• How to avoid some common mistakes in email

    As you know, these days much of our business correspondence is conducted by email rather than the conventional ‘snail mail’. Unhappily, certain conventions have been lost or overlooked in the process, and can get in the way of doing business, especially when there are cultural differences involved.


    • Sloppy layout
    • Poor spelling / typing errors
    • Incorrect grammar or punctuation
    • Wrong forms of address
    • Lack of formal opening and closing
    • Missing reply information
    • Wrong tone for the person being addressed
    • One country’s conventions not acceptable in another country
    • Risk of virus infection
    • Divulging others’ email addresses
    • Manners

    Sloppy layout: Get professional help to establish templates. If possible, use a header, to make your email look like a regular letterheading. Otherwise how will it look different from the many spam messages?

    Spelling/Typing: Always use the spellchecker, but also use an English dictionary (spellcheckers are American). Be especially careful to avoid writing “their” when you mean “they’re” and “your” for “you’re”.

    Grammar/Punctuation: If in doubt, ask someone who knows. Phrases such as “between you and I” will diminish you in the eyes of some clients, and so will misplaced apostrophes. Never use one for a plural. “I received your letters” is correct. “I received your letter’s” is wrong.

    Language: The phrases and vocabulary you use will pigeon-hole you, perhaps at the wrong level. For example, “some cool stuff” and “Cheers” are not ideal for business letters.

    Forms of address: When approaching a business contact for the first time, it is unwise to write “Hello there” or “Hi” or even “Dear John”.

    Opening/Closing: Some emails leave out the salutation altogether. Others omit the name and title of the sender. If you are running back and forth with reply after reply on the same topic, and to someone you know well, it’s all right to omit the salutation.

    Tone: Err on the side of caution. Don’t be familiar with a client or someone senior, and never write what you may regret the next day.

    Conventions: See Opening/Closing. In some countries you are expected always to use a salutation.

    Virus & Junk: In business circles, it is considered very bad manners to send a virus, so install and regularly update your virus checking software. It is also bad form to pass on chain letters, however well-meaning they may be. And never pass on email advertisements.

    Divulging addresses: If you send an email to a whole group of unconnected people, use the BCC (blind carbon copy) to avoid exposing others’ email addresses without permission.

    Manners: Capital Letters in emails are regarded as SHOUTING. Use *stars* for emphasis.

    For a confidential course in Business Writing, email phillip@speakingandpresentationskills.com.

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  • One answer to the long or short copy debate

    Should your sales letter be long or short? Is it true that the more you tell the more you sell? Or are people too busy to bother with long letters?

    The answer may surprise you. It arises out of a significant shift in our reading habits, a shift that makes the appearance of a letter (or blog, article or brochure) a significant element.

    I realised it myself this week, when I found myself reading a number of blogs in a hurry.

    I read them because they were discussions on topics that interested me, and had attracted quite a few comments from well-informed people. However, I struggled with them.

    The reason I found them hard going was this: the paragraphs were too long.

    And there were too many paragraphs.

    In Ecademy blogs, for example, the text is set in 10 point (I think), with a line length of about 110 characters. That’s hard to skim read, and you have to move your head as you read each line. Too much work.

    Easy on the eye

    In contrast, some online sales letters from the USA run to many pages, but the paragraphs usually consist of single sentences and are almost NEVER more than four lines long. The line length is short too.

    Some paragraphs are one-liners like this.

    They also have subheads like the one above, to segment the subject matter and break up the grey text.

    Why that works

    We all suffer from Attention Deficit. It may not be a Disorder (yet!) but it gets in the way when we are at work.

    Every day, we are all assailed by huge numbers of messages and calls for our attention: radio, TV, emails, newspapers, magazines, advertisements, posters, tannoy announcements, traffic, phone calls, conversations, meetings …

    We cannot cope with more than one thing at a time, so we have developed the ability to switch off. In fact, it’s a reflex that kicks in very quickly.

    So what’s the answer?

    The answer is to deliver your information in small bites. Like this blog. Make it attractive to the eye and it will be easy for the reader take in each new idea or piece of information. It will increase your chances of being read all the way down the page. And page after page.



