Posts Tagged Business Writing

How to Correct Two Common Mistakes in Business Writing

The way something is written can say as much about the subject matter as the content itself. Applied to business communications, writing style and tone help reinforce a brand or company culture, while a logical flow of information creates both understanding and credibility.

To keep your readers’ eyes on the content you create—whether it’s a blog post, newsletter, or simple internal communication—proofread (at least twice) for both clarity and correctness.

You don’t need to know all the rules of grammar (and their wonderful exceptions) to edit your own content, and it won’t take much time. All you need is to recognize the most common mistakes, and know what trips you up as a writer and a reader.

Writing: If you’ve collaborated with someone on a document, were changes made to your portion of the writing? What feedback do you receive?

Reading: As a reader, what do you find jarring? Where do you get lost? Confused? Do you feel lost and confused right now?

Chances are that the prose suffers from one or more of the two most common mistakes in business writing –homonyms and sentence structure.

Homonyms

These are words that sound the same but have different meanings and spellings. In the sounds-like category, the “it’s,” “you’re,” and “they’re” offenses get the most attention. Other examples of homonym errors, briefly, include board/bored, where/wear/ware, lessen/lesson, to/too, hole/whole, role/roll.

The homonym errors involving contractions are most common because those are the words used most often in our communications (or, um, intended to be used). A good way to figure out the proper usage and spelling is to read the sentence as though the contraction were written out, mindful of whether there is a verb that would indicate two words joined together, as the contraction form.

Reading the entire sentence, or clause if you’re confident, is important because it gives context for proper usage. Here are some examples:

Its

Its is possessive; it’s is a contraction for “it has” or “it is.”

It’s (it is) a lovely day.

The dog licks its paw. (No contraction here. Adding the apostrophe [it’s form] would mean The dog licks it is paw. No.)

Your

You’re (you are) going to be so excited when you see your new walk-in closet.

Their

With their tutus and ballet slippers in hand, the little dancers sit backstage, waiting there until they’re called for dress rehearsal.

Their is possessive, there is a place, and they’re is a contraction for “they are,” whether you’re writing about tutus or technology.

Whose

Who’s (who is) going to the game? Whose vodka is this? The latter is the possessive form. And the vodka is mine.

Run-ons, Comma Splices, Sentence Fragments

Sometimes writers have a lot of ideas and they to cram them into a single sentence it makes it difficult for the reader to take in all those words without a breath between them but somehow meaning is agreed upon between writer and reader and the reader responds to the writer but may address only one of the ideas presented in the original communication because the other ideas got lost in the need for a single sentence per idea and a break between them whether it’s a semicolon to separate clauses that can stand alone or the use of a coordinating conjunction or breaking the content into separate sentences and for fuck’s sake a few different paragraphs too.

Independent clauses (ideas) need to be treated as such. Does the content read as a complete sentence? Two sentences? Can you make three? If the sentence (the thought) isn’t complete, make it so. Read the sentence aloud—how often did you pause for breath? Add commas and coordinating conjunctions (and/but/so) in those places to separate ideas.

Here’s how to untangle the unintelligible:

This is getting to be a long post_maybe I should create a checklist instead. {fused sentence—two whole sentences joined together}
This is getting to be a long post, maybe I should create a checklist instead. {comma splice—two complete and independent thoughts on either side of the comma}
This is getting to be a long post, so maybe I should create a checklist instead. {corrected using a coordinating conjunction}
This is getting to be a long post. Maybe I should create a checklist instead. {corrected by creating two separate sentences}
This is getting to be a long post; maybe I should create a checklist instead. {corrected with a semicolon}

In just about every industry where writing and communication play a key role in bringing a product to market, the subject matter is highly technical, scientific, subjective, or abstract, making it even more difficult to convey information clearly to create meaning with a target audience.

Simple business communication tools like email and instant messaging mean everyone creates, contributes to, or writes a business communication or two, no matter their role in a company.

Keep homonym errors and faulty sentence structure out of your communications, and you can keep jackasses like me from deleting you’re sales pitch because it’s grammar steels clarity from it’s message.

