PART I: WRITING WITH POWER
1. Get the tone right
You’ll agree that, when we speak, our words account for only a portion of our message. Our meaning is also interpreted through body language and eye contact, as well as the intonation, pitch and speed of our voice, and these affect the meaning of what we say.
When we write, tone performs the same function as body language. It’s the writing between the lines; the meaning conveyed in the words we choose rather than just in the message we are sending.
2. Choose pronouns with care
The reader wants to know ‘What's in it for me?’ not ‘What's in it for you?’ You've got a message to communicate, but the reader will only buy into it if it does something for them. Think about documents you’ve created in the past. Do they contain more ‘I’ and ‘we’ statements (‘ego copy’) than ‘you’ and ‘your’ statements (‘reader copy’)?
When readers are faced with ‘I’ or ‘we’, they think, ‘So what? What about me?’ – and that’s why we should be able to transform self-absorbed copy into customer-focused text. When translating ‘ego copy’ into ‘reader copy’, the trick is to take each line and turn it into a line that speaks to the reader’s interest.
Also, keep in mind that pronouns like ‘you’ create closeness, so they can be assets when you have good news. But pronouns should be avoided when you have bad news or want to soften the tone.
3. Maintain your own unique style
Style means putting words and documents together in a way that’s unique to you. It’s hard to change your style, which is like your signature or personality. It’s not the same as tone, which you can change depending on your message.
We all have our own style, and we’re entitled to sound like ourselves as long as it’s appropriate for the topic and audience. Although some uniformity in a company is desirable, people should not be expected to sound alike.
If you want your words to be yours, write conversationally – so that it sounds in readers’ heads as if you're speaking to them. The closer you come to your natural speaking rhythms and word choices, the clearer and more engaging your writing will be.
4. Write short and tight
It’s your job to make reading easy. So don’t try to impress guests with flowery writing and write to express, not to impress. Cut anything that's not essential and say what you have to in the fewest words possible. Here are some tips for writing short and tight:
1. Choose plain, common words over long, unusual ones.
2. Use short sentences instead of long sentences.
3. Avoid convoluted phrases readers must think about to understand.
Old-fashioned language is rife in this industry. We see expressions like ‘Attached hereto please find’ or ‘Should you have any enquiries, please do not hesitate’. The list is endless. But you’d never use ‘hereto’ or ‘forthwith’ in speaking, so don’t in writing. There are simpler, more user-friendly ways to say what you want to say.
5. Catch and kill the evil adjective
Mark Twain wrote: ‘When you catch an adjective – kill it.’ He was right. There are three instances in which adjectives should be caught and killed:
Weak adjectives, like ‘remarkable Namib desert’ don’t tell us enough. What makes the desert remarkable? Its openness? Size? Starkness? Oases? Sunsets? Be specific.
Unnecessary adjectives, like those used in ‘blue sky’, ‘green grass’ and ‘sandy beach’ are redundant. Only tell us if the sky isn’t blue, otherwise we’ll assume that it is.
Adjective overload is a sin against writing, because too many adjectives in a row dilute one another and weaken your image. ‘An unforgettable vacation’ is better than ‘an unforgettable, special and unique vacation’.
If you’re unsure, use this test: by removing the adjective, do you alter the meaning? If not, follow Mark Twain’s advice.
6. Root out redundancy
In all writing, keep your sentences as short as possible. Strip every sentence down to the basics by crossing out every word that serves no purpose. How? Look out for redundancy – the needless repetition of words, phrases, sentences or ideas.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever used one of these:
in (actual) fact
(a number of) examples
during (the course of)
short (space of) time
each (and every one) of us
at this point (in time)
surrounded (on all sides)
Redundant expressions add nothing to what has been said; instead, they waste words. So don’t say something in three weak ways when you could have said it once, effectively.
7. Monitor your readability
‘Readability’ is the term used to describe how easy or difficult something is to read. It might surprise you that an appropriate level for most writing is Grade 10 (Standard 8); i.e. age 15-16.
