“I can’t run this. It’s gonna depress the crap out of people.”
That was the feedback I received on the first piece of business writing I ever did. Yup, that’s a direct quote. And yes, it deserved every word.
The article in question was a write-up on a company fundraiser that had brought in thousands of dollars in donations for the Alzheimer’s Society. I added in sobering dementia statistics, talked about how doctors can only slow down, but not cure, the disease, the pain it causes...
Sorry, I’m probably depressing the ever-living crap out of you now.
I meant well! I just tried to cram an enormous amount of emotional weight into a 500-word good-news bite and, unsurprisingly, it did. not. Work.
But, what I learned from that experience did help me become a better business writer. It showed me that there are three vital components of any piece of business writing. But if you don’t pay attention to the amount of each that you add to your copy, you can kiss conversion goodbye. People won’t even read to the end of the copy, let alone take the action that you want them to take.
So, here are my tips on how to calibrate the three most important components of business writing.
3 things your proposal writing needs to have the right amount of:
The right amount of emotion
For starters, everyone needs to do away with the idea that B2B purchases are made with logic. People usually err on the side of too little emotion when they’re writing a sales doc. (In other words, the opposite of what I did in my first piece.)
People buy emotionally and then rationalize it using logic, even in B2B. That means that for your writing to resonate you need to press on those pain points. Remind people why they sought out a solution to a problem in the first place. But you can’t go over the top, either.
Think about real estate agents. Even though buying a house is a fairly practical transaction there’s still a lot of emotion involved. Agents write listings to appeal to your emotions and get you to envision your new lifestyle in your new home before you’ve even set foot in the place.
In a proposal, there are a few places where including some emotion will help you sell, like your executive summary or cover letter (show you understand those pain points!) and the About Us or Why Us section (show some excitement for what you do!). A section like your terms and conditions will rely less on emotion and more on specific and straightforward language.
The right amount of context
To get this one right, you need a clear understanding of where your reader is. If you’re talking to experts, less context. Newbies? You need more. Don’t talk down or up. Come straight across.
It’s like when someone breaks out the dictionary definition of love at a wedding and everyone cringes. Why is it so hacky? Because we all have at least a baseline knowledge of what love is.
For my article’s purposes, there was no need to regurgitate Wikipedia. I think everyone understands that more money for more research into a cure for dementia is a good thing. But some context is always helpful. Like if you were writing a proposal, your prospect/champion has been through your entire sales process. But what if they pass your proposal along to another decision-maker who hasn’t been included until this point? There should be enough context there for them to follow along.
In a proposal, you usually want to provide context for your pricing page. Showing a gold, silver, and bronze package without any framework for what each of those include or exclude is pointless and won’t instill any trust.
The right amount of proof
In my Alzheimer’s article, I included statistic after statistic about the disease. It was all good, real-life information, but it was way too much. People tend to understand that it’s a horrible, debilitating disease without needing a million metrics to back that concept up.
In the same way, social proof in business writing is great. But you need to be strategic. Pick the social proof examples that are the strongest and/or speak directly to your reader. For example, you might be tempted to include a case study featuring your biggest client in every proposal.
However, a case study from a prospect’s own industry might be more persuasive than one with a well-known logo from an unrelated one. You could also match case studies to prospects by company size, the title of the person featured, or the features and outcomes that are highlighted.
And keep in mind that case studies are the norm but they’re not the only way. Consider adding testimonials, reviews, endorsements, and other kinds of social proof to your proposals.
4 tips to help you calibrate emotion, context, and proof in your business writing
Okay, that covers what your writing needs to have and where to include it. Now, how do you know how much emotion, context and proof to add? Here are my four tips for calibrating these elements in your business writing:
1. Write long.
When you’re worried about going overboard on something in your writing, the quality of your content will suffer. I’m here to tell you: write as much as you want. Often my posts start out two or three times their final word count.
That’s because it can be hard to see places where it’s lacking but much easier to tell when there’s too much. Include everything and then go back and edit out any superfluous emotion, context, and proof.
2. Look at it from your readers’ perspective.
What do they NEED to know? What would be nice to know? What can be assumed that they already know? For example, you might look silly explaining an acronym to an expert audience while a beginner reader might be looking for that exact info to be included.
3. Get a second opinion.
If I had gotten an editor or even a coworker to take a look at my first piece, they probably would have identified a lot of the problems with it before I got reamed out by my publisher.
A second set of eyes is always a good idea. For example, you already know all the reasons why someone should work with your company or buy your product. So you might go easy on the proof when your proposal actually needs more to be truly persuasive.
4. Try it two (or more) ways.
If you aren’t sure exactly how much emotion, context, and proof will resonate with your audience, test it. Add an A/B test to your landing page with two different copy versions. Swap out the case studies in your proposals and see what happens. The only way to know how effective your writing is is to get it out there.
Here at Proposify, I’ll sometimes test out two versions of an email, a blog post introduction, or even just a word choice in a headline to see which one resonates the most. That could mean the most clicks or views, depending on my goal for the content.
I’m not saying any of this is easy. That line between too much and not enough of these things when you’re writing can be so hard to see.
But being more aware of the levels of emotion, context, and proof in your business writing can help you be more empathetic with your prospects. and build trust with them. And empathy and trust are what lead to the outcomes you’re looking for from your business content.