December 30, 2008

Cut or Run?

Cut or run? That sounds like the kind of question you might hear during a Presidential debate. But this has nothing to do with “staying the course” or “raising the white flag of surrender.”

It has to do with managing your business, particularly in tough economic times. What I’m getting at is whether it’s better to focus your efforts on cutting expenses or on running after every bit of new business that’s out there.

Should You Cut or Run?

The predictions are frightening, the reality is sickening. A tracking graph of the recent performance of the world’s stock markets looks like a real-time image of your kid playing with a yo-yo.

The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the collapse of Bear Stearns, the near collapse of AIG, the failure of Washington Mutual, the $700 billion bailout package, the automakers' bailout: well, you’ve been reading the headlines. Maybe you’ve been living the headlines. Even if you’ve done nothing but glance at the quarterly statement on your retirement accounts, you’ve shared in the experience. It's difficult to find credit, venture capital is scarce, and many businesses—perhaps your customers’ businesses—are about to start cutting back on discretionary spending. It’s enough to make you want to collect firewood and hunker down behind the desk in your cozy corner office for a long, cold winter.

What to do, what to do? Should we focus on cutting costs as much as possible, driving every shred of waste out of the operation? Or should we focus on winning as many new deals as possible, throwing ourselves into business development with all the energy we can muster?

As you can probably tell from my picture, I’m old enough to have lived through a couple of recessions in the past. In each of those downturns, the money people took over and started cutting—payroll, benefits, capital projects, energy consumption, raw materials, anything and everything that might show up on the balance sheet as a cost of doing business. Wall Street tends to like cuts. Just ask Al Dunlap.

It was during one of those earlier recessions that the colorfully nicknamed Chainsaw Al Dunlap first gained notoriety as a uniquely enthusiastic and ruthless job cutter. Stock prices soared as he slashed jobs and shuttered whole operations. It turned out, though, that Chainsaw Al’s cuts really weren’t as effective as they appeared, at least at Sunbeam, his last stop. It turned out he had also engaged in more than a little hanky-panky with the books to inflate earnings reports. As a result, he agreed to pay $500,000 to settle SEC charges he had defrauded investors, agreed to pay $15 million to settle a class-action lawsuit from shareholders, and agreed never to work as an executive at a public company again. Oh, and Sunbeam went bankrupt.

Admittedly, Chainsaw Al is the worst example of dealing with a crisis by mindlessly cutting jobs. But even without the whiff of fraud in the air, cost cutting alone seldom produces positive results. During the recession of the early 1990s, the Kepner-Tregoe consulting firm analyzed the cost-cutting behavior of more than 300 executives. Among other findings, the study found that executives who implement aggressive cost-cutting programs were four times more likely to cut costs again, but even after the second round of cuts still didn’t rate their attempts as successful.

The problem was that they were making blanket cuts—“Ten percent of the total workforce, no exceptions, Bumstead!”—rather than looking for ways to drive waste out of the system. Across-the-board cuts neglect to look for opportunities to achieve growth or at least lay the foundations for fast growth when conditions improve. Customer service, R&D, and sales are particularly damaged by that kind of an approach—the very areas that are likely to yield big dividends downstream.

An economic downturn is frightening, but it can also be an opportunity. People are eager for hope and open to change. As a result, a recession is a great time to begin initiatives that would have provoked fierce resistance in better times.

We’ve talked for years about proposal automation’s value in driving waste out of sales. Just last week I spoke with a senior manager at a major IT firm who admitted that his sales force had very few tools to help them manage deals and write good proposals. In fact, he thought they could probably handle a much larger number of accounts if he could take away a lot of the time-wasting administration that they had to do. So isn’t it possible that investing in the tools that make them more productive and eliminate a major source of waste be as smart as cutting jobs?

Cut if you must, but also invest in the tools necessary to run after more business and close it faster. Focus not merely on reducing headcount, but on reducing complexity and waste. If you’re interested in not merely surviving the current economic downturn, but actually thriving, take a look at your operations. Cut the waste, not just the people and resources.

If you’d like to explore how you can cut waste and increase productivity in your sales organization, call us. We have proof that, on average, Sant Suite customers realize a 29% win rate improvement and create sales documents 36% faster. See a demo of Sant Suite at

December 4, 2008

Are You a Shark?

So, are you a shark?

No, I don’t mean a lawyer. And I don’t mean a member of a gang in West Side Story.

I mean are you like the shark in that you (or your business) must keep moving forward or you’ll die? And if that does describe you, what do you do when everything around you is paralyzed into immobility?

That’s our topic this time.

Somebody once said that a business is like a shark. It has to keep moving forward or it will die. The analogy is less than perfect, but it seems to make a point. If we don’t continue to grow, to innovate, to close deals and invest in the future, we’re not likely to make it.

But what do you do when everything around you has fallen into narcoleptic immobility? Nothing is moving. Nobody is buying. Money has dried up, funding is limited, and decisions are being postponed indefinitely. How do you keep moving forward in that kind of environment?

It’s a big problem, one of the reasons that economies get stuck. Recessions become self-perpetuating because so much of economic behavior is predicated on economic attitudes.

