We have launched our server, installed our web server and put blogging software on it in the form of WordPress. Thus, it is a good time to talk about writing in the blogging and business world. We will look at two different types of writing in this class where each has a different audience. The two styles are business writing (status reports, proposals, etc.) and content writing (blogs, books, etc.).
What are the problems we want to solve by taking this class?:
- How can I build my brand?
- What should I consider when communicating with customers and vendors?
- How do I write a blog?
- How do I create a proposal or send a request out to potential vendors?
What we will cover:
- Writing to your audience
- Email etiquette: sales emails
- Business Communication
- Simple Business Writing: The Status Report
- Simple Content Writing: Blogs
- Advanced Business Writing: Proposals/RFPs
- Advanced Content: White Papers and Books
Class Goal: Create custom templates for email, blogs, status, and proposals. Write your first blog article on your site.
Write so the Audience Will Read
There are two things you should always keep in mind when you are writing: your point and your audience. It is logical to think that your point is worthwhile to your audience otherwise, why write it? Keep that in mind throughout the writing process. You might find situations where you are “rambling” for a blog or some other casual writing, but even then there should be some point to the post. Writing is better than speaking because when you write, you can recognize you are rambling and clean up your thoughts. Writing provides you a “do-over.”
The Main Point
Keep your primary point in mind. Correspondingly, remember why your audience should spend time reading about that point. Situations where a reader is “forced” to read what you have written, are not an excuse to write poorly or without them in mind. User Manuals must be read to be useful. Each new owner will benefit from reading the manual. However, how often does anyone read that user manual?
Tie Points Together
When you have multiple points (a post like this, a weekly status report, etc.), the points should all be related to a single, principal point. Weekly status is a great example. You have the points of:
- Summarize what you did
- Summarize your plans
- List your problems
- Communicate completed tasks
All of these roll up into the primary point of providing a view into your work and schedule. While writing, you should keep in mind your goal of giving a snapshot. This summary approach avoids flooding the reader with a lot of comments. Often the comments are about things potentially changing and impacting your projections or notes about events that don’t belong in a status.
When you are writing, the content should flow. Readers should not have to work to figure out which line of thought you are currently pursuing. If you respect your topic and your readers, you will find that content tends to flow. Regular status is a report, not a discussion.
The key to writing compelling content is to draw in the reader. Start with a title that makes (or alludes to) your point. Then create an introduction of the topic that states the point. Alternatively, provide some “teasing” that a solution or new information will be provided later in the article. In that case, the reader knows they just need to continue reading the article for the payout.
Emailing prospects/Email Etiquette
One of the things we will do in this course is to create emails to send to prospective customers. Emails are some of the trickiest content to create. The writer needs to provide a hook in the title that avoids immediate deletion or spam filters. Then the email has to provide the right amount of content to convey why your product or service is worth a further look.
The goal for email is sort of like the classic “elevator speech.” An elevator speech is aimed at an ideal customer and delivered in the time required to complete a ride in an elevator. The idea is that you get one chance to sell and a short time to convince the customer. Email is more likely to provide several attempts to sell. However, the emails are useless if not read. A strength of email is that you can build a relationship with the potential customer before ever giving them a pitch.
We will revisit this in future classes, but let’s look at some simple steps to get you started on writing future customers:
- Make sure the reader gets something out of reading your email. It may be a discount, but usually, it is better to provide some content with value like a helpful hint, or insight into a problem they likely need to solve
- Embrace the long game – You don’t have to sell right away. Work on becoming someone the reader knows and trusts so when you do have a pitch they will be more likely to respond.
- Give first – Provide a value to the audience early and often. You can look for information from the readers (likes/dislikes, problems they would like solved, etc.) once the relationship progresses.
- Provide links for further reading or more information and make sure they have ways to learn more about you. Links may be as simple as an email signature, but take advantage of opportunities to mention where you go into more depth about a topic.
Email etiquette is a moving target as Millennials move into the business world. However, here are some “do not do this” examples to keep in mind that are always valid:
Useless Subject Lines –
Bad subject lines are very common in e-mails of all types. Sometimes it is a title that was valid thirty replies prior, but no longer pertains to the content, or it may just be a subject line to take up space. E-mail subject lines like: “Hey,” “Here is a thought..”, etc. (where the subject line is essentially a start of the e-mail body) are easily ignored by the intended reader. Therefore, they are far more likely to be thrown out by spam checking software.
Always take a few seconds, at least, and provide a useful subject line. The subject line makes it easy for the intended audience to distinguish your message from others. When the e-mail is a regularly scheduled e-mail (such as a weekly status), include a date or time. Thus the reader can distinguish the e-mail from previous ones with similar subject lines. If the message applies to a single person, include their name. For example, an e-mail that is about an employee review could have a subject line of “Review: John Doe.”
