Customer First: What That Really Means for Writing

Imagine this: You enter a brick and mortar store and the sales person comes up to you and recites, “We have books, clothing, housewares, electronics featuring a sale on cell phones, a real coffee bar featuring freshly baked coconut muffins, superior customer service, with great prices, fast delivery and…”

How quickly do you interrupt?

You know what you want and the rest of the sales person’s monologue is irrelevant. Now let’s take that concept to the written word. If you want to customers to read your writing, you should never start with a monologue on “what we do and why we’re great at it.”

Putting the Customer First

As I’ve often said, “We can solve your problem” is the most powerful promise a business can deliver to a customer. But to deliver that promise, you have to listen before you speak. Let customers tell you what their problem is–a new dress, a home renovation, a drop in sales–and then offer your solution.

Remember, there is always another web or brochure page, blog post, success story, or article that you can write. Don’t pack everything into one toss of the printer. You are better off targeting and serving a single type of customer than trying to pull in everyone at once.

Even very large online companies, like Amazon, provide a way for customers to quickly move from their website’s first page to the information they are really interested in. If Amazon can start with the customer’s problem, so can you.

How Navigation Bars (and Subtitles) Help or Hinder

On websites, one of my pet peeves is the ubiquitous “Services” or “Products” category on the navigation bar. That may be justified if you provide many different services or products. But if you have a few specialties, consider mentioning them directly on the navigation bar. (By the way, the same applies to subtitles in marketing and technical copy–lots of precise subtitles make everything more readable!)

For example, one of my clients is a sales consultant whose original navigation bar and home page focused on “Services.” But once we determined that she excelled in three main areas, we changed the navigation bar to read “Generate Leads,” “Increase Revenue,” and “Close More Sales.” We also made sure the home page text centered on those three services, with individual links to later pages. As a result, customers immediately felt that the consultant understood and offered a solution for their most pressing problems. And each customer could go directly to the page that mattered most. The faster readers get to the information they want, the more likely they are to stay and buy.

Conclusion

Ready to change a boring monologue into a helpful conversation? Contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications today.

 

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.

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.

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.

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.

Need to Emphasize Your Words? Here’s How

One way to show that your written words are IMPORTANT!!! is to emphasize them with bold, italic, full capitals and end with a bunch of exclamation points. Unfortunately, that technique loses its impact quickly.

A full course of bolding, italics, capitals, underlining, and exclamation points has the same impact as shouting. It might get attention the first time but it will definitely annoy the longer it goes on. Better techniques involve framing the sentence or paragraph for emphasis, using repetition correctly, and engaging a professional graphic designer.

Frame a Sentence for Emphasis

When you have something important to tell your readers, take a chance and say it without the tantrum. For example, in the preceding sentence, you probably placed a stress on “without” although nothing in the sentence directed you to do that. The rhythm and sense of the sentence alone produced the stress on “without.”

Make sentences and paragraphs short–average 25 words per sentence and three sentences per paragraph. Information at the end of a sentence or at the start or very end of a paragraph is more likely to be remembered than information in the middle.

Use Repetition

Repetition creates emphasis if it is done correctly. Tell your reader what you plan to write about and then write about. At the end, summarize the information. But make sure each repetition is exact. If you promise to write about trips to Spain, Italy, and England, then write about them in th/at order and do not throw Portugal in the mix.

On the other hand, simply repeating one word (“this is very very very important”) has the same annoying effect overall as piling on exclamation points.

Engage a Professional Graphic Designer

A well laid-out page draws the reader’s eye exactly where you want it through font selection, color, graphics, and illustrations. Professional graphic designers work wonders that way but amateurs risk creating design overload.

Keep in mind this general rule of thumb: The more devices used to emphasize text, the less power any of them have.

In the best case, writers and graphic designers work together to give you marketing collateral that delivers your message with just the right jolt of emphasis. TWP Marketing & Technical Communications can help you find that perfect team. Contact us today.