Well, here’s a little known fact: Sharks don’t have to keep moving all the time. That’s a myth. People believed it for a long time, but scientists discovered not too many years ago that many species of shark can stop swimming, resting quietly on the ocean floor, and still breathe. Apparently they choose spots where the ocean currents are strong enough to pump water over their gills so they stay alive. Think of it as a Blue Ocean strategy for sharks.

The equivalent behavior for our business might be to remove ourselves as much as possible from the economic turmoil and allow the natural waves of economic activity to help keep us afloat? How do we do that?

Carter Schelling, a consultant and economic advisor, recommends taking specific steps to protect your business during a recession. Here are a few of his ideas:

First, fire some of your customers. Which ones? The customers who are most likely to struggle themselves during the recession. Identify the customers (it’s usually a pretty small list) who provide you with 80 percent of your gross profit. Which ones are likely to survive or even thrive during a recession? Focus on doing business with them. Which ones are likely to see their sales or cash take a precipitous drop? Which ones are too far in debt, too leveraged, too dependent on the bubble? Drop them. They’re not going to make it anyway, so don’t tie your fate to theirs.

Second, take a look at the products and services you offer. Now is the time to focus more than ever on making your customers successful. Mack Hanna, author of Consultative Selling Skills, has argued for years that if we are going to run a successful sales organization we need to understand what our customers do, how their customers benefit from what they do, and how we can strengthen the relationship between them. If we can give our customers a competitive advantage in a recession, they will give us their business.

Third, thin the herd. During prosperous times it’s hard to find good people. As a result, we sometimes put up with poor performers, including sales people who never make their numbers. Now is the time to make changes. Drop the ones who don’t produce and enlarge the territories of those who do.

Fourth, look for opportunities to drive waste out of the organization. Schelling recommends implementing Lean Principles so that you can lower your price without lowering your profit. I recommend looking at the waste in your sales organization and getting rid of non-value adding activities. A decade ago, George A. Smith published Sales Productivity Measurement through the American Society of Quality Control. He found that on average sales people spent about half of their work week in activities that kept them from talking with clients or prospects! Mostly they wasted time traveling, doing price checks, handling correspondence, and preparing proposals. Does anybody think that travel is less time-consuming today? That our e-mail is less burdensome? Or that creating a winning proposal is easier?

Well, actually, proposals are a lot easier if you’re using Sant Suite, which automates the creation of client-centered persuasive proposals, presentations, and other sales documents. And that’s a great example of how you can drive waste out of the organization.

So be a shark! Keep moving. Or slow down if you must and take advantage of the ripples of change washing over us during the current economic slowdown. But do it in a way that assures you can flash into action instantly and become the mighty predator of the deep waters of business that you were always meant to be.

Take a look at our proposal and presentation automation tools. If you’re not using them already, you’ll be amazed at how they can drive waste out of your operation. In fact—dare we say it—once you see them in action, we’re sure you’ll be in a “feeding frenzy” to implement them for your team.

November 17, 2008

Selling Fast in a Slow Economy

The economy has slowed down. There’s no question about that.

But you need to keep selling, right? So what’s the answer?
I think we can learn an important lesson from one of the pioneers of human psychology, Abraham Maslow.

That’s our topic this time.

When the economy slows down, selling becomes more difficult. People feel vulnerable and they become reluctant to spend money or allocate resources to anything new. From a psychological standpoint, they are moving down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs toward the basics—the survival issues.

Maslow believed that when any two needs were demanding satisfaction at the same time, it will be the need that is more “prepotent” (to use Maslow’s jargon), the more biologically urgent, that will take priority. Needs that are less prepotent are pushed into the background, delayed, or ignored. For example, a person might be dying of hunger, but he or she will forget all about food if you choke off the supply of oxygen!

So what does this mean regarding our customers? It means that because they feel threatened in a declining economy, they will tend to hoard what they have. They will pull back from completing mere “transactions.” They will be reluctant to exchange the organizational equivalent of oxygen—money—for any product or service that doesn’t meet their basic needs. As a result, when you try to sell a product or service for a particular price, the customer may perceive doing business with you as purely transactional. And they want to minimize the number of transactions they do in order to hold on to scarce resources.

There is some good news, though. In a down economy, decision makers are eager to find solutions. They want to do those things that will help them cope with changing circumstances, that will meet their basic business needs for revenue and stability.

Selling solutions is consultative, not transactional. Selling solutions requires:
• A broad business perspective
• Alignment with the customer’s objectives
• An ability to demonstrate value that matters to the customer

If you ask most sales people, they will tell you that they are writing proposals and delivering presentations that are solution oriented. But in reality they are not. The customer perceives their offers as transactional and pulls back from making a decision to buy.

Why do many solution-oriented proposals and presentations fail to communicate themselves that way to the customer? They fail because they are NOT client centered, value based, or decision oriented.

Often, sales people resort to “clone and go” proposals. They think that it’s enough to provide a boilerplate, “checkbox” proposal, one that focuses mainly on their products or their company. But to be seen as a solution-oriented proposal, the document must focus on the customer’s needs—the most “prepotent” ones, to use Maslow’s term—and link whatever is being recommended to meeting those needs.

Similarly, many proposals do not contain any value proposition. They present a price, but they don’t contain any calculation of return on investment or any other measure that is linked to survival and coping in a tough economy.