It is hard to keep up with the large numbers of e-mails we receive each day. Thus, try to be helpful with easy to sort and filter subject lines. The CAN-SPAM Act provides some additional guidelines at https://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/business-center/guidance/can-spam-act-compliance-guide-business
Useless Responses –
One of the things I have found to be a common theme among the highly productive is a desire to avoid throwing away time. In an e-mail, an excellent way to waste time is to send a reply to an e-mail that is simply “ok,” or “yes.” These provide no additional information other than to say you agree with the message sender.
When there is a need to acknowledge an e-mail was received, respond using a full thought. For example, “I have read this e-mail and will comply,” or some similar text. You can be very clear by repeating the key points you agree with, although that may seem patronizing to some. Saying “ok” is wasting the reader’s time, if they want a read receipt they can often set that up on their mail client.
The use of useless responses applies to text messages even more. Often there is some alert set up for when people receive text messages. Therefore, receiving a notification that someone just said “ok” tends to be a nuisance. The worst of these is the reply all “ok” where dozens or hundreds of people now have an extra email of you saying “ok.”
Hard to read responses –
When responding to long e-mail, e.g. one that has several points or questions, it is easy to lose the reader. In particular when the conversational threads do not relate to the original question. A response that refers to the initial e-mail in ways that require the reader to parse the previous message (e.g. “in response to your question in paragraph two”) will make your feedback easy to ignore.
A reader should be able to read your response in a top-down fashion. They should not be required to keep jumping back to past messages. If you have a messy message you are referring to, then turn it into something easy to read as part of your reply. Starting a new thread with a summarization is also a good approach. It may even lead the original author to start writing more organized e-mails in the future.
The Infinite Reply Message –
It is easy to reply to a message with most mail applications. They also typically default to include the previous message. Long email threads cause problems when a reply is to a reply which is to a reply, etc. Each response in the chain adds more text and usually a bunch of signatures. The reader does not need to have the entire conversation included in your message when you reply. These long emails are particularly becoming an issue as more people use a phone for reading e-mail. Long e-mails are slower to load and are also going to hit the data plan for the phone if they are not on wireless.
Long emails are also hard to follow on a small screen. All those included reply messages from the past are a waste so just include the most recent message. Keep your messages direct and to the point rather than an addition to a conversation. There are much better ways to carry on conversations including messaging software and great apps like Slack.
A reply with no prior text –
The opposite of the infinite reply is a response to an e-mail where none of the earlier message text is included. A great example is an email body that says “See you there.” If the subject line does not provide enough detail, the reader is left asking “Where is there?” Even the best subject lines can make this frustrating if the e-mail does not stand on its own.
Wordiness is not Helpful –
The reason people prefer e-mail over phone calls often boils down details. Email provides a method to address the issue on the reader’s schedule and avoid conversational drift. Conversational drift is the “small talk” that always seems to occur on a phone call or impromptu meeting. This small talk is the “Hi, how are you?”, “I’m fine, how about you?”, “Hey did you see the game last night?”, Blah, blah, blah interaction. Pleasantries often keep quick phone calls from being quick.
In e-mails, it is best to stick to the rules of business communication. The rules include sending out an e-mail to your baseball team, the carpool members, and any other e-mails that are not explicitly personal. The exception is when you are writing a personal e-mail to a close friend or relative. The rules of business communication can be summarized as: be precise and be concise. Flowery language and long sentences that over-describe your points are just a waste of the reader’s time. Fiction writers can get away with spending pages before getting to a point. However, avoid this unless your writing is incredibly entertaining.
If you need a reader to spend long minutes or hours reading your email, write it in a document. Attach the document, so the reader knows what to expect. If you are known as someone who writes e-mails that take 15 minutes or longer to read, you will probably find your e-mail ignored more often than not.
Blatant errors –
E-mail is available as a quick response tool, but do not use it this way. You have time to compose an e-mail thoroughly. Use this time to make sure you use correct spelling, grammar, and re-read your response. Use a spell checker and even a grammatical checker if you have trouble with either of those areas. You may be highly educated, but if your e-mail looks like it was written by a two-year-old, then any points you make in the e-mail will lose credibility. When you do a subsequent read of your e-mail, ask yourself if you can say the same thing in a simpler fashion to help with wordiness mentioned above.
Unless you are in sales, you will likely spend far more time on business communications than working prospects. These interactions follow a lot of the standard etiquette rules from above but are even more focused. There is always a question or series of questions that are to be answered by a business communication. These may be implied or directly stated. When answering direct points, make sure every point has a corresponding response. Make it easy for the reader to tie the questions and answers together.
Bullet points are great ways to highlight a question and then place the answer with it. In the prior section, you can see an example of this. The numbered items answer the question: “What are things I should avoid when writing an email?” Then each simple answer (the bold text) is further detailed right next to the answer. An approach like this makes it easy for readers that want the simple answers. They quickly see those, while also making it easy to dig into the deeper answer.
