Write Like You Talk Only Better. Six-part ULEARN Series

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Write Like You Talk Only Better

Apply talking, your first and favorite way to communicate, to all the writing you do at work. Even better, add the planning and other thinking that comes with writing. Learn how in this fun book. Preview

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You know when all that noise is interrupted by the clank of sound waves colliding? That happened to me recently when two experts in different fields confirmed that personal autonomy is the best way to motivate people.

Personal autonomy simply means letting the individual decide how to do something. The teacher or boss may set the objective, such as learning a formula or completing a task. But it’s up to the individual to decide how to get it done.

At a recent conference on teaching English as a second language, a professor surveyed lots of research demonstrating the kinds of motivation that work best for students.


For maximum engagement, she insisted, the best thing a teacher can do is give choices and let each student decide how they want to absorb knowledge.

Visuals cues, listening to audio tracks, assembling details, dissecting the big picture, online on their own, live in a group… ? Offer variety and let the individual choose.

At a seminar earlier this month, on how corporate trainers can motivate, a psychologist had said basically the same thing. Personal autonomy is the number one engager, she pointed out, the best way to encourage employees to give their best.

You decide what

Smart companies know this. They don’t set hours, as long as employees get the job done—well done of course. Instead of providing a script that customer reps they must stick to, smart companies encourage dialogue. Both the employees and customers feel better when they’re in control.

Last summer, I taught English as a Second Language (ESL) to international students and business writing to professional communicators. Because neither involved lengthy terms, I didn’t get to know individual students well enough to grasp their preferred learning style.

Although I had lessons plans to guide me, often I flew by the seat of my pants.

They decide how

For example, I spent a week trying to teach students with several different first languages the correct word order for asking questions. Many preferred to read the formula, each part of speech a different color on the board. Some liked to fill in the blanks in their exercise books. Others loved asking each other questions about how men and women behave differently in relationships.

With the professional communicators, I talked about the importance of planning what you’re going to write. I encouraged them to choose between academic-type outlines, visual mind maps or conversations, a technique my daughter and I often use before she starts an essay. Choosing how to plan is personal autonomy.

I encouraged the employees to use whatever method worked best for them—as long as they thought before they hit the keyboard. They’re now rambling less and saving time because they think first. Better still, they own it.

Correct to correct?

Last week, I attended a small yoga class. Because work was so busy over the summer, I’d gone to only weekend classes, too large for instructors to suggest individual corrections. Because there’s only one way to do each pose, I appreciated the instructor’s personal prompting.

Mostly. Sometimes I wanted to do it my way. For example, when I wobbled in a position she told me to support myself on one knee. But I knew I’d strengthen and balance faster if I allowed some wiggling. Plus I didn’t want to look like I couldn’t keep up with the rest of the class.

So even when there’s only one way to do something correctly, be it the word order of a question, the need to nail your main idea or a shaky yoga pose, learners should decide how they want to accomplish it.

Sure, many people are comfortable with detailed instructions, such as the people who study a manual in detail before they try something new. Others mess around, trial and error, until they figure it out, considering manuals a last resort. Many watch other people, then copy.

It matters not how they do it, but what they achieve.

So the next time you’re trying to explain how to accomplish something, do so in many different ways. Let individuals decide which one to choose.

Many better practices can be more engaging than one best practice.

On the other hand, that’s a lot of work. Don’t hold your breath while I turn this post into an infographic, video, manual…

Photo credit 


Letter to my younger sister Ann Handley

Monday, October 20, 2014 @ 01:10 PM
posted by Barbsawyers

Dear Ann

When I first heard about your new book, Everybody Writes, I was ready to call my lawyer. Our ideas are so much alike, I figured you’d copied my book, Write Like You Talk Only Better.  Actually, I was flattered.

everybody writesLike me, you believe that pretty much anyone can write, provided they follow a solid process. That’s why you called your book “Everybody Writes.” My PR mentors  brought me up to believe that you need to precede “everybody” with “almost” to maintain your credibility, though I admire your spunk.

