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

Get results and respect by leveraging the best of talking and thinking

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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This is not a story

Monday, March 23, 2015 @ 08:03 AM
posted by Barbsawyers

You’re not telling a story if you don’t have a plot driven by conflict and characters people can identify with. Just ask any great storyteller, from Aesop to Stephen King.

Yet, many self-proclaimed brand storytellers are doing just that. Yes, they’re entertaining. But because they’re not telling a story, they can’t expect the same level of emotional engagement.

Here are two cases to illustrate my point: Cocoa Cola’s Open Happy animation about a red balloon and a commercial for the Pan Am Games, coming to Toronto this summer.

Another feel-good commercial

coke adIn the lovely, bouncy Coke piece, a red balloon peeks through apartment windows at happy gatherings, often fueled by coke, though there’s no rum in sight. I assume it was inspired by the Academy award-winning film, The Red Balloon.

But in that 1956 story, the personified balloon hung out in Paris with an endearing young boy. It hovered by Pascal’s window because his mother would not allow it into the apartment. Because they were friends, this never felt creepy. Over a half hour, a story unfolded of intimacy, adventure and soaring to new heights.

In contrast, the Coca Cola balloon simply spies through windows on strangers. Maybe Stephen Harper and the other politicians trying to normalize citizen surveillance are co-sponsoring it.

Plus nothing happens in this vignette. There is no plot. There is no hero, unless you count an inanimate peeping tom. There is no story.

While Coke sticks to its feel-good commercial tradition, the Pan Am organizers seem to be chasing opening credits.

Only a first chapter

I first saw the Pan Am ad, when it was unveiled at a local IABC (International Association of Business Communicators) seminar on brand storytelling. Like the Coke video, it was visually stunning and propelled by music, Ready or Not, no doubt inspired by the Fugees’ interpretation of the Delfonics original and their video about troops invading.

There is lots of action, as athletes run, swim, ride and otherwise race to Toronto. It could be the opening scene to a blockbuster story. On its own, it’s simply a mood-setting introduction.

There is no plot. There are too many characters to make it possible to identify with anyone.

Will they extend this opening battle cry into a story? Stay tuned. Or not.

Fire-breathing dragons

I’m not the marketing god who names new trends. But I am a communicator who takes seriously the need to avoid misleading labels. I know that you need dragons, not dressed-up dogs, if you want scary fire breathing.

Don’t assume you will reap the rewards of storytelling if you’re not telling a story. If you want to know how, you can read one of my earlier posts on basic storytelling structures and making magic. Or watch this quick presentation, Once Upon a Brand, that I will deliver at the Toronto IABC Rapido event tomorrow. To practice, take one of my storytelling workshops.

We all grew up reading fairy tales and watching movies and television. We continue to watch, read and tell stories. We know what storytelling is and is not.

I applaud how content marketers are injecting creativity and fun. Just don’t call them stories.

The Zen of approvals, think like a duck and more tips

Tuesday, February 17, 2015 @ 02:02 PM
posted by Barbsawyers

I remember it well. An hour until question period, news conference, statement time or another of the daily emergencies at Queen’s Park.

I’m riveted to the screen, fingers flying, synapses firing, adrenalin surging. A line forms at my office door– policy experts, the communication boss and political staff all waiting to review and revise from dramatically different perspectives.

I rely on the experts to make sure whatever I’m writing that day is technically accurate, my boss to reassure the deputy minister and other high-ups and the politicos to make sure I’ve created a memorable sound bite.

Because I’ve been well-briefed, the first draft goes smoothly. But during the second draft, with only minutes to spare, I start to feel like I’m in free fall. Time to sprout wings.

Based on the experts’ rushed revisions, I translate technical terms into plain English that people watching the news will understand. I keep my boss feeling productive with the inevitable gaffes he feels good about catching. I cater to the minister’s assistant by packing more punch while hastily weaving in mysterious feedback from party brass.

From tapestry to patchwork quilt and back

Because they’ve all made different changes, the statement, news release or whatever now looks like a patchwork quilt. I have to fix the flow and catch any flubs that could end up on the permanent record. Tick, tick, tick.



