Category Archives: Writing Tips

Be a better financial writer: 4 ways to sharpen your financial game

financial writing educationWhether you’re a seasoned financial writer who wants to navigate nuanced topics or a general copy writer who wants to improve your depth of knowledge, continuing financial education is essential. If you want to land complex assignments and assure clients that you’re fluent in their language, check out these four ways to sharpen your game:

  1. Get in the news flow: Subscribe to several relevant financial publications. The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and The Economist are a good start for mainstream news. Specialized publications feature interpretation and analysis of market moves and industry trends. Some popular choices include Barron’s, Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, Breakfast with Dave, Investor’s Business Daily and Institutional Investor.

Niche publications can help you stay current on a specific corner of the financial world – for example, The Deal specializes in intelligence on financial transactions, including mergers and acquisitions, and private equity exits.

While you won’t add “avid newspaper reader” to your resume, the habit will build your financial vocabulary and help you write better, more topical pitches and pieces than you would if you didn’t keep up to date.

  1. New York Institute of Finance certificate: You can put this one on your resume. Attend classes online or on-site to obtain a professional certificate. Programs range from introductory (Capital Markets Professional Certificate) to specific (Advanced Derivatives Professional Certificate). Completing a course earns you a certificate of completion, and if you score 70 percent or above on the final exam, you’ll receive a certificate of mastery.
  1. CFA Institute Investment Foundations™ certificate: Designed for anyone who works in the investment world – from information technology teams to marketing folks – the program is built to give a clear understanding of how the investment management industry works. Its modules cover investment instruments, ethics and regulations. You’ll study with an e-book and use the online learning platform, then take the exam at a local testing center.
  1. University certificate programs: Most universities offer finance courses through their continuing and professional studies departments. For example, the NYU School of Professional Studies offers several self-paced online classes, including focused topics, such as real estate capital markets. Many universities also offer robust curricula, like Georgetown University’s corporate finance certificate program, which requires completion of seven in-person courses.

Writers who work exclusively in finance may also consider obtaining a FINRA Series 7 license or earning the Chartered Financial Analyst® credential. Both have stringent eligibility and registration requirements.

How do you continually build your financial knowledge? Let us know in the comments below.

10 reasons to appreciate a kick-ass editor

How editors transform contentEveryone needs an outstanding editor. Even those writers who have years of experience and the skills to match need fresh eyes on their copy. Great editors find and question holes, ensure stories flow logically, make dull copy shine, trim flab, erase errors, and work with writers to help them improve.

For many writers, the devil is in the details. They may not recognize that using five words instead of 50 in a paragraph can pack a powerful punch or that alliteration like the ps in this paragraph put pizzazz in ordinary prose. Editors do – and they often make magic.

Let’s explore 10 ways editors transform content. They:

  1. Create a smooth reading experience. Content should flow logically. It should have a strong beginning and end, answer readers’ questions, have clean transitions for each paragraph, and tie everything together in a nice package.
  2. Banish bloat. Unnecessary words are a distraction. Cutting them makes content direct and readable. Start by deleting “very” and “really.” Really, it’s OK. Another tip: Don’t start sentences with “There are.” It’s weak and lazy. Make every word count.
  3. Power up wishy-washy. A strong, confident writing voice instills trust. Starting sentences with “I believe” and “I think we need to,” is a power stealer. Delete these and the message will be clear.
  4. Vaporize redundancies. The Department of Redundancy Department gives editors plenty to do. Examples include “at the present time” and “the end result.”
  5. Boycott buzzwords and jargon. Content should be accessible and understandable. Don’t try to fluff up writing with big, important-sounding words and industry terms. No one will read it.
  6. Pummel passive voice. Active voice is clear and concise, while passive voice is impersonal and adds unnecessary words. Passive voice also makes the subject ambiguous. “It was heard by Susan that a companywide audit was scheduled.” Who scheduled the audit?
  7. Fact-check. Trust but verify. Dates, names and places are examples of the content editors target.
  8. Plug holes. Weak writing leaves unanswered questions and frustrates readers. Holes can range from a click-bait headline that doesn’t tie back to the content to a story that trails off without resolution.
  9. Spice it up. Varying sentence length and punctuation is one way editors put the sparkle in ho-hum content. Other tricks of the trade: incorporating long and short paragraphs, substituting power words for weak words, and making dull headlines shiny.
  10. Polish until its professional. Grammar, punctuation, spelling and style errors will burn a writer’s reputation faster than using alternative facts. Writers often miss these, especially when they’ve read their copy 10 times.

