This week I had a smashing good time in a workshop I led with members of the Halton Peel Communicators Association — freelance writers, photographers, web strategists and related experts who wanted to take their writing “to the next level,” a concept I borrowed from video games.
I say “smashing,” not to mimic my British friends, but to stress how we often benefit from blowing up the templates that usually guide our daily work. Templates are a necessary force of both good and evil. They give us a model to follow, based on techniques that have worked well for others.
As soon as a video goes viral or a business strategy succeeds, people develop the template, telling you how to do it. These templates are useful. Like you, I frequently follow them. Sometimes I try to create them.
But templates can confine. They can keep you at the same level. They can wear out. They may reek of laziness and mediocrity.
If you’re serious about reaching the next level, try smashing the template first.
Destroy then rebuild
Many would call this “thinking outside the box” or “disrupting.” Aside from my aversion to tired jargon, I prefer “smash the template” because it implies the energy required to demolish the old wall.
The workshop participants talked about the popular media they enjoy most: hockey, mysteries, video games, talk radio, Twitter, classical music, internet surfing, Bollywood and more. Then they formed groups, clustered around their shared interests.
I asked them to apply techniques from their favorite media to rewriting a news release about an art student who slowly killed a chicken as a performance art project. I picked a topic that was controversial, with many possible angles. To my surprise, no one was so grossed out to insist on my vegan alternative.
At first, a few people clung to the standard communication templates, but soon joined in the fun. The results were impressive, from a court room drama where the victim was revealed only in the last scene, to the artist and the fowl protector who donned chicken costumes to duke it out in a pay-per-view fundraiser.
The woe of status quo
Early in my career, my suggestions for fresh approaches were often met with “but we’ve always done it this way.” I was elated when globalization and other pressures heated up competition and innovation.
Even in our constantly mutating media, it seems to be human nature to crack the code and develop best practices and templates. But touch screens, disposable mop heads and other game changers go way beyond best practices and templates.
I love the freedom to play with new approaches that blogging can encourage. Although I often follow templates, I also seek out opportunities to adapt novel techniques from popular media, such as advancing levels from video games or the story structure of crime dramas. I’ve started another blog and a Facebook page, where I can wander off topic, get personal or experiment with my web cam or other things that do not always go well.
When you rely on templates, you reduce the risk of failure. But you raise the risk of getting stuck.
Smashing the template is no guarantee that you’ll go viral or even make it to the next level. But it can be the first step.
You might not consider yourself a writer. But if you spend your days tethered to a computer or smart phone, chances are you write. A lot.
Especially if your business is based on knowledge that is in your head or driven by a passion that’s deep in your DNA.
Like Deanne Kelleher, owner of Kaos Group. As a professional organizer, Deanne loves sharing her passion for imposing order, from de-cluttering kitchen cupboards to streamlining digital files.
A born talker, Deanne has always been comfortable with live presentations and TV appearances. But the newsletters, posts and other written communication she relies on to attract customers do not come so easily.
One night, after a long day with clients and kids, she fell asleep at her desk writing. The next morning her young daughter found her slumped over, asleep. Deanne vowed to change.
She knew there had to be a way to organize her ideas and her writing. She found it in my book Write Like You Talk Only Better. Soon she was using the worksheets to guide her.
No longer did Deanne fall asleep in front of the computer. Her readers stayed awake too.
Although I was happy with how the book was helping small business owners like Deanne, I realized that many of you don’t have time to read how-to books. So I took the key sections and turned them into an online series that you can fit into your schedule and apply directly to what you’re doing. That way, you can learn and cross a task off your list at the same time.
I’m a small business owner too, so I understand just how busy you are. From my small business clients, I understand many of the writing challenges you face. Getting started… rambling … not sounding like yourself… mixing up words …standing out from the crowd… using time productively… getting results.
If you want to grow your business, you need to inform, persuade, influence, coach and inspire others. Often this is often accomplished through the written word. Even when you’re preparing a spoken presentation, you begin by writing.