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  • The language of lies

    In marketing by mail and email, there is an unfortunate tendency to use language to deceive, confusing manipulation with persuasion. Those who do so use weasel words (terms that imply or suggest more than the reality), and even lie outright. My email inbox regularly receives examples of verbal deceit.

    There is one chap who sends me emails with things like “Facebook message” in the subject line. The email itself has nothing to do with Facebook. It’s just a crude device to get me to open the email.

    To my mind it falls in the same ditch as the person who says, “Sex! Now that I have your attention …” Astonishingly, there are still some folks who use that cringingly awful “Hook”, either in writing or in speech.

    I promised myself that the next time I heard a speaker open with that I would rise and leave the room in a marked manner. And I shall.

    Another devious device is to offer something free, and then renege on it. Here’s one I received last week:

    Im (sic) giving this away Totally FREE!

    But when you click on the link, this is what you get:

    Regular Price $197
    Today only $37/mon

    TODAY’S PAYMENT: $44.40
    Includes the first month of service

    It goes from FREE to $37 PER MONTH! and on to $44.40 (per month) without missing a beat.

    Let me now turn to weasel words. They are terms we use to imply something more than the reality. The intention is to deceive.

    One of the most common examples these days is “You have been approved”. It implies a selection that never took place, other than inclusion from the database. It even suggests that you have applied in the first place.

    A close relation is the long-standing “Three Stage” copy approach favoured by Reader’s Digest, which states, “You have come through two stages of selection and are now in the final of the Prize Draw.”

    The first two stages actually consist of selecting names from the database (known to be interested in the product being offered) and the allocation (automatically by computer) of six numbers in the Draw. There’s nothing illegal or even immoral about this approach, but I think you can see how the wording implies more than what actually takes place.

    Another favourite involves a sealed envelope that you have to tear open to see if you are a lucky winner. The weasel words in this case will be, “Find a Lucky Six for a chance to Scoop the Jackpot”.

    Once again the implication is that there is an element of chance, whereas every sealed envelope contains a six. The key word is “Find”. For a genuine element of chance there would be the word “If”, as in “See if you have a lucky six.”

    A poor copywriter will either lie or come close to deceit. The skilled copywriter will raise hopes without being untruthful. Direct Marketing is salesmanship in print, so it must use the stratagems of a professional sales person, and (usually) follow the AIDA sequence (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) of persuasion.

    Deceit is not the best basis for starting a customer relationship, so my advice is this: Always tell the truth, but make the truth fascinating!


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  • One of the main reasons why sales letters fail

    This morning I received a prospecting letter from an insurance specialist. They want me to switch my home insurance to them, and they have a good proposition, but it’s poorly put.

    On the first page there are 11 short paragraphs, no less than nine of which begin with either “I” or “We”. It’s a common failing in mail shots from SMEs, and may be the main reason why they fail.

    Here are some of the most common openings in such sales letters:

    • We at XYZ Company believe …
    • At XYZ Company we …
    • We believe …
    • We are …
    • We offer …
    • I know …

    Returning to this morning’s letter, its most powerful motivator is on the back page! Not only that, it offers an incentive to ask for a quote, but places it near the bottom of the front page! Easily missed. What’s worse, they spoilt it all by adding (Terms and conditions apply) immediately afterwards.

    Ordinarily I would have discarded the letter within seconds of opening it, but it has provided a useful example for analysis.

    These are the things I would recommend:

    1. Lead with the strongest benefit
    2. Focus on the reader, not yourselves
    3. Minimise the use of I and We at the start of paragraphs
    4. Make it easy on the eye. The back page is so cluttered, it’s hard to know where to look
    5. Link your incentive to the call for action
    6. Get your grammar right
    7. Line up the benefits in a sequence that grabs attention and builds up the excitement, instead of the current higgledy piggledy display
    8. Keep T & C and similar distractions away from the sales pitch

    Most of these points would be addressed by a professional copywriter. Sadly, too many clients write their own sales letters, or they use a copywriter without a background in selling or direct marketing.

