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The single best way to improve your communications

The most important tip to enhance your communications may be most obvious — and the most overlooked.

Put yourself in your audience’s place.  Who are they? What do they care about?  What do they want to hear? How does your news affect them?

If you’re merging with another organization, your employees’ first question isn’t about the stock price, it’s likely, Do I still have a job?

Make it easy for them
Too often well-meaning leaders send out dry, long-winded messages that miss the mark. People are continually bombarded with information from dozens of sources, ranging from television and radio to Twitter, text messages, and Facebook. You’re competing with all of these for their attention and have to adjust your communications accordingly.

Let me explain. Let’s say you plan to open a clothing store. Would you locate it in a remote, out-of-the way spot, or near a high-traffic area? In most cases, you’d locate near where customers are, instead of making them drive out of their way.

The same holds true for communications. Your messages should be easy to access, read, and understand. If you make people work too much, you’ll lose them.

Make your point quickly 
If your message fails to engage people immediately, you’re running the risk that they’ll move on before hearing the real news. And if the news is bad, it looks like you’re burying it.

Write TO people, not FROM the organization
This is critical. Use “you”, “your” and “we” often, and avoid referring to readers in the third person. Here are two examples that illustrate this point:

  • Employees who sign up for the Health Walk will be eligible for the $100 gift card raffle.
  • You could win a $100 gift card. Sign up for the Health Walk and you’ll be entered in our raffle.

Because the second is more conversational, and speaks to readers, not at them, it’s much more effective.

Be brief
Longer messages may impress the boss, but they’re less likely to be read. Social media, the web, and texting have trained us to be readers of blurbs, not chapters.

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Good quotes are conversational, not canned

I was reading an article about the late Neil Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the Moon, and was taken by the last paragraph of a statement issued by his family:

“For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”

I love this statement. It’s simple, heart-warming, and reflects Armstrong’s passion and humble personality. It acknowledges the loss of a true hero and simultaneously brings a smile to your face.

The statement also jumped out because it offers a stark contrast to the highfalutin, jargon-filled language so common in today’s business and political world. You know the ones I mean. Those that speak of dedication and commitment to the mission, valuable assets, or strategic plans.

Quotes should be, above all, human. The reader/listener should feel that the statement is spoken to them, from one person to another. Just like the Armstrong statement.

Just for kicks, let’s look at some memorable lines from literature, film, and advertising that are rewritten in this over-the-top, corporate speak:

Nike
Rather than spending considerable time in the planning and analysis phases, we recommend you simply begin your chosen activity.

The Terminator
Upon successful completion of my assignment, I shall return to continue our one-on-one interaction.

Jaws
Based on some newly-acquired data, it’s highly likely that this task will require a larger, more substantial vessel.

Moby Dick
It would be most appropriate to reference me by my generally accepted moniker, Ismail.

Wizard of Oz
Toto, my canine associate, it appears that after a thorough investigation and analysis of the current situation, the only logical conclusion we can arrive at is that we are no longer in our domicile of Kansas.

Three Musketeers
We together combined to form a single, cohesive unit, which in-turn benefits each contributor individually.

I bet you can add some, too. Let’s hear them …

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Want to improve your writing? Start with these 7 tips

Writing is becoming a lost art. Between the unique style created by the explosion of social media and the old school belief that “more is better” lies a style that’s simple, clear, and effective. Getting there takes a bit of thought, but everyone can improve the effectiveness of their written words, and these tips will help you find the right path.

Get moving
Too often we write chronologically or start with background information. In most cases, however, you’re better of hitting your key message quickly.

Old school: “XYZ Company has a long history of valuing our customers and employees. XYZ was formed in 1952 with three staff and has grown steadily to over 500. Unfortunately, the economic uncertainty and shifting customer preferences are forcing us to close our doors.”

Better: “After 60 years of producing high-quality widgets, economic conditions and changing customer tastes are forcing the company to close its doors. President Judi Smith says the organization considered every option, including …”

Skim it
If your message will be read on a computer or handheld device, the reader is more likely to skim the copy. In addition to the tip above, this means you should break up your copy with bullets and sub headlines. Studies show that these catch the eyes’ attention.

Old School: Tuesday’s lecture will address a variety of First Aid topics, including treating open wounds, splinting broken bones, aiding a choking victim, responding to a potential poisoning, and performing CPR.

Better:

First Aid topics included in the lecture:

  • Treating open wounds
  • Splinting broken bones
  • Aiding a choking victim
  • Responding to a potential poisoning
  • Performing CPR

Drop a few
Picture a bucket of golf balls. Three are orange; the rest are white. The more white golf balls in the bucket, the more effort required to find an orange one. It’s the same with words. Give a reader too many, and you’re increasing the odds they’ll miss the key points of your message — or simply will give up. Focus on what’s really important.

Adopt a style
In addition to a dictionary — online or paper — your toolbox should include a style guide, such as the AP Stylebook. These easy-to-use guides give you tons of useful information, from abbreviations to the correct spelling of ZIP code.

Start writing
Early in my career, a senior PR person and I were charged with drafting a sensitive message from our CEO. I was hemming and hawing about the lead when he shook his head and said “Just start writing.”  He was thinking big picture and was stuck on the first sentence. While this seems almost counter intuitive, he was right. If I’m struggling to find the right opening, I’ll start with the second paragraph.

