Wednesday, November 18, 2009

How to figure out your client's writing preferences

Of course, this has never happened to you, but it might have happened to someone you know:

A hard-to-please client is re-writing your team’s work in the wee hours. Team morale is sliding because new quality control measures haven't helped. Baffled junior staff wonder if they chose the wrong career, and senior staff schedule extra client meetings to get to the bottom of things, to no effect.

In case you ever land in this situation -- or better still, if you want to pre-empt it -- here's what you can do to figure out a challenging client's writing preferences.

(1) Find out who your client admires -- Ask for writing samples from third-party or internal sources that the client likes. These may be from a company the client admires or the work of a favorite internal writer. Most people can’t articulate their preferences, but they know what they like when they see it.

(2) Study a body of tracked changes -- Gather three to five samples of this person’s tracked changes and look for patterns.

(3) Analyze in three specific categories: (a) discretionary vocabulary, (b) sentence structure and (c) content decisions. (That’s for starters. When I dive into these, I tend to find more categories specific to the client.)

(a) Discretionary vocabulary –
Does your client prefer international, global or worldwide? They all mean the same thing, right? Does he like meet, need and look better than assemble, require and appear? Again, same meaning, different words.

But to him, one set sounds right and the other doesn't. He can't tell you why. For most of us, it's a natural inclination to want writing that we are editing to sound similar to the syntax and connotation that matches the voice we hear in our head when we read. Most of us don't realize that we have these personal biases.

Does your client choose customer retention over customer loyalty, dramatically over highly, and stimulate over fuel?

Make a list of words that potentially could have been interchangeable with other words of similar meaning. Analyze them.

Some people have biases for particular sounds – like the “uhl” sounds in loyal, highly and fuel. I can't tell you why, just that I've observed it.

Some insist on generic college words (Latinate) like establish, initiate, consolidate and examine, while others prefer plain words (Anglo-Saxon) like set up, start, join and find. I know of one individual who likes Latinate verbs but poetic Anglo-Saxon kicks at the ends of sentences: “….consolidate ….initiate… cash in on the car’s cachet.”

If you detect an underlying core image, it may be easier to guess which discretionary words will be the best fit. Your client won’t realize how deliberately you made your choice; he’ll just feel comfortable reading what you wrote and won’t know why.

One company’s preferred vocabulary reminds me of music from the 1968 sci-fi classic “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It’s transcendent and expansive – freed from the limitations of, future generations, legendary.

Another emphasizes comparison (double the capacity, aggressive development milestones, outperform, minimal) and perspective (in a roundup of five, range from, longstanding, latest).

One reminds me of a race car: speed, accelerate, perform, grab, win, spin, stop.

(b) Sentence structure –
I know of at least one individual who systematically deletes all introductory clauses without fail. Meanwhile, others insist on them: “At a time when people are traveling more than ever (comma)” or “Demonstrating the popularity of mobile devices (comma).”

One company likes a rhythm of fours instead of the usual rhythm of threes, as in “apples, oranges, bananas and pears” versus “apples, oranges and bananas.”

I know of a company that deletes adjectives, except for certain ones immediately in front of product names – and nowhere else. This company mostly writes with strong verbs highly recommended). Many people do just the opposite. They mostly write with jazzy nouns (and quiet verbs like is, has, do), and love adjectives everywhere.

I know of a veteran professional communicator with an engineer’s love for efficiency but none for colloquialisms. So it’s “enables remote PC access” not “so users can connect to their PC while away from the office.” Another company with similar products prefers just the opposite.

(c) Content choices –
Some companies like to make explicit statements about business strategy in product announcements. Others stick to specs and features. A few (the ones that win awards and get talked about) emphasize social context. (Everyone agrees on emphasizing benefits.)

Once you’ve got these kinds of lists in front of you, the problem is no longer mysterious. You can create a cheat sheet for everyone on the team to use.