Verbs That Weaken Your Message

While I often stress that nouns and verbs are more important than adjectives or adverbs in developing a strong marketing message, certain verbs and verb combinations actually have a weakening effect.

Take the verb “can” for example. One of the best pieces of advice I received in my career as a writer was to eliminate the word “can” from writing, as in “We can deliver in 24 hours.” Either you deliver in 24 hours or you don’t. The word “can” adds nothing.

The future tense often results in the same dilution of your message: “We will make sure your project meets all specifications.” The more powerful statement is: “We make sure your project meets all specifications.” The future tense is irrelevant because this action is one you always take.

If you, as the business owner, want to hedge your bets, then promise delivery in 36 hours or retract a statement entirely, but do not insert “can” or “will” as a first line of defense against failure. If you don’t deliver on time, people will notice–and that’s a correct use of the future tense.

The verbs “is” and “are” may also create problems. For example, “We are manufacturers of quality toys.” The more concise and powerful statement is: “We manufacture quality toys.” Look through your documents for the is/of or are/of combination in a sentence and you will likely find a more interesting verb hidden away.

“We are engaged in the manufacturing of quality toys” should be “We manufacture quality toys.” The ing/of combination is another sign of an undermined marketing message.

The phrases “we always try to” or “we always strive to” are almost never needed. Whatever you are trying or striving or aiming to do, be like Nike and just do it.

When you own your actions, your readers credit you with more power, authority, and wisdom than when you pussyfoot around with “can,” “will,” and “try.” Be the authority they want you to be.

TWP Marketing & Technical Communications specializes in communicating strong messages fast. Contact me today.

 

Customer First: What That Really Means for Writing

Imagine this: You enter a brick and mortar store and the sales person comes up to you and recites, “We have books, clothing, housewares, electronics featuring a sale on cell phones, a real coffee bar featuring freshly baked coconut muffins, superior customer service, with great prices, fast delivery and…”

How quickly do you interrupt?

You know what you want and the rest of the sales person’s monologue is irrelevant. Now let’s take that concept to the written word. If you want to customers to read your writing, you should never start with a monologue on “what we do and why we’re great at it.”

Putting the Customer First

As I’ve often said, “We can solve your problem” is the most powerful promise a business can deliver to a customer. But to deliver that promise, you have to listen before you speak. Let customers tell you what their problem is–a new dress, a home renovation, a drop in sales–and then offer your solution.

Remember, there is always another web or brochure page, blog post, success story, or article that you can write. Don’t pack everything into one toss of the printer. You are better off targeting and serving a single type of customer than trying to pull in everyone at once.

Even very large online companies, like Amazon, provide a way for customers to quickly move from their website’s first page to the information they are really interested in. If Amazon can start with the customer’s problem, so can you.

How Navigation Bars (and Subtitles) Help or Hinder

On websites, one of my pet peeves is the ubiquitous “Services” or “Products” category on the navigation bar. That may be justified if you provide many different services or products. But if you have a few specialties, consider mentioning them directly on the navigation bar. (By the way, the same applies to subtitles in marketing and technical copy–lots of precise subtitles make everything more readable!)

For example, one of my clients is a sales consultant whose original navigation bar and home page focused on “Services.” But once we determined that she excelled in three main areas, we changed the navigation bar to read “Generate Leads,” “Increase Revenue,” and “Close More Sales.” We also made sure the home page text centered on those three services, with individual links to later pages. As a result, customers immediately felt that the consultant understood and offered a solution for their most pressing problems. And each customer could go directly to the page that mattered most. The faster readers get to the information they want, the more likely they are to stay and buy.

Conclusion

Ready to change a boring monologue into a helpful conversation? Contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications today.

 

What Comes First When You Have Too Many Great Ideas?

Sometimes the hardest part of writing is figuring out what to say first. If you dump everything you want to say into one web page or one article or one blog post, you are likely to end up with a mess that no one understands. And yet, how can you let those great ideas slip away?

The first rule of organizing any writing is that there is always another sentence, paragraph, and page. You do not need to cram everything into one opportunity. What you need is focus.

