What Your Customers Don’t Know…And How It Helps You

I recently visited a website for a company selling beeswax candles. On one web page, the company explained how their candles were made. The information fascinated me. I’ve melted crayons to make candles and simply assumed any candle was made with the same technique. It isn’t.

The beeswax candle company made a smart move: they asked themselves what their customers might not know and supplied it. As a result, customers like me stayed on their website much longer.

If you have been telling yourself that “Everyone in the industry does it that way” or “Everyone knows that,” it may be time for a reality check: never underestimate what your customers don’t know.

  • Do your customers know information that is common in your industry? Probably not. Your customers have their own special interests, which is why they are coming to you. Share your knowledge, educate your customers and you’ve hooked them. 
  • Are your customers comparing you to your competitors? Most certainly. So make sure you include information on industry standards, industry regulations, awards, and baselines that you meet or exceed. Provide testimonials, before and after photos, and case studies that confirm your expertise.
  • Do your customers know what they don’t know? For example, you assume they know what you mean by “extremely precise measurements.” But in reality, there’s a big difference in precision between 0.0003 cm and 0.00003 cm. Be specific and ensure you are both working with the same data and assumptions.
  • Do your long-time, highly educated customers like intellectual challenges? Why push them? Even the most savvy customers get tired of constantly translating acronyms and industry jargon. Make it easy on your customers to understand what you are saying. The faster they read, the faster you can convert them to a sale.

Knowing what your customers don’t know–and want to know–helps you meet their desire for information and makes you stand out from the competition. Need help in figuring that out? Contact me today at TWP Marketing & Technical Communications.

From our base in Peterborough, NH, TWP Marketing & Technical Communications writes marketing copy that engages your customers and delivers your marketing message with accuracy, clarity, and passion.

Writing by Committee

I once proofread a proposal where the word “huge” was spelled throughout as “hugh.” (High marks for consistency, though.) I edited the descriptions of presentations for a major industrial conference where presenters used the same acronym for entirely different meanings over a dozen times. 

When any document is written by committee, it seems that no one is responsible to check that it actually makes sense. Basic facts change from chapter to chapter or page to page, including product and service names. Cross-references go nowhere, as everyone assumes that someone else is providing the cross-referenced content. Some writers believe their readers are knowledgeable and the rest believe their readers need detailed information–which means the actual reader is either lost or bored.

You can avert and fix the problem of writing by committee if you:

  • Create a short style manual for writers to reference. A style manual is a brief description (2 pages maximum) of format, grammar (use of the serial comma, for example), spelling, acronyms, and use of copyrighted or intellectual property.
  • Decide early on about tone and audience. Do you address the audience as “you” or “they”? Is content highly technical or relaxed (think the “for Dummies” series)? Who is your audience: executives, purchasers, installers, users? Don’t switch audiences mid-page or mid-sentence.
  • Limit the number of reviewers. Aim for a maximum of three reviewers; say, customer liaison, technical, and executive.
  • Assign one person to read the entire document. With multiple writers and reviewers, sentences become edited into nonsense, words are dropped, and even firm requests by the customer for specific information are overlooked.
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread. The smallest change or mistake in even a standard document can turn the rest of the document into scrap paper.

As a professional technical and marketing writer, I’m often called upon to provide a uniform voice and structure for documents that undergo writing by committee. That outside perspective not only ensures that mistakes are caught, it also helps to resolve conflict when writers re-write each other.

If your company, division, or group is used to writing by committee, please contact me.

12 Reasons for Hiring a Freelance Writer

After 20 years as a freelance writer, I have discovered 12 reasons why business owners hire a freelance writer. Regardless of the business owner’s industry, years of experience or overall marketing expertise, hiring a freelance writer addresses one or more of these concerns:

1. I don’t have the time to write.

2. I know what I want to say but I don’t know how to say it.

3. I need someone who isn’t full time but is dependable; will handle my writing projects when they come along; and understands my business.

4. My products or services or solutions are complicated and/or highly technical, and I need a better way to explain them to potential customers.

5. I’d like to standardize my replies to customer inquiries, my marketing collateral or cold call scripts so that my brand is clear.

6. My proposal (or report or manual) writing team needs someone to unify the content and figure out what’s missing, repetitive or contradictory.

7. My business has changed; I need a collaborator who can clarify what I should be writing now and then write it for me.

8. I’m writing a blog and I’m out of ideas for posts.

9. I need more publicity online/in print but I don’t know how to go about it.

10. I’m not detail oriented–at least, not with writing. I need someone who actually enjoys grammar and spelling.

11. My current marketing collateral sounds exactly like my competition’s; I need a way to differentiate myself.

12. I hate writing.

A professional freelance writer is adept at clear and accurate communication, organizing information, collaboration, addressing customer concerns and priorities and providing creative content.

Why would you hire a freelance writer?

If you recognize yourself in any of the top reasons for hiring a freelance writer, please contact me. At TWP Marketing & Technical Communications, based in Peterborough, New Hampshire, our words mean business.

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.

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.

Writing the Perfect Proposal

I’ve worked on many proposals and executive summaries for industries as diverse as oil & gas and green products. I’m always impressed by the amount of information offered–and depressed by the problems.

Problems That Undermine Proposals

Two problems stand out in imperfect proposals.

The writers are so close to the product (or service) and so enthusiastic that they no longer see the proposal through the customers’ eyes. Belief in your product or service is an excellent trait and should inform any proposal. However, you yourself wouldn’t make a purchase based solely on someone else’s enthusiasms; neither will your customers. They don’t want a sales pitch; they want you to solve their problem.

Because multiple writers are assigned to a proposal, it doesn’t hang together and important information is either left out or repeated so often that it becomes annoying. Proposals take teamwork, but at some point one person should be assigned to ensure consistency, clarity, and conciseness throughout the proposal.

Characteristics of the Perfect Proposal

Your potential customer has a specific issue that you need to resolve. The perfect proposal assures the customer that you understand the problem and have a solution–one that the customer can understand quickly in easily understood terms. The perfect proposal:

  • Identifies the problem or mission of the customer.
  • Explains (in everyday words) how your particular product or service resolves the problem.
  • Focuses initially on the benefits, not the features, of the product or service.
  • Differentiates the product or service to ease the customer’s process of choosing.
  • Delivers the message clearly and efficiently, keeping overall length (including attachments and links) to a minimum.
  • Gives clear contact information, including a specific person’s name, so that the customer doesn’t have to plow through your entire company directory for someone familiar enough with the product/service to answer questions.

At TWP Marketing & Technical Communication, we have over 25 years of experience writing proposals that give customers the information they want in words that clearly differentiate the product and service while exciting the customer’s interest. We can do the same for your proposals. Contact us today.