Tell someone
Speaking of lead sentences, a neat trick to beat writer’s block is to imagine telling the story to a spouse, friend, etc.

For example, a writer for a company newsletter might pen the following:  “Ronald Hood, president and CEO of ABC Corporation, visited with employees in the company’s Portland plant and announced a 5 percent bonus will be paid to staff…”

But you’d more likely tell your spouse: “Guess what? I’m getting a 5 percent bonus….Yeah, Mr. Hood told us today…”

So, perhaps a better lead would be: “Thanks to another record-breaking year, ABC employees will receive a 5 percent bonus, company President and CEO Ronald Hood announced today…”

Read more
Times are changing, and a shift in writing styles can be seen in magazines from People to Money. Open one and you’ll see short, crisp copy, with lots of photos and graphic, and fewer long stories. These publications’ editors recognize that readers are stressed for time, distracted by countless other messages, and searching for bite-size information. Your readers likely feel the same.

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Lessons from our founding fathers

More than two centuries ago, our founding fathers built a nation from the ground up, and did a pretty darn good job at that. So, in honor of Independence Day, here are some lessons they taught us.

Stand up for what you believe
Taxation without representation? Not here.

Take risks
Oddsmakers in Vegas wouldn’t have given the Colonists a chance against the British. And becoming an independent nation was just the beginning — the founding fathers then had to build a nation, create laws, establish trade with other countries, and become self-reliant.

Create an environment that allows people to flourish
‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness …’ America was, and remains, the land of opportunity, where millions have come to realize their dreams, whether that’s owning a home or making a better life for their children.

Value people
From the creation of a democracy to the belief of innocent until proven guilty, the founding fathers established what President Abraham Lincoln later termed “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” The rights and freedoms established given by our Constitution are as relevant today as when the documents was written, nearly 250 years ago.

Keep it simple
The Declaration of Independence, perhaps the most important document in our nation’s history, is a tad over 1,300 words. The Bill of Rights, the first 10 Amendments, is less than 500 words. I’ve seen corporate memos that are far longer and not nearly as interesting.

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Write to employees, not at them

Ever notice how some people seem to change their communication style when writing? The 50-cent words come flying out and nobody understands the message. “Fix a problem” becomes “meet this challenge head on.” And of course, the only way to meet this challenge is to leverage your synergies. Ugh…

I suspect that part of the formality is that people want to appear as knowledgeable as possible, and perhaps try too hard. In some cases, I’m sure, it’s also to impress the boss.

Regardless, loading up your message with grown-up words decrease its effectiveness, especially if you use jargon or industry-specific terms.

Remember the line from Denzel Washington’s character in Philadelphia: “Explain it to me like I’m a 6 year-old.” That’s pretty much spot-on. People appreciate common, everyday language, and won’t feel like they’re being spoken down to.

Eligible employees …
Another common error I see is speaking to people in the third person. Companies from Maine to Alaska send out messages announcing that “Benefits enrollment packets are being mailed to eligible employees.” I’m not picking on our friends in the benefits world — after all, they’re not paid to write —but consider the difference of: “Look for your benefits enrollment packet in the mail …”

Use “you” to help personalize your message.

Get to your point quickly
Years ago, at a company far away, employees received an email that brought some not-so-good news. Unfortunately, the key element was buried in the message. While I can’t recall the point of the message, I do remember hearing a coworker say “They don’t tell you until the fourth paragraph.”

This buried-message style raises red flags for two reasons.

  • People are busy, and you need to put you key points in front of readers quickly.  Be clear and concise.
  • Overselling the message dings your credibility. A lengthy introduction is often seen as a set up, or worse. This is especially true when targeting readers from our younger generations.

Be yourself when you write. Your readers will appreciate it, and with a little bit of luck, your message will hit home.

Your thoughts?

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Don’t overlook the press release

The explosion of  Social Media has tarnished the luster of the traditional press release somewhat, but reports of its demise are premature. In many circumstances, a well-written release can still play a role in your communication plan.

Getting started
Ask yourself: Will people find this information interesting? Is it something that people outside of our organization will talk about? If you answer yes, it might make good fodder for a good press release.

Sometimes you need to drill beneath the surface to find a good story. For example, celebrating your store’s 18th year in business is certainly exciting, but is that newsworthy? Probably not. But, if you had the same group of employees for all 18 years …

What makes a story newsworthy?

  • New or unique.  The “first,”  “largest,” or “only one of its kind” often provides a good connection.
  • Impact and results: jobs created, lives saved, children helped, record-breaking sales, etc.
  • Connect to a trend or other story: researchers at our hospital are working on a blood test to detect breast cancer, so we distributed a release in October, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Look for similar connections.

Tell a story
People too often begin releases with background information, but  it’s important to include the key message at the start of your release.

Incorrect: XYZ Manufacturing began in 1973 with just three employees, and has grown to more than 100. Despite its growth, XYZ has maintained a record for safety….

Better: It’s been eight years since an employee at XYZ Manufacturing lost time due to a workplace injury, and today Governor Smith recognized the company with the Johnston Safety Award.

Final touches
Like a newspaper article, your press release should include an attention-grabbing headline. “Local Company Wins Award” doesn’t have the punch of “Governor Honors XYZ Manufacturing  for Workplace Safety Initiative.”

Include your information for questions from reporters.

End with your “boilerplate,” a paragraph-length, high-level summary of your company: your industry, sales, number of employees, locations, etc.

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