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Posts Tagged ‘business writing’

Make simplicity your top priority

One of the great challenges in business communications is making a computer-generated letter sound personal and still achieve its goal.  It’s not easy to make a collection letter feel like it was written to an individual, to walk a line between friendly and firm and recognize that many of the recipients are embarrassed to be getting letters like that.  I was asked to do that a few years ago, overseeing a project where we rewrote more than 700 letters of various intents to credit-card customers.

Despite positive feedback, we were told to change them back a few months later because many of our internal constituencies didn’t think friendly and empathetic was the right approach.  Sigh.

That’s why I particularly liked this Ted talk from branding pioneer Alan Siegel, whose corporate tagline is Simple is Smart.  In this speech, Siegel describes simplicity as “a means to achieving clarity, transparency, and empathy, building humanity into communications.”  And he practices what he preaches…delivering a speech for what is normally a 15-to-20-minute time slot into just over four minutes.

Siegel is behind the YMCA’s new rebranding strategy, changing the name to “the Y” to reflect the nickname everyone has used for generations, although somewhat inexplicably, the Y is asking newspaper editors to refer to individual branches by the old name (e.g., the YMCA of New York City).  This could be described as a “Twitter strategy,” where companies like National Public Radio and Kentucky Fried Chicken have now become NPR and KFC to fit into what some analysts describe as “a bite-size space.”

Siegel’s message is simple, yet few have embraced it.  What can you do in your daily actions to make clarity, transparency, and empathy into a national priority?  How can you overcome the barriers that the lawyers and the politicians often put in place to make that goal such a challenge?

Rats! to taking a conservative approach to branding

In the midst of some new projects and designing a new website that has a real chance to impact people’s lives, I’ve gotten to thinking about whether my personal-branding materials go far enough to explain what makes me different, whether I’m adequately reinforcing the “bulldog” brand on my personal website and elsewhere.

I’m not sure I’m being in-your-face enough, because that’s one of the things that makes me different from other communicators.  So I’m taking a second look at my website to get away from trying to make my message appeal to everyone who visits my page (or my LinkedIn profile) and appeal to the people who are actually looking for what I have to sell.

It was with that mindset that I came across Dan Pink’s posting from earlier this week and realized that this ad for the DC Metro  truly reflects the “bulldog” mentality that I need to more fully embrace…

As way of background, the Washington, D.C. subway system bans eating on its trains.  There are many different ways you can reinforce this message, but this is about as visceral as it gets.

Pink (who wrote Drive and A Whole New Mind) notes that he likes to highlight advertising that is emotionally intelligent (i.e., it either encourages empathy on the part of the viewer or demonstrates empathy for his or her situation), this one falls into the category of advertising that just “shocks and awe(s) us into thinking — and occasionally into action.”

I view it from a slightly different perspective, as someone who has embraced a goal of identifying ways that we can “subtract the obvious and add the meaningful” in business and our personal lives.  I can imagine DC Metro officials listening to their agency pitch this ad and saying, “you want to use a picture of what?” in our new campaign.

It’s bold.  It eliminates the obvious (statistics or a reminder that there are rules against eating on the trains) and gets right to the meaningful.

We need more of that in our writing — visceral images that make a clear and compelling point.

Lost: In search of Simplicity

Good or evil? Is that the core question Lost's finale will answer?

Jeff Jensen of Entertainment Weekly just posted a 12-page summary of last night’s episode of Lost (the Richard Alpert episode).  You can read it here if you have nothing better to do or need someone else to theorize what’s going on.

I hope Lost is not going to turn out to be as complex as this guy — and others — make it out to be.  I think it will turn out to be a relatively simple “good vs. evil” story where the resolution hinges on which of two character (Jacob or the Man in Black) is evil and who among the castaways is going to step up and be a hero (Note: I’ve thought the island is Purgatory from about the third episode).  And where all of us feel the journey and investment of time was worth it.

Regular viewers will need to feel their questions have been answered and that the key moments from the show are consistent with the answers provided in the last few episodes.  It will also be critical that you don’t need a PhD in literature or the willingness to Google each and every plot reference to understand the show.

The show’s executive producers claim they’ve know where they were headed from Day One.  If true, that’s impressive.  They’ve done a great job of storytelling, but then they’ve been granted the time to do that by loyal viewers

Even if Lost has a simple core and a simple resolution where everything ties together, their approach probably won’t work with your presentations or business writing — even if you know where you’re headed from the outset.

How many viewers have left the show out of confusion or because they feel the production team thinks they’re smarter than everyone else?  The ratings indicate that that number is high.  Even if all the loose ends are headed toward a single strand, your audience won’t stick with you if they don’t believe the payoff will be worth the time invested.

I’m struggling with a couple of presentations right now for two reasons.  First, I need to crystallize my core message.  What’s my “one thing,” which I’ve referenced on these pages before?  I want to keep the message simple, using stories and examples to make my case, and I’m trying to strip it down to achieve that.  Second, I need to ensure my slides (and my stories) don’t take my audience down seemingly divergent paths.  I can’t have too many strands, even if they lead back to that single point, or I’m going to lose my audience.

