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.

Words That Show, Not Tell

Recently, I replaced the carpet in my downstairs with maple flooring. I had a very difficult time deciding the type of flooring (hardwood, laminate, maple, oak), until a flooring professional showed me photos of maple flooring he had installed for another home owner. Seeing the flooring in place–not just a square sample–made all the difference.

We all know the power of photography to show, not tell. But what about the power of writing to do the same thing? How do you show, not tell, in words?

  1. Don’t create bare lists. When you simply list your products and services, one after another, you are telling. That list may be important to you; but is it compelling for your customers?
  2. Do think about what your customers want. You might offer 30 different products or services but–and I cannot say this often enough–customers want to get fast to the product or service that interests them. On a website, that means easy navigation; in a brochure, that means a clear and consistent layout; in an article or blog post, that means focusing on a single problem/solution each time.
  3. Build trust. I had a budget for my new flooring. One flooring rep turned me off by giving me an outrageous price (what, he thought I didn’t research on the internet?) and then offering me a “special discount” that brought the price within reason. Games like that are a lose/lose. I paid more to work with someone I trusted.
  4. Let your current customers speak for you. Like photographs of past jobs, success stories (case studies) bring your product or service to life. Testimonials are also great; but success stories provide a larger context and everyone loves a story.
  5. Use exact words. Your writing should build a picture about you and your company that is as singular as a photograph. The more exact you are, the more that picture will truly represent you and set you apart from your competition. Everyone has “dedicated staff” but not everyone can boast: “Our dedicated staff of 15 has 300+ years of experience between them.”

TWP Marketing & Technical Communications, based in Peterborough, New Hampshire, helps large and small businesses reach out to customers and keep them engaged through clear, accurate, concise, and passionate writing. Please contact me through the TWP website or through LinkedIn.

More Words? Less Power.

There are two things that great marketing copy is not:

  • Sesquipedalian
  • A vocabulary test.

“Sesquipedalian” is one of those vocabulary test words. I could have easily chosen “wordy” or even “verbose” and made the same point. Yet, many writers of technical or marketing copy believe in using long words, no matter how obscure.

By contrast, professional writers know:

  • You can reach more readers faster with everyday language.
  • Unnecessary 4- and 5-syllable words (functionality, maximization) slow readers down even when they do understand them.
  • Clear is better than concise; if it takes 3 extra words to be perfectly clear, use them.

All writing is communication. Even the most difficult content is trying to communicate. So if “difficult” is not your priority, why make your audience work hard for what you desperately want them to know?

Small Words

I challenge you to take any marketing or technical copy and circle every word over 3 syllables. Now replace those words with words of 3 syllables or less. You will be amazed at the power your words achieve when most of your writing relies on 1- and 2-syllable words. And your readers will understand what you have to say faster, a major benefit in turning them from prospects to customers.

Short Sentences

Once you have simplified your words, you should shorten your sentences by aiming for an average of 18 words per sentence. Shorter sentences are fine; very few if any should exceed 24 words. For this purpose, a colon before a list counts the same as a period–just make sure you are using the colon correctly.

Short Paragraphs

Now that you have small words and short sentences, review your paragraphs. Most paragraphs should be 5 sentences long (or 120 words) at most. Any document that contains 10 paragraphs would benefit from subtitles; as shown here, you can also use subtitles for shorter documents.

Alternatives to Words

Finally, consider the alternatives to words: graphs, photos, illustrations, video, graphic design. Words are not the only way to communicate, and it is absolutely true that a picture is worth 1000 words–if it’s the right picture.

With these techniques for writing marketing and technical copy–using small words, short sentences, short paragraphs, and graphics–you will communicate with more power, more speed, and fewer sesquipedalian failures.

Sharon Bailly founded TWP Marketing & Technical Communications 20 years ago to help large and small businesses communicate with their clients through articles, case studies, insight papers, newsletters, and blog posts. She can be reached through LinkedIn.

Telling Your Story

A memorable marketing story resonates with your customers. Your customers have a problem they must solve (whether fixing a broken vase or launching a satellite into space). They want to know why they should turn to you for a solution rather than someone else.

The best blog posts, website pages, and other marketing content respond to customer concerns by telling your story.

The story reassures customers that:

  • You understand their pain.
  • You can solve their problem.
  • Your solution brings benefits to the customer (value added).
  • You would like the customer to…(contact you, read further, buy, etc.).

