Too many professional services firms unintentionally erode their sizable sales and marketing investments with poor writing. It makes their products and their expertise appear inferior. In this article, the authors explain how bad writing happens, and how to ensure it doesn’t.
By Bob Buday and Bernie Thiel
Imagine taking a new Honda Accord for a test drive and experiencing a rattling interior, a rough-running engine and noisy brakes. Obviously, Honda would never allow such quality glitches. Doing so would waste its huge marketing investments to drive customers to dealer showrooms. Exposing consumers to such low quality in the buying process would be sheer lunacy.
However, in marketing and selling themselves, too many professional services firms unintentionally make this very mistake: They erode their sizable sales and marketing investments with poor writing. Besides failing to communicate clearly what they do, poor writing makes firms’ products—the expertise of their professionals—appear inferior. Bad writing even plagues professional services firms with the deepest expertise and most effective approaches, making it difficult for prospective clients to see the quality beneath the unattractive packaging.
Why is great writing so critical in professional services? Quite simply, a firm’s articles, website, proposals, sales presentations, research studies, brochures, books and other publications are the physical embodiment of its expertise. In effect, for professional services firms, their words are their products. When their published words are unclear, their expertise is guilty by association.
Certainly, writing is important in marketing many products and services. But tangible products like Hondas, Rolex watches and iPods more or less speak for themselves. Their physical presence goes a long way toward explaining their value and purpose. On the other hand, the expertise of a professional services firm requires considerably more explanation. And the longer the explanation gets, the greater clarity it requires. While anyone can understand the value proposition of a Honda in a few seconds, only dedicated, interested parties will expend much effort to decipher a new approach to designing a supply chain, solving the legal challenges of a merger, or dealing with changes in the tax code. As a result, we argue that great writing matters greatly in the professional services industry and others in which much of the “product” is delivered via the written word (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Industries in Which Great Writing Matters
Great writing makes professional services firms’ ideas and expertise clear, thus reducing the effort required of potential clients to make a purchase decision. It enables executives to truly understand the depth, relevance and novelty of a professional services firm’s expertise.
The Costs of Bad Writing
Conversely, bad writing—confusing, jargon-filled, and mundane—incurs real costs. One is ineffective marketing activities. Newsletters and white papers go unread by executives. Conference and sales presentations yield few if any leads. Books languish in warehouses. Big investments in “thought leadership”—creating research-based points of view—decline quickly. The press, Wall Street analysts and other key influencers of client purchasing decisions ignore the professional services firm that writes poorly.
Poor writing also prevents professional services firms from cracking influential management journals. Ellen Peebles, a senior editor at the Harvard Business Review, says many article proposals and manuscripts arrive in poorly written prose that obscures promising ideas. “We sort through literally thousands of submissions every year,” says Peebles. “We read every single one, so there’s only so much time we can spend on each. If I can’t puzzle out what the author is trying to say, there’s nothing I can do. There comes a point when a potential author’s submission is so unintelligible that we can’t tell what the idea is, or if there is even an idea in there.”
Getting turned down by editors is one sin. A bigger one is getting the brush-off from potential clients. “The majority of the writing I see from consulting firms makes me wonder what they are trying to sell me,” says Craig Bickel, until recently the chief information officer of Cabot Corp., a $1.9 billion, Boston-based global specialty chemical company.
“What is it that I’m trying to buy? I see a lot of bad writing from professional services firms and it’s not because of bad grammar. It’s because of bad thinking. I’ve seen very little collateral from professional services firms—even the biggest ones—that make me say, ‘I want to know more about that.’”
How Poor Writing Happens
It’s clear that bad writing costs professional services firms business. What’s puzzling is why it persists. We offer two primary reasons. The first is the difficulty of professionals to recognize the problem. While consultants, lawyers, accountants and other professionals have expertise in their area of practice, writing typically is not one of them. But because ideas and insights can’t be represented by a physical object, professionals can see their ideas—and their words to describe them—as one and the same.
When their writing is criticized, this mindset can produce a contentious situation. This is especially the case when professionals believe their writing communicates a major new insight. By not separating the way they express the insight from the insight itself, they can view criticism of their writing from someone who isn’t an expert on their topic as an uninformed attack on their authority rather than on their writing style.