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A Three-Minute Guide to Ethos, Pathos, and Logos in Advertising

This article was originally published on Avenue Right’s Media Buying Automation Blog.

All advertising is, most fundamentally, an attempt to persuade an audience. We want those people to buy our products, to enlist our services, to support an organization or cause.

The media we use to deliver these messages should match the habits of our target audience, and the message needs to remain consistent, however it’s presented within the media mix.

Just as the media buyer needs to incorporate multiple media channels to reach an audience, the ads need to blend a combination of rhetorical appeals to be effective.

It’s not good enough anymore to tell the audience that a treat from Peggy’s Pie Palace is a guilt-free experience—we need some evidence telling us why it’s a low-calorie snack option.

The art of persuading an audience means using the three basic appeals that Aristotle first described: ethos, pathos, and logos.

This means using the appeal of personal character, emotion, or logic, respectively.

Ethos

Ethos is the appeal of a speaker’s/actor’s character or authority, such as the use of local celebrities or the business owner/employees in a company’s advertising.

This appeal gives character and personality to the message, making it easier for the audience to relate to, trust, or place authority in the figure represented.

Ethos may be represented differently in different media. Visual media has the benefit of using images, such as that of sports hero, where text-only ads and auditory media such as radio rely on style, tone, and name recognition to convey ethos.

Pathos

Perhaps the most powerful tool in advertising, pathos is an appeal to the audience’s emotions. It can be used to create feelings of confidence and intrigue in a brand (“established in 1915”), to reinforce value (“find more time for you with Acme Widget”), or to promote a sense of urgency (“don’t spend another night with bedbugs”).

The emotions to which the message appeals may be many and varied: safety, well-being, pride, anger, insecurity, desire.

Logos

Logos is a logical appeal typically marked by facts, figures, and data. This information is quantifiable and helps us rationalize our decisions through hard data on money saved, time saved, higher status, and so on.

One tactic that combines all three rhetorical appeals is telling the audience how many people, just like them, have purchased a product or service. This social proof approach

  • helps lower perceived risk and lessens our insecurity about the purchase (pathos),
  • paints a concrete picture of market share through data (logos), and
  • introduces like-minded characters and personalities through testimonials (ethos).

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Tight Lines: 12 Reasons the MFA is a Solid Degree in the Technology Space

Tonight I had the pleasure of sitting around a table drinking wine and sharing crème brûlée with some friends from graduate school, specifically the MFA program in creative writing at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Pulling up in my minivan I realized it had already been a good 5 years since my last writing workshop around that blessed, beat-up and beloved table in Weld Hall library.

One discussion stood out over the Cabernet and custard, perhaps because of where I’m at academically, professionally, and personally. It was whether an MFA degree had any value in today’s workplace for those not interested in teaching at the college level, and how those skills might be applied in the workforce.

At the table for tonight’s conversation were four MFA graduates and a faculty member. The grads included a software developer, a local magazine editor, a PhD student/professor, and a marketing director. Not a bad as products of the program, I’d say.

This post outlines some key areas where the MFA program directly relates to the creativity, critical thinking, and communication skills that are very much in demand in today’s job market. It’s time to start that dialogue around how those of us in the arts and humanities can create some pretty kick-ass careers for ourselves.

The perspective here is from a fiction writer (as opposed to poetry or nonfiction), and it’s from the marketing point of view (versus a visual art like design or a sales role such as business development).  It deals mostly with applied professional writing—as a “creative” on an in-house team or at an agency, for example. (I’m sure the linguistics or communications theory-laden post will soon follow.)

One more disclaimer is that I have split personalities when it comes to writing about marketing.  I’m a B2B marketer marketing an advertising product to folks who market B2C. But at the end of the day, we’re all fucking human. Write that way and you can sell a product or service or otherwise inform and persuade an audience. That’s all we really need to do.

Here’s that list, from my own experience as an MFA graduate with a pretty sweet career. I may not have been placed on that path because my credentials state this particular degree, but the skills needed to get there tie directly to experience in a creative writing program.