A Basic Structure for Organizing Ideas

Let’s say you run a car repair shop and want to draw in customers by performing annual car inspections.

  • First write a “thesis“–a central idea–that takes this form: You (the customer) should (do this) to get (that). In this example, the thesis states, “You should have your car inspected every year to make sure it is running properly.”
  • Next write the reasons why this thesis is true: “The inspection checks for problems with safety equipment, such as brake lights, and for violations of regulations, such as emission standards.”
  • Next write a conclusion based on the information you have given. “If your car passes inspection, you will know it is safe to operate for another year.”
  • Finally, call the readers to action. “Sign up for a car inspection today and we will give you a 20% discount.”

When you are finished, look through the content to make sure your opening sentence is as strong as it can be. Sometimes opening turns out to be buried in the conclusion–by then, you’re thought out exactly what you want to say. But this structure keeps your thoughts on track–in this case, you stay focused on car inspections.

Other Ways to Organize Content

Here are a few other ways to organize your ideas:

  • Write about three benefits/features of your product or service (Our car inspection service covers three safety concerns…). Three is usually the optimum number.
  • Create a list (10 ways to keep your car safe).
  • Set up a Q&A. Create a question (“I’m afraid to have my car inspected. What should I do?”), building up a scene that might have prompted a real customer to ask that question. Then answer it.
  • Tell a true story (“One of our customers wanted to buy a car that had no record of inspections. We suggested…”).

Get Help from TWP Marketing & Technical Communications

You have lots of great ideas for marketing content. If you find your writing wandering all over the universe and back, contact me. I’ll make sure your marketing content is always organized to show off your best ideas.

Great Customer & Client Interviews: Dos and Don’ts

Client and customer interviews are the basis for testimonials, case studies, insight papers, and videos but getting valuable content from customers or clients is not easy. All too often, you’re struggling to find that one accurate, clear, well-phrased, and interesting quote. So here are a few dos and don’ts of interviewing based on my 20 years of experience working for businesses across industries and borders.

  1. Let go of your preconceptions. What you delivered for your customers or clients may not be the part of the project that they remember most fondly. Maybe you thought you built a great deck suitable for family gatherings or lounging in the sun; the interviewee remembers how you took their idea for the railing design and made it work. A testimonial about a specific benefit to the interviewee has major long-term value because it sets you apart.
  2. Be prepared but have fun. Start by letting your interviewee know that they will have the chance to review and change the final case study, insight paper, or testimonial. Then, ask a few prepared questions. But let the interviewee lead; if an interesting insight comes up, follow it. Skip around in your prepared list of questions if the interviewee mentions a topic earlier than expected. Relax and your interviewee will relax with you.
  3. Ask the questions you don’t want to ask. It’s easy to ask, “What did you enjoy most about this project?” But sometimes the most complimentary responses come from more open questions: “What would you do differently next time?” “What would you advise someone else looking for a deck builder?” “How can we improve our services?”
  4. Choose your interviewee wisely. Sometimes an interviewee will offer platitudes and jargon in the mistaken belief that a business owner wants to hear “all’s right in the world and proactive, too.”  Sometimes talkative interviewees use a lot of words to say very little. I know how to politely interrupt, seek out deeper answers, and keep an interviewee on track. The rustier your interview skills, the more you need to make sure your interviewee is absolutely right.
  5. Be careful when editing. In 15 minutes, I can draw out many fine testimonials from an interviewee. Then it’s a matter of weaving those testimonials and insights into a narrative. Conversations tend to ramble, so no one complains if I rework quotes to make them flow and to emphasize a point–but I never ever put words into the interviewee’s mouth. You want to respect the identity and honesty of the interviewee; the surrounding narrative is your chance to expand on what they say.

If you haven’t interviewed any of your customers or clients, you’re missing a great chance to build rapport, marketing content, and differentiators. Contact me through LinkedIn or TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. I can help.

Reap the Rewards of Hiring a Freelance Writer

I want my clients to succeed in their marketing because I’m passionate about clear, honest communication between people: business owners, customers, vendors, and employees. And every successful client project means more word of mouth marketing for me. But what do my clients get out this relationship?