The professionals who are the most skeptical about critiques of their writing flaws are often the ones with strong verbal communication skills. “The client understands what I’m talking about. There’s no way I communicate poorly,” goes the sentiment. This ignores a key difference between verbal and written communications: The writer doesn’t have the speaker’s chance to explain himself if the audience doesn’t understand the message.
A second explanation for the state of bad writing in professional services is the low supply of exceptional writing talent. Though writers abound, only a very small percentage can meet the most important criteria for writing for professional services firms: the ability to write persuasively for sophisticated executive audiences. We see this every time we have run a job search for professional services writers. A single newspaper ad attracts hundreds of responses, yet we are lucky when a handful of those candidates can actually fit the bill.
Why is this so? For starters, few English or journalism students dream about working for professional services firms. Most aren’t aware of the substantial need for their skills in professional services. Furthermore, while most writers have been taught how to construct grammatically correct prose, few have been schooled in much more important skills: thinking critically and developing clear, logical arguments. Lastly, most English or communications majors have paltry exposure to business and management concepts during their time on campus.
For professional services firms, this means that many of their writers must learn on the job. This can heighten the tension between the professional and the writer. Asked to use such a writer, the professional bristles at the notion of a writer communicating ideas that he doesn’t understand. Lacking the appropriate knowledge of the issues at hand, the writer produces draft after draft of often well-written but inaccurate and superficial prose—frustrating both parties. If the project is not halted, the writer and professional eventually settle on a draft. But it typically is far from what the firm needs to make an impact in the market and only vaguely resembles what the professional envisioned at the outset.
How to Ensure Your Organization Writes Well
We know from experience that the preceding situations don’t have to be the rule. Many professional services firms generate well-written and substantive documents that marry great insights with superior prose.
McKinsey & Co., for instance, employs a cadre of top-notch writers to produce its McKinsey Quarterly journal and other publications. The firm has dozens more people who help consultants write and edit proposals. McKinsey recognizes what one supply chain management consultancy in the 1990s quantified: that excellent writing is a key aspect of business generation. In studying the track record of its proposals over several years, this consultancy found that the win ratio of proposals that passed through the hands of its writers was 40 percent higher than proposals issued directly by its consultants.
Strong writing also is a hallmark of publications produced by several of today’s best-known management consultants, including Michael Treacy, Gary Hamel, Michael Hammer and Jim Collins. These individuals’ clear writing and deep insights have helped them produce best-selling business books and achieve eminence in their respective fields.
Whether an independent management guru, midsize law firm, global systems integrator or brand-name strategy consultancy, any professional services provider can significantly improve the quality of its written documents by following five guidelines (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Five Guidelines to Ensure Superior Writing
Match the writing task to the writer. Many people from outside the writing profession believe “writing is writing.” It’s not true. The writing skills for great website copy, brochures, white papers, books, news releases, proposals, advertisements and videos can vary significantly. Each requires distinct skills. Just as a professional services firm would not hire a PC technician to develop an enterprise information system, it should not have an ad copy writer pen an in-depth thought piece on a complex business topic.
The writing tasks of a professional services firm can vary significantly, with the differences depending largely on the degree to which the experts’ ideas must be developed and the sophistication of writing skills required. We see four categories of writing tasks for professional services (Figure 3):
Figure 3: Matching the Writing Skill to the Writing Task
- Promotional. Overtly sales-oriented pieces such as brochures and advertisements need writers who can spin creative, punchy, engaging copy that relies less on facts and more on flair to get the message across. While deep knowledge of the firm’s expertise is not necessary to construct effective promotional prose, a solid understanding of the firm’s customers—and what motivates and inspires them—is.
- Explanatory. This is the writing required to develop sales proposals. The content of a proposal—the firm’s expertise, how the firm manages projects, the particular approach to the project at hand, and the background of the people on the project—is typically well-developed and -understood. Therefore, the writer simply needs to convey all pertinent information in a flow and words that are clear to the executive receiving it. When a writer helps an expert with a proposal, the requirements are relatively basic: good grammar, proper sentence structure, clarity, and readability. The writer or editor needs less content knowledge because the expert is expected to bring highly developed content to the proposal. Fact sheets, news releases, and client case studies are other examples of explanatory writing.
