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The Pen Is Mightier Than the Word

By Michelle Nichols You may be the King or Queen of Smooth Sales Patter, but if you're not as good at selling with the printed word as you are when you speak, you may be missing out on more, or bigger, deals.

These days, selling is not just telling -- it also involves writing. Countless deals have been agreed upon in person, only later to be undone by careless or clumsy follow-up letters. If you commit this crime, it can sabotage all your hard work.

FOUR TO SCORE. When it comes to writing sales letters, or even e-mail correspondence, we can borrow a few tricks from the late advertising giant Leo Burnett, who created the Jolly Green Giant, Marlboro Man, Pillsbury Doughboy, and Tony the Tiger. Burnett offered these four simple suggestions:

Make it simple.

Make it memorable.

Make it inviting to look at.

Make it fun to read.

If you apply these guidelines to your sales writing, you'll connect with your prospective customers -- and you'll close a few more deals.

Make it simple. In sales communication, whether written or verbal, less is more. After you've written what you think is a serviceable sales letter, try to cut the word count in half. Even if you don't quite achieve a 50% reduction, those remaining words will have twice the punch.

Just as important as what you say is how you say it. Manage your white space carefully. Providing generous margins all the way around your sales missives allows your customers to focus on your main idea. After all, one fish in a whole school gets lost. One fish by itself can be magnificent. Treat your key selling idea like that one fish and let it stand out.

Make it memorable. One of my readers, Dick Larkin, who runs Yellow Pages Commando, is an advertising guru for Yellow Pages advertising. As Larkin points out, one of the most important parts of any persuasive writing is the opening -- so open with a bang. In the title or headline, don't start with the name of your company. A title like "Fred's Heating & Cooling is pleased to announce..." just doesn't make anyone's socks go up and down, as my husband likes to say. Instead, build a connection by leading off with a benefit your customers really care about.

Since questions are more powerful than statements, consider opening your sales attack with a question. Perhaps you begin, "Do you need to turn your receivables into cash today?" or "When are you ready to begin understanding your employees' absenteeism?" You want to lure potential customers.

Larkin also suggests including specific, relevant details, whether it's same-day installation, free evaluation, or fast emergency service. Generalities are worthless -- don't copy your competitors who tout their "superior customer service" and "lowest prices in town." These overused phrases have become meaningless.

Make it visually inviting. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, don't forget to include pictures in your sales communications. "If you don't believe me, open the menu at Denny's," Larkin says. "You might not consider them a great dining establishment, but you've got to give them credit for understanding what their customers want." No matter how limited your English-language skills are or how tired you feel, everyone can point to a cheeseburger or milkshake and say, "I'll take one of those." That could be all you need to make another sale.

When using pictures, Larkin says a photo is better than line art, and should take up about one-quarter to one-third of the total available space. Also keep in mind that one single image has a bigger impact than a group of smaller images.

Make it fun to read. The quickest path to fun is connecting through something funny or something personally meaningful. Find a few background details about your customer and reference them in your sales follow-up. Maybe they grew up in Nova Scotia and you can mention the current weather in Halifax. Perhaps their favorite baseball team is the Houston Astros and you can open with "Go Astros!" or include a cartoon about "America's favorite pastime."

Larkin also suggests that you give customers a reason to connect with you. For example, he recently needed to replace a windshield. He found that almost every ad claimed the cheapest glass, but one said "Call this recorded line to hear the five things you absolutely must know before buying replacement glass."

TOSS IN AN EXTRA. He called the recording, and that dealer got Larkin's business. "The company was about 20% higher than the cheapest guy, but I ended up going with him anyway, and he didn't cut his price, because he had [already] sold me on the quality," Larkin says.

While a recording or checklist alone won't make a sale, businesses that provide extra information are more likely to open a dialogue with consumers -- and that could close a deal. You could offer a free report on what's new in wireless computer networking, a prerecorded audio report on eight steps to choosing the right accountant, or even a no-cost e-book on how to hire a landscape designer.

Excellent verbal selling skills are no longer enough. To maximize your sales results, your written sales efforts must be equally polished. With the right turn of phrase, you can help engage and persuade customers until the sale is finally closed. Happy selling! Nichols is a sales speaker, trainer, and consultant based in Houston. She welcomes your questions and comments, and can be contacted at Visit her Web site at

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