Bottom-Line Impact of Poor Writing

Think business writing is a soft skill? Think again!

This week I was guest blogger on leadership expert Merge Gupta-Sunderji’s blog. She asked me to write on a subject that is dear to my heart — the importance of effective business writing. As I chose to focus on the bottom-line impact of poor writing, I thought it would also be useful to my accountant community and I invite you to read it here:

Bottom-Line Impact of Poor Writing

Whether you’ve read the article or not, if you recognize the importance of effective business writing for accountants, check out my book:

Make Your Words Count — a short painless guide to business writing for accountants

And by the way, if you decide to buy the book, I would truly appreciate it if you would give it a review on Amazon — thanks in advance.

Communicate and succeed!





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Does Your Website Show Your Personality?

This month’s issue of Your Marketing Counts talked about websites that show no sign of human habitation. (The lead article is reproduced in the last blog post in case you missed it.) So the blog focus for this month is on how to give your website some humanity.

The About Us page is an obvious place to start. Even though it should really be about how YOU can help THEM, it’s your first opportunity to add your personality. Studies have shown, by the way, that the About Us page is one of the most visited in almost all websites, so why not welcome readers as you would welcome visitors to your home — with a smile? A pleasant photograph sets the tone for a friendly conversation.

Here are two examples of firms who are doing a reasonably good job of this.

Adams & Miles, a midsize accounting firm in Toronto, Canada shows photos of its partners in casual wear, and the breezy style of the copy adds to the message that this is a casual, friendly type of firm.

Lest you think that by their very nature big firms can’t do this, take a look at this profile of PwC Canada’s CEO, Bill McFarland. Perhaps the repeated use of his first name is a little overdone, but otherwise it’s a friendly, human message.

It just happens that I’ve chosen two Canadian examples, and there are many others out there who are doing this right. Browse around the Web and see for yourself, and then use some of the ideas on your own site.

What about your firm? If you think your site does a good job of humanizing your firm, please tell us about it in the comments section, and provide a link so that we can go visit.

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Would You Trust an Anonymous Website?

Because I help accountants get their marketing messages across effectively, I spend a lot of time looking at the websites of accountants and accounting firms around the world. (I know, it’s a rotten job, but somebody has to do it.)

It’s frustrating to me that so many firms make the same mistakes — mistakes that take away from the success of their sites. this month, I want to tell you about one that flies in the face of any firm’s claim to be client-centred or caring.

This is the true story of my own search for a particular service I was ready to buy. Like most folks, I began my search online, and I came across a site that claimed to offer the service I needed. they described their services, their experience, their client type, their length of time in business — but nowhere on the site was there any indication of human identity! No names, no pictures, no humans. Who are these people?

I clicked on the Contact Us tab. No contact information — just a web form inviting me to put in my contact information so that they could contact me! Are they crazy?

That’s like saying, “OK visitor, you have no idea who I am or if I am even a real person, but please give me your contact information on faith so that I can contact you (or not) at my convenience.”

Would you fill in their form? If they ever did contact you, how would you know it was them?

The Internet is so huge we no longer have words to describe its size. The competition for attention and business is massive now and growing every minute — no, make that every second. If people are actually finding your website, you’ve either been incredibly lucky (and don’t count on that continuing) or you’re doing something right. But if you’re not identifying yourself as a real human being with a name and a face, or even a group of humans with names and faces, you’re squandering the opportunity to make a a connection and possibly turn a visitor into a client.

I simply assumed these people were purposely hiding their identify for some nefarious purpose, and I surfed away as soon as I had enough material for this post for you.

Could this be happening to you?

By the way, most business people are too close to their websites to see their weaknesses. If you’d like to know how to improve your site’s performance, a website content audit might be the answer.

But if you do nothing else, make sure your site reflects some kind of human presence. Otherwise, why would anyone want to do business with you?

