By Adrian Higgs, copywriter
Grammar and spelling get plenty of airtime, online and offline – and rightly so. Foul up on either and you damage your credibility, irritate your readers and dilute your message.
However, for anyone contemplating any form of business writing, there are three fundamental issues that must be nailed down firmly long before any grammar or spelling questions need be addressed.
Those three issues are:
- What you what to achieve
- Who you need to address
- What you need to say
Or, more succinctly, objectives, audience and message.
Fail to get these straight at the outset and you'll sabotage your writing before you've even got near a keyboard, much less pondered the positioning of apostrophes or wondered about word count.
These three issues are the foundations on which of any piece of written communication rests, be it an internal email in a five-person business or a corporate website for a global giant.
The bad news is that many people fail to address these foundational issues, often without realising they've done so until it's too late.
The good news is that they aren't that difficult to address. It's just a matter of knowing what you need to do. Let's take a look at them.
If you don't know what your piece is intended to achieve, there is little chance of it achieving it. That's a general business cliché restated and sounds painfully obvious. Nonetheless, the creation of marketing pieces and other business documents with no clearly defined purpose is so common as to be almost the norm.
Ask yourself why you are writing this copy at all. What do you want it to achieve?
Typical initial answers to such questions run along the lines of "We need a brochure to give out at next month's exhibition" and "We need a leaflet to send to people who show interest in our telemarketing campaign".
Such answers are fine as a start point, but you need something more specific. Maybe your piece should result directly in increased sales. Perhaps it should drive more traffic to your website. You need to identify what the actual purpose of your piece is.
Flesh out the detail. If you're looking for increased sales, then identify who the sales should come from. What should those customers buy? If you're after a boost in market share, then identify how much growth you want. Which specific sectors should it come from?
If you're coming up with hazy stuff along the lines of, "More sales of any of our products to any sort of customer" then you need to be more specific. What you're after is something like "A 50% increase in sales revenues on product X, driven by increased sales to UK-based technology vendors turning over at least £20m per annum," or "100% growth in numbers of enquiries through our website from UK-based parents of children aged 2-4".
Consider also the time-scales over which you want to achieve your objectives. This will help you assess, later on, how successful your piece has been.
Just as there is little chance of your piece achieving much unless you set clear objectives for it, it also has little chance of communicating effectively unless you know exactly who you are communicating with.
Who does your piece need to speak to? Which individuals does it need to address to achieve its objectives?
Let's take our technology vendors as an example. Perhaps you're writing for sales managers? Maybe marketing directors? Or managing directors? You need to be clear on who exactly you're writing for – and that will depend on your objectives. You may well need to target more than one type of individual.
Armed with a clear understanding of your intended readership, you can then write to engage those readers. For example, sales managers' concerns, aspirations and outlook on their work differ from those of, say, finance directors. There's little point in talking to them about corporate cash flow and their company's relationship with the bank.
If you're targeting consumers, the same principle applies: you need to know who they are, so you can engage with them on the issues that matter to them.
Where do your ideal customers live? How old are they? What clubs are they members of? Are they male or female?
The specific details you are looking for will depend on your objectives, and the nature of your business and offering. Often you won't be able to identify every detail, but, as with your objectives, you're looking for a clear, tight definition. The clearer you are on your audience, the more effectively and engagingly you can speak to them.
What do you need to communicate? The vast majority of marketing pieces that I see fall into the trap of saying so much that they communicate nothing.
Your piece needs to be built on messages that engage your defined audience and encourage them to respond as you want them to, to achieve your objectives. Anything that doesn't contribute to these ends has no place in it.
Be ruthless. Resist the temptation to tell your readers that your company won the Award for Excellent Employee Relations three years running, unless it will help engage or persuade them. Focus on the issues that your readers actually care about, and the ways in which your offering will improve things for them.
Get these three areas right, and you'll find the process of writing much easier. With a clear understanding of what you're after, who you're talking to and what you need to say, it's much easier to stay on track, to stick to your core message.
Clearly settling your objectives, audience and message in your mind will also make it much easier to actually write anything at all, combating writer's block and the terrors of the blank page.
Once you've drafted your copy, proofing and editing it will be that much easier too: use your planned objectives, audience and message as a yardstick to check what you've written.
Get the foundations right, before you write: objectives, audience, message.
Adrian Higgs writes for companies of all types, producing persuasive, engaging copy for websites, blogs, press releases, leaflets, brochures and articles and a variety of other vehicles.
To find out more, please visit www.adrianhiggs.co.uk where you'll also find examples of his work and further copywriting tips. Alternatively, you can call Adrian on 01635 597834
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