Finally, many proposals are not organized to help the customer make a decision. They tend to be information dumps. They fail to differentiate the offer from alternatives and fail to provide grounds for moving forward with the decision.

To sell faster in a slow economy, we need to make sure we focus on what matters to the customer, spell out the concrete benefit they obtain from doing what we recommend, and present our recommendations using a structural pattern that leads logically to a decision.

One way you can sell faster is to automate the creation of proposals that actually win more frequently. Sant’s proposal automation software will do exactly that: increase your win rate and slash the time it takes to issue a proposal. Check out the interactive, Web-based demos of them at our site,

September 30, 2008

Entering Your Evidence

Evidence is crucial in a courtroom—it’s the basis on which the judge or jury makes a decision.

It’s just as important in your sales process and your proposal. The kinds of evidence you use and the way you present it can make a huge difference in whether the verdict goes in your favor or against you.

That’s our topic this time.

We’ve been talking about persuasive structure in our recent messages. We said that effective persuasion follows the NOSE pattern: Needs, Outcomes, Solutions, and Evidence. We start by restating the client’s needs because that gets their attention and reduces their anxiety. We then outline the potential outcomes the client will achieve by solving their problems or meeting their needs, because that creates the motivation to go forward. Third, we recommend a solution, but we do it in a way that’s client-centered rather than product-centered.

I hope that so far you’ve been gulping down the Kool Aid and are in full agreement. Anyway, all that remains is the final step, presenting our evidence.

What are you trying to prove with your evidence? Basically, you are trying to show that you can and will keep your promises. You are trying to show that you can deliver the solution you have proposed on time and on budget. You are trying to convince the decision maker that this is your area of expertise. You might even be trying to establish that your firm is financially stable, properly managed, and well prepared.

Providing evidence is usually the part of the persuasive job that most proposals handle pretty well. But there are two ways we can do the job better. First, we can be thoughtful in selecting our evidence, choosing items that are most likely to appeal to the specific decision maker and to be relevant to the opportunity. And second, we can present our evidence in the most effective way possible.

In future messages we’ll deal with the second issue, covering the best ways to write typical kinds of evidence, such as team member bios, case studies, company histories, and so forth. In this message I want to discuss briefly what kind of evidence to use.

The first rule is that just because you have a particular bit of evidence doesn’t mean you should throw it into a proposal. Just because you have a map of North America showing all 78 of your company’s office locations, don’t use it unless it’s relevant. If you’re trying to sell to a company that also has numerous locations in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and they closely match your locations, then it’s relevant and helpful. If you’re selling to a prospect who only has one location, forget it.

The second rule about choosing evidence is to consider the source. There are three kinds of evidence—things you say about yourself, things your clients say about you, and things independent third parties say—and each has a different level of credibility.

Among the things you can say about yourself, you might include information about product features, about the members of your team, about your project management methodology, or about your quality control philosophy. Those things are relatively noncontroversial, and a prospective client could check for accuracy if he or she really wanted to. These forms of evidence help establish your competence. They answer a key question in the decision maker’s mind, namely, “Can these people really do what they claim?”

Another form of evidence you can offer about yourself—a type of evidence that helps minimize the client’s sense of risk or enhances their perception of the value of your offering—focuses on measurable performance indicators and special financial terms. For example, you might provide evidence relating to unique contractual terms that you are offering. Or you might outline a “gain sharing” or “risk sharing” program based on specific performance guarantees or service level agreements.

The second source of evidence is your previous clients. What they’re willing to say about you is often more convincing than what you say about yourself for the obvious reason that they presumably have nothing to gain from it. You can provide evidence to a new prospect from a prior client by including references in your proposal. Just make sure you check with the reference to make certain they’re still happy with you. Sometimes yesterday’s glowing reference becomes tomorrow’s flaming law suit and we didn’t even know it. You might also include testimonials, including images of letters of praise from previous clients. But one of the most convincing forms of evidence you can offer is the case study. As long as your case study is from a client similar in nature to your prospect, who had a similar problem, who had that problem alleviated by a solution similar to the one you’re proposing, and who achieved measurable positive results from your work—then you’re in great shape. However, if your case study just rehashes the history of some project in chronological fashion, forget it. That’s boring.

Finally, third-party evidence comes in the form of awards, rankings, recognition, articles, analyst reports, and so on. Although that form of evidence used to be the most convincing of all, the fact that so many analyst firms are willing to sell their “approval” to the highest bidder has made them somewhat suspect in recent years. All the same, if you were named the “best place to work” or an “industry innovator” or “Five Star Quality Award Winner” or some such thing, take advantage of it when you can. That’s still good stuff.

The Sant Corporation has all kinds of evidence to back up our claims that we can save you time and increase your win ratio through our proposal automation systems and services. And we’d love to share that evidence with you! Give us a call and let us prove it.

September 15, 2008

Getting Out of the (Information) Dump

Even proposals that start with a great executive summary often lapse into the information dump mode when it comes to presenting the solution. How can we get out of the informative pattern so that our proposals are more effective in delivering a persuasive message?

