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.