Companies neglecting their writing risk short-changing their brand

writing

I spend nearly every day writing for corporate clients so I give the subject a lot of thought. It occurs to me that companies lavish great sums on ads, branding and websites. But they give less thought to the everyday writing they create. I’m not talking about copywriting in adverts. That’s poetry. I’m talking about prose. The humdrum stuff of daily business life: press releases, contracts, marketing collateral, website content and the rest.

I believe that writing is a fundamental part of a brand. Finding a corporate voice and using it consistently adds weight and distinctiveness to a brand. Companies that neglect their writing risk short-changing their brand.

Think of your favourite brand. When you read something from them, does it have its own distinctive voice? Does it sound like a real person or a corporate robot? Is it concise and to the point or waffly and hard to read? Odds are that your favourite brand is good at writing.

Reinforcing the brand

Good writing enhances a brand in different ways. It can reinforce the reader’s idea of what the brand stands for. For example, Virgin Atlantic shares the Virgin brand’s cheeky irreverence. Tired by a long flight? “Pretend you’re already there,” says Virgin Atlantic. Bored by safety announcements? Watch a cartoon instead.

On a more practical level, good writing can increase sales. Amazon’s login screen has a big friendly button which says “Sign in using our secure server”. This reassures me that Amazon will keep my details safe. Similarly, on the penultimate page of the checkout process it says “you can review this order before it’s final” right under the “Continue” button. Amazon has analysed where and why people stop buying and they’ve added these cues to get more people through the process.

Breaking faith

In contrast to Amazon and Virgin’s success, most corporate-speak is bland, undifferentiated and hard to read. Meaning is obscured by jargon, waffle, hype, verbiage, legalese and conventionality.

The cost of bad writing far outweighs the value created by good writing. A typical example is the heavily-promoted ‘free’ online trial that opens with a daunting click-through contract. Another common problem is website copy that just doesn’t answer your questions. Yet another is the pious press release that takes 200 words to clear its throat and get started. My pet peeve is application forms that might as well be written in Latin. In fact, once you start looking for bad business writing, it’s easy to spot.

It is possible to track the impact of clear product descriptions on sales, well-written manuals on support calls and snappy website copy on traffic. On the other hand, it is very difficult to add up the costs that come from poor marketing collateral, obscure press releases or badly-worded letters.

The cost of bad writing is two-fold. First, you lose the money you spent delivering the words to the reader. Expensive website? Waste of money. 50,000 brochures? Recycling fodder. Second, you lose the hoped-for result. Have you ever read a brochure that bored or confused you? Did you buy the product afterwards?

Once you get past the glossy ads and shiny exterior, most companies sound like a headmaster, bank manager or lawyer. Is this how you want your company to sound to its customers and employees? In a wider sense, a company breaks faith with a reader any time a company’s words don’t match its brand. It’s like a witness squirming under cross-examination. The truth will out.

What is good writing?

Good grammar, punctuation and spelling are necessary but not sufficient. Business writing is about hooking and persuading the reader. The best way to engage a reader is to use stories because human beings are wired for them. We look for believable details, natural speech and a flow from beginning to end. Journalism has evolved ways of creating credible, persuasive and readable stories and books like Donald Murray’s Writing to Deadline have a lot to teach the business world. But journalism stops short of persuasion and that is the objective of a business writer. The ‘call to action’ often comes at the end of a piece but good business copy has a logical thread running through it that persuades the reader as it goes.

Writing for the web

We’re all internet entrepreneurs now. The internet has done what technology always does. It has gone from being gee-whizz to ho-hum, from avant-garde to comme il faut. Business writing – so important in this new medium – has not caught up with the change. The BBC has got it right, though. They know that people don’t read web pages the same way they look at newspapers or books and they write accordingly. Their website uses short paragraphs, short sentences, scannable text (clearly labelled links and headlines), hype-free language (in the journalistic tradition) and crisp micro-content in the form of picture caption, subheadings, introductions and so on.

One of the problems with less switched-on websites is the low priority given to web copy during development. A 2006 survey of digital agencies found that over half of them blamed delays on content problems but only 10 per cent said that content was a priority. They thought that design, development and search engine optimisation were much, much more important. To me, this is like building a missile but forgetting the payload. The gap is filled by ‘lorem ipsum’ placeholder copy. If you see this on a development website, consider it a warning sign.

We’re all writers now

Thanks to email, blogs and social networks such as LinkedIn, all businesses are publishers and we’re all business writers now. For example, Microsoft positively encourages its employees to blog. Its thousands of employee-bloggers put a human face on their business. But most companies prefer to muzzle employees rather than develop their writing skills and embed a corporate tone of voice across the business. As these new media burst into life, we have a chance to embrace every written word as a tool that can make a brand strong, fresh and different. Otherwise it’s just the usual yada yada.

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Matthew Stibbe is writer-in-chief at Articulate Marketing. He is also an avid blogger, closet geek and HP fanatic.