The Formal Myth
There’s a myth in business communication. I don’t quite know where it comes from, and it’s kind of an unwritten rule which still somehow rules the roost, despite the fact you can generate more enquiries, convert more of them into clients, or even win more tenders if that’s what you do.
But only if you challenge the myth. And take a much more informal tone, specifically on your website and in your marketing.
Granted, transactional communications with existing clients, do need to retain an air of formality – for example, the exchange of contracts or the typical court-related correspondence in legal matters.
But perhaps much more informally and plain-speaking is better when you’re chatting to someone about buying what you offer?
In communications when writing to a potential client, or, submitting a tender, these unwritten rules seem to state that you have to de-humanise what you say and be exclusively formal in tone.
Why do I know this? Because that’s what I was taught. Back in the 1980’s, I was schooled that way in the export business. Every letter we wrote had to be constructed in a very specific and formal way.
Things have changed somewhat, thankfully, but having been taught the way I was, I can understand the resistance. And I may have stayed that way too until my income depended on it!
I switched from sales to marketing – mainly because I had noticed that when people call you, it’s a much easier sale than when you call them. So I wanted to know how to grab the attention of people I’d quite like to call me.
Armed with my years of formalised communication training, my initial forays into the world of marketing were pretty unsuccessful. My precise grammar and carefully constructed letters enclosing a brochure fell on deaf ears.
It was only when I studied did things change. Aside from my formal marketing studies, I had a day-job. And if I succeeded, my earnings rose.
So I studied ‘direct marketing’ and read many of the leading books on copywriting that were not covered in the marketing syllabus.
And I was a sceptic at first. They advocated speaking as you would if you were in front of the client. Taking the formality out.
At the time, I had a particularly open-minded employer. He too had always taken the formal tone, but he let me try a different approach.
Instead of the odd enquiry every now and again from our marketing efforts, the very first campaign kicked off our fax machine. With orders coming through one after the other (this was the mid 1990’s before email was mainstream).
We got over 100 orders from around 3,000 letters sent.
And in a company used to receiving 1 or 2, this was a game-changer.
Speaking in an informal tone doesn’t mean casual or unprofessional. It means communicating in a way that people want to be spoken to – much more plainly in other words.
And that’s probably what’s happening right now – I do try my best to write more or less how I’d say it.
And a lot of informal communication, particularly in the context of engaging with people in a way to build rapport and ultimately sales, has ‘word-of-mouth’ at its core.
Usually, the words you would say about yourself, are not that different from what your happiest clients would say about you.
The difference being that when they say it, bias is removed.
And that’s what I love about the work I do. The campaigns I’ve done applying informal language, expressed through the words of clients I’ve interviewed, has won awards.
Not just because of the aesthetics of how the campaigns look, but because of the ‘word-of-mouth’ informal content, judged principally on how much money they make compared to the cost.
You see you can be less formal when you interview a client and use their words. They won’t talk in jargon. They will talk about the experience of working with you.
And what do potential clients want to hear? They want to hear about what it is like working with you through the eyes of somebody that has.
And that brings me to my final point – the phrase ‘case studies’. It’s an internal debate we have regularly! You see when we say that, immediately, people think of the documents you include with proposals or tenders. So they don’t get that what we do for you is much more powerful.
I prefer to call them ‘client interviews’ or ‘client stories’. These are magazine-style articles which truly capture the story behind how you perform.
Yes, it’s important to detail how you laid one brick upon another to end up with a building. Or how you prepared that legal case and applied the correct precedents to win. But the people who assess your proposal, website or even a tender aren’t impressed by that.
Instead, they want to know how you will perform. How did you cope when inevitably things don’t go according to plan – try naming just one construction project that went exactly as planned?
Or a legal battle. Does everything always go smoothly, or did your lawyers have to overcome obstacles on the way to a court victory?
The true essence of the experience becomes a story. And featuring how you handled the unexpected casts you in a positive light as the star of the show.
Like you probably do, you read between the lines when you read the stuff a potential supplier says about themselves. But when a client says it, you can relate to that experience.
That’s why when I interview clients about their experience, I focus on how they handled the things that went against the plan. And more importantly how they got around it.
That’s why what I do works. People trust a real story. It convinces much more than a ‘case study’ which omits the client experience, focusing instead on a narrative about what you did.
A ‘client interview’ however has the narrative about what you did, but it also has the story – how you reduced their risks, took away their stresses, worked within an agreed price and structure, and delivered on time.
Do this in your marketing and tenders, and you will get more enquiries, convert more of them into sales or even improve your tender win rate.
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