Tag Archives: Writing/Editing

Five more random acts of kindness for readers

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. A declarative statement or editorial comment should be bolstered by proof points; without them, readers often judge such pronouncements as naive or obvious.
  4. When presenting  lots of information, think about using a matrix to organize and summarize material for the convenience of readers. 
  5. 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.

10 random acts of kindness for readers (and editors)

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.

  1. Use the real state abbreviation when writing.  Postal codes – MO for Missouri – are only used in address blocks.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 
  4. 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.”
  5. 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. 
  6. Explain why you are introducing new information and why it matters.
  7. Link images with body text. Caption all images.
  8. 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.
  9. Avoid acronyms.
  10. 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.

The 7-step quick-and-easy presentation outline

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:

  1. What’s the problem or opportunity generally speaking?
  2. Why should I care?
  3. Who are you that I should pay attention?
  4. What are the specifics of the issue/opportunity?
    1. Why is it a problem now?
    2. How much does it affect me?
    3. When will it affect me?
  5. What are the solutions?
    1. Why won’t the status quo handle the issue?
    2. What are the “easy” answers and why won’t they work?
    3. What/who will fix the problem and what are the pros and cons of each solution?
  6. What do I need to do?
    1. What are the specific things you want me to do, when and in what sequence?
    2. What resources are available to help me do this?
    3. How will I know when I’ve succeeded?
    4. Again, why do I need to do this as opposed to someone else?
  7. How will the world be different if I pay attention to you and do what you’ve asked.


Good bye old friend, the playlist and AP comes to its senses and much more

As a kid, I loved an old film strip I once saw of some guy strapped up in a rocket sled that was then blasted down a track at astronomical speed.  The film cut to a close up of his face unshielded by helmet or windscreen.  The skin on his face rippled back in waves from the continuous blast of air rushing past him as he accelerated towards new knowledge and a wonderment at what the hell he had gotten himself into.

I loved it until I grew up and my professional life took on uncomfortable parallels with the rocket sled guy.  That’s one reason I’ve been social-media lite in recent weeks; the keyboard shakes uncontrollably when sled chatters down the track in excess of Mach 1.

But a big factor in my only sporadic presence when it comes to blogging, Facebook, LinkedIn, Photooba, etc., has been the demise of my beloved Titanium Powerbook G4.  I bought it in 2001 when I was starting a PR agency at my kitchen counter, and it has served me faithfully ever since.  In recent years, it has semi-retired to a place next to my La-Z-Boy recliner.  There it helped give voice to every bad joke and crack-brained theory I wanted to maunder on about.  And now it’s gone.  Au revoir, ami.

So for this brief return to help me blow out the cobwebs, here’s a Coalitionist’s Saturday night playlist (with apologies to Tony) and sensible news from Associated Press.  Enjoy!

Saturday night playlist for Coalitionists

  • Let’s Stay Together, Al Green, Al Green: Greatest Hits
  • Come Together, The Beatles, Abbey Road
  • All Together Now, The Beatles, Yellow Submarine
  • We Gotta Live Together (Live at the Fillmore East), Jimi Hendrix, Live at the Fillmore East
  • Together, The Raconteurs, Broken Boy Soldiers
  • Let’s Be Together (Demo Version), Sly and the Family Stone, Who In the Funk Do You Think You Are: The Warner Bros. Recordings
  • Happy Together, The Turtles, 20 Greatest Hits Rock
  • Hope That We Can Be Together Soon [with Sharon Paige], Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes Featuring Sharon Paige, Love Train • The Sound Of Philadelphia

And the AP sees the light!

AP changes its style on website, related words

By Therese Bottomly, The Oregonian

April 17, 2010, 11:45AM

A change of style from The Associated Press, which The Oregonian largely follows in matters of usage:

The Associated Press announced it is changing its style on Web site to website to reflect increasingly common usage. It is effective at 3 a.m. EDT Saturday, April 16.

A new entry on website has been added to the AP Stylebook Online and will be included in the updated text version, the 2010 AP Stylebook, which will be published next month.

The entry says:

website: A location on the World Wide Web that maintains one or more pages at a specific address. Also, webcam, webcast andwebmaster. But as a short form and in terms with separate words,the Web, Web page and Web feed.

What Bronze Quill judges can teach you about communication

In our shop, we’re getting geared up for entering the Kansas City IABC chapter’s Bronze Quill Awards.

And as we’ve been going through the annual procrastination that postpones actually writing our entries until the last minute, we’ve been discussing strategies for winning judge attention to and appreciation of  the full brilliance of our work.

