Beyond blah, blah, blah: writing content that gets read

We're all on the same page here, right: writing content regularly — on your website, in brochures, in your press releases, in your marketing materials — is a critical component of your marketing activities.

Quality, interesting, immersive content. Content that connects with your customers. Content that convinces your prospects.


So why is so much of what I read lately so ordinary?

Nothing special to see here?

I'm not talking about advertising straplines; I'm talking about the everyday stuff of running and promoting a business: brochures, flyers, websites, Facebook, press releases, reports. Why is it all so dull?

Have you got a button on your website that says "Buy" or "Subscribe"? Ho-hum.

Is your main landing page titled "About"? Snore.

Hey, we're not innocent. I'm now looking at a flyer we rushed to get in on a cheap printing offer, and I'm thinking: Zzzzzz. I rushed the copy for the sake of saving a few bucks, and now that the printed flyers are sitting in front of me I realise, Zzzzzz. And if it's Zzzzzz, if there's nothing special, is there any point distributing it? The answer is "No". Those flyers, at any price, have been a waste of money.

The price of poor copy

The cost of bad writing is two-fold.

First, you lose the money you spent on production. Expensive website? Waste of money if your customers and prospects aren't being sufficiently engaged. Three thousand sales brochures? Waste of paper, printing and distribution costs if you've not given the written content sufficient attention to do what it needs to do: engage your customers, build confidence, sell your product and services. Ho-hum copy will get a ho-hum response.

The second cost of poor writing is lost opportunity. There's a call-to-action at the end of your pitch pyramid, but no-one's getting to it. Ask yourself: have you ever made it to the end of  a boring or confusing sales pitch? Did you buy the product?

So what is good writing, anyway?

We're not talking literature here. We're talking business copy. And that means engagement, credibility and persuasion. Good business copy, good sales copy, hooks the reader and leads them where you want them to go, and makes them take the action you want them to take.

The inverted pyramid typically used by journalists — where the most important fact leads, followed by the second-most important fact, followed by the third, and so on — is not a bad model to study. Typically, a journalistic article will have short, sharp sentences, often only one sentence or one point per paragraph, and uses simple, jargon-free language that is recognisable and easily understood.

Good journalism is engaging — you want to read it — and clearly establishes the credibility of its writer or source.

Sales copy should be all these things.

But journalism stops short of persuasion. And for this you need stories.

Storytelling for selling

As a once-upon-a-time marketing executive in the corporate world, I have given my fair share of product pitches and business cases. And the method that got the best results — always — was to use storytelling (it was also, the easiest method to deliver).

Humans are wired for stories. Good stories have believable details, easy-going speech, and a natural flow. Good sales copy entertains the reader, persuades them of the offer, convinces them of your credibility.

It uses a logical thread to lead the reader through the story to its natural conclusion which, presumably, is your call to action.

The voice of your brand

Your voice — the tone you use in your written communications, the tempo, the choice of language, even the way you answer the phone or reply to an email — should be an integral part of your brand. This might seem a big ask, especially across a company where a variety of people may be handling quotes, correspondence, emails and reports.

But it's not as hard as it seems. Newspapers and agencies have been doing it for hundreds of years. The trick is house style, a written document (or in larger institutions, a book) that prescribes and proscribes various rules of a language. It's not a grammar primer — it's the string on everyone's finger that says use -ise terminations rather than -ize, use spaced en dashes to indicate spans of measure, spell out numbers up to twenty rather than use numerals. It might sound pedantic, but it lends consistency to your company's written communications.

Do sweat the small stuff

So your sales copy is sizzling. Don't let it all slide with a call-to-action that puts out the fire. If it's a button at the end of you web pitch, make sure the button's label seals the sales deal: it should be the exclamation mark at the end of you copy, entertaining and persuasive in its own right, not just a muted Phew!

Which button are you more likely to press? One that shouts "Buy now". Or one that says "Order using our secure server. You'll have a chance to review your order before payment is processed."?

Tens of millions of dollars in research says the latter — Amazon's model — is by far the most effective. It persuades rather than demands, and eliminates purchase anxiety by giving the customer a "second chance" should they change their mind.

And it's just a button.

Ten quick tips for better sales copy

  • 1 Tell a story. Don't be afraid to put yourself in the middle of it. People relate to people. Use anecdotes to illustrate points.
  • 2 Don't be afraid to use "I", "we", "you", "it". Many writers are afraid to personalise their business communications. They'd rather tie themselves up is all sorts of linguistic knots trying to avoid personal pronouns. And instead use impersonal, convoluted furballs like, "one's own opinion" rather than "I think", or "the subject's predisposition" rather than "would you like?" Yuck.
  • 3 Get to the point. Yes, you've got the stage, but this is not the time to strut. We've all read flyers and brochures that take 200 words to clear their throats. If your customer doesn't know what you're offering in 20-odd words, you've probably lost them. Think Hemingway, not Proust.
  • 4 Use the active voice. Sales copy is doing copy; use the active voice for clearer, more direct, more authoritative pitches. The passive voice is sometimes preferable, sometimes even necessary, but it's most often used because it sounds more elegant. It's not.
  • 5 Forget your fifth grade English teacher. It's okay to use it's. It's okay to use can't and don't. It's okay to finish a sentence with a preposition. And it's okay to start a sentence with a conjunction. The purpose of business writing is clarity and comprehension. Don't tie yourself up in knots over points of grammar that no-one gives a frog's fart about. (She'd be having kittens over that last sentence :0)
  • 6 Use the right word. Spelling and grammar checkers will not pick up your use of their rather than there or they're; mad rather than made; disinterested rather than uninterested. If you're not sure of the meaning of a word, skip it, use something else.
  • 7 Edit ruthlessly. Chances are your first draft will contain lots of filler text. Read it as a reader, not as the writer. Delete low-priority content. Write shorter sentences. Ditch the fluff. One point per paragraph. If a sentence doesn't make a strong point, or doesn't contain a solid fact that builds your pitch, get rid of it.
  • 8 Get yourself an editorial style guide. Consistency of expression is part of your brand. There are some readily available style guides out there (look for Pam Peters, or the Australian Public Service Style Guide), or you can build your own, noting your preferences as you go.
  • 9 Proofread. Silly spelling and punctuation errors reflect poorly on you, your company and your brand. Leave your final draft to rest overnight; re-read it the next morning, aloud. Print it out and use a sheet of paper to isolate each line of text as you read. Read it backwards, word-by-word; this is an old proofreader's sure-fire way to pick up typos. And finally, get someone else to read it — they will pick up errors that you, as the writer, have effectively gone blind to.
  • 10 Don't promise ten tips when you only have nine 😉

In brief

Get better read

Hey, we get it. Writing doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. But your sales copy shouldn’t suffer if writing is simply not your thing.

We write ongoing blog and newsletter articles for several businesses, as well as one-off sales pitches, prospectuses, brochures and advertisements.

If you need to spend more time on other aspects of your business, if you don’t have the time, or if you simply don’t feel comfortable in a writer’s or editor’s hat, give us a call.

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