When I left government, I thought approvals would be easier. Often they were less time-crunched. But this meant more people mulled over the content. All organizations are political and the communication approvals process is often where it plays out.

Three kinds of approvers

Approvals, I realized, had less to do with bureaucracy and more to do with the culture of the organization I was writing for. But mostly approvals are influenced by the three kinds of people who had been standing outside my office door.

Read more at the Toronto IABC blog

Photo credit 

5 tips for writing for people whose English is not as good as yours

Wednesday, February 4, 2015 @ 08:02 AM
posted by Barbsawyers

You probably don’t want to sail over the heads of the growing portion of your customers and employees whose first language is not English.

Then there are the many people viewing your site from countries where English is not the main language. You want to connect with them too. That’s why you’re on the world wide web.

You can’t ignore two billion people

The British Council estimates that one billion people are actively learning English, a number that could double by 2020.

You don’t want to ignore all the people who don’t share your easy command of the language. Not if they matter to you or your business.20141010_115748

Many of the international students I teach want to improve their English to advance their careers. Negotiations among people in Brazil and China, for example, are often conducted in English.

In addition to formal education, many prospects are practicing their English, and spending money, through video games, e-stores and other personal interests they pursue online.

Learners will understand common nouns and verbs and basic grammar rules, but miss subtleties.

Most do not understand jargon or specialized terms of your profession. They’re learning from teachers in cultures with different terms and expressions. For example, people in Britain and India wear “trainers,” while North Americans sport “running shoes” or “sneakers.”

How they figure it out

To understand what your organization has to say or sell, ESL (English as a Second Language) readers and listeners are either looking up the words they don’t understand or trying to figure out their meaning from the context you provide.

They are taught to read, listen to or view your content twice, the first time for gist, or main thought, the second time for the details. Make it easy for them.

Listening and reading are usually easier than talking and writing, so many of your foreign site visitors, as well as immigrant employees and prospects, will grasp your main message if you apply these five tips.

  1. Keep it simple. While this is almost always good advice for a general audience, it’s even more important for the ESL segment.
  1. Stay away from, or provide context for, idioms that do not translate literally. For example, don’t assume everyone understands what “in the red” or “we’ve got your back” means.
  1. With words that vary according to country, offer alternatives. For example, today I saw an Old Navy ad for “rompers,” which we don’t say in Canada. Then I checked the Forever 21 site, that listed “rompers and jumpsuits.” I get it. So will ESL students, no matter where their English teachers and text books came from.
  1. Keep in mind that English learners will look up the unknown word on a translation tool, probably Google translate. So use words that will translate the way you intend.
  1. Provide enough context so English learners can figure out what you mean. In addition to words, this context can be provided through images, sounds and action.

To better understand how English learners feel, try brushing up on other languages by using the free site duo lingo or watching television or movies in other languages. It’s easier to write for people once you’ve walked a mile in their shoes—or should I say once you’ve shared their experience.

If English is your first language, thank your parents every day. That alone gives you a huge advantage in the global economy. But you still have to make the effort if ESL people are at all important to you.

Crave: a word I’m watching in 2015

Wednesday, January 7, 2015 @ 10:01 AM
posted by Barbsawyers

If you live in Canada, you’re probably hearing the word crave more often these days. If it’s not the new President’s Choice slogan Crave more, it’s Bell’s Crave TV.

These examples show how the word is evolving in divergent directions: as a reasoned choice that covers healthy food with the President’s Choice or as an uncontrollable response with Bell.

Gut reaction

Crave has been typically used to describe an urgent, visceral desire, such as a pregnant woman’s craving for pickles or my recent craving for shortbread cookies. People also say they crave, or deeply desire, attention from a loved one, a hot beach in frigid winter or steamy sex. Increasingly, they use crave to describe the incessant pull of addictions, such as a craving for sugar, cigarettes or cocaine.

That’s what I found when I looked up crave in the Corpus of Contemporary American English. However, this compilation of how and how often words are used in media, academia and other places goes up to only 2012. So allow me to speculate on the short-term linguistic evolution of crave based on these two campaigns.

