Tips to make your customer stories more compelling

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You can’t beat a good story to get your business noticed. That’s why customer case studies in brochures and newsletters are so compelling. They are often what people like to read first. After all, readers don’t just want to hear you telling them how good your products or services are; they like to check an independent view as well. The opinions and verdicts of satisfied customers helps persuade prospects they are making the right decision in choosing your business.

The strongest element in company brochures, newsletters and websites is often the story telling. This is your opportunity to produce compelling copy with a soft sell subtly woven into the fabric of the story. Having captured people’s attention, you can position your business, brand, culture and identity in the best possible light.

It can be a challenge bringing together the ingredients needed for strong customer stories that stick in the mind. A useful approach is to put POWER (Perspective, Ownership, Warmth, Endorse, Rapport) in your copy:

Perspective – see the world from the customer’s point of view, not yours. Tell stories relevant to their world and let them make their own minds up about how good you are.

Ownership – tell your stories in the first person, highlight the actions of colleagues and say why they are important to the story,  personalise the content with your own contact details at the end. This builds trust and confidence that you are accountable and prepared to ‘walk the walk’ as well as ‘talk the talk’.

Warmth – show compassion and a deep understanding of customers’ challenges – plus a readiness to help tackle them. A ‘we’re in this together’ philosophy creates stronger stories.

Endorse – the all-important real-life examples of how you help customers is your opportunity to say ‘Don’t just take our word for it…’. One of the first things businesses look for are what other customers have to say about you.

Rapport – speak the same language as your customers with straight-talking, jargon-free communication that they will understand and respond to positively.

If you want to put more POWER in your company stories contact us.

Cut your clichés for clearer copy

Blue sky thinking outside the box to upsize low hanging fruit delivers a win:win scenario. What? Call it corporate-speak, jargon or gobbledegook, we are probably all guilty of slipping the occasional confusing business babble or cringeworthy cliché into our conversations and copy.

Although jargon can be criticised as a sign of lazy copy you sometimes just can’t help yourself. If a hackneyed phrase paints a clear picture that colleagues easily understand and helps convey important messages then carefully rationed use should be okay in business language. And you never know, clichés could help you climb the career ladder.

A good rule is to challenge yourself about what the word or phrase really means and ask whether you can say the same thing more clearly in a different way.

If you want to avoid the more obvious examples then check these, these and these. And if you want some fun trying out your own then the Plain English Campaign’s gobbledegook generator can help.

At the end of the day it’s not rocket science. Co-workers probably won’t mind a limited sprinkling of the stuff. However, most of us would probably prefer to be remembered for our positive contributions to business success rather than our catchphrase.

Our tip is to replace the traditional office swear box with a clichometer to penalise the most over-used examples. It’s a big ask but by the close of play you could have a tidy sum to donate to charity.

Why it is okay to split infinitives

Whenever a Star Trek movie hits the big screen the USS Enterprise’s mission is, as always, ‘to boldly go…’. Meanwhile, down here on earth a debate Mr Spock would surely consider illogical re-ignites. Should we split our infinitives?

The answer is yes, no or maybe, depending on your personal preference or corporate style guidelines. But what matters more – rules or readability? Copy needs to flow easily and splitting infinitives is no longer such a serious rule breaker.

Indeed, the Smithsonian describes split infinitives as one of many ‘phoney rules’ in grammar. Oxford University Press supports the view, saying objectors have no real justification. OUP notes ‘people have been splitting infinitives for centuries’. Or longer, in Captain Kirk’s case.

The conversational tone you see in good corporate writing has room for flexibility. The best corporate style embraces George Orwell’s advice to break rules rather than say ‘anything outright barbarous’. However, a line should be drawn, and phasers set to stun, in the fight against sloppy copy.

If the split infinitive scans okay, then it probably is okay. When you think about it, if Kirk & co had instead decided ‘to go boldly’ they might not have gone quite so far.

The write way for brand names

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, actually. Brand names create business impact, fire consumer passion and generate income for their owners.

