Five common Writing Conventions you must avoid in Pitch Documents

These stylistic choices usually make for great writing, but can only hurt you in pitches.

Do not write the script for your pitch meeting speech.

People communicate by typing so much now that writing as you would speak has become the norm. Yet, even with emojis to help, plain words on a screen or page cannot convey most of the subtleties of live conversation. We pick up many cues from facial expression, body demeanour, and vocal tone. Sarcasm, for example, relies heavily on tone and so is often impossible to pick up in plain text (please can we just make italics the convention for sarcasm Facebook/Whatsapp please).

The problem with people writing the script for what they would say in a live conversation is that these ‘scripts’ do not communicate meaning effectively. Plain words have no vocalized tone, emphasis, pace, accent or energy. Without these speaking tools, ‘speaking-style writing’ is tough to read and comprehend. And, without an actual voice, readers naturally make assumptions about the writers’ identities based on the plain words evidence that they have. So, in pitch documents, word choice and grammar style can define what a CEO thinks of you, before you meet.

Here are two ways to avoid writing like you speak, and then three writing conventions you should try to avoid. These strategies will help you to communicate effectively in pitch documents, and protect you from the assumptions of potential employers.

Do not shorten words

Virtually everybody shortens words when they talk. ‘What is’ becomes ‘what’s’, ‘it is’ becomes ‘it’s’ and ‘do not’ becomes ‘don’t’. That is fine in speeches, but does nothing good in pitch documents. No one is annoyed by full words, but some may be put off by shortened words.

This is because full words in writing are often associated with professionalism, elite class upbringing and proper education, while words that are shortened using apostrophes are sometimes associated with colloquial, youthful speech. ‘What’s up’, ‘I don’t want to’ and ‘it’s all good’ are common examples. For many, shortened words are for informal, familiar, casual, even intimate settings. This speaking convention belongs in family events, not boardrooms. Some also feel that shortened words sound less clear, more rushed and even lazy.

In a speech, shortened words are less potentially hazardous, because the listener encounters you as a speaker, and can form an opinion of your character based on much more information, from your appearance to your mannerisms. But, in plain text, only your words inform their judgement, and some people are not impressed by a colloquial, casual feel in documents that are ought convince them to give them your money. You have nothing to gain from shortening words with apostrophes, even though typing ‘cannot’ can seem odd because you always say ‘can’t’. It is not worth the risk.

Do not turn lists into endless sentences

When you hear someone speaking this sentence, you will get it, but if you read it…

Designs and wireframes are tested with users and stakeholders before any interface code is written, saving time, keeping costs down, ensuring functionality, providing us with early learnings that drastically improve the end result by deepening our understanding of users’ needs, ascertaining that the software fulfils our expectations for it, and thus completing our mandate of measuring success before we flesh out the product.

This kind of writing is used in pitch documents for significant contracts all the time. It is also a perfect script of exactly how people speak. When someone distinguishes the different elements that they are listing through vocalised emphasising and pausing, it is easy to keep track of the list and follow what the list as a whole is proving. But, in plain words, it is extremely painful to follow. This is an exhausting sentence to read and absorb.

If you use many commas and words that end in ‘ing’ to begin new points, you are writing the way that people talk. It is fairly easy to convert this script to readable copy. It takes a little time, but each part can be changed into short, accessible sentences.

The same content is much more memorable in this form:

Designs and wireframes are tested with users and stakeholders before any interface code is written. Doing so saves time. It keeps costs down. This method also ensures functionality. The method provides us with early learnings that drastically improve the end result by deepening our understanding of users’ needs. We can ascertain that the software fulfils our expectations for it. Thus, we complete our mandate to ensure success before we flesh out the product.

This iteration does not make me tired when I read it.

Do not use new terms until you have defined them

Neil du Toit wrote an excellent piece on bad writing habits that people think are good. Many of his ideas are particularly relevant to pitch documents.

To write clearly, you have to consider the process that the reader is going to go through when they read your work. You need to be able to put yourself in the position of your reader and ask yourself whether each word that you’re using is going to make sense as it is read. The Wikipedia style guide encourages writers to follow something called the principle of least astonishment. The principle of least astonishment states that the user should not be surprised by anything in your article.

Neil encourages writers to use information as it is needed so that an unknowing reader to understand everything immediately. One ought explain what new terms mean when one first uses them, so that readers get your meaning throughout your write-up.

Two more writing conventions to avoid in pitch documents follow from Neil’s thought process.

Avoid words like ‘aforementioned’, ‘former’ and ‘latter’

These words force readers to refer back to concepts that you wrote about in other sentences. Very few people can remember everything that they have already read. Fewer can remember in what order they read about different ideas or where those ideas sit on the screen or page. So, words like ‘aforementioned’ and ‘latter’ usually make readers look around the document to find what you are referring to. This takes their thoughts away from the latest sentence that they are reading, and breaks their focus on the flow of ideas that you are writing about.

Use fewer abbreviations

Neil again:

A big part of empathy is knowing who your reader is. If your document is only ever going to be read by people who work in your field, then there’s nothing wrong with using abbreviation.

But pitch documents are mostly read by high-level decision-makers in companies. They do not have expertise in specialized fields and so will not be impressed by abbreviations that are commonplace for work disciplines. They probably will not even bother to look up the meaning. They will gain nothing from that part of your pitch. Avoid abbreviations in pitch documents, unless you are certain that the readers will know what you mean.

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