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Anatomy of a great apology e-mail from

Posted by Miriam Dumaine on Thu, Sep 27, 2012 @ 02:56 PM

Normally, e-mail is not the proper vehicle for an apology; we recommend a face-to-face meeting or phone call if possible. However, when you are the internet hosting service and have thousands of angry customers affected by an internet outage, e-mail is the only way to reach customers quickly. The CEO of, Scott Wagner, did an admirable job.

Why was his message so effective? Read the message and we’ll deconstruct it below: apology e-mail from CEO Scott Wagner

Here are the main ingredients of Wagner’s effective apology e-mail:

  1. Clear bottom line strategically placed in the banner—you can’t miss it! Bottom Line On Top: The apology and “What’s in it for me?” are in the banner. If the customer reads no more, he or she will know there’s a credit waiting.

  2. Reader-centered focus. Wagner effectively uses the “you” attitude to connect directly and show he understands his customer’s pain: “We let you down and we know it.”

  3. Appropriate and brief content. The third paragraph explains why the outage happened. The explanation is factual and avoids blame or emotion.

  4. Clear action requests. How many times have you been upset about a service and had to ask for a credit? immediately offers this with "Accept your enclosed credit" and "Redeem your credits now." You just need to click.

  5. Passive voice score is low. Wagner takes responsibility with the first person voice, “I” and “we.” There are a few instances of passive voice to hide the "actor" of the action. Short, active sentences give the message a more personal feeling, as if Wagner were writing only to one person instead of the entire customer base.

  6. Use of visual design. Wagner uses bold for the second most important statement: “At no time was any sensitive customer information, including credit card data, passwords or names and addresses, compromised.” We normally suggest writers use more formatting such as headlines and bullets, but this apology e-mail works well as it is.

  7. Appropriate word choice and tone. Wagner uses simple words to create an authentic and heartfelt voice. It really sounds like he, personally, is sorry. He also knew it was important to send the message under his personal signature—not from the customer service department. He acknowledges that the apology is just the first step for in regaining the trust of its customers.

Great job, Scott Wagner!

Tags: customer-focused writing, business writing, effective e-mail subject lines, apology email, Scott Wagner

Death by subject line: a cautionary business writing tale

Posted by Miriam Dumaine on Mon, Jan 16, 2012 @ 12:23 PM

By guest blogger Andrea MacLeod
It’s January and my favorite store’s e-marketing campaign is out of control. I succumbed to several of their “special offers” during the holidays, and now they are targeting my inbox relentlessly. In an attempt to clear the backlog of last season’s merchandise, they are jeopardizing future full-price sales.

I was too busy to react to my first email titled “Last Chance!!! 90% Off!!! Free Shipping!!!” I regretted losing the opportunity, but maybe it was for the best.

The same electronic promotion arrived for the next eight days. The barrage of last chances made my feeling of regret decrease—the uniqueness and value of the deal became more questionable. Each day they had lied to me about the last chance. Rather than convince me to buy, I was annoyed at the lack of space in my inbox.

This “spam” made me think of my own subject lines. In my attempt to get readers’ attention in the avalanche of e-communication, am I shouting or overselling? Or do I create value for my reader?

Subject lines are your first impression. For many readers, the subject line will determine whether or not they read the e-mail.

Tips for crafting your subject line: remember to

  • keep it brief and relevant
  • personalize as much as possible—no one likes to read a template
  • update it when responding to an e-mail
  • include any actions required with real deadlines.
That “LAST CHANCE” deal will be ignored, but by keeping your subject line reader-centered, your e-mail won’t be.

Tags: clear writing, e-mail communication, Energize Your E-mail, sales writing, customer-focused writing, business writing, effective e-mail subject lines

How to write a blockbuster PowerPoint presentation

Posted by Miriam Dumaine on Thu, Jul 21, 2011 @ 04:51 PM

By guest blogger Bob Cipriano, facilitator and movie critic

PowerPoint presentations can look a little like movies. Especially when you “vortex” your transitions from slide to slide and “boomerang” your bullet points. But your presentation isn’t a movie, Mr. Spielberg. Nobody showed up to view your animated pageantry or your fiery conclusion.
Presentations serve a purpose
Audiences gather for PowerPoint presentations to take something back with them—to be able to do something new or better, make a decision, or get energized. They get that from the words on screen and the words you speak. If PowerPoint presentations get raves, it’s because they’re about your point, your bottom line, and your inspiring words—not your provocative slide transitions.