On the web, there’s lots of fantastic copy writing advice. Too much, it sometimes seems.
Borrowing from this advice, and tested through my 30 years’ experience writing for businesses large and small, I’ve broken this powerful knowledge into steps. This way, you can cover the main areas, build your skill and track your progress.
You may not be a Margaret Atwood or a David Ogilvy. But if you connect with people online, you write.
Update your power
So sharpen one of today’s most important business skills.
Because they learned to write in school, most people figure they know how. But the rules have changed in the online world. Maybe they’ve picked up some bad habits.
So start updating your knowledge today.
This post is based on the first section of uLearn, Write Like You Talk Only Better, small business edition.
I’ve heard countless motivational speakers, but through listening to seven speakers an evening at many MoMondays in Toronto, I have figured out the magic formula.
The MoMonday events, which are spreading to other North American cities, mix people who earn their livings as keynote speakers with folks who look they have never before held a microphone. Between acts, the old friends I bring and the new friends I make at our table chat about who we like best.
Secretly, I think most of us would love to be reality talent show celebrity judges or at least phone in our votes. But impresario Michel Neray knows that turning motivational speaking into a competitive sport would deter people like to the teacher who moved us about the joy of amputees in Rwanda or the young wrestler who let us feel her jubilation at winning an Olympic medal.
Still, it seems natural to compare when you hear so many speakers back-to-back. Because they talk for only 10 minutes each, I can pay close attention. From several MoMonday evenings, here are the six tips I’ve come up with for aspiring motivational speakers:
- Tell a story. Lists, acronyms and other presentation techniques do not work in motivational talks. Your point, the motivation, will flow from the story.
- Include enough details so that we can relate but not so many that we are grossed out. For example, the speaker who disclosed his childhood sexual abuse told us just enough that we could feel his pain and marvel at his forgiveness. The woman who complained generally about her crappy year did not win our sympathy or entice us to follow her formula for success.
- Be funny. Almost all the best speakers have opened my heart with laughter, then punched me in the gut with their truth.
- Paint pictures. I can still see the woman who talked about making a successful sales call in a cat woman costume. Seeing as PowerPoint is not available and props are seldom used effectively, the speakers chosen by my judging panels rely on their words to create lasting images.
- Avoid “early Oprah,” as fellow judge Leslie called it this week — woo-woo words, pseudo scientific jargon, meaningless certifications and other high-fallutin’ terms most of us are reluctant to admit we don’t really understand. Plus “early Oprah” does not mix well with alcoholic beverages and macho men.
- Be yourself. Often the professional speakers are not as compelling as the amateurs. Our judging panels set the bar higher. We usually roll our eyes, shake our heads or mutter “too slick.” We don’t want to hear a canned talk you have given to thousands; we want an intimate conversation with you.
Of course, it’s easier to judge than do. So today I submitted my speaker application for MoMonday.
From my first ballet recital at four to my recent gigs motivating people to write like they talk only better, I love an audience. But can I win over this crowd? What will those celebrity judging panels say?
Got any advice?
My post on alternatives to the most overused word in the English language runs again today at Ragan.com. Join the fight against awesome, a tired, lazy, stupid word.
By Megan Totka
Small business owners have lots of goals, from keeping shelves stocked to balancing the books to communicating with prospects and clients. When they’re writing, which is critical to generating leads and building relationships, their primary content goal is to be understood. Otherwise, they are wasting time and credibility.
1. Use images to help explain your point. You have to capture your readers’ attention quickly and keep it. In a world of extreme multitasking, many people only skim material. Make sure they see what is important. Have your pictures reinforce your point. Much like a children’s book, bright pictures can tell the story in few words.
2. Keep your content concise and get to the point. If you are intending to write a higher-level piece, make sure you promote and lead in that way so there’s no confusion. Link the post to a more basic explanation for those who need more background information.
It can be easy to take a topic you are passionate about and turn it into thousands of words. But rein it in.