  1. Competitive edge. Like you, my clients know what they do is special; but sometimes customers fail to recognize the true value of a product or service–beyond its price. I work with you to find and celebrate the differentiators that make you stand out from the competition.
  2. Objective answers to hard questions. If you asked your customers, “what can we do better?,” you’d receive polite responses at best. But when I ask, your customers open up.
  3. Concise, clear, creative, and passionate language. Subtle changes in wording make a tremendous difference in the tone and interest of marketing content. When your customers come to a website, it’s the website’s job to keep them there; when they take a brochure, it’s the brochures job to urge them to read.
  4. Less pressure. Very few goals are reachable by someone acting completely alone. If you find yourself spinning in multiple directions, call me. Whether a client wants to edit and rewrite together or hand the whole project on to me, I’m ready to provide the exact type of freelance writing or editing that each client needs.
  5. New ideas. As a remote, freelance writer, I work with multiple clients; their cross-industry, cross-geography background sparks new ideas and new configurations of proven ideas. Besides, having a clear, organized mind is essential for a writer. Your next great idea is probably already within your reach; you just need someone to put it in words.
  6. Consistency and accuracy. The wrong wording can bore customers; even worse, it can mislead them. Consistent and accurate content builds trust between a company and its customer, whether on the level of good grammar or of good faith.
  7. Trust. After nearly 20 years as a freelance, remote writer, my current clients know that I’ll be ready when their next project arises–whether that is next week or several years from now. I’ll remember them and their priorities.
  8. Partnership. My clients know that I will deliver their projects on (or before) time, on (or under) budget, and to the highest standard–that’s why they keep coming back. For the length of your project, whenever you need me, I am a full partner.
  9. Fun. Being a remote writer means I work with clients from across borders, industries, and functions; and with every client I learn something new. I enjoy that adventure, which means that you and your customers get to enjoy the results!

Contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications today and let’s talk about how I can show you the love.

 

Why I Hate Online Grammar Checkers

Grammar checkers drive me crazy. Here’s the problem with online grammar checkers–and yes, I mean Grammarly also–they can’t think. When confronted with the slightest complication in a sentence, they default to “wrong, wrong, wrong.”

Recently, a client used an online grammar checker on a sentence like this:

We give sales, marketing, and executive teams greater visibility into financial performance.

In context, the grammar checker insisted that “teams” needed to be a possessive: team’s or teams’. In truth, the sentence was perfectly correct as it stood. Adding an apostrophe would make it grammatically incorrect.

Grammar checkers break down over possessives and contractions. I often catch them preferring “you’re” to “your” in a statement like “what should you do if your house collapses?” They are also baffled by capitalization: the Word grammar checker insists on capitalizing company even in a sentence like “we all went to the company picnic.”

Here’s another example of grammar checker bungling:

If you are going to send someone a long email, make sure that you start by listing the topics under discussion and that you are being as concise as you possibly can.

The grammar checker objected to the word “being” because (pause for irony) it wasn’t concise enough. This client asked me to remove “being.” But if I removed it, the client would be left with the phrase “you are as concise as you possibly can.” That phrase is simply awkward; compare it to “you are as happy as you possibly can.” Clearly there is a verb missing: if “being” disappears, then the phrase has to become “you are as concise as you possibly can be.”

The grammar checker choked on the original sentence because grammar checkers do not understand subordinate clauses. They also go into tailspins over compound subjects and compound sentences. Grammar checkers make suggestions without recognizing the need for alternatives that make sense.

I long ago reached the frustrating conclusion that grammar checkers are of least use to people who seek help with their English grammar. Those individuals may write a perfect sentence only to change it to something ungrammatical in response to a grammar checkers’ whim.

Should you ignore grammar checkers entirely? Well, like the watch that stopped at 6 o’clock, grammar checkers have to be right some times. But be aware of their shortcomings and that you might benefit more from someone like me, with 20 years of freelance writing, editing, and proofreading experience and skill.

Contact me whenever grammar and grammar checkers are driving you crazy.

