When Warren Buffett sits down to pen Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, he moves masterfully from exceptional businessman to skilled writer. His quirky writing style neatly conveys the cast-iron common sense management style that has created so much value for shareholders over the years.
Mr Buffett is an exception, but he proves the rule. Not many CEOs – and not that many more of their communications staff – have the fine financial copywriting skills to convey a corporate message in a way that tells a story; portrays an exceptional management style; captivates an audience.
Yet this craft is becoming a critical communications tool. In my view, the growing dominance of digital media – through web content and social media – makes the written word king.
Blogs, tweets, white papers (and even clever digital annual reports) rule. But what some corporate communications folk still don’t get is that written communications must be high quality. Not many CEOs can script their own copy. Far worse, none of the PR firms’ 20 something graduate trainees, often assigned content roles, can do a great job.
While good financial copywriting has always made a difference, the digital world has catapulted it to the heart of communications. In essence, all digital communications rely on writing. Even videos generally start life as a form of written thought leadership content.
When I started life as a financial copywriter 15 years ago, I had spent 10 years as a financial journalist for national and international newspapers, with all the excitement of breaking stories and the beating heart of the news room. Yet copywriting gave me a deeper insight into how companies really work.
The internet was in its infancy, so paper brochures and annual reports were the chief use of copy. They needed to be well written but no one could ever work out whether anyone read them or whether they actually helped to win any business.
One of my first assignments, with a colleague, was to write a suite of 96 brochures for a Dutch bank about the technicalities of its payments services. My colleague dubbed our task as “like wading through concrete”.
Yet some jobs won awards. We were still unsure who read them, but the companies who hired us were pleased.
Then, after the financial crisis things started to change. Digital traffic was increasing and clients needed to spend their emasculated budgets wisely. Corporate blogs, white papers and videos started to show how they could engage clients – and ultimately win business.
In the years since, my blogs and online newsletters for clients have earned rich subscriber bases from target clients, leading to new business leads. White papers, showcasing provocative points of view, have garnered great interest, literally helping to shift the terms of the debate.
Of course, none of this happens by chance. In order to achieve these results you need a copywriter with three qualities:
Excepting Mr Buffett, and a few other notables, CEOs have neither the skills nor the inclination for this role. Similarly, old-fashioned PR and marketing departments lack them. Only specialist, experienced copywriters have the skills required.