I hope you find my writing and business tips and observations useful. My business and blog are dedicated to helping businesses communicate clearly and reach their potential. Read, subscribe to my newsletter, enjoy!Tash

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Writing is a skill

Lady Gaga can sing

Lady Gaga – more skilled at singing than most

Singing is just saying words in time to music, really. I even get requests to sing most days – Twinkle Twinkle and once I caught a fish alive are some of the most frequent requests. So it’s probably time I recorded my first album and gave Lady Gaga a run for her money isn’t it?

I know how to run, too – it’s like walking only you pump your arms and go faster. So I think I will join the Australian Olympic team, but can’t be bothered training much before London.

Do those ideas sound a little silly?

Assessing your own skill sets

Obviously there are many things I can do (cook, draw, throw a ball, hammer a nail, first aid and dance just to name a few) but most of those things I can’t do well enough to call myself an expert or expect money or fame for.

So why do so many people think that because they know how to form letters with a pen or type, they know how to write to a commercial standard?

Acknowledging that writing is a skill

I have come across a lot of examples lately where people think they will start an online writing career for easy cash or because they like the freestyle lifestyle. And others who ‘offer writing expertise’ while demonstrating they can’t spell or write a coherent sentence.

It frustrates me – not because I feel they are any threat to me (my clients want quality and can tell the difference between poor and good writing) but because it cheapens the efforts of quality, skilled writers (like Paul Hassing, Sarah Mitchell, Lorraine Thompson, Desolie Page and Belinda Weaver to name a small sample).

It angers me when these same people put information out there that is wrong or easily misunderstood. If their readers don’t know any better, they could be lead into costly mistakes. Good writers not only write well but, for less known topics, research the material or get expert assistance on the content before posting any content online.

Writing well is a skill – aspects of it can be learnt (such as how to spell correctly and when to use a capital letter) but  much of it comes naturally and through experience. Reading and learning contribute to the skills of a writer, so even great writers can improve.

I can write well. I can sing – but only well enough to entertain my toddlers and enjoy myself (Lady Gaga need not fear me as competition!) I know the difference between those skill sets and use them accordingly. Is it so much to ask that other people realistically assess their skills, too?

Are templates cheating?

Sometimes people talk about templates as if they are cheating, inferior and inappropriate as a business tool.

A blank page can be hard to fill

I don’t agree – there are times a template is not the right answer but they can be very useful in business.

Using a template doesn’t mean everything is exactly the same  – adjustments are made to suit the purpose.

Templates for letters, emails, style guides, procedures, web pages and other business materials can help your business in three key ways.

  1. Consistency
    If every letter sent from your business has the same format, it looks professional, builds your brand and shows attention to detail
  2. Time saving
    Using a template saves a lot of time. An email or webpage template can reduce the time needed for formatting, setting meta data and remembering the necessary details (phone, ABN, disclaimer, etc), and so on.
  3. Getting started
    A template can provide a starting point and can be much easier to work from than a blank page – this saves mental energy and time. If you don’t know where to start with preparing a style for your business, a corporate style guide template can get you started and inspire you to ask the right questions

I think templates are suitable for many things (e.g. procedures and standard information) although they can be misused and abused.

What templates do you use (or have you used) in your business? What advantages do you get from them?

Cheap writing services

Pen writing on a blank pageI was just reviewing the Love Santa blog for my client, including cleaning up the spam folder. In amongst the other spam was one offering a writing service based on one cent per word ($5 for a 500 word article!) from (apparently) US residents.

It annoyed me on a number of levels:

  • who would think they will get quality results from a $5 article? Those prices are just cheap and nasty
  • implying that because someone lives in the USA they have good English and can write professionally is just ridiculous – what about immigrants for starters? And even those who speak and understand good English may not be any good at writing it
  • nobody should be paid such low wages and my conscience wouldn’t let me buy such work. A 500 word article on a topic I know well would take me at least 20 minutes – and I write fast. A topic that requires more thought and some research would obviously take longer. So at best, they are offering $15 an hour and not many would make that much is my belief.
As a business person, I also don’t think much of their marketing. If promoting your services to a blogger, why not offer blog writing instead of article writing? Promoting your service will generally do better if you give some benefit or value to your offering, not just listing a very cheap price.
How about you – would you grab such a cheap offer if it was presented to you as an unrelated comment in your blog?

Writing efficiently saves money

Using the fewest words possible to communicate the message simply is my writing ideal, and I have been known to edit many documents to be well under 50% of their original length. One example that comes to mind is a 75 A4 page text-only disclosure document I converted into 24 A5 pages with pictures!

So I found it very interesting to read a report from Ron Denholm about the costs of inefficient writing.

In summary, Ron shows than reducing document size (through more concise content) by 34% in a business setting can save businesses $153 per document in reading time for a team of 100 (that adds up to $3,060 saved over 20 documents – scary amount!)

Next time you write a report, will you edit out the wasted words to be more efficient?

