Your online presence plays a more prominent role than ever in your marketing, your brand, your reputation. That presence is defined in part by the “look and feel” of your various online outposts (including your website, social media accounts, and blog) but also by what you write in those places. The pretty veneer is mostly the domain of outside experts (graphic designers, photographers, web developers), but the writing – well, that’s largely on you.
Earlier this year I was asked by a Canadian legal stakeholder organization to present a customized seminar series for their staff on “writing for the web”. The organization provides products and services to lawyers and wanted to improve the content on their website, which has increasingly become the channel through which most of the organization’s revenue flows. The tips I provided them are a good summation of my own writing philosophy and so I share them with you here:
DON’T BE BORING
Law is not a party game and some aspects of law are drier than others. But that does not give you license to abandon efforts to make your writing compelling and set your keyboard to “drone-mode”. It’s a big wide web out there and if your shaggy prose makes your reader’s eyes bleed while your competitor’s is witty and engaging, she wins. Give your readers a reason to stay with you.
Put the important stuff right up front, and summarize the essentials at the outset if it’s a longer work. Don’t bury the key piece of information on Page 12.
There is a near-infinite amount of information online and very finite amounts of time your readers are willing and able to commit to your literary masterpiece. Don’t abuse their generosity by rambling.
Everyone hates jargon. Sometimes it’s necessary or useful shorthand between experts within the field, but more often it’s just lazy writing. As one marketing colleague I know expressed it in the title of his book, “Speak Human”.
We are hard-wired to absorb information in this manner. Stories provide context, structure and interest to your writing – all good stuff. Use them.
TALK ABOUT YOUR CLIENTS
Navel-gazing is one of the most common, most egregious errors in law firm writing – “we did this, our lawyer did that, our firm has a long history of something else”. It’s a bit like being “that guy” at a party that can’t stop talking about himself. No one likes to hear that guy talk. Your clients aren’t part of your firm, and care a lot less about the firm’s history than you do. They are businesses, individuals, governments that are looking for solutions to their particular issues. They want to know that you have expertise and experience successfully addressing the exact problem(s) they face for clients that seem “just like them”. Make your clients the stars of the show and explain the effect your work had for their business. (And yes, you require their informed consent if you are going to identify them. Many will happily provide it if you ask).
Spend more time talking about how the new legislation is going to specifically affect industry W by requiring them to complete compliance activities X and Y before this date or Z bad thing will happen. Getting specific narrows the potential audience for your message, but makes it more valuable to those for whom it is actually intended.
Web readers have shorter attention spans than ever. Compartmentalize your writing with headers, lists, and call-outs, and look for opportunities to break your longer form pieces apart and use the fragments as teasers on social media for the longer version on your website or blog.
KEEP IT REAL
Most of us tend to write much more formally than we speak. That’s not always a bad thing, but it can lead to awkward turns of phrase, dry language, and run-on sentence constructions that aren’t found in nature. Putting a more conversational tone to your writing can be a real benefit. When in doubt, read it aloud or ask yourself if this is how you would describe the subject if you were talking to your reader in person. If not, change it.
So there you have it – my secrets revealed. It’s a list short on shocking revelations but long on practical experience from the trenches. I hope you find it of value.