Lately I’ve been listening to an audiobook called, The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting. As the parent of a 2-year-old who’s been perfecting the art of tantrums and a 4-year-old who never wants to go to bed, I can use all the help I can get.
The book is read by the author, Brené Brown, a psychology researcher who rose to fame with this Ted Talk about the power of vulnerability, which has been viewed 30 million times. What I particularly like about the audiobook is that every time Brown makes a sweeping statement like how important it is to be empathetic with your children so they feel safe to express their feelings, she follows it by saying, “Let me give you an example.”
Then she recounts a recent interaction with her children, such as when her daughter came home from school in tears because the kids at school picked her last for their soccer team. Rather than tell her daughter it was no big deal or threaten to call the kids’ parents, Brown sat with her daughter and told her, “I know what it feels like to be left out.”
Whether you subscribe to this touchy-feely parenting approach or not, what’s helpful is that by telling this story, Brown helps her listeners understand what she means by being an empathetic parent. By providing an example, she gives parents a much greater chance of being able to support their kids in feeling sad and vulnerable than if she had made a grand statement about the power of empathy and left it at that.
For the same reason, it’s important to use examples in our writing. We humans learn through storytelling, which is why the Bible is full of parables and business school students work on case studies. Without the details of an actual situation, a concept is just a theory, not something you can easily believe or practice.
Recently I’ve been reviewing our firm’s practice group descriptions for our new website. As I read them, I am struck by how often we make grand statements about our capabilities without backing them up with evidence. For example, we’ll make statements like:
“Our banking and finance lawyers help clients simplify complexity wherever they execute transactions.”
“For decades, our energy, mining and infrastructure lawyers have advised clients on some of the largest, most significant projects in the world.”
“Our transaction lawyers won ‘M&A Deal of the Year’ at the 2015 Asian Lawyer Awards.”
The problem is, that’s where we stop. We don’t go on to provide an example of how our banking and finance lawyers simplify complexity or what some of those world’s largest energy projects were. We don’t even recount the details of the deal that led to the impressive M&A award.
That’s a lost opportunity because as consumers, we’re all bombarded by marketing claims like “world’s greatest coffee,” “most fuel-efficient car,” and skin care products “guaranteed to take years off your life.” Out of sheer necessity we respond to these messages with skepticism, as in, “Yeah, I’ve heard that before.” Our clients, reading our practice group descriptions or anything else we write are likely to respond the same way. Unless, of course, we provide examples, like this:
Before: We are widely recognized for our work on multijurisdictional, pioneering transactions.
After: We are widely recognized for our work on multijurisdictional, pioneering transactions, such as developing a structure to enable the first domestic securitization of consumer loans in Russia.
Before: The quality of our work is reflected in the awards we have won for our work on major transactions, including “M&A Deal of the Year.”
After: The quality of our work is reflected in the awards we have won, including “M&A Deal of the Year” for advising The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi on its US$12.5 billion loan facility to Suntory Holdings for the buyout of Beam Inc.— the largest foreign acquisition by a Japanese company in recent years.
A $12.5-billion loan facility? The largest foreign acquisition by a Japanese company? Now you have my attention.
If you’re thinking you’re off the hook because you don’t do any marketing or promotional writing, think again. Whenever you’re trying to convince anyone of anything or educate someone on a particular topic, examples will work faster than anything to make your case or help your audience understand.
Whenever I am interviewing one of our partners on a particular legal issue for a thought leadership report, one of the questions I ask most frequently is “Can you give me an example?” That’s so that when I’m writing the report on a topic like corporate compliance issues in Latin America for our clients, I have the information I need to back up general statements with specific examples, like this:
Prosecutors in Latin America have become stricter about what they expect companies to do to avoid, uncover, and respond to misconduct. In Brazil, for example, the Clean Company Act requires companies to have specific procedures for employees who interact with government officials during public tenders.
When I’m providing tips for clients in these reports, I go beyond general advice such as “tailor your gift-giving and hospitality policies to the local market” by explaining exactly how to do that, like this:
Tip: Create a gift-giving and hospitality policy tailored to your major markets. Many Latin American countries have local laws or guidelines that can help companies establish appropriate monetary thresholds for corporate gift giving to public officials. In Colombia, for example, the government publishes a chart showing the per diems it approves for government staff and officers on business trips. Those caps, which vary depending on the official’s seniority and destination, would be good limits for you to impose when funding business travel for Colombian officials.
The more you can back up your statements with examples, the stronger your writing will be. The stronger your writing is, the more people are likely to listen and take action, including hiring your practice group. How beautiful is that?
Note to readers: This post was written while I was conducting writing workshops for the lawyers and business services professionals at Baker McKenzie, where I wrote and edited the law firm’s thought leadership content for eight years. In the post, I rely on examples from Baker McKenzie communications and refer to the firm in the first person because I worked there at the time of writing.