From the June 1996 issue of Entrepreneur

A few years ago, an editor at a large publishing house told me a story about some of her bestselling authors. She claims fans will say just about anything to get their hands on these celebrity writers' latest releases, including "calling my office shortly before the authors' new books are released and saying: `My father's in the hospital dying. Couldn't you just get the book to me ahead of time so he can read it before he goes?' "

Compelling writing elicits dramatic, action-packed responses like these. That's why top sales stars learn to write sales letters with the flair of bestselling authors. Whether it's a sales letter, brochure, flier or other advertising piece, it's important to become a student of the written word early in the building of your business.

Like anything else, good writing is a skill that must be cultivated over time. Here are a few lessons I learned about writing, culled from my experiences in graduate school, during the course of my career as an entrepreneur, and while writing five books.

Words To The Wise

A word connoisseur cultivates a knowledge of language and develops an innate sense of the meaning of words that enables him or her to choose the word that best fits a sentence. For example, starting a sales letter with "I have an urgent request" has much more impact than "Would you be interested in . . . "

Urgent is a compelling word in the context of a sales offering. Your selection of words helps determine how persuasive your writing is and how much impact it will have on your customer-a customer who is inundated daily with dozens of pieces of impersonal mail.

Start developing an extensive vocabulary for your presentations. The goal is not to prove how intelligent you are but to be natural and clear while trying to persuade your prospects. The more precise your written and verbal requests become, the more effective the results you'll achieve.

Precision is the secret to closing more sales. Precision develops as you expand your vocabulary, using the following guidelines:

1. Carry a pocket dictionary in your briefcase or purse. Don't rely solely on the spelling checker and thesaurus on a computer; many of them aren't nearly as extensive as an old reliable Webster's or Funk & Wagnall.

2. Read the opinion section of the daily newspaper. Look up all the words you don't understand.

3. Build a reference library of dictionaries, thesauruses and books about word power. A favorite of mine is Words That Sell by Richard Byron (Caddylak Publishing).

4. Pretend you have to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or Graduate Record Exam (GRE). Go to a bookstore, and buy test preparation books. Study the vocabulary section. Use index cards, and write one word on each; turn the card over, write the definition on the back and study them whenever you have a spare moment. Eventually your expanded vocabulary will help create a person who has the power to capture and convert more customers.

5. Enroll in a course on writing for sales and advertising at a community college. Even if you have the budget to use an advertising agency, you need a basic knowledge of what pulls a response and what doesn't.

6. Read at least one new book a month. Choose a variety of books such as fiction, nonfiction, self-help, reference materials and poetry. You'll find marvelous ideas and words to trigger your imagination.

7. Use a journal to record ideas that sell. Don't miss the opportunity to write down any brilliant flashes you may have.

8. Start an advertising scrapbook. Collect "zinger" ads from magazines, newspapers, brochures and mailers. Don't discriminate-take ideas from everywhere. The goal is not to copy other people's work but to stimulate your creativity and originality.

9. Use simple words and sentences; they have the most sales impact. An overdressed thought is as distracting as an overdressed person. If, when you called on a customer, you wore a tailored suit with a chartreuse necktie or lots of jewelry, your accessories might be so distracting, they would detract from your message. In words, as in dress, less is often more.

Once you start making the above lessons a matter of habit, you will find composing sales letters much easier. Your new-found awareness of what constitutes effective writing cannot help but influence what you write.

Get To The Point

Each time you sit down to write, clearly define the purpose of your sales letter, brochure or ad before putting anything on paper. Be able to answer these two questions:

1. What is the purpose of this communication?

2. What compelling words can I use to best get the reader's attention?

Then start writing. Don't stop to evaluate your first draft. People who tell me they can't write well are usually people who stop and think too much. Just get it on paper.

Here's an excerpt from a sales letter with one purpose--to sell a particular product from my line and to prove its value. The letter generated an income of more than $7,000 per month for a six-month period. The letter started out this way:

"It's a system I know you can use, and it has an ironclad, money-back guarantee. So the only question is, Do you want to add to your income this year? (More about that later.)"

The "More about that later" tickles a reader's curiosity and keeps him or her reading. The letter continued:

"The most important product we sell is ourselves. It is a fact that people do not do business with people they do not trust. That's why the first part of my course is a comprehensive study about authentically earning the prospect's trust." The letter goes on to detail how the product accomplishes that goal.

Since all good sales letters ask for the order many times throughout the body of the letter-especially at the end-this one continued, "You take NO RISK with my you-be-the-judge FREE-TRIAL OFFERING. I want you to order it now-and to make sure you don't procrastinate, this offer is only good for a limited time."

Strong sales letters are specific about how the order can be accomplished now. Write in the present tense. Avoid the passive.

I like ending a sales letter with a P.S. Sometimes I handwrite the postscript myself. Here's the one I used on the above letter:

"P.S. Do not treat this offering like another sales pitch. I know with certainty this is going to help you. If you were my best friend, I would tell you not to pass up this offer. Someday you will thank me, so ORDER NOW."

If you're still struggling to write a compelling sales letter, here's an exercise that can get your creative juices flowing: Write a passionate letter to your spouse or significant other. Because your feelings run deep, your "voice" comes through on paper. Don't hold back. Next, with the same intensity, compose a letter to a customer describing your products or services.

Keep It Simple

A message often creates the strongest impact if the language is very simple. Elegant techniques often get in the way of what I call the "selling message." My husband, Mike, and I have created all the advertising and marketing promotions at each company we owned. We have won awards for some of these pieces. I believe our work was singled out because we followed our instincts and kept the message uniform and simple.

Simplicity applies to your theme as well as your words. The same theme should be carried through all your marketing materials. When I opened my first company, I wanted to communicate the importance of repeat business and quality service. One of the messages I found myself repeating to customers was "Remember me." I decided to use that theme in all our printed material.

We had a graphic artist design a simple forget-me-not flower. The local newspaper ads announcing our opening had charcoal-gray sketches of each member of our management team, with the flower and the words "forget-me-not" under each sketch.

We kept to that theme by passing out forget-me-not seeds to our prospects and reminding potential customers that if they gave us a chance to do business with them, we would deliver "forget-me-not" service.

At that time, our competitors advertised using photos of their top salespeople, with an emphasis on how many millions of dollars each salesperson had produced each month. I wanted to play down the sales figures and sales personalities and play up customer service and reliability. We used quotes and letters from satisfied customers to back our claims.

The response was overwhelming, and we continually heard comments such as, "Your emphasis on customer satisfaction instead of sales stats and egos was refreshing." Sticking with one strong theme paid off big time.

Like those bestselling authors whose words jump off the page, grab you by the collar and refuse to let you go until the story is over, entrepreneurs who want to be "best sellers" must learn to maximize the power of the pen to persuade and convert customers for life.

Danielle Kennedy presents sales and marketing seminars and keynote address worldwide. She is the author of five sales books as well as audio and video sales training programs. Write to her in care of Entrepreneur, 2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA 92714.