While the President’s Choice campaign embraces the food tie-in, it goes further to suggest that craving applies to “the new, the next, and the never been done.”

logo-pc-crave-more_enToo much elasticity?

That’s stretching it. Even though I want them, I wouldn’t say that I crave new shoes, a spring vacation or cars that fly above clogged expressways.

Springier still, the web copy continues: “We crave exotic tastes and local sources. More yum and less sodium.”

No. Although I regularly enjoy kimchi and kale, which I grow in my backyard, I don’t crave them the same way I do Reese’s peanut butter cups.

What’s more, I don’t crave less sodium, even though I try to consume less salt. Nutritionists encourage us to fight our cravings for salty and sweet. Opting for less is a rational choice, not a craving.

President’s Choice is not the only company trying to extend the definition of craving from visceral reactions to wise choices. A web search revealed many health food producers and restaurants that use crave in their name or slogan. It’s a trend.

Shut up, I get it

Because they were twisting the meaning of crave, the President’s Choice marketing strategists had to use words to explain. In contrast, the folks at CraveTV assume we know. They let images from their most popular programming demonstrate the urgent, visceral interpretation of the word.

crave tv logoTheir web copy is based primarily on program lists and price, with the kicker: Get ready to say “Just one more episode.” Just like beer or cookies.

Although I was not at their analytic-bejewelled table, I’ll bet they were inspired by all the talk about Internet addiction and Netflix’ use of bingeing, which demonstrates how television viewing behaviour has evolved from one show at one fixed time, to watch when you want, to keep watching till you pass out.

Language evolves

Although the definition of crave may be hip hopping this year, it has never stood still.  Almost nobody uses the Germanic-rooted, Middle English sense of “This problem craves (has a right to demand) a solution.” In recent years, more people have described addictions and other gut-driven behaviour as cravings.

Both President’s Choice and Bell have the budgets to research and test every word they use. They did not choose crave lightly.

But by bouncing a word off growing usage rather than trying to stretch the meaning themselves, I predict the binge-watching sense of crave will flourish, while the healthy foodie stretch will wane. Then again, language can evolve in unexpected ways.

Crave: a word to watch this year.

Any others that have caught your attention?

Five reasons to left-load your copy

Monday, December 8, 2014 @ 09:12 AM
posted by Barbsawyers

Start your next post, page or pitch with the point you want to make  — not history, context, puffery or other words that aren’t essential to your readers. This will keep what’s important on the top left of the page, where people focus.

For example, you’ll often read news releases that begin like this:
“Santina R. Claus, CEO and Chairman of Christmas Enterprises, bringing joy to children since 1603, today announced her 2014 travel itinerary, which will span the globe, from Siberia to South Africa…”

Instead, it should read:
“Santina Claus will start in northern Russia this year.” That is intriguing news for both media and curious children.

The result:
“Santina Claus will start in northern Russia this year, the CEO and chairman of Christmas Enterprises announced today.”

Save “bringing joy to children since 1603” until after you have summarized her itinerary.

Often the people you’re writing for want to start with descriptions of their size, success, mission or something else they are proud of. Honoring their wishes may keep them happy at first. But not nearly as happy as they’ll be if readers actually read and remember their point or their content is widely shared.

Alternatively, maybe you’ve included words that don’t need to be there, in your messy first draft. Sweep away this clutter in your tidy second draft.

1. Write for your immediate reader

If you’re crafting a news release, you need to write it just like journalists would. Otherwise, they could miss your point or skip your content because they’re too busy to rewrite.

Similarly, if you’re writing a pitch to prospects, lead with what’s most important to them.

Left-loading works with most other readers too, pretty much anyone who is more interested in what’s in it for me than in what the person you’re writing for is proud of.

This is even more important than it used to be.


2. Cater to mobile readers

Online readers, especially those on mobile, focus on the left, according to eye tracking tests. In fact, one of the tips shared by Ann Handley at the recent meshmarketing conference in Toronto, was to make sure the first few words on the left side of your content rivet your readers. That’s all they may read.