But if you want to “go Hollywood” with your presentation, fine. Just do it right. Every movie begins with a script.

Writing your script
Step one:  focus on your audience
Ask yourself what you want your audience to do or take away from your presentation. Jot it down. Then ask yourself what those people need from you to be able to act on your words. (Acting requires some motivation. If you’re going to attract, hold, and motivate an audience, your script better relate directly to that audience.) Keep it simple: bullet points speak louder than paragraphs when you’re storyboarding your production.

Step two: sequence your information
Lay out your production in flashback. PowerPoint audiences need to know the ending up front. If not, they get restless.

Step three: transfer to PowerPoint
When you begin to transfer your notes to actual slides, remember that nobody comes to a presentation to read paragraphs. The bullet points you wrote while storyboarding might serve you well on screen. You can and should elaborate as the presenter. Otherwise, you’re just a glorified projectionist.

Step four: design your slides
After the writing comes the production. Build that production around your script, but be subtle. What if your majestic production highlights really do have people buzzing after the production? Is that good? If bulleted lists exploding like “Transformers, the PowerPoint Incident” linger in an audience’s collective consciousness, how will they ever recollect what the bullets actually said?

PowerPoint should enhance your message, not distract from it
Your message is the medium. PowerPoint is the tool. Leave your audience with a written offer they can’t refuse—not a slideshow version of “Apocalypse Now.” Phony action flops. Inspired action gets an extended run.


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Tags: presentation tools, clear writing, customer-focused writing, analyze your audience, PowerPoint

Is your daily business writing TOO business-like?

Posted by Deborah Dumaine on Thu, Apr 21, 2011 @ 03:17 PM

In e-mail, in the name of being professional, do you tend to shy away from asking your customers about a recent vacation or a sick child?

Pretend you’re talking to them on the phone: would you jump right into your business conversation or instead ask how they are…how their weekend was?  The answer is the latter.

If you’re writing the first e-mail of the day to your customer, start with a short personal reference, and close with one as well.  Successive e-mail messages to the same customer on the same day can be brief and to the point. This is similar to working in an office, when you say “good morning” to everyone and then get on with your business day.

Depending on how well you know the customer, don’t be afraid to share a bit of personal information about yourself; for example: your customer loves hiking and you learned about new walking sticks, or you found a great organic restaurant in an area you both know.

Think of your daily business writing as a way to get to know your customer and vice versa. It builds and strengthens relationships, which is your goal. With waning opportunities to meet in person, this may be your best chance to show you are a friendly, appealing, and trusted resource.

Tags: clear writing, e-mail communication, customer-focused writing, writing for leaders, Better Communications, business writing courses

Managers report nearly 80% of decision-making takes place in writing

Posted by Deborah Dumaine on Tue, Apr 12, 2011 @ 10:43 AM

What are the implications for those in leadership roles?

Companies spend millions of dollars grooming current and future leaders for success. They offer all sorts of training and team building in costly off-sites. Then what happens? The leaders go back to their desks where they suddenly must translate all the great stuff they learned about leadership into writing. And they can’t.

What do readers want from a leader who writes to them?

At the most basic level, readers want to know two things:

1. What is this message about?

2. What am I supposed to do?

After the basics, readers want a message wrapped in clear language and a positive, encouraging tone.

Are you in a leadership role? Use these guidelines from our Writing for Leaders™ course

Using a simple focusing exercise at the beginning of any communication, even a brief e-mail, can set you apart as a leader who can communicate. Go back and review your last several important e-mail messages to your team, and ask yourself the questions below. Did you

  • think “action”: clarify what you want the reader to do and include a deadline?
  • put your key point first (“bottom line on top”) most of the time?
  • make your e-mail subject line specific and informative using verbs, not just nouns? Include deadlines?
  • keep language simple: control word and sentence length for greater readability?
  • use headlines to make your document’s organization stand out and help the reader get your message?

How did you do?

It will take a while to internalize these guidelines, but you will see the difference immediately when you send out a message that answers “yes” to all of the above questions!