    This is part of a short series of practical tips on Direct Marketing. Next time I’ll deal with the blight of ‘weasel words’ – those which appear to offer a benefit, but don’t.


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  • How to influence response to your mailings

    The level of response to direct mail is one of the most shocking facts in advertising.  A few years ago, the Direct Marketing Association surveyed 1,122 industry-specific campaigns and came up with an average response rate of 2.61 per cent. That’s a failure rate of over 97 per cent!

    The figures for 2010 are not much better, on either side of the Atlantic. The DMA in the US reported 3.42 per cent response from a house list and 1.38 per cent from a prospect list. Email to a house list got a 19.47 per cent open rate, 6.64 click through rate, and a conversion of just 1.73 per cent.

    SME’s report a typical direct mail response rate of less than one per cent. Forgive me for throwing all these figures at you, but I think you’ll agree that such results amount to a waste of time and money.

    I once approached a blue chip company that was mailing its members to offer membership renewal by continuous credit card authority (direct debit by credit card). Their large ad agency had just achieved a 12% response, and everyone was celebrating.

    I offered an alternative approach, and got a 32% YES response.

    The point is that it is not written in the stars that you should have a single-digit response rate. There are things you can do to deliver a better return on the money you spend. Here are a few:

    1. Provide an incentive to reply, even if it’s to say No thanks. The more replies you get, in total, the higher will be the Yes response.
    2. Plan a series of mailings and other follow-ups, not just a single shot. Some people need seven contacts before they say Yes.
    3. Segment your list and make a specific offer/approach to each segment, rather than the same message to all.

    One more piece of advice.  Use a professional copywriter with experience of direct mail. Unless you are one yourself, do not write your own mailings. At the same time, do not expect a copywriter to wave a magic wand. Give him or her a chance to develop the right relationship with your prospects and customers.

    It will be money well spent.

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  • Basic Direct Marketing

    I was talking the other day to a close friend who has a successful business in the service sector. Because of my background in direct marketing, she was asking my advice on a mailing she was planning.

    She was intending to send out a tri-fold leaflet with a covering letter. Pretty standard practice among SMEs. I asked her what she would be testing, and she looked blank.

    “What is there to test?” she wanted to know. “I have an established ‘product’, a good reputation in my market, and I just want to stimulate a few more sales.”

    “Who will you approach?” I asked.

    She said she was going after people who had not yet used her kind of service, whether provided by her or her competitors. New blood. I replied that her pockets were not deep enough to convert non-users, and she’d go broke before she succeeded.

    Concentrate on users, and convert them to your brand, was my advice. But test.

    Again she asked what she should test.

    In direct marketing (mailshots, if you like) you always need to test to be sure you are using the most effective marketing elements.

    There are six elements you should always test:

    1. The market: find out which section of the population is most interested in your offering.
    2. The product: is it right for the market in today’s circumstances?
    3. The offering: is it offered or packaged in the most accessible way?
    4. Price. Are you charging enough? Or can you stimulate a big increase in sales if you drop your price a bit?
    5. The creative: can you dress up your offering differently? Can you offer some incentive to buy, some bonus or ‘extra’ to sweeten the deal?
    6. The material: letter plus leaflet, or letter alone? Long copy or short copy?

    She wanted to know more, but we ran out of time …

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  • Ever been asked to get to the point?

    What’s the point you’re making?
    Get to the point.

    All within 3 seconds. That’s all the time you have to grab or lose your listener’s attention. Let me help you understand why it happens and what you can do about it.

    First, let’s consider why.

    Every day, each of us is assailed by thousands of messages – in print, in sound, in pictures, and even in person. It’s a deluge that overwhelms the senses, closing off those private moments of reflection that once we knew, forcing us to react to the demands of the moment.

    Result: we have been trained to switch off.

    As fast as we respond to those demands of the moment, we tend to lose interest and turn our minds to some other pressing matter. Attention Deficit has reached epidemic proportions.

