Today’s tamago comes from Patrick Lin, our first guest writer and an old school friend of mine. Since he left for the States three years ago, I hadn’t seen much of Paddy until he came back down for his summer vacation – and a stint working alongside me in the world of professional communications. Here’s a little of what he’s learnt so far.
On my first day at work I was asked to write a 1,500 word feature article. About a printer. For a magazine which talks solely about printers. I didn’t even know there existed articles of this sort, let alone entire magazines. It seemed unimaginable that there were readers out there who’d go reams of printer-related jargon with the same delectation I might with TIME or National Geographic. I amused myself for a second with the thought of printer nerds frothing at the prospect of cloud print compatibility and the highest DPI print technology can offer. In any case, to each his own; I was determined to deliver on my first assignment. After all, what good would a Williams education be if I couldn’t get a simple task like this done?
My article turned out to be a dog’s breakfast. Of course, my supervisor said it was great and immensely helpful for her to build on. But I knew I had to learn how to harness my university writing skills for the corporate environment. If you’re in university or any other educative institution, you’ll probably soon be writing for a business (or in the business of writing). Here are a couple of tips I’ve picked up to get you ready:
1. Understand the brand.
How does the company want to sell itself? Are they proper or laid-back? Who is their target market? These things will be predetermined by the corporation, but at times you will need to do serious detective work because some companies have more distinct brand voices than others. For example: Virgin Air has loud brand voice all about delivering mates rates all round because they know that not all of us treat a trip from Australia to Europe like an excursion to the zoo. On the other hand, Xerox’s language is at best elegant and at worst bland, and is in general unemotional. If you wrote for Xerox with the same “no frills” attitude of Virgin, it would not work.
Companies are like people: they each have their own voice and character. Get to know this personality first, then sell the company for exactly who they are in the best way possible.
Ed: This is also relevant when you’re writing cover letters or job applications – if you can align your tone with that of the company’s brand, you stand a far better chance of being hired than a cloistered English-Major who uses “ergo” in every second sentence. Unless you’re applying to be a Latin professor. QED.
2. Bring your business to life.
How often do you see companies champion “professionalism, integrity, respect,” in their mission statements? Or companies that write: “we strive to deliver excellent industry standards to our customers.” And my personal favourite: “your call is important to us” after being on hold for 20 minutes. This dull, impersonal language is the market norm and does not set companies apart from their competitors; it’s language customers can’t believe in.
We are more likely to do business with people we like. When you write for a corporation, don’t be afraid to write like there is a real person on the other end. At the end of the day, business is done by real people, not corporations.
Ed: Of course, the degree to which this holds depends on who you’re working for. Be personal, but don’t be an idiot.
3. Change the way you look at your undergraduate education.
There is one school of thought that says you go to university to learn a vocation. After all, you spent all of high school studying history and basket weaving.
But the times are changing. By the time you graduate from your vocational degree, you’ll probably be learning a different skill set. What is more valuable then, is your ability to grasp vast amounts of complex ideas and weave them into a cohesive, easily-understandable whole (Ed: like a basket).
And since we now live in the age of the cognitariat – a class of white collar workers who generate information – this skill will prove invaluable not only for lifelong learning. It’ll also be an important asset in the workplace, where you will undoubtedly be required to add to the wealth of information already floating around in the zeitgeist of our digital age.
Taking complex information and sythesising it into a coherent, easy-to-understand and original form is not something everybody can do. But you’re already doing it at uni. Don’t squander that opportunity.
In brief: Write in a voice that is true to the character of the business. Don’t be afraid to let people know there is a real person talking on the other end. While at school, read critically and write assertively.