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Simplify Complex Information when Pitching Non-Financial Audiences

Man-With-Question-06Recently I heard a disconcerting story from a partner at a well known accounting firm (which shall remain nameless to protect the guilty!)
It seems this woman had met someone who was looking for an accounting firm to help her through a major growth stage in her business. Seeing an opportunity for her firm, the partner arranged a meeting with appropriate colleagues, who made what they obviously assumed was an appropriate presentation to the potential client.
When there was no response in a few days, the original partner followed up. The woman was very frank, telling her that she hadn’t had a clue what her colleagues had been talking about. It was full of jargon and generic information that went right over her head. She didn’t feel they understood her needs, and she had no interest in working with these people.
I wonder how many times this happens in accounting firms every single day — and I’m betting it’s much more than you think.
Speaking Engagements
Many accountants actively seek out speaking engagements as part of their marketing activities, and it’s a great strategy. However, I’ve sat in audiences and been subjected to these presentations, and too often been bored out of my mind by content that was delivered in mind numbing detail, backed by jam-packed PowerPoint slides that were in direct competition with the speaker for the audience’s attention.
At the request of Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada, I recently created a program called Presenting Financial Information to Non-financial Decision Makers, which I delivered at their conference. In this program, I discuss the “3 biggies” of this type of presentation:
1.    Your objective. I’m constantly surprised at the number of people who start to build a presentation without seriously examining their own objective. Yes, you might be delivering the results of an audit or a consulting report, but the delivery itself is not your objective. Presumably you want your audience to take action on your recommendations, and if you narrow this down you’ll make a much more focused presentation. Take the time to drill down to find your true objective.
2.    Visual aids.  They’re called “aids” for a reason! They are supposed to aid you in delivering the presentation and aid the audience in understanding it. Masses of words or figures crammed into a slide (and often read word for word by the presenter) don’t aid anyone. I once asked a client who had engaged me to do a presentation workshop for her group what her objective was for the program. She said, “Helen, I want never again to see an Excel spreadsheet used as a visual aid!” Financial information is much better shown through charts and graphs, which give an instant visual representation of information you can then speak to in terms that hold your audience’s attention.
3.    Delivery. Here’s the bald truth: people assume financial presentations are going to be dry and boring! They don’t need to be, but that’s the assumption. So if you go in there and speak in a monotone with no expressive body language, and use jargon and high-flown language that isn’t theirs, your presentation will fulfill those expectations.
I’m not suggesting you leap around the platform or conference room, but I do suggest you do some basic things such as smile at the audience as you start to speak, and make eye contact with different people throughout your time in front of them. You must also show enthusiasm about what you’re saying — or else why should they?
The whole question of the inappropriate use of jargon is so big I’m going to write a whole story about it in a future issue of Your Marketing Counts. But the problem is not just jargon. Many professionals tend to use complicated, “fancy” words in their presentations because they think it makes the sound more knowledgeable. That’s not the case. If you use simple, straightforward language, your audience won’t even think about the words because they’ll be too busy getting the message – and isn’t that the whole point?
Whether you are making a presentation to attract new clients or having a one-to-one conversation with an existing client to encourage them to take action, the way you communicate your message can make the difference between success and failure. Put yourself in their position, consider what they need to know and present your information from that standpoint.
I’ve been speaking professionally for over twenty years, and I also offer one-on-one coaching for professionals who have a high stakes presentation coming up. I do this either in-person or by Skype, so no matter where in the world you are, call me at 1-416-966-5023 and let’s talk about how you can make your next presentation shine!

Want to receive monthly free advice on marketing your services? Subscribe to Your Marketing Counts.

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Tell Me a Story — of Your Clients’ Success