- Educational. These publications include bylined articles submitted to external publications, “thought pieces” published in the company publication or newsletter, case studies on successful client work, and other documents that demonstrate the professional services firm’s expertise on a business problem and how to solve it. The tone of this writing is informative and fact-filled—not sales-oriented. The writer must be able to tell a logical story that doesn’t resort to breathless phrases or unfounded claims of superiority. Educational pieces are longer, allowing for an in-depth explanation of the problem and solution. Former journalists can be good sources of writing talent for these projects.
- Developmental. Writers for developmental works—research reports, major white papers, and books—must be skilled at pushing and often helping shape the experts’ thinking. To some extent, developmental writers use the writing process to hone the ideas that are communicated, although the ideas must be sufficiently developed before they come to the table. These writers can be former journalists (particularly those with experience in in-depth feature stories on complex topics), researchers with good writing skills, and even experts in the firm with good writing skills and the desire for a career change.
Matching the task to the writer is critical—so critical that we strongly advise against a practice that has gained favor in some circles: the “writing pool,” in which writers are assigned jobs based on their availability rather than their expertise and style. While the “pool” may have worked with typing, such an approach will not make the writing process in professional services firms any more efficient or effective.
Get the writer up to speed on the topic at hand. It’s virtually impossible for someone to write well about something he doesn’t understand. Therefore, in addition to matching the writing skill to the task, professional services firms must help the writer become knowledgeable about the topic at hand. That’s not to say the writer must become an expert on the topic. But he must have time to absorb background documents, research reports, presentations and other material. This should be done before he meets with the expert. Why?
First, the writer will better follow the discussion and ask relevant and probing questions of the expert and not waste time clarifying commonly understood terms and other aspects of the issue. Second, the expert is less likely to lose patience with a writer who “doesn’t get it” and can’t follow along in a rapid discussion about the issues. In all cases, professional services firms should hire or assign writers with a high level of knowledge on the topic at hand. A few days of “prep time” are no substitute for years of reading, writing and research on a particular issue.
Set the rules of engagement between the writer and the expert. To reduce the risk of battles over wording, both sides must have a good understanding and healthy appreciation of what the other brings to the table. This relates to our statement earlier about distinguishing between the idea and how it is expressed. To write for professional services firms, writers must realize they are capturing someone else’s ideas, not their own. This can be a difficult transition for many ex-journalists, whose media jobs required them to analyze and interpret the data they collected.
In a professional services firm, the experts are the analysts. Writers must see their role largely as making the analysis clear and compelling—although the more developmental the writing task is, the more the writer will have to “push” the analysis. When the ideas aren’t developed—for instance, lacking case examples, supporting statistics, or sufficiently rigorous analysis—it’s the writer’s job to identify the shortcomings and tactfully point them out to the experts.
In turn, the experts must understand—and respect—the role of the writer: to make the experts’ ideas accessible and attractive to the firm’s target audience. The experts must realize that they are responsible for developing powerful, fact-based ideas while the writer must be given the liberty to express those ideas in the best possible way. Importantly, the experts must recognize that the way in which the writer chooses to express those ideas—based on his training, expertise, and years of experience—may not be the way the experts would present them.
“Many consultants hang on to their words as if they were the voice of God,” says Sara Noble, a recruiter of editorial talent for professional services firms and publishers. “But sometimes the voice of God can come out garbled because the consultant is too deep into the subject matter. The best writers bring clarity, focus, and packaging—all of which make the words more compelling. They cut through the jargon and cut out the fat, which lets the reader get to the heart of the matter as fast as possible. Yet many consultants don’t appreciate these skills.”
Insist the writer develop a detailed outline before drafting copy. The outline is the secret sauce for compelling writing for professional services firms. Because capturing an expert’s advice means helping him make an irrefutable case about the existence of a business problem and how it should be solved, the expert’s thinking should be structured as noted in Figure 4.
