Academic writing. Technical writing. Professional writing. Lawyers are generally good writers. But business development writing by lawyers? That’s a different can of worms.
I recently ran some workshops on business development writing for lawyers – providing guidance and coaching on how to achieve impact and response. We considered a variety of writing tasks – for internal (owned) media such as client briefings, case reports and newsletters and as well as articles for external media.
Here’s a summary of the 13 top tips for writing for impact that resonated with my delegates.
1.Be clear about your aims
Before you start writing, consider what you hope to achieve with the writing.
It takes time and effort to produce good content. So make sure you know what your investment will yield in advance.
What response do you want? What action do you want to prompt? Do you want to create a certain impression? Or to support your reputation for expertise in some way? Or do you want to encourage the reader to subscribe to a newsletter?
In marketing and business development writing, we talk about a call to action (CTA). Prompting your reader to take a low-commitment action – usually by directing them to another URL – means you can then measure the traffic through web analytics. Capturing their interest (for example, asking them to provide an email address in order to access a download) means that they can become part of an enquiry management and sales pipeline system.
A lot of business development writing by lawyers is to keep clients aware of changes that may affect them – it is part of the legal service. Writing is also helpful to stay “front of mind” for your referrers (see more on referrer management strategies here: http://kimtasso.com/top-ten-tips-referrer-management-2016-birmingham/)
Ad-hoc writing is rarely effective. You need to write content within the context of a business development campaign – for your firm, your department or yourself. Guidance on creating a business development campaign is here http://kimtasso.com/10-steps-to-create-a-business-development-campaign-2/
Some campaigns use thought leadership – research or opinion around a key market need or issue. Thought leadership is a key strategy for many legal and professional service firms – see, for example, http://kimtasso.com/thought-leadership-campaigns-the-basics/
In sophisticated firms, there may also be a content management plan – showing which themes and topics are to be written about over a period of time and in different media.
2. Adapt for the medium
Where and how your content will appear will have a big impact on your writing style.
There’s a world of difference between a 10,000 article for a technical journal, a 1,200 word article for a business magazine, a 600 word blog, a 200 word newsletter article and a 140 character message for a tweet on Twitter.
If you are writing for one of your firm’s publications or one of its digital channels, there are likely to be brand and tone of voice guidelines. Take a look at “The Economist Style Guide” if these sorts of documents are unavailable at your firm (My pet hate is The Excessive Use Of Capitals).
There will also be design guidelines which will indicate whether and how you might use:
- Images, tables and charts
- Pull-out quotes and
- Bullet points
In some cases, you may need to write about your topic for a number of different media. Some firms develop a content management pyramid where there are, for example, annual indepth, technical research publications and then quarterly newsletters, monthly articles, weekly blogs and daily tweets repurposing that content throughout the campaign.
3. Plan your writing and choose your structure
Some lawyers just start dictating or writing and structure and edit afterwards – The “brain dump” approach to writing. It’s good in that it gets over the “blank sheet of paper” block but it’s focused on what the writer knows rather than what the reader wants to read.
The danger with just writing is that you may provide too much information that you are then reluctant to edit out. Remember the guidance “If in doubt, leave it out”. You may also miss key points. Also, the way you write may not be the way the reader needs to consume the information. You are an expert – the reader may not have all of your background knowledge.
Other lawyers will plan out – perhaps with a mind map – what they want and need to cover and then start drafting. Maybe start with a list of bullet points. Then consider how to structure your writing – there are lots of different ways to do this. Don’t be dull – be creative in how you structure your piece.
Word counts require extra discipline. List out the key points you need to cover. Think about the three main points you wish to convey. Then allocate the word count across the main points, leaving some words for the introduction and conclusion/summary.
4. Focus on the audience – use empathy
Rather than concentrating on what you want to say, consider your audience and what they want or need to know. This is the skill of empathy – seeing things from your readers’ perspective. Empathy is one of the corner stone’s of emotional intelligence (see, for example, http://kimtasso.com/faq/emotional-intelligence-eq-important/)
Some readers may be experts with similar legal knowledge to yourself. Others may be fellow professionals but without detailed legal knowledge. Others may be business people who are completely unfamiliar with legal terms.
Consider too why they should read your content – what’s in it for them? You need to motivate them to invest the time in reading your writing.
