Marketing collateral literally define how people perceive your business
The words you use on your website, in your letters, on your products and in your documentation and marketing collateral literally define how people perceive your business. In other words, writing is branding and your tone of voice guidelines are as important as the logo and typeface you choose.
Writing is branding
Think about the companies you admire. Virgin, First Direct, Google, Innocent, the BBC, for example, all have very clear, distinctive voices. Even the CIA and MI6 have to think about tone of voice.
Many clients come to us at Articulate asking for help with tone of voice guidelines and we like to include it as part of a project for any new client that doesn’t already have their own.
We’re working on our own right now, which is why this is a burning topic for me. Also, we’re trying to improve our development process. But here’s what we know so far.
- Do your research
The first stage is to understand the company, its employees, products, market, customers and values.
- Interviews. The best way to do this, as with most research, is with intelligent interviews. The gestalt of an interview is as important as the words. Somebody’s body language may belie the bold claims they are making. Also, you can use interviews to discover the power hierarchies in a company.
- Focus groups
can But I don’t trust them because I think they tell you what you want to hear. Often they are best for persuading people that the new improved recipe is better than the old one.
- Competitor analysis. Reviews of competitor brands and sites can also help, if only to learn what not to do. (Always learn from other people’s mistakes – it’s the cheapest way.) But you may also find examples of branding through writing that shine. They may need a competitive response.
- Existing content. A detailed review of existing content is important. Are there any good examples? This kind of ‘accidental style guide’ can help to set precedents and inspire a more consistent approach. Bad examples?
- Rules of engagement. You need to understand what the company wants and what it will tolerate. For example, can it relax into addressing the reader directly (‘you’) and using the first person (‘we’). Is it serious, witty, whimsical? What rules did they follow before?
Remember to differentiate between style (e.g. sentence construction, grammar, ordering) and tone, which is the emotional and persuasive content of the writing and the techniques used to do it.
- Find the balance
The guidelines you come up with need to balance:
- Promise. Enough aspirational uplift that the tone of voice guidelines are exciting for customers and motivational for staff. Go where the ball is heading not where it is now.
- Ground truth. What is actually true about the company today. It is counter-productive to talk about a business in a way that simply doesn’t ring true. You’ll disillusion customers and get a cynical response from staff if you go too far.
- Fizz and ginger. Use your best examples. Write something that shows what is possible. Use before and after text to highlight the differences.
- The prosaic necessities. Give examples of real-world usage. Describe products, write web copy etc. In fact, the more mundane the starting text, the more useful it is as an example. If you don’t address the realities of the business, the guidelines will not be useful.
- Create a tone of voice guideline template
A typical tone of voice handbook will include:
- Some thoughts about the audience(s). Ideally with psychographic data and/or personas to help the reader understand their needs.
- Relevant advice about different use cases, e.g. sales, marketing, website, letters, support etc. Not just who is reading it but when and where they’re reading it.
- Who is speaking. What is the voice of the company? Can you give some background information that helps the user understand how to speak with that voice?
- What is the viewpoint? What does this ‘voice’ know about? What is its attitude to the reader, the product, the market, the competition? What vibe or emotion does it feel? What does it want?
- Language. Is it formal? Relaxed? Jokey? What kinds of words are definitely required and which words are forbidden? One way to get at this is to ask what existing publications are you trying to emulate, the Financial Times, The Sun, a novel, a tax form?
- Do you use the Pyramid Principle? The journalist’s inverted pyramid? Is it a colloquial conversation? Witty banter? Can you ask questions?
- Good before and after examples that help the user learn how to do it themselves.
- A controlled vocabulary. Words that you have to use (e.g. product names long and short). Words that you must always replace (e.g. ‘we don’t talk about our product as an ‘application’ but as a ‘service’).
- Links to other relevant information such as a brand bible for graphic design elements, people who can give further guidance, style guides etc.
- Discover what is necessary, but not sufficient
Once you have good guidelines, you’re not done. There are some other things required for good writing.
- Deployment. Having a document doesn’t guarantee compliance. You need to make sure people understand it, use it, refer to it. This means making it easily accessible, e.g. on an intranet site and in print.
- Writing training. Tone of voice guidelines do not guarantee good writing. They don’t add much value if they advise people to write from the perspective of the reader or to use short words, for example. That’s just good writing and it should be encouraged parallel. Writing training is very helpful.
