writing

The $40 Million Comma

Punctuation matters—and sometimes it matters a lot. Take the case where the single comma in the 1872 U.S. Tariff Act ended up costing the U.S. Government $40 million. It was a comma that changed the purpose of the Act.
 
We’ve all complained about having to abide by sometimes seemingly unimportant grammar rules, but in the end, the rules—though not always consistent—are there to direct brain traffic: to pair ideas, introduce breaths and indicate stops—all of which are important to accurately conveying meaning.
 
So today we celebrate our copy editors, who help us avoid costly mistakes and embarrassing moments.

Create Micro-moments for Your Clients

Whether or not we like it, we are increasingly people of the moment—or even the micro-moment. We hear about a book and want to order it right then. We see a plant and want to identify it, or spot those fabulous boots and want to buy them.
 
What does this mean for marketers? You already know that mobile use is sky-rocketing. But it also means that your digital presence is vital. How you look and feel in the first seconds of a customer interaction determines if they’ll stay or go.
 
Good writing, good design and having a mobile-friendly site isn’t optional any more. It’s imperative. If your company is already there, hooray. But if they’re not, learn to create the moments your clients crave—and see what happens.

Is it Time for Your Brand to Say Good-bye to Testimonials?

Associative storytelling is the grown-up child of the popular testimonial. It uses story to evoke affinity with customers by allowing the brand to play a secondary role to the values it promotes. In the end, the customer-brand bond this creates is much stronger than one created with a traditional “here’s why you need this” sales approach.
 
Why is this?
 
First of all, we’re all tired of being sold to. Selling is pervasive, indiscriminate and wearying. So when we are allowed to enter a story without an overt sales messages, we find not only a respite from intense selling messages, we may even find a piece of ourselves. Yes, we say, we agree with you. Like with this Thai Life Insurance ad, we resonate an idea—in this case, that there are things in life that money can’t buy.
 
And secondly, associative storytelling feels more respectful to us as consumers. It allows us to make up our minds when we’re ready—rather than being forced to take in a sales message we’re not ready to hear.
 
We’re not ready to say that testimonials are no longer valuable, but we do believe associative storytelling can be much more effective in building bonds with consumers.

How the Seven Most Common Story Types Can Inspire Your Brand Story

Once upon a time,” says the voice from our past, and our imagination swells.  
 
From our earliest childhood, we remember stories—even before we knew how they would form our own souls.
 
Although media has changed, the elements of a good story remain constant. To create your brand stories, consider these seven archetypes that have characterized stories throughout human history:
 
Overcoming the Monster
From Beowulf to modern films like Avatar, this is the story of heroism, triumph over evil and courage.
 
Rags to Riches
Overcoming the odds fuels hope in all of us, explaining this story line’s historic hold on the human heart.
 
The Quest
Think Iliad or Lord of the Rings for examples of humans seeking a goal—and overcoming obstacles on the way to victory.
 
Voyage and Return
Like the quest, the main character searches for something difficult to obtain and returns to tell the story.
 
Comedy
The hardest ones to execute well, comedies allow us to laugh at our foibles and connect us to our common humanity.
 
Tragedy
Although more difficult to execute as a brand story, tragedy can inspire an audience to action (think “text messaging” PSAs).
 
Rebirth
A threat, an about-face, and the hero becomes something more despite adversity.
 
What human yearnings does your brand story tap into?

8 Tips on Getting People to Read your Emails: Part 2

In our last blog entry, we talked about how hard it’s getting to get others to read your emails, and gave you the first four tips on making yours more likely to get read. Here are the final four tips:
 
5. Avoid mitigated language.
Go from words like “it’s important that this is finished by June 10” to “You’ll recall there’s a trade show on June 15, and if we don’t have this finished by June 10, we’ll miss the chance to showcase this product to 50,000 potential customers.” So often we assume people will realize these unspoken things, yet often a reader’s time constraints don’t give him or her the chance to make those connections.
 
6. Make the connections for the reader.
Providing brief context helps the reader link your request or comment to something bigger that is important to them.
 
7. Shorten, shorten and shorten.
After you write an email, try to cut it in half. A long email makes it more likely yours will go in the “I’ll get to this when I have more time” bin—and ultimately may not get read at all. Remember too that many readers will decide whether or not to read your email on their phone, which requires even more scrolling to get through the message.
 
