Writing tips-o-matic.jpg

The rules for written communication with your market are very different from those you apply to your legal work product. Whether you're writing articles, speeches or blog posts, or updating your clients about work in progress, here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Get to Your Point.  Journalists call this "not burying your lead." George Bernard Shaw was one of the great writers of recent times, but in one case his writing was too subtle to help his cause.  The young B.F. Skinner was inspired to follow a career in psychology by reading a book by Shaw. The last chapter of the book denounced Behaviorism, but Skinner never read that far--he thought the end of the book was dull. After he became one of the world's most influential thinkers, Skinner met Shaw and told him that his book had convinced him of the truth of Behaviorism.  "Good God," said Shaw.  "I thought I had demolished it." He might have, if he had made his point sooner.
  • Avoid Idioms and Slang. As business becomes multinational, an increasing number of clients and prospects will speak English as a second language.  Make sure they can understand you.  Avoid slang, colloquialisms and metaphors (i.e., "Give me a ballpark estimate") that may be meaningless to non-native English speakers.
  • Use The KISS Formula. When writing marketing copy, remember that simple communicates most powerfully. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Newsweek cover the most complex subjects--ranging from tax issues and financial news to economic trends and political policy--in language easily understood by a high-school reader.
  • Test for "verb scarcity."  Verbs give your writing power and energy. Scan your content without reading it. Swipe a yellow highlighter over each active-voice verb. (This excludes all forms of "to be," e.g., "is," "was," "are," etc.). Then, holding the page at arms length, squint to blur your vision a bit, and compare the amount of yellow vs. black. If black dominates, you're probably using a lot of prepositional phrases and long, complex sentences. Break up those blocks of black with shorter sentences and stronger verbs.
  • Dump the gerunds.  "...that you may use" instead of "...that you may be using." 
  • Eliminate "I want." Instead of saying, "I would like to meet with you about...," write about how the company and prospect will benefit from a face-to-face meeting: "In a short meeting we can define how you can..."  Get in the habit of talking about what's best for the prospect, and eliminate any mention of what's in it for you.  In selling, any form of "I want" is death.
  • Avoid repetition. Open your spell checker and delete the words you think you overuse.  Then, when you try to use those words, the computer will highlight it as unrecognized, alerting you to choose an alternative. (One of weakest verbs that lawyers use is "provide.")
  • Put it on a diet. If you had to pay $10 per word, you'd reduce the number of words. Doing so forces you to choose better words. 

Email shapes others' perceptions of you, so maintain your writing standards. Think about what you see in so much of your incoming email: 

  • poor grammar
  • misspelling
  • incorrect- or no punctuation, and
  • the e. e. cummings-style "no capitals" look. 

No lawyer would consider sending a physical letter with these same failings for fear of the poor impression it would make and the disrespect that the receiver might feel. Why hold email to a lower standard?

Many people consider email a quick, casual medium.  That's partially true, and more casual standards of communication may be appropriate intramurally.  But when communicating externally, don't indulge yourself in poor communication or present a weak image just because it's email.  Take time to apply the same standards of casualness or formality upon which you insist with any other external contact.  Email is as much a part of your trade dress and visual image as are your clothing choices.

Mike O'Horo

Article-writing is one of the primary tools lawyers use to communicate with their markets. Learn how to write high-impact articles quickly.

Did you know that writing an article can become the means by which you can manufacture a network of contacts of precisely the type you want? Learn how with RainmakerVT's simulation, Expanding Your Network from Your Desk.