Posts Tagged business writing

You’re just one word away from being a better writer

There is a simple secret to improve your writing — and your communications in general. Okay, it’s not really a secret, but it is very, very simple.

Use “you” more often.

Yup, I’m serious. Do that and you’re on your way to being a better writer and communicator.

Have a conversation
Using “you” (or forms of it) shifts your messages from talking at someone to speaking with them, making your message more personal and conversational.

Let’s look at a couple of examples to illustrate:
Old School: “Benefit enrollment packets will be mailed to employee’ homes in November.”
New style: “Look for your Benefit Enrollment Packets, coming in the mail in November.”

Old School: Students should return their permission forms by Tuesday.”
New Style: Please return your permission forms by Tuesday.”

Old School : “Members and their families are invited to attend the annual banquet….”
New Style: “You and your family are invited to the annual banquet…”

Be casual and clear
As you can see, incorporating “you” makes your writing more casual, conversational, and clear, while the old school way of referring to your audience in the third person is impersonal, and frankly, a little boring. And “you” is almost like calling someone by their name, one of the best attention grabbers available to communicators.

So give it a try and let me know what you think. While you’re at it, toss a “we” or two. I think you’ll like what you see.

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5 ways to beat writer’s block

You sit, ready to craft an important memo, but find yourself struggling to begin. Staring at the blinking cursor doesn’t help, so you do the next best thing — go for coffee.

Overcoming writer’s block can be difficult. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up over the years:

Just write it
Early in my career, I was working with a veteran PR person on an important memo. As I noodled what to say for the opening, he interrupted, “Type something … Just start writing.”

He was right. If I’m struggling with a lead sentence, I’ll skip it and start with the second paragraph. It helps establish a rhythm and prevents me from over thinking.

Make a list
If I’m stuck, or have a lot to cover, I’ll jump to the end of the document and list key points. It substitutes as a primitive outline of sorts, and lets me focus on how I want to say something, rather than what I should include.

For example, if I’m working on a flu vaccine story for a newsletter, my list might include:

  • Free for employees
  • Protect yourself and your family
  • Evergreen Conference Room
  • M-F, 8 – 9 a.m.
  • Nov 1 – 15
  • Painless
  • Employee Health, ext. 1234
  • Remember hand hygiene too

Jump around
Once I’ve made the list above, I’ll pick a point or two and write a sentence or paragraph. For example:

“Public health experts say a vaccine, combined with good hand hygiene, is the best way to protect you and your loved ones from catching the flu. Best of all, flu vaccines are free for employees.”

You can order the segments later, and once you start writing, you’ll likely see things falling into place.

Talk it out
Good writing is conversational, so think of how you’d tell the news to someone who knows nothing about the situation. For example, work is being done on the plumbing in your office building, and during that time, the facility will be close due to lack of water. So what do you want to tell staff?

“The office will be closed next Friday while crews work to repair a damaged pipe.”

You’ve got your start, now fill in the details.

Walk away (but not far away)
It’s a bit counterintuitive, but when struggling to come up with something, try walking away for a couple of minutes. Grab a drink of water, pop a letter in the mail, anything to clear your head.

Your turn. What do you do to overcome writer’s block?

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Times change, but skills remain key

Think about the changes an 80-year-old has seen. Growing up, the family’s primary sources of news and events were likely the daily newspaper and word-of-mouth from family and friends. Then came the telephone, radio, and television. That generation witnessed a shift in the methods and speed of communication greater than any group prior.

Now we have the internet, email, social media, smart phones, tablets, and apps that will do everything from paying bills to creating a talking Santa cartoon.

Staying in touch has never been easier — while being an effective communicator has become increasingly difficult.

The following tips will help increase the odds your audience will pay attention to your message:

Be clear and concise
Regardless of your field or message, your writing (or speaking) should be direct and to-the-point. If your readers have to look for key message, you’ve likely lost them. Make your point without lengthy introductions, then follow-up with details.

This is particularly critical when targeting younger generations that are accustomed to more direct communication.

Consider your audience
A NASA engineer speaking to her peers would likely use very different language than when addressing a group of high school students on the same topic. Ask yourself what you audience knows about the topic, how much detail is appropriate, and if they’ll understand terminology associated with the subject. If’ I’m chatting with another photographer, I might mention shooting an image with my 135mm at f2. However, if speaking my aunt, I’d simply say I adjusted the camera to blur the background out of focus.

Be objective
Passion is a double-edge sword. It’s what makes you good at your job, but also makes effectively communicating about it much more challenging.

I’ll explain. You want to tell people about a project, and assume they’ll share your excitement. You begin to tell them the specifics of your work, and before you can know it, they’ve lost interest, either because they can’t follow the details or the story ran too long.

A programmer friend once told me a story about a project she was working on. As much as I tried to follow along, I was lost within 3 minutes. The story continued, with me struggling to keep up. It’s became jokingly known as the “Flat File Story.”

Be timely and time sensitive
Readers are incredibly busy, so you have to reach them where they want to hear the news, and then present it in a way that they’ll want to read/hear.

In my early years, we often drafted newsletter articles or messages from executives that were fairly long, and people seemed to read them. Now there’s great competition for readers’ attention, and you run the risk of losing them with a message that’s too jam-packed. And given the speed at which news travels, by the time you craft your detailed message, it might be old or outdated.

Follow Twitter’s lead
Twitter, with its 140 character limit, provides a great exercise in good writing. It forces you to be direct, clear, and concise. Give it a try.

Your turn. How do you reach your audience?

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3 things to ask before you begin typing

You’re sitting at your computer (or on the couch with your iPad), ready to start work on a long overdue memo, upcoming speech, or new Facebook post. You’ve got a pretty good idea of what you want to say, and start to type the first letter …

Like the song says, Stop right there

Before you begin, ask yourself the following questions. Your end product will be better for the extra 2 – 3 minute you take to ponder:

Who is your audience?
What do they already know — and need to know? Is the topic important to them? Are they friendly, hostile, or neutral?  In an earlier blog I stressed the importance of speaking to your audience, not at them. While you may be passionate about the topic, it’s wise to consider potential disinterest, perhaps resistance. Let’s say, for example, you have an update of a new, unpopular policy. Remember to show empathy for staff, acknowledging that the change may be difficult.

What is the best vehicle to reach your audience?
Too often we put the cart before the horse and choose a vehicle before deciding on the message or defining the audience. Before settling on a vehicle, look at your options — email, video, team meetings, posters, face-to-face conversations, etc. — and then decide which will be the most effective, given your audience and the message. Remember, the best option is often a combination of vehicles.

What are your key messages?
Your message should be clear, concise, and obvious. Too often, important messages are buried in the fourth paragraph (or closing remarks), and skimmed past by busy or distracted readers. I generally advise people to make their most important points upfront, then support or build on them. Think back to the terrible bombings at the Boston Marathon. Nearly every communication started the same way: Two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Simple, direct, and clear. Details and background followed.

Your turn. What do you think about before beginining a communication?

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