The Bold Approach: How Reporting the Facts Can Invigorate Your Writing

Editor’s Note: The following piece, by the late, great Herman Holtz, was to appear as part of Herman’s “Hindsights & Insights” column.  It is part of our collection of “classics”–articles that stand the test of time no matter how many technologies come and go. Published with permission.

Some people in the flying business are fond of reminding people that there are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots. That sounds as though it ought to be true enough in flying, where boldness often winds up in morning headlines, but in the writing biz, many of us can probably do with a bit more boldness. There is an enormous amount of competition for the attention of your intended reader. A bit of boldness in attracting and holding our intended readers’ attention can only help, but far too many writers tend to play it safe–or what they think is playing it safe–by writing plain vanilla prose and being as general and vague as possible.

There are lots of examples of this found in proposal writing. One writer on our staff, for example, never failed to explain that anything he promised we would do was something at which we were especially “adept.” Another of our intrepid scribes was in love with the term “know-how,” and overused it until clients began to complain to me that they groaned every time they ran across the word in one of our proposals.

It isn’t only the fact of overusing a few pet words to the point of nausea that stamps a manuscript with a growing aroma of hyperbole, but also that the words are usually inexact generalizations–adverbs and adjectives–rather than nouns and verbs. It seems so much less risky to assure a reader that you and your organization are among the largest suppliers of your kind of service, rather than state flatly that our organization employs 4300 people in 27 offices across the United States. That permits the reader to judge for him- or herself how large, how successful, and how important you are or–much more to the point–lend the reader assurance that your organization is large enough and successful enough to make you an able and reliable contractor.

Note that adjectives and adverbs make claims; nouns and verbs report facts. Most readers recognize claims immediately and strain any claims that appear extravagant through their natural skepticism. On the other hand, they tend to accept reasonable statements of fact without hesitation. Try turning those claims into reports–listing facts–and see how much the clean, reportorial style invigorates your writing.

Once you do this, you have laid the groundwork for the bold approach, which is characterized by three main features:

  •  It focuses on nouns and verbs, and eschews adjectives and adverbs as much as possible, striving to quantify all promises, as well as qualify them.
  • It attempts to present all the facts, the pros and the cons, the upside and the downside, and the course of action proposed.
  • It seeks to be highly distinctive and innovative, if possible, satisfying the client’s want, preferably with a truly unique approach. One caution: Don’t take innovation too far. Your new and different ideas should be evolutionary, not revolutionary, to be believable and accepted.

As it happens, these are goals that are entirely in accord with the normally accepted principles of sales and marketing–the first one of which is Get Attention. The bold approach is usually pretty effective at accomplishing that because the facts provide readers with information they want and need, and allow them to draw their own conclusions.

A sales message is–should be–an offer, not an announcement. To be an offer, it must be in the specific language of nouns and verbs, not in vague hyperbolic promises. Stating the promise will arouse interest, but the promise must be sold–that is, backed up with solid evidence that you can and will deliver the promise. That, again, requires specific facts, not vague claims.

In summary, take the proof and promise road. First, the promise: Explain the benefit–the chief, important benefit, not some niggling little features that only dilute the impact of the big benefit. Then build your case with evidence that you can and will deliver what you promise. Remember: Offer something that’s not only new, different, novel, and attention-getting, but also something important enough to influence the client’s decision. Then provide whatever evidence is necessary to make your case. Remember this, too: What you really want to do here is get the client thinking, “There is an interesting idea here. I need to know more about this.”