In a moment of pontifical self-importance, I penned (electroned?) the following guidance based on my experience as a communication awards judge and my observations of other judges.

It strikes me that the counsel here – assuming you find it persuasive – also generally applies to any situation in which you’re trying to communicate complex information to people who are interested in a topic, but by no means necessarily experts in the specifics you’re trying to convey. Where the word “judge” appears, just think audience or stakeholder or whomever is the target of your communication affection.

So, for your use or toss:

“As you are preparing your Bronze Quill entries or future communication competition entries, here’s my perspective on what plays well based on judging a lot of these competitions and hearing other judges beef and moan about things they are reading.

It is just one person’s perspective, however; so take it with that grain of salt.

  1. Judges are looking for significance. Why is this project important? What did it accomplish? What and how did the effort and its results help the sponsoring organization achieve? It’s hard to answer those questions too often or too thoroughly to turn off a judge.
  2. Keep in mind that your judges are looking at dozens of entries. It’s at the end of the day, they’re tired and preoccupied reviewers. They most likely are skilled communicators who know very little about you, your client or the subject matter involved. Anything you can do to help them understand and remember you and the project is a good thing – including repetition.
  3. Judges often are looking for easy-to-spot (and sometimes trivial) reasons to hammer or elevate entries. So here’s my list of things that may keep your entry in contention.
    • Judges usually are experienced communicators (i.e. many like me are in bifocals and/or are suffering from computer eye fry).  If they have to look at fonts that are intricate or smaller than 11 points, they will hate you. Likewise, they will be seriously peevish if they have to read some dense river of text. Simplify and open up text by:
      • Using simple, direct language.
      • Highlighting by position, formatting and other techniques what is important about the material you are presenting.
      • Scrutinizing every sentence that has a comma in it to see if the sentence should be broken up into two or more sentences or edited down to one simpler sentence.
      • Using bulleted or numbered lists wherever possible.
      • Moving complex or lengthy material to appendices if rules allow it.
    • As experienced communicators and smart humans, they likely have seen or shoveled more professional manure than you, so will disdain your use of adjectives but praise your reliance on facts and analysis to make your case.
  4. Bottom line, what’s story have you told.  A judge judges by mentally recounting to herself or himself the abbreviated, cocktail party version of the story you’ve presented and then assesses whether that story is true, important and compelling.  Have you told such a story in the project summary – which sets or at least frames the judge’s perception of everything that follows?  And have you then constructed your entry to support and extend that simplified understanding?”

Quick tip: Three tips for writing great Web (and print) headlines

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:

  1. Write short because people don’t read online, they scan;
  2. Summarize clearly the target article so people can quick evaluate the article’s value to them; and
  3. 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).

Communication ROI matters as much – or more – for public involvement

Budget constraints often restrict public involvement professionals from conducting the kind of marketing effectiveness analysis common in commercial enterprises.

That’s why bits of research like the following online marketing comparison from Marketing Sherpa are so helpful.  They suggest possible courses of action, whether or not you agree that marketing and public involvement are completely analagous.

(Discussion topic for the next five minutes: yes they are, only the return policies differ.  Compare and contrast. Please show your work.)

As Marketing Sherpa notes:

“Consumer marketers rank house email, SEO and paid search the highest for return on investment. Many marketers plan on boosting budgets for these online tactics this year, with display ads taking the biggest hit.

B2C Marketing Tactics that Rank Highest for ROI
View Chart Online
Click here to see larger, printable version of this chart

For years, we’ve asked consumer marketers to rank the ROI of various online marketing tactics. Here are their rankings for Q4 2008. The size of the bubbles represents their relative share of online budgets. 

House email, SEO and paid search continue to enjoy the best ROI. The biggest share of marketers plan on boosting their budgets in these areas. Many predictions peg the growth in search budgets as below previous levels with some companies (especially retailers) pulling away from expensive brand terms. Search may end up faring well through the recession, however, within a larger overall shift from brand tactics toward the more dependable and measurable direct online tactics.

Display advertising appears to be the big loser in 2009. It gets low ROI reviews from marketers at a time when brand in general is under-valued. This may give advertisers some leverage in negotiating for a higher share of premium ad space in hybrid deals – as well as an inexpensive opportunity to test some of the higher-performing tactics, such as contextual and behavioral targeting.”

One implication of the bubble chart, it seems to me, is that the ongoing struggle to clearly communicate in the public involvement field will continue to intensify. 

To fully exploit paid search, SEO or house email requires full commitment to understanding how our audiences think and talk about transportation, infrastrucuture and public policy – and then using their vocabulary first rather than that of engineers or other specifialized technical professionals.