How to kill words and communicate clearly with Patrick E. McLean
Aaron Ross, CEO
2 January 2019
In nearly every outbound training session that I hold, podcast I host, or blog post I write, I highlight this inescapable truth about capturing the attention of modern audiences: you have but a sliver of time to make an impression before they move on, distracted by the next piece of content vying for their eyeballs (and their wallets).
We are full stop, living in the most messaged world in history. There is no end to something or someone trying to capture the attention of the public.
So given that reality, what’s a hard-working prospector to do? How does a rep (and, by extension, a business) cut through the noise, and connect with their target audience?
By communicating clearly, and efficiently, that’s how.
“Over the course of my career, because I have written and rewritten so much, I started asking ‘why is everyone writing so badly?’ I would analyze the mistakes people were making in their writing, and often the problem is saying too much. If you are trying to get in front of someone, there is always something vying for their attention,” says Patrick E. McLean, veteran communications expert
“So I always think about the reader. We have to write with them in mind. The kindest thing you can do is not waste anyone’s time.”
Kill your words
I know, I know…your well-crafted words capture your business, and its particular genius, perfectly. You toiled night and day to make each word of your copy – whether it’s emails, your website, or your case studies – stand out.
Now it’s time to kill them.
To most writers (and entrepreneurs) this sounds horrible. After all, you know the story of your company better than anyone – why would you want to cut that down? Well, because in almost every case, you’re using too many words to articulate your message.
For example, look at the difference in the copy below, taken from a brilliant presentation McLean gives on the importance of editing.
It’s a sad fact of modern existence that nobody has enough attention. In fact, some thought leaders are referring to this as the age of distraction.
McLean’s edited version:
“Nobody has enough attention.”
The original message was 26 words long, and the edited only four – that’s a drop of 22 words, all without changing the meaning of the passage. Of course, stripping away that many words may not always work; the longer the passage, the harder it will be to get down to just four words.
But the ethic remains the same despite what you are writing: being vigilant with your word count, and understanding that readers have but a few seconds of attention before they move on, will reframe how you tackle case studies, white papers, emails, and call scripts. In fact, this pared-down mindset will change all the marketing and sales content you produce.
“It is important to note that the original piece, about the age of distraction, is well-written. It is styled well,” says McLean.
“But, it takes way too long to get to the point.”
(Editor’s note: we recently chatted with a seasoned group of sales leaders – Steli Efti of Close, Don Erwin of Mixmax, Dustin Crawford of Intercom, and our very own Collin Stewart – about how to perfect your cold emails. You can read about that discussion here, or listen to the whole in-depth chat here.)
Adopt a regular draft process
So, then, how do you actually kill your words? How do you manage to edit your beautiful prose?
According to McLean, there is one fundamental, and easy to accomplish, step to ensure your copy is always trimmed down: adopt a regular drafting process. That means don’t publish the first draft of whatever it is your writing – take your time, step away from the piece, and then come back with fresh eyes. You’ll immediately see areas for improvement.
“It is surprising how many people think you can write something, and just publish it, ”says McLean.
“To have that quality right off the bat – that never happens.”
Another way to ensure your copy is tight is to take the final sentence of what you’re
“We want the first thing they read to be the subject of your writing. In business, for example, it has to be a point about how it can increase revenue or lower costs,” says McLean.
“Remember, your audience cares about the output. In the SaaS world, in particular, that’s what customers care about. They don’t care about how the technology works, they care about what the technology will do for them.”
Collecting case studies
This lesson is important for case studies, too. You have to think of a case studies as a specific kind of story, and there is a result for the business in that story. McLean uses a simple, three-pronged model to make sure his case studies are always covering the most important ground: audience, message, action.
“For every audience, regardless of who they are, you want them to do something. So, make sure you get across what you want them to do. Do you want them to think differently? Do you want them to get in contact? People feel that they have to put information in a case study because they feel like they have to justify themselves or explain themselves. But the information in a case study has to be right on the benefit to get people to take action,” says McLean.
“It should also be structured in a way that people get what they need immediately.”
Finally, readers should see a human in the case study. They want to see that someone, just like themselves, benefitted from your
“They should see that a human benefitted from your product or service. It’s hard to build a story from data – you need that human element,” says McLean.
“It’s like talking to your kids – I don’t present a technical argument to my son about why he shouldn’t lie. I tell him a story, and make it relate to him.”
Be mindful, however, that just because you could potentially write a case study, doesn’t mean you should. Some of your customers will simply be better candidates for a case study than others – and you should be cognizant of that. To make sure you are always choosing the best possible case studies, McLean suggests continually collecting potential case studies and building a feedback loop of what is going on with your customers.
Once you have a bunch, even if they are all just sitting in a Google doc, then you can review what you have and turn the best ones into case studies. That gives you the time to really invest in the best options.
“You need the discipline to constantly gather that information,” says McLean.
“If you don’t, it is much harder to get to those great pieces.”
For more on McLean’s thoughts on writing and editing – including a discussion on how to make your content outbound ready – check out the rest of his interview on The Predictable Revenue Podcast.