Why Great Writing Matters to Professional Services Firms
It’s easy to understand the value proposition of a Honda, iPhone, or pair of Dr. Marten boots. They’re tangible products you can touch, feel, and “test drive.” But what about an intangible one? Without having something physical to experience, you need another way to understand its value and purpose.
This is something professional services firms know all too well. Because their main offering, their expertise, is intangible, they have to find different ways to enable prospects and customers to “sample” what they sell—whether it’s a new approach to designing a supply chain, solving the legal challenges of a merger, or dealing with changes in the tax code. That’s the job of a firm’s articles, website, proposals, sales presentations, research studies, white papers, books and other publications. These are the physical embodiment of the firm’s expertise and the main avenue through which the firm communicates its value proposition.
And because of this, great writing is paramount in the professional services industry and others in which much of the “product” is delivered via the written word (Figure 1). Companies that rely on their published words to communicate the value of what they sell need to make sure those words are clear. If they’re not, firms risk not only squandered marketing investments, but also brand and reputation damage and the cold shoulder from prospects.
The Costs of Bad Writing
Despite the primacy of great writing in professional services, many firms still struggle to achieve it. And that can have significant consequences. Besides failing to communicate clearly what firms do, poor writing makes firms’ products—their professionals’ expertise—appear inferior. Bad writing can harm even firms with deep expertise and highly effective approaches by making it difficult for prospective clients to see the quality beneath the unattractive packaging.
Bad writing—confusing, jargon-filled, and mundane—incurs real costs. One is low return on investment in marketing activities. Newsletters, white papers, and research reports go unread. Conference and sales presentations yield few if any leads. Books languish in warehouses.
Poor writing also prevents professional services firms from getting noticed by the press and cracking influential management journals. Editors at the Harvard Business Review, for instance, sort through thousands of submissions every year. Proposals and manuscripts that are poorly written—to the point they obscure promising ideas—are summarily rejected.
Getting turned down by editors is one sin. A bigger one is getting the brush-off from potential clients. In a survey from The Economist Group, three-quarters of executives said they are more selective about what they consume—mostly because of the volume of content they’re exposed to. Thought leadership material that fails to communicate compelling ideas in a clear and engaging way won’t capture executives’ attention in an era of content overload.
How to Ensure Your Organization Writes Well
While many firms struggle to generate well-written and substantive documents, a number are truly adept at creating material that marries great insights with superior prose. McKinsey & Co., for instance, has set the standard for great thought leadership writing. The firm employs top-notch writers to produce its McKinsey Quarterly journal and other publications, as well as others who help consultants write and edit proposals. Deloitte Consulting, via Deloitte University Press, also excels on the writing front (particularly in its flagship publication, Deloitte Review).
Strong writing also is a hallmark of publications produced by well-known management consultants, past and present. Classic best-sellers such as The Innovator’s Dilemma (Clayton Christiansen), Built to Last (Jim Collins), In Search of Excellence (Tom Peters), The Effective Executive (Peter Drucker), and Reengineering the Corporation (Michael Hammer and James Champy) endure as much for their clear writing as the deep insights they communicate. And they helped the authors achieve eminence in their respective fields.
How can others emulate these leaders? Based on our extensive experience working with many leading firms and thought leaders, we’ve found five guidelines can help firms and independent consultants elevate the quality of their written documents (Figure 2).
#1: Match the writing task to the writer.
Many people from outside the writing profession believe “writing is writing.” It’s not. The writing skills required to produce great website copy, brochures, white papers, books, news releases, proposals, advertisements and videos can vary significantly.
In a professional services setting, the type of writer needed depends largely on the degree to which experts’ ideas must be developed and the sophistication of the skills required. Four types of writing tasks are typical in professional services (Figure 3):
> Promotional. Overtly sales-oriented pieces such as brochures and advertisements need writers who can spin creative, punchy, engaging copy that relies less on facts and more on flair to get the message across. While deep knowledge of the firm’s expertise is not necessary to construct effective promotional prose, a solid understanding of the firm’s customers—and what motivates and inspires them—is.
> Explanatory. This type of writing is important to developing strong sales proposals. The content of a proposal—the firm’s expertise, how the firm manages projects, the particular approach to the project at hand, and the background of the people on the project—is typically well-developed and -understood. Therefore, the writer simply needs to convey all pertinent information in a flow and words that are clear to the executive receiving it. When a writer helps an expert develop a proposal, the requirements are relatively basic: good grammar, proper sentence structure, clarity, and readability. The writer or editor needs less content knowledge because the expert is expected to bring highly developed content to the proposal. Fact sheets and news releases are other examples of explanatory writing.
> Educational. These publications include bylined articles submitted to external publications, “thought pieces” published in the company publication or newsletter, case studies on successful client work, and other documents that demonstrate the professional services firm’s expertise on a business problem and how to solve it. The tone of this writing is informative and fact-filled—not sales-oriented. The writer must be able to tell a logical story that doesn’t resort to breathless phrases or unfounded claims of superiority. Educational pieces are longer, allowing for an in-depth explanation of the problem and solution. Former journalists can be good sources of writing talent for these projects.
> Developmental. Writers for developmental works—research reports, major white papers, and books—must be skilled at pushing and often helping shape experts’ thinking. To some extent, developmental writers use the writing process to hone the ideas that are communicated, although the ideas must be sufficiently developed before they come to the table. These writers can be former journalists (particularly those with experience in in-depth feature stories on complex topics), researchers with good writing skills, and even experts themselves who have good writing skills.
#2: Get the writer up to speed on the topic at hand.
