Writing Secret #1: Start Right

Writing Secret #1: Start Right

Before I do the big “reveal” (as they say in TV land) of my seven secrets of effective business writing, you may wonder why clear communications even matter. Hey, it’s hard work to be clear and compelling in your writing and speaking. Is it worth the effort? What’s in it for you? Why should you bother?

To answer that question, scroll down and take a look at the introduction to this section, Write What You Mean to Get What You Want.

OK, here’s Writing Secret #1: Start Right.

Before you can play baseball, you must know how to do four basic things: throw the ball, catch the ball, hit the ball, and run.

Before you can write an effective business document — whether it’s an ad, memo, sales letter, brochure, trade journal article or PowerPoint presentation — you need to know some important background information. Before you write a single word, stop and think about the answers to four important questions.

  • Who are you talking to?

Who’s your audience? Customers? Co-workers? Subordinates? Superiors? Affinity group? Trade organization? It’s important to remember: Different audiences have different interests, different hot buttons. Your message, tone and emphasis will change, depending on your audience.

Tip: If you are addressing multiple audiences, e.g., your staff, your immediate superiors and the board of directors, it’s usually more effective to create separate versions of your message for each audience. (Not easier — but more effective.)

  • What’s your point?

What are you trying to say? Write down the distilled essence of your message. Boil it down to just a sentence or two, not all the details.

For example, the core message of this document was: Here are seven techniques that will help business people write more quickly, easily and effectively.

The distilled message of a sales presentation might be: Here are three good reasons to buy my product now. For a financial report, it might be: Sales are up, but profits are down, and here’s why. A staff memo’s “take away” message might be: Here are new procedures for receiving parts shipments.

Everything else in the document should explain, illustrate or support that core message. Politicians call it “staying on message”. Trying to cover too much is a great way to confuse your audience.

  • What do you want them to do (or think) after they finish?

What’s your objective? What action do you want the audience to take? It might be Buy my widget, Vote for me or Do it this way from now on.

Note: You might also have one or more unstated objectives. Perhaps you’d like to impress your boss so you’ll get a promotion. Be perceived as a thought leader in your field. Land a book contract.

Right under your core message, write down your objectives – both stated and unstated – as clearly and concisely as you can.

  • What will persuade them to do what you want?

In other words, what are the benefits to them?

It’s been explained many times before, but benefits are still confused with features. For example, anti-lock brakes and CD players are features. But nobody ever bought a car just because it had them. People buy because of the benefits associated with those features. ABS brakes mean added safety and peace of mind that you and your loved ones are protected. A CD player’s benefits are the added enjoyment of cruisin’ to the tunes you love. If you’re a smart car salesman, that’s what you emphasize (after you’ve determined what benefits are most important to this prospect, of course).

Here’s another tipoff: Benefits are often emotional, while features tend to be concrete and physical.

Benefits answer the question, What’s in it for me? Think about it: What benefits will your readers get if they do what you ask? The more benefits you can offer, and the more attractive they are to your readers, the more irresistible your message will be.

Notice I said attractive to your readers. That’s why it’s so important to follow step one. Always start by determining exactly who you’re speaking to and what their hot buttons are.

Answer those four questions in advance, before you start writing, and you should clarify and simplify your writing immeasurably. You’ll know where you’re going — and why.

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