3. Squeeze into small spaces

With Twitter and other social media, it also makes sense to focus on the beginning. If you go on for too long before you excite your readers or make your point, you may have exhausted your character quota or their attention span.

Left-loading will also help ensure your keywords are front and centre, for search engine spiders to easily spot.

4. Short works

As you continue to write, you can keep your important words appearing on the left through short sentences and paragraphs. This will also make your content easier to read, understand and remember.

I’m not suggesting that you should never start a sentence with a description or subordinate clause. To maintain interest and add emphasis, you need to vary your sentence structure. But I am insisting on left-loading for the first paragraph or two.

5. Goof proof

For time-crunched writers, simplicity is the best way to avoid grammar errors and foggy meanings. Consider the tendency to mismatch words and phrases. For example, “With regional offices in 20 countries, Santina R. Claus today announced her 2014 travel itinerary…”  “Regional offices” do not sync with “Santina R. Claus.” Besides, few people care about how big the company is. It’s all about Santina.

In other cases, words that don’t fit may slide in. Such as:“With regional offices in 20 countries, Christmas Enterprises also… ”

Yes, also, even though it’s not in addition to anything else. I saw this today in a news release from a company that shall remain nameless. And I’ve seen bloopers like this countless times from writers who are busier than Santina’s elves this time of year.

Keep it simple!

By all means, include what your client, boss or other approver loves. But first make the essential point

To revise right-loaded copy, you can simply flip the essential and nonessential clauses in your first sentence.  Better still, turn the essential clause into a short sentence, followed by another that summarizes the other stuff.

If you have to explain to your client, boss or content matter expert why you are insisting on left-loading your words, you can summarize it like this:

  1. So people with short attention spans will read and remember the main point.
  2. So people reading online, especially on mobile devices, will actually see the words.
  3. So you won’t run out of characters or attention span on social media.
  4. To keep it simple and readable.
  5. To avoid mistakes and confusion.

Got it? Now get back to work, you busy elves.

Photo credit.

Letter to my younger freelance self

Thursday, November 20, 2014 @ 02:11 PM
posted by Barbsawyers

So you’re leaving the sanctuary of the corporate world, trading the steady pay cheque for the chance for greater excitement and fulfillment.

You don’t want people to tell what to do or how to do it. You’ve had enough bosses. You’re eager to fly.me40

But let me tell you what you need to know before you embark on this romantic quest, knowledge earned from my 20+ years as a freelance writer and communication planner.

You may be anxious now, but don’t fret too much about fleeing safety. The corporate world is about to become less secure. After recessions, technology and global competition, many companies will shed employees as if they’re fading glamour stars.

Fortunately for you, fewer jobs-for-life will mean more opportunity for freelancers, independents and consultants of all stripes.

The words of change

This change and uncertainty will also expand your vocabulary. You’ll learn to wield “restructuring” and a slew of words invented to shine up this rough reality.

You’ll also learn tech vocabulary. Terms like “systems migration” will roll of your tongue. Really.

Sharing will no longer be limited to giving a hungry pal half your sandwich or revealing your deep secrets.

You’ll also try to master BTW (by the way) and many other initials, once everyone starts communicating on tiny portable phones. LOL.

These tiny phones will also connect most people to the office all the time, or 24/7 as you’ll say.

Spoiler alert

When you have children, you’ll be relieved your clients’ office rarely extends into your home.  Train your clients to apologize when they call late. They’ll have young kids too.

Oops. I’m supposed to share my wisdom more than dazzle you with glimpses of how your personal life will change.

However, while I’m on spoiler alert, I can’t resist advising you to get rid of that new office you’re enjoying so much, buy a house and work there. Not just because it will help you with your growing family responsibilities, but also because it will turn out to be a kick-ass investment.

Yes, younger self, respectable people will say ass—and worse.

That’s enough new vocabulary. On to the tips that will sustain you.

Words of wisdom

When you’re working from home, you’ll need to make a point of getting out more, especially to fitness classes and networking events at the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC).

