Story-Telling: The World’s Best Marketing Content

From The Three Bears to The Hunger Games to Julie & Julia, good stories grab our attention. When we remember our story-telling roots, our marketing efforts take wing. Good stories appear in many guises:

  • Case studies celebrate a hero (your company) saving a customer in distress. A good interviewer draws out your customer’s original fears and frustrations, details the efforts of your company, and celebrates your success.
  • Videos are like love stories. Video testimonials give customers, employees, vendors, and subcontractors a chance to show appreciation for your company. Informational videos give you a chance to show appreciation for your customers, including sharing some of your subject matter expertise.
  • Photographs, graphs, and line drawings fall into the comic book or graphic novel tradition. They tell a good story that is quickly and accurately “read.”

Hearing stories about your business not only entertains prospective customers, it reassures them. Great marketing stories teach prospects about your company in a relaxed, appealing format. Reading or hearing about the problems you solved for previous customers gives prospects an incentive to call you. Each new story enlivens your marketing content and keeps old, new, and potential customers engaged.

An example of a story: I was once asked to edit the manual for software that helps private airplane pilots fly into airports. Three geographically dispersed software engineers had developed the software and each had drafted information about their portion of the project. But without consulting each other, they had also each decided to use Ctrl F for a function. One engineer used Ctrl F to scroll through a screen; another used it to switch screens; and the third used it to shut down the system completely. I was the first and only person who read through the entire draft manual–so I was the first person to notice that a pilot who hit Ctrl F and expected to simply scroll through a screen might end up shutting down his entire system just when he needed it to land! The moral of the story? Always have one writer for a project involving many people.

Whether you are writing website content, blogs, press releases, video scripts, or case studies, keep looking for and sharing the story. Your stories are one of the biggest differentiators between your company and the competition: No one shares your exact same story.

If you need help finding and telling your story, please contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications.

Video Instructions: 5 Golden Rules

Many companies have now turned to video for showing customers how to use their product. Videos are an excellent way to connect with customers. However, they should still follow the five golden rules for good instructions.

  1. Never assume. Start your instructions from the very beginning–that might mean showing the viewer or reader how to plug in the product or where to find the start button. If you are offering a series of videos, building in complexity or detail, make sure you refer to the previous videos for viewers who are not aware they are starting in the middle.
  2. Be consistent. Always refer to buttons, menu items, the names of previous videos (or chapters), operations, processes, and so on using the same exact terms. Your viewer will quickly become confused if the same screen shot is called the “home page,” the “opening screen,” or “screen 1” in different videos or different parts of the same video.
  3. Be thorough. Before your release a video or written procedures, follow the instructions using only the steps in the video or on the page. If you find your hands doing something else, revise. You overlooked a step and you are in danger of losing your audience.
  4. Be exact. It’s easy to tell a customer “click here” or “see this” or “move this way” without ever defining here” or “this.” But your customers may have no idea what you’re referring to no matter how carefully they watch or read. In addition, customers often try to follow directions while actually working on the product. How can video viewers tell what “click here” means unless they are looking directly at the screen?
  5. Go slow. The best instructions are divided into discrete steps that viewers or readers can master at their own speed. Readers have a lot of control over speed; viewers have very little. If video instructions come at viewers too fast, they have to pause and backtrack and pause and backtrack. All that backtracking interferes with their learning and enjoyment.

You may want to provide written procedures that customers can download based on your videos. The written procedures and videos should at least complement each other even if they aren’t exact duplicates. It they contradict each other, you have a major problem.

Would you benefit from help in creating clear scripts and written procedures for your customers? Contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications today.

Strong Clear Writing Starts with Short Words

Are you an advocate of brevity in vocabulary selection for optimum communication? That is: do you write with short words?

The main trouble with long words (three or more syllables) is that they are seldom as clear as short words (three or fewer syllables). They also take longer to read. At a time when readers are overwhelmed with content and want to quickly reach the point of a message, long words slow them down. It simply takes longer to read “utilize” instead of “use.” The words mean exactly the same thing. Why not choose the shorter word?