An amazing editor is behind every piece of effective content. Whether they work on websites, e-books, blog posts, case studies, email campaigns, articles, brochures, postcards, or other initiatives, editors make content the best it can be.

Have you worked with an editor? How did it help your content? Share your experience in the comments.

Who do you think you are?

authentic brand copywritingWhen I was in fourth grade, our teacher tasked us with writing our “autobiographies.” Given that a compelling and lengthy personal narrative is a rarity among 9-year-olds, she also told us to write a chapter about what we thought our futures would hold. I wrote that “I will be a linebacker for the Chicago Bears and will marry a blond-haired girl.” One out of two ain’t bad.

If I had the patience or discipline to embark on such an exercise today, with four more decades under my ever-expanding belt, it would certainly lead me to engage in some serious self-reflection about who I am and what common themes define my personal story beyond “Disneyland was super neat!”

Crafting your company’s content should involve similar introspection.

In a previous post, I asked, “Who do you think you’re talking to?” That is to say, you should consider your target audience’s perspective when developing your content. Who is likely reading this? What’s important to them? What do they know about your industry, company or product?

Now, it’s time to ask yourself “Who do you think you are?” Whether you’re writing website copy, a blog post, or any other marketing collateral, you should know who you are or at least how you wish to appear before typing a single word. Your business’ identity, core values and culture should play a big, if not defining, role in the tone and substance of your content.

How can content convey who you are beyond explicitly spelling it out? “We are a company that manufactures the highest-quality widgets at the lowest price.” Here are two tips that can help you incorporate your company’s personality in your marketing content:

  1. Do some navel-gazing.

You may already have given a great deal of thought to your corporate identity. Perhaps you have a company mission statement that conveys what you are all about and identifies your primary objectives. Maybe your branding is strong and clear. If so, it’s important to take the defining elements of that identity and carry it forward into your content. If you haven’t spent time being a little touchy-feely about who you are as a company, you should do some brainstorming alone or with core members of your team.

Ask yourself:

  • What five words or phrases describe my company?
  • Why did I go into business in the first place?
  • How do I want prospects and customers to feel about my company after they visit my website for the first time?
  1. Make sure your voice is your voice.

If I could somehow conjure up William Shakespeare to ghostwrite my autobiography, I wouldn’t do it. As brilliant and timeless as the Bard’s encapsulation of my life may be, it wouldn’t reflect who I am. His writing would sound incongruous and awkward compared with how I am or appear to others — at least until I start living my life in iambic pentameter.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have someone write your content, but your content should sound like you. Maybe not the you watching the Cubs in Game 7 of the World Series or the you stuck in traffic on the Kennedy, but the you in a meeting with a client or on the phone with a potential customer. If someone reads your website expecting one thing and then gets another when they start interacting with you, it can dilute your company identity and be off-putting.

It has been said that you can’t fake authenticity. Your marketing content shouldn’t try to do so, either.

How does your content convey your identity? Let us know in the comments.

3 visualizations to bring clarity to your copywriting

Visualizations to clarify your writingGraphic designers might be the masters of all things aesthetic, but copywriters think visually, too. The images in our heads just manifest themselves as words, sentences and paragraphs, rather than colors, lines and typefaces.

I grew up drawing, painting, and exploring all things creative. At one point, my family encouraged me to pursue visual art as a career, but my heart was always with the written word. I originally aspired to become a songwriter, and spent several years in the music industry trying to finagle my way from the business side into songwriting. That master plan never quite panned out, and so I eventually found my way to marketing, which I immediately connected with as a copywriter.

Don’t worry, I’m not here to tell you my life story. My point in sharing my background is only to give context to a few visual references that help me with new projects and may come in handy for your next writing adventure. Off we go!

A painting of a pristine beach

One of the most common challenges among busy professionals who don’t write for a living is the struggle to complete their work. Maybe you’re familiar with this scenario: Edits and “finishing touches” are circuitous, causing the most dedicated writer to ultimately lose interest and energy. Worse, the work is tainted with some combination of typos, grammatical errors and underdeveloped thoughts.

Try this: Picture your marketing piece – whether it’s a blog article, web page, case study or white paper – as a painting of a pristine beach. After a round or two of revisions, you’ve probably painted a pretty clear and inviting picture. If you keep dabbing at it, you’ll start adding things that might seem like additions, but, in actuality, will erode readers’ enjoyment. Before you know it, your pristine beach will have birds swooping, babies crying, boomboxes blaring, and whales jumping, and it will become too much. Plus, you’ll miss the next opportunity to create another masterpiece.