How can you improve the readability of your writing? Simplify, simplify, simplify. But luckily, you don’t have to monitor your own readability, because Microsoft Word does it for you. Here’s how to activate it:
1. Click on ‘Tools’.
2. Click on ‘Spelling and Grammar’.
3. Under ‘Options’, activate the text box that says ‘Show readability statistics’.
Each time you run a spell check, the stats should be displayed and you can tailor the level of your text to suit your audience. The ‘readability statistics’ facility includes:
1. Counts: number of words, characters, paragraphs, sentences in the document
2. Averages: average sentences / paragraph, words / sentence, characters / word
3. Readability statistics: % of passive sentences, Reading Ease, Grade Level
• the Passive Sentences percentage is higher than 15%, or
• the Flesch Reading Ease score is greater than 60%, or
• the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score is greater than 5-6 (for younger readers), 6-9 (for general readers) or 9-12 (for industry or technical readers),
… you need to look at your document again, with fresh eyes.
Also, avoid big words (of three syllables or more) and keep your sentences short (an average of 15 words per sentence and a maximum of 25).
PART II: CREATING BRILLIANT E-MAILS
Research shows that web users seldom read e-mails word by word. They scan, choosing individual keywords, sentences and paragraphs of interest while skimming over the rest.
79% of web users scan a new page; only 16% read every word.
- Morkes and Nielsen
• First, it’s uncomfortable for the eyes to read text on computer screens.
• Second, the online experience fosters a certain amount of impatience.
• Third, reading from monitors is 25% slower than reading from paper.
Web users are busy. They want to get to the facts. With this in mind and because we know that we only have 15 seconds to get our message across, there are five rules for creating brilliant e-mails:
1. Stick to ‘The Rule of Focus’
One audience means that your copy should speak to one audience only. Trying to cover too many variances in your audience dilutes the power of speaking one-on-one with your reader. So strive to make each e-mail intimate, personal and conversational.
One message means: don’t try to communicate different messages in your copy. Imagine reading a story that goes off in too many directions. When this happens, you lose focus and fail to capture the essence of the core message - and often stop reading because it’s just too confusing. So focus on only one message, and drive it home. Remember: a confused reader will never buy, since the confused mind always says ‘No!’
2. Write a compelling subject line
For every e-mail, write a customised subject line that will make the reader want to open it and read on. The subject line offers a very small space in which to make a very large impact, but if it is relevant or informative enough, readers are more likely to react:
1. The subject should tell the reader what the e-mail is about in clear, simple language.
2. Even if the vacation on offer is fun and exciting, the subject should not rely on quirky or jargon-filled language to invite the reader in.
3. The subject should suggest the benefit the reader can gain by opening the e-mail.
3. Tailor the first line of each e-mail
A bad first line of an e-mail will be the only part of the e-mail the guest reads. But a strong and informative first line, clearly stating the benefit of reading the full e-mail, will get and keep the reader's attention.
So start with your most important point. Be explicit and unpack the benefit to the guest. Once again, if the first line offers something the reader considers to be valuable, they are likely to continue.
4. Feel free to use a P.S (postscript)
After reading the opening line of an e-mail, most readers will scan the remainder of the message. Psychology and a related discipline called neuro-linguistic programming, or NLP, teach us that the postscript is a convention most readers will recognise. For this reason, it can be an effective way to highlight a reminder or a particular point of interest.
6. Format your e-mails cleverly
Use plenty of white space and create well-structured paragraphs (with only one line open between them, please). You can even write a one-sentence paragraph if you like, for emphasis. May I ask for a volunteer, please?
Here’s the rule to follow: monkeys can only peel one banana at a time, so only use one message per paragraph. The moment you change your train of thought, press ‘Enter’.
Start almost every paragraph with a sub-heading. Everyone reads them. Condense your most important point down to a meaningful sub-heading of seven words, maximum.
Bulleted and numbered lists absolutely grab attention in e-mails, and also help to break up long (intimidating) reams of text, so condense important items into bulleted or numbered lists of short, catchy points.
Never write in caps. We read caps at one-third of the normal speed, which is why it looks (sounds?) like shouting. Also, avoid the temptation to capitalise words in the middle of a sentence Just To Provide Emphasis Like This. If you want to be more emphatic, consider using bold, italics, colour or larger text.
Don't make your margins so wide that they can't be read without scrolling. A good guideline is 64 characters or fewer per line.