- House style guide. Tone of voice is also not the same as style. You need to ensure consistent spelling, punctuation, treatment of dates and telephone numbers etc. You can shortcut this by adopting a good third-party style guide, such as The Economist Style Guide.
- Imagery. Innocent Drinks (that lovely independent British company that’s 58% owned by Coca-Cola), is widely cited as a tone of voice role model. It actually uses visual elements, such as pencil drawings to support its writing. I suspect that this is what makes it so memorable.
- Professional writers. Most people can write but most people are not writers. For important copy, for example, anything that customers might see during the sales cycle, you should really think about getting in the professionals, like, ahem, Articulate.
- Proofreading. Whoever does your writing, you need to get it properly checked before publishing it. All great writers have an editor – reading is an essential part of writing. You can do it in-house or use a professional proofreading firm.
How to write thought leadership articles
Thought leadership articles are one of the hardest forms of content marketing to get right. You need in-depth research, remarkable writing and impeccable style. But what even is a thought leader?
In short, a thought leader is an individual or firm that is recognised as an authority in a specialised field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.
So, with that out of the way, here’s how to write thought leadership articles.
Thought leadership articles have to be based on solid industry knowledge, a good grasp of current trends and events and deep insight into a marketing persona’s potential problem or challenge. They need to be backed up by solid, objective data. They need skilful writing in order to weave in your company’s position and expertise without compromising credibility.
Here are a few research tips that will help you anchor your copy:
- Start at the source. Scour your company intranet for documents, brochures or videos that could help. Devour and break down whatever you can find.
- Ask an expert.Whether it’s a product expert from inside your company, a third party specialist or a happy customer, there is always someone out there who knows more than you. Interviews should be guided and informative conversations. Your role is to listen.
- The site you can never cite. Wikipedia is fantastic for getting an overview of a person, a term or anything else. Of course you should never rely on it absolutely as a source, but start there.
- Google News and Blog searches. Looking at what comes up in the headlines, and where in the world that topic is buzzing is a brilliant way to tap in to the heart of the current conversation. Start with Google News, then drill down into industry or interest-specific publications
- Use your sources
Sourcing means getting information, writing with it and keeping track of where it came from. Attribution, at least in this context, is how you report where it came from in your writing. Sourcing is always a good thing. Attribution is more subtle.
- Anydirect quotes, or unique ideas that people have built a reputation or brand around should, of course be cited.
- Any idea that has entered the general consciousness and is being talked about as part of a public discussion can be treated as such.
- A thought leadership articledoesn’t want to be littered with footnotes so try to use examples, metaphors or synecdoche to explain an idea, rather than resorting to someone else’s words.
- Consider ifthe attribution adds value for the reader or not and if you’re really stuck, cite as you would be cited
- Do not stealother people’s work
- Write with style
Consider which publications you want to emulate. Many clients refer to The Economist or the Financial Times as examples to follow. The Economist Style Guide is actually a pretty comprehensive guide to good business writing, and worth a read.
Bare in mind, however, that the reason these publications do so well is that they’re not all business. They inject some fizz and ginger and are playful with language sometimes. This excerpt from The Economist, for example, uses ‘schmoozing’ and ‘kyboshing’, but it doesn’t make it seem any less credible.
Along with his recent schmoozing of Algeria and Quatar, this threatens to exacerbate Europe’s energy insecurity, kyboshing the hope of importing large quantities of Central Asian gas without Russian involvement.
Be sure to keep your company tone of voice in mind, but be willing to bend it to the topic and audience at hand.
- Put pen to paper
There are so many ways to write persuasive, authoritative, confident and convincing articles, but they all take practice. Writing long-form, editorial content is a hard-learned skill, but here are a few basic pointers to get you going in the right direction:
- Read Donald Murray’s ‘Writing to Deadline’. Or our 10-minute summary on Bad Languageif you’re in a real rush. It’s a brilliant resource to get you thinking about the reader, interrogating your topic and crafting great headlines, ledes and kickers.
- Speaking of which.Headlines have to attract. They need to make an enticing promise (that you can deliver on). Actionable, punchy and sometimes surprising are all good things to aim for.
- Review the A-Z of better writing. This includes nuggets such as Grammar, Proofread, Storyand Visualise. All are essential
Writing to Deadline in ten minutes
I am a huge fan of Donald Murray’s Writing to Deadline. (Read my review.) It is a practical guide to the art of writing. He is a reporter and it is about journalism but it applies to the kind of professional copywriting I do at Articulate Marketing.
