As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been reading and editing a lot of project reports and documents lately. As I have, I’ve been keeping a running list of suggestions, errors and missteps to consider when embarking on a new writing assignment. Here are the latest additions. (Previous list is here.) I’ll add to the list as my editing marathon continues.
- Define in your mind who your audience is and what you want them to do as a result of reading what you’ve written. Consider making that definition a part of the document you’re writing to help readers better understand how they may benefit from or act upon what you’re written.
- Based on your intended audience, examine what you’ve written to determine whether an intended reader will know or understand every term of art or technical word/phrase.
- A declarative statement or editorial comment should be bolstered by proof points; without them, readers often judge such pronouncements as naive or obvious.
- When presenting lots of information, think about using a matrix to organize and summarize material for the convenience of readers.
- If you are discussing items in a series, present the same kinds of information for each item. Deviations from item to item will stop readers in their tracks as they try to divine whether an omission is an error, an attempt to manipulate a conclusion or something entirely different.
If you’re in the business of building formal or informal coalitions to get things done, you know that you are going to run into people who are working just as hard to undo your good work. As I’m currently working on a legislative initiative, I’m seeing that dynamic in action. Here are just a few of the many potential ways that opponents try to peel away supporters (be on guard):
- Allege that the proposed action is insensitive at best, unethical at worst, while attacking the motivation of the proponents. Few people want to be evil, and this will cause supporters to at least temporarily question their involvement. Response: Make sure coalition front organizations are recognized positive advocates for change and that communication facts and analysis as to who is affected and how are bulletproof.
- Claim that the effort, while perhaps not unethical, is certainly illegal or unconstitutional, especially for obscure or highly technical reasons. Leave a whiff of litigation threat in the air. People are so skittish about getting sucked into the American legal system that some will start to flee. Response: Come prepared with legal precedents and analysis that the proposed change has/can withstand legal challenge.
- Suggest that the proposed initiative is unneeded because existing entities or organizations can make the changes under their current framework or rules/statutes. Standing pat is a comforting position for many folks and will sap their drive, ignoring the fact that change wouldn’t be in the air if those groups had done something already. Response: Prepare timeline of worsening conditions and/or failed opportunities to previously address needed change.
- Agree that change is needed and then propose a complex administrative or funding scheme for making the change happen. The more intricate the problem-solving approach – often offered under the guise of “if we’re going to fix it, let’s get it right the first time” – almost always guarantees failure. It ensures that the effort will likely collapse under its own weight and inertia. Or it creates a situation in which there are so many things, each hated by one person or group, that the coalition driving for change falls apart. Response: Stay focused on solving only the precipitating need and, to use the cliché, harvesting the low-hanging fruit first. Further change can be pursued when successes have been established and everyone wants to be on the winning side.
I’ve been reading and editing a lot of project reports and documents lately, and as I have, I’ve been keeping a running list of common errors and missteps shared by many writers. Here are ten in random order; I’ll add to the list as my editing marathon continues.
- Use the real state abbreviation when writing. Postal codes – MO for Missouri – are only used in address blocks.
- Capitalize only first word and proper nouns in headlines. Don’t cap every word or, god forbid, every letter; there’s plenty of research to show that landscape capitalization is far easier to read.
- Use “more than” or “less than” when talking about numbers or quantities, not over or under. More describes a numerical relationship; over a spatial relationship.
- Scan the document – every occurrence of “to … ” signals an opportunity for using a more active voice. “The project will prompt economic growth”; not “the project is designed to prompt economic growth.”
- Lead virtually any organizational email, letter or document with a call to action, then build the case and context for taking the action, not the other way around. Doing so helps orient the reader and makes for more succinct, tighter writing.
- Explain why you are introducing new information and why it matters.
- Link images with body text. Caption all images.
- If presenting a series of items, make clear whether it is a rank order list, alpha list or organized by some other principle, or if it’s a random list.
- Avoid acronyms.
- Construct bullets or lists throughout the document in a parallel fashion. Don’t start one bullet with a verb and the next one with a noun. Pick one style and stick with it, as is the case with this list.
When consensus building, last-minute opportunities pop up to talk with specific interest groups and attempt to elicit their support. Often these groups have such specific interests that a standard “stump speech” just doesn’t cut it in terms of content and focus.
The time and effort involved in producing a tailored presentation for these groups can be reduced, however, by thinking about the mental map of those you are trying to reach. That is, what questions will they have in mind as they decide whether to attend your presentation, pay attention and give you a fair hearing?
When faced with this kind of last-minute, one-off presentation situation, I think about how I will answer these questions that I believe most potential audience members have as they decide whether and when to pay attention:
- What’s the problem or opportunity generally speaking?
- Why should I care?
- Who are you that I should pay attention?
- What are the specifics of the issue/opportunity?
