business writing

On Choosing Your Battles

Are you charging in the wrong direction?

Are you charging in the wrong direction?

Marketers, here’s a hard fact: You will never have enough resources to promote every new product, program or hire with the vigor its advocates think it deserves.  Instead, learn to choose your battles. Here are three I would avoid:

The Battle of New Orleans.  Remember the last skirmish in the War of 1812 — the one that was fought after the war was won? Don’t engage in the marketing equivalent. I once worked for a university that started life as a teacher training program. We were tasked with “debunking the teachers college stereotype” to a generation that had never heard the words normal school.

Pickett’s Charge.  Robert E. Lee’s classic case of hubris during the Battle of Gettysburg sent the Confederate Army — fresh off victories in Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg — stampeding into disaster.  Since then, overconfidence has sunk many a marketing initiative, from Zune to Crystal Pepsi.

The Battle of Zama.  The Romans turned Hannibal’s secret weapon — his elephants — against him in this humiliating defeat. Kind of like the Internet turned the #AskJPMorgan Twitter campaign into a bloodstained rout.

Like most disasters, these could have been avoided through a combination of research, planning, and a good long look in the mirror. Make sure your clients do all three.

Happy 2015!

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language

And next year’s words await another voice.

-T.S. Eliot

After a long hiatus, I am pleased to return to my self-appointed position as coach, consultant and snark-in-chief for the business language world. So much has gone wrong in the past year —  Bridgegate, emojis and selfie sticks come to mind — that I think we’ll have a lot to talk about. Please send me your pet language peeves and follow The Corporate Writer to hear about mine. Wishing you a joyful and prosperous new year!

Or maybe it’s just a technicolor dream

It’s been a busy time for The Corporate Writer and her colleagues. We’re proud to have contributed substantially to a new website for a leading Midwest law firm, and are immersed in a similar project for another firm. We’ve also been working on a new website for a state university.

With so much going on, it’s been harder to chronicle the daily challenges facing writers of corporate communications. So I’m grateful to college pal Jeremy Epstein for providing today’s guest rant:

“I just saw a phrase referring to a variety of colors on a palate; of course, the opposite would be a mix of flavors on your palette or–even worse, but fortunately rarer–colors or flavors on a pallet. At least the latter gives a nice connotation of a forklift unloading a giant shrink-wrapped cluster of cardboard boxes, all filled with colors or flavors. Still annoying though.”

I will be posting more often in coming weeks. Meanwhile, please keep those peeves and whinges coming!

The devil is in the details

One lowly apostrophe separates a business that knows its shit from a business that knows it’s shit.

A single letter will turn my precious husband into my previous husband.

Many of us have left the “l” out of at least one public appearance.

The point is, small mistakes matter. Take this example from DamnYouAutocorrect:

What are your worst small mistakes?

Fight flab(by writing)

Helena Rubenstein famously said, “There no ugly women, just lazy ones.” The same applies to writing.

The worst work I’ve seen isn’t poorly written–it’s lazy. Language is overly general and stuffed with cliches. Sentence structure is juvenile and/or repetitive.

Here’s an example: “Higman’s Hideout offers fine wines and good food at prices that won’t break the bank. Higman’s has everything you need for a memorable night out.”

This is the literary equivalent of a beer belly: flabby and unappealing. Yet a couple of authentic details–the kind you’d know if, say, you’d been to Higman’s–would turn it around.

Who cares?

That’s the first thing you need to ask yourself when starting  a new business document. If the answer is, “I do,” stop writing and think again–because that’s not good enough.

I am amazed at the number of emails, brochures, articles and web pages that address the writer’s needs rather than the reader’s. Here are three samples (names changed) from the past week:

“Just wanted to give you a heads up that celebrated infant safety author Paul Blatt will be available for interviews next Tuesday.”

“I’m pleased to announce the opening of our new state-of-the-art facility in Paramus, New Jersey.”

And my favorite: “Great news! We’re changing our name!”

My response to each of these statements was, “Who gives a f***?” followed by a tap of the delete key or slow pitch to the trash can. I’m pretty sure that’s not what the senders had in mind. Next time, maybe they’ll tell me why I should care.

Bad business

Yesterday afternoon, I called a technology vendor for a price quote. I am a serious prospect: that is to say, I work for an organization that plans to purchase this product, I am the person tasked with choosing the vendor, and I don’t sound like a serial killer on the phone.

I left a polite message, and quickly received an email from the sales manager saying: “Got your message. Am in the car. Will call shortly.”

No call.

Before leaving the office, I emailed back and asked if we could set a time to talk. I received this missive today:

“Sorry I didn’t call yesterday. I went home sick. This morning I am working from home, but it’s only 5:50 a.m. here in California so I will call you in a few hours. I don’t want to wake my daughter, who hasn’t been feeling well either.”

This made me feel a) guilty for making her return an email so early in the day; b) guilty for somehow almost waking her daughter (I guess they live in a single room?); c) guilty for interrupting her crisis to find out about her employer’s product; most of all, d) annoyed at having been pulled into the personal life of a woman I don’t know.

It’s been about six hours, and guess what? No call. it’s fine, though, because it would be a cold day in hell before I bought anything from this person.

The moral of the story? Getting personal is bad for business.