The heart of the proposal is, of course, your solution. Your clients will be eager to hear your solution, if you have whetted their appetite by first discussing their needs and the probable outcomes of meeting those needs. But you can’t just lapse into the technical “info dump” style of writing that characterizes most solution write-ups.

Take a look at some old proposals, particularly the sections where you describe products or services. Do you see long lists of bullet points, the so-called “features” of your solution? If so, the solutions are informative, not persuasive, and most of your readers are probably skipping these parts.

To present your solution in a more customer-friendly, persuasive way, start by presenting your recommendations in two to three strong, focused paragraphs. You want to start by presenting the solution in general terms, focusing on business fit rather than details of execution. Emphasize why this solution is right for the client. Mention a couple of strong differentiators that set your solution apart and make your recommendations the right ones.

To focus on what matters in your solution, write from the customer’s point of view and move from general to specific:

Recommend the solution in a single sentence. Focus on functional impact, not operational or technical issues. In other words, in the first sentence, tell the customer what your solution will do for them. By the way, if you have a branded product or service, do not use the product name at this point. Product names are jargon and no one knows them outside your company (unless your product is as well known as the iPod or the ThinkPad). Tell the customer what they are getting and why it’s the right approach.

Explain the recommendation in another sentence. In the next couple of sentences, focus on at least one detail that relates to your intellectual capital, unique methodology, relevant expertise, or depth of experience. Focus on how you will do the work and what the results will be.

Differentiate your recommendation. Provide two sentences that state relevant differentiators that set your company apart from others who provide this kind of solution. Indicate why these differentiators add value for the client.

Present the features of your solution in the context of the customer’s needs or problems. Remember that customers do not automatically recognize that the solution you are proposing will give them the results they want. Particularly in a highly complex or technical environment, you must link the outcomes of what you are proposing to the elements of your solution. Imagine the client asking after each mention of a feature, “So what? Why should I care?” This means you should not mention a feature without linking it to the customer’s issues and to the benefits that feature will provide. (The benefits should also be linked to the customer’s issues, needs, or goals, of course.) Remember: a feature is a component of the solution, but a benefit is an impact on the client’s operations that the client will find desirable.

In fact, the details of your solution will be much more persuasive if you don’t focus on features at all. Instead, start by mentioning one of the customer’s key needs. Then mention the feature(s) of your solution that address that need. Point out the benefit the feature offers, and conclude with a brief proof statement showing how this feature of your product or service worked in another account (a mini case study).

Then start with another key need, link that to one or more features, show the benefit, and conclude with proof.

This pattern will make it easy for your customer to see instantly that what you are offering truly is a solution, because it’s presented in the context of the customer’s problems or needs.

After you’ve shown how the customer’s needs are being addressed, you can move into a more traditional description, going through the important details of your product or service in some logical order. Now if the customer starts to skim, we don’t mind because we’ve already made our point persuasively.

You can store persuasive descriptions of your products and services in the content library that comes with ProposalMaster and RFPMaster. That way you can pick and choose the right details to present at the right time and keep yourself from falling into the information dump.

August 29, 2008

Does it Sizzle?

Ever hear the expression, “Don’t sell the steak—sell the sizzle?”

No, it wasn’t Snoop Dog who first said it. (He said something about “f’shizzle” which I have never understood.) It was Elmer Wheeler, a man who’s scarcely remembered today but who was America’s number one sales guru for more than twenty years.

“Don’t sell the steak—sell the sizzle,” said Elmer Wheeler. And he went on to say, “The sizzle has sold more steaks than the cow ever has, although the cow is, of course, mighty important.”

What Wheeler meant by a “sizzle” is the detail that has primary appeal for the customer—the aspect of our product or service that grabs their imagination and gets them excited. It’s the feature that’s most closely linked to the customer’s interests or motivations.

Wheeler described “sizzles” as being the “best selling arguments” we can come up with, factors that have a real gut-level appeal to the buyer. Wheeler thought this kind of appeal was spontaneous and irrational, and he used lots of food analogies to make his point—the sizzle of the steak, the bubbles in the wine, the tang of the cheese, the aroma of the coffee. A good “sizzle” will have the same immediate impact on us as walking into a restaurant and smelling something delicious, like hot pizza.

Wheeler’s point is a good one. Customers want to know, what’s in it for me? Unfortunately, the vast majority of sales presentations and proposals focus on facts. They cover details of the product or service or, even worse, the vendor’s history. No sizzle there!

A good sizzle should answer the one question every customer has rattling around in their head when they are listening to our sales presentation or reading our proposal: So what?

According to Wheeler, the rule to remember is this: “What is a ‘sizzle’ to one person may be a ‘fizzle’ or a whole bonfire to another person. Therefore, fit the ‘sizzle’ to the prospect on hand!” Figure out your client’s hot button and lead with that.

A technique I recommend to clients is to itemize their differentiators. What is it you do that nobody else does? What are the unique features of your products or services? What separates you in terms of methodology, management techniques, facilities or resources from the competition?

