2 golden rules for business writing

Like public speaking, writing for a business can feel exposing, and people often put a mask on their writing to cope.

What does that mask look like?  If someone wants to sound impressive, authoritative, and trustworthy, they often start with formality and distance.  That’s the traditional corporate tone, and it often involves three styles of writing:

In the third person – It was a problem to be solved

Using abstract nouns instead of verbs – The automation of the process enabled…

Or using a passive voice – The test was passed, and the product continued into development.

Given our cultural shift away from the suited and booted, business writing can also swing towards overly casual:

hey!  guess what… we passed the test!

C’mon in, we’re all ears 🙂

The best business writing, like the best public speakers, resonates far more than either of these extremes.  It sounds authentic.

So how can you ensure your writing sounds genuine, whether ‘you’ are a huge global business or a one-woman band?

Golden rule #1: Speak their language

‘Their’ being your audience, and their language being their needs, goals, worries, interests – the real things they care about.

Will this help me get promoted?

Will this make or save me money?

Will this make a difference / nail the board meeting / get me home early enough to see the kids / make my job less stressful?

Think of a presentation to introduce a senior leader whose support for your product could be make or break.  In the first thirty seconds you have to show you know what matters to them and that you and your product can deliver it.

We help you get in the door of new clients and sell more of your services to clients you already have.  We are doing it for part of your business already, but we believe there is potential to grow your revenue further.

Now take the same product and introduce it to managers who will be using it every day.

We give you the information you need in real time so you know where your tasks might slip and how to stop that happening so your project stays on track and you and your team get home on time.

Tailoring is hardly rocket science, but that doesn’t make it any less important.  It’s really easy to just bang out a ‘this is what is happening’ or ‘this is what we do’ message – working inside-out rather than outside-in.

Starting with the audience helps every form of business writing hit the mark – from advertising headlines right through to employee process or system notifications.

More than emotional language

But speaking their language isn’t only about connecting with your audience as human beings, it’s also about the language of their work.

I read a LinkedIn article about AI last week, a topic I’ve spent some time with so I’m familiar with the lingo.  Even so, after every few sentences came one that made no sense to me.  There was so much assumed technical knowledge that only a narrow set of people would understand the piece.  Which is absolutely fine if that’s your intention.

Jargon is a fine line to walk. In some cases you need to use the accepted terminology to be credible.  In others, plain English keeps your reader reading on.  Drowning your message in double speak is a no-no in both – the jargon has to sit within sentences that mean something.

Golden rule #2: Find your voice

An entrepreneur told me recently that she tried using an agency to write content for her investment businesses, but the tone just wasn’t right – she’d never say what they had written in the way they wrote it.  I’m glad she stopped using them, as how she writes is both distinctive and impactful.  You can tell she writes from experience of her field and her customers.

That authenticity is increasingly important.  When it’s so easy to find content, we only bother reading stuff that resonates.  Tone is a big part of that, along with a feeling of value being exchanged – you are making me think, laugh or be inspired and I am giving your writing my time and attention.

Big brands, whether corporate, consumer, public sector or charity will usually have well-defined voices, and clear guidelines on applying them across different media.  It may not make it to every touch point every time, but writing in a consistent, authentic style makes a difference to how their brand is perceived, especially when they talk about things their target audience care about.

If you’re a smaller company, or just starting out, it can be hard to know what voice to use, or how to break down what voice means.  My advice is to do a bit of thinking first: about your audience and what matters to them; about what your brand stands for, what you want to achieve with it, and how that translates to how you write and what you write about.

If you have time, look at what others are doing and what they achieve in terms of shares, likes, profile.  Analyse your own response to different styles of writing and which feel authentic to you.

Gather all that input into an idea of the style you think will work and test it.  See what response you get and refine from there.  Wherever your voice ends up, don’t forget the other golden rule.  Their power is how they work together.

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