8. Don’t send it.
Sometimes the best thing is not to send it at all—so you don’t get marked as someone who sends too many emails. The busier the recipient, the more they’ll appreciate your ability to include them only on things that really require their attention.

8 Tips on Getting People to Read your Emails: Part 1

Some people get hundreds of emails a day, and don’t even attempt to read them all. How can you see that yours get to the “read this” status?

1. Start with the main point in a single sentence.
We’re sometimes tempted to start at the beginning to tell the whole story, thinking that a reader needs to understand what led to the point. In some cases, this requires too much work for the reader to get to the point, so they jump ship. Start with a summary statement that gives them enough information if they go no further—or a reason to proceed.

2. Invest in writing a good subject line.
This not only helps someone decide if he or she should read it, but helps them find it later. Retrieval of emails later can be time-consuming and downright frustrating if the subject line isn’t clear. Examples:

  • Need your review on the Smith case by tomorrow
  • Potential delay in shipping of the direct mail for Anderson & Evans, Inc.
  • Cost increase on ad space for Henderson Windows account

3. Make it easy to browse.

  • Use subheads to help the reader find the section pertinent to him or her.
  • Use bullets instead of paragraphs.
  • Underline, highlight or change font colors on the key point (deadline, cost increase, action needed).
  • Make action items and next steps stand out visually (in the subject line, when appropriate).
  • If more detailed back story is imperative, indicate where the reader can find it. Title it clearly and put it at the end, so only those who want it can find it.

4. Give your reader just-in-time information.
Many readers prefer to focus on just the next step, rather than the next 10 steps. Most don’t have time to save it and review it over a period of months as it becomes relevant.

Why Leaders and Communicators Should Lead the Talk about the Good Things

There’s an oppressive cloud that hangs over humans—often without their permission. And that’s how we’re hard-wired, says Bryan Sexton, Ph.D., reflecting on research at the Patient Safety Center of Duke University Health System.
 
It’s because we have to remember the bad things in order to not repeat them. The hissing of a snake reminds us that danger is near and we ought not have to relearn that lesson in life. So the bad stuff tends to stick more than the good stuff.
 
Unless, he says, we can make a more concerted effort to remember the good stuff. And that’s where their research gets practical.
 
By writing down three good things that happened to us—and our role in them—at the end of each day, we cultivate the habit of looking for the good. This helps develop resiliency and address exhaustion, stress, burn-out and even depression. Their results are rather striking.
 
You can see the 11-minute summary of the research here—if you’re curious.

And now let us link this to the world of communication and leadership.
 
Employee engagement and performance is surely linked to burn-out and stress. It’s the nature of most of our work to be resolving problems. The communicator can play a vital role in restoring the balance and organizational energy by reminding us of the good things, like:

  • The impact of our work on other humans
  • Successes
  • The reasons behind our work
  • The benefits of navigating difficult passages

Leaders and communicators play a vital role in restoring balance and focus to the workforce by what they talk about.
 
Perhaps we can start with logging our own three good things each day.

Essential Skills for Tomorrow’s Top Health Care Marketers

The role of the health care marketer and communicator is changing—that’s not news. But what will it look like? In the Sept./Oct.  issue of Spectrum, the member newsletter of  Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development (SHSMD), we suggest the critical skills tomorrow’s pros will need to master. Which of these do you think will be most important?

3 Ways to Help Your E-message Get Read

Using targeted email, e-letters or e-blasts to get heard? Then you already know that unsolicited messages, or those that you initiate, play by different rules than messages that readers seek out.

Here’s why. Today’s email reader:

  1. Decides within the first few seconds whether to keep reading. So if it isn’t relevant or looks too overwhelming—with lots of grey text and no visual interest—your reader won’t go further.
  2. Doesn’t want to work hard to see if there’s something of interest to him or her.
  3. Gets too much communication. If the spam filter doesn’t filter it out, they’ll attempt to triage it quickly—based on those first two to three seconds. First impressions are everything.
  4. Scans, rather than reads. And does so in this order:
       •  Pictures
       •  Headlines
       •  Subheads and captions
       •  Bulleted lists
       •  Last of all, blocks of text
    If you can’t interest them with the first few, they won’t go further.