After reading a couple posts and listening to a podcast, I was so confident I’d like your book that included it on a short list of must-reads for a business writing workshop I was teaching. I was not disappointed.

You had me at being the last girl picked for the baseball team. Just as you and I had to overcome our lack of natural physical prowess through trainers and gyms, so can people whose writing seems clumsy build the muscle and coordination they need to write strongly. Well said.

Almost everybody writes, we agree.  As in preparing a presentation, composing an email, creating a plan, texting, collaborating or chatting online, practically  everyone relies on the written word.

I say they need a road map. You, younger sister, say they need a GPS.

We both understand that writing is less about making words pretty and more about thinking. Although your process is broken down into more steps, our road map/GPS process is strikingly similar. Think about who you’re writing for, what you want to focus on and how you’re going to explain it before you start.  “Think before you ink,” as you say.

We also insist that you think again after you’ve written that big ugly first draft, so you can shorten, organize and improve.

Our grammar points echo. I’ve become even more adamant about ignoring dangling participles, split infinitives and other old-fashioned rules since I started teaching and discovered that nobody (or should I say almost nobody) learns them anymore.

I handle the first draft process a little differently than you, advising people to simply imagine they’re having a conversation with the person they most want to connect with. That’s because my target reader loves talking, almost everybody’s first and favorite way to communicate. I also point out that many of our errors go back to people relying on what sounds right.

No problem. We’re sisters, not identical twins.

Let me stress you are the smarter sister. In real life I grew up with a younger brother whose IQ blew nearly everyone out of the water, so I’m used to smarter siblings. No hard feelings, though a Christmas card might be nice.

While my general advice is intended for almost any kind of content, you broke yours down specifically for LinkedIn profiles, landing pages and lots more. Very comprehensive.

On top of that, you sprinkled your book with many helpful sites and tools, magic fairy dust for content creators. This was one of the best examples I’ve seen of links in e-books. I hope everybody’s reading it that way. I know I’ll go back and explore many of these valuable references again and again.

Sure, I have the odd quibble, such as your approval of emails that come from a company instead of a person, your use of “tasked with” and the occasional YA-DA-YA-DA (an expression we both use), despite your admonitions to the contrary.

But on the whole, this is best book I have read about writing since Stephen King’s On Writing. And the best book on nonfiction writing since Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. A go-to guide indeed.

I know it’s a little awkward having a relatively unknown blogger/teacher/crone try to claim you as a sister. But if you’d like to glimpse our kindred spirit, please read my book Write Like You Talk Only Better, which I’ve attached for you. You get me.

I know you’re busy, what with book tours, Marketing Profs, Entrepreneur.com and all that other high-rolling stuff you do.  So I won’t be hurt if you don’t get back to me right away.

I hope you’ll remember, when you receive that Christmas card from Toronto Canada, that there is another business writer out there who thinks like you and applauds how you’re saving us from hours, make that decades, of reading tedium and writing frustration.

With the exception of most trained staff in communication and marketing and random beacons in other departments, everybody writes ridiculously bad content. But if they read your book–or mine if you they have only a few hours to spare—they can go from spending the game on the bench, like we did in high school, to scoring home runs.

Thank you so much. And let me know if you’re coming to Toronto. You’re welcome to stay in my guest room.


Your older but not wiser sister, Barb

Push or pull?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014 @ 03:10 PM
posted by Barbsawyers

It happens to everyone at least once. You’re trying to enter a busy building, but the door won’t open. You push harder. A passerby smirks. You look down at your hands and the “pull” sign.

So it’s not surprisingly that marketing writers sometimes confuse push and pull. Especially if they’re used to pushing, the traditional approach to moving prospects along the sales cycle.

Before the Internet, we spent more time pushing. Even when we used pull tactics, such as true stories or educational campaigns, the commercial message was clear.pull in people with content marketing

We wanted people to buy; we still do. But with content marketing, the emphasis is on building relationships, so you can sell later. Maybe.

