When I interviewed for my first content marketing job (nine years ago), my soon-to-be boss warned me, “You won’t be writing poetry.”
Actually, I was pretty excited to be not writing poetry. Despite my frustrated literary ambitions, over the years, I’ve come to realize that the same qualities that make me a bad poet also make me a good business writer. I express the idea simply, directly. I don’t look for complex metaphors or novel turns of phrase. I focus on the goal of the message, not its beauty.
I recently saw a play that was really a bunch of small plays. (It’s called Trivial Disasters, if you’re interested.) One of them was about a celebrated poet who was commissioned to write public safety messages for hoardings, which were then discarded by petty bureaucrats for more straightforward, somewhat hilarious messages (like a pun on “helmet” and “hell”). As a reader, I would find this appalling (and do often laugh or feel horrified at badly worded public safety messages. If you’re the target audience, however, you’re more likely to read and remember the pithy, inelegant “hell met” message than the beautiful poem.
Yet I see way too much business communication that is ridden with cliches and nearly incomprehensible turns of phrase. Too much that takes so long saying what it wants to say that it loses the audience. Whether it’s your website or a blog post or press release, you really can’t afford to do this. One good thing about social media is it’s training us all to say something in fewer words.
So how do you do it? Writing clearly isn’t easy, especially for most of us educated in a school system that seemed to reward more by the length of an answer than its accuracy. Here are some tricks I follow: