Blog - Dominic Jeff -Writing for Business
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Start-up summaries: writing the most important documents in the business world

I love writing for start-ups: it’s raw business, full of big ideas and interesting characters. But it’s also a big responsibility, because small actions at an early stage can have a major bearing on the future of a company.

Write a great investor pitch, first advert or trade presentation, and the business could be on its way to establishing itself as a major player in a new but lucrative niche. Get it wrong, and the business will stagnate when it needs to be growing. Start-ups can’t take that, they need momentum and they need every document they commission to be as good as it can be.

Nowhere is this more true than with the executive summary. This is a key document for any start-up: the one page explanation of the founders’ business plan, ambitions, target market and unique abilities.

One page.

One page that has to grab investors, incubator admissions tutors, prize judges and early commercial partner.

One page that also has to fit in plenty of relevant facts to show it isn’t just fluff, and showcase big ambitions without them looking fanciful; give some details to make the founders look enthusiastic but not naive, and highlight some successful near competitors that aren’t a direct threat…

As a writer, it’s a challenge and a pleasure to pack all that information into about 400 words. Of course, these summaries are usually divided into sub-headings such as Aims, Plan, Projections, and so on. There is plenty of good advice on how to lay out your executive summary, and the exact headings you choose will depend on the strengths of the start-up. But what about the actual words.

What I find useful is to approach the executive summary as I would a big news story. You need a punchy intro that not only grabs the attention, but also makes clear to the reader that this is a major opportunity. Because yes, even a one-pager won’t get read if people don’t think it’s worth it.

After the intro, you need to lay out the facts in a way that flows and continues to entice. Each characteristic needs to sound as awesome as it possibly can – without sensationalising. And you need to fit in a lot of key points, without the whole thing ending up looking more like a list.

An old editor of mine used to tell me, when composing an important news article, to imagine I was telling a friend a story in a pub. This is almost literally true of an executive summary, but instead of a friend in the pub, it’s a potential investor the entrepreneur meets in a lift.

Sure, it’s slightly long as an elevator pitch, but hopefully the random money-man or -woman will be piqued enough by the first half, that they’ll ask about the founders and their fiscal projections after reaching their floor of choice.

Once you have a first draft, you need to polish your one-pager like a budding journalist would their first front page splash. Read through and edit. Clip sentences down; inject simple, powerful words instead jargon; kill cliches; and bring the most interesting and best snippets to the fore of paragraphs.

Then read it out loud, get someone else to read it, and do it all again. Because it’s the most important piece of writing your little company will ever produce.

My friend Abraham Bobrovsky, co-founder and CEO of Kimata Networks, told me recently that his one-pager actually helps him remember what his start-up is really about.

“It really helps me keep focus on the key things,” he says. “At a time when so many advisors and potential investors tend to talk at tangents, think outside the box and throw up new possibilities, it’s important to know what your core values and markets are.”

Abe and I even found that some of the ‘power words’ we came up with in pitches and one-pagers laid the foundations for defining his app – which, by the way, is a really cool mini-games concept. These words will also help the entrepreneur remember his pitch, so that he or she can recite all the main points around them without sounding scripted.

The ‘one-pager’ really is the most important piece of writing a company will produce or commission. Everyone involved in an early stage business wants to give their best, to ensure that they don’t miss their shot at success. The writer should be no different.

Lighting the Spark

The artist David Hockney famously moved to California because he found the light inspiring. No sooner was he there, his paintings lightened up too, as he abandoned the darker themes that his native Bradford elicited in him and focused on water, greenery and light.

Of course there may also have been an element of a young man discovering a new place and leaving the oppressive environment of the home town behind. But his need for light, fresh air and nature strikes a chord with many creative people.

Writing on LinkedIn recently about how I like to go for a bike ride to get my inspiration for writing, I found that my idea of getting out into the fresh air was far from unusual: People I have never met took to the comments section to say how they like to find their spark, and it included going to the beach and ’getting outdoors’.

