Email clichés we love to hate. And why.

Do you sometimes groan when you open an email and find it starting or finishing with a cliché that may be well-meant, but comes across as being as genuine / friendly as a cornered rat? And that’s just in your day-to-day eCorrespondence. It gets even better when it’s spam.

Email cliches we love to hate. And why.

Friend, foe, or someone trying to sort out my penile erectile dysfunction

In this run up to the Holiday Season when we’re focusing less on hard-nosed business and more on its lighter (but nonetheless important) aspects…do you agree with the following? [Read more…]

Help! English past tenses are driving me nuts…

English probably is the most insane language in the world. Its grammar is stuffed full of rules which we then have to break because of all the exceptions. It’s not surprising, then, that non-native English speakers get a trifle confused.

the-htwbagonycolumns

Here’s a note that landed in my inbox recently…

Salut Suze, [Read more…]

What can you blog about? Seasonal topics

small_2493066577In this article we look at business blog ideas based on seasonal topics and how to use them in a more interesting way.

Some seasonal aspects are obvious – Holiday Season gifts … winter checks for your car … time to submit your tax return … etc. But there are more subtle uses for the seasons when it comes to choices for business blog ideas. [Read more…]

How to be insulting in English without using 4-letter words

Gone are the days when you could make someone shrivel up and crawl down a drain with an educated, upmarket insult. And I think that’s very sad. Surely it’s more fun – and more effective – to use clever insults rather than all those clumpy words representing body parts and bodily functions, sexual inadequacy, and other boring clichés?

My cousin Alyson in Canada sent these to me recently to remind us just how cutting a good, clean insult can be. Enjoy… and how about coming up with some new ones? Send yours in as comments – and I’ll try to think some up, too…

The exchange between Winston Churchill & Lady Astor:

She said, “If you were my husband I’d give you poison.”  He said, “If you were my wife, I’d drink it.” [Read more…]

How to write powerful proposals that win you business

Although any form of business writing should be benefits-led, with proposals it often doesn’t pay to be too blatant about “what’s in it for them.” To head such a document with a line that says “back my suggestions for a new company gymnasium and your promotion prospects could be enhanced” might be true, but you won’t score many points by rubbing readers’ noses in the fact. Benefits to the reader should be strongly implied rather than spelled out.

Don’t be intimidated by format constraints

Some proposals need to follow set formats – either those of your own organization, those decreed by institutions (e.g. public sector tenders), or those decreed by etiquette like, for example, business plans. Even with the latter category, the etiquette for which was developed by bankers and accountants and management consultants and other noble professionals not normally known for their creative writing skills, you can still write in a way that grabs and holds readers’ attention. The trick is not to be intimidated by the formality of such formats. By all means stick to the defined sequence and format, but that needn’t stop you writing simple, clear stuff that’s benefits led.

People are people, even when wearing expensive suits and stern faces

Always remember that no matter how faceless and terrifying you imagine business angels or venture capitalists or senior civil servants might be, they’re all human beings who react in a human way to human words. In fact if anything they will warm to good, clear, strong, human writing (provided the proposal itself is valid) rather more than they will to the long-winded, boring, stuffy prose they probably have to wade through in 95% of cases.

Make sure the structure is solid

Another key issue with proposals is getting the structure right. Assuming you don’t have a set format to follow and you can choose your own way forward, it’s worth remembering that some if not all of the people who will read your document haven’t got much time to spare. Even if they have, they’re likely to want to move swiftly on from a business document to the sports page of the newspaper or an e-mail from a friend. So no matter how much detail you and your colleagues feel should be included to substantiate your proposal, keep that in the back and focus the front on the key points.

In fact try to get the key points of the whole story into one page, using subsequent pages for expansion. Your readers will be grateful to obtain the gist of your proposal quickly, and assuming the rest of the proposal makes good sense that will place you in the front line for a “yes.”

Create a logical flow

Staying with the structure issue, it’s also important to work out the flow of the content so that your information and your argument are presented in a logical way. This is not as challenging as it sounds.  Once again, assuming you’re not obliged to follow set procedures it pays to forget whatever old-fashioned precedents may exist and trust your instincts. Provided that you have informed yourself thoroughly about the people who will be reading your proposal, your instincts will tell you what they will want to know, what elements of it will really ring their chimes, and in what order. If the audience is diverse (e.g. some management, some finance, some technical) you can attach their individual categories of detail as appendices, keeping the central flow of the document focused on the main issues that are common to all. That makes it much more powerful.

Write simply in an informal “tone of voice”

Finally, whatever you do don’t think that because you’re writing a business proposal the style has to be dry, dull and boring. Especially if you know the people who will be reading it (but even if you don’t) be informal and use friendly, natural language.

