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Making Words Work

Word of mouth can make or break a company but the perception of a business is created and controlled by the way it describes itself. The words you use to advertise, promote and inform your audience about your products and services are important business tools – and an essential part of marketing. Every day we receive brochures, flyers, leaflets and newsletters telling us about companies and what they have to offer. When there’s such competition for attention you have to choose your words wisely to make your message work.

Try to use the same set of words to describe your company: what you do, how you do it and why you’re better than the rest. This should make your message consistent and builds a recognisable profile, making your adverts, PR and direct mail pull together.

Clearly written targeted communications work well, so it’s worth spending time pouring over your copy to make sure you achieve your objective. The Plain English Campaign has been lobbying for high quality, easily-read communication in industry and government since 1999. Look at brochures, flyers, adverts and leaflets that have been awarded a crystal, the Plain English Mark. The Plain English Campaign has a website at www.plainenglish.co.uk where you will find free downloadable guides, as well as the opportunity to join their campaign.

I see many companies upgrading their usual vocabulary to multi-syllabic words in copy on websites, press releases and adverts, but everyday language often works far better. If you mean ‘use’ why complicate matters by writing ‘utilise’? Avoid flowery, convoluted or arcane language - if you don’t speak it, don’t write it.

At the other extreme, blokey, colloquial shorthand can alienate the grey market, a key target audience for home improvement companies. Business publications in text-message-speak don’t work – (R U listening 2 me?), and many of us rant at the defamation of words turning ‘through’ into ‘thru’ or ’tonight’ into ‘tonite’. You are in business to attract, not to put people off.

Writing in a style that requires prior in-depth knowledge can narrow your target audience. Every industry has its own language but to many your jargon won’t mean much and may even misinform. Stick to well known words and don’t presume product knowledge. If you have to include technical terms, explain them in full the first time they’re used.

Copy needs to be pithy and punchy. The most readable sentence is made up of 20 words of three syllables or less. Tautology – saying the same thing in two separate ways – is a waste of space. For example: “This service is cost effective and good value”.

Once a brochure or advert has been written, read it out loud, or get others to read it to check the level of understanding. It’s also worth thoroughly proof-reading your copy at every stage and checking grammar and punctuation, especially if it’s been cut or edited. Copy-writing by committee rarely works and the end result may be full of gobbledegook or typos, or may just be ineffective.

Finally, if you’re not confident you can produce good writing on your own, call in the experts!

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