Words fit for purpose

The question of the fitness for purpose of words is especially important in the communications of professional firms. In this article, I will be outlining how to make sure the words you use are fit for purpose.

The first question to ask is, “What exactly are we trying to achieve?” Being clear about that is critical for effective communication. However, there is one thing that you should never try to do when communicating with the public or prospective clients (unless the target reader is a fellow professional) – never set out to show them how clever you are. It can easily come across as arrogant and overbearing. Always try to show them that you speak their language, understand their problems and care about solving them. As David Cottle put it, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” This has massive implications for your communications strategy and your website in particular.

Effective writing is not about you; it is for them. Do I care that my lawyer has cycled round Borneo for charity? Not really. Do I want to know that my employee grievance procedures are about to become obsolete? You bet!

Making words fit for purpose is complex, since it necessitates a very good understanding of both the material and the potential readership.

Use a style guide

A style guide makes sure that people deal with the same issues in the same way; copy that is written by a number of people won’t “gel” if you don’t. For example, is “the Government” a proper noun or not? Is it singular or plural? There is no right or wrong answer to these questions, but if one writer says “the government is” and the next “the Government are”, it looks awful. At Words4Business we usually use a style guide based on that used in The Economist and aim for English typical of that in the financial pages of The Telegraph.

Keep it simple.

If you are writing for the public, this means no Latin, no case references and no legal jargon (unless you explain it). The man on the Clapham omnibus knows about as much about proprietary estoppel as he does about plasma physics. It is unlikely that he knows what mens rea means or what the Master of the Rolls does, but he’ll understand lucid, plain English. Cases with complex or technical issues may be interesting, but normally make lousy subjects for non-professionals.

Design it for the audience and the medium

Design your material for the audience you are trying to attract. For example, employment law articles intended to be read by HR professionals should be written very differently from those aimed at the owners of smaller businesses. All copy should be tailored to the needs of the medium. For example, if writing web copy for the over 60s, keep it to under 350 words, so it can be reproduced in a decent-sized font on one page.

Edit, edit, edit

A good editor is a must. Never let material go out unless it has been edited properly. Good writers are hard to find, but good editors are gold dust. Editing is not the same skill as writing and many good writers are terrible editors. In our experience, editing takes a lot of time – typically six times the amount of time it takes to write a piece – so don’t rush the process.

Using written words for effect

Here are some of the things our clients use our words for and what they have done to ensure their words are fit for purpose.

Web content/news

A dynamic and content-rich website achieves superior search engine rankings as well as making visitors come back over and over again. Take a look at one of Conscious Solutions‘ client sites to see what I mean. As David Gilroy of Conscious Solutions says, “Content is king: for website visitors first, Google second.” Use of RSS technology makes this straightforward and inexpensive.

Newsletters and e-newsletters

Many firms write or buy in newsletters. A newsletter has two primary functions. These are:

  • to “glue” existing clients to you and to make non-clients aware that you exist; and
  • to get across the idea that you are thinking of your audience and their problems and to keep them informed of issues that affect them.

The trick of a good newsletter is to identify the right material to draw to people’s attention – material that will hit a “hot button” and will also make them realise that your firm might offer them a solution. This means sifting through a huge volume of material to find the best topics. The issue here is that what is an interesting legal point is often not of interest to the client. eNewsletters are probably the single most efficient marketing tool a firm can use, but you must pick the right material.

Flyers and guides

The most effective flyers and guides are those which address a single subject. For example, we have recently covered dealing with the recession, budget action points and forthcoming employment law changes. The distribution should be carefully targeted and the language plain and punchy. One of our clients drove in a large amount of fees through very careful targeting the distribution of a guide on IHT, another by handing out our personal budget action points as a flyer to commuters in a leafy London suburb.

Internal awareness

Make sure that your material is circulated around the firm, so that fee earners working in one area are aware of issues in other areas. This is a great source of cross-referred work. The 360 Legal Group circulate marketing reminders to their members every month for just this purpose.

Support for seminars

Anyone attending a seminar is already a “qualified prospect” in marketing terminology. Make sure you have good quality material as support for the seminar and a good excuse to follow up. One great way to do this is to have a tick-the-box list of articles, guides or information sheets that you can send them as a follow-up to keep the contact ongoing.

Newspapers and journals

Editors want copy, especially if it is free. Material written in a non-advertorial way, dealing with points of interest to the public and in the right tone, is valuable to editors of newspapers and journals and is great PR. Make sure press releases follow the required format and that yours arrive on the editor’s desk first.

Lastly, a point about expertise. In order to be authoritative, the writer must have more knowledge than the reader. In material like the above, the important thing is the ability of the writer to get across complex information simply and correctly. This ability is rare and has little to do with being a skilled lawyer (or, alas, a legal journalist).

Joe Reevy runs Words4Business which creates all of the above types of copy for law firms (over 700 articles a year) and offers web-based solutions such as RSS feeds and e-newsletters.

Email mail@bestpracticeonline.com.