Preparing your initial website content

Filling an entire website with content can be a bit daunting, especially when you are also trying to get the design and navigation settled. So the third part of our series on getting your business online is about some initial website content.

Rule number one – don’t put up a message like “under construction”.

Search engines don’t like it – and nor do humans for that matter! To me, it looks lazy as it is not much harder to put a brief message on a temporary homepage than to write those two boring words there.

Obeying rule number one, many people therefore don’t have anything showing on their site during the development phase. This seems like a waste to me – the sooner your site is up, the sooner you can send people there (i.e. you don’t have to delay all marketing while waiting) and let search engines discover it.

So my suggestion is to have an interim homepage that can go live very quickly, giving you and your designer a bit of breathing space.

Here’s what to include on that interim page…

  1. your business name! obvious but very important!
  2. your logo if you have one – don’t use a makeshift logo though
  3. some basic contact details. Top or bottom of the page or in text doesn’t matter as long as someone can find out how to get in touch with you. A message like “Our full website will be here soon but in the meantime please email us on **@do****.com or call 1234 3456” covers it nicely
  4. your tagline, if you have one
  5. your USP (and you need one if you haven’t already got one)
  6. some basic information about your business and/or website so people can determine if you offer what they were after in the first place. Sure many won’t come back but some will if they think you will meet their need. A paragraph or two or a bullet list is all you need
  7. if you have them and are using them for your business, add links (preferably via graphics than text) to social media profiles so you connect all your online presences
So with a domain name, a host and some initial content, you can have a simple web presence quite quickly. Does it feel a it easier to achieve now?
Although an interim page like this is not an ideal website, it is better than nothing so just taking this step will get you online.
If you still doubt the value or worth of getting online, get an interim site up (grab some monthly hosting and you can do it for under $50, too) and monitor your calls and sales for a couple of months. Let me know if the website makes a significant difference to your leads – or even if it gives you one more!
This post is part of Word Constructions’ Setting up a website series
1. having a website helps more than you
2. what’s involved in setting up a website?
3. Learn about web hosting

Improving your writing

Whether you write a lot and just like learning more or you feel your writing needs a lot of work, you can do many things to improve it. I was reminded of this recently by reading a blog post about the impact of Twitter on a writer.

Here are some quick ideas you may be able to use:

  1. if your writing is too long winded, use Mallory’s trick of thinking of each sentence as a tweet – with 140 characters it is hard to waffle on!
  2. read as broadly as possible – you are learning about writing every time you read something so reading different styles will teach you more
  3. think about what you read – not all the time, but occasionally put some conscious thought into the words used to send a message
  4. practice – there is nothing better at making you a better writer than to write, so write!
  5. study writing – maybe learn to spell a new word each week, read some tips on good writing, follow some blogs about writing (well done – reading this means you’ve already started!) or grab a grammar text book
  6. offer to edit and read over someone else’s work, too – teaching is always a great way to cement things in your own brain, and you may be amazed at what you can learn from others’ mistakes. What’s more, being able to see how others can improve their writing will probably build your confidence
  7. find someone to give you some honest feedback (on specific pieces or overall) and maybe some tips on areas you need to improve – I’ve done this with a few people and it does help them hone their skills

Writing’s main importance is in being able to communicate, to express yourself (or your business) to others effectively. You don’t have to be the world’s best writer but you can choose to improve and not be the world’s worst writer!

Writing an annual report

What does an annual report mean to you?

For many people an annual report is boring and they don’t read those they are given (such as from a superannuation fund or employer). For others, an annual report is an important part of reviewing investments and companies.

Then there is the group of people who are involved in preparing annual reports…

If you are in this group, annual reports suddenly take on a new importance and can be very intimidating to start. There is the size of the report plus the fact that an annual report is a significant, formal summary of the business.

There is nothing stopping a small or micro business presenting an annual report, but many bigger companies must produce an annual report within a certain timeframe. And that generally means there are specific things to be included in those annual reports alongside the standard financial summaries.

I have written and project managed a number of annual reports now, and I can honestly say it is a lot less intimidating now than when I did my first couple! So here are some of my tips to make writing annual reports a bit easier:

  • prepare a list of mandatory inclusions so you can check off each thing as you add it
  • in your drafts, set up tables and use dummy text for sections you don’t know details of yet – it reminds you to include it but also helps plan spacing in the report
  • read previous years’ reports to get a good idea of what the company prefers to include (for example, does each Board member get a bio or just a name?)
  • be prepared to make many edits as different people (eg technical and legal experts) read the drafts
  • set aside solid blocks of time to work on the report as it takes time. For instance, yesterday I spent two hours reviewing and refining a first designer draft of an annual report – doing it in smaller chunks of time would take a lot longer overall
  • utilise existing content where possible. For example, if you have a clear definition of a concept on your website copy that definition into your annual report instead of rewriting it. Not only does it save time, it means you have previously accepted text which saves edits and discussions

Spending on your content made easier

Believe it or not, we’re almost half way through 2011 and the Australian (and others) financial year is about to end.

