Updated: Sep 12, 2020
You’re a badass IT professional – whether you’re in sales and marketing, solutioning or consulting. You’re smart, confident and cool. Everything would be perfect if you didn’t have to write.
It’s the suckiest part of your job. You either struggle with it or if you don’t, it’s your least favourite task. So you spend the least amount of time and effort writing. Why not? You’ve gotten away with it so far. But have you?
Poor Business Writing Equals a Whole Lot Of Trouble
Time for a wake-up call because whether you believe it or not, as a Professional Somebody, you need to communicate with a high-level of competency.
That's because being able to write and speak well can impact your career prospects. According to this Inc. article 50% of employers consider writing skills when hiring professional staff. If you're a salesperson, communicating value can help or hinder sales success. If you have to collaborate with others to design a solution, the ability to express your ideas eloquently is essential. And if you serve clients, being an empathetic communicator is a must.
And yet, we stumble expressing ourselves clearly when reaching out to prospects via email, when crafting sales proposal documents or when designing oral presentations.
According to Josh Bernoff, bad writing is also destroying your company's productivity while costing businesses billions. While I'm not sure where the stats come from, I know that poor communication gets us into a whole lot of trouble. Still, we put up with it even though we're reading more, not less, even as information continues to flood our eyeballs. Our customers are in the same boat, pummelled by waves of information. All they can do is duck for cover.
Into The Bonfire Of The Writing Vanities We Go
Have you noticed that potential customers are rebelling at tech companies' tendencies to deliver wordy and abstract sales proposals full of technical jargon? What I'm seeing is that more clients are providing guidance on our writing approach. They are saying things like, "Please use precise and concise language to explain your offering." Or, "Your response must be direct and to the point."
That's the kind vendors. The rest are fed up. Right now, our more than 100 page, poorly written sales proposal is being contemptuously discarded into the nearest bonfire as they plot to punish the vendor (you and me) for being an oxygen stealer. Why? Well, we're wasting their precious time and energy, which is in short supply.
Often they will give us page restrictions. Typically, I'm seeing 40-60 page limits for the technical solution scope where in the past we would produce 150 to 300 pages detailing complex technology offerings.
We're starting to get a clue that the marketplace thinks our sales proposals suck big time, but we hold on to the old ways, circa the 1980s and 1990s - the Golden Age when we could charge any price and say whatever we wanted because you didn't have the Internet.
Our 1980s hubris is keeping us stuck writing self-serving opening paragraphs to executive summaries like this pearl: "We are delighted to submit our proposal for XYZ. As the leading provider of ABC, we believe we are the partner of choice to guide you in your digital transformation. This is based on our vast experience, global partner network, and next-generation solutions". Yuck.
Only Plain English Devotees Will Inherit The Earth
What else are we getting wrong?
Our writing is complicated. We tend to circle the world two or three times before we get to the point.
We can't seem to wrap our heads around a new way of communicating to the marketplace – crafting messages in plain English using simple words. We mistakenly believe this will dumb-down our message. And what's more, when the hapless editor tries to curb our clever, convoluted verbiage, we say, "I've been writing like this for the last 25 years, and I've sold millions of dollars of software, so why should I change?"
Well, I bet you've also been on the losing end of plenty of tenders even though you've poured your time, heart and soul into them. I can guarantee that at least a third of your losing proposals were due to a lack of writing capability.
How many millions of dollars of lost revenue has that cost your company and how much commission has it cost you?
Care Factor Zero
I don't see a lot of improvement in sales proposal writing, and frankly, it's depressing. There are a lot of reasons for this, which I won't get into today but one of them is that we only give minimal time to writing proposals compared to the extensive time spent coming up with the solution and working out cost models.
But the biggest reason I don't see a lot of improvement is that people don't care.
Care factor is a big, fat zero.
Management, focussed on ensuring we are not at risk while offering the vendor a competitive price, unintentionally supports the team's careless attitude toward proposal writing. Pricing and deal assurance is hugely important but writing a compelling, customer-focussed sales proposal is equally important considering it has a significant impact on whether we progress to the next stage of the deal. As, Tom Sant says: "Although a great proposal by itself seldom wins a deal, a bad proposal can definitely lose one."