Copywriting

1. Tight Lines. These people have the ability to write tight lines that are both creative and persuasive. In fiction, the writer needs to create believability and truth, or verisimilitude, in the story.

2. Plot Lines. Web copy, for example, needs to drive a visitor along a certain navigational path that results in that person taking an action, whether it be submitting a contact form, calling a business, or even moving on to the next page. Creative writers, too, drive their visitor—their reader—along with intent. The audience is brought on that proverbial journey, as the business writer strives to both pull a prospect through a sales funnel and engage them in interactive content, and a fiction writer so convincingly delivers a narrative that can pull the reader along the story’s path without question of the reality or the characters created—they simply must get to the next part of the story.

3. Buyer Personae. This one is huge, but it’s covered in the Marketing/Sales Cycle section below.

Public Relations

4. Positioning. PR positions the company, setting the scene for the action to take place. It’s important in PR to be completely transparent, to stay away from embellishment, but this is where command of English language comes in handy.

5. Storytelling. These are the folks that tell the company’s story, and they need to do it well. Hire a storyteller. Or become one. Enough said.

Marketing/Sales Cycle

6. Audience. Identifying and understanding a target audience for marketing efforts is akin to developing characters for a work of fiction. You know who they are, what they make a year, their educational level, where they eat and shop.

3., Part Deux. Buyer Personae. The ability to serve up content that’s relevant to the business audience is critical to everything from generating interest to keeping a customer. To do this, marketers need to create what’s called a buyer persona to guide their efforts, to know what makes that target audience tick. This is literally an outline or profile of a character—for me, it’s all those characteristics scribbled on sticky notes across my desk and color-coded to indicate mannerisms or role in the story. But again, working within the framework of buyer personae is where the ability to create and develop characters in a fictional work becomes a skill that transfers nicely.

For these writers, it goes well beyond the numbers that identify age, location, and income— the ability to create and give voice to these buyer personae, understand their pains and how to manage their egos, and bring them along on that storied journey are inherent in those who’ve spent time writing fiction in first person or as a member of the opposite sex, to name just one exercise in character development.

7. Lead Generation and Nurturing. Think like the characters do. Where would you place the ads that would reach you if you were that character? Where would you be located? And engaged in what media? Where and how do you participate online? Think of what content gets the most downloads, and later, analyze what content was downloaded by the most qualified prospective customers and focus your editorial efforts accordingly.

8. Content Strategy. Oversimplified, this is creating, running, managing an editorial calendar.

In addition to providing the right content for your audience, this includes understanding how to work with people in order to elicit guest posts and suggest changes that keep the contribution on par with the quality of other writing on the site while maintaining author’s style. Experience in MFA program workshop dialogue, copyediting, and working with any published or up-and-coming authors are all great ways to develop a foundation for business content strategy and how to execute on it successfully.

9. Engaging. For marketers, this means creating dialogue around a topic or issue, whether in person or online. For MFAers, it’s the ability to deconstruct, put back together, and discuss what we read. “Nice work” is a comment that brings nothing to the table.

10. Case Studies and White Papers. The former is an in-depth profile that tells the story of how a business solved a problem or made more money using your solution. The latter is a paper that also solves a problem, typically research-intensive and from a thought-leadership perspective looking at improvements that can be made overall in an industry (and of course, in the About section in tiny print on the last page, how the corporate author is positioned to solve those problems).  Naturally, these are my favorite pieces to write.

Software Development

11. Stories. Using sticky notes and whiteboards to piece together the story of how functionality or a process will work in a software application is similar to performing this exercise in order to piece together a novel, story, or poem, or even the core argument for an essay (for the creative writer, it’s possible the whiteboard is instead a Moleskine®). This also applies to telling the story from the end-user’s perspective and the actions they take during the software testing/QA process.

12. Complexity. Being able to understanding complex processes and communicate them is useful skill. The correlation? A research paper on something like “Burnt Norton from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets or Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

Other Skills

  • Interviewing for a job (MFA: Engaging conversation and defending position in MFA workshop.)
  • Taking (and applying) feedback and critique of professional work (MFA: Feedback from professors and peers during workshop.)
  • Working independently (MFA: We write alone.)
  • Write simple code for web development, design, and animation (MFA: Knowing how language works.)
  • Research skills (MFA: If it’s out there, we can find it.)