- Why is it a problem now?
- How much does it affect me?
- When will it affect me?
- What are the solutions?
- Why won’t the status quo handle the issue?
- What are the “easy” answers and why won’t they work?
- What/who will fix the problem and what are the pros and cons of each solution?
- What do I need to do?
- What are the specific things you want me to do, when and in what sequence?
- What resources are available to help me do this?
- How will I know when I’ve succeeded?
- Again, why do I need to do this as opposed to someone else?
- How will the world be different if I pay attention to you and do what you’ve asked.
As king of the one-sentence paragraph, not surprisingly I agree with Ann Wylie. Shorter is better (usually) when it comes time to engage and inform stakeholders. As she noted recently:
“Size does matter. All things else being equal, your readers would rather read a short piece than a long piece.
In writing — as in eating, imbibing, reality TV viewing and so much else in life — it’s good to set limits. In other words, establish an appropriate length limit for each piece you write. Here are some ideas for inspiration:
- The recommended length of the average press release has dropped from 400 words B.I. (before Internet) to 250 words A.I. (after Internet), according toB.L. Ochman. What have you done to respond to the obstacles of screen reading in your PR and other communications?
- What’s the best length for a tweet? While Twitter cuts you off at 140 characters, the better limit is actually 129 characters, according usability expert Jakob Nielsen. That allows for the average 11-character attribution that gets added whenever anyone retweets your status update.
- Sandra Oliver, a researcher at Thames Valley University in London, found that employees would read about 400 words of their CEO’s message. How long is your CEO’s message? If it’s longer than 400 words, did you put the words you don’t want employees to read after the first 400?
The right length for each piece, of course, depends — on the topic, audience, medium, vehicle, budget and other matters of judgment. But using these ideas and observations, you can establish general copy length limits.”
And if you aren’t convinced, see this post from Ann:
“How long is too long?
When it comes to paragraphs, the shorter the paragraph, the better, according to The Poynter Institute’s Eyetrack III study.
“The bottom line is that stories with shorter paragraphs got more than twice as many overall eye fixations than those with longer paragraphs,” the Poynter researchers wrote. “These data suggest that the longer-paragraph format discourages reading and that short-paragraph format overwhelmingly encourages reading.”
That’s not really surprising to anyone who’s studied the effects of paragraph length in print or online: People tend to skip long paragraphs in either medium. What is surprising is what constitutes a “short” paragraph on the Web.
The Eyetrack researchers measured this way:
- Short paragraphs: one or two sentences long
- Medium paragraphs: up to six sentences long
- Long paragraphs: up to 18 sentences long
Bottom line: Online, hit return every paragraph or two.”
Everybody I know who is in a corporate or government agency position responsible for coalition or network building has had the same horrible experience.
You’re trying to do something simple (like communicate with employees, allies or others in a social media space they occupy) and – Bam! – you discover you can’t do it with out IT/HR/Matlock tracking you down and beating you with the Intertubes.
In those situations, it often helps to counter-argue using the policies and practices of your clients, audiences or peer organizations. I don’t know about you, but to make inroads in my own company, I’m ridden the IBM social media policy pony until it is sway-backed.
So it was heartening to find this bundle of social media examples with which to fight the good fight for me, my group and my clients’ projects. Hope it helps you, too.
Social Media Policies from 80+ Organizations: “
One of the key challenges for modern organizations is to define a social media policy. What’s acceptable? What isn’t? And how should you go about creating such a document for your workplace?
We’ve tried to aid with this process at Mashable through articles such as Should Your Company Have a Social Media Policy? and 10 Must-Haves for Your Social Media Policy. We’ve also published guides like Social Media for Business: The Dos & Don’ts of Sharing.
What’s more, we’ve looked at what happens when these guidelines go to far, like the controversy over the Associated Press social media policy, and a similar situation at the NFL.
If you’re looking to define your own social media guidelines, however, one worthwhile task is to read the policies of other organizations. Chris Boudreaux, author of the upcoming book ‘Social Media Governance’, has assembled 82 such policies on the book’s website. From companies to charities to military organizations, it’s a treasure trove for those struggling with social media guidelines.
We think it’s super-handy: we hope you’ll agree.
Image courtesy of iStockphoto, Richphotographics, Palto, rtiom
Tags: social media
Internet writing is tough because how people use the Web is different from how they read print (here’s the classic breakdown, still a useful reminder after all these years).
Effective writing gets even harder when it comes to headlines, which play a critically important role in helping guide current and potential coalition members to the information they need and want to become and remain allies.
So here are three quick tips for writing effective Web headlines:
- Write short because people don’t read online, they scan;
- Summarize clearly the target article so people can quick evaluate the article’s value to them; and
- Maximize the use of important keywords to increase SEO, scannability and understandable out of context (because headlines often appear without articles, as in search engine results).