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:
1. Focus on the result.
Too often, we get right into describing the business or product’s strengths or capabilities. But what your audience needs to know is how you can help them. So keep asking ‘so what’ until you get to that answer, and then make that the core of your message.
For Markitty, we had done this:
We combined technology and personalized, expert marketing recommendations to create a unique marketing software tool.
So we said:
Every day, you get actionable advice based on your marketing.
2. Keep sentences and paragraphs short.
This is one of the easiest rules to follow, simply because it’s a clear-cut rule. Look hard at any sentence longer than 40 words, and any paragraph longer than 100, and break it up if you can. Shorter sentences and paragraphs are easier to read, and what with reading more blog posts and tweets and young adult fiction, we’re all more accustomed to them now. When you get better at writing you can get away with breaking this rule, but only break it because that long sentence reads better, not because you can’t figure out how to make it shorter.
I remember reading that the sentences in Agatha Christie’s books used to get shorter as the climax neared, and that that partly explains why they’re so engrossing. Not sure if that’s true, but short sentences do make me feel a sense of urgency.
3. Don’t qualify yourself too much.
Don’t be afraid to take a stand. Be direct. Don’t cloak your statement in so many qualifiers it’s difficult to even figure out what you mean.
Which of these would you rather read? Which message is easier to understand and remember?
I do think you should, you know, be as direct as possible – not that subtlety doesn’t have its advantages, but it depends so much on the context. So when you can, it’s better to just say it instead of beating around the bush, though sometimes you can’t tackle the bush head on, some bushes can be tricky… But it’s usually, in most cases, better to not take a long time and end up diluting your point.
Be direct and clear. You want your audience to understand what you mean without having to go to a lot of trouble to figure it out.
4. Don’t use jargon.
Sure, you’re writing for a specific audience, but make it as accessible as possible. If you’re writing to a tech startup crowd, for instance, you don’t need to explain that when you say Ruby, you’re not referring to those sparkly red things. But you might spell it out (without breaking the flow, such as ‘a programming language like Ruby on Rails’) if you’re addressing a more mixed crowd.
5. Edit, edit, edit.
If you can get someone to read and give you feedback, especially someone in your target audience, great. Otherwise sleep over it and read it again the next day, and be honest – is it easy to read? Are you spelling out your thoughts or leaving your reader to do the hard work of connecting the dots?
If the answer doesn’t quite satisfy you, go back up to #1.
Am I saying shorter is always better? Of course not. Like everything in marketing, this depends on your audience, your objective, and the context. I started this post with a somewhat rambling personal story, instead of just borrowing from Strunk and White(“Omit needless words!”) But if you use more words, or more sophisticated words, make them count. Use them to give your message more impact, not less. You can even relate an epic on Twitter, but it needs to be adapted to the medium.