Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Making Words Work in the Workplace

I go to workshops. I talk to people. I listen. I make notes. And every time I do I walk away with the same belief: far too many professionals do not realize how important good writing is to their image and success. Rushing through emails, memos, and correspondence, they haphazardly throw words together with little or no thought to the outcome.

They unknowingly fill the page with abstractions, jargon, cliches, gobbledygook, faulty composition, and poorly chosen
words -- each and every one a highly visible soiling of the writer's image. In a way, it's like the fellow who doesn't see the mustard stain on the lapel of his $800 suit. Everyone else sees it, but he doesn't. The point is:

Bad writing makes smart people look dumb.

"I hadn't learned yet what I know now -- that the ability to communicate is everything."
Lee Iacocca, former Chairman, Chrysler Corp.

But should we indict the professional who has not yet acquired the skills of a professional communicator? Should we scold someone who has not yet studied and practiced the craft of effective communication? Probably not. After all, rarely did teachers of long ago shake their fingers in our faces and bellow: "You had better become good writers if you want to succeed in your field." We had a steady diet of Shakespeare and Mark Twain, but did anyone teach us how to write for the many demands of the business world? they didn't.

So do we live with it? Do we live with the flaws, the goofs and the gaffes? Also probably not. If we can, we should work toward becoming better speakers, better writers, better communicators.

In this blog, I hope to pass on a few things I've learned through the years about writing in the workplace -- especially the marketing/sales workplace. You see, I'm one of the "snake oil" crowd. I'm the one who says, "Step right up, have I got a deal for you!" Well, maybe not that corny, but you know what I mean. As Robert Louis Stevenson said, "Everyone is trying to sell something."
Stick around, or come back when you've got a moment. It might even be fun.

Email me at And come visit my companion blog:

Oh, by the might be wondering why I dated this entry well in the future, like December, 2008. As you know, each time you post a new article, it assumes the main page position. Advancing the date is the only way I can maintain this introductory article as the perpetual main page. One more note: The Previous Posts list in the right margin is limited to ten posts. Scroll down for additional posts.

Friday, June 20, 2008

It's Just a Little Ole' Modifier

I was backing out of the driveway, on my way to the drugstore, when my wife stepped onto the porch and shouted.
“Honey, would you pick me up some brown eye shadow?”
“Sure!” I yelled back. “No problem!”

At the local drugstore, I walked quickly down the isles, picking up the few items I wanted, then strolled toward the cosmetics counter.
The saleslady greeted me with one of those cold, toothy smiles that show little or no warmth in the eyes.
“Can I help you?”
“Yes,” I said, “I’m looking for some brown eye shadow.”
She looked at my eyes and grinned.
“For my wife,” I said, grinning back. “For my wife.”
“Ah,” she said, “of course.”
She held out a palette of colors.
“So, does she use midnight brown?”
“I don’t know,” I said, staring at the colors.
She held the pallet in front of me, then pointed to one brown after another.
“Maybe dessert brown? Chocolate brown? Sandal brown? Sunset bro—“

“Mam,” I said, making a stop sign with my hand. “You got me here. Let me call my wife, okay?”
I walked around the store, looking for a payphone, but found none. The clerk at the entrance apparently sensed my frustration and asked, “Can I help you, sir?”
When I told him I was looking for a payphone he pointed to a booth in front of the store.
“Ah!” I said, “Thank you,”
Ten minutes later I walked back into the store and back to the cosmetics counter. The saleslady had gone but reappeared.
“Okay,” I said, “it’s sandal brown.”

The lady nodded, pointed to sandal brown on the palette, and smiled that smile again.
“Now, would you like that in light, medium, or heavy?”
I could feel a furrow beginning to form on my brow as I gently bit my lip. The lady pointed again to the palette.

“Would you like that in a light, med—“
“I heard you,” I said. “I don’t know. I’ll have to call my wife again.”
Outside, I was greeted with another busy signal, then another and another. Fifteen minutes later I walked back in and once again stood at the cosmetics counter.
“Medium,” I said, glancing at my watch.

The clerk smiled and said, “Fine, now I just have one more question.”

Sure,” I said. trying to remain playful. “I assume you’re going to ask me if I plan to murder my wife!”
“No sir,” she said, smiling that really silly smile again. “That wasn’t what I was going to ask.”
I could feel my blood beginning to pick up speed.
“Then go ahead,” I said. “ASK!”

“Will that be talc, cream, or liquid?”
I took a deep breath, looked down at the floor, then up at the ceiling.
“Tell ya what,” I said, my teeth clenched. “Give me one of each, okay, just give me one of all the stupid things!”
“Of course, sir, is there anything else I can show you today?”

For a moment I just stood there, staring at her, trying not to scream.
I threw my money on the counter, grabbed the bag, waved off the receipt, and turned to walk out. Then, somehow knowing exactly what she was going to say, I heard her voice fade softly behind me.

“You know, sir, there is a moral to this story."
"Yaa," I said. "I know. Don't forget your modifiers and get'em right or something like that.”

Weeks later, on a bright, happy Saturday morning, as my wife was backing out of the driveway, I stepped onto the porch and shouted.

“Honey, will you stop by the hardware store and pick me up a wrench?”
Watching her just smile and nod, I knew my revenge would be sweet. I walked back into the house and sat down by the phone, a wide, satisfying grin on my face.


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Bogart: Alive and Well on the Internet

There are those who believe that product information can be delivered creatively, as long as the information is delivered. Such is the Web page example below. The site owner, selling a variety of gift items including whisky flasks, women's compacts, keychains, and cigarette holders, asked the copywriter to create an atmosphere reminiscent of a time when speakeasys, Al Capone, and the impending war in Europe dominated headlines. For copywriters and Web developers who practice search engine optimization techniques, the following page includes a two-percent keyword density.

Her Search for a Quality Whisky Flask Brought Her Straight to Me

I knew she was trouble the moment she walked through the door. Anybody who can walk through a door without opening it first deserves my undivided attention.

“Can I help you?” I asked, studying the enticing figure before me. Watching her barge into my world made me suddenly aware of two obvious truths: she meant business, and I should have gotten those hinges fixed.

Wearing a black sheath, a pair of pink Air-Jordans, a gardenia over her ear, and a cologne that filled the room, she strolled toward me and leaned over, her palms flat on my desk.

“I’m looking for a whisky flask for my fiancée. No tacky stuff. Total quality at a reasonable price, ok? And if you come through, there just might be a bonus.” I couldn’t help doubting her sincerity, but decided to take a chance.

“You came to the right place,” I said. “Pull up a chair.”
Papers flew as she swiped her hand across a corner of my desk.
“Never mind,” she said, sliding onto the corner. “I’ll sit here.”
“Suit yourself,” I said. I slid my laptop between us and opened my Web site. I told her the best way to show her what I had was to peruse my site.
“Ok,” she said, “Let’s see what ya got.”

I moved the mouse pointer to the upper left, then down the list of flask styles.
“We’ve got all kinds of flasks. We got a flask that looks like a cell phone. All ya gotta do is click there on Cell Phone and you’ll go right to it. Same for engravable flasks, hip flasks, personalized flasks, gift sets, novelty flasks, and leather flasks, including one just for dames – uh, ladies.”

I told her that when one of my customers saw our selection and prices, she said, ‘You scratched an itch.’”
“Don’t get any ideas, Buster,” she said, grinning. “My fiancée scratches all my…itches.”
I let the symbolism pass while I clicked on the comments from all the happy customers, then on the link to all the gift sets.