Your digital storefront

Was that first visualization a little “out there” for you? Let’s bring it back to the basics, and talk about your website. Many marketing experts will tell you that your website is “your digital storefront,” meaning the first place people go to learn about your company.

With the digital storefront concept in mind, think about your website from a content standpoint. Would you rather have sharp, concise messaging that makes a strong and welcoming first impression or a scattered appearance that drives visitors away? When designing or redesigning a website, it’s important to put time and thought into the strategy before you move into content development. Otherwise, you could end up with a digital storefront that repels customers instead of attracting and converting them.

“Catering” to all readers

A best practice for any digital copywriting – again, think blog articles, websites, white papers, etc. – is to break the content into sections with subheads. The reason for this is not just for general “scanability,” but for readers to be able to pick and choose which information they want to digest. Subheads allow you to essentially create a “menu” of the offerings in your information, so you can cater to casual and formal readers alike. Those who prefer a quick bite can find exactly what they’re looking for, while the ones who might want a more complete experience can work their way through each course.

Now, let’s have some fun with this. What visualizations do you use when creating content? Tell us in the comments below.

Writing for a financial audience? 3 tips to nail the delivery

writing for a financial audienceWhen it comes to creating impactful financial writing, subject matter expertise is a great start. Solid marketing chops and a well-crafted editorial plan help, too. But what about the content itself? Here are three quick tips to enhance your financial communications.

  1. Know your audience

As fellow copywriter Dave Argentar wrote in his recent blog post, high-quality content is approachable and tailored to a specific audience. In financial writing, this often comes down to pinpointing your reader’s level of financial sophistication.

An institutional investment professional will likely know the relationship between the Fed and interest rates, so you could forego any drawn-out explanation. Keep your reader engaged and get straight to the point. But writing for a wider consumer audience is a different story, and assumptions about knowledge can be dangerous. Take a hint from The Wall Street Journal: When describing fluctuations in the bond market, the publication always notes that yields move inversely to prices.

This concept also spills into the area of compliance. Is the content subject to FINRA’s rules on communications with the public? If so, you’ll need to maintain a fair and balanced tone and omit any performance predictions.

  1. Incorporate meaningful charts …

If you have a lot of data to discuss, charts can help to simplify the delivery. Best practices for charts and graphs include:

  • Be clear: Label all axes, clarify the units of measure and use colors strategically.
  • Draw conclusions: The title of the chart and/or the adjacent commentary should draw an obvious conclusion. For example, a chart titled, “U.S. Dollar Correlation to Gold at All-Time High” is more constructive than one titled, “U.S. Dollar Index Daily Correlations to Gold, 1970-2016.”
  • Make it skimmable: Trends should pop out at a glance.
  • Be selective: If a chart doesn’t advance your argument or provide necessary context, consider removing it. The same thinking applies to elements within a chart. Is it beneficial to show data all the way back to 1970, or will it just add noise?
  1. … But don’t weigh the prose down with too many numbers

It can be tempting to rely heavily on numbers in financial writing, but try to exercise restraint in the main paragraphs and chunks of prose. Too much data will frustrate—and probably bore—your reader.

Read your draft aloud. If key points are getting lost in a sea of numbers, consider cutting where you can and rephrasing elsewhere. Smooth out the flow by swapping in “decade” for “10 years” or “more than doubled” for “an increase of 102.8%.”

For more advice about writing clear and direct financial content, check out “Economical Writing” by Deirdre N. McCloskey.

What tips do you have for connecting with financial audiences? Let us know in the comments below.

Who do you think you’re talking to?

strong copywriting contentBefore I followed my passion and made writing and content marketing my career, I took some time after college to get my head together and mature a bit. Many of my friends did the same; backpacking around Southeast Asia, working on a fishing boat in Alaska, or embarking on similar pursuits. I, on the other hand, went to law school and spent 16 years as a trial lawyer. I didn’t own a decent backpack and I got seasick easily, so it seemed like a good call at the time.

During my brief sojourn in the law, I saw a problem with content marketing that I still see in a wide range of industries, services, and professions. Oftentimes, writing designed to convey expertise and thought leadership fails to do either because it doesn’t take the reader’s perspective and priorities into account.

