Will my client read my writing? Then what? What exactly do I expect to happen in return for my efforts, all those hours invested in crafting, nitpicking, smoothing language. Why write in the first place?
The short answer to “why write” is because dialogue leads to problem solving. And, solving specific problems is being hired. But, before I go into more detail about how to get your clients to read your writing and take a desired action, I offer some context for my favorite strategy for optimizing business writing.
Substance Over Form: Good Advice for Accountants, Good Advice for Marketers
“Substance over form” is an accounting concept where the reality of an economic transaction must be recorded, not just the legal terms. It’s about being truthful rather than a literal or technical interpretation that focuses on the letter of the law: economic reality versus compliance. In marketing storytelling terms, this is the difference between telling a client that you evaluated opportunities for capital improvements in a competitive real estate market versus stating that the final design complied with current building code and accessibility requirements.
Although both statements are factually true, only one (the former) hints at the complexity of issues involved with many renovation projects. In this example, an architect is more likely to keep the owner of an aging property listening/reading if he or she addresses certain realities, such as the fact that upgrades can trigger mandatory code compliance, impacting an entirely different aspect of a building. But, ignoring certain repairs can result in increased overhead, which can divert limited resources away from making the property more competitive.
During my many years of working with architects, designers, engineers, and other professional service providers, I’ve witnessed firsthand the attraction of communicating on a literal or technical plane instead of wading into the deeper (often more difficult) waters of meaningful storytelling, the kind that pushes a passive reader toward real engagement. Sticking to the project facts when using past experience to illustrate expertise may feel safer, more genuine, but this approach does not typically yield the most authentic representation of the client’s experiences.
As readers of my posts know, I’m a big fan of specificity. See #1 in my article “5 Reasons Specialty Consultants Win with Content Marketing.” However, lists, chronological narratives, and scopes of services are devices best used to reinforce or confirm broad statements. Factual information at this level of detail should not be used in lieu of a substantial conversation about industry challenges and solutions.
Why Story Always Matters More Than Style
“Clients don’t read.” I’ve heard this phrase hundreds of times during my career and expect to hear those annoying three words many, many more times. A few of our industry’s most creative minds, as well as many of its not so original thinkers, have spoken them. I believe the disconnect stems from the reality that clients don’t read everything. And, perhaps more important, you won’t always know exactly which portions of your writing they will read.
Solution: right from the start avoid superficial language, which can turn off a reader, especially an educated consumer.
A hallmark of a successful business writer is the capacity to avoid facile, simplistic arguments, such as technical jargon and what I like to call “trading in code.” Political pundits are masters of trading in code. With certain phrases and word choices come specific ideas or philosophical platforms, a kind of shortcut to actual give-and-take dialogue. The exchange of words between participants is more translation than communication.
Professional service consultants are also often guilty of trading in code. At some point, we all commit this particular sin. I write “hands-on partner involvement” and “client-centered” and the assumption is that the client emits a sigh of relief that a customized, personalized solution is inevitable. Dream on. Whether implied or stated directly in the RFP, fear is behind those information requests about defining the project team’s composition or ongoing availability. Address head on those concerns that keep clients up late into the night, and you’ll make real traction in positioning your people for engaging in actual dialogue with a prospect.
What’s Next? Converting Readers into Clients
The end goal, of course, is to convert readers into customers. Investing in writing is an investment in the dialogue portion of the journey, the early relationship building that engenders trust and empathy, two traits that encourage commitment. In my opinion, a marketer’s conversion rate should be measured by the number of direct engagements with prospects (meeting, phone call, email inquiry, social share) that are the result of written communication. As marketing writers, our task is to start the conversation and the principal’s to close the deal.
A few years ago, I was working with a client on populating her website with content valuable to decision-makers in a specific market. She pushed to include lists of services and demonstrations of proficiency that could address every possible scenario of relevance to her ideal client. For her, the idea of automating a customized request for information was appealing: click all areas that apply. I asked her, “What exactly is so bad about a potential client calling you or emailing you with a question?” Why wouldn’t you want to have a conversation in real-time and, what’s more, a connection initiated by shared core ideas but later cemented with specificity?
I will leave you with an architecture analogy. You wouldn’t design a building’s façade before considering use? I acknowledge that this can be difficult in an industry where style is often perceived as the differentiator, an original somethin’ somethin’ that sets one apart from the pack. Point taken, but your design practice’s bottom line is better served by investing your writing time focused on the practical challenges of storytelling, such as how to create an attractive, yet relatable, setting and how to move your reader through the narrative to reach the desired conclusion.
For the moment, I am asking you to suspend your ideas about how your marketing writing should be a reflection of your firm’s culture or unique practices or both. And, instead, think of writing—whether for proposals or marketing collateral or social media—in terms of the architecture of a story. Start with use, start with substance.
Bonus Material: How to Make Writing about Building Code Sexy
Most clients educate themselves in the basics of technical challenges relevant to their particular situation. Consequently, they will be cautious and perhaps grow weary when presented with tired phrasing or obvious statements. You don’t want your reader to tune out before you get to the critical aspects of your argument, but how do you make academic, mundane topics attractive? How do you make code compliance and infrastructure issues sexy?
Using the first example, at the top of this article, about the renovation of an older building, I will demonstrate the “substance over form” concept in practice.
If you were adhering to the “form” of a project description about the upgrade of a century-old building, you might write…
(a.) The scope of services involved a detailed evaluation of how the 87-year old building complies with NYC 1968 Building Code, NYC 2008 Building Code, and current ADA Standards for Accessible Design.
(b.) We assessed the impact of potential Landmark designation on the project.
(c.) Upgrades included, but were not limited to, the following building elements: vertical transportation, means of egress, critical systems…
In contrast, a narrative focused on “substance” could include the following language designed to engage a reader in a more nuanced conversation about the interdependent nature of options for aging infrastructure.
(a.) About to enter its ninth decade of existence, this handsome example of pre-war Midtown Manhattan architecture faced similar challenges as that of neighboring, century-old towers: evolving requirements for building code and accessibility compliance. The project team engaged in a bit of time travel. Depending upon which building elements were being considered at the time for upgrades or modifications, we focused on 1968 Building Code or 2008 Building Code.
(b.) It is advantageous to evaluate the feasibility of future capital projects while considering the potential impact of Landmark designation. For this particular project, designation ultimately affected both exterior and interior components, a powerful demonstration of how code requirements can change with a building’s ongoing development.
(c.) Overhead related to the maintenance of the aging building has exponentially increased in the past decade, almost $10M just for façade repairs. Our client expressed grave concerns about the constant drain on resources, assets that should have been reinvested into the property to make it more competitive in the commercial real estate market. Many owners of historic buildings experience similar (often conflicting) pressing requirements. In response, we worked with our client to identify and define the various interrelated opportunities. It was critical to understand options within the context of future competitiveness and what needed to be accomplished as per code versus upgrades subject to some discretion. And, perhaps most constructive, we analyzed how individual system upgrades impact connections, necessitating additional upgrades to other systems to maintain continuity. The resulting “domino effect” would have had significant ramifications to our client’s business by triggering an expensive, full building upgrade to meet current code.