The beach is one thing that we don’t have in Switzerland and as a Brit, I do miss the sea. But the real uplifting element for me is the light. Every place seems to have a golden season for light: in Britain it is the long summer evenings; in Switzerland sunny Autumn days bring out some extraordinary colours and clarity; and I’m a huge fan of the Spanish hills in winter. All of these literally seem to stimulate a part of my brain that wants to write, create and communicate.

Writing in Switzerland

Working as a journalist, blogger and copywriter in Switzerland, I’m lucky in that I have some great options for finding the light: I can jump on my bike and climb into a Swiss wonderland of cherry orchards and picturesque villages around Gempen, or enjoy the fabulous colours of the Autumn forest in Laufental. Or I can follow the pastoral Bruderholz hill into Basel, with the light playing on the Rhine valley beyond.

Cycling doesn’t require a lot of engagement of the brain, so it’s a great time for thinking. The rhythmic motion of feet on pedals seems to literally crank up my brain, so that soon it’s racing way ahead of the road in front of me, seeing angles in stories nobody had realised were there, or picking quotes that offer the key to explaining a complex issue.

When I return home to my desk, I often hit the keyboard straight away. Showers, food and checking emails can wait: I have words in my mind that I want to get down.

Breaks and Productivity

Of course, I enjoy writing about business and the subject itself also inspires me. However, it’s not only creativity that benefits from taking a break, having a change of scene and doing something uplifting. We make productivity gains too. A recent series of studies summarised in Harvard Business Review recently found that both regular breaks, and switching tasks often and to a schedule, helped workers solve problems faster. Basically, an active break is also good for productivity.

Writing in Psychology Today, retired professor and author of ’Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success’ Meg Selig says that for “think-work,” the prefrontal cortex needs to recharge regularly.

Meg found studies showing that short ‘movement breaks’ are essential in sedentary jobs; that leaders easily suffer from ‘decision fatigue’ if they work too solidly; that resting helps learning; and that we are more motivated to focus on long-term goals after a pause. Perhaps most importantly, working for long stretches without breaks leads to stress and exhaustion.

Meg’s top tips for breaks that really recharge your creative and productive batteries: Going for a walk, doing exercise, changing your environment and connecting with the outside world; for those who are less inclined to the physical a ‘power nap’ works too, as does having a coffee, meditating and even daydreaming. Just don’t look at a computer screen!

Can Thought Leadership really be Ghost-written?

The idea behind thought leadership is, in a nutshell, to project your expertise with insightful opinion and useful commentary. It is a natural and effective form of marketing. But many feel that since it has been co-opted by that dastardly cabal, the PR industry, it has become tainted and meaningless.

One of the worst accusations levelled at thought leadership is that it is now sometimes ghost written. How can you be a leader if it’s not even your own voice, the reasoning goes.

This argument is well rehearsed in this marketing blog which argues that ghost writing is part of the problem, as such articles inevitably lack the credibility, expertise and personality which a true leader should provide.

John Hall says: “The term ‘thought leadership’ has been thrown around a lot lately, often tacked on to industry articles without any consideration as to whether the ideas presented are actually … well … leadership-worthy. Unfortunately, what should be thought-provoking posts have proven to be simply buzzword-laden pieces of content.”

I agree. But I think that often it is when the knowledgeable experts and executives are left to their own devices that the buzzword cramming happens. There are some very authentic but truly awful pieces of writing produced by well-meaning business owners and earnest professionals in this vein. Many others focus excessively on themselves as they desperately try to stand out.

Perhaps the latter is because of the term itself. ‘Thought leadership’ not only sounds pretentious, but it actually places the onus in the wrong place. Should you really be trying to be ‘leadership worthy’? Surely, as in other aspects of life, such a hairy-chested approach will only serve to make you seem like a puffed up prat who thinks the’re better than everyone else.

This blog from the Marketing Insider Group  offers a better approach. It defines thought leadership as “a type of content marketing where you tap into the talent, experience, and passion inside your business, or from your community, to consistently answer the biggest questions on the minds of your target audience, on a particular topic.”