“We’ve got money clips, key chains, funnels, Zippo lighters, cigar cutters, business card cases, desktop accessories, compact mirrors, letter openers, travel mugs, shot glasses, lots of things that make perfect gifts, like for the people in your wedding party.”

In the distance, a sultry saxophone moaned the refrain from that song about set ‘em up Joe, I’ve got a little story you ought’a know.

“I have friends who are looking for different kinds of flasks and accessories,” she said, sliding off the corner of my desk. “You’ve been a good boy, so maybe I’ll send them to you, ok”?

“Sure,” I said, “I’ll help from start to finish, like selection, engraving, purchase, shipping, the works. And don’t forget to tell them about the free priority shipping on orders over ninety nine dollars and the ninety day guarantee. If there’s a problem we’ll solve it or refund the money.” She nodded an approval and picked up her handbag.

She seemed somehow familiar, like one of those faces you see in a dream. “What’s your name?” I said.
“Ingrid,” she said. For the first time I noticed a slight European accent.

She turned to walk out when I remembered her teaser.
“Oh, by the way,” I said…”how ‘bout that bonus you mentioned?”
She stopped and looked back at me, her mouth curling into a Mona Lisa smile. She reached into her bag, opened her compact and powdered her nose.

“Oh yes,” she said, studying her reflection.
“Tell ya what…I’ll send you some new hinges.”


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Come Again?

A few gems culled from the emails and memos of corporate America. If confronted with these examples, the writers would probably say, "That's not what I meant."

" What I need is an exact list of specific unknown problems we might encounter." (middle manager, Lykes Lines Shipping).

"E-mail is not to be used to pass on information or data. It should be used only for company business." (accounting manager, Electric Boat Company)

"Doing it right is no excuse for not meeting the schedule." (plant manager, Delco Corporation)

"No one will believe you solved this problem in one day! We've been working on it for months. Now go act busy for a few weeks and I'll let you know when it's time to tell them." (plant supervisor, 3M Corp.)

"Teamwork is a lot of people doing what I say." (marketing executive, Citrix Corporation)

"This project is so important we can't let things that are more important interfere with it." (marketing manager, UPS)
Two anonymous classics, the first from a cable TV company, the second from a big-company supervisor:
"Next month we'll be upgrading our phone system, so it will be difficult to reach us."
"I need a list of all employees broken down by sex."

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

No Strategy? No Sale

Your competitors are cooking up ways to beat you. You can count on that. So don't make the common mistake of thinking that a simple description of your product or service will be enough to sell it. You've got to have a strategy, one that will showcase your product in a light that will attract buyers again and again. One way to create a working strategy is to challenge your thinking with a marketing communications strategy checklist, one like this:

1. What is the purpose of this product/service/Web site?
To convey information?
To sell a product, service, or philosophy?
To establish your company name or brand?

2. Who is your audience(s)? Do you have more than one?
What professionals, by job title, do you want to reach?

(a) What do they want? Keep in mind the story of the man who walks into a hardware store, looking for a quarter-inch drill bit. Does he in fact want a drill bit? No. He needs a quarter-inch drill bit because he wants a quarter-inch hole.

(b) What do you think their underlying fears or worries might be as they search for a supplier?

(c) Do you think they are biased in any way? If so, how?

(d) Do they have a problem they want someone to solve?

3. Any specialized terms or concepts that need to be defined or explained for your audience?

4. What is your primary message in one sentence?
(This statement may be similar to your mission statement)

5. Do you have competitors?

(a) Who are they?

(b) Do you know their strengths and weaknesses?

(c) What are your strengths and weaknesses?

(d) Who is dominant in this market?

6. Can you offset your competitors' strengths with those of your own?

7. Features vs. Benefits

The fact that a marina has a boat-lift is a feature. The fact that the lift can extract a boat 60 feet in length is a benefit.

(a) What are your features?

(b) What benefits do your features create?

8. What is your company history?

9. What related experience do you have?

(a) Number of years in business?

(b) Can you list relevant specific projects or contracts that you have completed? Any case histories that would amplify your capabilities?

10. What personnel, credentials, awards, equipment, or facilities do you have that will lend weight to your qualifications?

Make every effort to establish your niche in your chosen market. Set yourself apart from your competitors by creating and promoting the unique features and benefits of your product or service.

Finally, consider the late advertising great David Olgivy's assertion that we need to build our site around a "big idea."

"It takes a big idea to attract the attention of consumers and get them to buy your product. Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night. I doubt if more than one campaign in a hundred contains a big idea."

Monday, October 22, 2007

What's Up With Up?

In one more memorable episode of Seinfeld, Kramer is visiting Jerry in the hospital. Injured when a fork fell on his head, Jerry listens as Kramer scolds him for not ducking.
“You know, Jerry, when somebody yells ‘heads up,’ you’re not actually supposed to look up.”

Although I am setting out in this short discourse to take pot shots at some of the needless uses of up, I just gave you two examples of when the little word is needed. I’m pleased to see that Webster’s New World dictionary backs me up, then goes on for six column inches of definitions followed by three and a half pages of words with up as a prefix or suffix, some hyphenated, some not.
These established examples have earned the favor of Webster, so we can set them aside for now; we’re on safari for up’s that are just taking space…make that taking up space.

You may have already concluded that I am just plain daffy, picking on the little thing – only two letters it is. But then I remember a scrupulous editor who long ago reminded me that each word requires inspection. Does it add? Does it detract? Can we do without it? He reminded me of professor William Strunk, Jr., author of The Elements of Style. Today, Strunk’s stabbing finger command continues to guide the pens of editors everywhere: “Omit needless words.”
Taking Aim

Enter my candidate critters, those up’s that continue to show up in the crosshairs. I’m guessing there are many more:

Listen up, write up, type up, bone up, fess up, button up, slather up, read up, eat up, burn up, sign up, wrap up, open up, close up, light up, *gear up, hurry up, hustle up, fill up, call up, fix up, wake up, save up, pay up, use up, brighten up, summon up, up and running

* Tom Sizemore in Saving Private Ryan: “You heard the man…gear up!”

These and others like them may be acceptable when we’re writing dialogue or slang, but I still find myself casting a suspicious eye – especially when I come across a debatable candidate like hook up. Webster votes for physically hooking something up, like a trailer or a power cord; in another definition, he calls it “an alliance or agreement between two governments.”
Today, we have a slang variant with two working definitions: one says it means people getting together for any number of reasons; the other says it means men and women getting together to get it on together. No matter. The hanky panky version will probably fade. Given my druthers, I would reserve this hook and its up for the trailer and the power cord.
Given the same druthers, I would also question the familiar conjure up. I don't think that up adds anything to the act of conjuring, but Webster says hands off. It stays.

In the shoot-‘em-up film, Training Day, Denzel Washington keeps telling his trainee, Ethan Hawke, to “Man up.” Are we to understand that he wants Ethan’s character to stop whining and toughen up? Like man up, and the slang example hook up, any offbeat up gets a free pass when a writer chooses slang intentionally and not carelessly.
But surely there must be a better way of telling someone to get tough. I can't see Oprah gently patting a teary female guest on the arm: "C'mon now, woman up."

