Complicated Writing: What Is It/How to Avoid It

Suppose you enter a store to check out a product you’re interested in, and two salespeople approach you.

One says, “The state-of-the-art functionality of this superior, innovative product is enhanced by the unique proactive multi-tasking bidirectional aspect of the user interface element, our company’s proprietary MTBDUI.”

The other says, “Would you like me to show you the on switch?”

Which salesperson would you buy from?

Yet many websites, blogs and brochures mimic the first sales person when, face-to-face, no one would approach a customer that way. Multi-syllable words (3 syllables or more) in long sentences (over 24 words) are at the heart of complicated writing. Add to that the latest jargon and acronyms with a tendency to drop prepositions and even the most educated readers struggle to understand a company’s message.

Customers are interested in your company, but first they want to know how you will solve their immediate problem. Complicated writing embraces adjectives like “state-of-the-art” and “precisely engineered” without ever giving specifics. It goes on and on about the company’s unique products and features, its outstanding customer services and innovative founders, without ever answering the universal customer question, “What’s in it for me?”

Complicated writing is mired in jargon and acronyms. How could anyone participate in “a proactive customer engagement communication activation process (CECAP)”? But it is definitely possible for customers to understand that you “appreciate their comments”–if that’s what you mean–in direct, everyday language.

Complicated writing leaves a company with nothing to boast about except its vocabulary and its ability to generate jargon and acronyms at a moment’s notice. Clear writing, on the other hand, builds relationships with customers.

For clear writing that is accurate, concise and passionate–for writing that makes even the most complicated content approachable–please contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications.

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.

Who Benefits?

In the murder mysteries I love to read, one of the questions that constantly comes up is “Who benefits?” Who will receive property, money, power or favors as a result of the murder?

Now in marketing, oddly enough, the same question arises. Who benefits?

As a professional content writer, I always try to determine at the start of a project:

  • What customer is the company trying to reach?
  • Why is that customer looking for that company?
  • What should that customer do once they find what they want?

I’ve often discussed the first question in these blog posts: knowing your audience. The last question is the “call to action”–guiding your customer to contact you or complete the sale, for example. But the middle question is the one that provides the most insight into who benefits.

As a business owner, you should always be asking, “Why are customers looking for my business?” That question leads to the problem that customers are facing, the problem that you want to solve and the problem that your marketing content must address.

Somewhere, marketing content has to explain how the customer benefits from the company’s products, services and solutions. Yet, far too often I see marketing materials that never ask, “Who benefits? How do they benefit? What can we do to make that benefit as clear as possible to the customer?”

It is easy to convince yourself that you are interested in helping anyone who responds to your marketing materials for any reason–and therefore the question of who benefits is irrelevant. But if a lumberjack is looking for new shoes, that lumberjack won’t go to a company specializing in ballerina slippers–unless the company can make a strong argument that ballerina slippers benefit foresters. If a customer sees the benefit of listening, the customer will stay to listen.

TWP Marketing & Technical Communications writes content that attracts the customers you want most–and when we do that, everyone benefits.

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.

Four Rules of Good Writing

We all know the rules of good conversation: keep your audience in mind, avoid one-up-manship (and nonstop bragging), try not to bore people to tears, and listen.

Another rule: good writing is good talking. Here are a few stories that explain why:

1. Know Your Audience. John Smith (none of the names here are real) ran a plumbing business and filled his website with bathroom humor. Not everyone appreciates bathroom humor; and someone in the midst of a plumbing catastrophe probably appreciates it even less. One website cannot appeal to everyone. But make sure your website appeals to the audience you want to reach most.

2. Avoid One-Up-Manship. Mary Jones wrote a website that detailed her life history as an artist, bragging about her many triumphs as an artist. However, the website never mentioned what her art cost, where it could be found, how buyers could contact her–she was too busy bragging. Long lists of what you can do, long explanations of how you achieved your greatness, and disparaging remarks about competition fail to address what every customer wants to know: What can you do for me?