Does Your Marketing Content Capture Your Business Today?

A client of mine asked her business support group an interesting question: She worked closely with large businesses but how could she convince the owners of small businesses to use her services? The problem, the group told her, was that her website focused so much on large businesses that small business owners were overawed. Her services seemed too expensive and too intense.

Has Your Business Shifted?

In a constantly changing marketplace, marketing content can easily fall out of synch with your current vision for your company. Products, services, and customer expectations and demographics are quite different now than 10, 5 or even 2 years ago.

When I first started my sole proprietorship in New Hampshire, I thought I would be writing user manuals full time for software development companies. Years later, I concentrate almost solely on marketing copy for both technical and nontechnical companies in a wide variety of industries, from home renovation to manufacturing and from education to healthcare.

Is It Time for a Communications Audit?

It may be time to re-examine your website, blog posts, case studies, and other marketing content to see if they line up with the customers you want, the competition you are facing , and the services/products you are supplying–right now.

In a marketing communications audit, I examine your marketing content, page by page, with a fresh eye for inconsistencies and opportunities: What are you saying that no longer jibes with your mission and what could you be saying that you haven’t said? Then I produce a report that details problems and oversights and what you can do to make sure your customers receive a correct, consistent, clear, and compelling marketing message.

At that point, you can decide whether to take the next steps of revising current marketing content or generating new content. I can help with both.

Conclusion

If you haven’t examined your marketing content in a long while, a marketing communications audit is a cost-effective way to make sure your message connects with the right customers in the right way. Contact me today for more information.

The Magic Word in Marketing Content

One word always catches the attention of customers. One word always sells. That magic word is you.

It appears on every list of words-that-sell and is one of the ten most frequently spoken and written words in the English language. Everyone recognizes it; everyone responds to it. You, the customer; you, the person this document is written for. When you is missing from a marketing message, a vital connection disappears.

That’s the situation in this message from TopDesign:

“BuildRight tools help create better designs with less training. BuildRight offers a free trial period for determining which tools are useful.”

TopDesign is talking, but who’s listening? Who wants to create designs, who cares about less training, who uses the tools and, above all, who acquires them? The addition of “you” makes that clear:

“BuildRight tools help you and your staff create better designs with less training. Use BuildRight free, for a trial period. Then buy only the tools that you need most.”

You in all its forms, whether explicit (“you need”) or implied (“use,” “buy”), gives your writing the same intimacy as a face-to-face conversation. If you were talking to a customer face-to-face, you would speak the word you often, from “how can I help you?” to “do you want to pay by cash or credit card?” Why deny your online and print customers that same courtesy? When customers hear you talking to them, they listen.

Another way to get the you into your marketing content is to feature photos and success stories about customers who are similar to the customers you want to attract. In this case the you is “someone we helped with the same problem you have” or “someone who faced the same concerns you have about our products and services.”

Just make sure that you are always defining you the same way. For example, if designers, trainers, and buyers are usually three different people, then TopDesign should make sure their marketing content clearly distinguishes one from the other. On a website, that might require three separate web pages.

If you are ready to put more you into your marketing content, contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. We’ll help you connect with your customers online and in print.

 

 

Plagiarism and Creativity

In college, I had a professor who failed one of my papers because it sounded like something his favorite author had written. I asked if he had found any word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph that matched that author, whom I had never heard of. This was before online plagiarism checkers, and the teacher admitted he couldn’t find any duplication–the paper simply “sounded like.” This is not the definition of plagiarism.

What Plagiarism Is

Someone who plagiarizes takes another person’s work and passes it off as their own. For that to happen, the plagiarism must do more than merely sound like it might have been written by the other person; it must exactly duplicate the original work. And it has to encompass more than a mere phrase or a word or two.

You are plagiarizing if you quote from any online or print article, blog post, book, movie, or other creative work without permission and without citing the source. You are plagiarizing, for example, if you take a photo off the internet and pass it off as your own. The only exceptions are for information that is clearly marked as free to share. Do not assume that a work is in the public domain or that “public domain” frees you from citing a source: there is only one Romeo and Juliet and if you quote huge chunks of it, you should mention Shakespeare.