Thus ends my preaching—for now—on the virtues of an MFA degree for those who aren’t ready to or have no plans to teach.

It’s interesting to note it wasn’t until later in the evening that said software developer, local magazine editor, PhD student/professor, and marketing director observed that none of us had actually graduated the MFA program together and were, pretty much, barely classmates. This attests to the community surrounding writing programs such as these and the craft itself.

If you do nothing else in life, perfect your craft. If you have a talent, use it. Get involved with the community around it. As fellow MSUM MFA graduate Kristen Tsetsi writes, “I no longer know the grass of forbidden lawns, because I drive past it.”

Exploring the craft before that forbidden lawn of unbridled creativity becomes unfamiliar is an experience that we’ll draw from inevitably in our careers, whether we realize it or not. We MFA grads had the opportunity to develop a mindset that allows for creative, critical, and analytical thinking–a stage on which to practice freedom in our art, engage in healthy debate and discussion, and advance our writing abilities both technically and creatively, all while participating in good conversation and community.

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What Milton’s Satan Can Teach Us About Writing Business White Papers

Many of us still recall the five-paragraph format for writing papers that seemed to be a favorite of so many English teachers.

I’m not one of them, having preferred a more natural approach to writing where the argument fleshes itself out along the way. The freedom to play with the transition of ideas throughout the paper rather than how many paragraphs I could produce that–within them–followed yet another structure, the main idea of the paragraph followed by supporting statements. Blah. Yeah, I was docked a few times for format, but to me, it was the writing journey that mattered.

To help us structure our ideas and content, there’s a general rule in writing that goes something like

  • tell them what you’re going to tell them (the Introduction)
  • tell them (the Body)
  • and tell them again (the Conclusion)

Enter the “real-world,” out of academia and into corporate America. The 5 paragraph prescription doesn’t always work, and folks just doesn’t have time for you to tell them three times unless you’re really creative about it.

Turns out the time spent studying composition theory and writing research papers really was a fertile training ground not only for producing marketing collateral such as white papers, but also in writing things like project plans, business cases, grant funding applications, and just about every other form of business communication that goes beyond the transactional.

Who knew that writing “Satan, Sex, & Scripture: The Phenomenology of Sin in Paradise Lost” as a pompous young grad student would have a direct tie to my career in the private sector? To me this answers the question so many students in freshman English ask themselves and each other in classroom or on the campus lawn – what does poetry have to do with my degree, or my future career? Why do I have to read Shakespeare? Or Chaucer? Why are there no pictures in these books?

It’s because of the limitless opportunities these works present for students to structure and present their arguments “off the fence,” as one of my professors used to say. To take a side and think critically in order to defend it.

One of my favorite duties at “work” is writing white papers. The most recent are available here and here. The writing process for me didn’t much differ from that of my research writing days. And yes, ever the English major, both those white papers have semi-colons in their titles.

Those that read white papers are looking to solve a business problem, so the content has to be both informative and prescriptive. (Sometimes, the writer must first make that reader aware that they indeed have a problem.) It’s the equivalent of reading up on other critics of a literary work before beginning the research paper, then writing in such a way that the reader is guided in how to read the given literary work based on the writer’s interpretation of it. Other similarities include

  • facts and citations from credible sources,
  • an engaging tone that’s not too dry,
  • addressing potential objections early on,
  • a summary of the paper and its argument in the introduction,
  • and a conclusion that answers the question, “So what?” (Why should a literary work be read this way? Why will the ideas presented help me do business more efficiently or profitably?)

One thing you’ll notice on this blog is that I absolutely love language–the words and their rhythm, texture, room for interpretation. Because of that I’ll include from time to time excerpts of previous papers or short stories that I’ve written. And maybe the occasional piece of marketing fodder.