It is said that law school teaches you how to “think like a lawyer.” Unfortunately, thinking like a lawyer often had the side effect of causing one to write like a lawyer and communicate like a lawyer, even in contexts where doing so was ineffective or counterproductive (just ask my wife).

This problem manifested itself most often in interactions with clients and prospects. They were looking for a lawyer because they had a complicated legal matter involving issues or laws they didn’t understand. It wouldn’t do those folks much good if all I did was simply regurgitate these complexities in an equally incomprehensible way, as brilliant as my regurgitation may have been.

The desire to impress (and justify our six-figure student loans) through conveying our expertise and deep understanding of the law would lead to marketing content which, while accurate and on point, was often worthless and unenlightening to those untrained in law.

The fundamental issue was the failure to modify substance, language, and tone based on the content’s intended audience or desired purpose. What works in a legal brief submitted to a judge isn’t necessarily right for a blog post to a wide and varied audience. Winning a legal argument is not the same art as converting a prospect into a client.

No matter your business, you want folks to know that you know your stuff. You want to provide thought leadership and relevant, actionable information. But you need to remember that your expertise must remain accessible to be effective. That doesn’t mean “dumbing down” your content or being condescending. It just requires you to step out of your own mind and instead think like your readers.

Ask yourself these questions when you’re writing client-facing content:

  • Who is this content for?
  • Why would someone want to read this content?
  • What is the reader’s likely knowledge base about the subject or your company?
  • If you knew nothing about the subject, would you understand what you wrote or why it was important?

As Atticus Finch told Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view… until you climb inside it and walk around in it.” When crafting your content, try to think like that lawyer.

How do you make sure your content is approachable? Tell us about it in the comments.

Are you guilty of lazy marketing?

lazy marketingI have a confession.

It’s not as bad as stealing coins from a blind man or cheating on a test, but it ranks high in the thou-shalt-not-commit-marketing-sins category.

Ready? Here goes …

I’ve let an occasional hackneyed phrase remain in my content marketing, even though it made my teeth itch. The reasons are complicated, but let’s just say it was unavoidable. Mea culpa!

The truth is that it’s hard to be creative and compelling 24/7. When you’re digging for engaging content that converts – let’s say you’re writing about screws and toggle bolts for a living – well, you might resort to using “innovative” and “leading edge” out of desperation.

You’re better off leaving cringe-worthy hype in your back pocket, however. How many times will your audience read tired platitudes like “world class” and “robust solution” before they bail on you to call 1-800-KILL-CLICHÉ?

Clients and prospects don’t care that your products and services are “best of breed.” They want to know how you’re going to solve their problems. They want to know that you understand their businesses and their challenges and that you’re the right person for the job. Share success stories and results.

For example, nobody cares that your firm provides premier shipping services that meet exacting industry requirements. But people will pay attention if you guarantee 24-hour delivery for all packages.

It seems like a no-brainer and yet websites, email and direct marketing are appallingly full of generic drivel.

Here’s how to fix it: Ask “why” for every benefit you think you provide. Let’s say you’re a yoga instructor who offers classes for pregnant women.

Why do the women hire you? Why do they need a yoga instructor?

You might say it’s because yoga will help them relax. Why do they need to relax?

Because they’re expecting. Is that a sufficient reason to pay you for hourly classes when they could put that money toward their kids’ college funds. Nope!

Why would they want to give up an hour every week? Is it because they want to bend like a pretzel?

Maybe it’s because they want to experience less pain during delivery and prenatal yoga will help them do that. Or maybe they want a gentle way of de-stressing between diaper changes. Could it be because they want to regain their pre-pregnancy shape faster?

Try again. Why would women want to take prenatal yoga classes?

Maybe it’s because they need “me” time before their lives are completely disrupted.

Or maybe it’s so they can regain their pre-baby shape back faster.

Or maybe it’s because they want to make friends with other pregnant women so they have someone to lean on when they’re sleep-deprived and need adult conversation.

Focusing on the benefits that your prospects and customers really want – not superficial fluff – will help keep them coming back for more.

Does your marketing address your customers’ desires? How could your messaging be more persuasive? Let us know in the comments below.


The biggest mistake you’re making in your website content

content writing for compelling websitesHere’s a quick test: Go to the home page of your website and read the first sentence or phrase. Does it start with “We”? If so, it’s time to change your perspective.