Figure 4: Main Components of an Effective Outline
It is the rare professional who will sit down with a writer and go through his argument in this way. More typically, the discussion jumps around as the professional relates insights and experiences as they come to him (or as he’s prompted by the writer). Turning such a jumbled discussion directly into prose is technically possible. However, the resulting text, while readable, will be based on an argument that resembles the initial discussion: ad hoc and hard to follow. The outline is the most powerful tool the writer and the expert have in the writing process. It helps the team develop the argument, identify weak points and pinpoint the examples, statistics and other data that help make a strong case.
Contrary to what many believe, the outline phase—not writing—is where the “heavy lifting” occurs. In fact, it’s not uncommon for an outline to be twice or three times the length of the final article because the outline will amass a wide range of material that will be considered and condensed for the final product. In addition, while an outline for an article based on fully developed ideas can be produced in several days, an outline on a nascent concept can take several weeks. Another important function served by the outline: It keeps the expert focused on the ideas and not the words. Everyone intuitively understands that an outline, by nature, is not written in fully formed, polished prose and is not the “final” representation of the concept. As a result, when reviewing an outline, the expert is much less tempted to waste time tinkering with passages instead of doing what he’s supposed to be doing: strengthening the content.
The outline is not only important as an idea development tool. It’s a stress reliever for both the expert and the writer. With a solid outline as the foundation of a piece, the writer won’t be forced to write—and the expert forced to read—draft after draft of an article that may or may not get better with each iteration. Relieved of such frustration, the expert and writer can concentrate on polishing and fine-tuning the copy for publication when the draft is eventually written.
Give the writer the latitude to help shape the content instead of merely parroting the expert’s thoughts. Often a writer is hired to “capture” a subject matter expert’s thinking and turn it into brilliant prose. If it were only that simple. While experts certainly know their subject matter, they rarely excel in constructing strong arguments that clearly and logically lead a reader from problem statement through solution and results.
Yet, experts often are resistant to what they perceive as interference from the writer, believing the writer is incapable of the insights necessary to help shape the content of the piece. In some cases, the experts are right because the wrong type of writer was hired for the job. But in other cases, a writer who is competent at educational or developmental writing can be extremely valuable in “elevating the point of view.”
In our experience, the most effective documents—especially those in the developmental category—are produced when the expert and writer work as a team in developing the content. The expert lends his insights from years of client experience. The writer provides his expertise gained from years of shaping ideas and using the power of the written word to educate and influence readers. Often, it takes a writer to help the expert “see the forest from the trees”—to gain a perspective on the topic that the expert hasn’t seen to date. This doesn’t mean the writer tells the expert what to think. The writer can help the expert see new patterns from the data that may be more compelling.
This was the case in our work with Deloitte Consulting in 2001 and 2002. The firm asked us to write a research report on a study it had completed on “business model innovation”—companies that had outperformed their competitors because they brought a whole new way of conducting business to market.
After writing the report, we pointed out a part of the research that was worthy of further research and idea development: certain business model innovators that had grown huge businesses in customer segments that their competitors had considered undesirable. We then helped Deloitte conduct in-depth case study interviews with and identify patterns across the companies. The additional research led to a cover Harvard Business Review article in 2003 (“Bottom-Feeding for Blockbuster Businesses”). Clearly, the writers helped the experts elevate their perspective on the topic.
The Writing Is on the Wall: Great Prose Matters
Without well-written marketing and sales materials, professional services firms make it difficult for prospects to buy their services and for their sales force to explain them. Given that the words of a professional services firm are its “product,” great writing is critical to attracting prospects and getting them to buy. As executives have less time to read in the future, great writing will become increasingly important to capture their attention and generate their interest.
Yet many professional services firms struggle to write well. To promote their services effectively, they need to determine why their writing falls short and address the shortcomings. Firms should always match the right writer with the job; give the writer the background materials he needs to prepare for the assignment; ensure that writer and expert understand their respective roles; insist on the use of an outline to guide the development of any written piece; and create an environment in which the writer is able to help shape and hone the content if necessary.
To be sure, clear and compelling writing about complex ideas—the stock-in-trade of most professional services firms—is hard work. But it is attainable. And as past and current firms have demonstrated, those that attain it are the big winners in the battle of ideas.
Originally published 08/13/2009