As you may be reviewing budgets now or planning ahead for a great 2012, I am offering everyone who reads my blog a 5% discount for any business writing project booked between now and 30 June (for completion by 1 August 2011).

This could be for a series of blog posts, updating your ‘about us’ page or ghost writing your eBook through to project managing your annual report. Simply email me with details of your project and mention you read this offer on my blog. Or leave a comment and I’ll email you from that.

Consider this my end of year sale and my gift to your business planning for 2012.

Searching people are important

For me, once you take out emails and website admin tasks (including writing blog content), then my key activity online would be using a search engine to find something. Apparently I’m not alone – this is the most common activity after emailing.

Which of course means that people searching are an important part of your online presence – if your site doesn’t get in search results and doesn’t help people landing on the site from a search engine then you are risking a potentially large market.

What’s more, if someone is searching the odds are they are willing to buy – I know I wouldn’t bother searching for a local dentist unless I want a new dentist or search for ‘computer mouse retailer’ for fun. So it seems logical to me that someone reaching your site from a relevant search engine search is likely to want your product/service. Especially in comparison to someone who is just curious about their friend’s latest social media like or follow.

Given the potential importance of people visiting your site from a relevant search, why would anyone waste their time getting people to visit from an irrelevant search? For instance, I am happy if you found my site (and blog) through a search for ‘business writer’, ‘blog content’ or ‘writing eBooks’ but see no point enticing you with ‘childcare provider’ or ‘dress maker’. It costs me time and possibly money to get found via a search engine so I don’t want to waste it on people who are not interested in my services – and I don’t want to waste their time and put them off side either.

So how can we help get the right search engine results? Here are my suggestions, and I’d love to hear everyone else’s ideas, too, as I won’t say no to more targetted traffic, either!

  • use appropriate keywords in your writing (ie repeat those words you think people may use to find you)
  • minimise the repetition of words that are not relevant to your message – for example, you may be a  designer writing about your latest website project but avoid writing ‘medical business’ too often as you discuss the work
  • build up some links to your site – quality content is the key here but it does take a bit more than that
  • if looking for backlinks (ie links form other sites to yours), ask them to use appropriate text for the link and aim for related sites. Use the same strategy if someone offers to link to you, or even ask anyone who has added a link without contacting you
  • add page-relevant keywords to your blog tags or page metadata as this helps direct a search engine to the right topics. Note I wrote page-relevant so don’t just use the same words on every page – for example, my tags for this post will be ‘search’, ‘keywords’ and ‘relevant’ which would not work on many of my other pages

Of course, it is crucial to write contact of interest to real people and tweak it for search engines rather thna write for search engines and hope people find the hidden meaning.

How else can you get good search engine traffic to your site/blog?

When writing is important for business

Pen writing on a blank pageMaybe you don’t think writing is a key skill in business presentation, or that putting any old word on paper is good enough to make your point. Obviously I think good writing and clear communications are important but I just read an article listing some examples of when writing is more important than speaking for a business.

Even if you use someone else to write ad copy, website content, articles, blog posts and other obvious writing tasks, the following list shows that business writing is a necessary skill for any business owner or manager:

  • making a visual impact – spoken words alone aren’t always enough, even in a training session when visual aids and handouts are valuable. Seeing things in print makes them more believable and easier to remember, so writing can have a bigger impact
  • setting rules and guidelines, such as policies and procedures. Imagine having verbal policies in a large company – it would be easy for people to forget or misunderstand what they’re told, and some people would simply choose to do things their own way. Writing out procedures ensures consistency and forms a record of your expectations
  • making complaints have more power in writing – they are taken more seriously, are more likely to be followed up on and form a record for any future interactions. Further, it ensures your actual complaint is received as the person you complain to may not be the one who can act on it so a verbal message could be changed
  • responding to complaints is also good in writing – it shows you genuinely care about the customer’s experience with your business and gives you the opportunity to show what you have done to prevent the issue happening again
  • giving feedback and recognition has more impact if you take the time to write it down, and your written message may be kept for a long time. Whats more, if you make the written message public (including just on the business noticeboard or intranet), your compliments carry so much more weight and make people feel truly valued
  • complex ideas are not easy to grasp so a written explanation gives people the chance to reread it for understanding and have it as a reference later
  • written communications form a record of what was ‘said’ and needed. This has two advantages – it helps you remember details and complete a task correctly and it also helps protect from ‘he said she said’ situations
  • writing an agenda for meetings can save a lot of time and frustration as the agenda keeps everyone on track and they can prepare ahead of time. Likewise, minutes of meetings form a record and reminder of tasks to be done
  • involving new people becomes much easier if information is in writing – for example, if you change project managers part way through, the new manager will know what has been done and what to chase if they get written notes to follow

Again, some of these tasks can be handed to a business writer, but others you need to do yourself (in which case, hopefully my blog is one resource for helping you write effectively!)

Do you have other examples of when being able to write is critical in business?