Here, a good ghost writer can really help, by asking those questions that everyone else wants answering. Often, experts themselves don’t realise just how much others don’t know. Their attempts at helpful comment will therefore go over their audience’s heads, or at the very least fail to address the really pressing issues.

Others genuinely don’t have the writing skills to produce a properly crafted article. Or more often they do, but they don’t have the time. After all, the kind of people who should be doing thought leadership are usually pretty busy.

A skilled ghost writer should be able to help with all these aspects. And they should be able to tailor their help to the strengths and weaknesses of the person they are ghosting for.

For example, if an entrepreneur is passionate, knowledgeable about their market and full of personality, then the writer’s role is to capture all that and get it across, just as a journalist would when writing up an interview or profile piece. When done well, such articles don’t just consist of answers to questions, however burning they may be: the author subtly weaves in enough background to paint a picture of the subject at the same time. Using these journalistic – as opposed to merely writing – skills, the same can be done through an opinion piece.

Others experts can lack personality, or at least don’t know how to project it. Here, the skilled ghost writer can focus away from that and ensure that it is their knowledge and insight that shines through. This is particularly effective when aimed at an industry beyond the opinion giver’s own sector.

The Communications Business are experts in thought leadership, and seek to “create and implement cutting-edge leadership influencer programmes which allow senior directors to take ‘ownership’ and set the agenda on strategic industry and business issues.” But this savvy PR agency usually targets its thought leadership at publications serving the industries which their clients serve, rather than the industries of the clients themselves.

In that situation, a ghost writer who also has knowledge of the sector for which he or she is writing can be of even more value. They will be able to help pick topics of interest, ask the questions on everyone’s lips, and ensure the article references suitable themes. The real commercial value of thought leadership surely lies in appearing knowledgeable to your potential clients, and in that respect, a writer with journalist skills can be useful.


Solid Opinion is Key to Thought Leadership

The web, and the blogosphere in particular, is full of how-to-guides, look-at-me boasting pieces and this-is-why-you-must sales pitches. All have their place, but if you want to be heard and respected, a good old comment is often the best option.

True, everyone has an opinion. But on the other hand, yours is unique. And if you can pinpoint the issues which are of interest to your client base and provide an insightful angle on them based on your specific knowledge, they will listen. In fact, good expert comment and opinion is arguably the most high-value content in any publication.[quote]insight, rather than news, is what readers value.[/quote]

Opinion still sells

Just look at the major newspapers and how they treat their columns: in many cases, they are the last bastion of paid content – either protected by paywalls of kept as an exclusive benefit for those who still buy a physical copy of the paper. Heavyweight political commentators are usually the most highly paid journalists on a newspaper, editors included. And when they change teams, readers often follow them.

All of that indicates that insight, rather than news, is what readers value. That is because big news is of little value in the internet age. It carries no exclusivity as it will be regurgitated over the web within minutes of it breaking, and therefore people won’t pay for it.

True, news is a perishable commodity and has to appear immediately rather than waiting for a print edition. But that is all the more reason why bloggers should aim for a well-crafted comment rather than simply seeking to inform.[quote]a company blog that is mostly snippets of company updates and staff charity announcements isn’t going to create much of a buzz[/quote]

Of course, most bloggers and marketing writers aren’t aiming for scoops. But on the other hand, a company blog that is mostly snippets of company updates and staff charity announcements isn’t going to create much of a buzz either. It will simply make the organisation look inward-focused and self-congratulatory.

Pure marketing copy has its place – on landing pages, sections of websites and brochures. But if you bombard people with sales pitches, they will literally go away. They’ll stop reading your blog or mark your emails as junk.

A good informative guide – whether in long-form downloadable format or as a blog – can really help attract potential customers and increase page views, but there’s only so many you can produce. With opinion, the possibilities are endless.

Never run out of blog ideas

Because you can pick any current issue or news item and give your twist on it, you can literally select a fresh theme every week. Or every day if you really want to!