You’ll also  need to make sure that home, especially the fridge and television, doesn’t become a distraction. Hire people more often to clean, paint and take on other chores you’ll be tempted to do when you should be marketing.

You’ll fiercely deny this advice when you’re crazy busy. But during those no-work mornings at the gym you’ll realize all too well how wise always-be-marketing is.

Don’t put your eggs into one or two baskets. Often your regular clients will seem like more than enough. But when they lose their jobs in this brave new world, you will too.

While you now think that freelancing means you’ll be your own boss, never forget that every client, most prospects and even chance encounters will be your master. Make sure you stick with the nice ones.

Make friends

That’s right. If you’re good enough, and you are, you can select clients almost as much as they choose you.

Having nice clients, suppliers and other work friends will encourage long-term relationships to blossom. If you hop from project to project, you’ll burn out. And you’ll get lonely.

Empathy will help, on both social and professional levels. You’ll need to read your clients’ minds and divine the hearts and souls of the people they want to communicate with.

Many of your long-term clients will become loyal buds, part of the rich tapestry of work, family and friends the freelance life can weave.

Learn to live with the reality that you will never have time and money together. Either you will be working long hours, but have lots coming in, or going to the gym during the day so you don’t worry  about where you’ll get your next gig.

Sharpen your tools

Hold onto that Mac. You will be tempted to switch to a PC because of lower costs and, at first, easier communication with clients. But you will be more creative, instead of bored silly by memorizing commands. You’ll be surprised by what inspires you.

Keep up your French, even if your best practice opportunities are television and trips to francophone countries.

On that subject, take more holidays, real holidays, with no kids or parents.

After all, you’ll never see written on the tombstone of a long-time freelancer: She spent too much time at the beach.

That brings me to one final piece of wisdom: Wear your bikini more often. Twenty plus years from now, you’ll understand why.

Good luck, younger self. Good laughs too.

Now if I could only channel my older self, to advise me on the next 20 or so years.

9 ways to look like a pro

Friday, November 14, 2014 @ 12:11 PM
posted by Barbsawyers

business writingYou’re busy. You’re cranking out tons of content every day, from emails to strategies to product pages.

Too overwhelmed to capture your brand, articulate your key message, click with your key audience?  Too stressed to tighten and show you respect your readers’ time? Too rushed to find mistakes spellcheck can’t catch or capitalize consistently?

Unfortunately, in today’s busy world, the critical step of rewriting and self-editing is too often given short shrift, by even the smartest and most seasoned communication pros.

Rewriting entails standing back and taking a look at the big picture. Self-editing means focusing on the details. Although you may do this more with big content and big objectives, don’t forget that emails, social media updates and other small content will also benefit from this scrutiny.

To be efficient with your time, here’s what to focus on:

Retouch the big picture

Read more at Toronto IABC.

Warning: This post is not about the overused, trivial “awesome,” which I provided alternatives for in my most popular post. What I want to talk about today is how you can inspire awe.

Awe, in its best sense, is rarely specified in advice on what makes content go viral in posts such as The Science of Viral Content, The Often Forgotten Viral Content Marketing Tactic and 13 Lessons from Upworthy and Buzzfeed.

But many awe factors, such as emotion, surprise and social activism, are woven through their share-worthy observations.

For the busy people who want the quick goods, here are five tips I gleaned from poring over research about awe.

  1. Write about an idea that will transform the individual’s way of looking at the world. This can range from discovering a new planet or a cure for the common cold to a new way to put on your eyeliner or clean your floor.
  2. Connect the dots in a way that nobody saw before. Like Copernicus discovering that the universe revolved around the sun, not the earth. Or Steve Jobs’ understanding of the hunger for an intuitive interface, instead of robotic computer commands.
  3. Feed steroids to beautiful, admirable, surprising, joyful, loving, scary and ground-breaking. If you think a Monet painting is beautiful, you will stare at it for a few minutes. If you’re in awe of the painting, you may start viewing lush landscapes from this perspective.
  4. Star powerful people who are bigger and shinier than the individual. Following a charismatic leader, whether it’s Osama bin Laden or Kim Kardashian, makes people do things they’d be afraid to do, or feel little point in doing, on their own.
  5. Think religion, social advocacy, politics and other good and uniting causes, the bigger the better. People want to belong to something that transcends themselves.

