Quotations should add, not steal, life

manWhen readers come across sentences within quotation marks, they read them as if someone is speaking the words. In novels, dialogue is believable only when it makes the characters sound real.

“If Mr. Touchett had consulted me about leaving you the money, I would have said to him, ‘Never!’”
“I see. You think it will prove a curse in disguise. Perhaps it will.”
“Leave it to some one you care less for—that’s what I should have said.”
“To yourself, for instance? Do you really believe it will ruin me?”
“I hope it won’t ruin you; but it will certainly confirm your dangerous tendencies.”

                                    —from The Portrait of a Lady

 That could be a real conversation between two real people, couldn’t it? Short sentences using words people actually use give the speakers credibility. Now, tell me what you think of this quotation:

“The NowPublic focus has always been on providing individuals, whether they are amateurs or professional journalists, the tools they need to quickly and easily contribute their perspectives on the issues of the day and the topics that interest them and their community. By combining our tools and audience with Examiner.com’s established, vetted, local content-generators, we are enabling Examiner.com, which has already seen incredible success, to further succeed in providing a site that attracts experts as contributors, passionate readers and the advertisers that want to reach them.”

                                           —Leonard Brody, NowPublic

“Building on our long-standing relationship with Comcast, we are pleased to participate in the On Demand Online trial to create an online viewing solution that appeals to growing consumer demand for convenient access to their favorite programs while continuing to drive value for distributors, programmers and advertisers alike. We are excited to give fans of our shows more options to see our high-quality programming and this trial represents an important next step in those efforts. We are also committed to working with Comcast and across the industry to develop a consistent online model for consumers and a meaningful way to measure viewing across platforms.”

                                        —Bill Goodwyn, Discovery Communications

How about this one? Try to say it out loud without taking a breath:

“The PlastiPure certification seal ensures customers are receiving not a mere marketing tag, such as BPA-free or phthalate-free, but a comprehensive health solution. PlastiPure’s partnership with Hydrapak provides us the opportunity to leverage the strength of both companies and is a model we will continue to follow as we work with plastic suppliers and product manufacturers to deliver the safe and ecologically-friendly products consumers demand.”

                                        —Mike Usey, CEO of PlastiPure

Brody, Goodwyn and Usey all have one thing in common: They lost their readers’ attention, and with it, their chance to communicate a memorable message.

A quotation in a press release doesn’t have to contain five or 10 message points. And long sentences don’t make someone sound more intelligent—just more difficult to follow.

Quotations should make the speaker sound as if he or she is speaking directly to you, the reader. The words shouldn’t sound attorney-approved. They should humanize the story you’re trying to tell. And when they’re read aloud, they should flow as naturally as if they are real and unrehearsed.

If you have any great examples, please share them!


Burn through ‘Fahrenheit 451’ as a graphic novel

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray BradburyIn the futuristic world of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, anyone caught reading or possessing books is confined to a mental institution. Television watching, on the other hand, is encouraged because it doesn’t inspire free thinking and critical thought.

In real life, Bradbury’s book has inspired Tim Hamilton to reinterpret this evocative, timeless story as a graphic novel – an extended comic book.

A wee bit ironic?

Fahrenheit 451 is the earliest science-fiction novel I remember reading. It didn’t turn me into a sci-fi fan (although I highly recommend Orson Scott Card’s Ender series), but it surprised me with the author’s ability to make me care about a story I didn’t think I could believe in.

Society burns books in Fahrenheit 451. Montag, the main character, gets 24 hours to read his before he must turn them over for incineration. He’s overwhelmed by the unfamiliar task and seeks out Faber, a retired English professor, to help him understand.

“The value of books,” Faber tells him, “lies in the detailed awareness of life that they contain.”

A graphic novel necessarily relies on images to convey much of the story. This means, of course, that most of Bradbury’s words – the details – are gone.

Fahrenheit 451 isn’t an easy book to read or understand. My fear is this: Are we close enough to Bradbury’s 24th-century complacency that people will read the graphic novel and believe they’ve “read” Fahrenheit 451?

Can a TV show be far behind?

Plain language is smart, not dumb

chalkboard telephone drawingHave you ever tried persuading managers that using simple, active language is their best chance at communicating a message, and gotten a response like this?

“I don’t want to dumb it down.”

This response always flabbergasts me. They might as well say, “I don’t care if people understand me.”

Making language clear and understandable doesn’t mean you’re writing like the author of a “Dick and Jane” reader.

It means:

  • Keeping most sentences to 25 words or fewer.
  • Avoiding jargon, even when you’re writing for ‘your’ audience. Don’t assume that since most of the people on your annual report mailing list know about you, they’ll be as familiar with your jargon as you are.
  • Making sure quotations sound as if someone really said them. (Hint: Read the quotation out loud.)
  • Using words your readers use. People say, “Get your gas at Speedway stations and support AAA Foundation.” They don’t say, “Get your gasoline at Speedway stations.”
  • Being direct, not passive. Rather than, “We had a discussion about the issue,” say, “We discussed the issue.”
  • Letting active verbs make your copy come alive.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, companies that have been pushing out their messages regardless of how readers will react to it are going to find themselves ignored, if they aren’t already. 