This article contains my summary notes from the last time I read it. It’s a long post but easy to scan. I still recommend reading the whole book and this post is a sprat to catch a mackerel.
You can buy Writing to Deadline: The Journalist at Work from Amazon.
The Craft of a Reporter
The Craft of a Writer
- Write with information: specific revealing details, concrete images, quotations, statistics, records, facts. Individualise by specific detail.
- Get the names right.
- First the lede. If you get the information the reader needs in the sequence they need it, the rest will follow. Write seventy five ledes.
- Less is more. Clarity, grace, simplicity, varying sentence, writing as simply as the subject allows. Worry about length after five typewritten lines.
- Get out of the way of the story and let it tell itself.
- Encourage able editors by thanking them for their feedback, encouraging them to call you at home and treat them and the editing process with respect.
Writing to deadlines
- Know the limits. Understand the budget, schedule, context, purpose and audience.
- Bring all the elements of the story together somehow. A line or fragment that creates a tension.
- Select and develop. Pick the key one, two or three points (if they are related) and develop them within the limits of length.
- Find the racing line.
- Write fast. A flood tide towards meaning. Quickness evades the censor.
- Write out loud.
- Edit: explore, focus, rehearse, draft, develop, clarify. Process discipline helps the writer. Prewriting, discovery drafts, ledes. Be disciplined about time – it’s a matter of economics.
- Write with information: revealing details, concrete images, quotations, stats, facts
- Accuracy – objectivity comes from not making facts up not by distancing yourself
- First the lede – draft 50 ledes
- Less is more: use strong verbs, tell by revealing
Use your senses
- Sense of change
- Effect and consequences
Ask the reader’s questions
A good reporter is forever astonished at the obvious.
- Change point of voice
- Role play
- Read new magazines outside your interest area
- Try another genre
- Try free writing
- Avoid stereotypes (e.g. CEOs are workaholics)
Find the tension
- Line: tension, conflict, irony, energy, discover, play, music, form
- Qualities of a good story: information, focus, context, faces, form, voice
- “Write what makes you happy.”
Rehearse: writing before writing
- Give assignments to the subconscious
- Talk to yourself
- Make notes and outlines
- Lead with the lede.
- Not: cluttered, flabby, dull, mechanical, closed or predictable
- Think about: focus, context, form, evidence, voice, authority, audience, length, pace, order
- Possible forms
- News, anecdote, quotation, umbrella, descriptive, announcement, tension, problem, historical, narrative, question, POV, reader identification, face, scene, dialogue, process
- what one thing?
- what would make a reader say ‘listen to this…’
- What surprised you?
- Is there an essential anecdote
- An image that reveals the story
- Where’s the conflict
- How will this affect readers
- What’s going on
- Why should anyone read the story
- Is there a telling metaphor
- What voice?
- Who? Face?
- Where’s the tension?
- A quote?
- Which elements of the story connect and how?
- What is the shape of the story?
- What generalizations can be made about it?
- What questions must be answered?
- What’s the best form?
- How can I summarise the story?
- A telling specific?
- What is the story’s history
- What problems must be solved
- What’s the central event?
- What is my opinion?
- Should I tell the story?
- Why did this story happen?
- What is the process?
- Wonder at the commonplace
- Circle the subject
- Use a zoom lens
- Where’s the fight
- Reveal the characters through the story
- Hear them talk
- Accuracy of fact and context
- Revealing details
- As short as possible but not shorter
- What’s the voice of the story
- Talk with (not at or to) the reader
- Listen to what you write (read it out loud)
- Know yourself
- Welcome the difference problem or opposition
- Confront your fears
- Write faster than your censor
- Try a way of writing you have used before
Tricks of the trade
- Ask the readers questions
- Collect abundant details
- Use POVs
- Listen for the key / opening line
- Say one thing
- Write without notes
- Write many ledes
- Write easily
- Write with your ear
- Show don’t tell
- Write with information
- Answer the reader’s questions
- Cut anything that doesn’t move the story forward
- Stop mid-sentence if interrupted so you can easily pick up your thread
- Be your own editor: read for meaning, read for structure, read for language
- Write five readers’ questions
- List as many sources
- Imagine you are the subject
- Read clips but don’t be swayed
- Pay attention to what surprises you
- How much of yourself to reveal
- Listen to what and HOW people say stuff
- Observe the subjects world and work
- Take notes as well as tape
- Try to do three interviews – one to meet, one for info and one to follow up
- Ask subjects to describe themselves
- Be a professional ignoramus
- Research enough so you don’t ask foolish questions
- Sensible curiosity
- Intense attention
- Respond deftly and intelligently
- Most people dislike and mistrust reporters
- Always keep off the record assurances
Prepare to write
- One sentence summary
- List 3-5 specific pieces of information thread into the story
- Visualise and draw the story
- Use dialogue as well as quotations
- Find a revealing action
- Consider anecdotes
- Give the reader a trail
- Use active verbs
- Use a different connotation
- Specific bits of information
- Revealing details
- Give the reader an image
- Describe a process
- Use senses
- Use analogy
- What works
- What needs work? Context, documentation, faces, voices, voice, distance, first person, setting, action, chronology, answer readers’ questions
- Turn traitor on your own copy
- Read fast for meaning
- Half speed for evidence
- Slowly for language
- Lead – focus, tone and shade
- Bullet – 3-5 main points
- Summary of sources, art etc.
