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Monday Mornings with Madison



Many people think the ability to write well is a gift more than a skill – much like eye-hand coordination, or rhythm.You either have it or you don't.  As most good writers will confess, if pressed, it is not.  Writing which seems effortless requires the most effort.  It is a skill that is honed with practice.  That may explain why so many people have trouble writing well.  Writing is a skill that is often overlooked, misunderstood, undervalued… and thus avoided. 
Yet, it is a skill that can not only affect your personal success, but that of your company as well.

Bad writing not only gets in the way of making a point, but it also affects your personal brand.  More importantly, it can also damage your corporate brand.  It's not just small brands that suffer when bad writing happens.  Bigger brands have just as much (and maybe more) to lose.

Case in point.  Let's say you are Director of Sales at a company with $200 million in annual revenue, and you’re looking to make a major sale to a client.  The competition is fair but you've got a great corporate brand so your company typically doesn’t have too much trouble reaching and dealing with senior-level managers to make a sale.  You speak to the potential client by phone once, and he seems interested.  Then you send an email to follow up that says:  

This is John Doe; Thx for speaking with me.  As I said, I handle the Fortune 500 clients division of my company, XYZ Corp. We are specialize in business services; Services that will enable the growth of your co. by increasing sales and reducing your costs. You can try before buy any of our services. Should you be targeting a different target audience, please let me know. I could also send you our brosures for you to review.  Let me know if I should be talking to some other person their in your organisation regards to this. Alternatively, it would be great if you could forward this mail. I appreciate your time and value of your business.

Before you think to yourself, there is no way anyone would send an email like that, think again.  This is a real email that, but for a few changes to protect the identity of the sender, was received in my office a few weeks ago. 

Now, here's what I believe any top-level manager who reads that email will think:
(a)"The writer is either dumb or lazy.  Either one is bad."
(b) "How on earth did that person get to be a director of anything at that company?"
(c)"I guess other people at that company are dumb or lazy, too, because they're allowing this half-wit to keep his/her job."
(d)"When that company tries to tell me they're 'thought leaders', I'm going to take it with a grain of salt."
(e) "Everyone says that company is great, but I don't care what people say - if they are idiots, they are probably going to mess up our order which will make me look bad."
(f) "Huh!  Maybe these guys aren't as successful as their marketing tries to make them sound, because they're obviously not hiring the best and brightest."
And kapoot! You've lost the sale.  

This is followed by:
(g) "This is the WORST email I've ever read in my life!  I've got to forward it to 32 of my friends so they can have a big laugh.  They'll never BELIEVE it!"
And double kapoot!  Your corporate brand just lost a little equity, and now 32 people know that your organization isn't as smart as your marketing materials would have people believe.

Between 'first contact' and 'the close', there can easily be 10 or 20 emails between you and a client.  Now that most people are building long-term relationships with potential clients all over the country and perhaps around the world, you may exchange 50 emails with a client over the course of a year or two.  After four or five emails that reveal you don't know the difference between 'they're', 'their' and 'there', you don’t know when to use punctuation and you don’t bother to spell-check your documents, the person on the other end is going to ask themselves if you're really as plugged-in and successful as you say, and your company's great corporate brand won't count for a hill of beans.

The first step to writing well is to recognize that you need help.  The second step is to get the help you need.  One of the oldest ways to master a craft is through imitation and writing well is no different.  Here are a couple of reputable guides that not only explain how to write clearly and effectively, but demonstrate it as well.

On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
By William Zinsser

Elements of Style
By Strunk & White

The Random House Guide to Good Writing
Mitchell Ivers

Over the next three weeks, we will review tips on how to write more clearly, succinctly and effectively and highlight the most common writing mistakes to avoid.  Stay tuned.


"I know enough about the art of writing to realize that it would take many years of concentrated effort to write one simple, beautiful sentence." Isadora Duncan

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