Once you’ve got your list of differentiators, put them down the first column of a table. Across the top, put the kinds of value customers look for—increased productivity, reduced operational costs, improved quality, whatever. This gives you a matrix of differentiators and value orientations. Now you can rank each differentiator in terms of its ability to prove to your customer that they’ll get that kind of value if they choose you. If it’s a terrific proof statement, give it maximum points. If it’s basically irrelevant, give it one or none. When you’re all done, you’ll not only have your sizzles, you’ll know when to use them. If you’re selling to a customer who’s looking for guaranteed compliance with regulatory standards, and you have three or four differentiators that help assure that, those are the ones you mention.

The next time your mouth starts watering at the smell of a onions sizzling in the pan or the aroma of chicken roasting on a spit, remind yourself that your sales presentations and proposals need to create that same kind of quick, visceral impact on your prospects and customers. Start looking for the hook, the sizzle, the appeal to the customer’s interests that will make them excited and eager to hear your message.

You can integrate your best sizzles with Sant Suite. To see an interactive, Web-based demo of our software in action, visit our Web site, Or you can request more information from me by sending an e-mail to

August 15, 2008

Formulas for Solving Word Problems

Clarity is the first rule of persuasion. If our customers don’t understand what we’re saying, they’re not going to reach for their wallets and offer us wads of cash. When people are confused, they slow down the buying process or shut it off completely. So it’s in our best interests to make sure our message is easy to understand. That’s our topic this time.

I was working with a group of engineers recently and mentioned that many editors use mathematical formulas to determine if a piece of text is readable. Their faces lit up like children who just saw grandma and grandpa pull up in a car full of presents.

“Formulas?” they asked. “There are formulas to show us how to write better? Why didn’t anyone tell us this before? We understand formulas.”

So we spent the next half hour looking at readability formulas, why they work, and how they can serve as a rough but reliable guide to the clarity of your writing. I honestly believe those engineers will now write better, because they have a tool to help them measure how well they’re doing.

Most readability formulas (and there are lots of them) measure how long your sentences are and how many big words you use. The underlying assumption is that long sentences and big words are harder to decode. Obviously, long words aren’t always hard to understand. And long sentences aren’t always difficult to read. There are exceptions. However, as a rough guideline, these underlying assumptions work pretty well.

The easiest way to calculate readability is to let your computer do it for you. There are two other formulas that are simple enough you can do the calculations in your head.

Measuring Readability with Your Word Processor

If you use Microsoft Word, open the “Tools: Options: Spelling and Grammar” box and select “Show Readability Statistics.” Now the word processor will calculate your readability each time you run a spelling check. If you want to check the readability on just a portion of a document, simply highlight the portion you want to check and click on the spell check icon. When it asks if you want to check the rest of the document, select “No.”

Microsoft Word presents your readability in a chart titled “Readability Statistics” that gives you lots of useful information. (WordPerfect users have a similar tool that also yields a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level index.)

There’s a lot of useful information here. I can see that my average sentence length is about right (around 15 to 17 words is a good average sentence length for adult readers), and I see that I’ve completely avoided passive voice constructions. But what about the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level numbers? Are they good or bad?

The Reading Ease score is based on a standard of 100. The higher the number, the easier the writing is to understand. In business writing, which includes proposals, of course, a good score would be somewhere between 50 and 70. Based on that score, my paragraph is all right, but it could be simpler.

The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level measurement correlates the complexity of the writing with the equivalent U.S. grade level of education the reader needs to read the particular passage easily. (Note that this is strictly a measurement of the complexity of the writing. It does not mean the content is appropriate for someone at that level. Readability and content are different issues.)

What is the right level for your proposal? For your executive summary, aim for a grade level equivalent of 10 or less. That’s approximately the level of front page articles in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, which are clearly intended for well educated adults. Other parts of the proposal could creep a little higher than 10, but 12 is the danger line. If the grade level is higher than 12, you must simplify the writing. Unfortunately, I’ve seen executive summaries that had readability scores above 20!

Sometimes you can’t use the word processor to calculate readability. Maybe you have hard copy only, or maybe the text is stored in Adobe Acrobat. Retyping an entire passage just to measure its readability is not a task most of us would gladly undertake. The good news is that you can still calculate readability easily by using either of two simple techniques: Gunning’s Fog Index or the SMOG Index.

Gunning's Fog Index

Robert Gunning first published his measure of readability in 1952. Half a century later, people still produce “foggy” prose, so his tool is still relevant. To calculate the Fog Index, follow these three steps:

1. Choose a passage of about 100 words and determine the average sentence length for that passage. (You just divide the number of sentences into the total number of words.)

2. In the same passage, count the number of big words—which, by definition, means words with three syllables or more. Do not include proper nouns (like Cincinnati), words that are combinations of short, easy words (compound words like bookkeeper and understand), or verb forms that acquire three syllables by the addition of -ed, or -es or -ing (like created, trespasses, traveling).

3. Add together the average sentence length and the number of big words. Then, to determine the Fog Index, multiply this sum by .4. This will produce a number that is a grade level equivalent, just as you got from the Flesch-Kincaid index.

The Smog Index

Like the Fog Index, the Smog Index measures the murkiness inherent in a piece of writing. It uses a slightly different method to arrive at the final answer, which is again a school-grade level that indicates the relative difficulty or ease of reading the given passage.

To use the Smog Index, count the number of big words (same definition applies) in a passage of 30 consecutive sentences. Then find the square root of that number. Add 3 and you’ll have a grade level equivalent.