3. Know When You Are Boring. Sue Johnson led a technical company which addressed a complex message to others who were knowledgeable in her technical field. She needed a website filled with details and arcane language–it suited her product and her audience. But to keep her audience interested, her marketing materials, from website to brochure, needed to move away from long blocks of text. When she improved the formatting (using tables, headlines, bullets) and introduced videos, case studies, photographs, testimonials, blogs, and Q&A pullouts, her audience stayed on the website longer and appreciated her expertise more. No matter how wrapped up someone is in technology, they still appreciate a good story and an interesting layout.

4. Listen. Bob Adams had a successful full-time career as an IT strategist. However, when he went freelance, his clients kept pushing him to solve basic hardware and network problems. He listened to his clients, began marketing to what his clients requested, and now has a successful business with a staff. His long-term clients have also learned to trust him enough to request his advice on IT strategy. By listening to your clients, you end up truly knowing them, you avoid one-up-manship, and you keep them interested.

Good writing is good talking. When you need help transferring your great ideas to writing, please talk to me.

 

Nonprofit Marketing

Here’s a true story: A nonprofit was used to finding all of their clients through face-to-face contact. No one had considered any other means. Their website was barely functional, with no mention of their nonprofit status; it directed visitors to an email address that no one was monitoring; and it lacked information about who they were and who they served. It was hardly more than a holding page and was their only marketing effort.

As a result, the community had an entirely misguided idea of the nonprofit’s purpose. In fact, the community thought it was a for-profit company. The nonprofit was even accused by other organizations of “raiding” clients!

The ABCs of nonprofit marketing are the same as the ABCs of for-profit marketing (audience-specific, balanced, and complete), as described in my previous blog post. But here are some of the most common errors that nonprofits make in marketing materials:

  • They neglect to say that they are a 501(c)3 nonprofit. Your nonprofit status is important to donors and granting organizations. Include that information somewhere on all your marketing materials and proposals.
  • They make it difficult for anyone to reach them. Reaching the organization should be the easiest process, whether it’s through a link on your website, an email address and phone number on your brochure, a return envelope in your appeal letter, or an article about places where you’ll be presenting or setting up a booth.
  • They do not consider the general public. The general public is filled with potential clients, donors, and volunteers. If all your marketing efforts are directed to known clients and known donors, you are missing a large part of your audience. You are also neglecting to build community support.

The nonprofit described above asked me to turn their marketing efforts around. I stressed that one of the most important tasks that nonprofit marketing can accomplish is to put a face on the organization, including clients, donors, and volunteers.

I rewrote and drastically broadened the website content, and made sure that contact was simple, direct, and monitored. I wrote articles about the nonprofit, welcoming new Board members, thanking donors, and featuring (anonymous) client successes. I started a Facebook page. Once the community understood how the nonprofit was helping families right in their neighborhood, the nonprofit began to receive community-based grants and word of mouth referrals. The revised marketing opened up areas of financial support, but more importantly reached clients the nonprofit had not reached before–without jeopardizing its relationship with other organizations.

If your nonprofit is stagnating; if your marketing efforts are one-note; and if you haven’t revised your marketing materials in years, now is the time to contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications.

The TWP Story: Three Words, Three Rules

Words are such powerful, flexible, rich tools for building a link between one person and another. You need millions of dollars, thousands of people, and expensive materials to build a bridge: you need three words to say “I can help.”

I work as a marketing and technical writer because I am passionate about people communicating with people. I want customers to understand where they can find a solution for their problem, whether a reputable building contractor or an expert in regulatory compliance. And, bottom line, I love writing.

I write and edit website content, blogs, newsletters, success stories (case studies), and every type of marketing content for technical and nontechnical companies of vastly different sizes and in vastly different industries. My clients include the MIT School of Science and sole proprietors; Microspec, who needed a website devoted to medical tubing, and resume writers who need proofreading; companies in my hometown of Peterborough, New Hampshire, and companies across the United States, including New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, and Georgia.

Here are three rules of marketing and technical writing that I never break:

  1. Tell the truth. What use is communicating if you are breaking trust immediately by telling lies?
  2. Keep it simple. It is always possible to find the words to explain something so that someone else understands. Communication is not a contest on who knows the biggest words or the hardest way to explain things.
  3. Find the story. People like stories. If you want to communicate, you need to keep your audience engaged.

All of the people I work for are skilled in their area of expertise. After more than 20 years of experience in Fortune 500 companies and as a freelancer, my area of expertise is clear. I write. Copy writing involves research, interviewing business owners and their customers, editing, proofreading, and rewriting–and I love every minute of it.