Terry Pratchett quoteFrom the time we’re old enough to understand the spoken word, we love stories. How many children eagerly get into pyjamas and climb into bed because they’ve been promised a story?
And this love of stories doesn’t end with childhood. Why do we read novels, watch movies — and even the nightly news? Because we love to hear the stories of humanity in all their emotional range from sadness to horror to joy and laughter.
It follows, then, that if you want to grab someone’s attention you can do it most readily with a story.
What stories are you telling on your website?
In business terms, a story usually means a case study. Some sites look promising, showing a tab or a link to Case Studies. “Excellent,” I always think, “stories!” But when I go there, what do I find? Instead of intriguing tales of human interest, they turn out to be dry recitations of services the firm rendered and a few bor ing words about how pleased the client was. Yawn!
If you’re wondering if your client engagements even have any human interest, let me give you some ideas.
First, think of the client as a human being. Whether you are working with an individual owner-operator of a business or a division of a large corporation, there is a person there — someone you speak with on the phone or meet with at their office. That human being is affected in some way by the business situation that exists before you arrive, and the new situation when your work is done.
Let’s say your client is Steve, owner-operator of a chain of coffee shops. Five years ago he used his life savings to buy the franchise because he saw it as the way to safeguard his family’s future. Success would mean his son and daughter could go to university, his wife could give up her routine job to pursue her dream of writing novels and he could buy a holiday home by the ocean where they could all chill out together for a few blissful weeks each summer.
But it hadn’t turned out that way for Steve and his family. Six years in, he had expanded his empire from one to three coffee shops — and expanded his worries more like tenfold. Only the original coffee shop was making money, and not a lot. The other two were bleeding money, losing market share to competitors and showing no signs of improving any time soon.
Fortunately, Steve found you.
Your initial review of his situation showed several problems that were obvious to you (athough not to Steve), and a deeper dive brought out even more. Your experience, your professional eye and your business knowledge showed Steve several opportunities for immediate improvement as well as for long-term success in his business.
After just six months, shop number one was climbing back up to its early profit levels and above, and the other two had been partially restaffed with better employees and showed signs of dramatic turnaround. Cash was once again flowing in the right direction, and the future looked bright.
Young Daniel would be able to start his university career this year without student debt hanging over him, Jennifer could follow in a couple of years, Susan stopped having desperate thoughts of divorce and Steve was once again going to work with a smile on his face.
Now that’s a human story that would interest a potential client in working with you! “But,” you ask, “don’t we need to talk about what we did to achieve the results?” No, you don’t.
Marketing experts are fond of saying people don’t want a drill, they want a hole in the wall. But that’s only partly true. What people actually want is a wall decorated with beautiful paintings or photographs, and beyond that they want a home their friends will envy.
People don’t need to know the nitty gritty, the specific action s you took or the services you performed. Nor do they need to know all the personal details I’ve given here. But they do want to know you helped transform Steve’s life!

How many ‘Steves’ have you helped?

If you want website visitors to pick up the phone and call you, tell those stories!

Sign up for my free monthly newsletter, Your Marketing Counts, and you’ll not only get more useful articles like this one, but a short list of practical steps to implement the advice and get results!

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Are Badly Written Proposals Losing You Business?

Listen or read — your choice.

I attended a luncheon of the Legal Marketing Association, at which a panel of corporate users of legal services talked about how they choose law firms for their work. Naturally, their views were of great interest to the law firm marketers in attendance.

And it was an eye-opener.

As a communications expert (and fanatic!) I was happy to receive support for my insistence on the value of good writing. One Corporate Counsel said it drove him crazy to receive pitches full of grammatical errors and poor writing. When asked if that might even make him decide against a firm, he was quite emphatic that it would.

And it stands to reason, doesn’t it? If a law firm can’t even write a proposal that’s not at least grammatically correct, why would a company entrust it with work that is largely based on the written word?

Make Your Words Count: a short painless guide to business writing for accountantsThe same applies to accountants, who tend to fall back on the old “we’re about numbers, not words” excuse — and yes, it is an excuse. That’s why I wrote my most recent book, Make Your Words Count: a short painless guide to business writing for accountants, which is available on Amazon in both print and Kindle editions.

And yes, I do plan a short painless guide to business writing for lawyers — probably later this year. Stay tuned.

I’ll report on some other comments from the LMA luncheon in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, maybe you should take a closer look at those corporate proposals you’re working on. Do they showcase your firm’s competence for the job — or do they make you look unprepared and even sloppy?

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Writing Website Articles: 3 Simple Formulas to Write Articles Your Visitors Will Love

Read or listen — your choice.

writing website articlesLast week I wrote about the importance of having articles on your website. Many professional services providers understand the value of articles, but they’re stuck on the problem of what to write about and how to write their articles.

One of the easiest ways to tackle any writing project is to use a formula. When I tell people that they often push back, because they don’t want their writing to be formulaic. But that should never stop you using a formula, because if you write it well nobody will even notice it is a formula!