My old boss years ago – one of the best direct response copywriters the UK has ever seen – used to say that the right tone of voice for good sales copy is as if you were standing next to the reader, chatting to him or her in a pub. 

With business proposals I suppose we should forget the pub, but I believe they should be written in the same tone of voice as if you were talking to the reader over a cup of coffee at an informal meeting. One of the great advantages of written communication is that people don’t have to live up to their external images when they’re reading it. Even if they’re pompous, conceited bigots in company, when they’re alone they’re just like you and me.

That means they are likely to respond better, in private, to informal, straightforward, honest words than they are – ironically – to the sort of elaborate garbage they themselves speak and write to others. It helps to remember that point when you’re writing anything for business, and especially when you’re writing in a politically upwards rather than sideways or downwards direction.

And now for some more help with your business proposals:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

Your FAQ page: how to make it help sell your business

Your FAQ page: how to make it help sell your business

Your FAQ page can help sell your business,
but you need to answer real questions.

I really get angry sometimes when I read Frequently Asked Questions pages that don’t answer potential readers’ questions … only questions the site owner would like to answer. Get over it, kids – if you want to come over as honest and open regarding whatever it is you offer, you need to answer the questions potential customers, stakeholders et al really are likely to ask. Warts and all. Not what you’d like them to hear.

BUT: do you need an FAQ page in the first place?

Well no, maybe not. I don’t have one here on HTWB, but in my case of course there isn’t a complex or detailed story to tell.

Where I think an FAQ page is very useful is in the case of products and services that do have a complex or detailed background. That can be for one of the following, and no doubt several other, reasons:

The product/service has many very similar competitors – FAQs can help you differentiate it in a factual and probably more believable way.

The product/service is complex and you don’t want to clutter your main sales/descriptive text with too much technical detail – FAQs allow you to explain the technical issues in a tidy, easy-to-refer-to way.

Particularly with a new business and/or product service, an FAQ page is a useful place to reaffirm your “pedigree” by using questions and answers that highlight key credibility issues.

FAQs can provide you with a helpful “catchall” that covers a relatively random range of topics in one place, and can supply a suitable repository for topics that you can’t quite place anywhere else.

Correctly structured, an FAQ page can deal with numerous queries that might otherwise tie up you and your staff in responding to emails that are not necessarily useful leads.

FAQ and Help pages – are they different?    

On some websites and in some print publications you’ll see that these two functions often are combined. In some ways I can see the point of doing that, but unless you have very few issues to address, overall I think it’s better to keep the two separate.

That way you can split off anything negative from the positive points. Negative or potentially negative “FAQs” – e.g. “what if my order doesn’t arrive” or “what do I do if the goods arrive damaged” – are better contained in a “Help” section. That leaves the FAQ page free to deal only with positive, benefits-led factual information.

Your FAQ page: how to make it help sell your businessHere are my top 10 tips for creating good FAQ pages:

1. Forget what you think your readers/customers/prospects want to know – go out and ask them. Encourage them to be truthful even if it means posing you questions you can’t answer immediately (go and find out the answers quickly though!)

2. Develop your questions and answers based on that reality. Use the questions as asked by your readers/customers/prospects if you can, otherwise make them up based on your honest
interpretation of what readers want to know.

3. This may seem obvious, but make sure your answers really do answer the questions. The questions are not there to provide a jumping off point for a sales pitch or technical essay – you have a duty to provide a sensible answer right away.

4. Even if your product/service is aimed only at consumer markets, in general it’s better to keep your FAQ answers positive without being overtly “sales” orientated. The place for sales copy is elsewhere on the website or printed material.

5. To ensure that your answers do support a sales message, however, focus them – in a factual way – on how readers benefit, not on what features your product/service offers.

6. Keep your writing style conversational, even if the question/answer is very technical. Use believable words and phrasing, based on the way people in your target markets talk. Almost more than anywhere else, the FAQ page is NOT the place to use pompous language and “corporate speak.”

7. Keep answers reasonably short. If you need to go into a lengthier explanation, link to somewhere else where readers can get the full story. Long blocks of “answer” are off-putting.

8. If your product or service is highly technical/complex consider offering two FAQ pages – one for general business purposes and one for the “tekkies.”

9. Make it easy for readers to contact you direct if your FAQ page doesn’t answer their questions – there’s nothing more frustrating than not finding the answer you need and then having trouble getting that answer by email or telephone.

10. Before you publish your FAQ page, run it past a selection of your readers / customers / prospects and ask them to perform a “reality check.” You may find they come up with some very helpful ideas for improvements and edits.

More help with that FAQ page … and beyond:

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

photo credit: photosteve101 via photopin cc

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