April’s been an interesting month for me, with a number of different projects on the go. I’m splitting my time between developing a custom business writing workshop for a client, finishing up some textbook chapters and researching a non-fiction book I will be ghost-writing. This is in between writing website copy for two new clients and doing the usual magazine and content creation for my regulars.
Most of the work I’m busy with at the moment has a business focus, so I’ve found myself looking at the common mistakes people make when it comes to their business copy and content, and thinking about what makes great writing stand out.
If you and I were sitting down together with a cup of coffee and discussing these things, here are the seven steps I would likely give you if you wanted to improve your business content:
- Stop talking to yourself. Often, businesses become too inwardly focused with their content. They want to tell everyone about what they do, how they do it and what makes them special. They use jargon and they assume that everyone understands their industry like they do. Instead, they should be focusing on their target audience. Who are they targeting, what questions do those people want answered and what problems do they want solved? Businesses need to answer those questions and tailor all their content accordingly. Remember – if you’re developing a company website or brochure, you are not the primary target audience! Write for the people who are.
- Don’t try to say too much in one go. We’ve all been told how people’s attention spans are getting shorter and how the advances in mobile technology mean people quickly scan content rather than reading it thoroughly. While I believe that there is still a place for long-form content, your business website or company profile is probably not it. I get it – you’re passionate about your business and believe that everything you’ve developed serves a purpose and is important to what you do. It’s holistic, integrated and end-to-end (those seem to be the trendy words at present). But giving your customer all the available information at once can be completely overwhelming. Remember that the customer is usually not a specialist in your field. He or she is more interested in whether or not you can solve the problem (and how much it will cost). The details can come later. This is especially important on your website home page or company newsletter. Don’t try to shove in eight different ideas or messages. You just dilute your overall impact. Prioritise what’s most important to say and communicate only that.
- Stop, collaborate and listen. Often, businesses view their communications efforts as a one-way process. If they are missing the point with their target market, they will never know. Provide communications channels where your customers can talk with you, and then listen. Don’t send out stock standard form responses and never go beyond that. Show your customer that he or she has been heard and that the views shared have been taken into account. Use tools like feedback surveys or regular check-ins to find out how you’re doing in terms of your content, and use the responses you receive to keep improving on what you’re doing.
- Kill the buzzwords. Innovative. Unique. Disruptive. Ugh. You know what’s not innovative, unique or disruptive? Using the same words that everybody else is using. Chuck them out. Your copy will be better and you won’t have to keep updating it to keep up with the ever-evolving corporate nonsense trends.
- Use plain language. Bigger words are not necessarily better ones. Business writing is not a game of Scrabble. I can’t tell you how often I come across convoluted copy that businesses think sounds impressive, but actually jut confuses their clients. I find this is a particular problem in professional services businesses. Here’s a great (terrible?) example from Gawker that shows just how a business can get so caught up in saying things “impressively” that it manages to say nothing at all. Try this exercise: fit your message into the 160 characters that Twitter would allow. As one of my journalism lecturers used to tell us, if you can’t fit your story idea (or message in this case) into a single sentence, you don’t have a clear enough understanding of what you want to say.
- Get some help. Ideally, hire a professional writer to assist you with your copy and content. You are likely an expert at what you do, but not necessarily at writing about it. Writers are trained to communicate ideas using words. A good writer will be able to help you get your point across to your customer clearly and professionally. He or she will also be able to assist with avoiding problems like spelling mistakes, ambiguity and poor flow, all of which can damage a customer’s perception of you and your business. If you really, truly can’t afford a writer or are set on doing the writing yourself, at least get someone else to read through your writing before publishing or printing it. We tend to read what we think we’ve written, not what’s actually on the page. It’s easy to miss a small typo or repetition, especially after reading something multiple times. An extra set of eyes may pick up mistakes you’ve missed.
- Regularly check that your content is up-to-date. I deal with a fair number of people who want their business content rewritten in a big hurry because it’s hopelessly outdated and having a negative effect. Some businesses have changed the services they offered and come to me for a website rewrite because they are getting irrelevant sales queries due to outdated copy. Others urgently need a 20-year old CV rewritten for an interview (which ends up costing them quite a bit because CV writing has changed substantially in the last two decades and it means essentially starting from scratch). Whatever the case, businesses and business people can save themselves time, money and admin by keeping their content up to date. Technology changes, trends shift and businesses grow (hopefully). As things change, content should be updated to ensure it remains accurate. Like you’d schedule a car for an annual service, you should diarise a regular “content check”. It’s easier to make small changes as you go along than to have to rewrite everything after a lengthy period.
These are just a few thoughts from my business writing and editing experience. I’d be interested to hear what business owners and other writers say. Feel free to drop me a comment or to get in touch.