If you stop to think about it, even popular fiction is written to formula: the detective novel opens with a chapter that sets the scene and introduces the main characters; the murder is discovered; the detective comes on the scene and starts detecting; we start to have our own ideas as to “whodunnit”; two-thirds of the way through the book there’s a second murder (this is mandatory!) and eventually all is revealed in the last chapter.

When you read one of these books, do you even notice the formula? No, because you’re too busy getting involved in the story. So set aside your worries about the formula approach to articles and let’s look at three article formulas you can use.

1.  The List Article

People love lists. Maybe it’s because they can see right away how long the list is and how much time it will take them to read the article. The beauty of the list article is that you can put it together in any order, because the items don’t need to be in any particular order. So you might write about…

• 10 tips for designing a “green” home
• 7 ways to get the best price when you sell your business
• 3 sure signs your business is ready to go public

Depending on your profession and your clientele, decide what you want them to know and break it into a numbered list. Then just write each point in a short, pithy paragraph and voila — your article is done.

2.  The How To Article

“How to” is one of the most searched phrases on the Internet. When people want to know how to do something today, they go online to look for articles, videos, webinars and anything else that will give them the instructions they want.

Again, the topic depends on your desired audience.

• How to write your will so that your wealth goes where you want it to go when you die
• How to list and sell your own home without an agent
• How to pay less tax on your business income

Imagine you are sitting in a coffee shop with one of your clients, and he or she asks you a question. How would you answer it in that informal setting? Put that in writing and there’s your article.

3.  The Mistakes Article

This is a variation on the list, but it focuses on the mistakes your clients might make and how to avoid them.

• 5 common mistakes accountants make on their websites and how to avoid them (I actually have a speech I give to accounting groups on this very topic — drop me a line if you’d like me to deliver it to your group.)
• The one mistake you must not make if you want to win your insurance claim
• Common mistakes that will cause you to pay twice as much tax as you need to

This one is a little more tricky because you are focusing on the negative, but it can be very effective when done well because people often recognize their own mistakes!

So if you’ve been wanting to write articles to attract visitors to your website but were suffering writer’s block, try using one of these formulas. Just pour your content in like jelly in a mould, and you’ll be surprised how easy it is. Happy writing!

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Professional Services Marketing: why should you have articles on your website?

Listen or read — your choice.

professional services websiteAn effective website is an essential tool in marketing your professional services. But what are your website visitors really looking for? I asked that question of a random group of business owners recently in connection with how they found their accountants. Here’s what they told me.

Whether they find the website in an online search (very few in this group did) or through a personal referral (the most popular), they are looking for evidence that this is the firm for them. That comes through two factors: the “personality” of the firm and illustration of subject matter expertise.

Ironically, both these factors are conspicuous by their absence in many professional services websites, yet they’re both so easy to include.

First, the personality. The look and feel of the site, as well as the tone of the words, should reflect the culture of your firm. Is it a friendly, family-style small practice? Is it a highly structured larger firm with many experts on different subjects? Is it international in scope and attitude? All of these can and should be reflected in the site.

I recently visited the website of a firm whose name was the name of a person, and yet nowhere on the site was there any information about who that person was — or anyone else in the firm for that matter. That’s a conflicting signal that raises a red flag for me.

Demonstrating your expertise can be easily done by including a section of helpful articles. Think of the questions your clients most often ask and put your answers in the form of brief, jargon-free, easy-to-understand articles. Once you build up a collection of these articles on your site, visitors will instinctively place more trust in your expertise.

And article titles and topics are an excellent place to use keywords that actually will attract online visitors. While people don’t often search for “the best employment lawyer in town”, they will use a search engine to look for information on “can I sue my employer for firing me?”. If you have an article on the very subject they are researching, you’ll automatically climb a few rungs up the ladder of professional credibility. This is how SEO works best for professional services marketing.

Need help writing your articles? Drop me a line at and let’s talk about how I can help.

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2 Inexpensive (or Free) Items to Help You Make Your Own Videos

Listen or read — your choice.

Use iPhone for videoA couple of people have recently asked me about making their own videos for use on their websites. The question was about whether you need to buy expensive equipment to get good quality.

In a nutshell, the answer is no! There are several fine quality video cameras on the market for a few hundred dollars, but to be honest, the video quality on your iPhone or other smart phone is good enough for this purpose. That’s what I’ve been using myself for the past couple of years.

