Great Business Writing 2014: 10 updated Golden Rules

Business writing,golden rules,blogging,content,online,marketing

Er, good call…

A few years ago I shared my view on the 10 golden rules of great business writing at the time.

Here is a précis of what the original 10 golden rules amounted to then…

…and, how I feel about those golden rules now. Please share your views on these in the comments below!

1. Before you write anything down define not what you want to say, but what your message must achieve.

Yes, absolutely. But now we’re not just looking at straightforward marketing messages any more: we’re also looking at “inbound” or “content” marketing messages (or whatever the latest fashionable term is) … essentially, OK – you must have marketing objectives in mind with your messages, but you must also deliver real value to your readers. And that means, to a large extent, forget the marketing oomph and focus on delivering content that’s valuable for its own sake.

2. Identify your target audience and get to know them very well. No matter how beautifully structured your message is if it doesn’t take into account the real circumstances and needs of the audience, it won’t work.  Align your message’s objectives with these circumstances and needs.

Yes, yes, yes. This still applies and frankly, I think it always will. It doesn’t matter what media you use, or whether you are blogging or writing promotional text. If you don’t know your audience very, very, well – and understand what makes them tick – you’re wasting your time and worse still, you’ll be wasting theirs.

3. Study the media you’ll be using; be aware of how people will receive your message and where your message will be competing for their attention. Use your common sense and creativity to make it stand out in the crowd. (Or if the crowd’s too big, reconsider the choice of media if that’s within your power.)

Strangely enough I developed this point before the online media had really gripped us all by the throat. But it still applies now, in terms of the choices you make about offline or online media, social media platforms, etc. Just apply everything in this paragraph to our social media today … LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Pinterest, Instagram, or YouTube? Mainline posting on these platforms … in the groups in which you are a member … on your own blog or site in full, with teaser links on social media? Think carefully. And be glad that now we have such a wide choice of opportunities to share our messages.

4. Now develop your message based on these issues, and add in the final magic ingredient … “what’s in it for them?” Successful business messages are always based on benefits for the target audience – either actual or implied.  Ensure you know the difference between features and benefits, and how to convert features into benefits.

Again – Yes, yes, yes. No matter how technologically advanced a medium may be now or in the future, if your message on there doesn’t convey what’s in it for the reader, once again – you’re wasting your time, and your readers’. Technology may be way up in the stratosphere, but human nature is down-to-earth, and always will be.

5. Research the way your target audience speaks and communicates, and phrase your message in their language – which may not necessarily be yours. Avoid corporate pomposity and unnecessary jargon. Talk to “you,” not some vague third party, and keep your English as simple as possible, especially when your message is going to people who originate from other cultures.

Nothing has changed here, even though the communication vehicle may have. No matter how or where you communicate with your target audience, they will only connect with you if you speak their language – and that’s not necessarily your own.

6. Traditional grammar and even spelling mostly have been thrown out of the window.  However there are still a few grammar rules you need to follow if you don’t want your message to look amateurish. Your knowledge of the audience and how they communicate will dictate your writing style to a large extent. Don’t let catchwords, “internet-speak,” emoticons, etc. obscure your message or its benefits.

ROFL … the arguments about grammatical correctness or grammatical “sans foutisme” rage on – (and on and on – see this article of mine on LinkedIn) – but the short answer is if you want to be taken seriously in business online, watch out for the goofs. Even if your brother-in-law says it doesn’t matter.

7. Time pressures and the influence of the internet have made us into a world of browsers, even when we’re reading brochures and other print.  Unless it’s very short organize your offline text so readers who are browsing get the key points very easily. Always separate technical detail and other lengthy data from the main text so readers aren’t obliged to plod through it unless they want to.

Oh, yes please. Online readers have even more stuff to wade through now than when I wrote the original article. Use sub-headings to make it easy for readers to skim through AND get the main message from those sub-headings. More on that here.

8. Never be tempted to transplant text written for print into an online environment.  Online text is as different from offline text as a PC screen is from paper. Because reading from most screens is unfriendly, online text must be very short and crisp and must make it extremely easy for readers to absorb the key points. Don’t let web designers talk you into flamboyant graphics that could inadvertently swamp your message.

Take the above seriously. Surprised that I should think you might not? Don’t be. Thousands of business bloggers and business writers are still making cringe-making mistakes with fonts and colors that offend the eye, over-designed mish-mashes of home pages, and hundreds of other goofs I could list. And of course now people also are reading your messages on smartphones, tablets, netbooks, laptops and probably Google Glass before long, so feel their pain trying to squint at your words especially in bright daylight. Be precise, clear, brief, and merciful.

9. When you give a speech, make sure you write it for yourself and your natural way of speaking – not your (or someone else’s) idea of how an important business person should speak in public. Use a tape recorder to get an objective view of your voice, style, weaknesses and strengths. Keep sentences short with only one idea in each. Avoid telling jokes unless you’re naturally funny. And rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

Although originally I wrote this section with live performances in mind, anyone contemplating an online video, webinar or other online performance needs to bear this in mind too. With a recorded performance, remember that your message is being delivered at your talking speed (or that of the voice over artiste) which is considerably slower than it would be for your audience to read it from text. So keep it lively. And if you have the option of visual support, don’t bore people with slides that tell them what they can already hear; use the visual element to add a dimension to the soundtrack. That way people can absorb more information in the time.

10. If you think you may be out of your depth with a business writing project (e.g. a TV commercial, major direct marketing campaign, complex video or business theatre script) you’re probably right – so call in a professional writer. Don’t risk embarrassing yourself or your organization with an attempt that’s amateurish. There’s no shame in admitting you can’t be an expert at everything!

Ah, OK – this was me attempting to sneak in a commercial for my services, I think! Yes, I still do write commissioned work as a ghost blogger/content writer, mainly for larger companies. Where I have changed my tune, however, is with microbusinesses and SMEs where the brand is  the head honcho. That’s what much of online marketing today is all about; as my good friend Jon Baker calls it, “not B2C, not B2B, but B2H – and H2H.” Yes, you got it: “H” stands for “human.” Much as people feel they can’t write, they short answer is if they can speak, I can teach them to blog, and it’s far better for them to communicate directly with their customers and prospects. No ghostblogger can replace the real thing.

So there are my 10 Golden Rules of Great Business Writing updated for another year or so! What Golden Rules would you add to this list?

Please share!

photo credit: boklm via photopin cc




  1. YES AND YES! I wrote two posts in 2013 about how online and offline marketing are the same (see 14-ways-offline-and-online-marketing-are-the-same) AND different (see 6-ways-online-marketing-is-different-from-online-marketing). The only thing that is different is the types of of technology used — marketing is like good business writing – it doesn’t change.

    • Absolutely, Trudy. Much as people would have us believe that technology is changing the way everything works now, in many cases it’s all about tails trying to wag dogs. As I often bleat, technology may take us into the space age and beyond, but it will be many millions of years before human nature metamorphoses into something different…


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