Don’t lecture on why the story should be run, it should be obvious.
How to write compelling blog posts
The main problem with company blogs is that they often get neglected after the honeymoon period has worn off. This article is an introduction to the art of writing blog posts and using your blog to increase organic website traffic. It links to some of the best content on our blog to address specific points.
What to write about
While writing blog posts, always bear in mind the two following questions: ‘Is it interesting?’ and ‘Is it useful?’ A blog is for your readers, about their issues in their language. It is not about you and your products in your language. Don’t put a sales pitch in a blog.
- Industry news. Rather than simply rewriting a previously published article, dig out the main points and analyse them. What does it mean for the industry and the people within it? Can you analyse it in a way that will encourage debate, or in create a fresh angle that hasn’t been considered before?
- Company news. What does it mean for customers? Can you encourage them to feel happy or proud that they’ve chosen you? How can you use it to develop a personal front to your business? What photos and illustrations can you use to bring the piece to life?
- ‘How to’ articles. Provide practical help for your readers. This does depend on the industry you’re in – some may find it easier than others. Step by step guides are easiest to follow, but be aware that you may need to answer questions if people leave comments. Videos are also great for this.
- Lists and roundups. Online resources, including valuable written content, videos, podcasts, industry-specific freebies and so on are always popular. The hardest part is thinking of an original topic or a new twist on an old favourite.
- Interviews with experts. If they are very popular in your field, ask your visitors to contribute questions beforehand. Don’t be afraid to ask complex or controversial questions.
- Opinion pieces. These are a valuable way to encourage debate on your blog, but be careful you don’t alienate your readers and always stick to an industry-related topic.
For more suggestions about coming up with great ideas for your blog posts see: How to think up lead-generating blog topic ideas.
12 ways to improve your blog posts
Aim for punchy, informative and web-optimised posts. In other words, be scannable with informative subheads. These 12 tips will help you write more engaging and shareable posts:
- Prioritise information. Make your main point the first information readers see or they may never get to it.
- Highlight important information. Make key words and phrases noticeable by making the text bold. Make headings stand out.
- Remove extra words. People read less and scan more online so make sure your copy is pithy and concise.
- Speak plainly and remove jargon. Waffle, hype, jargon, long words and long sentences make it harder for people to read, remember and engage with what you say.
- Shorten paragraphs and add white space. Learn how writing and design work together. Make sure you have one paragraph per idea and a mix of text and images
- Make peace with SEO. You want to stock your website and blog with great words for the search engines. But you want to avoid SEO mistakes. Make readers a priority.
- Replace descriptions with images where you can. Stock photography is fine, but avoid using overly corporate images – you want to stand out from the crowd. Try searching photos under creative commons on Flickr or filtering out the copyrighted images on Google image search. Even better, take your own photos.
- Check grammar and spelling again. Get JetPack for your WordPress blog and switch on the proofreading tools. Take a look at Hemingway
- Get someone else to read it. What may make perfect sense to you might be a mystery to normal people. Peer editing makes for better posts.
- Make titles honest. The easiest way to lose a customer’s attention is to fail to deliver on a promise.
- Variety is the spice of life. Mix up the formats and length of your posts to keep it interesting. As a a general rule, most posts should be 600 words or more but rules are made to be broken. Seth Godin, for example, does very well with short, punchy posts.
- Research and links. Blogs are great because it’s easy and unobtrusive to embed a link to some source material you have used. In fact, links show you’ve really done your homework and indicates your article is worth a read.