But baldly stating those facts (“I know what’s wrong and I can fix it cheaply and quickly, so call me today”) makes you just another pushy provider in the crowd. How do you stand out?

A good story is:

  • Honest. Any service or product provider can boast, “I’m the best and cheapest in the universe”–even the worst and most expensive. In telling your story, first explain why you are the best and cheapest (how you add value), then make your claim.
  • Specific. The customer wants to know that you have the equipment, education, staff, convenient location, awards, years of experience, client testimonials–whatever combination makes you uniquely you.
  • Interesting. A point of view or an insight into your industry or helpful hints all connect you to the customer as a real person. 
  • Helpful. You must guide the customer to take the next step, including when and how to contact you, use a coupon, find your physical location, and so on.

Let’s say you are a car mechanic trying to bring in customers with stalled cars. The following is one way to tell your story:

“Cars that stall repeatedly are a danger. Before you take your car to a mechanic, you can try these solutions…When you need professional help, my experienced staff and I quickly analyze the problem using [equipment, method]. You can depend on me to keep your car maintained so that it doesn’t stall again. Call me at 555-1212 today.”

Information like that is clear and compelling; it comes naturally to any business owner when speaking to a customer. It should also come naturally in writing marketing content. Having trouble telling your story? Contact TWP. When it comes to writing, we do what comes naturally.

Decision Paralysis: Helping Your Customers Commit

I like to think of myself as a decisive person but I once took so long to decide between rolls of linoleum that I was accidentally locked into the shop at closing. That’s decision paralysis.

Your printed and online marketing materials play a major role in reducing decision paralysis and helping your customers commit:

  • Reduce the number of decisions that have to be made. On a website, that might be as simple as reducing the number clicks to move from one topic to the next. But more important is to clearly direct customers to the page that addresses their main problem/pain point. If Amazon can do it, you can.
  • Give clear, concise, and accurate information. I become really annoyed when a letter tells me to visit a business’ So-and-So promotion which is actually labeled online as the This-and-That promotion. Or I am directed to a telephone line with 49 million choices, half of them using jargon I don’t recognize and none of which match my problem. Try out your directions, following them exactly as given, and make sure you get where you want to go.
  • Confirm customers in their decision-making abilities. Post success stories and testimonials from customers who have already chosen your business. Provide potential customers with decision trees, comparison tables, or infographics that aid them in evaluating their own needs and help reduce decision paralysis.
  • Concentrate on value. If you can provide (and regularly update) prices, do so–but even then, explain in concrete terms (not vague adjectives) why your product or service is worth paying for. What standards do you meet or exceed, what options do you offer, what different techniques do you use? If you cannot provide current prices, explain instead how you determine price and the ways you ensure that the client receives full value for moneys spent.
  • Give customers something to remember you by. Informative blog posts, newsletters, sales events, downloads–do whatever you can to keep your business in the forefront of customer attention. I finally picked flooring and a flooring provider because he followed up with an email simply asking what was making the decision difficult and if he could help. That followup email, with its attention to my needs, was what turned me from decision paralysis into his committed, happy customer.

By addressing decision paralysis, you are helping your customers commit to your business–and improving your own bottom line. I have the words you need for website content, blog posts, insight papers, and other marketing materials that help your customers commit. Contact me today to find out more.

How to Know When You Need Help with Your Content

I’ve often written about the qualities of great content, but how do you know when you need help with your content? Here are five big danger signs:

  1. You are writing or reviewing by committee. Nothing good ever gets written by committee. Committee members contradict each other; they argue over every comma; or even worse, they don’t care about details, so that your grammar, spelling, and emphasis changes from page to page. Your content should help create your brand. You don’t want your brand to be “chaos.”
  2. You are writing too much. If you pack that first page with an endless rush of words, your audience will run. At the very least, provide headlines, bullets, and graphics to break up the text. Modern content tends to be sparse, not overwhelming, but sparse content is difficult to write. It is easy to be verbose.
  3. You are writing the same thing over and over. Repetition helps reinforce a message; but if you repeat yourself too often, your customers will be bored. Even worse, you may give up writing entirely. You have a lot more content than you realize–you just haven’t properly mined what you have.
  4. You aren’t sure what makes you different. You are convinced that every business like your own is identical and, therefore, you can’t possibly have anything to write about. Or you are afraid to admit that your competition might know more than you do and, therefore, you shouldn’t write because it will expose your limitations. Sometimes we find it difficult to see ourselves as we really are, and celebrate that.
  5. You keep putting it off. You need to finish the writing project that’s on your desk now, and you need to write regularly. Your content can’t communicate with customers until you send it out. Similarly, if you write once and never another word, you are missing opportunities to connect with past and future customers–because your business, industry, and marketplace are changing even as you procrastinate.

