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?

Top 14 of 14: 1. Alternatives to calling everything awesome

Wednesday, December 31, 2014 @ 08:12 AM
posted by Barbsawyers

fireworksThis has been my top post for four years running. Most days, it gets the most page views. It’s been on Reddit. Someone wrote a song about it. That’s as close as I expect to come to viral.

None of the suggestions listed here, by me and my readers, is earth-shattering. But they are an improvement to the tedium of hearing the same, often-inappropriate word over and over.

Although awesome may still be one of the most overused words in the English language, this interest assures me that many people are trying to express themselves originally. Let’s try harder  in 2015. Pretty please.

Happy new year.

Image credit

Top 14 of 14: 2. Me, myself and I

Monday, December 29, 2014 @ 06:12 PM
posted by Barbsawyers

I shiver every time I hear someone say: “Jane and myself are going to Mars for new year’s eve,” or “The cake was baked by Jane and myself.” Let’s ignore the rare other cases where it’s fine to use “myself.” To be on the safe side, limit yourself to when you did something on your own, as “I spent new year’s eve by myself” or I baked the cake myself.”

Misusing “myself” is common grammar mistake, often made by people who are trying to hard to sound proper. Take it easy: make it correct.

Image creditsnob

Top 14 of 14: 3. Don’t pick the low-hanging fruit first

Sunday, December 28, 2014 @ 01:12 PM
posted by Barbsawyers

Fruit ripens where the sun first kisses, at the top of the tree. What’s more, many marketers are sick of admonitions to pick the low-hanging fruit. Still, we keep hearing this over-worked term, low-hanging fruit.

Please help me come up with a juicy replacement.


Top 14 of 14: 4. Aim for the biggest, easiest grammar targets

Saturday, December 27, 2014 @ 09:12 AM
posted by Barbsawyers

If you’re resolving to do one thing better in your writing next year, I recommend you try to avoid the biggest, fattest mistake. You’ll be easier to understand. And you’ll stand out.

Image credittarget

Top 14 of 14: 5. 2015 will not be a paradigm shift

Friday, December 26, 2014 @ 10:12 AM
posted by Barbsawyers

A paradigm shift requires you to throw away what you thought before, like Copernicus’s discovery that the planets revolved around the sun meaning he could no longer claim they danced to the earth.

A paradigm shift is not a transition, as some thinkers and business leaders have suggested.

We are in a transition from a manufacturing to an information era. Although information technology has changed manufacturing, it has not replaced it.  Your CEO’s talk of a paradigm shift is probably more about transition too.

Don’t be fooled. Look smart.download (5)



Top 14 of 14: 6. Let’s throw this expression under the bus

Wednesday, December 24, 2014 @ 09:12 AM
posted by Barbsawyers

Although my rant against “throw under the bus” is more than a year old, it doesn’t seem to have made a dent in the over-use of this expression. Let me again appeal to your higher linguistic instincts to come up with a more original phrase.

bus2Photo credit 

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