It’s virtually impossible for someone to write well about something he doesn’t understand. Therefore, in addition to matching the writing skill to the task, professional services firms must help the writer become knowledgeable about the topic at hand. That’s not to say the writer must become an expert on the topic. But he must have time to absorb background documents, research reports, presentations and other material. This should be done before he meets with the expert. Why? First, the writer will better follow the discussion and be able to ask the expert relevant and probing questions, and not waste time clarifying commonly understood terms and other aspects of the issue. Second, the expert is less likely to lose patience with a writer who “doesn’t get it.”
In the case of educational and developmental projects, it’s even more critical for writers to have a good understanding of the subject matter they’ll be working with—such as the industry, business function, or technology involved. A few days of “prep time” are no substitute for years of reading, writing and research on a particular issue.
#3: Set the rules of engagement between the writer and the expert.
To reduce the risk of battles over wording, both sides must have a good understanding and healthy appreciation of what the other brings to the table.
The experts clearly are the analysts. Writers must see their role largely as making the analysis clear and compelling—although the more developmental the writing task is, the more the writer will have to “push” the analysis. When the ideas aren’t developed—for instance, lacking case examples, supporting statistics, or sufficiently rigorous analysis—it’s the writer’s job to identify the gaps and suggest ways to fill them.
In turn, the experts must understand—and respect—the role of the writer: to make the experts’ ideas accessible and attractive to the firm’s target audience. The experts must realize they are responsible for developing powerful, fact-based ideas while the writer must be given the liberty to express those ideas in the best possible way. Importantly, the experts must recognize that the way in which the writer chooses to express those ideas—based on his training, expertise, and years of experience—may not be the way the experts would present them.
It’s not uncommon for experts to find it difficult to clearly communicate their ideas because they’re generally too deep into the subject matter. The best writers bring clarity, focus, and packaging to the project, which help make the words more compelling. They can cut through the jargon and cut out the fat, which lets the reader get to the heart of the matter as fast as possible. And it’s important for experts to appreciate these skills because, in the end, they make the experts look good.
(For a deeper discussion of this topic, see our paper “How to Optimize the Thought Leadership Interview with Subject Matter Experts.”)
#4: Insist the writer develop a detailed outline before drafting copy.
The outline is the secret sauce for compelling writing for professional services firms. It forms the crucial structure for helping an expert make an irrefutable case about the existence of a business problem and how it should be solved. A typical outline flow is noted in Figure 4.
The outline is especially critical because of how discussions with experts unfold. Few experts will sit down with a writer and go through their arguments in a structured way. More typically, the discussion jumps around as experts relate insights and experiences as they come to them (or as they’re prompted by the writer). Turning such a jumbled discussion directly into prose is technically possible. However, the resulting text, while readable, will be based on an argument that resembles the initial discussion: ad hoc and hard to follow.
The outline is the most powerful tool the writer and the expert have in the writing process. It helps the team develop the argument, identify weak points and pinpoint the examples, statistics and other data that help make a strong case.
Contrary to what many believe, the outline phase—not writing—is where the “heavy lifting” occurs. In fact, it’s not uncommon for an outline to be longer than the final article because the outline will amass a wide range of material that will be considered and condensed for the final product. In addition, while an outline for an article based on fully developed ideas can be produced in several days, an outline on a nascent concept can take several weeks.
Another important function served by the outline: It keeps the expert focused on the ideas and not the words. Everyone intuitively understands that an outline, by nature, is not written in fully formed, polished prose and is not the “final” representation of the concept. Thus, when reviewing an outline, experts are much less tempted to waste time tinkering with passages instead of doing what they’re supposed to be doing: strengthening the core content.
The outline is not only important as an idea development tool. It’s a stress reliever for both experts and writer. With a solid outline as the foundation of a piece, the writer won’t be forced to write—and experts made to read—draft after draft of an article that may or may not get better with each iteration. Relieved of such frustration, experts and writer can concentrate on polishing and fine-tuning the copy for publication when the draft is eventually written.
#5: Give the writer the latitude to help shape the content instead of merely parroting experts’ thoughts.
Often a writer is hired to “capture” subject matter experts’ thinking and turn it into brilliant prose. If it were only that simple. While experts certainly know their subject matter, they rarely excel in constructing strong arguments that clearly and logically lead a reader from problem statement through solution and results. Yet, experts can be resistant to what they perceive as interference from the writer, believing the writer is incapable of the insights necessary to help shape the content of the piece. In some cases, the experts are right because the wrong type of writer was hired for the job. But in other cases, a writer who is competent at educational or developmental writing can be extremely valuable in “elevating the point of view.”
In our experience, the most effective documents—especially those in the developmental category—are produced when experts and writers work as a team in developing the content. Experts lends their insights from years of client experience. Writers provide their expertise gained from years of shaping ideas and using the power of the written word to educate and influence readers.
Often, it takes a writer to help the expert “see the forest from the trees”—to gain a perspective on the topic the expert hasn’t seen to date. This doesn’t mean a writer tells the expert what to think. But with a fresh perspective, a writer can help experts see angles that could be more compelling. One example: A developmental editor with strong analysis skills could identify an interesting pattern in data generated by research on the topic that hadn’t been noticed previously. This could lead to a stronger and more differentiated point of view than what otherwise might have been written about.
The Writing Is on the Wall: Great Prose Matters
Without well-written marketing and sales materials, professional services firms make it difficult for prospects to buy their services and for their sales force to explain them. Given the words of a professional services firm are its “product,” great writing is critical to attracting prospects and getting them to buy. As executives increasingly have less time to read and are flooded by ever-more content, great writing is vital to capturing their attention and generating their interest.
To be sure, clear and compelling writing about complex ideas—the stock-in-trade of most professional services firms—is hard work. But it is attainable. And as past and current firms have demonstrated, those that get it right are the big winners in the battle of ideas.