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What worked and what slacked in how-to posts people wrote for a Problogger challenge, plus my five steps for composing a how-to post. I wish the person who wrote instructions for my smartphone, pot light bulbs and anti-aging cream had read this.
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.
“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:
- So people with short attention spans will read and remember the main point.
- So people reading online, especially on mobile devices, will actually see the words.
- So you won’t run out of characters or attention span on social media.
- To keep it simple and readable.
- To avoid mistakes and confusion.
Got it? Now get back to work, you busy elves.
So you’re leaving the sanctuary of the corporate world, trading the steady pay cheque for the chance for greater excitement and fulfillment.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Think religion, social advocacy, politics and other good and uniting causes, the bigger the better. People want to belong to something that transcends themselves.
For those patient, or skeptical, readers who want to know how I came up with these tips, keep reading.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
Like 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