You pull on the handles of education and entertainment, hoping that people will look, admire and remember. You pull on their heart strings, funny bone or brain, hoping they will like, share or do something else easy by which you measure success.

Read more on the Toronto IABC blog.


Write like a princess for happy e-endings

Monday, September 29, 2014 @ 07:09 AM
posted by Barbsawyers

Once upon a time there was a princess named Constance, of the kingdom of Constant Contact (where I spoke last week), who reigned over an online fashion empire.

She loved to stay in touch with her far-flung customers through her email newsletter.Slide1

They loved reading her latest and greatest insight and information on fashion trends.

Writing is like talking

While she was confident about her fashion smarts, Princess Constance wasn’t so sure about her writing. Conveying runway excitement was not at all like those essays she’d slaved over in business school.

She’d tried hiring professional writers, but they didn’t capture her personality and expertise. After all, she was a princess. It was up to her.

After she read Write Like You Talk Only Better, everything changed. Writing became easy and effective once she combined her brains and love of talking.

Her newsletter, and online fashion empire, continued to thrive.

Makeovers meet challenges

Even though she was a princess, life threw challenges her way. She had to rise above them.

First, it was social media, which everyone insisted would lead to the extinction of email newsletters. Princess Constance started a Facebook page, but wisely kept the newsletter.

Soon she discovered the two fed off each other, with new subscribers hailing from Facebook and newsletter fans seeking more frequent updates through her growing social media channels.

Her star was rising, she realized, because she was adding more entertainment to her information on fashion trends. Her funny posts about fashion crimes at high society events and true tales about royal teas sometimes went viral. So Princess Constance decided to focus more attention to polished reality, humorous observations, fashion mysteries and games.

During this content makeover, she briefly considered abandoning the newsletter for social media. But her analytics confirmed that the newsletter was far more effective in driving people to her site to buy.

But soon she discovered that although more people were glimpsing her newsletter, fewer seemed to be clicking on the links to her site.

Smaller size, higher stakes

As she glanced through her photos of a recent ball, she noticed that many royals were holding smartphones. Maybe that had something to do with her latest challenge.

While waiting for her celebrity date at a film gala, she surreptitiously spied an actress scrolling her newsletter on her smartphone, only to be distracted by a message that popped up on her screen.

Suddenly Princess Constance realized that her content was too fat to fit on the small screen. What’s more, the content had to be so riveting that the actress would ignore the message for long enough to click to her site. Princess Constance recorded this insight on her smartphone.

The next day she put her content on a diet. At the same time, she focused on squeezing more out of every pound–or pixel. Once again, her content–and sales–improved.

Too busy 

Then along came CASL, the Canadian legislation that required her subscribers to click to confirm they wanted to continue receiving her newsletter. Her subscriber list shrank, though not too dramatically.

The lost followers she talked to insisted they still liked her newsletter. They’d just been too busy to notice the newsletter that asked them to click the annoying confirmation link.

Time for another makeover, not only to freshen her content and attract more subscriber-buyers, but also to fit the newsletter into her increasingly busy life.

Princess Constance was now engaged to a duke, adding more duties to her royal calendar.

What’s more, she could not erode her royal reputation with those humiliating mistakes she was prone to when she was super busy.

Inspired by customers

Reflecting on how she came up with content ideas, Princess Constance realized that customers were her prime inspiration. If one asked a question, she could bet many more were wondering the same thing. If one had difficulty grasping a new trend, like tiara-matching anklets, she knew others were in the same yacht.

She could also tie her fashion information and entertainment to what was going on the world. For example, she’d spotted some earth-friendly fabrics in clothes at the recent climate change demonstrations. And why not give that British princess some tips on maternity styles?

Her list of content ideas grew. But how was she going to tackle it all?

She knew she had to get faster at writing. So she returned to Write Like You Talk Only Better and realized she’d pick up speed if she spent a little more time planning her content, focusing on the hearts and minds of those she wanted to reach, what she wanted to say and how to say it. Like making detailed lists before she headed out shopping, she’d track down what she most wanted and save loads of time.

