view on writing, on how relevant it is to them and their work, but these five types seem to crop up very frequently, and be responsible for a lot of the bad  writing out there. Here then are those five types:

1) The busy executive

Most likely to say: “I would love to have the time to write – in fact when I was younger I used to want to be a journalist – but now I’m too busy with proper work to focus on writing well.”

The busy executive type sees writing as subordinate to proper work. They tell themselves that it would be lovely to have the luxury of time to express themselves well in writing, but the simple fact is that they live in the real world. And the real world is about making money.

What these busy executives fail to recognise is that writing well isn’t just something that it’s nice to do, but is an essential part of business success. Perhaps they imagine we business writers are some kind of romantic Byron-esque characters too caught up in musing on a fey phrase to sully our minds with commerce. They’re wrong. Business writing is writing with the goal of doing business more effectively – business writing is about making more money.

2) The meetings specialist

Most likely to say: “I’m more of a people kind of person”

We’ve all met people like this. People who are fluent and articulate in person, but seem unable to translate that into their written communications. Often you wonder if it was really them who wrote the document.

Very often these people are quite capable writers, but they either freeze up when presented with a blank page and feel that they would rather just have another meeting, or they don’t have enough time to dedicate to writing well because they’re rushing off to their next meeting.

Good writing can never replace face-to-face communications, but it is an essential complement.

3) The corporate waffler

Most likely to say: “I prefer to see writing as a way of empowering my stakeholders in a synergistic progression towards the organisational achievement of strategised goals across territories.”

How did the business world start to speak and write like that? Who knows? Who cares – the more pressing point is that it needs to stop. Right here, right now, we need to get hold of these people and shake this virus out of them. We need to make it crystal clear that speaking in incomprehensible jargon and management speak is neither clever nor acceptable.

We need to see through it, to realise that very often people use it as a way of covering up the fact that they have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about, and we need to challenge them on it. Ask them exactly what a strategised goal is and how it differs from a normal goal.

More than anything else we need to save these people from themselves. After all, it can’t be any sort of fun having to speak and write like that day in, day out.

4) The zeitgeisty tweeter

Most likely to say: “Chill out dude. It’s like 2010 now.”

In some quarters concern over writing is seen as almost quaint. To some people the idea of planning a written communication, taking care over its production and then rigorously editing it reeks of dusty libraries and tweed jackets with patches at the elbows. To these people punctuation and spelling are about as relevant as the Corn Laws.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for 21st Century communication and I can blog, tweet and post with the best of them, but I see no reason why living in this super-fast, always-on world should in any way be incompatible with writing well. Indeed I believe it makes it all the more important. We have so little time to make our point that we need to marshal our words as well as we possibly can.

5) The deliberate obscurantist

Most likely to say: “My style just isn’t that simplistic”

This is the only type of non-writer who really gets on my nerves. The others I can understand, even empathise with to some extent, but the deliberate obscurantist – those people who consciously try to confuse readers, who purposefully hide meaning behind mangled language – I have very little time for.

Thankfully they are few and far between, but sadly they do exist. They know what they’re doing and they know that it’s wrong. It’s time we all recognised what they’re doing and stopped them getting away with it.

So those are the five types of non-writer. Which one are you? Post a comment or send me an e-mail to let me know. Have I missed any? Do you know of any particularly good examples of any of those types?

Over these last four posts I hope I have made it clear why business writing matters so much to me. I’ll now move on to explain why I believe it ought to matter to you.

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Improving business writing skills

I am not one of those writers who sits in his garret grumbling to himself about the shoddy writing skills of those around him. Far from it – I’m actively out there in the business world, grumbling to people’s faces about their writing skills.

Well, I prefer to call it “training courses” and “coaching sessions” rather than “grumbling”, but whatever we choose to call it, the fact is that over the years I have trained hundreds of people on business writing skills, and I have coached many more on a one-to-one basis.