Recently, while having lunch at an upscale bistro, I noticed the menu item “Cowboy Up.” It’s a burger bathed in barbecue sauce and other condiments. I didn’t order it, nor do I have the slightest idea what the name refers to. I imagine the bistro’s intent was to serve a burger that would make men feel like the Marlboro Man, even without a horse. In case you’re wondering…there was no Cowgirl Up. Maybe the bistro owner doesn't want to recognize anyone who wears make-up.

In his book, The Writer’s Art, James J. Kilpatrick sees our little critter as “…one of those idiomatic barnacles that cling to the keel of a sentence. To be sure, up serves a useful purpose in throw up, but ought to be pruned from rise up in wrath, saddle up the horse, sign up the contract, and finish up the task. When you look down on an up in your copy, see if the up can’t be lifted.” I'm guessing Kilpatrick would look down on the following up, inserted by the Reuters News Service: "...the government is going to buy up $15 billion of abandoned homes."

Standing Up for a Few Up’s

Among the long list of O.K. up’s in the dictionary, and in our spoken vocabularies, there are special cases that deserve mention. One that will endure I’m sure is ole floppy ears’s carrot-munching greeting, “Ehh…What’s up, doc?” Another phrase that’s been around a while is knocked up, brought to prominence in 2007 with the hit comedy, Knocked Up. British dictionarys include it, but over there it has less to do with lovin’ it up and more to do with waking up. For the Brits, knocked up means to interfere with one’s sleep by knocking on the door.

I should also mention words with up prefixes, words such as upbeat, upgrade, update, and upkeep. I can’t argue with those examples– and there are many. And there is a need, I suppose, for the up's in idioms such as give up the ghost, the jig is up, live it up, and it's up to you. Kindergarten teachers and parents with small children say they have a need of their own: they need the up that goes with sit.

As long as we’re handing out free passes, we ought to give one to stick up. After all, what literate bank robber would hand a teller a note that says, “This is a stick!” And if we waive stick up, we might as well waive the past tense, as voiced by Harrison Ford to Anne Heche in the film Six Days, Seven Nights (“You’re stuck up!”). As writers, our job is to train our critical eye, revisit the context, and stick with the up’s that help us fulfill our purpose.

One unanimous keeper is Winston Churchill’s memorable response to a junior officer who had just read one of his memos. In this example the issue is grammar, but who can forget Winston’s witty use of an up. After reading the memo, the officer thought it necessary to tell the Prime Minister that he had ended a sentence with a preposition. “This,” piped Sir Winston, “is exactly the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put.”

Finally, it was not my intent to stir up trouble for lovers of up; it’s just that I’m a tad fed up with needless up’s. But then, I’m never going to round them all up, anyway, so I might as well lighten up, look up the nearest pub, and belly up to the bar – assuming the joint hasn’t gone belly up. Sounds like a good idea, as my editor just told me to shut up.

Dispelling the Grammar Goblin

I keeping saying that I’m a copywriter, noting my past writing assignments from Web site designers, corporations, ad agencies, and universities – but occasionally, when passing a mirror, I squint at my reflection and wonder: how could anyone with a serious lacking like mine make it as a successful copywriter? We need to return to the rambunctious days of high school, where the first sign of my haunting began.

Her name was Mrs. Mayer, and she taught English composition. Her favorite comment to me was, “Get out!” You see, I was ejected from her class – several times – for indiscriminate belching followed by muffled giggling. Somehow, I just couldn’t sit mute while she rambled on about what I considered to be the ghostly world of grammar – including that frightening exercise, sentence diagramming.

Classroom Deja Vu

Eventually I graduated, then joined the Navy. While watching the waves go by, I discovered a way to make some extra cash. I found that I could help shipmates write the Dear John letters they were getting from (former) girlfriends back home. I charged $5 a letter, and suddenly I was a professional writer. Still, there was that haunting, that mystifying world of grammar. Surely, I reasoned, after writing letters with tender openings like, “Dearest Donna, you can go to hell,” the rank of copywriter first class would soon be mine.

After the Navy, I enrolled at the University of Miami school of journalism, not because I had an enviable GPA, but because I was exceptionally tall and could shoot a basketball. My high school grades were, in fact, so bad the university had to admit me on probation. I felt better as time went by, though, because I got past the probation while some of my teammates goofed off so often they didn’t graduate. Proud of myself, I was sure there would be no Mrs. Mayer in my future – and certainly no belching at the college level.

Then, one day, in yet another English class, my professor threw an eraser at me. It went like this: the professor stood at the backboard and wrote: “Chesterfield tastes good like a cigarette should.” He then turned and asked, “What’s wrong with that sentence?” I piped up from the back row:

“It should be Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.”

That’s when the eraser came flying – along with the professor’s cry, “You
idiot!” – and bopped me right between the eyes. Nice control. He should have tried out with the Yankees. Well, it should have been Winston, right? Little did I know back then the subtle difference between “like” and “as.”

Don’t Go West Young Man

So, the question remains. With such forgettable beginnings, and the goblin still hovering, how did I end up a copywriter, especially now that I am ready to confess that I could not pass a high school grammar test. You start talking about participles and appositives and I am totally lost. My mind slams its door and refuses to cooperate. I wish I could pass that test; in fact, I wish I were a grammar expert. Without the boundaries imposed by grammar, our written language would be unintelligible, a mess. Even with a certain F in grammar, I kept going. And I remember why: My uncle.

He owned two newspapers in Newburg, Oregon, and I thought that if I majored in journalism he would give me a job. My thinking was sound, if not my timing. By the time I graduated, he had sold both newspapers, retired, and moved to Ft. Lauderdale. So much for my planning skills.

So there I was…a degree in journalism and no job. But all was not lost. I recalled one of my professors telling me that my studies in journalism would also prepare me to be a copywriter. They had coaxed me away from the lofty world of literature (Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Homer, etc.), and toward the discipline of writing functional sentences, the kind that would help me get by in the world of business and other such serious matters.

Again and again, the professors kept declaring: “Think about what you’re saying!” and “Write to your reader!” and those now-famous words of Yale professor William Strunk and author E.B. White: ”Be clear” and “Omit needless words.” It was a good beginning; the goblin was beginning to fade in the rearview mirror.

With no offers from Wall Street or the Yankees, I began to ponder my professional fate. Was the role of reporter for me? On my first assignment for a weekly newspaper, I knocked on a door in search of a story about somebody’s domestic violence. Well, the scowling somebody before me slammed the door in my face. Maybe someday I might learn to write, but I doubted that I would ever learn to report. After searching other avenues, I finally decided to become a copywriter, a writer of corporate propaganda.

As I pursued the goal, I still found myself confronted by the same annoying specter…grammar. I just didn’t understand it. Today, if you want to send me into total catatonic shock, just look me in the eye and whisper: “Let’s diagram your sentences…Let’s diagram your sentences.”

Monkey See…

Then one day I discovered a book, The Art of Styling Sentences, and it gave me new hope. The authors, English professors at the University of Texas, were telling me I could construct sentences by imitating established sentence patterns. Their book contained 20 patterns – with little or no mention of diagramming or the puzzling dictates of Mrs. Mayer. As a child I had learned to speak the language by imitating what I heard. If I could do that, why couldn’t I shoo the goblin by imitating patterns?

It made sense, and I decided to give it a try. The authors gave me another hint, one echoed by E.B. White. They said, “Listen to the language and develop your own voice.” He said, “Cock your ear.” With sentence patterns in hand, and my ear cocked, I could see the goblin fading rapidly.