Why this works

For those patient, or skeptical, readers who want to know how I came up with these tips, keep reading.

I was inspired by a post from the New York Times about a 2010 University of Pennsylvania study that found its most-emailed posts tended to be longer, the theme of my last post.

For days, nattering away at the back of my mind, was the revelation that the most-shared posts relied on way more than word count. Above and beyond any other factor, Jonah Berger and Katherine A. Milkman found that they inspired awe.

Let me stress that I’m not talking about the banal use of awesome or the trivial kind of content that goes viral. I too share quizzes, dog videos and other content that would fit into this category, but awe is the objective here.

As the Pennsylvania research found, the content that has the longest legs inspires awe, which explains why scientific breakthroughs were so widely shared by Times’ readers.

The researchers defined awe as an “emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.” Immense in scale, awe forces the reader to view the world in a radically different way.

According to an interesting article in the Huffington Post, awe-inspiring experiences can make you happier, less stressed and more creative. True.

But what I found most helpful in searching for the key to awesomeness and virality was a 2003 indepth study of awe in religion, sociology, philosophy and psychology by Dachter Keltner at the University of California at Berkeley and Jonathon Haidt of the University of Virginia, big influencers on the Pennsylvania concept of awe.

What inspires awe?

Citing the examples of Arjuna in the Hindu Bhagavad Gita and Paul of Damascus from the Bible, they pointed out how their god revealed knowledge that profoundly changed the hero’s worldview.

From sociology, they borrowed Max Weber’s analysis of charismatic leaders, such as Buddha, Ghandi, Hitler and Martin Luther King. By inspiring awe, they persuaded people to embark on heroic, self-sacrificing missions.

In philosophy, they looked to Edmund Burke’s writing on the sublime, which involves expanded thought and greatness of mind, inspired by art, literature and nature.

They also compared awe to what psychologist Abraham Maslow’s found in peak experiences, which includes disorientation, suspension of time and submission in the presence of something greater than yourself.

Although frequently hopeful, awe can also scary. For example, during an earthquake, you could be awestruck by the shaking, bangs and the earth opening up in ways you never thought possible.

People often feel awe during times of crisis, when they need to shed a way of thinking that no longer makes sense. This may explain why those jihadi cries go viral with distressed young men.

Can awe pass today’s share test?

Of course, all this deep thinking that has gone on for centuries is not worth a hill of beans to you if awe doesn’t play a role in going viral. What’s more, the University of Pennsylvania research involved The New York Times, which may have an older, better educated demographic than you’re trying to please.

Plus, the study focused on emailing, a far more popular way of sharing when the study was done five years ago. Maybe today’s social media platforms rely less on awe. But relying on the wisdom of the ages is worth a try.

So the next time you create content that you want to be awesome in the best sense, ask yourself does it

  • transform the individual’s way of looking at the world
  • explain something important in a brand new way
  • show something extremely beautiful, admirable, joyful, surprising or ground-breaking
  • star charismatic people
  • provide a noble cause the individual can belong to?

Seriously awesome content often does not hit all these buttons. But it must hit a few.

The more awe factors, the better

Take the example of this slick music video that publicized the launch of BBC Music.

The video lets us interpret an old song in new ways, with a mix of styles and vocalists, all charismatic music leaders. They performed in unexpected settings, such as a tiger climbing on creator Brian Wilson’s piano. I was in awe, as were the millions of people who shared this video. However, unlike other videos that use a roster of stars to reimagine classic hits to champion world peace or raise money for hunger, this one does not make people feel they belong to a noble social cause.

In contrast, this amateur video  about a homeless man playing piano in Edmonton changes perceptions of disadvantaged people. It bonded people who want to help. But did Rob have the charisma to attract followers? Probably not. Ironically, the lack of charisma and slick production values made this video more awesome to me.

So what does this mean for content creators who want more shares? In a nutshell, the more awe factors, the better.