I know these formulas probably sound goofy to you if you’ve never heard or them or tried them before. But if you try them a couple of times, you’ll see that they’re both easy and helpful.

Another way to improve the readability of your writing, of course, is to hire people who can write clearly to do it for you. That’s where the Sant Corporation can help. We have writers trained in persuasive communication principles who know how to produce clear, simple prose for your proposals and presentations.

August 7, 2008

Words That Make Me Wince, Part 2

Probably no message that I have sent out in the past few months has generated more e-mail in response than my tirade about misused words. It seems that many of you have your own pet peeves.

So here is the sequel: another installment of Words that Make Me Wince.

In an earlier message, we commented on some words that are frequently misused, including impact, parameter, affect/effect, serve/service, and simple/simplistic. These are words that writers often use incorrectly and, speaking strictly for myself, the errors make me wince.

For example, a proposal recently stated:

"All communications, which effect the technical aspects of the project, must be directed through the Project Manager."

The obvious error is the word "effect." The writer meant "affect," a verb. In addition, the idea of directing communications "through the Project Manager" is an intriguing one. A lot of communications could leave that Project Manager looking like a sieve.

Well, there are a few other words and mistakes that bug me.

First, why do people write, "There are more than 114 sales managers attending the conference." Why not a round number like 100? Or 110, even? Why "more than 114?" And what is that, anyway? 115?

Another goofy thing-a phenomenon I call "drive by capitalization." It's the apparently uncontrollable urge some people have to throw in a capital letter every so often. The result is this kind of passage:

Nova Technology's long term Strategy is to contribute significantly to our customers' Competitiveness by becoming world-class in Reliable and Responsive.

There are at least eight things wrong with that sentence, but one of the most pointless mistakes is the capitalization of strategy, competitiveness, reliable, and responsive.

Here are some other mistakes that undercut our credibility:

IT'S/ITS/ITS': It's pretty embarrassing to misspell a three-letter word, but people do it all the time. I-T-apostrophe-S is a contraction. It means "it is." I-T-S without the apostrophe is a possessive pronoun. For example: "The company and its board of directors...." I-T-S-apostrophe doesn't exist. There's no such word.

Maybe it will help people who make this mistake to think about other possessive pronouns, such as "yours," "hers," "ours," and "theirs." None of those words get an apostrophe. I guess the confusion stems from the fact that we show possessive case with nouns by adding an apostrophe-S: "The company's managers..." "The building's exit..." The customer's decision..." (Using the apostrophe that way is a mistake that goes back so far in the history of English that it has become accepted.)

PRINCIPAL/PRINCIPLE: Most of us remember that "the principal is our pal." What about the main partners in a law firm? It's the same word. The main person or main thing is the "principal" element. "Principal" can also mean "leader" or "head."

On the other hand, a "principle" is a code, a standard, or an axiom. Thus, we could say, "Some principals have no principles" and make perfect sense.

IMPLY/INFER: To imply something means to suggest it. Inanimate objects can imply things. For example, we could say, "The laboratory tests imply that the new compounds are safer than the current formulation."

To infer requires mental activity. It's an activity. Thus, we would say, "Sherlock Holmes inferred from the evidence that the crime had been committed by a disgruntled proposal writer."

COMPLIMENT/COMPLEMENT: To "compliment" means to say something nice, to flatter someone. To "complement" means to go with, to fulfill or augment something. If the menu says each entrée includes "a dinner salad to compliment your meal," we may be interested to hear what those compliments will be, but we're likely to find that the salad is just as mute as any other plate of lettuce.

August 1, 2008

The Seven Deadly Sins of Proposal Writing

A recent article talked about schools that are improving students' test scores by "teaching the test." In other words, they're showing them exactly what to do and what to avoid in order to get better scores on standardized tests.

There's some logic to that approach. Knowing the biggest problems in advance can help a person avoid them. So that's what this attachment is about. It describes the "seven deadly sins" of proposal writing. The biggest mistakes people make. I hope that by making you aware of them I can help you avoid them.

Clients will judge you in part by the quality of your sales proposal. It may be subconscious, but they look at your proposal for indications of your ability to handle a project professionally.

Here are the seven most common mistakes that can destroy your client's opinion.

It's time to confess: Are your proposals committing any of these sins? Put a mental check mark next to the ones you think might apply to you.

  • Fail to focus on the client's business problems
  • No persuasive structure
  • Full of jargon, making them difficult to understand
  • Too long, overly detailed, too technical, disorganized
  • Inconsistent in appearance, content, or pricing
  • Inaccurate or incomplete information
  • Credibility killers--misspellings, grammar mistakes, etc.

Some sins are worse than others. If you checked either of the first two, your proposals are in serious trouble. Next time we'll talk about how to identify the client's business problems, and the message after that will discuss persuasive structure.

The third, fourth, and fifth sins are not quite as serious, but they will probably make it difficult for the customer to understand your message. The customer may "tune out" of the document, start skimming and skipping and flipping pages. An inconsistent format or contradictions in content or pricing causes additional confusion and raises doubt in the customer's mind.