The patterns turned out to be my solution, my amulet. And, surprise of all surprises, the authors managed to slip a few elementary rules of grammar past me without my knowing – not enough to pass that high school test, mind you, but enough to help me write sentences that weren’t totally unintelligible.

Finally, I think my uncle did me a favor. Had he stayed in Oregon, had he given me a job, I would not have become a copywriter. That’s what I am today – and if it were possible, I would travel back in time, drop in on Mrs. Mayer and belch one last time. And if I were still thinking about payback, I would head south to my alma mater and hide in the bushes outside my English professor’s class, eraser in hand.


Saturday, April 21, 2007

How Social-Political Realities Affect What You Write

On the job, your reason for writing letters, memos and proposals can get caught up in a variety of social and political forces, causing your readers to react emotionally.

People may try to look at office issues objectively, rationally, but they often make decisions based on fear, jealousy, bias, anger, revenge, envy, ego clashes, power struggles, charter battles, hidden agendas, sacred cows, office romances, and other emotional factors. Think about your purpose and your readers. Are you lighting a fuse?

Office politics and personal relationships can undermine your purpose, no matter how justified or promising it may be. Such forces can rarely be detected ahead of time, but to charge headlong without at least trying to assess your situation is like skipping nonchalantly through a minefield:

A Checklist

Are you sending an appropriate message to an appropriate audience at an appropriate time?

Will your purpose ignite any smoldering issues between you, management, supervision, peers, subordinates?

Will you be aggravating any existing personality or ego clashes among friends, enemies, supporters, neutrals?

Ear to the Ground

Is your purpose consistent with your organization's culture and climate"?

Is anything at stake? Recent or pending promotions? Favors due, debts owed? Pride, image, recognition on the line? Sacred cows in jeopardy? Territorial disputes, charter squabbles, responsibility issues?

Is the air foul on this subject? If something goes sour, could you defend your position?

What is your credibility with this audience? Should you first get preliminary approvals, opinions, advice, support?

Are there any pressures or priorities that could block your purpose? Do any laws, policies, or regulations apply?

What objections or resistances could your purpose create? Are you putting anyone, including your boss, on the spot?

Are you reacting emotionally? Emotions subside, but the printed word remains.

REMEMBER: Once you let go of what you've written, it could end up anywhere — even on the evening news.

Finally, to thine own self be true.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Business Writing: Time for Change

The business community is rarely singled out for excellence in written communication, primarily because the people who practice it day after day are not professional writers. Letters, emails, proposals, presentations, reports, etc., are still infected with convoluted, Victorian language.

While poor composition skills continue to erode the quality of the writing itself, one of the most corruptive forces today is the Federal Express syndrome, or “when you absolutely, positively have to send it before you can make it intelligible.”

The pace of work in the 21st century, the email glut, and quick-fix editorial software are derailing the need for thought. Conditioned to a life of hurry-up day in day out, more and more workers are rendering important messages in fragmented “bullet” formats or hastily plagiarizing unverified sources. Deadlines dictate content, and expedience rules the moment.

The language has always had guardians, people who labor to preserve its heritage, but in the business world there are many who have not labored at all. They are the ones who unwittingly perpetuate poor writing because they do not recognize faults. And we must live with their oversight because they have the authority to say what will be said. We can fault them, but we can not blame them. They are not writers, they are not communicators, and their priorities rarely include the effective use of language.

It will always be up to us to exorcise the bad and preserve the good. We can only hope that, with the help of educators everywhere, a new breed of professionals will occupy the offices of tomorrow, people who will have learned that the ability to communicate effectively is a required business skill, not an elective.

New and veteran communicators alike must also continue to find ways to demonstrate their value to an apathetic management. Communicators are too often perceived as workplace “baggage,” people whose contributions have little or no effect on the bottom line.

Senior managers, who usually measure success in quantitative terms, will listen only when we can show them that purposeful communication does in fact contribute to a company’s success. To do that, we must find ways to show that good writing is important, and not something to be left to professional writers and editors sitting in the corner.

“There must be a change in the attitude toward the function, power, and role of communications. This is too important to be left to professional communicators alone. It’s an all-hands job.”

James D. Robinson, former chairman, CEO
American Express

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Student as Writer: A Path to Understanding

It is rumored that a few students pursuing degrees in science and technology do not like to write. Such a judgment may be too harsh. Instead, let’s suggest that people with analytical skills look forward to writing assignments the way language lovers look forward to solving algebraic expressions.

I have not found any evidence that writers can use writing as a path to understanding the abstract regions of the sciences, but there is ample evidence that those who do feel at home in those regions can use writing to help them better understand their own studies and investigations, no matter how specialized or arcane their program content may be.

In his book, Writing to Learn, former Yale professor William Zinsser declared, “…writing is no longer the sole possession of the English teacher but is an organic part of how every subject is taught.”

If the rumor is true, that “techno-types” tend to shun the analog world of writing, then it’s possible that students in other specialized fields – music or nursing, for example – might also want to walk the other way when writing assignments are handed out. But are they selling themselves short when they do?

Ann Garwick, a professor of nursing at Gustavus Adolphus Collage, tells us that she asks students to search pertinent journals for one article that interests them, then write an annotated summary.

“Writing helps them organize their plan of health care,” she says, “and also expands their thinking and raises further questions they should be asking.”

Not only can writing help students learn how they think and feel about a given subject while they are in college, good writing can also help them later in their careers, when and if they want to publish on a much larger stage.

Notable examples of those who did include astronomer Carl Sagan, whose down-to-Earth approach gave us a new and entertaining look at the universe. As I recall, he was the first to introduce the mathematical origin of “Google” to the general public. Rachel Carson, in her books, Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us, used factual observation and lyricism to draw our attention to a neglected environment.

Finally, there is the engaging style of Albert Einstein. When he set out to explain how rivers carve channels in river bottoms, he began, “Imagine a cup full of tea, with several tea leaves floating on the surface.” And when he thought about how to explain his theory of relativity, he began, “Pretend you are on a moving train and you drop a stone to the ground.”

Could it be that we have access to the minds of Sagan, Carson, and Einstein only because they learned to write in ways that helped us relate our world to theirs? They learned to use writing as a tool, and it served them well. Not all students will reach the international stage the way they did, but do they have to? No they don’t. To help them excel on their own stage, all they need do is embrace writing as a way to explore, to discover, to learn, and to understand.
"Writing is not simply a way for students to demonstrate what they know. It is a way to help them understand what they know. At its best, writing is learning." (The Neglected "R," the Need for a Writing Revolution, The National Commission on Writing, 2003)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Meet Victor Barnacle

The woman kept scanning the organization chart, looking for a vacant slot. There had to be something the little man could do. Scribe? Wig weaver? Sconce scrubber? At least he was a Type A personality; she could definitely count on him for relentless persistence.

It was cold that morning in 1820, and a fog was beginning to descend upon the castle when Queen Victoria pulled on a velvet cord and summoned Victor Barnacle to the courtyard below. Victor tugged his waistcoat down over his bulging stomach and peered up into the mist.
"You pulled, my queen?"

"Vic, I've got a job for you," the queen said, gazing out over her queendom.
"Go thee into the land and tell the masses to pen their memos and things in a matter befitting my supreme greatness. You know, ornate and flowery. I want to be remembered."
"What?" Victor replied.
"Get a bunch of quill pens and be off with you!"

Victor bowed away, loaded his cart with 400,000 quill pens, and whipped his donkey into the hither and over the yon, handing out pens to lords, surfs, masters, slaves , and entry level administrators.

