Here is a bit of a grammar lesson and a bit of insight into my personality. I hate passive voice. After writing research reports at Forrester for 9 years, I think I’ve become a bit fanatic about spotting passive writing and correcting it. For example, a notice posted on the door to my doctor’s office this week said, “Our office will be closed for Thanksgiving on Thursday and Friday of this week.” I crossed out “will be closed” and wrote “will close” above it. When I call my son’s cell phone, prior to connection I get a message that says, “Please enjoy the music while your party is reached.” I want to scream “while we reach your party.” You get the picture?
I thought my colleagues at Forrester used passive voice a lot until I came to Xerox and read some of the documentation, collateral, and marketing communications written here. Passive language is unfortunate, but typical, in many high technology companies – firms that use a specialized vocabulary and lean on jargon to communicate. So I decided to get some help upgrading writing skills in the North American services marketing team. After scanning the Web, and talking with other marketers about their experiences with copy writing training, I came across Jonathan Kranz.
Besides training marketers to be better copywriters, Jon is a freelance writer who develops advertising, direct marketing, and public relations materials for consumer and B2B clients in financial services, banking, insurance, high-tech, healthcare, and education. He is also the author of Writing Copy for Dummies. Talking with him on the phone, I liked his straightforward approach and passion for teaching others how to write to a specific, target audience and engage them with simple, clear prose. He also works with many high technology clients, so he understands the unique challenge marketers face when trying to convey the value in technically sophisticated products.
On November 16, we hired Jonathan to deliver a full day, onsite writing workshop. Wow, am I glad we did. Using engaging lesson material and hands-on exercises, Jonathan helped our team boost its collective writing acumen and — my favorite — stamp out passive voice and jargon. Without giving away his entire syllabus, here are some highlights from the course Jon customized for our team:
1) Be a Mirror, not a Window: Write Copy to Reflect Your Customer’s Concerns — Much marketing writing focuses on the company and its products or services, not the customer. It’s inward-facing. Jonathan starts out with an exercise to help writers learn to how to acknowledge their target audience in writing and focus on them (not you) by demonstrating empathy with their priorities and by providing answers/solutions to their problems.
2) Use 3D Storytelling. Next, Jonathan showed us how to use “3-Ds” to create an emotional connection to buyers using a memorable message and a logical flow to arguments. The “3-Ds” stand for Desire (what does your audience want?), Danger (what obstacle, challenge, or problem stands in the way?) and Drama (how can you help – what is it about your product/service/solution — that overcomes the obstacle and achieves the desired outcome?) You heighten drama when you provide proof to demonstrate that you can achieve what you promise.
3) Don’t “Let it Be” – Use Active Verbs: Review your copy (read it out loud to yourself or ask a colleague to read it for you) to find those places where you can transform passive into active construction. Don’t be afraid to use the word “you” in your writing and to think in terms of giving directions or advice, rather than indirect suggestions.
4) Search and Destroy: Jargon, Clichés, and Imprecise Language. Is your language exhausted, overused, and so broadly applied that it no longer has any tangible meaning to your audience? Then change it by including specificity (numbers, measures, exact names, tangible details), statistics (data, facts, time periods, sources), direct quotes, news, and language that appeals to the senses.
The best part about Jonathan’s workshop was his energy, enthusiasm, and ability to think on his feet. He kept a group of 30 marketers engaged throughout the day. If you would like to learn more, visit Jon’s Web site and let him know that you read about him on my blog.
Besides these few examples I shared today, what are some writing challenges you struggle with as a marketer? Or that you would want your team to improve upon? I would be curious to know. Regardless, I think Jonathan could help you, so check him out on Twitter and Facebook.