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The following is a fairly typical online description of an organization. See what you think of it.

About Our Company

“Broaden Your Printing Horizons”

peacockPerched on the cutting edge of publishing instrument technology, ABC responds to the speed of change. We are very proud to offer a catalog of sleek, award-winning printers designed to satisfy your every printing desire. To best serve our clients, we have assembled an accomplished team of synergetic sales associates and customer service agents to assist you in every step of your ABC Experience, beginning the moment you decide to order one of our printers. With employees spread across three continents and a long tradition of building state-of-the-art office machinery, you will find ABC is a company of innovation, always thinking outside the printer box.

I’ve worked for a CEO or two who would have absolutely loved this (especially if I could have worked in the word “transformational”). Have you? It sounds great at first pass—all those buzzwords: synergetic, state of the art, innovation, outside the box, cutting edge. But what does it say?

  • There’s a catalog. And they’re proud to offer it.
  • Salespeople will help you, but after you decide to order.
  • “Publishing instrument technology” might mean anything; it’s quite the jargon.

Here’s the source. Be sure to look in the upper right corner of the page. Then let me know: Could this be a parody of your organization’s writing style?

P.S. Here is the perfect how- to-make-a-corporate-video-without-saying-anything example.

Add a spelling poster to your office décor

When you’re hanging new calendars in the office, add a poster from The Oatmeal: 10 Words You Need to Stop Misspelling.

My favorite: The way to remember how to correctly spell “weird” has to do with keeping dolphins from being run over by jet skis.

As a bonus, check out How to Use an Apostrophe and find out why Charles’ cat is always afraid of liftoff.

Jane Austen’s love affair with the comma

Jane Austen
Did Jane Austen love commas?

This is not a criticism of Jane Austen as a writer; I’m a fan. But it’s a good thing “Persuasion” wasn’t my first Austen book.

“Persuasion” is complicated by commas (and too many characters named Charles).

I realize Austen wrote “Persuasion” in the early 1800s, and so comma use today would naturally vary from comma use then.

I bring this up in late 2009 because some copywriters at organizations seem to want to emulate Austen by overusing commas as she (or her printers) did.

Merriam-Webster defines a comma as a pause, an interval. It helps readers grasp an idea before moving on to another. In the following example, the comma allows the reader to understand that although Michael is a Native American, his family did not stress the heritage:

“Michael is a Cherokee, but it was never part of his family’s identity.”

When a writer overuses commas, as Austen does in “Persuasion,” the reader can get lost. Try these examples:

“Though Charles and Mary had remained at Lyme much longer after Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove’s going, than Anne conceived they could have been at all wanted, they were yet the first of the family to be at home again, and as soon as possible after their return to Uppercross, they drove over to the lodge.”

Better: Eliminate the first comma; consider replacing the second comma with a semicolon or a period.

“Though Charles and Mary had remained at Lyme much longer after Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove’s going than Anne conceived they could have been at all wanted, they were yet the first of the family to be at home again. As soon as possible after their return to Uppercross, they drove over to the lodge.”

“The younger boy, a remarkable stout, forward child, of two years old, having got the door opened for him by some one without, made his determined appearance among them, and went straight to the sofa to see what was going on, and put in his claim to any thing good that might be giving away.”

Better: Eliminate the comma before “of two years old,” the “and” after “among them” and (if you hate serial commas like I do) the comma after “going on.”

“The younger boy, a remarkable, stout, forward child of two years old, having got the door opened for him by some one without, made his determined appearance among them, went straight to the sofa to see what was going on and put in his claim to any thing good that might be giving away.”

Comma use isn’t an exact science. Just keep in mind that you want your message to be easily understood and remembered, so don’t throw small curvy roadblocks in your reader’s way unnecessarily.

Get familiar with “Persuasion”

Discussion of the commas in “Mansfield Park”

Dare we criticize commas in the opening sentence of “Pride and Prejudice”?

Commas save lives!

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!

Pull the heart strings or lose the donation

A session at this summer’s Direct Marketing Association Nonprofit Conference offered two tips worth repeating. As reported by the NonProfit Times Weekly, they are:

  1. Support with substance (not fluff). Strategically and ruthlessly develop materials that provide real proof of what a donor’s dollars will do.
  2. Inspire with stories. Materials should be rich with stories, photos and testimonies of lives changed because of their giving.

So, I went looking at a couple of organizations near and dear to my heart: the American Lung Association (my sister has chronic asthma) and the American Heart Association (my father had heart disease).

When I visited the American Lung Association‘s Web site, I tried hard to find proof of how donor dollars are helping people like my little sis.

I failed.

The landing page told me that the association is making a difference with its online Flu Clinic Locator … how it was mourning Paul Newman … and that Kristi Yamaguchi is this year’s Christmas Seals chairperson.

I got excited when I scrolled down and saw “Living with Lung Disease: Stories of Hope,” but when I clicked, all I got was a place where I could login and share my story.

Where’s the inspiration?

In contrast, in the center of the American Heart Association‘s site is a picture of sports celebrity Randy Jackson telling his story of diabetes. Click, and you go immediately to more stories of people living with diabetes. Back on the home page, you’ll find a link called “Stories of Hope” that actually links to complete stories and compelling photos – no login required.

