Like beauty, good writing is in the eye of the beholder; a wholly subjective judgment, aside from a few universal standards (i.e. correct punctuation, no errors in spelling or syntax, etc.).
I think such that subjectivity can often lead investment managers to think too lightly about how a firm’s outward projection of itself is deeply influenced by the quality of the writing.
But how best to define “good” writing for an investment management firm?
It’s often a tough definition for an institution to agree upon because investment management firms are made up of highly educated and accomplished professionals (for the time being, at least), each with individual preferences and surprisingly rigid notions about what constitutes “good” writing.
One of the biggest rubs is that for many professionals, irrespective of industry or sector, their ideas about “good” writing were formed during their undergraduate and graduate years – likely the last time they were asked to write regularly and extensively.
The problem is: what might make a Finance professor swoon is most often wholly inappropriate for communicating with prospects and clients.
Write Like You Want to be Read
Just because word choice is meticulous, syntax is correct, and punctuation is impeccable doesn’t mean that something is well-written. Writing is about more than merely the precise expression of a thought; it is also a function of how effectively that idea is communicated to an audience that is often distracted, impatient, and/or disinterested.
In other words, context matters.
Now, I’m not suggesting that a quarterly newsletter or pitch book should read like a Wordsworth poem or contain Shakespearean quotes. In fact, when I’ve seen investment management firms try to adopt such a literary bent, it often comes across as contrived and ingenuine.
Pulling off a liberal-artsy communications strategy in the financial services industry is a high-level-of-difficulty exercise that is best left untried. That said, effective communication does indeed require an inspirational component.
I firmly believe that the most effective communications strategy is one in which a firm describes its value proposition and explains performance using language and a voice that enables the audience to take a breath and say to themselves, “OK, these guys get IT… and they get ME.”
The best way to do so is to approach writing with the end user in mind. In other words, think not simply about what YOU want to say, but also about HOW your audience wants to hear it.
When you write, think to yourself, “If I was my client, and had 20 unread emails, five unlistened-to voice mails, and meetings triple-scheduled for the afternoon, would I really invest the time to read past the first sentence or two?”
Make the Effort
Because most communications today are distributed in electronic formats (PDF, HTML, PowerPoint, email, etc.) many of the rules for writing effective website content can be applied to client and marketing communications. A snapshot of these best practices include
- Get to the point quickly by writing in an inverted pyramid style;
- Write shorter, skimmable paragraphs, with no more than one idea per paragraph;
- Employ a simple sentence structure, with few, if any, compound sentences;
- Use bullet points, headers, and subheaders to break up large blocks of text.
Because the market for investment management services is fierce, with many, many firms eagerly going the extra mile when crafting their client and marketing communications, marketing and client service professionals cannot treat their communications as simply another box to check on their weekly or monthly to-do list.
At the end of the day, “good” writing equals “thoughtful” writing. Investment managers must remember that persuasively written content can greatly enhance a firm’s reputation. It can also quickly establish one where none existed before.
Thoughtful writing catches the eye, inspires confidence, and often makes a dramatic difference to how an organization is perceived by its clients and prospects.