IBM has been in business for more than a century. The company has one of the most recognizable and valuable brands in the world. The brand alone is worth billions, so the people focused on marketing at IBM take the job seriously.
As one of the many people who write marketing copy for IBM, my job is to attempt to explain the benefits of often extremely complex technical products and services. And I need to do it using accessible language that even people without seven advanced degrees can understand.
Business-to-business copy is designed to convey information about a product or a service that will be purchased by another business. Just because that business employs nerds or other smart people does not mean the material you write for them should be a sleep aid.
No matter how complex the product or service, good writing can help. Business writing doesn’t have to be lethargic, pedantic, and painful. Like many large companies, IBM has extensive style guides and word usage databases filled with rules writers must follow. But to create good copy, you need to go beyond the style guide. Although I don’t speak for IBM officially, here are seven copywriting lessons based on my experiences writing marketing materials for Big Blue.
1. Don’t be a robo-writer
Over time, I’ve noticed that some people get hung up on the idea of sounding “professional” when they write for a business audience. Unfortunately, their concept of professional writing is filled with passive tense and words no normal person would ever actually say.
If you don’t know what passive tense is, read some income tax documentation and you’ll find out. Non-bureaucrats tend to say things in active tense, like “Joe went to school.” The tax drones would say, “The domicile of scholastic achievement was implemented by Joe.”
Don’t write like a robotic cubicle dweller. Your writing will be vastly more interesting if you write like you speak. Avoid wordiness and try to use shorter words when you can. For example, when was the last time you said “accomplish” or “utilize” out loud? Try writing “do” or “use” instead.
In conversation, most people also start with the subject of the sentence (Joe in our example) and then relate what Joe did. Read your writing out loud. Do you sound like a human being or a slightly peculiar and tedious android?
2. Focus on solutions
No matter how technical a product is, it should be possible to explain what it is and why someone would care. What problem does the product or service solve? As the business-to-business copywriter, your job is to convey this information in a clear and persuasive way.
I’m stunned at how often product information doesn’t say what the product actually does. Don’t leave your reader asking, “What is it?” Just because something is high-tech or complicated doesn’t mean you can’t explain it.
IBM is filled with an enormous number of extremely smart people and I often work with subject matter experts to get information. Key questions I ask are:
- What is it?
- What does it do?
- Why does anyone care?
Armed with the answers to these simple questions, you can write better copy.
3. Use energetic, active verbs.
As a writer, words are the tools of your trade. The words you select have a big effect on how people perceive your writing. Verbs are particularly important; selecting the right verbs can energize your writing and make it more interesting.
Energetic verbs that also suggest emotion can be powerful, particularly in headlines. For example, the verb “boost” has more zip than “increase” and “unleash” has more pizzazz than “release.”
Dull verbiage drags down your copy. Any time you are tempted to use the following words, think again.
- Provide: The crutch of all computer-related writing. This word should not appear in every sentence.
- Allow: Another crutch. Hint: computers don’t “allow” anything.
- This (what?): Whenever you use the word “this,” ask yourself, “this what?” Always follow “this” with a noun. By itself, “this” is vague and can cause confusion.
- There: A sentence that begins with “there is/are” is almost always weak. Rewrite it.
- etc.: Another crutch: Give readers specifics; never let the reader assume what “etc.” might be.
- Architect: This word is a noun, not a verb. Avoid “verbizing” words.
4. Avoid gobbledygook
Also avoid overused “gobbledygook” terms. Every business has them and IBM is no exception. Here are six major offenders from David Meerman Scott’s outstanding Gobbledygook Manifesto:
- cutting edge
- mission critical
- market leading
- industry standard
- best of breed
When I asked a fellow writer what exactly the term “best of breed” was supposed to mean, she pointed out that “IBM is not the Westminster Kennel Club.” We’re writing about technology, not canines.
When you encounter gobbledegook, think about what the text actually means. If the answer is nothing, rewrite the sentence so it has useful content.
5. Be smart, but not a know-it-all
Good business-to-business writing is clear and makes readers feel smart. You never want to talk down to your readers. Insulted or confused readers move on to the next product data sheet and throw yours in the virtual or physical circular file. That sale is lost.
Miscommunication is rampant in business and technical writing. By its nature, technical information is likely to include technical terms. Although you should avoid gratuitous jargon, some nerdy terms may be necessary to explain what something does.
No matter how nerdy your target readers are, never assume they know all the latest buzz words. Make sure to define any potentially confusing terms. If the reader doesn’t know that RAID stands for redundant array of inexpensive disks, he may assume it’s a bug spray.
6. Don’t anthropomorphize
Some propeller-heads may get a bit too attached to their technology, but computers still aren’t human. Anthropomorphism is giving inanimate objects human characteristics. A computer doesn’t want or need anything. You may love your software, but it doesn’t love you back.
For example, don’t write:
“The software doesn’t care that you don’t know where to click your mouse on the screen.”
Hint: Software can’t care. What you really mean is:
“You can click your mouse anywhere on the screen and the software interprets your actions correctly.”
7. Embrace “you”
No matter how fantastic you think a product or service is, no widget will ever be more interesting than your reader’s favorite subject: himself. The best way to engage readers is to write from their point of view. Use “you” as much as possible to keep their attention.
Instead of writing, “Three-dimensional Candy Land has 79 bright colors that will dazzle even the most complacent user.”
“You will be dazzled by the 79 bright colors in Three-dimensional Candy Land.”
“The 79 colors in Three-dimensional Candy Land will dazzle you!”
Inserting “you” into the copy almost always helps keep readers moving to the next sentence, which is your goal as a copywriter.
Don’t fall into the trap!
I’ve never seen it mentioned in a writing book, but when you write a lot of business-to-business copy, it’s easy to start to ignore bad writing because you see it often. Familiarity breeds complacency. Don’t let this happen to you! For example, you may find yourself reading a sentence like this one:
“The architected functionality in three-dimensional Candy Land provides an impact to the value chain and integrates best of breed solutions for an unparalleled path to value.”
If you think that copy is okay, it’s time to step away from the computer.
Read great novels and marvel at how the author crafts fine prose. Or if you insist on staying at your computer, write your own novel. I found that writing fiction improved my writing for IBM. Good writing is good writing, no matter what the end product may be.