3. Use words everyone will understand, not business jargon or specialized professional terms. No glossaries, please. Speak your readers’ language; do not try to teach them yours.
4. Leave it to the professionals. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, writing is not for everybody. If you are not a writer, hire one. Even competent writers can benefit from the skills and objective perspective of an editor.
No one expects business owners to write their own blogs and other content all the time. They assume you are running your business. Readers will notice mistakes and focus on them rather than your point. If saving money is a concern, consider recruiting an intern. This is a great way for you to get above-par work done without paying high freelance prices.
If you need to write your own content, because your business is based on expertise, upgrade your skills. Many of the rules you learned in school, such as starting with the background or setting, will not work, especially online.
Your customers’ attention spans will allow you only a few minutes of their time. Get right to the point up front and share your passion in future pieces. Structure your content like a children’s book and the simplicity will do wonders for your business.
Megan Totka is the Chief Editor for ChamberofCommerce.com. She specializes on the topic of small business tips and resources. ChamberofCommerce.com helps small businesses grow their business on the web and facilitates connectivity between local businesses and more than 7,000 Chambers of Commerce worldwide.
In response to the recent kerfuffle over RBC’s outsourcing IT jobs to temporary foreign workers, president Gord Nixon told CBC business reporter Amanda Lang that his bank “benchmarked” well against other companies.
Even if you understand what benchmark means, and many don’t, it is a weasel word. Had he spoken in plain English, which most Canadians understand, he would have said “we’re as bad (or good) as the others.”
The big word suggested he might be trying to hide something or deflect responsibility. Like when my daughter came home tipsy in grade nine and insisted it was okay because everyone else was doing it. Had she said she “benchmarked” well against others, I would have been more pissed by her attempted subterfuge.
The big word did not get Gord off the hook either.
I’m sure benchmark is a natural term for him to use. But it did not benchmark well with the thousands of customers who were threatening to close their accounts.
I’m not arguing either side of the outsourcing debate, simply suggesting that big business words are not a good way to win friends and influence people, especially when you’re in trouble.
Since benchmark migrated from mathematics to business, it’s commonly used to describe “the process of comparing one’s business processes and performance metrics to industry bests or best practices from other industries,” according to Wikipedia.
Measuring so they can compare and improve gives cause for applause. But if businesses publicize that they benchmark well on a process many people don’t like, they will hurt their image.
Gord probably would have been better to avoid comparing the bank’s outsourcing to other companies’, who some would compare to self-serving grade nines. However, if he insisted on using the “everyone’s doing it” argument, he should have used a term friendlier to the people who were upset.
Of course, it’s not only Gord who sometimes uses this term inappropriately. Accustomed to talking about benchmarks among their peers, business people sometimes forget that this term might be confusing or credibility-sucking to people outside their circle.
The business writers and communication staff who prepped him for the interview should have known better. But then many of them talk about benchmarks to the wrong people too.
To help Gord, and other people who fall into this trap, here are some better ways to say benchmarking, both plain language and with a dash of color:
- Compare (positively or negatively)
- As bad (or good) as
- Worse (or better) than
- Rate well (or badly)
- Rank badly (or well)
- Comparative advantage (or disadvantage)
- Measure against
- Lead the league
- Top the hit parade
- Set the pace
- Stack up
Any alternatives to add?
To keep the focus here on effective online business writing and communication, I’ve set up another blog, where I’ll post my personal or funny stuff. Check out wwww.barbsawyers.ca
Sometimes an experience moves me so deeply that I have to get it down on the page, Like the post on Viola, which was languishing on my hard drive. Or I feel an urge to share my back fat solution, which I’d posted on Blogher, where it was lost amid thousands of posts on fashion, food and phermones. Now they have a home I can share them from.
If you’re interested in this side of my life–if you’re a boomer broad you’ll likely relate–you can subscribe to the blog or “like” my Facebook page, which I update with posts from here too.