From clothier to comptroller to banker to bard, the dauntless pair plodded on through storm and sludge, month after month, year after year, stopping only to requisition more quill pens. Like Paul Revere, like Johnny Appleseed, Victor Barnacle had become one with his mission. CAST OUT CLARITY! DIP THY PEN IN THE ORNATE! SCRIBBLE THE FLOWERY! It was the winter of his content, but all that travel was just too exhausting. In his final hour, the darkness descending, he was still urging his donkey onward.

Like all spirits with missions unfinished, Victor's refused to cross over. Even now, his portly specter pushes on, clinging to a time and expression long in the bygone. His voice is still among us, ageless in its obsession, still coaxing, still commanding: "Don't say THE SOFTWARE IS INCOMPATIBLE...Say IT CAN BE SEEN THAT A SOFTWARE INCOMPATIBILITY IS PRESENTLY IN EFFECT."

Today, 170 years after Victor went forth for the queen, we still hear the sound of quill pens scratching. We still see letters and emails that begin with HEREWITH. Don't look now, but there's a long-eared ghost in visitor parking.


Monday, December 11, 2006

Web Site Content: C'Mon, Let a Little Analog Into Your Life

You have a business, or you work for an organization that wants its Web site to gain a higher position in search engine rankings. Understood. Don't we all. But how? One way depends on how you decide to optimize your site. You can spend all your time chasing the magic algorithms of Google, Yahoo, and MSN, among others, or you can turn to what those tricky little "spiders" are really looking for: relevant content.

Don't Be Such a Digital Diehard

Those who think only in digital terms will spend all their time working code, tweaking algorithms, and continually trying to outsmart the engines. And they will lose, because that's not how a Web site gains its position in the rankings. The key phrase here, again, is relevant content. That's what the search engines are looking for.

If you write content aimed at your target audience -- content that is designed to capture and hold their attention based on their search terms -- then you will have gone a long way toward keeping those spiders coming back again and again. Once you've based your content on that premise, then you can go back and add key words and phrases. Just don't go crazy with it. Stick with about a two percent keyword/phrase density, with one key topic per Web page. Remember, the spiders are smart, smart, smart. They know when you're trying to spam them.

Write content for your target market -- the people, the ones who buy -- not for the search engines. They're never going to buy a thing from you. After all, you've already got the left-brain digital stuff down. Stretch your horizons and let that right side -- the analog language side -- talk to both your audience AND the search engines.


Sunday, December 10, 2006

Search Engine Optimizers: Creative and Don't Know It

Successful Web sites combine both left-brain analytics (KEI indexing, keyword phrase/density) and right-brain creativity (content that meets the wants and needs of the intended audience).

If you're a Web site optimizer, and see yourself as someone totally void of what you think we mean by creative skills, you could be selling yourself short.

"I can't sing," you say. "I can't dance, I can't write poems, novels, and screenplays. There's not a creative bone in my body."

Fair enough, if you'll join me in a new look at the idea of "creative." Too many engineering personalities think that creativity applies only to the performing arts, or to writing or to any of the other so-called "soft," esoteric disciplines that do not rely on the use of numbers.

When they define creativity that way, they follow by asserting that creativity has no place in a world where, as Lord William Kelvin (noted mathematician and physicist, 1824-1907) proclaimed:

"Anything that cannot be measured has little value."

By the way, Lord Kelvin also stated that "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." Here's another one of his bonehead observations:

"There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now."

So, why not take another look at this thing called creativity. Case in point...

Who Can Forget?

Remember Steve Wozniak? Does that ring a bell? It should. Steve Wozniak designed the first Apple computer for Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer, Inc. Now, would you consider Wozniak a left-brain analytical engineer? Oh yes. Would you say that he was also creative? I'll let you answer that one. How about Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect, one who lived in a world of math, geometry, stress transforms, platform coefficients, plus a host of other analytical elements. But was he also creative? A long list of visually stunning structures across this country will answer that question.

Then there was Carl Sagan, the astronomer. How left-brain is astronomy, huh? A lot, you say, and you'd be right. But was Sagan creative? Did he bring astronomy into our homes and into our lives in ways that helped us understand the wonderful workings of the universe?

And if we took the time to explore the creative talents of Albert Einstein we'd be here all day and all night. I don't remember if it was Einstein, Edison, or Mark Twain who said, "Genius is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration."

Maybe all it takes to unleash the creative side of someone who thinks they don't have one is to coax that person into generating a little perspiration.


Friday, December 08, 2006

Was That You on the Six O'clock News?

Students of business writing are forever amazed by the number of otherwise intelligent professionals who keep putting their heads on the block by writing things that are either accusatory, inflammatory, incendiary, explosive, volatile, or all of the above. If you find yourself writing, "Destroy this after you read it," or "Don't let anybody else read this"....Do it yourself. Destroy it then and there. Do NOT send it. Never incriminate yourself or anyone else in writing. It will come back to haunt you every time. You may think, "Aw, it's worth the risk." Don't bet on it.

Bye Bye Birdie

Think of your emails, memos, letters, etc., as though they were birds. Once you let them go, where they go nobody knows. They could end up on the loading dock or, Heaven forbid, in the front office -- or maybe on the evening news, as your larger than life foul-up gets an embarrassing close-up from a network camera.

Office politics and personal relationships can undermine your purpose, no matter how justified or promising it may be. Such forces can rarely be detected ahead of time, but to charge headlong without at least trying to assess your situation is like skipping nonchalantly through a mine field.

* Are you sending an appropriate message to an appropriate audience at an appropriate time?

* Will your purpose ignite any smoldering issues between you, management, supervision, peers, subordinates, customers?

* Will you be aggravating any existing personality or ego clashes among friends, enemies, supporters, neutrals?

* Is your objective consistent with your organization's culture or "climate"?

* Is anything at stake? Recent or pending promotioins? Favors due, debts owed? Pride, image, recognition on the line? Sacred cows in jeopardy? Territorial, charter, responsibility disputes?

* Is the air foul on this subject? If something goes sour, could you defend your position?

* What is your credibility with this audience? Should you first get preliminary approvals, opinions, advice, support?

* Are there any pressures or priorities that could block your purpose? Do any laws, policies, regulations apply?

* What objections or resistance could your objective create? Are you putting anyone, including your boss, on the spot?

* Are you reacting emotionally? Emotions subside, but the printed word remains.

Remember: Once you let go of what you've written, it could end up anywhere. Finally, to thine own self be true....and keep an up-to-date resume handy.

So You Want to Sound More Natural, More You

When you begin to write, picture your reader(s) sitting across from you, listening to your every word. Now, let that silent voice inside your head start talking to them. Start with the bottom line, a summary sentence, something that captures the essence of what you're trying to get across.

Something like: "I don't think the new Web site is attracting customers the way it should."

As you hear yourself say it, write it down. In a way, all you're doing is taking dictation, your own dictation. But let the little voice in your head keep talking while you just keep on taking note of what the voice is saying.

You may want to make some notes before you start. That way you'll stay on track as you move through your message. All the other elements of good writing still apply (create a purpose, a message, an outline of some kind, key points, conclusion, and a call to action if appropriate).

To keep your writing sounding more natural, more conversational, more like you, let the voice in your head "talk" silently to your reader while you record it on paper or on your PC screen.