If bullet points do not make sense for your presentation and flow, then try a summary. Summarize at the beginning and end of the communication to provide an option for those that need the condensed form of your content. Executives prefer a summary at the beginning. Cliffhangers and foreshadowing are improper techniques to use in business communication. You are not looking to keep the reader enthralled. Your goal is to inform them in as clear and quick a manner possible.
The Status Report
I have found the status report to be the most under-utilized form of communication in business. It often is treated as a necessary evil, but when done and used right, it is a great tool. However, it is not just a management tool. A status report can be used to sell and to provide risk avoidance (sometimes referred to as CYA). Whether you are asking for a report or providing one, here are the things it should contain:
- What happened
- Current plans
- Red flags/warnings/road blocks
- When appropriate, a pointer to deliverables
All of these items should be short, maybe even sentence fragments and are perfect for bullet points or a numbered list.
A Simple Status Template:
Status for Week Ending 2016-06-01 Concerns/Issues: 1. Support is not responding to emails 2. System outage caused loss of work and potential target date slip
Tasks Last Week:
1. Started system testing
2. Requirements document completed
3. Requirements document sent for review (due 6/10/16)
4. Vendor Selection process discussions
Planned for Next Week:
1. Full Vendor Selection Process
2. Update Requirements based on survey responses
3. Escalate Support issue if no response by Monday
Feel free to use this format and customize it over time. I like to add a logo, a business name, and some summary notes on the right side of the page. Note that the issues are listed in red and jump out at the reader. I have green for the completed tasks section to give some color coding. Sometimes it is useful to have green text for completed tasks and yellow for those that are still in progress. This color coding makes it easy to jump to the tasks that may be at risk.
The “hours” section is something I use in consulting engagements billed by the hour. Whether I invoice weekly or some other frequency, listing hours worked in the status report makes it easy for the manager to see current and project burn rate. I have my direct reports and vendors provide this to me as well. It allows me to avoid surprises.
One section that I sometimes include, but it is customer/project dependent, is a release schedule. I might add a section like this:
1.0 Version: Released 5/31/16
1.1 Version: Planned 6/7/16 (slipped one week due to outage)
1.2 Version: Scheduled Release 8/1/16 (on schedule)
For “give me the bottom line” people a section like this might be a great thing to put at the top of the status. A reader can quickly see if things are on schedule or not. They can read further if they need details. A status report may go to people at multiple levels of responsibility. Thus, a few line version section, like the one above, will help them avoid getting into the weeds of their projects.
A last note about status reports: they are great, but don’t count on the audience to read the complete report. I often include a synopsis in my status email. Additional communication around status (such as addressing blocking issues) is always provided in another email thread or conversation. Keep the title formatting easy to scan and drop in a mail folder rather than forcing it to be read. Thus, make it easy for managers to skim material when they don’t care about the details.
There are volumes written on blogging and how to be a successful blogger. At this time we will save you time and money by getting to the point all of the good books and articles make. They tell writers to write using their voice. There are a lot of technical details that go into a good blog (spelling, grammar, etc.). However, in the end, the best way to write a blog is to do it in the same way you talk to your friends and family.
Now let’s look a little more at those technical details. Any communication, whether an email, a proposal, or a blog, needs to have a point. Whether the point is a simple one (ice cream is great), or a complex one (The chemistry behind a great perfume scent), provide a flow from start to end. Some people have voices so good you would enjoy hearing them read the phone book. Similarly, a good writer can entertain readers with an article about dust bunnies.
A well-written article has a point, and it clearly makes that point. A great starting point, if you need a format, is to go back to the grade school approach. The “old school” approach is where the writer makes the point, adds three paragraphs for supporting the point, and then wraps up by making the point again. This approach can seem simplistic, but it is a useful method for keeping your writing from drifting away from the point.
Spelling and grammar may seem like things that only matter to English teachers, but they are not. You might be writing to an audience that is not full of great spellers and grammar wizards. However, you still will reduce the value of your content if it is full of mistakes. Put in the time and effort to edit and review your content. A review will help with flow and make it as error free as possible. Use spell checkers and grammar guides where possible. Pick a writing format that is consistent.
