Excerpted from, Business Black Belt, “The Enlightened Entrepreneur’s Manifesto”
It should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid.
~ Albert Einstein, physicist
We can learn much to improve our everyday written communications by studying the techniques used by advertising copywriters.
In school, some of us “BSed” our way through certain essays and exams and lived to brag about it. In business, you need to make a point — someone needs to get your message and they have neither the time nor the interest in BS. You get no points for more words, no points for sounding erudite. Short and simple wins the day.
If you write using the dense prose of an academic, you’re less likely to communicate your message effectively. More than likely, you’ll prove your intelligence, but you may not make your point because few will read far enough to get it or they may misinterpret the big words… So why do we waste energy writing that way?
People often talk in their heads when they’re reading as if they’re reading aloud to themselves, and what they read comes across as speech. Fewer, specific words that make your point will take less time to read and will sound, in their heads, as if you’re talking to them. On the other hand, speed-readers grab whole blocks of text visually and absorb the meaning.
With some simple writing techniques, you’ll say more with fewer words and more effectively sell people on your ideas. They’ll understand what you’re saying more fully because they have less clutter to weed through.
Why do you think advertising is so effective? Ad copy is appealing because the writers try to make it as personal as possible. Ideally, you don’t even realize that you’re reading an ad. You’re become absorbed in the product description of and you’re imagining yourself using it. Advertisers want you to identify with the product so you’ll feel the need to buy it.
The first few sentences should provide the flavor of your entire message. Is it going to be hype, dense technical jargon, academic jabberwocky, or informative and clean? If the copy starts out clean, readers will likely continue reading. If not, they’ll look for something else to do. Make sure that your message is consistent in style throughout.
Use subheads to highlight important information
People skip around to get the message to avoid reading the whole thing. Subheads recapture your reader’s interest. When I’m reading promotional literature, I’m always wondering, “Can I throw this out or is it worth acting on?” A short subhead (some people call them cross-heads) will grab your reader’s attention and pull them back in.
Remember to word your subheads wisely. Assume your reader will scan your letter or literature and see only the subheads. Therefore each subhead must communicate an important point. The text following should elaborate, explain or substantiate the statement made in your subhead. Avoid wasting subheads on bland statements like, “Product features” when you could actually state one or two features in the subhead itself.
Tricks with punctuation
Writing as you speak is a different style than we were taught in school. One trick is to use punctuation between thoughts as visual bridges to minimize the words to read and process in your brain. Punctuation is like a traffic sign. A common language and use of punctuation promotes understanding. Use these tricks sparingly, so the intended effect is not lost.
How do you punctuate the way you talk?
- Use bullets to set your points apart, maybe even indent the whole paragraph.
- Use ellipses (. . .) to connect loose thoughts without extra words. According to most style manuals, three dots indicate that words have been omitted from this middle of a sentence. If a sentence ends with ellipses, you must use four dots (the last is the period).
- Em dashes (—) are also great for connecting two related thoughts together. They’re also good for indicating a significant pause. Example: You’re not writing because you have a writing assignment—you’re writing because your life depends on it!
- Underlining an important point that is buried in the text grabs attention. (Personally, I like avoid underlining a lower case g. It looks cleaner.)
- One–word sentences add emphasis. “Help! I need your help with this project.” Any use (let alone overuse) of this trick must be carefully and very specifically chosen.
- Put a note in parentheses (it’s as if you were whispering something to your reader on the side).
I frequently read contracts with run-on sentences where the overall meaning becomes ambiguous because there’s no indication of the pauses. Attorneys often dictate these passages, but the emphasis and inflection are lost when typed. Put commas in places where you want a pause in your thought. In the reader’s mind, it will sound the same way you thought it.
A page full of text does not look inviting to read. Combine these techniques to give the impression of an interesting page and something worth reading.
Study your junk mail
Before you throw your mail out, study what catches your eye and what keeps your attention. I learned a lot when I studied The Sharper Image catalog copy, and I learned even more when I wrote their copy. The simple rule to remember is to write like you talk—how would you say it if you were explaining something over the phone? Read what you write out loud. How does it sound? Does it make sense? Here’s an example of textbook writing:
“When carrying out an analysis of your target market, you will find the following components to be useful. . .”
Sounds a little stuffy, doesn’t it? This was used in a book on writing business plans. If this is how one section goes, what kind of book am I going to have to deal with? No wonder people dread writing business plans. The following reaches the same conclusion more simply:
“Analyze your target market using. . .”
Which is easier to understand? The idea is to make it easy for your audience to absorb your message. Make them speed-readers. You don’t want them tangled up in prepositional transitions—they may be grammatically correct but mental tongue-twisters to read. It’s important to set the tone right away or else your reader can only assume that your entire message will be a bummer to read. Sure, I may break a few grammatical rules, but you understand what I’m saying. When you write this way, you respect and entertain your reader.*
In fact, this informal writing comes across as even more intelligent than something that might sound like a junior sales rep who’s trying too hard with her pitch. Take the candy coating off! Say it straight. That in itself makes you unique. It also makes your message worth reading.
Opinion or experience
When I was first writing this book, I put in things from my opinion and just made up examples to illustrate my point, but when I reread those parts they were boring. I realized I was just spouting an opinion rather than coming from real experience. I actually had an experience that prompted me to write each chapter, so why not use it?
The next time you listen to a public speaker, think about this: do they fascinate you with a real-life adventure or do they put you to sleep with a theory? When you speak from your own experience, you transfer that experience at the gut level—you were there. Wow, that really happened! You transfer your experience to your audience, and they share that experience. They learn, they’re entertained, or they’re persuaded. The truth is often more bizarre than fiction. Using real life facts and experiences is much more interesting than made-up samples.
Communicating effectively is crucial in all areas of life. Next time you’re writing a memo, a sales letter, a promo piece, etc., imagine talking face-to-face with your audience. It works.
Business Black Belt Notes
- Write like an advertising copywriter.
- Write like you would speak to a friend.
- Use subheads and other punctuation techniques to pull readers in.
- Incorporate your own real-world experiences.
*I recommend that you own and use these as fundamental writing tools anyway.
- Shertzer, Margaret. Elements of Grammar. New York, New York, Collier Books
- Strunk, William and White, E.B. Elements of Style. New York, New York, MacMillan Publishing Company.