They are valuable business assets yet do not actually exist in a physical sense, like a building or piece of machinery. In essence, a brand is the promise of a certain experience, an assurance that you will receive a level of service or type of product.

The amounts involved are huge. Consultants Interbrand places Apple top (brand value $98 billion) in its list of brand values with Google second ($93 billion), followed by Coca Cola ($79 billion), IBM ($78 billion) and Microsoft ($59 billion).

To appreciate what this means you only have to look at the success of Apple and everything it stands for in terms of products and service. People will pay more for a premium experience.

indexed papers cropThat is why brand names are fiercely protected. Back in the 1980s, brand owners started to put monetary values on their intangible assets and included brand names in these calculations. It was seen as a way for companies to protect themselves against takeovers or receive a fair purchase price by ensuring the true value of their business and brands was calculated. In broad terms, the difference between the balance sheet value of a company and the actual price paid by a purchaser is deemed to be the goodwill element and that includes the value of brand names.

This triggered a change in the way the financial world dealt with intangible business assets and new accounting rules were drawn up to reflect this.

Intellectual property rights and trade marks protect brands and companies take exception to the incorrect use of names. A challenge for copywriters is when a name becomes a generic term, such as Hoover, to describe all types of vacuum cleaner or even a verb: hoovering. Portakabin was famous for sending a sternly worded letter from its trade marks officer to editors who failed to use a capital P, pointing out the error of their ways and suggesting they use generic alternatives instead.

Some trade marks are only protected in certain jurisdictions around the world, so it isn’t always clear how the brand name should appear in copy. It is always worth checking what the trade mark owner considers the correct format.

Question: which of the following are trade marked brand names? AstroTurf, Biro, Bubble Wrap, Dictaphone, Filofax, Frisbee, Jacuzzi, Jiffy bag, Muzak, Onesies, Ping Pong, Portakabin, Sellotape, Super Glue, Xerox.

Answer: (the clue is in the use of initial capitals) all of them. If you are not sure then find a generic description – an artificial grass playing surface, a ball point pen, a personal organiser and (for Blue Peter fans out there) sticky backed plastic.

Can Kindle perform like a business laptop?

We all know what it’s like trying to squeeze precious extra minutes into the working day by using a laptop on our daily commute. A new survey by recruitment consultants Randstad found 7.5% of employees in Britain now work on a laptop, smartphone or tablet during their commute, compared with 4.8% in 2008.

While there are plenty of devices available, we thought we’d put the less obvious choice of a Kindle Fire HD through its paces for compact on-the-go business working. Amazon focuses on the Kindle Fire’s business credentials such as connectivity and ability to connect to office wi-fi, although the pre-installed OfficeSuite app only allows you to view and read files.

We wanted to see how it coped with some heavy-duty writing and editing to help speed up company magazine production. So here goes…

Challenge: Five hours of note-taking at a seminar that needed to be written up quickly straight afterwards to hit a tight deadline for a client magazine.

Why bother? This was a situation where the smaller the device the better for unobtrusive note taking at a client event. We wanted to replace pad and pen with electronic copy ready to start working on during the return train journey.

What extras do you need? We bought a wireless keyboard that was simple to synch and downloaded the OfficeSuite Pro app with Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

Good points? Typing quickly was fine once fingers were familiarised with keyboard and the Kindle responded instantly. The touchscreen was easy for navigating around pages and highlighting text. Wi-fi was handy for emailing files back to the office as a back-up.

Not so good points? You’ll probably need to be near a power point for recharging.

Anything else? If you don’t mind looking like you’ve borrowed Action Man’s computer then it’s a compact alternative – and when you’re not typing you can always read a book.

Job titles: capital idea?

Businessmen cropLet’s face it, deciding whether or not to use capital letters for people’s job titles is one of those areas where advice seems to head in different directions. The general rule usually applied by newspapers and magazines is to avoid unnecessary capital letters. The collective view is that excessive use of capitals doesn’t look good and isn’t justified.