Ah! There’s inspiration – and motivation to give.

P.S. I don’t favor one of these organizations over the other, and I haven’t worked for either one. I wish both of them the best of luck in their fundraising efforts.

Look to great headlines for inspiration

girl-reading-upside-down.jpgOne of the toughest forms of writing for me is the headline, followed closely by girl-reading-upside-down.jpggirl-reading-upside-down.jpgthose snippets in a table of contents that are supposed to intrigue readers enough to want to read more. They’re challenging because they force you to condense your thoughts into just a few words, yet those words need to carry quite a punch.

Lots of writers offer advice on how to write headlines; a couple of my favorites are listed at the end of this post. I get most inspired by great examples, so I offer a few for your own motivation.girl-reading-upside-down.jpggirl-reading-upside-down.jpggirl-reading-upside-down.jpggirl-reading-upside-down.jpg

First, from BusinessWeek’s Small Business Success Stories:

Headline: “Restaurateurs Don’t Just Wing It”
Copy: “Passion isn’t enough. You’ll need a sound concept and management experience, and you should know that some of the most popular assumptions about restaurant failure are wrong.”

Popular assumptions being wrong? I have to know more – and find out if I would have known better. I love the way the headline plays on a favorite food, wings.

Of the two that follow, I like the first; alliteration is pleasing to the ear, and the writer puts an intriguing spin on the old concept of Arab-Israeli peace prospects. The over-used “unique perspective” in the second part of this pair disappoints me, though.

Headline: “An Entrepreneurial Path to Peace”
Copy: “By providing small businesses with incubators, Israeli industrialist Stef Wertheimer hopes to give Israelis and Arabs economic opportunities that will lead to peace.”

Headline: “Who Is Stef Wertheimer?”
Copy: “The Israeli industrialist has a unique perspective on how to reduce conflict in the Middle East.”

From The New York Times:

Headline: “Hope and Fear Ahead of Zimbabwe Vote”
Copy: “In Zimbabwe, where voters go to the polls on Saturday, elections are customarily preceded by a campaign of state-supported intimidation and skullduggery.” (A word like skullduggery is going to get my attention every time, and its use in a story about Zimbabwe surprised me.)

This next headline begs the question, “Well, why not?” and almost forces the reader to find the story. The copy would be better without the ambiguous “several.”

Headline: “Bats Perish, and No One Knows Why”
Copy: “Virus? Bacteria? Environmental toxin? Scientists are racing to diagnose a syndrome that is threatening several bat species.”

Opposites attract, which makes the following headline interesting.

Headline: “When Open Access Kept the Door Closed”
Copy: “Google has praised the government rules that will force Verizon to open its cellphone network to rivals. But experience suggests it may be hard to take advantage of these rules.”

From More Magazine:

This first story uses the popular magazine tactic of numbers, as in “10 ways to make yourself look younger.” It works with readers.

Headline: “How Much for that Dream?”
Copy: “Can you afford to change your life? 9 women tell what it cost.”

This headline sets up an artificial either-or that immediately gets readers thinking. Then the copy plays on most mothers’ worst fear.

Headline: “College vs. Retirement”
Copy: “Why it’s time to put the kids second – and why that won’t make you a bad parent.”

Finally, from one of the most well-written magazines on the planet, Smithsonian Magazine:

Headline: “Wild Things: Life as we know it”
Copy: “An Australian conservation group uses Hubble space telescope software to identify animals by their markings.”

A telescope for looking at animals? How unexpected! Tell me more.

Headline: “Pay Dirt in Montana”
Copy: “A librarian’s sleuthing turns up a crime with at least 100 victims.”

Oooh, crime — and a librarian. Again, the unusual, unexpected juxtaposition gets my attention.

For some great headline-writing advice, check out How to Write Headlines that Work at Copyblogger and The Sexy Art of Writing Headlines that Kill at FreelanceSwitch.com.

Care to share the best headline you’ve ever written or read?
 

Talk, don’t sell, to readers

In a recent teleseminar with authors Seth Godin, Dan Pink, Rich Sloan and Debbie Weil, the moderator introduced the idea that companies today “aren’t selling to your customers – you’re talking to them.”

 The point of this fascinating (and free) discussion was this: Companies no longer can afford to market to the masses, viewing everyone who lives and breathes as prospects. Instead, as Rich Sloan said, companies must “create dialogue, move away from the idea of selling, have there be a relationship in place where there are all sorts of contextual opportunities for people to learn.”  

Seth Godin’s basic reply: You’re right. If you’re a marketer, your job isn’t about creating a jingle. It’s about education.  This discussion brought me back to my last post and Mike Klein’s quote from George Bernard Shaw:  “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”  

Companies that have been writing Web, brochure, e-letter and annual report copy aimed at pushing out their messages regardless of who’s reading it or how they’re reacting are going to find themselves ignored, if they aren’t already.

I’ve worked in non-profits most of my life, organizations filled with people who are passionate about what they do – and rightly so. Trouble is, just because they’re passionate about a cause doesn’t mean everyone else is. And just because they have something to say doesn’t mean people will listen, especially if they’re using a writing style that’s not educational or interesting.  

If you’re not telling authentic, well-written stories, you’re wasting your time. Communication is not taking place.