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Business Writing: The Right Words (in the Right Size) Make Your Business Findable

A few days ago I shampooed my hair with mouthwash. Not on purpose—the words on the hotel give-away bottle were too small for me to read without glasses, which are tricky to use in the shower. Considering that at least 60% of ALL Americans are farsighted, it’s amazing how rarely manufacturers think about readability. Somewhat often I’ve washed my hair with conditioner, because even the big expensive bottles rarely say ‘shampoo’ or ‘conditioner’ in type bigger than 6 point.

My not-so-nice hair got me thinking about how hard many businesses make it for people to find them--or understand what they do. It's not always about search engine optimization. It's more basic. For example:

  • I have a favorite piece of decorative art and want to buy similar work for friends who admire the piece I own. But the creator didn’t put his name on it, yet alone a way to reach him, and I’ve long since lost his card.
  • On a vacation trip, I drove past a building with a huge sign that said “Jensen’s Wildlife Studio.” Did that mean the shop was showcasing nature-based art, which would interest me? Or would it be full of dead animal heads, which definitely would not interest me? Not having a clue, I didn’t stop to find out.
  • And yesterday for 20 minutes I followed a truck whose back said “HH Jackson Since 1882!” I was so annoyed at not knowing what HH Jackson is that I passed the truck to look at its side panel, and accidentally went through a red light. I was very angry at HH Jackson.

    Many, many businesses make similar mistakes. “Cathy’s Favorite Things,” “A-1 Repairs,” “Mercer Specialties”—none tell me enough to know if what’s inside is something I need or want. In the village where I live a shop opened called Bru Na Bo—Irish for something—and it took me eight years to discover that it sold beautiful handmade furniture and art. A new restaurant in my neighborhood is called Yesfi Estiatoroio--and I have no idea what language that is or what kind of food it serves.

    The same error pervades the online world. Web sites have titles that make the scanner (both human and robot) guess what they’re about—and make things worse by skipping a statement that tells you that you’re in the right place. They may spend thousands every month on SEO, but their copy doesn’t position the product or service they want to sell.


    One. Pick a clear business name: A1 Small Appliance Repair…Jensen’s Wildlife Paintings (or Taxidermy)…Mercer’s Green Kitchen Cleaners. Let passersby--whether strolling the street, driving by or browsing online--know what you do. This will help your SEO a lot, too, because when search engines find you, more people do too.

    Two. If you can’t use a clear business name or don’t want to, create a very explicit tagline:

    Jensen’s Wildlife Studio, Fine New England Painting & Sculpture
    Bru Na Bo: Handcrafted Wood Furniture from Ireland
    HH Jackson, Bourbon-Flavored Popcorn Since 1883!

    Three. On web sites, in addition to a specific business name and/or a solid tagline, write a good positioning statement. It needs to tell people who found you through Google that you have what they want. Even big well-known companies use homepage space to remind visitors of their scope or focus. A good tagline doesn’t have to be clever, just clear:

    Cathy’s Favorite Things
    Found objects that make home decorating fun—and inexpensive!

    If your business name is clear, think about how to use your tagline to further promote:

    Mercer’s Green Kitchen Cleaners
    Keeping your family & environment fresh and healthy

    Four. Identify everything you produce with your name and URL so happy buyers can make more purchases, refer their friends and colleagues, or quickly reach you when they have a problem to solve that’s up your alley. I find craft makers especially careless about labeling their products. I suspect they think of selling in one-shot terms rather than the need to create and maintain relationships.

    Service businesses make that mistake too--they may fail to identify themselves on materials produced for a client, or omit contact information. I recently gave a business writing workshop for a firm that showed me content guidelines from the production house designing its new web site. I needed to dovetail the workshop lessons with the plan.

    I liked the developer’s guidelines and thought that some of my other clients would want to know about the firm--nearly everyone I know is constantly looking to upgrade a site. But it took me a while to figure out the name of the company, and then track it down online. It didn’t occur to the developers that the material might circulate beyond the immediate audience, and maybe generate more business.

    Bad thinking. Better: Be clear, be findable, and think big. Consider making the typeface larger, too.

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