Get help

Although the princess would continue to create her own content, she could use more help with the organizational side. Because the best ideas floated into her head when she wasn’t trying, she usually ended up sorting through bookmarked links, ideas on napkins and smartphone notes.

So she got her lady-in-waiting to pour all this into a master calendar for both newsletters and social media, that she would review and update at the start of every month. Just thinking about it made her feel less stressed.

Her lady, an Ivy League arts grad, could also help more with the goof proofing, to make sure she was never again got caught by those mistakes that spell check and auto-correct can’t catch. Like the time she wrote “Your never going to believe what I saw…,” “it’s highest honor”  or “he reins over a kingdom.” Never again!

Once again, Princess Constance was pleased with the results of her makeover. A practical princess, she knew the ending would not be “happily ever after,” even with a hot duke by her side.

But just as she’s faced the challenges of social media, smartphones and annoying laws, she’d deal with future challenges with a makeover. After all, if it worked for her image, it would work for her content too.

Breaking bad email –10 ways to kill what we hate at work

Wednesday, September 17, 2014 @ 04:09 PM
posted by Barbsawyers

Everyone complains about too much, too long email. Let’s face it: email is a huge productivity drain.

Perched between the classical memos of yesterday and the hip hop texts of today, email writers don’t seem to have any best practices to follow. To get the ball rolling, I’ve drafted my 10 best practices.breaking

Read more on the Toronto IABC blog.

I won the grand prize!

Monday, August 18, 2014 @ 01:08 PM
posted by Barbsawyers

If you’ve been speaking English all your life, you probably never stop and ponder the difference between these verb tenses: the present present, as in I have gone, and the past simple, as in I went.

As I discovered when I was practice teaching, and have confirmed as a real teacher this summer, it’s a tricky distinction to make.

Slide1Searching for a clear explanation, I read boring books and watched snoozy webcam lectures. There had to be a more interesting way to learn!

I guess the judges at TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) Ontario must have thought I’d made progress, when they awarded me the grand prize in the instructor category.

So be grateful you have been programmed to understand English. And pass this alone to anyone who is learning. They’ll thank you.

The Search for the Present Perfect.


Wish you were here

Thursday, June 26, 2014 @ 09:06 AM
posted by Barbsawyers

Teach them to fish, so you can focus on driving the boat or sipping ice tea. Learn how in only 30 seconds.


Does your team get the new ABCs of corporate communication?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014 @ 03:06 PM
posted by Barbsawyers

Today I’m guest posting at the Toronto IABC blog I helped found. See the 10 questions you need to ask to evaluate writing competence. Then you can figure out how to improve it. Read it here.

Why I’m killing my newsletter

Monday, June 16, 2014 @ 04:06 PM
posted by Barbsawyers

I could blame the new Canadian law that doesn’t count verbal permissions to subscribe, which I did to kickstart my subscriber list when I started Stickemail about five years ago. It would be a big hassle to get everyone to resubscribe, bigger to comb my lists for people I don’t have the required records for and the biggest to analyse my lists to find out why some people never appear to open or otherwise interact.

I probably don’t need to worry about getting caught in the enforcement net when it’s lowered into the email sea three years from now. But like most obstacles, big or small, the Canadian Anti-Spam Law has caused me to take a second look at what I’m doing. I could take the time to fix it, or get away with it, but do I want to?

stickemail logoI keep reading that e-newsletters have the best ROI or conversion rates, as the digital marketing crowd calls return on investment or getting people to do what you want. If that means open rates, click throughs, emails, phone calls and just plain staying in front of people, I’m a success. If that means millions of books and online courses flying off the shelves, I’m a failure. ROI and conversion rates can mean so many different things.

The other reason I am killing my newsletter is that the business it was designed to support has changed. I’ve shifted from corporate writing and communication management to teaching about business writing, which has grown in importance while changing in shape and style. That’s why I call my new business writing workshops, the new ABCs of corporate communication.