Busting The Price Myth
If I hear another person tell me it's all about price and not the quality of the written proposal, I'm going to scream! Yes, price is important. So come up with a competitive price and do it efficiently. If pricing is similar among competitors the work will be awarded to you dear Seller if it makes the customer feel you are trustworthy and makes them think and believe you are competent enough to deliver the service. Whatever the price, if you can't capture the buyer's heart and mind in the written word, into the sin-bin your proposal goes!
Artificial or Natural – Get an Editor's Help!
So what can we do about improving our business writing skills?
At a company where I was previously employed, there was effort to improve proposal writing quality through lunch and learns and face-to-face coaching. But with only a few professional human writers and editors, it's a big ask. This is where artificial intelligence (AI) can play a role in more effectively improving the writing skills of a large group of people, with the likes of Grammarly, Microsoft and Google all competing in the AI-grammar assistance space. At least an emotionless bot doesn't judge us as it prompts us to untangle complicated sentence structure or correct grammar mishaps unlike flesh and blood editors who can be testy and impatient.
Of course what AI can't yet do is help people write competitively positioned sales proposals, like linking the technical solution to the customer's business objectives.
Always Edit Your Writing, Not Once But Often
When I edit my writing, I can go through 10 drafts. I read the content onscreen, via a printed version and I switch on Grammarly twice: when I've finished writing my first draft and again after I've tweaked my copy several times over.
If you want to improve your writing today, start paying attention to your inbuilt grammar tool. You can also read out loud what you’ve written which works wonders to help monitor how logically you've progressed your ideas. A common failing of highly intelligent people is cramming multiple ideas into one sentence, which confuses readers. I see this a lot. Apparently, it’s not your fault. You're cursed with having too much knowledge. The lesson here: unpack all that expertise and simplify concepts as your audience usually doesn’t know as much as you do. Just don’t patronise them.
Writing Tools Do More Than Check Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation
People write passively in B2B IT and because I work so closely with them, I unconsciously pick up writing this way too. But active voice is more appropriate in sales-focussed business communications. This includes sales proposals from the executive summary to your technical response document.
The grammar checker in MS Word and Grammarly pick up passive sentences making it easier to reshape them into action-oriented text.
If you’re not used to using the active voice, it might initially feel awkward and unnatural but it makes for a dynamic reading experience. Active voice breathes life into abstract, complex ideas and makes your words sparkle. It shortens sentences and most importantly, it gets the reader more involved in your message.
You should also proofread what you’ve written before you send it out to the world. You can read my tips on how to do that effectively here. I can’t stress enough how important it is to pay attention to grammar hints and tips you're getting from your grammar tools. I know a lot of you ignore them. Please don’t.
Make The Customer Your Magnificent Obsession
Once you improve your business grammar, it's time to get persuasive on paper. Being persuasive in B2B IT isn't about employing ‘smoke and mirror' tactics, exaggerating and BS-ing the customer to sign on the dotted line: it's writing about your IT services from the customer's perspective.
To do that, you have to know the customer better than you know yourself. You have to be willing to dive into their ocean.
You have to take the time to immerse yourself in their world, their problems, their customers, their operations and their vertical industry. That's why responding to a tender where we have little or minimal interaction with the potential customer is a loser's game.
Think about the customer and what they want at all times. Maybe you've got something to offer they can't see the value of yet. That's okay just think about what you want to offer from their perspective.
Make the customer your magnificent obsession. They are your locus, not your company, its services and products. At every turn show them, What's In It For Me (WIIFM). When I first started writing sales copy in IT, eyeballing me was a WIIFM, post-it note stuck to my computer monitor. It served as a reminder that I didn't represent my company; I represented the customer's interests. It helped centre my writing to focus on how we were helping them achieve business objectives like improving efficiencies, cutting costs or delighting their customer.
Give A Little Respect
It's fundamental, isn't it? We need to keep the customer front and centre of our thoughts. Sure, but what I see across sales proposals is a lack of putting the customer first – something that’s obvious to them when we copy and paste boilerplate content.
It also tells the customer you don’t respect them. In the words of Aretha Franklin:
“I'm about to give you all of my money / And all I'm askin' in return, honey / Is to give me my propers / All I'm askin' / Is for a little respect…”
They see this lack of respect when they have to read your sloppy writing riddled with punctuation and grammatical errors. They also don’t feel respected when your prose is dense and abstract and full of weasel words or blahketing – a combination of blah, blah, blah and marketing fluff.