Don't get hamstrung by the one drawback preventing so many professionals from writing clear, persuasive emails, correspondence, memos, proposals, you name it. Do not let the act of writing intimidate you.

When you sit before that screen, trying to think of what to say, how to start, what to do, you are asking for trouble. Start by visualizing your reader sitting across from you, then start "talking." And remember, your reader doesn't have all day. Get to the point, add the necessary detail, and give it a proper ending. Your reader will love you for it.


Friday, October 27, 2006

You Gotta Ac-cent-uate...

When you write, you may not always feel positive. You may feel complacent, or angry and vindictive. But if you allow such feelings to shape your writing, you will probably regret it. The anger will pass, but the words will stay. If you find yourself writing in anger, stop. Pound the desk or stomp the floor. Get it out of your system before you put it on paper.

Negative: Without your social security number, we can't trace your record.

Positive: If you will give us your social security number, we will be glad to trace your record.

Negative: Your order will not be processed until we hear from your representative.

Positive: We will be happy to process your order as soon as we hear from your representative.

Also check your work for multiple negatives. Such pairings, shown in brackets, are often impossible to untangle:

Confusing: Caffeine is a drug and is [not] lacking in [un]wanted side effects.

Improved: Caffeine is a drug with unwanted side affects.

Confusing: If you think of writing as a step-by-step process, you will [ never] have the sense of [not] knowing where to begin.

Improved: If you think of writing as a step-by-step process, you will always have a place to begin.

Give Your Writing a Smile

Avoid using inflammatory phrases such as we can' t, we won' t, you must, you have to, you neglected, you overlooked, you failed to, you claim, we will be forced to, etc. Such expressions make readers feel that you are writing down to them. On the other hand, if you treat them the way you would like to be treated, if you try to send positive messages, you will probably receive positive messages in return.

There may be times, however, when positive expression alone will not help you fulfill your purpose. When that time comes, discuss the circumstances with someone whose judgment you trust.


What's Your Point of View?

All writing has a point of view. Should you write yours in first person, second person, or third person? Choose the one that suits the circumstances -- especially your role in the circumstances. Once you make your choice, stick with it. Don't shift from one point of view to another.

First Person

You can tell your story from your point of view, using the personal pronoun I, when your role in the circumstances is crucial or will help clarify your message. If you choose first person, let your readers see the I point of view as soon as possible, preferably in the first paragraph. Readers are more comfortable, more receptive, then they can determine a writer's point of view at the outset.

Second Person

Choose the second-person point of view when you want to talk directly to your readers, when you want to address them as you. Use this point of new in sales letters, proposals, and other kinds of persuasive or descriptive writing when you want to create a sincere, informal atmosphere. What you are reading now, for example, is written in second person. It establishes (I hope) a kind of face-to-face, informal relationship between you and me.

Third Person

Choose third person when you want to focus on the what rather than on the who, when you want to be as objective as possible. Third person is the most common point of view in business writing because people on the job are usually writing more about situations and circumstances than they are about themselves or other people. When you write in third person, do not refer to yourself as you would in first person, and do not "talk" to the reader as you would in second person.

Point of View and Persuasion

When you set out to persuade readers to take some form of action, they will be listening for the sound of their own wants. They will be scrutinizing your message for anything that will give them reason for going along. You must therefore avoid the I-me-we syndrome, and put the emphasis on you and your. A message that begins with Your business will benefit from is more persuasive than one that starts with Our service will help you....

Legal Implications

Finally, if your company has legal representatives or contract administrators, ask them to explain how point of view is related to commitment in correspondence, or in any kind of writing where first, second, or third person may or may not imply a personal or organizational commitment.


Don't Lose Your Reader's Trust

Careless or wishful statements will destroy a reader's trust in your judgment and in your ability to present your information honestly and objectively. Scan what you write and eliminate or revise any statements that imply bias or irrational arguments. Once lost, credibility is seldom regained.

Avoid Careless Statements

If you check your writing carefully, you’ll avoid the kind of blunder that happened when a senior executive wrote to a potential client. The letter opened with the client's name, John Doolen, his address, and then began, Dear Bill.... Readers rarely forgive us for even the smallest mistake, concluding that if we are careless on paper we must also be careless on the job.

An insurance company letter began this way: Rental car collision insurance is in excess of other coverage, and reimburses you for losses not covered by the. The sentence stopped there, leaving readers adrift. An attorney's letter to a client included the statement, We are to be paid only in the event a recovery in made and your are not responsible for recovery costs.

The most damaging form of carelessness is the careless thought, thrown down quickly with little or no regard for what is being said: Our business processes must be both business wise, sound. and have ownership of the employees. I don't know about you, but I don't want to be owned by somebody's business processes. The writer probably meant …and have ownership (BY) the employees.

One writer set out to congratulate the mothers of the world, but got a laugh instead: We have moms with babies who get up at night to care for them. Mothers should be so lucky. The mayor who wrote the following opinion ended up apologizing to a lot of teenagers. There are still problems in our community that need solutions: speeders, vagrants and juveniles, for example. There is no crime in being a juvenile. He meant to say juvenile offenders, but that's not what he wrote.

Don’t Let Wishful Statements Spoil Your Credibility

Wishful statements end up on paper because we have either lost control of our objectivity or we have failed to apply the test of reason to what we are saying. The writer who says The only way to improve customer relations is to start a public relations program is overlooking any other possibility.

Another writer assumes far too much when she says, If the researchers at Bell Labs had not gotten lucky, the transistor would never have been invented. A graphic designer's brochure talks about his top-notch staff...award- winning specialists...masters of their craft...sought-after designer...has no limitations. He forgot to add, walks on water.

Most readers become immediately suspicious when they see absolutes such as never, always, only, etc. Look carefully at what you have written. Have you called a situation disastrous when you really mean undesirable? Is something impossible or just difficult? Don't let your writing control you. Choose words carefully, and keep your writing in touch with reality.

Finally, don't try to nudge readers into drawing conclusions that you have not properly established. Be careful when you make assertions such as obviously, therefore, as you can see, as a result, and needless to say. It may be needless to you, but your readers may disagree.


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Writing is Rewriting

Rare is the writer who gets it right the first time. Most first drafts are flawed and need to be fixed. If you skip this step, readers will come to an early conclusion: flawed writing, flawed writer. Remember our truism: Bad writing makes smart people look dumb.
Be on the lookout for unnecessary abstractions, cliches, jargon, coined and clipped words, unexplained acronyms, and senator Maury Maverick's infamous world of gobbledygook.

The Fog Versus the Concrete

Abstract words and phrases are hard for readers to understand because they are open to interpretation. If you are writing about silver dollars and the Franklin Mint, don't write "antique coin" and "coin manufacturer." Those are abstractions. On the other hand, "silver dollar" and "Franklin Mint" are concrete terms.
Abstractions have their place, but should never be used when detail is needed. Readers trying to find real information in abstract writing often call out, "This is fluff, blue sky, fog, motherhood, smoke screen," or something less complimentary.

Get to Know Cliches

Cliches show up in conversation and in all kinds of writing because they can summarize a train of thought in a few words. Someone trying to explain the causes behind a particular effect may give up and say, "That's the way the cookie crumbles." If you choose a cliche or any other expression that has been around for a long time, make sure it justifies itself within the context of your purpose.
The final test will always be this: Will it help readers better understand what you are trying to convey? And, as always, keep your reader in mind. If your boss asked you to justify your budget over-run last quarter, you would be ill-advised to write, "That's the way the cookie crumbles."