As communicators in search of simplicity and clarity, we often walk a thin line between the Lost approach (trust me, and I’ll get you to a great place) and the 24 approach (trust Jack Bauer, and he’ll get you to a great place but he’ll need a bunch of implausible plot twists).   We can’t get so familiar with our subject matter that we forget the audience doesn’t know where we’re going and isn’t emotionally invested enough to stick with us.

What do you think?  Is Lost an example of great storytelling and are there lessons that great communicators can take from the producers’ approach?

Five tips for delivering clarity (even at the expense of brevity)

I have a well-deserved reputation for “writing long” at times.  I’ve edited documents and provided suggestions that make the original significantly longer.  But does that mean I’m less clear than someone who writes “short?”  Absolutely not.

Mark Twain is remembered for apologizing for the length of a letter by saying it would have been shorter if he had more time.  Having the time to edit is a great thing.  But it can also be frustrating to deal with critics who are poised like raptors to point out that your e-mail directive asking for feedback or input is longer than the size of their computer screen — as if that’s a mortal sin.

In many cases where clarity is an issue, the problem is not too much information, it’s just poorly organized.  Dictionaries work because the words are in alphabetical order;  change the organization and a dictionary is pretty much useless. 

Length in and of itself is not a determinant of clarity or simplicity.  Cutting content may eliminate wordiness, but it may also eliminate critical information that helps readers understand the actions or gain perspective that the writer wants.

Warren Buffett’s annual letter to stockholders is a great example.  It’s long — 18 pages — but readers flock to it for its insight (how his businesses have dealt with the financial crisis), its humor, and its views of where the economy is headed.  I’ve never seen a word of complaint about its length, because the content is so valuable.

My advice is to worry less about the length of your e-mails, PowerPoints, and other writings and more about how you’ve organized them.  Here are a few suggestions on ways to drive clarity, even if it is at the expense of brevity.

  • Use bullets, particularly for action items.  Length isn’t important if your reader clearly understands what you want them to do…and by when.
  • Consider your audience — who should get it and perhaps more important, who shouldn’t.  I’ve found that the people who whine the most about length are the ones who are least likely to respond anyway.
  • Use subheads where appropriate.  This includes tables of content, indexes, and other navigational aids.  Vary your type (size, color, and boldness, not typeface) for emphasis and to draw the eyes to key points.
  • Proofread.  Between what Twittering and IMs and the like have done to people’s ability to communicate (particularly as it relates to spelling, punctuation, and word usage) and the desire to “publish” quickly, clarity often breaks down in the absence of the final “attention to detail” step.  If you have time, ask someone else to read your document and tell you what you are asking the reader to do.  Revise as necessary.
  • Add a fourth word to those ABC’s mentioned above: Euphony.  Making the document flow and sound or read in a pleasing, agreeable manner is a key component.  It may take a few more words, but it’s well worth the effort.

Bulldog Simplicity celebrates clarity over brevity (although clear and short are certainly preferable).  Your goal should be to ensure that everyone understands their responsibilities and their next steps and that it’s written in such a way that boredom or indifference doesn’t lead them to stop reading before the end.

Take a journalist’s approach to your resume, elevator speech

Where's your focus when you look at this statue?

As I listened to a group of unemployed executives deliver their personal elevator speeches (i.e., their 30-second commercials), that little voice in the back of my head was working overtime.

“Don’t bury your lead,” it kept screaming at them as I had eerie flashbacks of my time as a newspaper editor talking to young reporters.  Time and again, the really interesting stuff — the great visual images, the jaw-dropping results — came at the end while the beginning was filled with standard phrases like “results-oriented” and “IT executive.”

In the newspaper business, the lead is normally the first paragraph that contains the essential elements of the story.  A well-written lead keeps the reader reading…rather than turning to another more interesting story.

When it comes to Simplicity, journalists have the roadmap.  Most of their stories are written in the inverted pyramid style, with the most important piece (the widest part of the pyramid) at the top and the rest of the information in decreasing order of importance.

Let’s face it.  As a reporter, a job-seeker, or someone presenting your important business idea at work, you’re competing for your audience’s attention…and they have lots of alternatives.  Time and again over the past few weeks, I’ve heard stories that a job posting had generated 200-300 responses within just a few hours.

Successful reporters agonize over their leads because it’s the most important investment they make in their stories.  A great lead makes the rest easy…and it makes their editors’ job easy because under pressure they can just cut from the bottom and print what’s left for their available space.

If you think of your boss or the recruiter as your editor, this concept becomes easier.  As they write and edit, reporters often find that their best stuff is in their third, fourth, or 10th paragraph (hence the phrase, bury the lead) so they move it up.

Think about what makes you or your idea memorable.  Now take a good look at your resume, your elevator speech or 30-second commercial, or your presentation.  If you’re making your reader work hard to find that special something, then odds are that your idea, your resume, or you are about to be placed on the No pile.

It’s not easy.  We often get so bogged down in the details that we lose our core message and bury our lead. 

Who are you?  What makes you different?  What value do you provide?  What problem can you solve?  Get that into your lead and you’ll be much closer to grabbing your audience’s full and undivided attention.