    It is therefore vital to be able to make your point in just a minute, because two of the dominant characteristics of advanced nations in the 21st century are a short attention span and instant gratification.

    In the early ’90s, Steven Silbiger wrote a best-selling business book called “The 10-Day MBA”. He wrote that his aim was “to cut to the heart of the top MBA programs’ subject matter clearly and concisely – the way only an MBA can, and the way academics would not dare.”

    An MBA in only ten days?! It struck a chord with thousands of people who rushed to buy the book. I know many of them. I’ve seen the book on their shelves, and heard them confess that they had not actually read all 348 pages.

    The book is excellent. It offers what many people want: a step-by-step guide to mastering the skills taught in top business schools. In a hurry. Yet it is not “instant” enough for those who cannot, or will not, spare the time to sit and read the book, digest its information and decide how to apply it.

    So how is that relevant to spoken communication and making your point in just a minute?

    The relevance lies in the time pressures that govern our lives in the western world, and the need to decide quickly what is useful and discard what is not. We live in an age of Information Overload.

    The important consequence is that we are being conditioned to tune out and switch off the information we do not want. It has become a universal conditioned reflex. It means that most people cannot concentrate for very long. Our brains can think several times faster than people speak, so even while we are listening to someone else, our brains are dealing with something else, especially if what’s being said is less than riveting.

    In conversations, speeches and presentations, people drift away. That’s why we need to develop the skill of commanding and retaining the attention of our listeners. That’s why we need to be able to make our point in just a minute.

    Why contain your message in just a minute?

    The most important reason for being succinct is that it makes you and your message more acceptable. “Get to the point!” is the anguished cry in everyone’s head (including our own) when others launch into a long-winded account of an event or a proposal. A common variation is, “What’s the point you are making?”

    In contrast, it is truly refreshing when we receive a communication that is brief and to the point. Even our language has changed. In the previous paragraph I first wrote “discursive account”, but changed it to “long-winded” – not shorter, this time, but it reaches your understanding quicker.

    First impressions

    The same principles apply to face-to-face meetings. As you know, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. That first impression may be created in a fraction of a second. It’s part of the process of communication.

    Think back to the last time you met someone you instantly liked or disliked. Why? What did they say or do? And are you letting others make similar snap judgements about you?

    So what can you do about it all?

    In a business context it is important to think through your positions and your propositions. Know what you believe and why, and be clear about the benefits of your offerings. Practise making your point, using simple structures such as Problem, Cause, Solution, as though a resistant business prospect has said, “You have 60 seconds to tell me why I should listen to you.”

    At the 2009 meeting of world leaders, Gaddafi was given 15 minutes to speak, and rambled on for an hour and a half. Most of us don’t have that luxury.

    When you know how to make your point in just a minute, you create a communication style that projects a sense of purpose. You’ll connect better at networking meetings. Your opinions will be better received. Strangely enough, you’ll even learn to listen more.

    And that’s what wins friends and influences people.

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  • Self-serving advertising can cost you dearly


    The advertising industry’s magazine, Campaign, is running a series on the history of advertising in various objects.  No. 18 is Strand cigarettes. By a sheer coincidence I was talking about it (and the ad campaign) only yesterday.

    Written by a brilliant copywriter, John May of S H Benson, the commercial featured a Frank Sinatra lookalike, and rapidly became much talked about.

    Campaign reveals that Strand was bought by only 0.3% of male smokers and 0.7% of female smokers. A resounding flop!

    However, Campaign explains the failure like this: “… great advertising can’t sell a poor product. Strand was just a lousy smoke.”

    Spot the fallacy. If hardly anyone bought the product, how did anyone know it was a lousy smoke? Campaign’s explanation is clearly an attempt to exonerate advertising and shift the blame away from the ad’s creator.

    The real explanation may be more obvious: the commercial’s plain purpose was to flaunt its creativity, both in the Big Idea and in its clever execution. A common failing in advertising. It did not relate to the motivation of smokers, nor did it reflect their preferred lifestyle.