Just like your eyes glaze over when your date drones on about his latest juice cleanse, a prospect will lose interest fast in a self-centered company. You may think you’re providing your readers with helpful information, but simply listing your company’s qualities and product features in exhaustive detail isn’t going to cut it.

To connect with your audience, put yourself in their shoes – it’s about them, not you. Here’s a guide to writing content that turns prospects into customers.

  1. Focus on their needs. What problems are your customers trying to solve? How does your solution meet their needs? Identify the top two or three things you can do for clients, whether it’s save them time through automation software or satisfy their hunger with a delicious pizza, and lead with those in your content.

Bonus tip: Back up your claims with success stories or testimonials from other clients when possible. Hearing a third party sing your praises is much more convincing.

  1. Use active language. Consider this sentence: “Our financial services firm draws on its wealth of experience to create customized plans for our clients.” It’s all about the company, not about the customers it’s trying to reach.

Now try it this way: “Secure your family’s financial future by partnering with our experienced managers to create a wealth management plan.” Clear, personal and empowering.

Bonus tip: Get to the point. Two to three sentences per paragraph are plenty.

  1. Make the call to action clear. Once a prospect has read your persuasive prose, what do you want them to do? Fill out a form? Sign up for your newsletter? Make the path to conversion obvious and compelling by spelling it out.

Bonus tip: If you’re directing prospects to a form, keep it short. According to this Unbounce post, one company saw a 120 percent spike in submissions by reducing its form fields from 11 to four.

What are your best techniques for writing compelling site content? Let us know in the comments below!

Your guide to having style

style guide image

Is it “don’t” or “do not”; “can’t” or “cannot”? Can a subhead be a question? Is the hyphen necessary in “non-essential”? What’s the plural possessive of your company name? Is it even OK to modify the company name? These questions – and more – can pop into a writer’s head within minutes of working on your content.

The fastest way for writers to get the answers they need is to develop a thorough style guide. It ensures consistency throughout your materials – regardless of who writes or edits them – by providing quick and definite answers to common questions. Don’t have one yet? Follow these steps to create a style guide that will keep your copy consistent.

  1. Establish a baseline. Creating a style guide from scratch would burn through massive amounts of time and resources, so we suggest letting someone else do that work for you. Fortunately, you can pick from several existing guides, like the Chicago Manual of Style, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, The Columbia Guide to Online Style, Microsoft Manual of Style, The Yahoo! Style Guide, or – our go-to – the Associated Press Stylebook. Certain style guides are better for specific content or formats, so do a little research to see which one matches your needs.
  2. Break the rules the right way. Once you have a good starting point, create a list of your company’s exceptions to the style guide and preferences that aren’t covered. Note all spellings, hyphens, contractions and punctuation that contradict your chosen style guide. For example, do you use “adapter” or “adaptor”? “Percent” or “%”? By listing only exceptions to an established style, you’ll be able to keep your company’s style guide concise and easy to reference.
  3. Define rules around trademarks. Company names and trademarks don’t always conform to standard grammar. List constructions of your company’s trademarks to use or avoid so that issues don’t creep into your copy. Be sure to cover how you want writers to handle possessives, plurals and modifiers. For example, if you were working with Best Buy, would you say “multiple Best Buys” or change it to “multiple Best Buy locations” to avoid the plural company name? How would you choose to handle the possessive in “Amazon’s Prime subscription service,” versus “Amazon Prime’s subscription service” or “Amazon Prime subscription service”?
  4. Run through different formats. Common projects, such as newsletters, quarterly reports, presentations, brochures and postcards, might require separate style sheets to let writers know any differences or preferences that apply only to those formats. If you want to make sure that every bullet point in your brochures starts with a verb, put it on the style sheet. Don’t want to see any questions in your newsletter headlines? Put it on the style sheet so that your writers know what you want to see.
  5. Use it! Accessibility is key for keeping a style guide in use and updated. Make sure your writers have access to your baseline style guide, whether in print or online, as well as whatever style sheets apply to their assignments. Writers will love having a quick reference guide, and you’ll love not having to make the same changes repeatedly in the review process.

Are you happy with your company’s style guide? Let us know in the comments below.

Engage your customers with a real voice

talking-guys-1428187Just like in consumer marketing, the voice of a B2B company is an essential component of that brand’s identity. It steers all company communication – in person, in print and online – and gives the brand consistency across multiple messaging platforms. Consistency isn’t the only goal, however. Your brand’s voice should resonate with your customers.

So, when your customers are other businesses, do you have to keep your messaging “corporate”?

Read more…