A surefire method for achieving the double whammy of fewer words and more engaging copywriting is to get rid of smothered verbs.
Smothered verbs are particularly prevalent in business copywriting. But once you learn to spot them, it is easy enough to eradicate with your trusty sword of clarity.
Verb are generally a good thing to have in a sentence. A verb is a doing word after all. Like the active voice, they carry the suggestion of things being done, of action and movement.
Streamline your copywriting
A smothered verb, however, is a verb that has had all the life sucked out of it by being turned into a noun, and usually a long-winded one at that.
Take the following sentences:
- The firm delivered advice on the potential introduction of a second stage to the tender process.
It makes sense. Perfectly correct English. But oh so stuffy! The verb ‘to advise’ has been smothered and turned into ‘to deliver advice’, and the verb ‘to introduce’ has been turned into ‘introduction’.
It you dig out those verbs and use them in the way they were intended, not only do you get a more direct sentence, you also remove three unnecessary words:
- The firm advised on potentially introducing a second stage to the tender process.
Here is another:
- The partners made an agreement to begin an immediate investigation into the company’s accounts.
The verb ‘to agree’ has become ‘made an agreement’ and the verb ‘to investigate’ has become ‘investigation.’
Sharper, crisper copywriting
By setting the smothered verbs free, we get a much sharper sentence, five words shorter, that means exactly the same thing:
- The partners agreed to immediately investigate the company’s accounts.
Sharper, to the point and a more reader-focused style of writing. It sounds like something you might actually say to the client in person, rather than the ‘bureaucratic’ writing style that we too often ends up on the page.
Neither of these techniques are universal, of course. Every sentence does not always have to be active and every smothered verb does not always have to be liberated. But at least if you recognise the situation and know how to improve it, you can make an informed decision whether to change it or not. Hopefully the former more often than the latter.
Always told at school never to split your infinitives? Or never to begin a sentence with and, but or because? Despite what those pedantic profs said, it’s time to liberate your writing from the stuffy rules of days gone by.
Slavish devotion to the strict rules of writing might be expected in an academic essay, but today’s business world hinges on clarity and persuasiveness. As a modern, customer-focused business, it’s more important to convey your message to potential customers in a natural and unfussy style, than it is to abide by archaic, misguided dictums.
Don’t listen to your teacher!
And so to conjunctions. Why are we told it’s wrong to start a sentence with and, but, because or so? Probably because they’re seen as ‘joining words’ – words that can only straddle two separate clauses.
If that’s the case, no one told the translators of the King James Bible (“And it came to pass after seven days, that the waters of the flood were upon the earth…”) or indeed Shakespeare, who frequently used conjunctions for adding emphasis. And it’s not just scribes from days of yore who can get away with such heinous crimes. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, the acknowledged bible for today’s professional writers, derides this “persistent belief”, explaining that an initial And is “a useful aid” as part of a continuing narrative.
The war against split infinitives is equally long and bloody. According to some, you shouldn’t split a particle (such as to) from its accompanying verb (let’s say, go) with an adverb (like boldly). This belief has its roots in the Latin basis of English, where the particle and verb formed a single, indivisible word. But, as we all know, language evolves.
As former Oxford English Dictionary editor Robert Burchfield argues, no writer should “suffer undue remorse if a split infinitive is unavoidable.” Broadsheet newspapers concur. The Guardian’s in-house style guide is unequivocal: “It is perfectly acceptable to sensibly split infinitives, and stubbornly to resist doing so can sound awkward.” Do you see what they did there?
A third alleged rule discourages sentences ending in prepositions such as after, at, by, from, in, of, on or with. The idea that a clause such as “The table the cat jumped from…” (as opposed to “The table from which the cat jumped…”) deserves six-of-the-best dates from the 17th Century quill of lauded man of letters John Dryden, infamous for picking apart the work of his contemporaries. His phobia of prepositional endings was passed down through the centuries, before eventually facing the wrath of one Winston Churchill.
Churchill famously had no truck with this laughably outmoded notion, once responding to the writer of an overly-grammatical memo, “This is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put”. The rule of thumb here is judge each case on its merits. What sounds better?
The business world is not renowned for the crispness of its copywriting, but there are some simple techniques we can learn to sharpen up both our own business writing and other people’s.
Written communication is a vital part of virtually all business marketing, online or offline. Whether it is a website, video clip, brochure or newsletter, it all comes down to words on a page.
So it is ironic that for an industry where words play such a vital role in meeting client needs – from legal advice to property consultancy to financial information – professional services in particular has such a reputation for boring, long-winded writing.
Confident business copywriting
A lot of it comes down to confidence and habit. Professional services has for so long been characterised by wordiness and bluster, it is incredibly easy to pick up bad habits. It takes a certain confidence to fight back against the fog of verbosity, rather than simply following the accepted – and often expected – industry norms.
There are a few relatively simple techniques, however, that can help make even the most pompous copywriting shorter, friendlier and more readable.
Active business copywriting
One of the main techniques either for improving your own copywriting or when editing somebody else’s, is to prefer the active voice to the passive voice. But what exactly does that mean? And what difference does it make?
