Archive for the ‘Basic Business Writing’ Category


Hey writers! In case you don’t feel smug enough today, you might after Weird Al preaches all the grammar rules you already know.

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“Why is everything so expensive?” Marge asks a store manager in an episode of The Simpsons. The manager replies, “Our product’s philosophy is that–” Marge cuts him off with, “Oh, we’re not rich enough to afford any product with its own philosophy.”

That’s brand storytelling done poorly, with the tangy aroma of pretentiousness.

When it’s done well, brand storytelling evokes customer emotions that enhance their perception of your worth. Duke Greenhill explains this in his Fast Company article, “The Real ROI of Brand Storytelling.” He cites an example of a snow globe that was bought for one US dollar. Writer Blake Butler then wrote a story about it, and the snow globe sold on eBay for fifty-nine dollars.

brand storytelling, perception, perceived value

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, tell the beholder a beautiful story.

That’s My Story, and It’s Sticking to Me

Brand storytelling should not be read as an invitation to lie about your product. Don’t call the vinyl seating “rich Corinthian leather.” The goal is to tell the truth — while highlighting the human, emotional sides of your company or product. Okay, yeah, you might sell more cookies by saying elves baked them in a hollow tree. But most audiences want a more realistic tale.

Storytelling 101: We won’t remember “leather.” We’ll remember “rich Corinthian leather.” But don’t call it either one, if it’s really vinyl.

Chip and Dan Heath explain business uses of storytelling superbly in their popular book, Made to Stick. In 2007, excited by the Heath brothers’ tips, I brought the book to my superior in the marketing department. She read it and said, “Nice idea, but you can’t use storytelling in real life. There’s nothing applicable in here.” She pictured marketing as an endless series of spec sheets and competitive matrix check boxes and pricing decisions. Granted, storytelling requires effort and imagination. You have to proactively look for ways to apply it, and reject stories that don’t interest your audience.

Is the effort of finding and telling brand stories worth it? Of course. Unlike other innovations that spruce up your brand, telling your brand story doesn’t require redesigning the logo, changing the product, buying another business, or invading a new distribution channel. Like any great fable, storytelling is conceptual — it only needs to exist as ideas in the customer’s mind. But a good idea can seal the deal:

  • What is extraordinary about Toms Shoes? In my candid personal opinion, nothing. But Toms gives a pair of shoes to an underprivileged person when it sells a pair of shoes to you. Toms has built its entire brand around this powerful story, and reaped success and enviable awareness for it.
  • Have you ever bought an organic or natural personal care product that didn’t really work very well, yet you bought it again? Why did you? Because you want to participate in the story of good people saving the earth.
  • Haven’t you ever looked at products that seemed roughly equal, and selected one because it was made in your country? That sale was a tie, until story provided the tiebreaker.

Think You’re Boring? Think Harder

You might think that your product has no human story worth telling. But I promise you, you do have a unique, interesting story to tell. No company spontaneously generated itself, which means humans made it. Humans are story factories. Whenever we act together, we generate stories of commitment and sacrifice and conflict and failure and little deaths and resurrections. Besides, your company is still in business, right? Every purchase represents someone finding compelling value in your product.

storytelling

if an organization has humans, it has stories.

Did your founders start the company on a dare? Did R&D fail numerous times before discovering the breakthrough that powers your product? Does your company have a statistically anomalous number of long-term employees? Is your organization the “only” or the “first” or the “longest-running” or “the underdog”? These examples may not apply, but the stories in your organization are there somewhere. You just have to look for them. Then you figure out how to tell them.

Depending upon your corporate culture, trying to get senior management to buy into brand storytelling can feel risky. Some bottom line-driven executives get squeamish as soon as you go beyond numbers, to the soft squishy humanities. But in times of limited resources for companies, storytelling costs you nothing. And customers aren’t buying your spreadsheet. They’re buying your unique value proposition, a very fancy term for “your story.” If you’re skillful, brand storytelling can turn a dollar into fifty-nine dollars.

Can it do the same for you? You’ll never know, until you try. End of story.


Who cares about saying what you mean as briefly as possible? You do, if you care whether anybody hears you in today’s crazy arcade of voice mails, emails, tweets, text messages, status updates, comments, and forums. Your audience is at least as busy as you. The longer your point takes, the more interruptions hit them.  The more you say, the less they hear.

If you bore us, this is the only way you’ll hold us. (Photo by Sidious Sid)

We once thought the Internet’s limitless space allowed us to write disregarding length. Oops. Today, when even “Too Long; Didn’t Read” has an acronym (TL;DR), concision means more than ever. Pithy is the new deep. Have a hard time fitting your message into 140 characters? Wait until you label the buttons and menus on your web site.

Brevity packs a punch. Per Strunk & White, “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words… for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

I’ve taken this message to numerous audiences. Usually, it befuddles workers, who apparently believe adding extra words makes their emails importantier. But sometimes they merely need examples illustrating the point. That’s why I compiled this chart from real-life contributions to a corporate newsletter. It helped my colleagues stop padding their prose with turgid, useless bureaucratese.

TOO WORDY

BETTER

 on a weekly basis  weekly
 has completed the development of  has developed
 Interim Report document  Interim Report
 over the course of the coming year  over the coming year
at present

at this time

at this present time

at this point in time

as of now

at this current juncture

for the time being

in this day and age

 now
 at a later date  later
 for the purpose of  for
 as a result of  because
 is working to implement  is implementing
 in the event that  if
 which are of interest to the group  which interest the group
 provided a briefing  briefed
 produced a draft  drafted
 taken into consideration  considered
 was a participant  participated
 ensure the synchronization  synchronize
 includes a proposal  proposes
 issued a statement  stated

Let the Verb Be the Verb

The table above contains one blank line. The examples under it illustrate a problem I’ll call “nouning a verb.” You weaken your prose when you turn the verb into a noun, then add a “helper” verb to replace the real verb. Why say the chairperson “provided a briefing” to the Board? She briefed the Board. The opponents didn’t “outline a proposal,” they proposed. Let the verb be the verb. When you select the right verb, your prose has a stripped-down, muscular quality that busy readers appreciate.

Similarly, question all unnecessary “helper” words. Does it make a useful difference in the reader’s mind if the meeting began “a bit late” instead of “late”? No. If the session was “rather noisy,” just let it be “noisy.”

Nouns First

When you see the word “by,” that’s an indicator that — doh, I’m nouning a verb — that indicates you’ve taken the long path to your point. “By” is fine when you mean “near” (“the office by the mall”). Otherwise, a “by” cameo shows you can save words. Long way around: “This book is loved by parents.” Stronger: “Parents love this book.” Long and weak: “the report that was written by the committee.” Stronger: “the committee’s report.”

Writing short, clear, direct sentences? You rebel!You see this brawny, direct style every day in news articles. I once tried to explain the difference between active voice and passive voice to a social media coordinator who could not fit her sentences into tweets. I plucked a random news magazine off a nearby table and opened blindly to an article. It began, “Rebels took control…” Not “Control was taken by rebels…” Anyone can do this: Put the subject first, verb second, direct object last. Or, in lay terms: [Someone] [did something] [to something else]. This format yields clear sentences with solid impact.

If that clarity and brevity makes you feel squeamish, be a rebel. Rebels take control. Omit needless words.