Whenever you give a complete attribution for a work by someone else–and there are many online sites that will explain how to do this–you are guarding against plagiarism by admitting that someone else created the content you are using. As mentioned, you may also need to ask the original creator’s or publisher’s permission first.

What Plagiarism Is Not

If you are fooling around with ideas, you don’t need to put quotes around “fooling around” as if you feared plagiarizing; it’s an overused cliché but it isn’t owned by any other person.

If you are writing for a client, as I do, then a work becomes the client’s (not yours) as soon as it is paid for and you cannot duplicate it for another client. But if no one has bought the work, it is yours to duplicate as you wish–in articles, blog posts, website content, success stores, and so on. (If you are writing for an independent publication, such as an industry magazine, make sure you understand their policies on ownership.) Generally, you need not fear plagiarizing from yourself.

It is not plagiarism if, on occasion, more than one person comes up with the same phrase. Let’s say, in the course of giving instructions to a DIY builder, you write this phrase: “Create a tight joint using glue and screws.” I can guarantee you that at least one how-to book, if not every one, contains a sentence identical to that. There are only a few ways to explain how glue and screws create a tight joint.

Creativity versus Plagiarism

These days teachers, managers, and editors can run anything you write through an online plagiarism checker to ensure that you haven’t inadvertently plagiarized from another source. That’s fine, but prevention can easily be carried too far.

Let’s suppose you write a sentence all on your own and the online computer program says that the sentence also appeared in a book someone published in 1918 that you never heard of and never read. Inadvertent repetition is part of the creative process in every field. A little simultaneous creativity isn’t necessarily plagiarism.

For example, scientists often scramble to be the first in their field because so many people are aiming for the same result and may reach it at the same time. They aren’t plagiarizing from each other (one hopes); they are merely following the same creative path to the same conclusion.

Creativity should never be manacled by slavish devotion to computer programs. You can use a computer program to find evidence of plagiarism, but never abandon common sense or devalue the results of independent thought.

By the way, that teacher who falsely accused me of plagiarism ultimately gave me an A for the course. A high standard of writing is not plagiarism, no matter how young you are.

I am proud of my ability to write marketing and technical content that is clear, consistent, concise, and creative. If you need writing like that, please contact me today.

Crafting the Perfect Opening Sentence

You have only a few seconds to grab a reader’s attention. That makes your opening sentence very important. A great opening sentence focuses on:

  • What your customers want: Give top priority to the features and benefits your customers want most. Suppose you’ve created a brand new frozen chili. If customers long for better tasting chili, emphasize the features (quick freezing, organic rice, fresh spices) that contribute to better taste. But omit information on the medical properties of chili peppers unless your customers expect and want that information. Address the needs of different customers in different sections of your marketing material. For example, you may want one website page on Great Tasting Recipes and another on Chili Peppers and Your Health.
  • What your product or service delivers best: Give top priority to the benefits and features that you deliver best. If your chili tastes better because you cook it slowly, the words “slow cooked” belong in your opening statement.
  • What your competition does best and worst: If every chili maker in the world slow cooks chili, that feature probably doesn’t belong in your opening sentence. If no one else cooks with fresh spices, that feature deserves a top mention. If your competitors cook with fresh spices, but don’t say so? Claim that feature yourself. Your competition’s weaknesses reveal areas where customers aren’t being served or believe they aren’t being served. That’s where your product or service commands the market.
  • What type of document you’re writing: In a news release (for example), customers expect to learn what you’ve achieved recently. If you start with a long history of chili, customers stop reading before they find out about your accomplishment. In the executive summary of a proposal, customers want to know that you’ve heard and addressed their specific concerns. Your opening sentence must suit the document.

Create a decision box where you list the most important features and benefits of your product or service. Rank them by how closely they meet the criteria above: giving customers what they want; representing something you are good at; filling a real or perceived gap in the marketplace; and matching the goals of the document. The feature/benefit with the highest score should help frame your opening sentence.

TWP Marketing & Technical Communications knows the value of a great opening sentence. Contact us today.