Telling the Truth When You Write

I began my career as a technical writer and for years I thought of marketing as the evil empire. Technical writers are concerned with accuracy, clarity, and consistency. Marketing writers? As far as I could see, they would say anything to sell–they knew little about the product or service and cared less.

Then I discovered something: customers like the truth. They like the truth as much as I do. They look askance at promises that might never be delivered or at claims that have nothing to back them up. They are tired of hearing empty phrases, like “state-of-the-art, superior, best-in-class service” because everyone, from the airline they fly to the local coffee shop, promises state-of-the-art, superior, best-in-class service.

How do your customers know if you are telling the truth? You provide photos, testimonials, case studies (I love case studies!), awards, and details on industry standards that you meet. You describe continuing education, certifications, and participation or leadership in industry events. You share your expert advice and experience.

The truth is also revealed by the way you write: with accuracy, clarity, consistency and a focus on the information customers want mostdo you understand my problem and how will you solve it? Every customer problem and question is worthy of consideration. Your goal is to find and share answers to the most pressing customer questions. And admit when you don’t have the answer.

Every company has something that makes it uniquely qualified to help its customers, because every company is the result of someone’s unique vision. Let customers know about you. The truth about your company is a major differentiator. Did you start or build your company because you identified a lack in your region, took a different approach in your field, recognized an opportunity that others missed, wanted a chance to help others, found an outlet for your creativity, discovered a neglected customer need? All or none of the above?

My background as a technical writer means that I have worked in fields as diverse as construction, coaching, manufacturing, healthcare, software development, and retail. Regardless of the industry, I have kept and verified my belief that customers appreciate the truth as much as I do. After all, aren’t we all customers of someone?

When you tell the truth about your company, you enable customers to connect with you. You build a relationship based on a firm foundation, which means customers will return again and again. Let me help.

The Acronym Follies

A client recently wrote me when faced with a slew of acronyms in an article she tried to read. Acronyms, such as B2B or EMEA, are generally created from the first letters of a series of words (business-to-business and Europe, Middle East, Africa). But even B2B has multiple meanings, including “back to base” and “border to border.” Beth complained:

“I just saw a very interesting article that I wanted to read and understand. But they started off with so many acronyms that I could not begin to guess what they were talking about. I even Googled the first acronym. Either the 1st or 3rd definition might have made sense, but how is a beginner to know?… Some people don’t want new readers I guess.”

Beth herself is in the software development industry–which is known for its use of acronyms. But she recognizes the importance of defining acronyms the first time they are used and avoiding them as much as possible. I have another client, in the oil and gas industry, who uses so many acronyms that I keep a four-page list on my computer for checking definitions. Even that is sometimes inadequate because different divisions of the company use the same acronym to stand for different things!

Beth mentioned Googling for definitions. The website acronymfinder.com is helpful in two ways: both to figure out what an acronym means and to reinforce the fact that the same acronym may have dozens of different meanings, some of them quite obscure,  depending on the industry and context.

One of the risks of overusing acronyms is also overusing capital letters. Just because a group of words can form an acronym, the words themselves do not need to be capitalized. The following sentence is correct: “Today, Elbert Industries Inc. (EII) delivered an approved manufacturer’s list (AML) to their certified vendors (CVs).”

Writers who pepper acronyms in every sentence may believe that their only readers will be those who know the acronyms already. But, as Beth suggests, that approach means they expect to never expand their readership and to never encounter a reader who has, even temporarily, forgotten what a particular acronym means.

Your marketing materials, reports, proposals and user documents aren’t a vocabulary test and they aren’t a crossword puzzle either. No one should need a four-page list to keep track of your company’s acronyms.

TWP Marketing & Technical Communications helps companies from sole-proprietors to multinationals communicate with their customers in the business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) marketplace.

 

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.

 

What Professional Writers Know about DIY

I’ve written professionally during my entire career, starting in Fortune 500 companies and for the last 16 years as a freelancer. During that time I’ve seen three common writing mistakes in do-it-yourself websites, blog posts, newsletters, case studies and other marketing materials.

Writing Mistake #1: Most DIY writers fall in two categories. The first is so determined to have every word correct that they never actually issue anything. They know they need to revise the website, post another blog, send out the newsletter; months pass, and nothing changes. The second type of DIY writer delivers any message that comes to mind, whether or not it resonates with their audience and whether or not the audience is there to receive it. One nonprofit I know was trapped at 9 likes on Facebook; then they hired a professional and soared to 109 likes in two months, because the professional actually knew how to use Facebook and connect with the nonprofit’s audience. The moral here? If you can’t or won’t do it yourself, admit it–and hire a professional writer.

Writing Mistake #2: Many DIY writers forget that their audience needs and wants to be educated. Instead of explaining what their company does and why, those writers concentrate on listing products and services. Unfortunately, most products and services have lots of competition in the marketplace. It’s the how and why that differentiates companies. The solution? Hire a professional writer who asks the same questions that your customers would ask and envisions marketing materials that tell your unique story.

Writing Mistake #3. More is not necessarily better. Customers have a limited time to read through your marketing materials and a limited tolerance for repeated email blasts. Concise writing with a punch has the greatest value. Target your marketing collateral so that you remain fresh in customers’ minds without becoming an annoyance. A professional writer can help you develop a campaign that is focused and interesting.

TWP Marketing & Technical Communications has provided professional writing to B2B and B2C businesses large and small since 1999. We’d be delighted to help you.

How to Work with a Professional Writer

You are thinking of hiring a professional writer to handle your marketing collateral or technical documentation? Congratulations! Here are four tips on working with a professional writer:

1. Writers need to start somewhere to develop content, whether by interviewing you for information or by reading all the previous material written about the project or by researching your competitors. Nothing great is ever written from complete ignorance. The writer needs access to information or to those who have information.

2. Research takes time; writing takes time. If you hire a freelancer, you are hiring someone with multiple clients who compete for time. Deadlines should account for research, writing, proofreading, revision, and production. Writers aren’t born with a magic wand and the ability to bend time. When you set a deadline, keep reality in mind.

3. The right words may not be the exact words you would use. Listen to the professional writer. What seems perfectly clear to you, with your inside and specialized knowledge, may confuse a potential customer. Your priorities (“let’s list every product we ever manufactured”) may conflict with your audience’s priorities (“send help!”). Your writer’s goal is to make sure your message is being delivered clearly, concisely and passionately to your audience.

4. Every liberal arts major is not a writer. I once worked in a technical company that assigned me an assistant who majored in drama–it’s all liberal arts, they said. The assistant hated writing. In fact, some English majors hate writing. A portfolio will tell you more than a degree in a specific subject. Make sure the writer’s style and experience fit your writing needs. If you are using a freelance writer, make sure the writer is dedicated to freelancing and not simply waiting until a full-time job comes along. You want someone who will finish your current project and be up to speed for future projects.

If  you keep in mind that professional writers need information, time, respect, and a passion for writing, you will develop an excellent relationship with the professional writer you hire.