At last week’s Meshmarketing conference, Ann Handley pointed to the large number of viral post titles that contain the words “mind-blowing,”  evidence that content marketers are pursuing the seriously shareable meaning of awesome.

Or as Trudy, the schizo bag lady in the play In Search of Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe would have said, creators of seriously awesome content are going for goose bumps.

Content: the long and the short of it

Monday, November 3, 2014 @ 10:11 AM
posted by Barbsawyers

Should I write long or short content? That’s a question frequently raised by content marketers.

Before you decide, you need to clarify what your objective is. Shares, hits, emails, search engine rankings, quality leads, sales or some slippery dream?

I’ve heard so many respected people debate the issue, yet reach no consensus. So when my friend Sue Horner recently wrote about the need to write short for impatient people, I decided to revisit some of the research.

Short-haired-DachshundBusy readers

Like Sue, I strongly believe that short content is usually the best. We are all busy.

Plus I’m put off by content that’s unnecessarily long, because the creator has not bothered, or doesn’t know how, to keep content concise. Clue: think clearly before writing and chop like crazy after.

I fall asleep over long content by authors still trying to satisfy an old professor’s word-count requirements. I’ve worked with too many well-educated people who think that efforts to tighten their writing, or make it easier to understand, mean they’re being dumbed them down.

Smarten up

The opposite is true, as anyone knows who has wrangled hundreds of words into a tight tagline.

Still, I’d read many successful people who claimed better results from longer content. And let me confess that I often enjoy longer content, when the writing style is enthralling as Copyblogger or the posts as indepth as the venerable Atlantic.

On the other hand, I love the short posts of Seth Godin and appreciate writers who can say much in few words. I have fun snacking on content bits on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

I know Google favors long, in-depth content over thin content. I’ve even had editors tell me to pad guest posts so they reach the 500-word threshold. Now Googles wants more.

More than algorithms

But while everyone wants to rank highly in search, smart content creators know that pleasing the robots is only the beginning.

Sue’s post was inspired by Jakob Nielsen, the usability expert we’re both fans of. His research confirms that people spend seconds scanning content. I agree, especially when it comes to email.

But let’s listen to some other experts. According to Salma Jafri at Search Engine Watch, the decision on length should depend on several factors.

Examine your needs

Newer businesses should focus on shorter, shareable content, she advised, while industry heavyweights should pour their expertise into longer content. Also consider your personal style, content goals, whether it’s being consumed on a small or large device, your audience’s preferences and the requirements of your topic.

For example, you can’t unravel the complexities of the Middle East conflict, quantitative easing or stem cell research in a few hundred words, though you can tweet a pithy quote on each one.

Note that Salma, whose post was about 1,000 words, is a fairly tight writer. However, she repeated some of her main ideas in text boxes, bullets and charts. This not only helped her reach the magic 1,000-word mark, but also let scanning readers consume the information in the way they prefer, confirming the wisdom of my last post.

Some of the research on content length is individual. Take the example of Neil Patel, whose comparative testing of his own content revealed that people were more like to buy more with longer content. He also found that longer content resulted in more tweets, likes and shares on social media.

Length can add weight

His findings hold up on some larger samples, notably a more comprehensive study from the University of Pennsylvania of the most emailed posts from the New York Times. A  study by Buzzsumo also found that longer content was more likely to be shared.

Let me stress that none of the long-content proponents support flabby writing. Quality still trumps quantity. The longer your content, the more need for a weighty anchor idea and the more time you should spend nipping and tucking. Make every word count.

My advice

From my meta-review of this and other research Google ranks highly, here are my conclusions:

If you’re writing an email, social post or other routine content, write short content.

If you’re not a gifted writer, or won’t spend the money on a professional writer or editor, write short content.

If you don’t have time to revise and shorten, write short content.

But if what you have to say is deep and complex, and you have a way with words, don’t be afraid of longer content.

If your content isn’t all that deep and complex, but you’re determined to appease the search gods, express your ideas in different ways, to reflect different reader preferences.

Consider the dachshund. Content can be long, yet compact.

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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…

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