Writing’s not for copywriters

How writing affects every part of a business
Mike Reed
by Mike Reed

Whatever do I mean? You wanted to know, and now you’re reading this. That’s just one way to show the power of writing.

Framing ideas in fresh, compelling ways is a classic copywriting skill. It’s why that VW ad said “Lemon”, and why Oatly told us it was “like milk, but made for humans”.

But writing isn’t just critical in marketing. It can make a huge difference throughout an organisation.

We’re all writers

In fact, the amount of business writing produced by copywriters is tiny. This is partly why writing is so often overlooked: we all do it, mostly without thinking about it much. It’s just a thing we all have to do to make work work.

It’s always been that way. One of the oldest pieces of writing we have is a complaint from one trader to another, from about 3,750 years ago. (Kind of B2B BCE.)

Recently, the channels for writing have proliferated. We write (and read) countless emails. We message on Slack or WhatsApp. We produce reports, presentations, annual reviews, investor decks, R&D proposals, job descriptions, grant applications...

That’s before you even get to marketing. These days, brands never shut up: ads, websites, blogs, emails, packaging, social, newsletters, call centres, podcasts, chatbots…

This is what people tend to think of as “business writing”. We call it “comms”, as if communication is a niche activity by one team. We put time and budget into these comms, but forget that everyone is communicating all the time – with each other, and with customers, suppliers, investors and partners.

If you write for the business, you write for the brand

Let’s not get into whether “business” and “brand” are the same thing. (They are, but that’s another article.) The fact is, anything your people write tells its readers what your company’s like.

The people here are smart and friendly. / Managers are rude to their teams. / This person really cares. / This business is sloppy and ill-disciplined. / This is so clear and helpful. / They seem nice, but everything’s so woolly.

We’ve all experienced beguiling brands that collapse into bland, corporate, or frustrating language the moment you get deeper than a homepage. All that effort acquiring the customer, and now you’re texting your friends about the infuriating emails from customer service.

It’s not just customers who can be disenchanted like this. Employees are often overlooked as a brand audience, but we all want to work for companies we respect and admire. If the voice on the outside isn’t reflected inside, everything starts feeling inauthentic and dispiriting.

In any case, it’s nicer to be spoken to in a way that feels clear, sensitive and considered. That builds a bond. But so much internal writing feels either blandly corporate, rushed and ill-considered, or manically “inspirational” – all of which can be disillusioning.

It’s not just about marketing

The impact of writing – good or bad – goes even deeper. It works at an operational level, helping make companies more or less efficient.

If that sounds like an overclaim, consider that American workers spend around five hours a day dealing with emails. How many emails could be clearer, more focused, friendlier? And how much better would the company run then?

The shift to remote working has also accelerated the use of platforms like Slack. Clearer, more focused messages help projects run more smoothly.

These tools are just the tip of the writing iceberg. Make a list of all the points where better writing would make a difference to the way you work. I bet it gets long fast.

The value of writing

Frustratingly, it’s not easy to put a value on this stuff. But a 2016 survey put the cost of poor writing in US businesses at around $400 billion a year. Four hundred billion dollars. Even with a liberal pinch of salt, that’s a lot.

To be clear, this isn’t about famous screw-ups like the missing comma that cost one company $5 million. Examples like this frame writing as a mechanistic, technical activity. Put commas here, here and here. Add an apostrophe there. Make this a capital letter. That’s not writing – it’s proof-reading.

No easy answers

Many clients would love a set of writing rules that solve their communication issues at a stroke. But trying to create rules for writing is like nailing jelly to the wall.

Funnily enough, it’s phrases like “nailing jelly to the wall” that hint at how powerful writing can be. In an instant, you have a sense of how impossible the task is – and why. Plus, you’re smiling: you’ve connected at a level beyond simple information. All from one bizarre, ingenious simile.

Good writing is about understanding issues and people at a sophisticated level. It’s about crystallising ideas with precision and feeling, and making them clear and meaningful for others. It’s about projecting a character and culture in a way that’s authentic and consistent.

That’s true whether you’re emailing a colleague about a project, producing a report for your investors, or writing an ad for TV.

In short, if you leave writing to the copywriters, you’re missing out on a huge opportunity to strengthen your brand, and your business. Inside and out.

This article was originally published in Branding Magazine.

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