Whenever you find yourself struggling to say what you need to say, please remember TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. I have the words: I can help.

The Danger of Questions in Marketing Content

Why should you read this blog post? I know the answer I’d like. Which makes that question an hypophora–a rhetorical question that you aren’t supposed to answer because I’m just going to go ahead and tell you: You should read this blog post to prevent major problems with your marketing content–and to discover why you might need a freelance writer like (ahem) me.

The problem with questions, especially at the beginning of marketing copy, is that they very well may be answered in a way you don’t like. “Got milk?” is a great question because either way–yes or no–the point has been made. You need milk. “Why not buy milk?” is a poor question because the most likely answer is: “I don’t want to.”

The “why not” construction has another drawback–it introduces a negative; for example, “Why not use our company?” You should avoid any question that challenges readers to list the reasons for not using you.

Questions that threaten the reader are another barrier to communication. “Do you want to deplete your bones of calcium? Did you know that poor calcium intake leads to osteoporosis?” You will gain the readers who already worry about the subject but you will lose those who do not want to think about it. There’s a reason why coffin builders avoid asking, “Are you ready to be buried?”

Which brings us to good questions. Good questions demand a “yes.” The quicker your readers get used to answering “yes” to your marketing pitch, the more likely they are to keep answering “yes,” especially when you ask for a sale. “Do you like milk?” is a poor question because it shuts down the conversation with a quick “no.” A better question is “Do you have a favorite way to use milk?” Almost everyone uses some milk in some way–in their coffee, in baking, to scramble eggs and so on. Even if they don’t, they may want to hear about new ways to use milk.

The best questions in marketing collateral actively engage readers and prompt them to read on: “What is the number one drink in the world?” “What are the top 3 benefits of milk?” Those questions open up a conversation instead of closing it down and they appeal to your readers’ curiosity.

Got questions? Just make sure you want to hear the answers.

Sharon Bailly founded TWP Marketing & Technical Communications in 1999 to help business owners communicate with their customers in clear, accurate, passionate words.

 

Three Reasons Why Good Grammar Pays

So you thought your 5th grade English teacher was kidding when she said good grammar is important?

  1. Bad grammar can send your customers running from your emails or enewsletters. Recently, the founder and chairman of Identity Theft 911 gave consumers advice about how to detect (and avoid) online scams. One of his top clues to identify fake emails was the use of bad grammar. Because many online scammers and phishers are from outside the US, their grasp of English grammar is usually poor.
  2. Bad grammar can change what you meant to say into something entirely different. The US government once changed the taxes on all fruit and all trees by placing a comma in the wrong place–legislation meant only for “fruit trees” instead covered “fruit, trees.”
  3. Bad grammar signals unprofessional service, like a lemonade sign written in crayon. It might be charming in 8 year olds but not in grownups running a professional, reliable business that pays attention to details.

Online grammar checkers are worthless. If you aren’t confident in your grammar, contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications to review and edit your marketing or technical writing. Make sure your message goes out the way you intended and encourages potential customers to buy.

 

Successful Writing: Five Common Traits

No matter what you are writing–whether it’s a blog post or a letter home, a multimillion dollar response to a proposal or a testimonial for a friend–all successful writing obeys these five basic rules:

  1. It is written for an audience and as specific an audience as possible. Only diaries and confessions are written solely for the benefit of the writer.
  2. It conforms to standard English so that no one has to decipher it to understand it. An exception is made here for fiction writers and lawyers.
  3. It has a purpose (for example, to entertain, educate, inform or intrigue), and it keeps to that purpose. It doesn’t ramble.
  4. It follows a structure, whether alphabetical, chronological, front to back, top to bottom or some other logical progression.
  5. It relies mainly on verbs and nouns, not adjectives and adverbs. That is, instead of phrases like “we are the world’s greatest company,” successful writing provides details (“we’ve won 20 industry awards”) that demonstrate greatness.

Successful writing is defined by its ability to communicate to others what the writer intended to communicate and perhaps more.

If your proposals, website and other marketing collateral are falling short of success, contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. We’re based in New Hampshire but our writing has brought us clients from throughout the US and around the globe.