Writing Well When English Is Your Second Language

If you are a writer for whom English is a second language, you probably have several advantages over native-English speakers. You may be more likely to write with short sentences, short paragraphs, and everyday words–these are choices that more people should make.

But you may also face writing challenges in these four areas:

  • Sentence construction. Many constructions that are acceptable in other languages–for example, putting a verb at the end of a sentence–are uncommon in English. Some constructions used in British English (for example, “Well done, you!”) sound odd to US ears.
  • Spelling. US English has borrowed words from many countries, yet rejected their original spelling (confidant/confidante or colour/color). Homophones are common: vein/vane/vain and they’re/their. Another problem arises with close spellings, such as effect/affect and compliment/complement.
  • Contractions. US writing includes lots of contractions, even in formal situations. Some contractions can be especially challenging: “I’d” could mean “I had” or “I would” or “I should,” depending on context.
  • Verb choice. The good news is that you don’t have to worry about gender when using English verbs. The bad news is that it is very easy to get tangled up in participles, gerunds, verb/noun agreement, and whether the past participle of lay is lain or laid (laid is correct).
  • Local differences. You probably know that US football is not soccer, but you may not know about US nonsmoking laws, wildly different climates from East Coast to West, or other legal, cultural, and geographic differences. In addition, every country has sensitive topics; failing to navigate them can detract from the message you intended to send.

Are you concerned that your message is being lost among problems with US or British sentence construction, spelling, contractions, verb choice, and cultural differences? Consider asking a professional, native English writer to review your written materials.

In the course of my career, I have helped individuals and companies from China, Russia, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Britain write in standard and idiomatic US English. I would be delighted to help you. Contact me at TWP Marketing & Technical Communications.

7 Years of Blogging: Lessons Learned

I have been writing blog posts for various customers for over 7 years–weekly or bimonthly–and I’ve learned several important lessons about regular blogging.

Three Important Facts about Blogging

First, regular blog posts gather dedicated readers over time. They prompt comments, requests for contributions from industry organizations, and discussions on LinkedIn.

Second, blogging and the reactions to it often clarify customer expectations and what a company should be doing. It may lead to a shift in the company’s entire marketing plan or become the basis for an insight or white paper that confirms the company’s expertise.

Third, writing a great blog post is a matter of following a few basic rules:

  1. Focus on one idea at a time–there’s always an opportunity to write another post.
  2. Aim to educate, not sell.
  3. Keep the post short; but concentrate first on quality content, then size.
  4. Write with a recognizable and consistent voice.
  5. Deliver details (e.g., 10 steps to…), not vague generalities.
  6. Make sure blog posts appear regularly, whether once a week or twice a month.
  7. Recognize your blog is one tool in a marketing toolbox–not the entire box.
  8. Obey the rules of all great marketing content: concise, clear, concrete, and passionate.
  9. Take time to find an interesting title.
  10. End with a next step for readers.

How to Rescue a Faltering Blog

Are you hesitating to write a blog, are you running out of ideas, or has your blog languished, untouched, for over a month? Consider asking a professional freelance writer to take over.

One of the advantages of having a professional writer handle your blog posts–besides the savings in time and energy–is that you may be too close to your business to understand what customers find interesting and informative. What seems to you to be a boring detail or information that “everyone” knows may actually be fascinating to customers.

A professional freelance writer adapts to your comfort level: submitting ideas for approval, researching content, interviewing customers and employees, tracking the competition–whatever you need. You can review individual ideas before a post is ever written and/or approve the completed post before it appears online..

Conclusion

For a professional writer, blogs posts are interesting and fun to write, and I have written them for many businesses in fields as varied as home construction, clinical trials, executive consulting, and marketing.

Contact me if you need help setting up and maintaining your blog content; that’s what I’m here for.

10 Ways to Make Writing Easier

Professional writers love to write. But if writing is not your first career choice, you may find it slow at best and painful at worst. So here are 10 tips to make writing easier.

