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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.

Here's an example. I write umpteen e-mails to my business partner (and Morningstar Advisor contributor) Joel Bruckenstein each and every day. Here is a typical e-mail I might write or, at least, the words that went through my head as I was furiously typing:

Joel -
What's the status of your half of the article we're co-authoring for Morningstar?
When you've got it done, please give me a call.
Thanks,
Dave

And yet here's what I really wrote:

Joel -
What the status of your half of the article were co-authoring for Morningstar?
When you've got it done, please giveme a call.
Thanks,
DAve

What's the big deal, you say? The second version still gets the point across; it's just got a few typos. Yeah, it's no big deal I guess, unless you want to give your correspondent the impression that you neither pay attention to detail nor double-check your work. If it's a client you send this kind of e-mail to, then you're making a less-than-favorable impression, as slight as the problems with this e-mail may seem.

Here's how to edit (and now we're really getting to the essential tips). First, let your thoughts flow freely and create a first draft of whatever it is you're writing, remembering that a first draft is never a final product. Next, read it through, editing for typos and grammar, and rewrite as necessary. Finally, and here's something most people never do to improve their writing/editing: read it through again out loud.

Why out loud? Because our brains trick us. We can read something in our head and pass right over typos, grammatical mistakes, and other errors. When you read it out loud, this is much less likely to happen. Don't ask me why; it just works.

At this point, some of you are thinking, "Who's got the time to edit everything he writes?" or "Isn't the whole idea of e-mails that it's OK to dash them off quickly and hit the send button without the need to edit?" Yup, that's the common wisdom, but I'm telling you that it's wrong most of the time. Unless your relationship with the person on the other end of the e-mail you're writing is so casual that no writing faux pas will change their opinion of you, then edit your e-mails. It's not that time-consuming; just read them through one more time and make the corrections that will almost inevitably be required. Just remember: every communication with a client or another professional, no matter how brief or informal, is a marketing interaction that should be done with care.PAGEBREAK

Of course, letters are a step up in formality and require even more care. Here's a letter I received from an accountant I hired years ago:

This letter is in response to your request for us to read the cases of Martin Ice Cream Company vs. Commissioner, llOT.C.189, and Norwalk vs. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 1998-279, and apply the principles in these cases to your situation. These cases seem to conclude that there is no saleable goodwill where, as here, the business of a corporation is dependent upon its key employees unless they (the employees) enter into a covenant not to compete with the corporation or other agreement whereby their personal relationships with the clients become property of the corporation. Therefore, it seemed that the intangibles of the covenant not to compete and goodwill are owned by you, thereby the sale of it would provide taxable income to you and not the corporation. As you probably know, in tax law the only way to be completely sure of a position is where it is stated in Internal Revenue Code or there is a Supreme Court decision. These cases are lower court case decisions and as far as we could tell have not been cited in later cases. Citing them in later cases brings more validation to the position.

See if you can spot the incorrectly-spelled word, the mangled use of tense and the poor grammatical choices in this letter. Once you start paying more attention to your own writing, mistakes in others' writings will jump out at you.

Finally, here are a few more tips if you want your readers to "get" what you're saying the first time and come away with an accurate impression of you. First, make the first sentence of your letter or e-mail a clear and concise statement of your reason for writing. And separate it from the paragraph that follows. A common mistake many advisors make is to write too-long paragraphs. Include some white space; it makes long letters and e-mails more inviting and easier to read.

Second, conform the rest of your communication--beyond that first sentence--to a mental or written outline. In other words, if you have a written outline, or just one in your head, of how you want to sequence your thoughts, that organization will come through to the reader and help get your point across.

And third, edit everything you write at least once out loud, imagining you are the reader. Yes, I know I said this before. It needs repeating because it's just that important.

Do you want the impression you make through your writing to be as favorable at that you make in person? Follow these simple rules and you're on your way.

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