The Secret World of Jargon

Often identified as the most damaging fault of bad business writing, jargon is similar to abstractions and cliches in that it can have a legitimate role in business writing. Unfortunately, the role of jargon is often misunderstood or misused.
Jargon is a communication shortcut, and often saves time when we are communicating with someone who knows what we're talking about. Too often, though, we pass jargon on to others who do not know, people who are too distant from our immediate circle to know our unique "shop talk."

Jargon should be used only within our respective circles, circles that are typically much smaller than we think. There is no guarantee, for example, that managers and supervisors will understand jargon created by their own subordinates.
When you write, you must continually try to judge the location of the jargon "border," that invisible line that separates those who will understand from those who will not.

Remember: Misuse of jargon is perhaps the most damaging fault of bad business writing because the writer does not take the time to analyze the audience.

Coin One, Clip Another

Coined words represent our desire to be creative, to invent new terms and expressions that we think will be more descriptive than anything the language has to offer. Such attempts usually backfire, however.
One writer created the term vanized, believing it to be a new and inventive way of referring to surveillance equipment that had been modified to fit in a van. Unfortunately, he forgot to share the meaning with his readers.

Clipped words illustrate our continual efforts to condense the language, to speed communication as much as possible. We can say hype faster than we can say hyperbole, sync faster than synchronization. Like jargon, clipped words can help us communicate quickly and effectively when the occasion warrants, but are always suspect in formal writing.

BCWA...("Be Careful With Acronyms")

Like jargon and clipped words, acronyms represent one more communications shortcut. For example, you may choose to write SPEBSQSA instead of Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America. There is no harm in this -- if you are writing to members of the society who know the acronym.
But if you're not, and you neglect to tell your readers what SPEBSQSA stands for, you will give them the impression that you don't care if they understand or not. Along with the wrongful use of jargon, the growing abundance of unexplained acronyms is another major flaw in failed business writing.

Now That's a Real Turkey

In the 1940's, Texas senator Maury Maverick ordered his staff to stop writing cliches, abstractions and other political doubletalk, ending his own memo with, "Anyone who uses 'affectation' will be shot." His crusade failed, unfortunately, and all that remains is the term he coined, gobbledygook, referring to his caricature of pompous politicians strutting around like turkeys, spewing meaningless versions of the language.

You know you are in for gobbledygook when a memo or speech begins with something like, "It has been ascertained that if a significant reversal of determinants initiates a value-added...." Gobbledygook is a combination of many faults, including jargon, cliches, mangled grammar, abstractions, and vague subjects and verbs. It is the language of concealment and evasion. As one political scientist observed, "To subvert an organization, you must first subvert the language."

Finally, when you have finished editing your material, ask an objective someone to look at your work. Objective reviewers often find flaws that we cannot.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Pardon My Soapbox

Like the politics of the Middle East, gun control, and the drug problem, writing in general -- and business writing in particular -- is sure to start a lively debate. If you have ever joined such a discussion, you know how difficult it is to find two people who agree without exception.
Eventually we give up, acknowledging that each of us has a unique and evolving relationship with the language, one that began when our ears were barely big enough to hear the mix of sounds around us.

Today, we subconsciously blend teachings from the past with the needs of the now, and always with a variety of writing styles, approaches and preferences. Yours is yours, mine is mine. People across the hall may follow old school guidelines while someone else prefers the latest editorial software. Sooner or later we have to end the debate, assess our situation, and set realistic goals.

When you set your own goals as a communicator, you may be tempted to say, "I want to be the best business writer in the world." If that's what you truly want, then I will clang the symbols and praise your name throughout the land.
But if you'd rather begin with something less cosmic, something a bit simpler, you could begin with "I am going to improve my skills at least to the point where I am no longer criticized for the way I write." Once you reach that level, anything else you do to improve can only make your life more rewarding, both in and out of the office.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Should You Comment?

The business world continues to spawn new ideas, new processes, and new techniques at an astounding rate. The significance or meaning of it all, however, is not always obvious to readers whose minds are often occupied with other matters. When you plan your writing, see if you have any new information or raw data that needs a bit of explanation, or commentary.

Objectivitiy on the job is usually considered a virtue, but it became totally unwarranted several years ago during an incident at a Chrysler assembly plant. An ABC television reporter, interviewing a worker responsible for driving new cars off the assembly line, registered more than mild shock when the man said,

"One day a steering wheel came off in my hand."

"What did you do?" the reporter asked.

"I jammed it back on the column and parked the car with the others."

"Did you tell anybody?"

"No," the man said. "Not my job."

Total, unwavering objectivity, and the refusal to add helpful information when it is called for, is at least irresponsible, and can be, as this case demonstrates, downright dangerous.

A lab technician writes, "During the experiment, the temperature rose to 750 degrees Fahrenheit. " He also believes the reading to be unusually high under the circumstances, but says nothing because he is sworn to the facts of the matter, no more, no less. In this case, he is letting objectivity rule his better judgment.

Fortunately, such circumstances are rare. Most business writing situations are based on ordinary, day-to-day events, where an appropriate comment seldom poses a threat to those who regard opinion as an act of treason. A writer possessed by objectivity will say, "The letters were sent yesterday, as you requested. A communicator would add, "They will arrive later than usual, however, due to the recent postal workers' strike."

Have you ever listened to a specialist (doctor, lawyer, car mechanic), wishing he or she would translate all the technical detail into something meaningful to you, something you could understand? Such moments demonstrate that there are times when a comment or two is needed, not only to convey information but also to communicate with your readers.

Finally, when you do choose to include explanatory comments, make sure you are motivated by a sincere desire to help your reader comprehend the significance of your information, and not by a momentary desire to inject inappropriate opinion or bias.


Thursday, August 10, 2006

It's Not Theater, But You Still Have to Play to Your Audience

Your readers open your email, pick up your report, open your correspondence. Why should they read it? Why would they want to read it? They will, but only if you adapt your message so they can relate to it, understand it, and remember it.

Pretend your readers are sitting across from you while you read your writing out loud. How will they react? What questions might they ask?

"Why should we pay attention? Why should we care?

"You're tip-toeing. Please get to the point. I'm busy."

"What's in it for me, us?"

"How does this affect me, my world, the business?"

"Your recommendation makes sense, but what's wrong with the way we're doing things now?"

"Okay, now what? What does all this mean? What happens next?"

Again, visualize your readers and think about what you are setting out to do. Will your purpose make sense to them, help them, alarm them, anger them? Try to anticipate probable questions and concerns. Now think about your readers one more time:

How much do they know, or need to know, about your subject? What information must you include? What can you omit? Decide what terminology or vocabulary is appropriate for this audience. If there is a universal fault in business writing, it is this: too many memos, emails, letters, reports and proposals are written in jargon that most readers don't understand.

How should you adapt your message to your readers' professional frame of reference? People in marketing or finance do not look at office issues and events the same way as someone in customer service or manufacturing.

Also, how might your readers' responsibilities and current priorities affect the way they will react to your purpose? People often react to situations in light of what's expected of them. Managers react as managers, administrators as administrators, etc.

When people read, they usually look for the who, what, why, where, when and how of a given situation. Which ones apply to yours?

Finally, analyzing your audience does not mean that you must set out to please everybody. You have a purpose, but it will never materialize if you neglect to give readers a solid reason to read and act upon what you are writing. Remember, readers are not obligated to read what we write.