That said, below is the introductory paragraph from the paper mentioned earlier, “Satan, Sex, & Scripture: The Phenomenology of Sin in Paradise Lost.”  It does three things that are also important for the intro to a business white paper:

1) Establishes the author’s position on what will be the central argument in the paper (Satan’s character represents the Jungian notion of the shadow),
2) Addresses the opposing viewpoint (readers who are drawn to the character show evidence of their own sin),
3) Provides evidence to support the argument being proposed (Satan’s fall and temptation of Eve).

The ancients teach us that true knowledge of the self comes only after an examination of the other side—the vengeful, deceitful, contemptuous recesses of the psyche—in order to discover moral absolutes. As a symbol of evil, the author of sin and death in Paradise Lost, Satan becomes the archetypal, primal human being, in consciousness though perhaps not in form, and embodies the weaknesses inherent in mankind.  Milton’s Satan contains the other, darker, elements of the human psyche, the tendencies toward envy, wrath, lust, and pride that make us complete.  Identification with Satan signifies not the reader’s sin, as some critics have argued, but an active, positive response to otherness, facilitating the incorporation of human darkness which manifests itself as evil when repressed in the psyche.  Through his own fall and temptation of Eve, Satan offers the reader the means to recognize, confront, and consume her shadow, a Jungian signification for the dark or unacceptable emotions and behavior which reside in the unconscious mind.

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6 Tips for Understanding the B2B Business Decision-Making Process & Engaging the Buyer

It seems that I remember the login info for this blog after all….

I wrote this as a guest post for a B2Bbloggers, and thought I may as well post it on my own blog, too. Enjoy.

Whether making a purchase decision for myself or for my company, I’m still a human. A communications strategy that recognizes this as every business buyer’s position can make the difference between an engaged prospect or an unsubscribe, a loyal customer or a lost sale.

The marketer’s goal is to get buyers into and moving through the purchase funnel of awareness, interest, evaluation, acquisition, and loyalty. The decision-making process for purchasing business software, for example, is longer and more complex than that which involves an individual consumer and an impulse buy.

Fortunately, business buyers don’t stop being human when they clock in for the day as managers, developers, and owner/operators.

Therefore, many of the rhetorical tactics and psychological triggers used in consumer marketing also work for B2B marketing, engaging the people who visit our websites, read our content, and use our products in their professional roles.

This post examines the business buyer’s position, how it differs from that of consumers, why it’s important to appeal to both rational and emotional decision making, and how to engage this audience throughout buying cycle and, later, the customer lifecycle.

(De)constructing the Business Buyer

Spending money on cute shoes you don’t need, or even an item with a longer consumer purchase cycle, like a flat screen TV, isn’t nearly as big a risk as signing off on an item with the company’s money, be it external marketing spend or a software solution.

The business buyer is in a position of high accountability for purchases, and often has multiple “buyers” to persuade. This presents some unique challenges to marketers:

•    More people are involved in the decision-making process, representing different facets of the business. With a software product, for example, it may be the primary user who shows interest initially, but the IT team and business owner are also involved in the final purchase decision. The different roles have different needs, and your copywriter is dealing with any number of different buyer personas.
•    The buyer isn’t spending their own money. ROI and other advantages must be clearly documented to justify investment in one purchase which may take budget away from another. This is the time for case studies, data, and proof of time/money savings.
•    The risk factor is often greater. Buyers fear that a bad purchase decision could lead to loss of time/money/productivity/data/hardware/resources for their business.

Where the decision to buy the shoes was largely on impulse and based on design and emotional appeal (i.e., feeling good while wearing the shoes), the purchase decision for a business product such as a software solution takes considerably longer than the typical consumer purchase, even for higher priced items such as that flat screen.

This requires marketers and sales teams to build a relationship with their contacts and keep in touch as a prospect moves through the purchase funnel, however long that may take.

Why Buy?

At work here is both the rational and the emotional brain. In general, the rational brain craves a logical approach to decision-making, hard numbers and facts. The emotional brain responds to more abstract concepts such as safety and trust.

•    The rational buyer is going to look for things like product feature specs and proof of benefit from other customers to build a quantifiable justification for the purchase.
•    The emotional buyer is persuaded more by their gut feeling in a product’s ability to fulfill its promise, the safety and trust they can place in a company or brand.

