A Few Tips on Business Writing

Your objective, as always, is to be clear and concise.

For Sales Literature

Tell customers what you can do for them, before you bore them with who you are and how your great-great-grandfather started the firm in his garden shed a hundred years ago…

In other words, always put the benefits first.

Keep it simple, just say what you mean, and concentrate on what your customer wants or needs to hear.

What they need to hear, and what you need to tell them, is what benefits they will get if they buy your product or service. Reduce this to its basest level – ‘no more back pain’ will sell far more than any explanations of how your painkillers or exercise programmes actually work, at least to start with. Some people will be interested or need convincing though, so have the detailed information readily available. Just don’t lead with it.

Transfer ownership – that is, use ‘you’ and ‘your’ when you talk about your product and its benefits, so your customer can ‘see’ himself or herself enjoying the benefits rather than vainly aspiring to them – ‘As you relax on your luxury yacht,’ for example.

Build desire, by listing benefits, emphasising how easily those benefits can be obtained, and as a general rule by not leading with the price. Unless, perhaps, a new lower price for something you know they’re already sold on is the main benefit.

Did I mention benefits?

Always close with a ‘call to action’. Tell them exactly what you want them to do, and make it easy for them to do it.

For Instruction Manuals and Leaflets

Not an excuse to show how much you know, or to talk down to your audience, but a chance to educate them to use your product. A product your customer can’t use may as well be faulty, and they’re unlikely to come back – except for a refund. Get them using your product successfully, and they’ll willingly recommend it to all their friends, and we all know the value of word-of-mouth recommendations.

So, test your instructions on as many people as you can – especially people in your target market, but also on others, children included (so long as it’s safe to do so). If it really is ‘child’s play’, prove it by asking a child to follow the instructions, without your help. If they get stuck, and especially if several people do, re-write that section to make it easier to follow.

For all Business Literature

Except in highly specialised fields, language should always be as simple as possible, so long as it conveys meaning accurately and unambiguously.

Don’t fall into the trap of ‘near enough’ synonyms, however – like using ‘less’ for ‘fewer’, for example. If in doubt, look it up – some of your customers at least will know if you get it wrong, and they won’t be impressed if you do.

Keep punctuation simple. If you’re unsure how to use them, avoid colons and semi-colons. Stick to full stops (periods) and commas. Dashes are okay these days, too, but never use a colon and a dash together, like this:-

Take great care with apostrophes! An apostrophe either indicates possession – David’s shoes, for example, or indicates missing letters when a word is shortened or two words are combined and shortened, as in don’t, wouldn’t, etc. It should never be used for a plural (the famous greengrocers’ apostrophe – Apple’s 50p, for example).

For a plural possessive, the apostrophe comes after the ‘s’, as with greengrocers’ just then (more than one greengrocer, all of them guilty:)).  There are exceptions though – its, whose, yours, for example. Who’s means who is or sometimes who has, it’s means it is or it has. Yours is just yours to use as you like.

Sentences should be of varying length and rhythm, with at least some of them short and comma-free. Read your work aloud and see if you need to breathe halfway through a sentence. If you do, break it up. Don’t worry about starting sentences with ‘and’ or ‘but’ – these actually add urgency and energy.

Keep paragraphs short. Four or five lines are ideal, though you should vary it, as with sentence length. Large blocks of text will intimidate many readers enough to put them off reading your piece at all. Only academics will want to plough through yards of unbroken text, though goodness knows why!

Unless you are very good at it, and very sure of your audience, generally avoid humour and never be offensive or insulting. Try to pitch your writing at the readership by reading other (successful) people’s literature. Try to work out why some of it works for you and some doesn’t, and copy the one that works. Generally, be chatty but not over-familiar and always concentrate on accuracy.

Always use a spellchecker, set to the correct form of English – UK for over here, US for over there, etc.

Oh, and keep exclamation marks to a minimum!

And if you can’t manage all this, ask an expert to help.