About sharon

As the founder and head of TWP Marketing & Technical Communications, Sharon Bailly has more than 25 years of experience as a professional business and technical writer for large and small companies and nonprofits throughout the U.S. Her articles on writing have appeared in Minority Engineer, Women’s Business, New Hampshire Business Review and other publications, and she has presented writing workshops at business groups, nonprofit organizations and individual company sites. TWP provides accurate, exciting and focused content for websites, blogs, brochures, newsletters, success stories, user manuals, presentations and white papers both online and on paper.

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.

Technical Writing: Is This Jargon?

Q. I work for a company provides technology, construction, and other services for a wide variety of industries-—each with their own vocabulary. Plus the company I work for has many specialized, technical products. When we talk about, say, a process analytical technology, that’s a real thing that our customers are looking for, not made up jargon. I want to write clearly, but how do I distinguish jargon from not-jargon?

A. Technical writers and technical companies often rely on jargon in an attempt to be brief. They try to pack the maximum amount of information into one phrase.

However, your first obligation as a writer is to be clear. You want customers to grasp your product and services quickly, and they can’t do that if they’re deciphering jargon. You might as well write in a secret code.

One of my customers boasted online about his software company’s “compatible knowledge component portfolio.” Would you know what you were getting if a company offered you a portfolio of compatible knowledge components? When I asked my customer to describe what the company was selling, he explained in clear simple language: software that helps transfer information smoothly from one program to another. So we replaced the jargon on his website with those clear words.

My customer’s original phrase illustrates some of the criteria for identifying jargon. You are probably reading or writing jargon if a phrase:

  1. Describes something that cannot be immediately diagrammed or understood by your colleague in the next cubical.
  2. Consists of three or more nouns in a row: knowledge component portfolio.
  3. Contains a majority of three- or four-syllable words: in this case, three out of four (compatible, component, portfolio).
  4. Ends with one or more of the following generic nouns: functionality, process, system, capability, service, solution: enhanced reciprocal functionality.

Sometimes jargon marks an attempt by companies to differentiate themselves. You may need a unique phrase to identify a unique product or service. But you should first explain your product or service in everyday English. Once customers understand what you mean by “enhanced reciprocal functionality” or ERF, you are free to talk about it in that shorthand—if you still want to. But make sure the definition is clear in every new document.

Sometimes jargon uses everyday English but is still incomprehensible. We may believe we know what a company means by offering a “strategic planning roadmap process.” The meanings of the individual words are well within our grasp. But in reality, we have no idea if this company creates, delivers, reviews, carries out, or consults upon strategic plans.

If you aren’t sure whether you are writing jargon, please contact me. I will help you communicate clearly, even about the most technical products and services, so that customers truly understand what you offer.

Start Writing with Your Wow Factor

Every new product or service has a wow factor—it’s faster, smaller, more beautiful, more reliable, more precise, or greater value than the competition. Your best selling opportunity is to start writing with your wow factor. Too many companies bury that important information deep in their copy. To identify your wow factor and give it the top billing it deserves, follow these four steps:

Step 1. Make sure you know what your customer wants most. Your customer’s priorities might be quite different from yours. You may want to boast about your success at miniaturizing internal components while your customer is only interested in whether the product looks cool. Your marketing copy must speak to the customer’s priorities, even if this means ignoring your finest achievements.

Step 2. Concentrate on the specifics—they set your product or service apart. If accuracy to 5 microns is important to your customers, your text should state “accurate to 5 microns” rather than relying solely on vague adjectives like “extremely accurate.” If personal service is important, let photographs, testimonials, and case studies reveal exactly how personal your service is.

Step 3. Select your language to empower, not overwhelm, your customer. In an effort to be concise, companies sometimes cram 10 selling points into one long sentence or string of nouns (“a robust email marketing newsletter solution service”). First be clear, then concise. Educate customers slowly in everyday language; no matter how proficient customers are in their own field, they come to you for your special expertise, so share it in a way they can understand.

Step 4. Focus first on your strongest benefit. Always remember that the most powerful message you can send to a potential customer is “we can solve your problem.” When you identify a compelling problem and solution, you have your first sentence: your wow factor. Then you can detail the other benefits and features you offer. But customers can absorb only a limited amount of new information at once (some research suggests a 4-item limit). Stay well within those boundaries at the start of your marketing copy.

Are you struggling to find and write about your wow factor? Contact me at TWP Marketing & Technical Communications; I’m here to help.