“Writing is rewriting.” I’m reminded of this truth every time I sit down to craft a missive that will influence my audience. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just spit something out onto paper, or the computer screen, that promised an immediate impact on our readers? All gain, no pain?
Sad to say, it doesn’t work that way—and even Anne Lamott, in her fabulous writing instruction book “Bird by Bird,” talks about the value of what she calls “shitty first drafts”: “All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.”
Here’s the rub: When we (re)write a sales email, or a presentation to an important group of potential clients, what do we want to rewrite, exactly? By way of analogy it’s like a mechanic telling you, “This car needs work,” but without giving you the slightest idea what they want to troubleshoot.
So let’s begin with the most basic, but arguably most important principle of effective writing, especially when you have limited time and space to get your point across to an audience:
OK, perhaps I overdid it a bit in the above example. But whenever I talk to writers about what makes their language sing, the conversation always comes back to effective verb usage. Here are two important rules to keep in mind when crafting persuasive sales emails.
1. Never use the verb form “there is…”
Let me relay a tip from one of my mentors, David Lee Preston. A onetime Pulitzer Prize finalist, Preston now works at the Philadelphia Daily News as a city editor. And this is what he told me:
“One of the best tips that has strengthened my writing and editing over the years is this little gem imparted by Lyle Harris, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, who taught at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in the 1970s: Never use the verb form ‘there is…’ A stronger and more active alternative can always be found. For example: Instead of writing, ‘There is no excuse for using that term,’ you might say, ‘I can think of no excuse for using that term,’ or ‘That term should never be used.’ You will be amazed at how this one little tip can work wonders.”
2. Avoid passive voice
Verbs are either active (The manager gave Channa a thumbs up) or passive (Channa was given a thumbs up). Passive voice often helpful (and considered mandatory) in scientific or technical writing, when the process being described is of ultimate importance. But it’s a big no-no in sales emails.
“You want to avoid passive verbs as much as possible, and that’s true in any kind of writing,” agrees Stuart Shea, a Chicago-based writer and editor who’s also the author of “Wrigley Field: The Long Life and Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines” (University of Chicago Press). “In sales, what’s really important is to stress movement and change. And the best way to do that is to use strong, active verbs.”
More simply put, action verbs prompt readers to take action. “In sales, you want to do two things: Show the potential customer that there is need, and show the potential client how your product or service will make their lives better,” Shea says. “And the verbs are what move you along. They make your pitch come alive, your sentences active.”
Here’s a simple exercise you can try to make your verb usage stronger.
After you write out your email, go through it to identify two common enemies to effective writing: overuse of the verb form “to be,” and weak verbs that don’t carry enough punch.
Let’s use this sentence as an example: “This product is revolutionary in the field of online research and one of the things it does is make your work easier.”
While you don’t have to get zealous and eradicate every form of “to be” in everything you write, we can easily spot two examples that water down this sentence. Highlight them, and then look for stronger substitutes.
Often, the verb you seek might present itself right after the form of “to be.” So “he is running” becomes “he runs,” “she is swimming” becomes “she swims” … and “This product is revolutionary” becomes “This product revolutionizes.”
And whenever you see a sentence that begins with, or contains, a phrase such as “one of the things it does is,” get out a red pen. Cross it out and get right to the verb. Which brandishes more impact: “One of the things I love about you is your smile”? Or simply “I love your smile”?
So with the above example, we can pare it down once:
“This product revolutionizes the field of online research and one of the things it does is make your work easier.”
And then once again, weeding a few unneeded words along the way:
“This product revolutionizes online research. It makes your work easier.”
Can we find an even stronger verb for that second half of the sentence? Of course we can:
“This product revolutionizes online research. It lightens your workload.”
And for added impact and emphasis, issue that all-important call to action, something vibrant and inviting:
“This product revolutionizes online research. It lightens your workload. We invite you to take a test spin and discover what Verbzilla can do for you.”
As Shea puts it, “With whatever editing I do, I have to watch my verbs. It’s all about action. If there’s no action, what’s the point? It needs to be vibrant.”