Advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather is a fan of occasionally Tweeting advice from David Ogilvy, one of its namesakes. One recent Tweet included a brief memo penned by Ogilvy in 1982 on effective writing. As a time capsule from a simpler time when business communication was one way, very analog, and deliberate, it provides a nice dose of perspective, both for what has changed in the ensuing 34 years and how relevant the fundamentals of writing remain.
But while helpful, the list is definitely written from a B2C perspective, rendering some of the suggestions less helpful for B2B companies engaged in content marketing and thought leadership. Below is the list with some of my thoughts on what holds up and what should be updated.
1. Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. [Writing That Works, Harper & Row, 1981] Read it three times. I’ve never read it; it’s on my list. I’d add that Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is my go-to recommendation for those who ask me what they should read to get up to speed on writing style.
2. Write the way you talk. Naturally. I’m assuming he means to write without pretense or artifice, which is indeed crucial. In B2B content marketing, I’d add that it’s important to understand your audience and write with a tone and terminology they recognize. Businesses that don’t understand certain terminology undermine their cause when appealing to a specific industry audience.
3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs. This rule is a variation on Mark Twain’s maxim, “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do,” and Strunk and White’s, “Omit needless words.” Again, in ad copy for a B2C audience, whose attention is ever more fleeting, concise language is critical. When discussing technical or complex topics—for example, advanced analytics in healthcare—lengthy sentences are often unavoidable. But brevity should be the goal whenever possible.
4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass. Preach on.
5. Never write more than two pages on any subject. I assume he was referring to a strategy brief, press release, or some other document with a specific goal, channel, and audience. Still, the heart of thought leadership in the vein of the McKinsey Quarterly or Harvard Business Review is a detailed discussion of research, analysis, survey results, client engagements, or a perspective on an industry. I’m reminded frequently that readers in the social media age favor shorter pieces. However, a thoughtful presentation on a topic with numerous options of how to consume that content—a one-page executive summary, infographic, or short video—can lead to deeper engagement with the longer piece of content.
6. Check your quotations. Always.
7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning—and then edit it. Leaving time for reflecting and editing is critical for any document that will become public as well as communication with clients.
8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it. This step is standard operating procedure at our shop and something we believe separates us from individual contractors. Every piece of content we develop gets reviewed by one of our colleagues, who inevitably finds awkward sentences or gaps that need to be addressed. That team approach really elevates the quality of what we produce.
9. Before you send your letter or memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do. I would go a bit further here and assert that before you write a single word, you should be clear on the intended outcome. The end goal and audience affect everything in a piece of content, from the format and level of detail to the tone and word choice. If you haven’t completed that exercise at the outset, by the time you’ve written a piece and are getting ready to hit send, you’ve already spent (and likely wasted) a considerable amount of time.
10. If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want. As much as this pitfall must have dogged businesses in 1982 before the advent of email, it’s a constant challenge now—especially with email’s misunderstandings, unproductive back and forth, and sometimes angry clients (after all, it’s easier to be vitriolic or misconstrued via e-mail than in person). When working with clients, we try to be sensitive to when a phone call is needed to clear the air or touch base. Among the tasks that should probably never be handled through email include negotiations, feedback sessions, or explanations when something has gone wrong. It’s reassuring to pick up the phone, make contact in real time, and resolve issues that, left to other communications channels, would have festered for days or weeks before coming to a head.
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved by Ogilvy & Mather.
As with any numbered list, Ogilvy’s memo wasn’t likely meant to be exhaustive; it simply provides guideposts and a common understanding for how to approach written communications. Let me know your thoughts on the list—in particular about any rules that have been effective at your company.
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