That’s not to say you should be churning out ill-conceived waffle. And clearly, by ’opinion’ we’re not talking about stating entrenched views or going off on rants. Good comment takes in opposing sides of an argument. It analyses the facts and positions. And at the end of its elegant reasoning, it may or may not choose to come down on one side or another.

Your opinion can be mild but well-reasoned. Or it can condemn hard, sing praises where they’re due, and trumpet calls to action. So long as it’s well laid out, informative and interesting, it will be well received and will go a long way to cementing your reputation as a thought leader.

Need some help becoming a thought leader? Dominic can help

What’s the ideal length for a blog?

A good editor once pointed out to me that every journalist wants to be a documentary maker, when they should be concentrating on finding more stories and giving them the treatments they deserved. No longer, no shorter.

Seeing as, at the time, I had to give my stories the treatment he thought they deserved (he was usually right), the adage is more useful to me now than then. The internet era has done away with strict word counts and in theory, every online article can be as long as the author feels necessary to cover the subject.

Unfortunately, many bloggers forget the second part of the old joke relating to dresses and speeches (and articles): they should also be short enough to be interesting!

So, how long should a blog be? If you’re guest writing for a publication, or even for someone else’s blog, the simple answer is that it’s as long as the editor or blog owner asks for. While this was a strict rule in the days of print because the text had a slot to fill – even longer articles had to be within 25 words of the target – it remains common courtesy today.

There are certain advantages too: a strict word count forces the author to edit and prune ruthlessly and this is usually a good thing – see my last post for the relevance of old-school style. But it’s also worth remembering that major blogs and online magazines still have a style to stick to.

Editors really appreciate copy that is to length, and it will vastly increase the chances of your article appearing as you wrote it. Because if you don’t edit it to size, somebody else will. Even if you’re not given a target length, it may be worth emulating what is currently on the site you are writing for.

What about your own blog? Can each post be as long as the subject deserves? Maybe it’s my newspaper background but I think that some sort of adherence to a style is desirable. For a start, it forces editorial discipline and stops you getting carried away into the realms of the documentary.

Opinions as to the ideal length of a blog vary wildly. Even excluding the picture bloggers, gif-copiers and news-spammers of the blogosphere, formats range from around 300 words to over 2,000.

This admirably detailed post on Medium aims to take a scientific approach, by analysing the number of clicks and links which blogs of various lengths get. Curiously, they concentrate on the time it takes to read an article, rather than the word length – Medium’s conclusion is that for SEO purposes at least, you should be aiming for 7 minutes.

They don’t give a word estimate for that, but this blogger did the calculation and comes up with a whopping 1,600 words. That drops to around 1,000 if you include lots of pictures and graphics (assuming people stop to look at them) but it it still sounds a bit too long to me.

It’s not that people’s attentions are short – it’s just that there are so many distractions out there. If people are reading at work, how long is their break? When will the boss be back? A 1,600 word article looks like it will take a good chunk of time. Personally, I think you’re getting close to the length where you might consider writing a ‘white paper’ or downloadable report.

For the purposes of a well crafted opinion piece, aiming for the length of a newspaper or magazine column seems a good bet: That means between 600 and 1,000 words. That is a nice size for your readers to enjoy in their coffee break, with a chance to think about it and hopefully share it on social media before going about their day.

This is why a lot of the premium content in newspapers is of this length: it’s a golden chunk of someone’s time – when they take a break from their main activity.

Of course, the scientific evidence points to 1,600 words as an ideal length for SEO, and that’s not to be sniffed at. But what if you split that blog into two – part one and two? Medium’s analysis doesn’t make clear if your two shorter blogs will gather more clicks than one long one, but with a broad bell curve on the graph, its a good bet they will.

Here’s one I did for a client recently – hopefully you’ll be tempted to read the second half too!

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Do George Orwell’s Rules on Writing Still Hold True?

When it comes to teaching and encouraging clear writing, George Orwell’s famous six rules are often cited. With the vast amounts of content being churned out on the internet and in the media, the need for clarity and economy of words is greater than ever – but how well do Orwell’s points stand up to modern needs?