Because the live workshops are offered only on in the Greater Toronto Area, my subscribers in Finland and Fresno no longer figure into my marketing plans. Still, I hope they’ll switch from newsletter to blog.

I’m also teaching English as a second language to international business students. The training and experience have taught me so much about teaching that I have transformed my workshops.

Maybe I should launch a local-focus newsletter for my workshops. I’ll decide as I sit drinking ice tea in my garden, the third reason why I’m not publishing a newsletter this summer. To give me some time between corporate and ESL teaching, I need to cut down on nonessential business activities.

My change in direction started after the recession. I’d had a smooth ride with steady clients for many years. I didn’t have the enthusiasm to fatten shrinking business from cost-cutting clients.  I wanted something new. But what?

When my daughter returned from Ecuador a year ago, she raved about this woman who had been teaching in South America for years. Just in case I missed this cue, the universe also sent a couple friends travelling a similar path.

I’m dreaming of South America, rather than the Middle East or Asian countries more popular with ESL teachers, because I want to learn another language, an earlier goal I got sidetracked from. I also regret giving up on the piano.

Until my elderly dad and dog don’t need me, I’ll stay here in Toronto, teaching both ESL and business writing.

My workshops will help corporate communication leaders who are trying to squeeze more out of staff or encourage the team to climb higher so their content marketing strategies can fly.

I’m also going to take another teaching course. Can’t believe how much I enjoy being back at school, as both teacher and student. Maybe piano lessons are next.

Can good guys get caught in the anti-spam net?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014 @ 03:05 PM
posted by Barbsawyers

shaun brownYou’re a good guy. You build relationships through quality content and trust. You never spam. You’ve worked hard to build your permission-based email list. You respect your subscribers’ time. You don’t need a law to tell you the right way to treat people.

You’re not one of the bad guys, who buy lists, spam strangers, assault inboxes or entrap with manipulative sales tactics.

But you’re concerned about the Canada Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL) that goes into effect July 1.

You don’t want to be the dolphin that gets caught in the fisherman’s net.

Maybe, like me, you’ve been publishing for years and have not kept records of people subscribing. Sometimes they’ve given you their business card and told you to sign them up, so there’s no record of them subscribing with your email provider.

Please unsubscribe

I’m such a good guy that I actually titled a newsletter “Please unsubscribe from my newsletter,” and encouraged people who never seem to open it to remove themselves from the list. Only one person did.

I don’t take unsubscribes personally. Often I subscribe to newsletters when I’m hot on a topic, then cool down later. Like everybody, I’m always trying to tame the email beast. I understand.

I know there’s a complicated way to clean my list. But I’m too busy.

I know I could also ask everyone to re-subscribe. But they’re busy too.

The government won’t start imposing penalties for three years. If I’ve done something wrong, I don’t have to worry. I may be cavorting in Bora Bora. As a small fish, I’m not  juicy target. Or maybe not. You never know if the government could go for a cash grab.

Will it deter the bad guys?

On the other hand, I’m concerned about how CASL will keep the bad guys out of my inbox. I don’t think the Nigerians are sweating, unless it’s from the African heat.

What’s more, I’m miffed about the exemptions.  For example, if your email address is on your web site (social media too?), the law considers you’re giving permission. If you have ever done business or have any other relationship, however tenuous, with the sender, you have given permission.

In most cases, the requirement for a quick unsubscribe will get you off the hook. Mind you, with really cheesy spam, I don’t click on the unsubscribe link, because it confirms that the spammer has reached an actual email address.

I need answers to my questions before July.  That’s why I want to hear lawyer Shaun Brown talk about the legislation at a free CASL webinar June 4 at 2pm EDT .

I am sending in some advance questions that he has promised to answer.

What do I have to do to verify that I have permission to send my newsletter to specific subscribers?

If I don’t do this perfectly over the next three years, will I be liable for penalties when they go into effect? Will they track me down in Bora Bora?

How will this keep the sleaziest spammers out of my inbox?

Should I remove my email address from my social media profiles?

Why pick on me? I’m a good guy.

Send your questions too.

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