Inaccurate or incomplete information can result in bad, unprofitable business. One telecommunication firm found that sales people were building proposals with information drawn from "orphaned" Web sites and databases. In fact, they were offering proposals for products and services that didn't even exist any more!

The last sin is a basic one and the main damage it does is to your credibility. Misspelled words, errors in grammar or punctuation, typos, and similar errors may not change the meaning of what you say, but they will definitely undercut your professionalism in saying it.

July 30, 2008

The Dumbest Cliches In Business Writing

We've all heard them or seen them in print. We're so used to them, we don't think about them any more. But when we use them, we don't sound very smart or original.

What are they? The clichés of business writing. Here are a few to eliminate from your own writing if you can.

Scott Adams' hero of the cubicle, Dilbert, has helped us realize how ridiculous we sound when we use business and technical clichés. Some clichés were originally clever or original phrases that have become meaningless through overuse. Other clichés never made sense in the first place; they were based on the misuse or abuse of language.

My personal favorite among dumb clichés is the all-purpose closing to sales letters and proposal cover letters: "If you have any questions, please feel free to call."

Why does it bother me? First, it turns over control of the sales process to the customer. Second, it presupposes a failure to communicate. ("Look, I know I can't write. I confuse people all the time. Just call me and we'll figure this out together.") And, third, it contains no call to action at all.

At the front end of proposal cover letters, you often read this cliché: "We would like to express our appreciation for the opportunity to submit our response to your request for proposal..." Blah, blah, blah. So what's wrong with it? Because it's in subjunctive mood, I'm always tempted to mutter, "Well, if you would like to, go ahead. Express yourself already." Plus, it sounds formulaic and phony.

Another cliché that people use to damage themselves is the phrase, "to be perfectly honest with you..." What does that mean? Previously you were lying to me? Being less than "perfectly" honest? Hmm. When people use that expression frequently, I really become suspicious.

A couple of clichés that have become popular recently, particularly in high-priced consulting circles, are the use of "traction" applied to something intangible, such as an idea, and the phrase "at the end of the day," meaning something like "finally" or "later."

So a truly gifted communicator might say: "To be perfectly honest with you, at the end of the day the advertising campaign failed to gain traction with consumers, so we didn't achieve market penetration."

Whoa! There's another beauty: "penetrating the market." How Freudian is that?

Other dumb clichés fall into a couple of categories. There is the set of grandiose clichés: "best of breed," "world class," and "cutting edge" are among the most popular. (To me, "best of breed" brings to mind thoughts of a dog show. The other just seem pompous.)

Another category of clichés includes such "touchy/feely" expressions as "partnering," "win/win," "rightsizing" (instead of layoffs), "holistic," "user friendly," "value added," and so on. Interestingly, the same people who talk about "win/win" and "partnering" are often the same ones who use militaristic language to describe business: "campaigns," "capturing markets," "take no prisoners," and similar nonsense.

If you love the language, or if you just want to make your point clearly and forcefully, challenge yourself before using clichés in your business writing. At best, they have no impact and suggest that you lack originality. At worst, they distract the audience from your message, spawning irrelevant associations and undercutting your credibility.

July 15, 2008

Breaking the Rules

Randy, a reader of Messages That Matter, wrote me last week to let me know that I had made a mistake in one of my messages. I had written a sentence fragment, which he thought sounded awkward and, well, fragmented.

I wrote Randy back to thank him for reading so carefully and for caring about the correct use of English. But I also said that I thought he was wrong about the sentence fragment thing. He was quite right that it was a fragment. But writing an occasional sentence fragment isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

That got me to thinking about our topic this time—rules of grammar and style that either aren’t rules at all or that don’t matter very much.

Correct grammar must matter, right? Otherwise, why would the school system spend so much time and effort in trying to teach it to us? After all, they call it “grammar school,” not “arithmetic school” or “reading school.” It must be important.

Understanding standard English grammar and learning to use it correctly are both worthwhile accomplishments. As we move into the world of work, we need to communicate with people whose use of language differs from our own. They may speak with a regional accent or come from a different ethnic background than we do, one that has influenced their use of English. In order for us all to communicate with each other successfully, we need to share a common understanding of how the language works. This is particularly important in writing, because in writing we don’t have access to all the nonverbal elements that help us get our point across when we are speaking to someone in person.

That’s the point of standard English. The “rules” of grammar are actually nothing more than a description of how this standard system works. If we all play by the same rules, the communication game can proceed relatively smoothly. If some of us follow different rules, communication will quickly break down.

But some of the so-called rules aren’t actually rules. They are pedagogical shortcuts that our teachers used to make their own jobs easier. Or they are rules that applied to the use of language several generations ago, but which we no longer follow.

Here are some examples of so-called rules that aren’t:

Never start a sentence with “And”. And why not? Because Mrs. Whipple said we couldn’t back in the fourth grade? And, like the other coordinating conjunctions (but, or, for, nor, yet, and so), is used to join words, phrases, clauses or ideas of equal rank. Sometimes those ideas will be expressed in the form of complete sentences. The relationship between them will be more obvious to our reader if we use a coordinating conjunction at the start. You have probably noticed this practice in newspapers, magazines, and books and, if you had a Mrs. Whipple in your background, you may have assumed this was just further proof of the decline of civilization as we know it. No, that’s not the case. Instead, it’s an example of a teacher making her job easier by laying down an absolute rule rather than explaining the underlying principle.