5. Understand the importance of titles
Titles have two important roles to fulfil. They must attract reader attention and they must also describe the nature of the content (and include key words and phrases that might be used in search engines – for SEO).
One way to achieve this is to have an attention grabbing title and a supplementary descriptive title.
As a guideline, you should expect to spend almost as much time crafting the title as you would the actual content.
6. Produce a compelling introduction
Make sure that the introduction provides a proper overview of the content. Indicate which readers will find it useful and why. Think of it as an abstract. The reader should know what the article is about from that first paragraph – journalist’s use the concept of the inverted triangle. The first paragraph must tell the whole story and the rest of the article elaborates on the who, why, what, when and how.
A good exercise is to try and summarise the meaning of the content in a single sentence. Or maybe just two or three. This then forms your introduction.
7. Find an angle
To help you differentiate your content, and to reflect your style and increase reader interest you should try to find an unusual angle.
This is a skill that is much valued in journalists.
Perhaps you are writing about something that contradicts established practice, or suggests a new approach is needed, or links to a topical issue? Fear and greed are primary motivators. Human interest is always important – tell stories.
8. Use sub-headings to signpost
Avoid large blocks of text. Keep sentences and paragraphs short.
Use lots of sub-headings that explain the key points. Subtitles allow readers to quickly scan to obtain the meaning. They also provide sign posts.
Bullet points can be helpful and create space around the content.
9. Reflect the firm’s brand and your own voice
The firm’s “tone of voice” document will outline how the firm generally communicates.
Try to think of three key words to reflect the firm’s brand, and three words to reflect the “voice” of your department/team. Also consider three key words to reflect your own personality or tone of voice.
Look at the style and words used in your writing and check them against these key words.
There’s usually more freedom to express your personality when you write more informal blogs. And the blogging facility in LinkedIn (when you post an update within Pulse) allows you to attach blogs to your LinkedIn profile.
You should also check about the approvals process in your firm. Who needs to sign off your material before it is published? There may be separate policies on material you publish on social media.
10. Be persuasive – tell stories
There are numerous techniques to increase the persuasiveness of your writing. There are many books about the science of persuasion (e.g. http://kimtasso.com/book-review-small-big-small-changes-spark-big-influence-steve-j-martin-noah-j-goldstein-robert-b-cialdini-persuasion-science/) and even books on writing persuasively (e.g. http://kimtasso.com/book-review-persuasive-writing-how-to-harness-the-power-of-words-by-peter-frederick/)
A key element of persuasion involves converting features into benefits.
Another important concept was the need to tell stories – so that the readers can identify with the characters. Most law or case reports are stories – make sure you tell them in a compelling way.
Demonstrate your passion and interest in the topic. This will convey to the reader through your writing.
11. Be concise and test readability
Economy and directness are two of the four virtues of good writing. Less is more. Don’t use three words where one will suffice.
Most lawyers are pretty good at spelling and grammar. For those who need help, use books such as “Eats, shoots and leaves” or “What not to write”.
Consider putting your writing through a readability test (e.g. https://readability-score.com/). Key points to watch are simple words (as few syllables as possible), short sentences (as few words per sentence as possible) and short paragraphs.
Avoid jargon. Fellow lawyers will appreciate jargon as a short hand. But non-lawyers or those without your expertise will find that it creates a barrier to their understanding.
And maybe ask one of your peers to review the writing before you publish it. Another pair of eyes always helps. And give yourself a break between writing and final edits. Psychologists call this an excursion.
Keep it short and simple. Two of my favourite quotes from Einstein are relevant here:
“Any fool can make things more complex. It takes a touch of genius to move in the opposite direction”
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”
12. Include your opinion and advice
Try to avoid simply outlining the facts. Include your opinion. Outline the implications. Include suggestions for what the reader might do.
Obviously, you must be careful with regards to professional indemnity. And you will, of course, always have your writing approved by the relevant partner or head of department before publishing.
13. Don’t leave the best until last
At school we learned to use the beginning, middle and end as a structure. In creative writing we want the end to be exciting and a surprise.
When writing for business development we have to ensure that the reader knows where they are going and the main points at the outset – otherwise they may never get to the end!
I’ve written numerous blogs on different aspects of writing – from recommended books on writing style and the science of persuasion, through to general tips and hints. Here are a few of the most popular ones:
Recommended books on writing
Empathy and persuasion
Writing tips and hints
Different types of business development writing