  1. Write first, edit last. Editing at the same time that you write is like taking a giant step back for every two steps forward. That voice in your head that keeps saying a word isn’t perfect or an idea could be expressed better–ignore it for now.
  2. Let the ideal first sentence wait. Holding out for that golden first sentence is frustrating, especially since the best opening sentence often emerges at the end, when your thoughts have coalesced. Start writing and the perfect first sentence will appear eventually.
  3. Start with the simplest structure–first to last, top 10, 3 ways to do something, or 3 reasons for taking action. Delete whatever doesn’t fit that structure. What you don’t use may become another day’s blog post or tweet. That’s a good thing.
  4. Write like you talk, because even your most sophisticated customer knows less about your product and service than you do. Share your knowledge; don’t struggle to sound like a marketing guru or subject-matter-expert. Your expertise will shine through and more important, everyone will understand your message quickly.
  5. Keep your audience in mind. Your goal is not to make yourself sound and look good; your goal is to solve a problem for your customers. Keep your eye on their problem and your solution.
  6. Know your limits. You may be able to write a 300-word blog but trying to write a 1000-word insight paper gives you an overwhelming urge to run away from home. The solution is to keep doing blogs, but wait until you can hire a professional to write insight papers. Alternatively, you may eventually be able to combine 3 or 4 of your related blogs into one long paper.
  7. Review with a fresh eye. Put away the finished piece for at least 24 hours. But remember to take it out again! The review is important.
  8. Edit, don’t destroy. Your goal is to improve what your wrote, not throw it away. Keep your attention on important fixes: Look for sentences longer than 18 words (no period, no colon), words longer than 3 syllables, strings of adjectives or adverbs, inconsistencies ($5M, $5 million), misspellings, and vague words (“on time”) when you could be specific (“within 4 days”).
  9. Listen to outside reviewers–mostly. Ask only one or two people to review and ask them to concentrate on errors or confusion in the content; don’t start debates over synonyms or serial commas. But pay attention to what they say. If you refuse to listen to your reviewers, find new reviewers you will listen to.
  10. Know when to stop. Your marketing copy starts working for you when you send it out into the real world. Words can always be edited after they’ve had a chance to make an impact. Give them a chance to start.

What approaches have you found helpful in easing the pain of writing? Please share them. And if you want totally painless writing, please contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications, where our words mean business.

4 Questions before You Start Writing

You’ve heard the maxim “know thyself”? In your rush to spread the word about your products and services, you may have forgotten an equally important maxim: Know thy customer.

All writing is written for someone to read; even a private diary is written for one’s self. So here are four questions you must answer before you start writing.

  1. Whom are you writing for? Your writing takes on a different tone for the new CEO of a company searching for a coach and the homeowner who needs emergency roof repair. Be realistic: you may want to reach the top five billionaires in the world, but is there any chance they will want to purchase a billion dollars worth of your widgets? What you write depends on who your customers are. The better you know them, the better chance you will have of grabbing their attention.
  2. Where do your customers hang out? A daily tweet might go nowhere whereas a weekly blog post catches exactly the customers you want. Your salespeople might appreciate printed brochures to leave with customers after a personal contact; they might prefer e-brochures for online contacts. What you write depends on where your audience looks for you.
  3. How much tolerance do your customers have for repeated contacts? Whether you create an online or paper campaign or both (eblasts, tweets, blog posts, postcards, brochures, newsletters), at some point your customers will become annoyed rather than intrigued. Know when to stop writing.
  4. Will they be interested in what you have to write? Customers are looking for a solution to a problem, whether it is how to etch semiconductors or where to find a prom dress. Details of your company philosophy and history, a laundry list of products and services that are irrelevant to their problem or a recap of your last sales campaign–that can wait. What you write depends on what your customers want to hear.

Are you having trouble figuring out who you are writing for, where they hang out, how much you should write and what you should write about? Contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications and we’ll help you find the answers.