Guidance from The Times is that capitalisation is the source of great tribulation because too many capital letters are ugly and unnecessary. The Economist’s style guide urges if in doubt, stick to lower case unless it looks wrong. It advises us to dignify with capital letters organisations and institutions, but not people. While The Telegraph says the general presumption is against using caps: job descriptions such as managing director, chairman and chief executive all take lower case.

Unless, that is, your corporate brand rules require them. And why not? You could say a title gives a person  respect and value in their role, while  initial capitals emphasises this. A rule we encourage our clients to follow is to try to be consistent. If you favour capital letters then one place you can be consistent is between a job role (Joe Smith, Sales Manager) and general job description (a group of sales managers; our engineer training course).

That said, we once had a client whose managing director stood their ground and insisted on capitals when even the global president was content with lower case. It could have posed a tricky problem captioning photos in which both appeared. We took The Economist’s diplomatic advice: “Do not indulge people’s self-importance unless it would seem insulting not to”.

10 tips to tackle copy consistency

Road 2You’ve set the rules for your business copy, now comes the tricky part: sticking to them. Whichever ones you choose a good ‘rule of rules’ is to apply them consistently so all your communications head in the right direction. After all, it is the small details that can give customers the wrong impression about a business.

This is a particular challenge in business communications where corporate language has its own quirks. Here are 10 areas where inconsistencies often creep in:

1. Initial capitals for job titles. Mainstream magazines and newspapers generally don’t like them but companies usually do. Try not to chop and change between styles and restrict capitals to job roles (Joe Smith, Sales Manager) rather than job descriptions (the meeting of sales managers). For people’s names try and avoid initials (Joe L Smith) and if you do include them, avoid full stops (ie, Joe L. Smith).

2. Avoid company jargon, even for internal publications. Corporate gobbledegook and a lack of plain English slow down the flow and can lose readers who may be unfamiliar with the terms.

3. Use double quote marks for speech (“It was a great meeting,” said Sales Manager Joe Smith or Joe Smith, Sales Manager, said: “It was a great meeting.”). If you have a quote within a quote, then use single marks for this (“The team thought the ideas were ‘fantastic’ for our business,” said Joe). If you break up a sentence with the name of the person, start the second part with lower case (“Our aim,” said Joe, “is to win at all costs.”). Punctuation goes inside the quote marks unless the quote covers only part of a sentence, for example: in the manager’s view the players “were really up for the game”.

4. A company is singular. For example: Widget & Bracket is launching a new product range that it hopes will boost sales. There is a tendency to use plural (Widget & Bracket are launching…) but it is a single corporate entity. If you insist on plural (a lot of businesses view themselves as ‘we’), then remember to use we and our rather than it and its.

5. When you use an abbreviation, write the term in full the first time it appears with the abbreviation in brackets and then use the abbreviation. However, some terms look better written in full, such as miles, kilometres, millions and billions. Some are so familiar they don’t need to be written in full (BBC, MI6). Don’t assume your readers will know all your corporate acronyms.

6. Write numbers one to nine and then use numerals for 10 onwards. But write the number in full if it appears at the start of a sentence (Fifteen teams entered the tournament) apart from years (2012 was a good year for the team). For clarity, avoid using k for 000 (eg, £1k, £200k).

7. If you use a list with bullet points, you only need a full stop at the end of the last one. The sentence introducing the bullet points should end with a colon.

8. For dates, check your company rules. We recommend 1 December 2012 rather than 1st December 2012 or December 1, 2012, which tend to make copy look cluttered.

9. Trade-marked names. You might be surprised at how many everyday business terms are someone’s intellectual property and should be written with a capital letter. These include Biro, Cashpoint, Filofax, Hoover, Jiffy bag, Photoshop, Portakabin, Post-it note, Sellotape, Tannoy, Wi-Fi and, depending on your work environment, Jacuzzi and Yo-Yo.

10. You only need a single space after a full stop before the next sentence. Double spacing is generally viewed as old-fashioned with its origins in printing convention, although many people say it was how they were taught to type.

And, finally, 11: Always try to be consistent. Better still, build up your own company style guide and share the knowledge with colleagues.

Click here to request your free copy of our handy style guide for business news, blogs and brochures.