There is a very simple framework that will help you sharpen your writing by presenting your idea or argument in a clear, concise, and engaging way. It’s what advertising pioneer David Ogilvy called the “big idea.” When applied to all writing, I call it the “one idea rule.”
In short, this rule requires that each piece of writing express only one central idea. This works for sales and investor pitch emails, reports, presentations, and even this blog post.
Without the idea rule, business writing tends to wander, moving from topic to topic or including more detail than the audience can absorb or what the situation requires. Many business writers begin with a strong idea, but it gets diluted when they try to translate the idea into words. The result is loose, distracted, and often confusing messaging. That’s too bad. The ideas may have been valuable, but there were just too many of them to digest at once.
Sounds simple, but, like all things worth doing, it takes purpose and practice to master this concept. I take four steps to achieve this, and you will be the judge if I’ve succeeded in this blog post.
1. Frame your central idea.
To get started, ask yourself questions like: “What am I trying to achieve?” “What do I know that will be surprising and welcome to my audience?” “What inspires me about this topic?” Use these questions to narrow down your angle of approach.
Writing a very clear headline or subject line can also help focus your thoughts. It requires you to identify the one central idea of your communication. If you have multiple central ideas, then use multiple communications. (Ah, the birth of a blog series!)
2. Clarify your call to action.
Effective communications lead people to action. Small steps are easier to take than large ones, so, identify actions that lead to a sale, rather than only focusing on “buy buy buy.” This might be subscribing to your blog or following you on social so you can continue to market them over time.
The key is to ask yourself, “What do I want people to think, feel and do as a result of reading my content or listening to me?” Be very very clear about the objective of your communication and make it specific. “Be more aware of my knowledge/company” is not a strong goal, although that might be a side benefit of another call to action. Specific and measurable calls to action are filling in a form, requesting a free trial or consultation, subscribing to your marketing newsletter, agreeing to a meeting, responding to a social post (comment, like), coming to hear you speak at an event, and of course, buying your product/service.
People make a series of micro-decisions in every relationship. Each time they hear from you, they are deciding either to take the next step or to focus elsewhere. Communications that lead your audience one step at a time, steady over time, just like the tortoise, will bring you more business, more fans and followers, and more audience engagement.
3. Find evidence.
Assemble your list of proof points, facts, anecdotes, and data. Prioritize those that will be most compelling to your audience. Be mindful of any competing arguments or data that oppose your position. You will want to counter those points before the reader or listener discovers them.
4. Prioritize your key points.
This might be the hardest step. Shorter content communicates better, but it’s harder to create. Think Gettysburg Address vs. the preceding two-hour speech by Edward Everett that no one cares to remember and most people attending didn't even hear.
Anything other than your key points will be distracting and start to harm your effectiveness.
5. Order your key points into a storyline.
If you focus on including only things that are relevant to your audience and communications goals, then this step should be easy. What’s the story you are telling? Stories are how people learn and engage. This is true for even the most complex of technical or financial conversations. All stories have a very clear beginning, middle, and end.
That may sound simple, but it takes real discipline and focus to get it right. Test out your story with a few friendly fans or colleagues. The effort is worth it. Effective messaging is the only way you will sell, market, build influence on social media, delight your customers, awe investors, or establish your credibility in a competitive marketplace.
Wait, you may say. I have many things to communicate. Leaving out other ideas means that I leave some concepts or sales points on the table. I hear you. The trick is to take a long view of your communication goals. If you engage the reader/listener/prospect with a very clear idea, then you have earned the opportunity to keep talking. Now, introduce your next very clear idea, then the next. You are effectively taking someone through a journey, where each step is clear, simple, and engaging.
Maybe you need to write the intro email that gets a meeting, so you can kick off the sales process. That email doesn't need to include all the details of your pitch, it just needs enough to get a meeting. Focus on the first goal (get a meeting) so that you can continue the conversation at the sales meeting.
There are many benefits to this one idea rule philosophy. These three are the most compelling for small business owners and marketers:
- You will build loyalty and engagement along the communications journey. Each touchpoint that results in another step along the journey builds familiarity and experience with your brand promise. By the time you bring people to your ultimate goal (sales!), you will have built your reputation as a problem solver and good partner who understands their needs. Loyal customers who are delighted with your expertise and product/service are the best kind to have.
- You will discover a lot about your business. Making each touchpoint about one step of the journey alone gives you lots of room to listen and gather feedback. You will find out all kinds of valuable advice including sales objections, customer needs, future blog topics, and even referrals to other prospects. That is all invaluable insight you can turn into future profits and product development.
- You will have more fun. Focus gives you freedom. You can try different approaches (all with the same goal) and experiment with your language. You can weave in testimonials and alternate proof points to explore what works best. By not trying to regurgitate everything you know in every encounter, you can express your personality.
The one idea rule describes all good writing. You can do it, too.
As you practice, you will become sharper at listening to audience cues about their readiness to move to the next step and spend less time tiring to guess what to say/write next.
With the confidence to write with persuasion, panache, and personality, you will be more successful in all your communications efforts. Try it and see.