An organization’s content can take many forms — including web pages, blog posts, articles, white papers, presentations, brochures, and even books. But they all have one thing in common: The written word. That’s why as high-quality content becomes more important to growth and market differentiation, so does great writing.
This is particularly true for professional services firms, such as consultancies, law firms, and accounting firms, whose chief offering is expertise, not products. For such firms, content is the chief embodiment of the company’s expertise and, thus, must be as strong and compelling as possible.
Yet, for any company, not paying enough attention to the writing process can result in content that is unclear, jargon-filled, or simply not all that interesting. Even worse, such substandard content can give clients and prospects the impression that the firm’s ideas, innovations, and offerings are substandard as well.
The good news is that any organization can significantly improve the quality of its writing — and by extension its content — by following five key guidelines.
Match the writing task to the writer
Different skills are required to create great different kinds of content. For promotional materials, firms should use writers who can craft punchy, engaging copy. When developing such materials, deep knowledge of the firm’s expertise is not necessary, but a solid understanding of the firm’s customers is.
Conversely, such pieces as news releases, fact sheets, and client case studies require writers who can take a firm’s expertise and communicate it clearly — and not in a promotional way — to target audiences. This requires solid writing skills, but not necessarily deep content knowledge, which often is provided by the firm’s subject matter experts.
In contrast, writers of research reports, major white papers, and books likely will need to help subject matter experts develop their ideas during the writing process and must be willing and able to do so. Such writers can be former journalists (particularly those with experience in in-depth feature stories on complex topics), or they can be researchers or firm experts with good writing skills.
Get the writer up to speed
It’s virtually impossible for someone to write well about something he or she doesn’t understand. Therefore, firms must help their writers become knowledgeable about the topic, giving them time to absorb background documents, research reports, presentations, and other materials. This should be done before writers meet with subject matter experts, enabling them to ask better questions and make the discussion far more fruitful.
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 of what the other brings to the table. Particularly for professional services firms, writers must realize they are capturing someone else’s ideas, and should see their role largely as making the content clear and compelling. And when experts’ ideas aren’t developed — lacking case examples, support, or rigorous analysis, for example — it’s the writer’s job to identify those shortcomings.
In turn, subject experts must understand — and respect — the role of the writer: To make their 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.
Insist the writer develop a detailed outline before drafting copy
The outline is absolutely critical, especially for longer, more complex pieces. It helps the team develop a logical argument and identify places where support must be added. The outline also keeps subject matter experts focused on ideas, not words: When reviewing an outline, an expert will be much less tempted to waste time tinkering with specific phrases instead of strengthening the overall messages being communicated.
Let the writer help shape the content
In our experience, the best documents — especially those in the developmental category — are produced when the subject matter expert and writer work as a team in developing the content. The expert lends his or her insights on the topic itself, while the writer provides expertise on shaping ideas and educating and influencing readers.
Strong content is essential to lasting market differentiation and growth, yet any content is only as good at the writing on which it is based. By matching the right writer with the right projects, giving that writer the background and latitude he needs, and establishing clear rules for engagement, any company can substantially improve the quality of its writing — and by extension, the ability of its content to attract and engage readers.