Long words are habit forming. Once a long word worms its way into a sentence, three or four or more long words will follow it whether they are needed or not. In the end, the writer’s brilliant vocabulary becomes more important than the brilliant message customers are really looking for.

Another drawback is that longer words are often misused by the writer or at best represent a poor choice. Take the business owner who wrote that two product lines were “no longer congruent.” He meant that they no longer worked together but he chose an odd, seldom-used word (“congruent”) to deliver that message. His audience had to come to a full stop while they figured out his meaning.

Strong, clear writing starts with one and two syllable words.

Here is a challenge: Chose any marketing piece at your company and try to rewrite it using only one- or two-syllable words. You might not succeed. Some longer words cannot be replaced (for example, enjoyable or liability). But the attempt should show you that the right small words contain the greatest energy, power and passion.

You might also try that challenge with technical content, which becomes a real chore to read when multi-syllable words that are truly needed (like fractionation) are surrounded by multi-syllable words that aren’t at all needed (like utilization). If you are giving directions or explaining a process, you want to be clear. Your choice of words could make the difference between directions that are easy to follow and directions that explode.

As always, please contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications for clear, direct writing and editing.

The Ethics of Hiring a Writer

I’ve occasionally run into business owners who object to hiring a freelance writer on ethical grounds. They find something dishonest in allowing someone else to write for them. They believe they should write their own website, blog posts, case studies, brochures and business letters because otherwise they are misrepresenting themselves.

Ethics are important to me, which is why I will not write anything that I know (or may suspect) to be false, misleading or harmful. How do I justify being a freelance or ghost writer on an ethical basis?

First, writing may not be among the business owner’s strengths. As a result, instead of offering content that clearly states the benefits and achievements of the company, the owner inadvertently slips into false, confusing, misleading or harmful statements through mistakes in word choice, grammar and organization. Everyone loses when bad writing leads to false information.

Second, an outside perspective is often valuable. Business owners may not know what to say to attract customers and differentiate themselves from the competition. Or they may know exactly what to say but not how to say it. Or they may emphasize obscure features of their products while ignoring real benefits their customers need to know about.

Third, a business owner can be a great communicator on many levels and still prefer to let someone else write his or her marketing materials. This is called “delegation” and it is something business owners do when they hire employees and professionals to work for them. No one considers it unethical to have a sales team, help desk, accountant or graphic designer on staff. Business owners could handle everything themselves, down to making their own gasoline from crude oil for the car they drive, but most business owners prefer to concentrate on their core business.

There is nothing about delegating business writing that somehow makes that choice less ethical than delegating any other business function: it can be done well and professionally or badly and amateurishly. I like to write well and professionally.

Professional writers are professionals for a reason. Years of experience and training, plus an instinct for the just right word, make us more efficient and more likely to achieve the business owner’s goals.

I work with a variety of B2B and B2C business owners and nonprofits, in every field from home renovation through clinical trial research and from executive coaching through organic farming. Contact me today and let’s talk.

Four Myths of Technical Writing

“All my customers are nuclear physicists,” said the company owner, “so our marketing materials have to sound like they come from a nuclear physicist.” That company owner has bought into one of the four myths that prevent technical companies from communicating with their customers.

The first myth of technical writing is that you have to write up to your audience. This myth overlooks the fact that customers don’t know your product or service. In your field, writing about your product or service, you are the teacher and they are the students. A good teacher speaks as much as possible in everyday language and slowly builds the student’s knowledge. Consider how you would explain your technical information to a brand new customer standing before you. Then write like you talk.

The second myth of technical marketing is that repetition is terrible. The fear of repetition has led some writers to call a keyboard an operator interface on page 1, a human machine interface (HMI) on page 10 and an input device on page 20. Changing the names for products, services and procedures is like spontaneously changing the names of towns on a map; the map is certainly livelier but your audience is completely lost. Instead of wondering whether the HMI on page 10 is the input device on page 20, your customers should be focusing on your technical message and value. Allow yourself to repeat standard words and phrases.