Today’s e-communication has to get past obstacles to get read. Here are three tips:

  1. Get the reader’s attention and keep them from leaving. Make an offer, offer content they relate to or show a picture the reader will connect with.
  2. Make it easy for them to find what they’re looking for. Don’t bury it inside long paragraphs, but giving them directional signs—like captions, subheads or bulleted lists.
  3. Make a call to action that’s easy to spot. Link to more information, a phone number or an email address.

Remember that when you initiate the communication, it’s up to you to make it interesting enough for the reader to commit time to it. And that begins by knowing how your readers will take in information and what obstacles will prevent them from getting your message.

What’s Keeping You from Learning from Apple’s Communication Strategy?

As communicators, it’s our job to slay the Complexity Dragon. This means reducing and simplifying the message, words and design of every piece we create.
 
Don’t underestimate how hard this is. A communication project—regardless of whether it’s an ad or a Web page—naturally leans towards adding one more idea, one more benefit, a few more words, more contact information. We want to tell all because we think it will make us more persuasive. But in fact by telling all we are likely to lose the reader, who doesn’t have the fortitude to weed through our message.
 
Apple, of course, has set a high bar for this with their fiercely reductionist view of writing and design. We cheer them for it. And yet so few companies adapt this technique for their brand.
 
Why? We’ll venture a few reasons.

  1. Committees are involved. Each person adds one more thing, and like an over-decked Christmas tree, the piece falters under its own weight.
  2. It’s harder. As Blaise Pascal said, “I would have made it shorter but I didn’t have time.” Reducing something to its bare essence is much, much more difficult and time-consuming and takes far more mental energy.
  3. Not everyone has a brain for it. The ability to simplify requires a mind that can move an idea from complexity to simplicity, and the focus of a race-car driver to keep clutter from encroaching.
  4. Not everyone has a stomach for it. It requires the ability to say no to people who may not want to hear it.
  5. It involves all the players. In other words, the strategists, creative directors, writers, designers and production team all have the potential for allowing project creep—a little here, a little there. This is the enemy of simplicity.

The road to simpler communications is surprisingly perilous. It can create hard feelings, disagreements and political quagmires. But oh, the results, when one sees it done well. And yes, it can and will translate to the bottom line. Just ask Apple.

No Wonder We Can’t Find the Right Words Sometimes

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We love words, but find they cheat us too often by falling somewhere between overused and rarely understood. Upon occasion, there’s the turncoat that is its own synonym (take inflammable, which means both capable of burning and also unburnable). And then there are the words that have been rinsed of their meaning through overuse (like great, awesome).

Too often, new ideas are assigned words by financial analysts or policy wonks instead of poets. Take provider, a word we disdain in health care. I don’t want to be cared for by a provider, and I suspect neither do you. Yet we can no longer say doctor—as we must include nurse practitioners and physician assistants. We often opt for caregiver out of despair, because it suggests the more tender side of health care, though we know it comes dangerously close to caretaker (think cemeteries).

All of this is why Brad Leithauser’s Unusable Words article in The New Yorker resonated with us—and perhaps will with you as well.

It’s also why we lean on pictures to deliver messages, because they can say so much more in such a short time.

So tell us, what word would you like to see replace that heartless word provider?

The Single Most Important Social Media Strategy

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YouTube? Photo sharing? Social bookmarking? Twitter? Facebook? Pinterest? Let’s face it. Very few organizations have the resources to be all-in even the top five social media sites.

So what’s a business to do?

There’s one strategy that trumps all other social media strategies, and that’s this: the creation of relevant, fresh, quality content. Pure and simple. Social media is about sharing ideas that people find interesting, useful or entertaining. It doesn’t matter how many videos you post or how often you post on Facebook if you have nothing of importance to say.

So take a moment and set aside the angst about which social media options are right for you and ask yourself this one question: What content can we offer our readers that would make them want to come back for more?

Once that’s decided, you can more easily evaluate the various platforms to see which work best for your customers and your content.

Image Source: www.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk

Choose Your Words With Care

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We love words, but we also fear them. They have so much power, and so often are used carelessly.

In their best light, words can set off a new direction in a person’s life—can shape a company or lead a cause. At its worst, they can destroy. That’s why we are sharing this insightful Harvard Business Review article by Douglas Conant—Leaders, Choose Your Words Wisely.

In this powerful piece, Conant references seven memorable touchpoints that were life-altering for him—32 words total, 20 seconds of conversation total.

One might argue that those of us whose business it is to use words with care should hold ourselves to an even higher standard. But whether you’re a leader, a professional communicator, a friend or a parent, you have the chance to shape the life of another for the better with your words.