The six points originally appeared in the 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” in which the author railed against the deliberate twisting of words which he said were corrupting political thought. It is remarkably prescient stuff, the crude ’doublespeak’ tactics of the Nazis and Bolsheviks having been perfected over the decades by marketeers, spin doctors and government spokespeople.

Orwell’s brilliant and alarming take on the relationship between language and politics is beyond the scope of this blog, however: Such matters are better discussed on a cultural forum.

Rightly or wrongly, Orwell’s essay is largely remembered for his writing rules which are still taught on journalism courses today:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4.  Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5.  Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Let’s look at each from the perspective of modern writing:

1 – Cliches have no place. It doesn’t mean you can’t use turns of phrase or expressions, but Orwell was not referring to that. The problem in the modern media is when a phrase becomes a go-to, trendy, lazy way of scoring points. How many times has something been described as “not fit for purpose” as a catch-all way of attacking and institution? There are surely better, more precise ways of describing issues with NHS funding or school buildings, and yet when this phrase is trotted out, journalists and commentators seem to delight in repeating it ad nauseum as if its very utterance were a cast iron argument condemning management incompetence.

2 – This is a good rule of thumb, but there are reasons to break it at times. Yes, short words are good. They are often more direct in meaning. And certainly, one should never use a long word when trying to be clever. This is balanced against the need to vary the words used in an article, and the fact that sometimes a long word conveys more precisely what you are trying to say.

3. – Almost always true. Occasionally, the cadence of a sentence requires an extra, technically superfluous word to be judiciously left in or even added. But then, many a council press release would require two thirds of the drivel to be cut out. Though this rule seems to have been included on a mainly aesthetic principle, it has grown in relevance now that waffle is used as an obfuscation tactic and marketing device.

4 – The theory holds that the more common, active voice is more immediate and exciting. That is true, but there are good reasons why the passive is sometimes preferred, both in speech and writing: usually, to emphasise the ’doer’. For example, ‘that such arguments should be made by a British Member of Parliament’ – ie, we expect to hear them in a council estate pub but it’s a bit of a shocker from the Honourable Member for Newton Abbott, or some such. Indeed.

On the other hand, where the passive voice is used to disguise the subject of the sentence, or obfuscate responsibility, then Orwell’s dictum could hardly be more relevant.

5 – Why would you use a word that can’t easily be understood when you are trying to communicate? Some will argue that they are ’writing for a specialist audience’, but this is rarely as true as they believe and anyway, specialists appreciate clear language too. More likely, jargon is being used to exclude the public from the conversation, keep access exclusive, or hide something that will appear abhorrent once expressed in plain English.

6 – Obviously. We’ve just seen that all Orwell’s rules carry caveats. And rule vi shows that these were intended.

It’s easy to see why these rules are still cited by teachers today – although perhaps not by enough of them! Not only does Orwell score a solid six out of six, it is clear that his rules regarding cliches, jargon and waffle have become more relevant over time. All three are widely employed in the public and corporate sectors for the purposes of obfuscation. Journalists need to spot this and call it out, while good PR and marketing writers should avoid them in favour of clearly laying out a message they genuinely believe in.

The rules also remain an excellent guide to good writing and are a good crib sheet for those new to editing copy.

It’s tempting to think that Orwell, who at times comes across as a bit of a curmudgeon, would have hated the internet age. Probably he would. But this line from Politics and the English Language suggests there are aspects he’s have appreciated: “Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.”

Yes, Orwell would enjoyed a (non-cliched) meme, and he’d love a gif!


The Great Interest Rates Bluff

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

So the Bank of England has finally raised interest rates above their 2008 low! Don’t get too used to this: the Old Lady immediately signalled for calm through a plausibly deniable interview by an outgoing policy maker.

Writing about monetary policy committee’s decision for a property publication, I was reminded of an article I wrote for The Scotsman way back in 2012. It was one of my first real scoops for the business desk, after I was passed a Credit Suisse note arguing that accommodative monetary policy was here to stay.