Tags: before and after writing samples, clear writing, e-mail communication, customer-focused writing, writing for leaders, Better Communications, Write to the Top, business writing courses, Six Steps to Reader-Centered Writing, plan an e-mail, e-mail overload, analyze your audience

Grammar error in NYTimes ad - quick business writing lesson

Posted by Deborah Dumaine on Tue, Apr 05, 2011 @ 04:38 PM

Did you see’s full-page ad in Sunday’s New York Times (p. 7 WK)? As a long-time business writing coach, I cringe when I see this error.

The only text on the page was this tag line:

If your child is using drugs, talk to them before it goes too far.

The poor grammar takes away from the message—many readers will focus on the grammar goof instead of the drug issue. “Your child” is singular; “them” is plural. We’ve all come across this pesky antecedent problem, but how do you avoid it?  Using “him or her” is way too cumbersome, especially for a punchy one-liner like this. So avoid the pronoun problem altogether by eliminating it. Try

  • If your child is using drugs, have a talk before it goes too far.
  • If your child is using drugs, sit down and talk before it goes too far.
  • If your child is using drugs, discuss it now—before it goes too far.

Your prose will sound more elegant and polished, and you will succeed in delivering a clear message.

Tags: before and after writing samples, clear writing, customer-focused writing, New York Times, grammar error, pronoun agreement

Leaders need emotional intelligence in e-mail

Posted by Deborah Dumaine on Fri, Dec 03, 2010 @ 11:48 AM

I came across an article in Chief Learning Officer’s online magazine that shines a spotlight on a critical area: emotional intelligence in e-mail. We think of emotional intelligence as it applies to live human interaction, but today we spend most of our time communicating electronically. This increases the chances that we’ll mess up and offend a reader.

When emotional intelligence in e-mail is missing, it pinpoints a lack of what we call reader-centered writing.

The first step to any e-mail or proposal is understanding your reader’s point of view and how he or she might react. Sending a curt message or using a tough tone can be deadly to your virtual team; it defeats cooperation. Leaders need a positive, constructive voice in e-mail, but many don’t even know they aren’t using one. I’ve spent my career developing tools and techniques for self-assessment and adding emotional intelligence to e-mail. Studies show that companies that communicate effectively have higher returns to their shareholders. (2009/2010 Watson Wyatt Communication ROI Study). 

Read this insightful article on Emotional Intelligence:

Tags: clear writing, e-mail communication, Energize Your E-mail, sales writing, customer-focused writing, writing for leaders, Better Communications, Write to the Top, plan an e-mail, Write to Win Sales, analyze your audience, talent retention, HR Trends, Action Through Words

Target Your Audience, Close Sales.

Posted by Deborah Dumaine on Tue, Oct 12, 2010 @ 03:03 PM

If you are a true salesperson at heart, chances are you would rather be out meeting potential customers than facing a computer screen writing a sales proposal. Regardless, those proposals won’t write themselves. If you need to write to win sales, follow the advice below to learn how to write effective sales documents more efficiently—leaving you with more time for selling.

Before you type your first sentence, analyze your audience. This is the most important piece of wisdom we can impart, and it is never more important than when you are in sales mode. By targeting your buyers’ needs, you create proposals that will wow your prospects.

Here’s how to double check if you are on target. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Who exactly are my readers?
  2. What matters most to my readers? In other words, what do they value most? (Cost? Efficiency? Performance? Service? Support?)
  3. How can my product or service benefit my readers?
  4. Which competitors are my readers considering?
  5. What is my distinctive advantage over my competitors?
  6. What objections do I need to overcome?

A successful sales document has the following attributes:

  • Customer-focused: Use “you” language to show that you understand the customer’s needs and point of view.  Don’t brag about your company in generic ways.
  • Organized strategically: Put your bottom line on top.
  • Easy to read: Include ample white space, headlines that emphasize key points, and visual aids to illustrate important information.
  • Friendly and professional: Use a conversational tone with active voice and positive language.
  • Politely assertive: Explain what sets you apart from the competition.
After writing your document, put yourself in your customer’s shoes. “If I were the customer, would this document answer my questions and address my needs and concerns? Is this well-structured and easy to read?” If the answers are yes, congratulations! You’re not only on the fast track to winning or retaining business, but also you’ve mastered a writing technique that will benefit you for years to come.

Tags: sales writing, customer-focused writing, Write to Win Sales, analyze your audience, sales plan, sales letter, sales proposal