When kids learn to write, they struggle to master the tools of the written language, including spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. As a result, they are likely to write something like this:

“Last summer we went to Disneyland on vacation. And Sea World.”

The last three words logically belong in the preceding sentence. But Mrs. Whipple doesn’t have the time to explain why, so she just circles them and writes in the margin of our paper, “Never start a sentence with ‘And’.” So we never do, even when it would make sense.

Never write a sentence fragment. Is that really a rule? Maybe. It depends on how formal your writing is. If you want to sound conversational or if you want to create some dramatic emphasis, you should consider writing a sentence fragment instead of a complete sentence. I use a lot of fragments in these messages, but I almost never use them in proposals. The choice is driven by tone and by the nature of the audience.

Never end a sentence with a preposition. Sometimes putting a preposition at the end of a sentence is awkward or even unnecessary:

“Where are you going to?”

We could just say or write, “Where are you going?” The “to” at the end isn’t needed. But sometimes the preposition falls naturally at the end of the sentence. When it does, leave it there:

“I don’t remember which file I put her documents in.”

I suppose you could twist that around to say something like “I don’t remember into which file I put her documents,” but why would you? You’d sound like a dweeb.

In other cases, the preposition isn’t functioning as a preposition at all, but rather as part of the verb. We say that we will not “put up with” certain conditions. We express “interest in” something. It’s possible that those prepositions could end up at the end of a sentence:

“We told the realtor which offices we are interested in.”

There’s nothing wrong with that sentence and there’s definitely no reason to move the preposition.

In my response to Randy I said that grammar is like music. If we don’t have an ear for what sounds right in the first place, knowing and applying rules won’t help us much.

The Sant Corporation’s team of writers can produce great proposal text that will be music to your ears. If you need help creating your proposal library, give us a call.

June 30, 2008

Establishing Meaningful Outcomes

In the last message, we discussed the impact and importance of solving a customer’s problems. By focusing on the impact of these results, customers can then become inspired to make a decision because they are more aware that the problems they face are actually worth solving.

So how do you find out which results actually matter to the client? Are they solely financial? Technical? Social? A combination of these and several more? That is your ultimate goal, to establish all levels of outcomes a client deems as most meaningful.

If the customer doesn’t get that the problem your proposal addresses is real and you are providing a significant potential payoff for the organization, then run for the exit. You’re wasting your time.

People buy to meet their needs or solve their problems. To get them to buy from you instead of your competitors, you need to broadcast a clear, compelling value proposition over a channel they’ll be sure to hear: WII-FM.

What is WII-FM? A radio station? Actually, no, it’s a receiver located inside everyone’s head that guides the decision making process, translation - What’s In It For Me?

When your offer is delivered, customers want to see that it produces positive business impact. They may be seeking goals such as improving financial performance, increasing market share, retaining more customers, advancing the technical infrastructure, automating a labor-intensive process, or even complying with regulatory standards. It’s your job to identify these goals and then link your value proposition to them.

Ineffective sales messages focus on information about your company, your products, or your services; however, effective messages provide answers to these four basic questions decision makers typically ask:

1. Is this really what we need?

2. Will it have a positive impact on our business?

3. Can this vendor deliver the products or services on time and on budget?

4. Are we getting good value for our money, particularly considering the probable impact on our business?

By consistently returning to these core concerns as you deliver your sales message and keeping the customer tuned in to WII-FM, you can remain on that sales frequency.

So where’s the best place to get insight into what outcomes the client desires? From the client, of course. Try these questions: What kinds of results are you seeking? How will you measure success? Are there key performance indicators that you will monitor to determine whether you’re getting the right results? When you did similar projects in the past, how did you measure success? How will managers in other areas of the company know that this project was a success?

In the private sector, clients often measure success in financial terms. They seek increased revenue, greater profitability, a bigger market share, reduced headcount, lower cost of operations, budgetary compliance, and so on. For government agencies and nonprofits, financial return is likely to be less compelling than fulfilling the mission for which the organization exists—improving time on station for a particular weapon system, increasing diversity among graduate students, or reducing recidivism rates among parolees.

Two other areas of performance are frequently important. Customers often seek technical outcomes or infrastructure improvements. For example, getting disparate information systems to share data across mixed platforms might not increase revenues, but it will make the IT infrastructure work more efficiently. Likewise, achieving compliance with the requirements of Sarbanes-Oxley might not increase market share, but it might keep your CEO from costly and time consuming legal challenges.

The other area of performance is one we might call “social outcomes” such as reducing attrition among middle managers, increasing customer loyalty, or even developing a stronger relationship with suppliers or resellers.

Clearly, there’s a lot of overlap among financial, technical, and social goals. The point is to make sure we look at all to maintain a three-dimensional view of outcomes.

When the client sees a big payoff from different levels, he or she is much more eager to hear about your solution.

That’s why Sant’s clients get so excited about our messages on improving proposal processes and content. Sant Suite delivers a compelling, measurable improvement in financial, technical, and social terms. Call us, we’re tuned in and ready to deliver the right results for your organization.