The third myth is that adjectives and adverbs convince customers to buy. Every company in the world offers exceptional customer service. Just try to find one that boasts about lousy service. Every product seems to be “state-of-the-art” or “unique.” But no one searches online for “exceptional” or “state-of-the-art” or “unique.” Those words take up room that should be devoted to details. What makes your product or service unique? What industry standards prove that your product is state-of-the-art? Try writing your marketing copy without adjectives and adverbs. The copy that results will be stronger and will set you apart from competitors.

The fourth myth of technical writing is that only the people who created the product understand it enough to write about it. Unfortunately, creators are often myopic: they market their own excitement about features and not the benefits and value to the customer. Celebrating an achievement is fine, but every customer asks, “What’s in it for me?” That’s the question your marketing materials have to answer—and answer first.

If you are bogged down in those myths of technical writing, please contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. We’ll give you the words you need to connect with your audience.

Squelching Fluff in Writing

Fluff in writing is fairly easy to spot. You hold your hand over the contact information for the company website, blog post, newsletter, success story–and then ask yourself two questions:

  1. Do I have any idea what this company is/does/sells?
  2. Do I have any reason to use this company rather than its competitor?

If the answer to both questions is no, you are reading fluff. Sometimes that fluff is generated by the company itself for a variety of reasons (for example, no one on board is a professional writer or the company is frightened that customers won’t understand its technology if more specific information is given). Sometimes the fluff is bought as a package from a content-generating company or from an extremely low-cost writer who relies on imagination rather than reality.

Because reality is what makes content stand out: the reality of your company, your leadership, your relationship with customers, your experience. Think of it this way: if you were hiring a new employee, would you appreciate a resume full of lyrical praise and generalities or would you prefer a resume describing experience, skills and passion clearly detailed and supported by accomplishments? Why should your customers be any different when they are hiring you?

The four easiest ways for squelching fluff in writing are:

  • Watch those adjectives. If you load your writing with adjectives like “state of the art” and “unique high-value” and “finely engineered,” you are missing the opportunity to explain why your product or service is state of the art, unique, valuable and finely engineered. You are writing fluff that any company can duplicate, even your least skilled competitor. Throw out the adjectives and rely on verbs and nouns instead.
  • Give the details. Testimonials are wonderful if they are specific. Success stories (case studies) are even better because they show exactly how you helped a customer like the customers you hope to attract. How-to instructions are always helpful to customers. Before and after photos, videos of a project in progress, examples of how your products could be used–they all connect with your customers and distinguish you from the competition.
  • Make yourself known. Step up and give your own perspective on your industry. Share your techniques. If they are the same techniques everyone else uses, be the first to embrace transparency. Share your passion for what you do.
  • Hire the right writer. The right writer talks with you about your goals and the future of your company; researches your industry and your competitors; grows in understanding with each writing project, no matter how far apart the projects are scheduled; and absolutely hates fluff. Whether in-house or freelance, you need a professional writer like that.

Now read through this blog post and count the number of adjectives, check for details, including how-to information, consider whether you have found out anything about my priorities and passion (no fluff!) and then decide if I’m the type of freelance writer you would want to hire to bring reality and passion to your company’s content. I hope to hear from you soon.

 

Clear Writing for Difficult Technology

One of my recurring jobs is to proofread the School of Science newsletter for a major university, which is sent to the university’s many alumni, friends, and donors. I am constantly awed by the clear, straightforward way in which the university’s postdocs and professors describe their research and its potential impact for individuals who may have worked in an entirely different area of science, never majored in science or never conducted research at that level.