Now if you have someone to assist you with this, it’s obviously easier, but what it if you shoot your own videos? Again, I can speak from experience here because I shoot my own, using my iPhone.

“But how do you hold it in place?” I hear you ask. Simple.

use Swivl for videoI purchased a little gizmo called Swivl (find it at You simply put your iPhone or Android into the Swivl, attach the separate sensor to your pocket or belt (or just hold it in your hand), and as you walk from side to side the whole thing swivels round and follows you! How cool is that?

I bought it so that I could record my presentations from the platform, and it’s great for that. But I’ve actually used it more for shooting video in my office. For that, I just attach the Swivl to my tripod, insert the iPhone, set it to video and I’m good to go.

When you shoot video with your phone, just make sure your lighting is acceptable (no unflattering shadows) and the sound is good. The build-in mic in the iPhone (and, I imagine, other phones) does a perfectly acceptable job if you’re standing just a yard or two from the phone.

TeleprompterIf you’re nervous about remembering what you want to say, here’s another easy solution. And it’s free! It’s a teleprompter.

Now you might think of teleprompters as high-end equipment used by television crews, but like a lot of other technology it’s now available for users like us. I found a whole selection of free teleprompter apps for my iPad. I tried a couple of them, and both were just fine.

Now, there might be a problem holding the iPad in place while you’re making your video if you don’t have someone to hold it for you. If that’s your situation, you might prefer to set up a teleprompter on your computer. There’s a free online teleprompter at and it works like a charm. Just type in your script, hit the button and it starts. You can even set the scrolling speed to suit your needs.

So there you have a simple set-up you can use to record your own videos right there in your office. No excuses accepted now — get it done!

By the way, I was interviewed by professional videographer Janine Harris about content syndication and using video as part of it. You might find it useful to watch the interview (and yes, this was shot in a professional studio).

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The Easiest Marketing You Can Do that So Many Professionals Don’t

Listen or read — your choice.

One of the easiest ways of marketing your professional services is one that way too many professionals don’t do. If you’re not doing it now, it only takes a tweak in your current behavior to start. And if you’re not doing it now, you are leaving money on the table.

I’ll tell you what it is in a minute, but first let me give you an analogy.

You probably know me as a marketing copywriter working with professional services firms, but what you may not know is that there is another side to me and my business. I have been a professional keynote speaker and trainer on communication at work since 1993. In the speaking business, there is a truism that says if you want to get more bookings, do two things:

1.    Get really good on the platform
2.    Be easy to get along with

(OK, it helps if you make them laugh too, but that’s not applicable here!) In other words, become really good at the craft of your profession, and act with clients in such a way that they enjoy doing business with you.

And that’s it. That’s the secret, easy marketing I want to share with you. Apply it to your business as an accountant, a lawyer, a consultant, an architect or whatever profession you practice.

The medical profession has its Hippocratic Oath, which says “First, do no harm.” The same could apply to any profession, but it needs to go further than that. You must not only do no harm, but if you want to grow your business you must do a great deal of good for your clients. Go the extra mile to do a great job for them so that they are 100% confident in you.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had to spend any time in hospital, but my husband did a few years ago and I became very familiar with the hospital world. I can tell you I met some big-shot surgeons who had the worst bedside manner you could imagine! Now granted, given their in-demand specialized skills, they didn’t have to rely on word of mouth to get patients on the operating table, and that’s just as well because nobody would have worked with them voluntarily.

How do you treat your clients on a personal, human level? Do you answer their phone calls in a reasonable length of time? (So easy to do, so rarely done.) Do you answer their questions in a language they can understand, or in jargon-laden explanations that leave them none the wiser?

People talk, you know. Most people find their professional advisors by referral from a trusted source. Those trusted referrers could be your clients — but they’re sure not going to recommend you if you’re a pain in the neck to deal with.

Disney has always been held up as a shining example of how doing what they do well is how they market their theme parks, because people rave about the great experience to their friends. Take a lesson from Disney.

When you think about marketing your professional services, think about how well you’re doing on these two incredibly easy ways of encouraging referrals and recommendations. It’s the proverbial low-hanging fruit of marketing — don’t leave it on the tree!

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