As a freelance marketing and technical writer, I help companies create a cost-effective, time-sensitive balance between writing by committee and writing by totalitarian decree; between writing too much and too little; between copying the competition and striking out into unfamiliar lands; and between never starting and never ending. Contact me today and let’s work together to give you help with your content.

Which Customer Are You Writing For?

Among the questions I ask potential customers of TWP Marketing & Technical Communications, the following ranks highest: Who is your customer? Which customer are you writing for?

All too often a company owner has thought only about what to say in marketing or technical copy, not who is going to read it. In addition, the company owner might have several potential customers in mind (“people who install our software and people who want us to manage their computers”) or, even worse, aims for the elusive and nonexistent “everybody.”

To determine which customer you are writing for:

  1. Identify and separate customers who will spend money, use the product/service, and operate/service the product. Sometimes the spender will also be either the user or the operator/service technician but very rarely are all three functions performed by one person. For example, people who install your software will often have different priorities from people who use the program–and different levels of fluency in computer jargon.
  2. Speak to the real issue each customer faces: how will you solve my problem? In our example, installers and users face different problems; different users also face different problems. Your job is to cater to those differences. Yes, your product or service may solve multiple problems for multiple customers. But no customer wants to search through pages and pages to find the solution to their problem. Think, instead, of how a car dealership website separates new car buyers from used car buyers and also has separate brochures for each car; or consider an online retailer with separate areas for books, computers, and file cabinets.
  3. Ask your customers. Interview your current or past customers to determine what they were looking for when they chose your company; why they chose your company rather than a competitor; and what you achieved for them. Do not assume you know the answers to these questions from the customer’s perspective. Information from your current customers allows you to more precisely target future customers. Plus you gain some great material for testimonials and case studies.
  4. Ask the publication. If you are writing for a publication, make sure you know who the publication’s customers are. The publication will expect you to follow their guidelines on content, style, and length and will reject any article that refuses to conform.

Once you know your audience–once you know which customer you are writing for–each marketing and technical writing project becomes easier because your writing is focused.

Need help in identifying and focusing your writing on your true audience? Contact TWP Marketing & Technical Relations.

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. How can this company help me?
  2. Do I have any reason to use this company rather than its competitor?

Does the marketing content fail to answer those questions? You are reading fluff.

The Reason for Fluff

Sometimes that fluff is generated by the company because no one on board recognizes what it is or because the company is frightened that customers won’t understand its technology if more specific information is given or because the company hasn’t settled on an audience. Sometimes the fluff is bought as a package from a content-generating company or from an extremely low-cost writer who doesn’t ask important questions or research answers.

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?

How to Squelch Fluff

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.
  • Share your 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 write your company’s content. I hope to hear from you soon.

Writing for Customers Who Read English as a Second Language

Major companies often write websites in the major languages of their international customers. For smaller companies, that option is too expensive, especially if they are unfamiliar with the primary languages of their readers.

Whatever your limitations, it is possible to write in English for customers who read English as a second language.The bonus? The following techniques also help your customers whose first language is English!