Winning the War of Words

Not only do I recall my first job, I recall my first memo, a recommendation on how to shorten a lengthy approval cycle. That was a long time ago, and I doubt that the cycle has changed a bit, but that's not what I recall about the memo. What I remember is how quickly my readers forgot it. To me it was a work of art, worthy of a prize and a frame. To them it was just one more unsuccessful attempt to communicate in a world of controlled chaos.

Mildly curious, I wandered from office to office, asking friends and co-workers if they too were having trouble making words work. Yes, they said, but what really irked them was the nature of the organization itself, and how it seemed to undermine all their efforts to write anything and everything.
On top of that, they were weary of the schoolmarm criticism continually handed out by management. In their words, it all added up to a loss of time, money, and patience. As I listened, I found myself trying to get the complaints on paper. Today, those notes are stiff and yellow, but the problems appear ageless:

Company politics...often distorting the objective judgment of both writers and readers.

Distortion by design...intentionally corrupting the language for personal gain

Panic deadlines (both real and false)...rushing writers in and out of the writing while readers struggle to make sense of flawed first drafts.

Indiscriminate changes...or change for the sake of change, often to satisfy a power figure's pet approach.

Committee journalism...or several voices are worse than one, especially when they disagree.

Difficulty of measuring success...or when there is no editorial standard, good is usually what the highest authority says it is.

Lack of information...leaving writers with the frustration of trying to tell a complete story with incomplete information.

Poor setting...or how are we supposed to concentrate with ringing telephones, portable radios, uninvited socializers, clacking machines, carpenters, and hallway chatter?

Policy strangleholds...the omnipresent force that says thou shalt write to satisfy polity first, readers second.

Indecision...those moments when you put your head in your hands because you know the decisions you need from other people will not be forthcoming.

Lack of formal training in business writing...making it doubly difficult and exasperating for people who must keep trying to do something they have not been trained to do.

The ostrich syndrome...or the unwillingness of organizations to openly acknowledge that business writing should be treated as a business skill and not as a "personal thing."

With booby traps like that planted all over the business landscape, my friends either succumbed to clinical writer's block or plunged headlong against overwhelming odds, emerging with a variety of undesirable side effects:

Fear of failure...brought on by high expectations, low confidence.

Frustration...igniting irrational behavior, the quickest way to make a bad situation worse.

Procrastination...the aged and mistaken belief that if we put off the undesirable long enough it will go away.

Expedience...grasping for any solution at all -- right or wrong, good or bad -- as long as it beats the clock and satisfies those on high.

Herd instinct...forsaking individual expression, or trying to sound like everybody else. up, giving in.

Remember...The Tortoise Won the Race
The product of it all was a lot of confused thinking, bad examples, and writing that just didn't work. And it was happening in all types of companies and organizations everywhere, big ones, small ones, government agencies, universities, service companies, manufacturing firms, companies for profit and those for not, anywhere people had to write to get the job done.

And yet, some people were able to overcome. Facing the same problems, the same frustrations, they still managed to write effective emails, letters, memos, reports, and proposals -- and often in less time and at less cost. How did they do it? Were they experienced writers masquerading as administrators, analysts, engineers, managers and administrative assistants?
No, but they did have one thing in common: they had finally acknowledged that writing skill is a business skill, vital to their success, and not something that would always be "taken care of" by somebody else. They had set long-range goals, then gone after them one step at a time.
Today, that kind of commitment is helping more and more people become better business writers. Unfortunately, they are a minority, barely one percent of the workforce. Others, if they begin at all, give up when they run into guidelines that are either too shallow, too complicated, or poorly presented.
The answer lies in the right teacher and the right program, one that will lure us into a new and palatable way of learning a skill that has too often been served up as a dense, impenetrable mystery.

For many of us, those sleep-inducing schoolmarm lectures are but a faint memory. We’re no longer diagramming sentences or conjugating verbs. Back then, when we were struggling students, language was a subject for close scrutiny, a specimen under glass. In the office, language is a major force, affecting everything we do — including our careers. If we do not respect its power, we are sure to become its victim.
For some, the thought of actually studying and practicing the craft of writing may seem masochistic, but if we find a constructive program and stick with it for a few years, the rewards will be many.


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Who's Afraid of Writer's Block?

Imagine walking out your front door, getting in your car, and just sitting there, not knowing why you're there, where you're going, or what you hope to accomplish when you get there. Well, that's how many writers feel once they find themselves paralyzed by the age-old malady known as "writer's block." Why? Because they don't have a plan, any plan, something that gives them a place to start.

You can start anywhere, you know. You don't have to begin at the beginning. Write the ending first, or start with something that interests you. As long as you have a path to follow, it doesn't matter where you begin.

Don't struggle for the perfect word or sentence.

A first draft represents your first attempt to turn thoughts into sentences. As you search for words and how to arrange them, you are trying to make your thoughts visible. When you see them in front of you, you often discover flaws -- not only in the way you have chosen to express your thoughts, but also in the thoughts themselves. At this point, you have experienced the real value of a first drart: it has helped you learn. It has helped you discover.

Trying to put this early discovery into polished sentences is frustrating and almost always self defeating. Instead, try the "module" or capsule sentence approach. Take the subject (the who or what), the verb (the primary action), plus a brief qualification or condition, then put them down quickly, one after the other. Here's how this paragraph looked in the first draft, as a series of rough modules:

Don't try for perfection on ideas that may change. Frustrating, self defeating. Take subject, verb, condition, and put down one after another.

Other topics might begin like this:

New bank statements confusing customers. Complaints in two categories. Type size and column headings. Type too small and too light. Column headings have too much bank jargon.


Too many circuits failing. Ran tests on incoming samples. All good. Problem could be power source.

The advantage of this technique is that you can concentrate on discovery and forget about the quality of your composition. Once you have "gone to school" on your draft of modules, once you have make your major changes, then you can polish. The method may sound time consuming, but often takes less time overall.

Throw in some blank lines now and then.

You can also lessen the struggle by inserting blank lines when you can't think of the right word or phrase. Come back later and fill them in. Don't just sit there, trying to force your brain to come up with something. The more you do, the more your brain will fight you.

Finally, take a break.

If you get hopelessly stuck, take your mind out of gear and take a break. Chat with someone or go for a stroll. Do anything to relieve the pressure. When you return, your mind will be refreshed and will often have an answer waiting for you. We don't know why or how this works, but it does.

The best remedy for writer's block is a good plan, a place to start.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Lighthouse Communications Samples

For published samples of both Web site and traditional marketing communications copywriting, email me at

Here are a few Web sites. Several are in work at this writing. (original copy, links Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge) (original copy, plus link Smokies Info, beginning with Cade’s Cove) (original copy) (original copy, links Miami Beach,
Daytona, and Orlando) (original copy, links Dollywood, Camping, Hiking) (original copy) (full edit, phrasing) (rewrite, full edit)

Customer magazine articles:

"Digital Signal Processing"
"Harris Integrated Network Technology"
"Smart Buses"

General Interest Magazine Articles:

"Wishful Thinking" (Cruising World Magazine)
"Importance of Things Past" (SAIL magazine)
"How to Survice a Gros Islet Jump Up" (SAIL magazine)
"Perchance to Sail" (Caribbean Travel & Life)

Articles Published at

"Someone to Watch Over Her"
"The Trouble Not Being With the Sea"

Web site projects in work:

Web site video
Resort Brochure

Print Ad

Tri Tech


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