If they can do it, you can do it. If you are ready to market a new or difficult technology, clear writing is essential and has these six major characteristics:

  1. Accuracy. It’s no good hedging your bets with “we think” or “approximately in the range of” or “is capable of.” Either the technology does what you say it does, or you need to rethink your marketing.
  2. Analogies. An analogy describes a difficult concept by using a simpler concept. Writer and editor Peter De Vries once described the universe this way: “The universe is like a safe to which there is a combination. But the combination is locked up in the safe.” By using analogies, you describe new or difficult technology in terms already familiar to your audience.
  3. Graphics. When you can’t say it clearly, show it. Manufacturers of consumer products have long ago discovered that pictures and photos are clearer than written instructions, allowing customers to build and use products with more confidence and fewer calls to the help desk. Embrace graphics when writing about difficult technology.
  4. Simplified language. You may need to use multi-syllable words like environmentalism or computational microscopy, but you can help your reader by (a) surrounding those multi-syllable words with shorter words (for example, “use” instead of “utilize”); (b) breaking up long sentences (over 25 words) into shorter sentences; and (c) breaking up solid text into shorter paragraphs or sections.
  5. Defined terms. Always define acronyms the first time they are used, especially if the acronym has more than one meaning (and most of them do) or is unique to your field. The acronym ZIP has wildly different meanings depending on whether you are talking about chemistry, medicine, computers, finances–or mailing a letter. If you are using a term for the first time, explain what it means. In one sentence, you will bring your audience up to speed.
  6. Consistency. Even if many authors have helped to write about a difficult technology, the content should be reviewed by one person who makes sure that it is consistent and meets all the previous characteristics of clear writing.

TWP Marketing & Technical Writing has over a decade of experience in using clear writing to market difficult technologies. Contact us today.

Six Truths about Freelance Writers

Among freelance writers, the following truths are self-evident. We like:

Freelance Truth #1. Honesty. You are working with a professional writer. Most of the time, people are happy with my first draft but I never want them to walk away unhappy because they failed to point out something I could correct. Tear my work apart, criticize and question it but please be honest–I can take it.

Freelance Truth #2. Freelancing. True freelancers won’t be taking a job offer and abandoning you mid-project. I’ve been freelancing for 16 years. I’ve experienced the corporate world and I truly like freelancing better. I enjoy my clients and the interesting projects they involve me in whether websites, case studies, blog posts, newsletters, proposals or other marketing collateral.

Freelance Truth #3. Returning clients. Your needs for a professional writer may be intermittent; that’s fine. In fact, I am used to completing a project for clients, not hearing from them for 3 or 4 years and then getting a phone call or email when they have a new project. I keep my records for years, so I quickly come up to speed on the latest project.

Freelance Truth #4. Creativity and confidentiality. Freelance writers work with clients in every industry you can imagine and sometimes with clients in the exact same industry. We love the challenge of creating new content, and we always preserve confidentiality.

Freelance Truth #5. Referrals On behalf of every freelance writer everywhere, thank you for your referrals! Client referrals have broadened the reach of my company from my home base in Peterborough, New Hampshire, all the way to west to California, south to Arizona and Florida, North to Ohio and Vermont and even east to Europe. I’ve worked with sole-proprietors, small- to medium-sized businesses and Fortune 500 companies in almost every B2B and B2C business you can think of.

Freelance Truth #6. Paychecks. Freelance does not mean “free.” We have to eat. Therefore, if I finish your project and you (or your accounting staff) hold up my check for three months, I am not only annoyed, I am hungry. Please: When a freelance writer invoices you for work you’ve approved, pay in a reasonable time. You probably expect the same courtesy from your customers.

Freelance Truth #7. Clear communication. Whether by phone or email, professional freelance writers keep clients informed about progress and help those clients stay on schedule with reminders about providing information or completing reviews. My technical background also means I value clear, concise content. So send me an email or phone me today. I’d love to hear from you about your project.

 

 

Too Many Writers Spoil the Content

I can always tell when too many writers and reviewers have handled marketing or technical content.