It’s hard to believe, looking back, that six years ago markets were on edge because there was an expectation that the record low interest rates and quantitative easing (QE) programmes central banks had introduced to counter the financial crisis and recession would soon be put into reverse. Even as a relatively junior business reporter, I was inclined to think: ’why?’

The economy was a long way from anything that could be considered ‘overheating’. As a new homeowner myself at the time, it was also clear that in the UK at least, raising rates back to their pre-crisis levels of around 5% would lead to a crash that would make the credit crunch look like a minor correction. Quite simply, there was just way too much debt out there, and people’s ability to service it was sketchy at best.

At the same time, the Government also had a huge and growing debt pile and plans to bring it under control amounted to gently balancing the books over a number of years. Anything else would have been too great a shock on the fledgling recovery, and therefore counterproductive. But the state was reliant on low rates and QE to ensure the debt was serviceable – at the time, that was how the UK was avoiding the kind of capital markets crises that shook even relatively spendthrift Spain, despite the UK having a much higher ration of debt-to-GDP.

Far from being on the point of raising rates, therefore, it seemed to me that the Bank of England was desperately trying to hold on to the last vestiges of credibility regarding its commitment to fight inflation, while at the same time pretending that things were nowhere near as bad as they were. The ECB was the only Western institution to be resisting unconventional policy measures and that was looking like a mistake. It still does, because it was always going to take a generation of low rates and unchecked mild inflation to gently bring the West’s debt/growth/employment problem under control.

Some of that work is now done: According to the Office for National Statistics, prices in the UK in 2018 are 30.28% higher than prices in 2009. In effect, we’ve inflated away almost a third of our pre-crisis debt, without lifting a finger and with no fanfare. Modest genuine GDP growth means the government has fared even better with its real-terms debt.

As my friends at Credit Suisse argued back in 2012, this is reminiscent of the monetary and fiscal policy of the decades following the Second World War. Back then, a number of blunt instruments such as capital controls were deployed to ensure financial institutions played ball and acquiesced to roughly 30 years of real negative interest rates before deregulation began in the 1970s, just as rates finally rose to check inflation that was finally becoming a real problem.

These days, central banks have not resorted to such draconian measures… although the Solvency rules drafted to underpin financial stability have tone convenient effect of making institutions hold cheap government debt. Arguably though, the biggest weapon central banks have at their disposal to combat inflation is expectation: Again and again since 2008, we have seen stock markets fall on good economic news because traders believe it increases the chance of central banks finally raising rates.

Central bankers have constantly talked up the possibility of rate rises. It is in their nature to do so. They simply have to pretend that they are aggressively targeting inflation and are ready to hike rates to protect their national currencies at the drop of a hat: otherwise, growth-friendly policies will be seized upon as weakness and cause an inflationary spiral. It is all the more surprising, therefore, to hear an outgoing member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee say what he’s thinking.

Ian McCafferty, one of the MPC’s external members, used his valedictory interview shortly after the August meeting to predict that the era of low interest rates will last for at least another 20 years. He believes the base rate will gently rise, but will stay well below the pre-financial crisis standard of 5%.

“It is too much to say never, that we won’t ever go back. But there is a 20-year horizon under which there will be factors keeping it low,” he said.
That fits in nicely with the post-war timescale, given that we are now a decade into the current monetary easing programme. No doubt, small rates rises will be drip-fed tactically to keep the fig leaf of inflation-targeting policy fresh: but the job is far from done. Growth may seem healthy when viewed from the ivory towers of industry in Northern European capitals, but the man and woman on the street still consider that they are paying the price for the banks’ great folly.

Like their grandparents who went through WWII, people now expect to enjoy their time in the sun after struggling through a decade of being denied growth. Whatever your opinion of the moral equivalence of this perception, new generations expect opportunities to at least match those afforded their predecessors, with many already turning to populism when this is not forthcoming. Central banks, therefore, have their hands tied.