Engaging business buyers requires an appeal to both parts of the brain, using one to justify the other.

Promising time savings is great, but suggesting what they can do with the time saved is even better—putting it toward business development and getting ahead of competitors in the market, for example. Tell them the improved workflow will lead to better internal communications, higher team morale, and a better atmosphere around the office.

Just as desire motivates consumers to buy, it also motivates business buyers. Desire for efficiency, profit, data security, or even recognition for acquisition of an innovate product that impacts the bottom line.

The other primary motivator is fear. Here this could mean fear of losing business to competitors if the competitor has better resources.

A good way to build trust and credibility while at the same time dropping a few statistics and testimonials to prove the value of your product or business philosophy is through content marketing—white papers, case studies, email campaigns, social media, and the company blog.

Of course, if the product isn’t great, none of this will matter.

6 Tips for Getting Business Buyers Engaged

Let’s face it. Things like “BUY NOW!” in big bold letters and other techniques geared toward pressure and impulse purchase don’t work with these decision-makers. They need to be educated not only on the product, but how it will improve their business and professional lives which will in turn positively impact their personal lives.

To get a business audience engaged, marketers need persuasive content that appeals to both logic and emotion. The communication strategy should serve prospective buyers as well as current customers with lifetime value.

The first step, though, is persuading the busy business buyer to open your emails, or read your blog, or take your touch-base calls.

Here are 6 tips for developing a messaging strategy and writing copy that engages and motivates a business audience, wherever they are in the prospect or customer lifecycle:

  • Be relevant. Target your content and communications based on the individual’s role (technical decision maker vs. end user, for example), pain points, and activity history. Use personalized content in emails, such as names with the greeting and closure, or content based on product interests. Get the timing right—send relevant communications based on where they are in the buying cycle. Marketing automation is a must-have if this is to be done efficiently and effectively.
  • Answer why and how. Tell them why they need your product, and how it solves their business problems and pains. Create a compelling reason for them to buy, or to download your content, or subscribe to your blog, follow you, etc.  Re-enforce value and purchase satisfaction with existing customers.
  • Pique their interest. Write concise headlines and titles that set expectations but leave little mystery. Tell your readers how they can solve a problem. You can even use “how to” in the title, such as “How to Eliminate Manual Data Entry & Improve Workflow.” Focus on solution and benefit.Use numbers. It helps organize information and sets expectations with the reader.  And who can resist a question?
  • Educate early. Provide white papers, case studies, tips, and best practice content, tailored to the contact’s specific pain points and position in the buying cycle. Become a trusted source of information and content for your industry and the challenges its professionals face. Good resource for content marketing and copywriting are Junta42 and Copyblogger.
  • Manage risk. The business audience needs to manage perceived risk later in the buying cycle, and you can help them do that by providing case studies and statistics. Testimonial blurbs at this point usually aren’t enough—the buyer now needs hard facts and case studies from similar companies to make a rational justification for the purchase.   Emotionally, this purchase decision could be tied to either a promotion or a severance package, depending on the price tag and how it impacts the business.
  • Make it easy for them to purchase your product and maintain a customer relationship with you. Keep in touch after the sale.

(This article appeared on B2Bbloggers at http://www.b2bbloggers.com/blog/6-tips-for-understanding-the-b2b-business-decision-making-process/ )

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Lessons in Business Writing from Aristotle

In a blog post for Avenue Right, I suggested looking to the rhetorical appeals as defined by Aristotle as a way to develop advertising content that resonates with a target audience.

I won’t regurgitate the full post, but what I did want to highlight here is how ethos, pathos, and/or logos should be used in any marketing materials or business communications to present a solid and persuasive argument.

  • Ethos refers to the appeal of the speaker’s character or authority. A good example of ethos in advertising is celebrity endorsements.
  • Pathos appeals to the audience’s emotions. It can be used to convey feelings of confidence and integrity in a brand, or to inspire a feeling or emotion that brings about the desired action.
  • Logos is logical appeal. This persuasive strategy is usually marked by facts, figures, and data.

If you’re interested in the full post on advertising content strategy, check it out here.

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