    Did the agency do any research or testing? Or was it just another example of self-serving advertising? The theme music was great and did well in the charts. The photography was moody and very well observed. And the actor accurately portrayed a singleton in need of care.

    Just because the individual elements were well done, it was (wrongly) assumed that the ad would sell the product. It’s well known in Selling that when people notice and applaud your performance, you have failed.

    Besides, would you have wanted to pull out a packet of fags that proclaimed you a lonely sad sack?  ‘Nuff said.


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  • Cross culture is on your doorstep

    Talk about cross culture or cultural diversity and people think it’s ‘over there’. In reality, it’s very much ‘over here’. What’s more, it’s one of today’s hot topics in business – one that concerns you if you are a senior manager or business owner.

    Let me start by defining ‘culture’. In simple terms it means, ‘the way we do things here’. That could apply to the norms in a region, in a country, even in a company. Just think about the way different banks do business. They are all in the same line of business, yet each bank has its own style, values, and practices, and each delivers a very different experience to customers.

    Two examples of banking practices: one in Bogotá, Colombia, the other in South London. The first concerned Tom Bennett, a senior accountant with a major New York accounting firm, who travelled to Bogotá on business. He popped into a branch of the country’s largest bank to cash a cheque.

    When he eventually got past the gaggle of people in front of a teller, he handed in his cheque and waited for his money. As you do. While he was there, several people elbowed their way to the same window and handed in their cheques, treating Tom as though he was in the way.

    What he didn’t know was that the custom was to hand in your cheque and step back to allow others to do the same. You would be called when your money was ready. If Tom had known that he would have avoided the unpleasantness he encountered.

    The second incident occurred in a South London branch of a leading bank, a few years ago. I was standing in a queue when an Oriental trader, perhaps from a restaurant, came in and went up to the Enquiries window. He asked to see the Manager and was asked to take a seat in the open plan area. Eventually a young man, obviously not the Bank Manager, came out and sat with the trader, within sight and earshot of all the other customers in the bank.

    The Oriental gentleman was very uncomfortable and mumbled a question that was probably not the one he had wanted to raise, and left very quickly. He had not been offered any privacy for his conversation and I reckon he felt both embarrassed and humiliated by the expectation that he would discuss his business requirements in public.

    Both incidents arose out of cultural misunderstandings.

    In your business, you may have customers and staff with cultural expectations that differ from your own. That puts ‘cross culture’ firmly on your doorstep. If you’d like help with managing those differences, email me at phillip@speakingandpresentationskills.com“>phillip@speakingandpresentationskills.com.


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  • In these troubled times

    When times are tough, as they clearly are at the moment, it is interesting to see how businesses behave.

    On my bookshelf I have a couple of books that were written some time ago, but whose titles would fit very well with the prevailing mood. One is called The Best Damn Sales Book Ever and the other is titled Buy This Book!

    I’ll return to them in a moment, but let me contrast them with a couple of printers I’ve recently dealt with. The simpler one first. I received a promotional email last week from a printer I had never used before. I immediately replied with a request for a couple of printing quotes. It was ignored.

    Meanwhile I received three promotional emails from someone of the same name, inviting me to a seminar on property investment. While I applaud diversity, is this printer wise to take his eye off his core business?

    Now the reason I was asking for a quote from a new source of printing is that my previous printer mis-printed my business cards, and let me down when I pointed out the error. His integrity is worth less than the cost of re-printing my cards. (If you want to know who he is, contact me and I’ll tell you.)

    Back to the books. Their titles proclaim the authors to be bold, brash and bursting with self confidence. Warren Greshes’ Sales Book may not actually be the best of its kind, but it is certainly very good, and contains a lot of useful guidance for those who are struggling with slimmed-down sales pipelines.

    The other book is by Raj Marwah who was born and raised in India, but now lives in Australia. His book on advertising owes much to David Ogilvy’s book, Ogilvy on Advertising, but he has chutzpah in spades. And that’s a quality that will separate the best from the rest.

    Wondering if you should have another go at a sales letter? Or perhaps a new business presentation? Let me make it easy for you. Write to me personally at phillip@pkpcommunicators.com.

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