These have tended to be people who work in public relations, and so they are better at writing than most businesspeople. But still a surprising number of them write poorly. All too often they produce e-mails, letters, briefing documents, memos, meeting notes, proposals, press releases, marketing copy and so on that is lifeless, dull and hard to read. In my courses I show them where this is happening, I explain why it’s happening and I give them practical techniques for putting it right.

It’s a part of my work that I enjoy – it’s a lot of fun to spend time working with bright people who are experts at what they do and are keen to sharpen their writing styles – but it’s also given me a really good understanding of the common mistakes that people make and the opportunities they tend to miss.

It’s remarkable how often the same ones are repeated. The English language is a vast and complex thing, and there are many thousands of errors that can be made with it, but in the world of business we all tend to make more or less the same ones.

The first mistake that many make is simply approaching writing in the wrong way. All too often businesspeople don’t see writing as relevant to them. They see  it as an activity apart from what they do or who they are.

Over the past 15 years I’ve worked with thousands of businesspeople. I’ve worked with marketers, salespeople, recruiters, public relations experts, training consultants, and some truly brilliant entrepreneurs. I’ve dealt with people who are good at what they do, but struggle to explain themselves because they can’t write. In that  time I’ve identified five very common types of non-writer. Of course everyone has  their own personal view on writing, on how relevant it is to them and their work, but these five types seem to crop up very frequently, and be responsible for a lot of the bad  writing out there. In my next post I’ll tell you what they are….

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Why me?

In my last post I began my long-term series on business writing. I began by outlining my thoughts on why I’m writing this series. Here I move on to outline why I believe I’m qualified to offer this advice…

Why me?

There are two reasons why I feel qualified to write this blog/book, and to give you advice on how you can improve your business, your career and your life through better writing.

Firstly, it’s because I’m a good writer. I have spent the last decade earning a living as a freelance journalist for the trade and business press. In that time I have written about almost every subject you can imagine for the A to Z of business and trade publications: Accountancy, B2B Marketing, Call Centre Focus, Director, Ethical Performance, First Voice, Growing Business, Hourglass, The Independent, ……ok, I struggle with “J”, but no doubt there is one, and anyway I’m sure you get the point.

I have also written three books. The first “How to Grow Your Business for Entrepreneurs” was published by Pearson in July 2009 and in its first six months sold more than 3,000 copies worldwide. It was soon followed by “365 Ways to Cut Costs” published by the Director of Social Change. Towards the end of 2010 Pearson will publish my latest book “Brilliant Online Marketing”.

So, writing is what I do. Even before I became a writer I relied heavily on writing to succeed at anything. My only “proper” job was at an agency that found new business for marketing agencies. I joined as a graduate trainee and within three and a half years I was the Client Services Director, recruiting, training and managing a team of 20, and responsible for a client base of £1.5 million.

I knew very little about marketing, and I don’t think I’m a particularly gifted salesman, but I was able to achieve this fairly rapid success because I could express myself both on paper and in person. Similarly, all the way through school and university, the ability to write well has covered up a whole host of other shortcomings.

I was lucky that my parents taught me the basics of the English language at a young age, and that I had teachers who encouraged me to write (I had a great A-level history teacher who didn’t worry too much about details like dates and names, so long as I told a good story with my essays!), but the point is that writing is very much a skill that can be learnt. Just as I can learn to play a better cover drive, so we can all become better writers.

Sure, I will never be Brian Lara, but to be entirely frank nor will I ever be Scott Fitzgerald. It doesn’t matter. I only need to last a few overs against a village team a dozen Sundays a year, not score multiple centuries against the world’s best bowlers week in, week out, and none of us need to describe the glittering parties and glacial cruelty of the Jazz Age with the exquisite beauty that Fitzgerald managed – we just need to be better able to organise and our thoughts in writing so that our colleagues, clients, suppliers and so on can better understand us.

That level of writing ability can be learnt. I have learnt it and I believe that in this book I can teach it to you. Partly because I know how to do it, and partly because I know how to teach it….

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