Copywriting in the active voice, as the name suggests, is all about action. It is about structuring your sentences so they focus on the action that is occurring; the thing doing the action rather than the thing that action is happening to.
The active voice is the basic sentence structure of English: x does y to z, or subject > verb > object.
- The boy [subject] kicked [verb] the ball [object].
- The corporate finance team [subject] increased [verb] its turnover [object] by 20 percent.
- The senior partner [subject] announced [verb] several lateral hires [object].
Writing in the active voice is generally a good thing. Copywriting that is active tends to be more engaging, more direct and easier to follow. You get the sense of movement and action – the boy kicking the ball, the corporate finance team increasing its turnover or the senior partner announcing the new lateral hires.
Avoid passive business copywriting
In the passive voice on the other hand, the sentence structure is reversed so the object of the statement comes first, instead of the subject. The focus of the sentence is therefore on the recipient of the action, rather than the thing doing the action, like this:
- The ball was kicked by the boy.
- Turnover was increased by 20 percent by the corporate finance team.
- Several lateral hires were announced by the senior partner.
It is a subtle but very noticeable difference, and it has a big effect on our copywriting. The focus is on the ball, just sitting there until it is kicked, rather than on the boy running up to give it a whack. There is not the same feeling of movement. As the name suggests, the passive voice is more static, more indirect, and has a whiff of brown-trousered bureaucracy about it.
As well as being more dynamic and engaging, copywriting in the active voice is more concise, too. In the examples above, the active versions use between 20% and 30% fewer words than the passive constructions – and more concise business writing is a worthy aim in itself.
I recently spoke to a corporate partner in a fast growing, mid-sized law firm about his ‘partner profile’ for a website. He had provided a particularly long-winded profile, full of legal phrases and jargon, detailing everything from his law school and training to a list of around 30 projects he had advised on.
I rang him up to see if we could whittle down the profile over the phone by being more selective in the information we included, more succinct in how we phrased it, and less jargon-happy.
One of his replies epitomised a classic error that is still prevalent in much professional services copywriting. He said: “But I have to use jargon – that’s how I show people I know what I’m talking about.”
For him, as for many people in professional services, using jargon and buzzwords in his copywriting was like a badge of belonging. He thought it showed he was a ‘serious’ corporate lawyer, an expert in doing deals and putting complex financial packages together.
Simple words, effective messages
Deliberately using jargon, long convoluted sentences and bureaucratic language in your writing, however, shows you are more interested in grand-standing than responding to what your clients want. It suggests a lack of commercial awareness and a dogmatic, unimaginative mindset. Probably not the brand values the firm espouses elsewhere.
Clients don’t choose their professional adviser by the number of words they can fit into a sentence. They don’t opt for the one that baffles them with the most long-winded case notes. Or the one that can quote the most pieces of legislation at them. Copywriting that is impentrable, meandering or just plain dull is a barrier to client engagement and, crucially, it undermines your brand.
Proving you’re an expert is rarely what a client wants to see. They already know you’re an expert. That’s why they looked you up. What makes you stand out is not the level of knowledge you have, but how you use it, how you communicate it and how able you are to apply it to your clients’ specific situation.
It’s not about demonstrating your knowledge; it’s about demonstrating your ability to apply that knowledge to your clients’ needs. And the best place to start is with clear, consistent, concise copywriting that shows you understand what those needs are.
Does your firm have a split personality?
Making sure that the written brand of your business is aligned with the visual brand is a key challenge in information-heavy sectors like business and professional services.
Many business services firms these days position themselves as business-savvy, straight-talking advisors. Firms that can really help their clients gain competitive advantage through incisive, practical advice. It is probably one of the key messages on their website home page, in their brochure and other high-profile communications channels.
Consistent branding at every level
But what happens if a client decides to check out a recent firm newsletter, or delve a little deeper into the website to one of the service area pages? Does the strong written brand permeate down to ‘secondary’ levels? Or – as often happens once past the home page, or outside the brochure – does the crisp, no-nonsense brand personality give way to meandering, ponderous prose?
To be truly effective, it is vital that your brand personality is consistently applied at every level of your business. Wherever a client may come into contact with your organisation, their experience needs to be consistent.
The temptation when developing content is to save money by focusing on the most high profile sections, ensuring they are all ‘on message’, while neglecting to be so thorough on ‘softer’ marketing communications, for example, subsidiary web pages, client/customer letters or newsletters.
By not carrying the brand through to every level, however, you risk undermining all the hard work. Every dull newsletter, rambling customer letter or over-long web page chips away at the brand personality you have worked so hard to create elsewhere.
Short and snappy copy writing
There is a balance here, of course. For higher profiles channels, the marketing messages of your firm are just as important as the factual information, in order to clearly establish your brand values. So the top level pages on the firm website, or the graduate recruitment brochure, for example, need to be subtly infused with key marketing messages in a way that secondary collateral, like a real estate e-newsletter or partner profile, do not.
But that should not mean that standards can slip. On the contrary: for this kind of softer material, it is the facts that are the priority, not the marketing, which means the words have to work even harder to get the facts across and to support the brand. They need to be punchy, engaging and, above all, focused on the reader, not some meandering, blustering notes churned out by a stressed marketing manager.