  • The content is inconsistent, with changes in product names, punctuation, spelling (startup or start-up or start up?) and messages from page to page.
  • Sentences and paragraphs begin with one thought in mind and end up with another–no one checks to see if the two halves make sense together.
  • The format changes from one section to the next, and the table of contents (if any) differs from the actual contents. Cross-references go nowhere.
  • The verb tense shifts from present to past to some version of perfect progressive.
  • The main points are buried deep in the content.
  • Numbers are inconsistent both in amounts and in the ways they are presented ($5M or $5 million or five million dollars?).
  • Prepositions disappear (“we are delighted hear your interest”).
  • No one asks: Whom are we writing to?
  • No one asks: Do we really need this? How does it fit in with our other technical or marketing materials?
  • The project sits on someone’s desk for months. Then it sits on someone else’s desk.
  • The writers and reviewers start shouting at each other.

Especially in the case of technical proposals and technical marketing collateral, multiple writers and reviewers are often necessary; for example, an engineer, project manager, sales/marketing person and executive may all need to sign off on a technical proposal before it is sent to the customer. Problems arise when no one is assigned to make sure that the original document and all the changes are consistent and fulfill the main function of the document–to communicate clearly and accurately with the customer.

In other situations, the multiple levels of review are not merely unnecessary but harmful, and often caused by reluctance to delegate. Reducing the number of people who write and review the document will actually improve its chances of delivering a focused message to the right audience at the right time.

TWP Marketing & Technical Communications provides the oversight and reassurance that companies need when many writers and reviewers contribute to a single document. Contact us today for more information.

 

How to Proofread

With electronic spell checkers and grammar checkers, proofreading has never been more important–because those electronic helpers make the most horrendous mistakes.

For example, on one marketing piece a technology company boasted about their significant roll in the industry. They didn’t mean “roll”–they meant “role.” Another company described “high preforming associates” when they meant “performing.” Electronic spell checkers okayed all the mistakes; grammar checkers are even worse because they often recommend changes that are absolutely wrong.

So manual proofreading is necessary. But the skill may not be one your staff is familiar with. Here are a few pointers:

  • Never read backwards word by word. You might possibly find errors, but without the context you won’t know that “preforming” should be “performing,” so you’ve reduced yourself to the skills of an electronic spell checker.
  • Start a short Style Guide to ensure consistency. For example, are you using $5M or $5 million or five million dollars? Are you hyphenating multi-million or not? Are you using US or U.S. or USA?
  • Proofread the highlighted, bolded, italic, extra large text first and separately. For some reason, formatting makes errors harder to see.
  • Check illustrations against their captions and against the text where they are mentioned. The description and caption often vary from the illustration itself.
  • Look for formatting inconsistencies such as random changes in font size and font; inconsistent use of bolding and italics; extra or missing spacing between words and sentences; missing periods; and inconsistent use of commas.
  • When you come across a spelling error in the course of proofreading, do a global search and replace for that same error in other places. That way you guarantee finding all the similar mistakes.
  • Remember: no matter how technical content is, if a sentence does not make grammatical sense, it is wrong. Even Einstein wrote in grammatically correct sentences.
  • Always check proper names, especially of people, companies and organizations.
  • Make sure acronyms are defined at their first use and that the acronym matches the words. It’s easy for the National Association of Amphibious Animals to be abbreviated NAA instead of NAAA (or NAOAA, if that’s their preference).
  • If the text promises a list of five, make sure five items appear in the list. Counting is part of proofreading.
  • If there is a table of contents, check it against the actual contents. Also check the list of figures or tables against the actual figures or tables in the text. Even automatically generated tables sometimes fail to automatically generate or include text that is mistakenly marked as a title or heading.

That list is just a starting place for effective proofreading but it indicates the scope of what electronic spell checkers and grammar checkers don’t do.

If you have a large document, website or series of documents that should be proofread, please contact TWP Marketing and Technical Communications to see if I can help. I specialize in writing and editing but I do proofread if the project is large enough.