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Secrets of a Journalist

Use these tips to improve your client communications.

David J. Drucker, 05/15/2008

Those who know me know I haven't always been a journalist.

I've always enjoyed writing, but I've been primarily a financial analyst and financial advisor most of my adult life, working jobs that required passable writing skills. In high school, I took the same writing courses you did, and I never studied journalism in college. Nonetheless, since selling most of my client list in 2001 to make room for a professional writing career, I've authored three books and almost 500 articles for the trade media.

Before 2001, I ran a financial advisory practice for 20 years for which I wrote letters and e-mails to clients every day. Before that, I was a technical writer in government and private industry. So, no, I haven't had formal training, but I've nevertheless learned a few things about writing.

Now, call me crazy, but I'm of the mind that writing is one of the most important things we do. Why? Because every time you write something for others to read, you are marketing yourself, and this marketing should portray you in the most positive light possible. Just as you want to sound coherent and knowledgeable speaking to clients face to face, you should want the same things when you write to your clients. After all, writing is communication, communication is relationship-building, and relationship-building is what drives your success in this industry.

What I tell advisors to do is tie their writing to the status of their relationships. Ask yourself, who am I writing for? What is my present relationship with this person or audience? What is my desired relationship with this person or audience? Where am I on the "trust scale" with this person or audience? The trust scale measures where you are in your relationship with a person, that is, have you moved up the scale from being merely an acquaintance to being a close friend? As you progress, the tone of your written communication should gradually incorporate your "voice."

"Voice," in journalistic terms, means letting your personality come through in your writing so readers get a sense of who you are as a person. As with any relationship, hearing another's "voice" is part of the process of getting to know them. Journalists create a following by writing with a voice. You can cement your relationships with the same effect. Simply include some of your personality in emails or letters you write to others. Just because we converse with our clients about technical subjects, doesn't mean we have to be technical and stuffy in the way we communicate with them. Writing with voice means being more conversational and less formal. It's not formality your clients want; it's your expertise. And casual communication doesn't have to undermine that as long as you've already established yourself as a competent and trustworthy advisor.

So far so good, you say, "... but I'm just not a great writer." Improving your writing isn't that difficult. The first thing to do is make time for reading--novels, newspapers, whatever--just pay attention to professional writers' styles. Pay particular attention to the columns in trade publications in which writers with bylines write with a "voice." When I do this, I find the aspects of another writer's style that I find pleasing tend to find their way into my own writing almost automatically.

But if you do nothing else I've recommended thus far, do this one thing--understand the importance of editing, and apply your understanding. It's an age-old lesson, and maybe you've heard it before, but few people follow it. Here it is: The real writing isn't in the first draft, it's in the editing. Why is editing so important? Because we never get it right the first time. You may think you wrote something exactly as you thought it, but upon editing you'll usually see otherwise.

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