Passion is always important, but don’t let it be overshadowed by sloppy delivery. I will not bore you with a lecture on technical writing skills. Instead, I suggest you take a look at one of these books as a reference for your writing:
The Only Grammar Book You’ll Ever Need: A One-Stop Source for Every Writing Assignment
The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition
Proposals and RFPs
When you get to proposals, requests for proposals (RFPs), and requirements documentation, the key is in the details. If you are doing these for a customer or investor, then a close second is going to be the presentation. A proposal can be a few pages or an e-book of one hundred pages or more depending on how much detail is provided. When creating a proposal, make sure it is as detailed as possible. If it is a response to an RFP, ensure that all the points in the RFP have a corresponding response. Beyond that, some simple formatting can go a long way in a proposal. You are free to edit and brand the attached template for your needs. ( ProposalSample )
Open up the template and let’s look at a few essential parts of any proposal. Start with a title page. A cover page does not provide much content, but the inclusion does make a printed document look better. Add a logo and company information on your cover page. These make it more impressive, as you will see on some of the other templates in this class.
If you are presenting a proposal in person, always bring printed copies. You can provide a link to electronic format, but bring printed and maybe even bound copies to look more professional. It is surprising how much that helps. For electronic copies, make sure the document is not a format that can be edited, provide Acrobat or some other read-only format. Acrobat is best as pdf readers are near universal and most word processors generate content in pdf format to some extent. Just verify that any exported/save as version of a document still has good formatting.
As we move beyond the title page, note that it starts with a summary. Always start with a review and make sure it covers all of the core details of the project. This section will include key features (search, export, user customization, etc.) and the main screens/pages as well as reports (or groups of reports). A two column format seems to be ideal for presenting detailed information while still allowing for short summaries and opportunities to highlight key decision points. In the template case, there is an example of providing some general selling points for our approach without breaking the flow of the proposal itself.
Once a summary is created I have the three requirements of a proposal: key deliverables/milestones, time frames/schedule, and monetary cost/rate. These sections are the meat of your proposal and should tie back to the summary. You might have some additional items in the details (setup, deployment tasks, documentation, etc. ) but the closer the details map back to the summary, the better.
A good proposal meets the needs of the customer in a complete and not over-done way. If you find that the requirements have gaps that you address in detail, then make sure you provide a reason why. For example, a common requirements gap is user login and administration. You can add this feature into the details and note that the requirement for registered users implies that a login, registration, “forgot password screen,” and administration page for account information. Filling in gaps with good reasoning is recommended as it can quickly separate you from the competition. It might cause your proposal to cost more than others, but a customer is going to appreciate knowing the full cost up front rather than have to deal with a bunch of change orders or price adjustments due to missing requirements.
Finally, note that there is a mention of support and duration. Common concerns like support, who owns the source code, and documentation may not be mentioned by a customer. However, addressing them in a proposal shows that you know what you are doing. It adds confidence that you can provide them a complete set of requirements from the start.
When it comes to a request for proposals, the more details you provide, the better. A design document template is included to help you with this step. The template has some real content just to show how long this content can become. For your own purposes, I recommend you pick a format (fonts, colors, etc. ) and follow that through all the details of your application. Note that sometimes screen shots and diagrams are useful. A good design will cover all the details of the project, and a good proposal will address all of those details. Grab a template to get you started here: SampleDesign
White Papers and Books
White Papers, Books, and other forms of longer writing is a good way to build your personal brand and even generate a revenue stream. There is far too much of this type of writing to cover here, but we do want to provide a few guidelines if you want to pursue this.
- Much like a Blog, you are best off when writing in your voice. Do not try to be something you are not.
- Build a community around your writing. Blogging can build trust and community for a larger written work.
- Check out sites like Amazon (CreateSpace) and others. These provide a lot of tool and help in getting your work edited, designed, and published.
- Look at similar works in your target space to get ideas for formatting, cover pages, fonts, and even styles for your approach. Although you can always try to be new and unique in your approach, sometimes sticking to the standards is easiest.
- Don’t forget marketing. Tell people what you have done and why your book is a great read. Creating the written work is just the beginning of the effort involved in publishing.
If this is something you feel drawn to do, discuss it with the facilitators. They can provide more insight into these long forms of writing and can point you to the best resources.
- Make changes to the status template and create your branded status document. Provide us status for this week for class related work.
- Write a proposal for a real or fake project and brand the proposal template for your own business/company. Create a fake company name and logo if you must, but this is a good time to put together material for your dream business.
- Write a blog article on the topic of your choice. Send us the link when you have it completed. Make sure you do a review/edit of your article to check spelling, grammar, and flow.
- Come up with at least three ideas for white papers in your business. Send them to the facilitators.
- If you were to write a book what would it be about? Send us a brief note about your book, enough for us to get an idea of what it would be about.
Bonus: Take a look at CreateSpace and what it might cost to self-publish a book. What would you be able to make per book sold? This exercise is a way to create a baseline in case you get to a point where an e-book makes sense for your business.
When you are ready, it is now time to move on to the next step: Making Money With Your Site – Revenue Options.
There are hundreds of books and resources for writing of all types, but here are few we recommend:
Google ad words – an easy to use advertising platform Keep an eye out as there are often some free ads vouchers worth as much as $100-$200.