Can Writing Improve Your Business? You bet.
By Elaine Sambugaro | August 31, 2001
Not everyone knows how to strengthen their writing to convince people of their own worth – and the worth of their ideas. We are preparing a series of articles on the art of effective writing to point entrepreneurs in the right direction and give them the basic tools to enhance the business of thinking and persuasion.
In this article, we will examine three key concepts to help strengthen any piece of prose, whether it's a press release, a marketing letter, an online article for your website or a business plan intended to pique investor interest.
It's all in the approach
Writing is two parts attitude and one part skill. It's simply a graceful and articulate extension of who you are, what you know and what you want to convey. At the end of the day, after you've done research, rewrites and rearranging, the final product should reflect the subject as you understand it and in the way that you would express it if you were speaking to someone face-to-face. Keep things simple, straightforward and refreshing at all times. Remember, your goal is to engage others. Present the subject in a way that will expose your personality and make your audience want to read on.
If you approach a subject too seriously, the writing will go fuzzy or moldy and you will lose your reader right off the bat. Yet if the subject matter is presented too flippantly, you run the risk of sounding slightly off kilter. Striking that delicate balance is difficult but not impossible.
Let's look at the difference between a good attitude and a bad one. This is the scenario: you've spent five years inventing and engineering a product, and you're ready to write a press release to fax to major Canadian news media to generate interest.
One approach would be to take the heavy, sober attitude and describe the product with a stiff, manual-like style:"The Brewmeister5000 contains a series of modules that can be applied to the central mechanism which will generate a new flavour of coffee designed to meet existing demands in the industry for a public method of coffee flavour generators."
If a news editor reads this, it will hit the recycling container faster than you can say "blue box" – even if it's packaged in a snazzy coffee-scented media kit. Why? First of all, it's gobbledygook. Who can decipher the message? What's more, the words are obscure, dull and so official that it reads like an instructional manual.
Most importantly, it doesn't provide any incentive for the news editor to care about the product. Will it have an effect on the quality of Canadian life? Will it save people money? Will it revolutionize the way Canadians think about coffee machines? At the beginning of this press release, these questions remain unanswered. Remember, news editors – especially at large daily newspapers – spend about 10 seconds reading faxed or emailed press releases. They receive hundreds every day and comb through them quickly to decide whether they will pursue any newsworthy items in the first critical seconds of the first reading. If it doesn't grab their attention immediately, why should they read it?
A better approach would be to allow your individual personality to shine through the press release, reaching out to the curiosity and humanity of your readers by describing the product with simple, effective words that demonstrate a respect for the economy and beauty of language.
"Ever wonder how Starbucks or Tim Hortons create those distinct coffee flavours? Stop wondering. One inexpensive machine can titillate your tastebuds with every cup of morning brew in the comfort of your own home. It's called the Bremeister5000."
Who is your audience?
On most occasions, people don't just write for the sake of writing. They write for someone, to get something or to garner support for a cause or an event. Before you launch into a piece of prose, it's important to spend some time thinking about who your audience is and how you are going to craft your writing to interest them specifically. It's better to spend some time beforehand to get started on the right foot rather than launch into something headfirst, only to realize three days later that you've missed the mark. If you have difficulty keeping your target audience in mind, jot down some rough notes on a piece of paper and have it handy when you start writing that particular sales pitch or press release.
|An audience is like a target market – a certain community or group that you are trying to reach by using a particular style, choice of words and selected content.|
Writing for your audience can be an even greater challenge because what's needed is an intuitive sense of the readership's intelligence capacity, their susceptibilities and prejudices. You also have to understand the type of language that is acceptable to them.
For example, if you are trying to market a product to a particular IT company, keep it short and sweet. You wouldn't opt for long, ornate syntax or a polysyllabic vocabulary because your audience works in a fast-paced environment and doesn't have time to sift through complex prose. If, on the other hand, you are writing a business plan to be delivered to a venture capitalist, perhaps more complex and technical vocabulary is necessary to explain the depth and breath of your project.
One thing entrepreneurs should always remember is that regardless of the content of their written work, they should strive to sound well informed, well educated and assume that they are speaking to an intelligent group of adults who are interested in the subject matter they are presenting. Whatever you do, don't talk down to your audience. Assume that your readers are as intelligent, if not more intelligent than, you are.
Add some zip – make your writing "sing"
It's much easier to communicate in person than via paper. Hand gestures, eye movements and vocal variety convey personality, but when you're writing, all these helpful tools vanish. It's only you and the paper. So it's up to you – and a handful of punctuation marks – to make your writing jump off the page and into the mind of the reader.
Readability is key. Don't spend time crafting long, complex sentences. A sure sign of trouble is too many ideas and subordinate clauses in a sentence, which convolutes the meaning and confuses the reader. Always rely on simple sentences that contain clear action words.
Let's look at a simple idea conveyed in two ways, taken from the journalism text News Reporting and Writing, published by St. Martin's Press. Which sentence would you prefer reading?
From measurements with high-precision laser beams bounced off reflectors left at three lunar sites by Apollo astronauts, plus one atop an unmanned Soviet lunar vehicle, scientists believe that the moon is still wobbling from a colossal meteorite impact 800 years ago.
The moon may still be wobbling from a colossal meteorite impact 800 years ago.
I prefer the second version, for three reasons: It's simple, humorous and gets the point across without a lot of scientific mumbo jumbo. The use of the verb "wobbling" in the second sentence creates a clear picture in the reader's mind of a globular planet tilting from side to side. In the first sentence, that image is buried underneath a mound of jargon.
Couple simplicity with the proper pacing of sentences and dull writing be transformed in minutes. Sentences – as much as words – create a mood in a written piece. Short sentences convey action, tension and movement. A series of long sentences slow down a reader and convey a more relaxed mood.
What entrepreneurs should strive for is a healthy combination of short and long sentences to engage readers and stimulate their minds. Not all sentences should be short. Not all should be long. Try the middle road to begin with and then sprinkle in a combination of short and long sentences where you see fit. If you're trying to grab the reader's attention to bring an important point to light, crop a sentence short. It works.
Closely connected with the variation of sentence structure is the use of transitional phrases to breathe life into an article. Nothing is worse than reading along and bumping into a series or words or sentences that have absolutely nothing to do with the issue. It conveys sloppiness, haste and perhaps sends a message to the reader that the author is too proud to ask for a second pair of eyes to doublecheck for spelling errors and inconsistencies.
Some transitional words and phrases that will lead readers imperceptibly from one paragraph to the next include "and," "but," "however," "in retrospect" or "meanwhile." By no means should a writer limit himself or herself to these signposts to move from idea to idea.
A final point about incorporating the human element into an article: Thinking of common human experiences to illustrate a business idea or concept can be difficult. When it's done properly, however, readers appreciate it because you've done their thinking for them. They will automatically relate to the example and – with some luck – you will have touched them in a way that they will not easily forget. Good writing is all about making an impression.
Here's what I mean by the human element: some entrepreneurs might not understand the term "spam," but if you tell them it's the computer version of the annoying junk mail that lands in their mailbox every other day, bells ring in their mind.
What's important for SMEs and SOHOs to realize is that their image on paper influences the way people perceive them. It shouldn't, but it does – especially if the business owner is competing with a host of other businesses for a grant or a loan based on the effectiveness of a proposal. If your proposal is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, presents a condescending attitude and fails to identify the audience correctly, the chances of getting that grant plummet.