Find help at:

PlainLanguage.gov: Improving Communication from the Federal Government to the Public

Ten Commandments of Simplification (Center for Plain Language)

Plain language for communicating health information

The Jargon Finder

What’s the most over-used word in organizational copy?

lazy guy on computer

Is the organization you’re writing about “unique”?

Please say no.

Here’s an example of the way too many writers overuse the word:

“Keep Indianapolis Beautiful’s internship program is unique because we are able to match the needs of students with our needs.”

Is Keep Indianapolis Beautiful the only organization that can make this claim? No. Hence, no uniqueness.

But besides lazily relying on an overused word, the writer did this organization a disservice by missing an opportunity.

By interviewing a few interns and finding out just what their experiences were like, the writer could have used testimonials and intriguing copy to draw potential interns in.

The interns, employees and volunteers at Keep Indianapolis Beautiful ensure our city retains its natural beauty. As the Web site says, “Trees make the world a better place.” I wholly agree; my husband and I are still mourning the loss of our beautiful ornamental pear that snapped in a recent windstorm. We lost a friend.

So, KIB, wake up your writer and tell your story.

P.S. Have you planted a tree in your Marion County, Indiana, home or business? Register your deed and help KIB reach its goal of 100,000 new trees by 2017.

What makes a stressed man go to the YMCA?


(Or, What forces a PR person ever use the words “new initiative”?)

PR Newswire offers sample press releases in a “nonprofit toolkit.”

 Please don’t use them. Ever!

 One sample starts like this:

The YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago recently unveiled a health and wellness initiative aimed at helping Chicagoland adults and families cope with the increased stress levels that they are experiencing.

I suggest it should start more like this:

When John Doe stepped into the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, it was six months after he’d lost his wife, started trying to raise a teenage daughter alone, and learned his cholesterol was through the roof.

From there, the press release could talk about the health-and-wellness initiative by showing how it was designed to help something like Doe. His story would humanize an otherwise boring here’s-another-wellness-initiative story that’s not likely to get a reporter’s attention.

It’s storytelling, drawing in readers — and reporters — by getting them interested in someone else who’s feeling stressed, just like they are. They want to know more about this guy, and they’re probably wondering, “Why’d he go to the YMCA, of all places?”

That means they’re reading on.

On the flip side, anyone who read about a new “initiative” isn’t wondering anything. They’ve turned on the TV by now.

Your thoughts? Agree or disagree?

Our visceral reaction to being called cowards

US Attorney General Eric Holder (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US Attorney General Eric Holder (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. called us “a nation of cowards,” afraid to speak frankly to each other about race in America.

In this blog, I won’t discuss whether or not I agree with his assertion. (I do.)

Since this blog is about writing, it’s his use of such a provocative word as “coward” — and the reaction it engendered — that I want us to talk about here.

Is there a lesson we can apply to our own writing?

Let’s say Holder had used the kind of politically correct, passive, “safe” language many of our CEOs try to insist we use. He might have said, “We are a nation of people who are reticent to talk to each other about such sensitive issues as ethnicity.”

Or maybe, “Our hesitancy to offend each other makes honest conversation about some issues difficult.”

Probably a passive sentence would be required: “Discussions of race are not generally accepted as polite conversation.”

If Holder had used any of this language, would we have paid attention? Would any of us be discussing his speech — and, more imporantly, about whether we talk to each other about race? Would the issue have gotten any notice at all?

I say no, it wouldn’t have permeated our consciousness.

So, am I advocating the use of inflammatory language in your organization’s materials?

Not inflammatory, but thought-provoking. Active. Honest. Authentic. Loaded with verbs, and devoid of the passive voice. Only through speaking clearly and honestly will your audiences – customers, donors, clients, etc. — get to know you and your organization.

And only then will they start to remember you.

Show, don’t tell, about making a difference

Sleeping BeautiesIs your organization “making a difference?”

If so, can you find a new way to say it?

One of my most meaningful jobs was at a fundraising organization for a children’s hospital. If helping to fund a place that rescues kids from the brink of death isn’t “making a difference,” I don’t know what is. But my much-smarter supervisor refused to let us use that phrase.

“Every non-profit says that,” she’d point out. “We need to tell how we’re making that difference.”

She was right then, and she’s still right.

The March of Dimes mailer I just received invites me to join all the people “who are making a difference in the fight against premature births.”

Wouldn’t a statement such as, “Become one of the millions who want to make sure all babies are born healthy,” resonate more? It also reinforces the March of Dimes’ mission. And it puts an immediate picture in my head: Babies are being born unhealthy or are dying. I can help.

By seizing every opportunity to paint a picture or tell a story, you’ll do more than “make a difference.” You’ll grab someone’s attention long enough to communicate your message.