  1. Limit hypenation. It’s hard enough to understand a word like “fractionation” without hyphenating it as “fraction–ation.”
  2. Respect cultural differences. Others have as much pride in their heritage as you do in yours. Remember, even “football” has different meanings here and in Europe (where it refers to “soccer”). Humor is different; use humor cautiously. You should never ever mock an accent or entire group.
  3. Limit the use of synonyms for important ideas. Those who learn English as a second language often have trouble with synonyms: “chattels” seems to mean the same thing as “assets.” On the other hand, if you switch from “assets” to “property” to “effects” to “estate,” any reader might suppose you are writing about four different items.
  4. Use short sentences and paragraphs. Short sentences and paragraphs give readers time to understand one idea before moving on to the next. Sentences should stay under 24 words and paragraphs should keep to 5 sentences maximum.Breaking up text with bullets, numbered lists, and subtitles also helps.
  5. Choose the simplest word. In Item 3 above, I originally wrote “important concepts” before choosing “important ideas.” The words mean the same in this case, but “ideas” requires less knowledge of English.I stayed with “synonyms,” however, because the synonyms for “synonym” are even more difficult.
  6. Pay attention to grammar and spelling. I was once asked by colleagues from China why English needed the articles “a,” “an,” and “the.” I offered this reason: English has many words that sound exactly the same as nouns and verbs. The articles help alert us to the difference (startup and start up, vent and vent, run and run, and so on). Correct grammar and spelling help understanding.
  7. Do not mix abbreviations and expressions from other languages. Someone struggling with English is thrown off by a sudden switch to Latin (etc., e.g.) or French (c’est la vie, c’est chic). Use “and so on,” “for example,” “that’s life,” or “it’s stylish,” at least the first time.
  8. Define acronyms. You are sure you know what FDA means–Food and Drug Administration. But it is also the abbreviation for Fuji Dream Airlines of Japan, the Forest Development Agency in India, and many other companies and ideas.

If you follow these seven rules, your marketing writing will become clearer for customers who read English as a second language–and for all your customers. Need help with clear, accurate, concise, and creative writing? Please contact me at TWP Marketing & Technical Communications.

 

 

The Curse of the Grammar Checker–and How to Avoid It

I was just re-reading one of my favorite books on grammar, punctuation, and style: The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. If you ever want to learn about great writing–clear, concise, interesting, and accurate–then this slim book (less than 100 pages) is the one to read.

Why should you care? Because clear, concise, and interesting writing engages customers, prevents confusion, and reinforces your professionalism.

And guess what: online grammar checkers (including Word and Grammerly) will foul up your sentences every time. Here are the major problems to look out for:

  1. Online grammar checkers overuse capital letters. In fact, Word believes that any phrase with “company” in it must be capitalized. So if you write, “Our insurance company is known for its integrity,” Word will advise you to write, “Our Insurance Company is know for its integrity.” Overused capital letters become annoying and lose their impact: think “Dick and Jane ran after the Cat. See the Cat run!” Save capitals for proper names (Alpha Beta Chi Company) and acronyms (ABC Company).
  2. Online grammar checkers mistakenly believe that any sentence with a “how,” “who,” or “what” in it is a question. But this sentence, for example, is not a question: “What you know is more important than who you know.”
  3. Online grammar checkers regularly violate agreement between subject and verb because they struggle with complex sentences. The rule is that a plural subject takes a plural verb; a singular subject takes a singular verb.
  4. Online grammar checkers fail to realize that people are not things. They will tell you to change “who” to “that” or will accept “that” in sentences like the following: “Do you know someone that is interested in marketing?” The word “that” is wrong: “that” refers to things; “who” refers to people.

If your grammar checker is leading you astray, please contact me. I’ll be glad to help.

Newsletters That Rock

A newsletter–published at set times every week, month, or quarter–is a great way to remind your customers, clients, donors, or volunteers that you are grateful for their patronage and have valuable expertise to share. If you want your newsletter to rock:

  • Offer original stories, not generic stories offered by your industry association or some other group. Your newsletter should highlight what your organization is doing and what you know, not information that anyone can find in exact duplicate by searching the internet.
  • But share your research. Part of being an expert in your field is passing on information that your clients, customers, donors, or volunteers don’t have time to research themselves. So if an interesting fact comes to light, write a story around it. If an interesting story grabs your attention, give your readers a link to the story.
  • Pay attention to graphics. Include photos of your staff or volunteers; photos of projects you’ve completed; before-and-after pictures; infographics; or just really cool designs. Your newsletter is part of your brand and should reflect the styles, colors, and fonts you use in your website and other publications. If design isn’t your strong point, hire a graphic designer to create a template.
  • Work on the headlines. Simple headlines are fine (“New Z-100 Barbecue Arrives August 1”) but select verbs that give them punch (“New Z-100 Barbecue Sizzles with Summer Fun”). Proofread headlines carefully; if you make an embarrassing mistake, it will occur in the bold, italicized, 20 point headline. Trust me.
  • Link to detailed information. Instead of sending out a long newsletter, provide a link to your most recent blog post, white paper, campaign, or offer. People want a quick read, not an exposition.

Worried about content? Turn to TWP Marketing & Technical Communications ; I’ll make sure that your newsletter attracts and keeps the attention of your customers issue after issue.