What life-changing words from leaders have you been shaped by?

David Ogilvy’s 10 Tips for Business Writing

David Ogilvy, the iconic advertising maven and founder of Ogilvy & Mather, understood the power of good writing and knew how to inspire it. His classic book, Ogilvy on Advertising, is one of my favorites in the industry, and it has stood the test of time. For those aspiring writers—or those who hire writers to tell their organization’s story—this little easy-to-read book is a must read.

Today I’ll share excerpts from an internal memo on writing for business.

The better you write, the higher you go in Ogilvy & Mather. People who think well, write well.

Woolly minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters and woolly speeches. Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well. Here are 10 hints:

  1. Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times.
  2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.
  3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
  4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.
  5. Never write more than two pages on any subject.
  6. Check your quotations.
  7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it.
  8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.
  9. Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.
  10. If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want.

The demand for good writing is only growing, and businesses represented by people who know how to write well will have a competitive advantage.

Image Source: www.amazon.com

Digging for Words

When one of our employees—a young writer—shared this poem with me, I thought of you—our readers. We, too, use the metaphorical pen as a tool, but my own father’s love for a shovel, though not his vocation, shaped my own love for the beauty of life as it spills from the earth.

What is your pen—or shovel?

Digging

By Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:

My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds

Bends low, comes up twenty years away

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills

Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked,

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.

Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

4 Simple Ways to Improve Your Web Writing

In a world of too little time and too much information, tight, well-written Web copy can be a true competitive advantage. Consider these four tips for making your Web content work harder.

  1. Think “Apple”—and simplify, simplify, simplify. Less really is more, so strive to cut paragraphs in half, reducing them to the most important idea.
  2. Make all your key points in headlines, subheads, captions and sidebars. Because they are both directional signs pointing the readers to the messages they care about and easy-access content, write these last—after you decide what are the most important points to convey.
  3. Connect the dots. Don’t assume that a reader will take something to its logical end if it’s not obvious.
  4. Never use a long word when a shorter one will do. Enough said.

Tips for Writers: Give the Gift of a New Paragraph

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William Zinsser writes, “Keep your paragraphs short. Writing is visual—it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain.”

Long paragraphs are visually ugly. Solid, uniform blocks of text, no matter how cleverly phrased, don’t engage readers like short paragraphs do.

You might be tempted to wantonly chop up a paragraph that’s too long. Unfortunately, doing so disrupts flow. So how can you keep your paragraphs short? It’s better to adapt a mindset of forward motion. Paragraphs represent ideas, and a new paragraph is a gift to the reader. It’s a chance to hear something new.

Readers are busy, so don’t expect them to trudge through a long paragraph just because you wrote it. Give them something fresh with each new paragraph, and keep the paragraphs short, so they continue to be drawn in.

Photo credit: www.publicdomainpictures.net

A 12-Word Social Media Policy

A few weeks ago, we offered a list of elements to include in your social media policy. But for a short, easy-to-recall guideline, you can’t beat the clever 12-word policy offered by Farris Timimi, MD, medical director for the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media.

  • Don’t lie, don’t pry

  • Don’t cheat, can’t delete

  • Don’t steal, don’t reveal

He elaborates on this in his blog entry—which is worth visiting—reminding us that the same “rules that apply to offline behavior apply to online behavior. The difference is the platform online can leverage a mistake to a much wider audience.”

What embarrassing social media mistakes have you seen in business?

How to Create Your Company's Social Media Policy: Part 2

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This time we’ll continue with our list of some of the items you might want to include in your social media policy.

11.  Support claims with data, when possible.

12.  Stay within the law on copyright, trademark or other legal matters.

13.  Use impeccable grammar, a polite tone and accurate facts.

14.  Don’t take a public position on things that aren’t approved by your management.

15.  Don’t engage in controversial conversations.

16.  Don’t use the company brand to endorse a personal opinion or cause.

17.  Remember that once something is posted it is public, so think carefully before posting anything.

18.  Don’t participate in personal social media interactions during work time.

19.  Don’t post work that is a product of your company and display it as your own work.

20.  Don’t develop your own blog or website that promotes work similar to what your employer pays you for.

As you develop guidelines for your official social media commentators, remember to clearly identify who can post comments and to outline how negative and anonymous posts should be handled.

What would you add to this list?