So what do I mean by ‘say what you mean’?

Well, if you’re writing to promote your business, there’s a piece of advice you will probably have seen before. It’s advice that seems obvious as soon as you’ve been told, but plenty of business writers still seem to need it.

It’s this: you need to stop talking about yourself and speak to your reader.

Because, to be even more blunt, the reader is selfish. So are you; so am I. What we’re all thinking when reading sales blurb is, “What’s in it for me?”

Harsh, but true.

Knowing this, the more thoughtful business writers scratch their heads for a minute and make sure to include some benefits for their customers. Instead of writing about how many years they’ve been in business or how shiny their office is or how pleased they are with their new stock, they try very hard to say why that helps you, the customer. Yes, you – the person who’s reading.

The trouble is, that’s not as easy as it sounds. Because you need to say what you mean.

Being vague benefits no-one

Here’s a very common phrase seen on promotional material: first class service. That sounds like a benefit every customer would want, yes?

Well, yes. Until you think about it for a minute. What is that business actually trying to say?

It’s worth exploring this phrase as an example of language that looks good at first but then turns out to be fairly meaningless.

I tend to associate first class service with a high level of personal attention. Someone will always be at the end of the phone. That person will remember who I am and understand exactly what I need. I’ll be greeted with a smile, and get the impression that they’ve got all the time in the world for me.

Or maybe I’ve got that wrong. Perhaps first class service means I’ll get the product delivered or the job done in record time. Their processes will be quick and simple to understand – so much so, that I’ll hardly need to communicate with a human being. The whole company will exude efficiency.

On the other hand, perhaps it doesn’t mean either of those things. Maybe it means this is a high-quality product or service that’s hand-crafted to my personal specification, taking all my needs into account. They’ve got a waiting list of contented customers, so this could take a while, but it will be worth the wait.

Yes, that could be it. Whichever it is, none of those options comes cheap, of course. So first class service must mean it’s going to be expensive. Uh oh. I’m not sure if that’s what I want after all…

I’m not a mind reader, so I don’t know if potential clients really go through that thought process. The greater danger is that they don’t think about it at all – that the phrase first class service just doesn’t register.

How many customers want shoddy service?

Are you using this kind of ‘non’ benefit in your sales copy?

There’s a quick test you can do.

For every snappy phrase you’ve used, think whether any business would ever use its opposite. Shoddy service, anyone? No, I didn’t think so.

Here’s another one: affordable. This means different things to different people. And you’d have to have real clout in the business world before you’d admit to your prices being too expensive.

Then there’s passionate about… Well, I’d hope so. Would you look twice at any business that said it was lukewarm about its own services? Or that it quite liked its own products? Your passion is great… but it’s not a customer benefit in itself.

So how do you solve this problem?

You dig deeper. And you tell the truth.

A backlog because you’ve got loads of customers? Talk about those lucky people and make your reader envious.

A named person on call who will know every detail of the client’s requirements? Classy – cash in on that.

Fast turn-around? Trumpet it from the rooftops!

Your business is unlikely to offer all those things – that’s why you need to be specific.

As for the cost… If cheap is what sells your stuff, don’t be afraid to say so. On the other hand, if you want to justify your higher prices, simply write clearly about the quality and let what you offer speak for itself.

By thinking harder about what you really mean, you’re focusing on the particular readers who are most likely to buy from you.

And you won’t have wasted a single word.



Catherine Kendal

Catherine Kendal is a proofreader and editor who likes nothing more than sorting the good from the bad and the ugly. She takes the description 'pernickety' as a compliment. Visit Catherine's website