4 Ways to Avoid ‘Yuck!’

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The other day, I opened my front door to a headless bunny.

It was another present from DC, my cat, who was just sharing. Although I appreciate DC’s generosity, it really isn’t my thing.

It got me thinking about how writers may have the best intentions to share information, but how those intentions can go wrong.

In DC’s mind, she was doing great things. So how can a writer avoid the sometimes mistaken idea that what she writes is being well received? How can she avoid sharing with a cat’s attitude and getting “yuck” for her efforts?

Just because you think something is a great idea doesn’t mean everyone thinks it is. DC saw the bunny as a nice, juicy tidbit–a gourmet meal. Writers must avoid the “me”-centered attitude. It’s all about the audience, the readers. If their needs aren’t met, all the writing in the world can’t force them to accept the information.

Make sure you evoke the right emotion. DC was convinced I’d be really pleased and grateful. Those were not my initial emotions.  How can writers bring out the desired reaction? The first step is to determine exactly what we want our readers to feel. Is it longing? Is it satisfaction? Then we carefully choose the words that will create a mind picture that resonates with those emotions.

Let the writing “cook” awhile before presenting it. DC’s into fresh meat. Writers, on the other hand, need to put aside those first drafts to clear their minds. In the heat of writing, we are often too close to what we’re writing for an objective assessment. We need a little distance for effective revision.

Learn and move on. When I didn’t immediately gobble up DC’s little present, she didn’t let it go to waste. If we don’t get quite the reaction we expect from our writing, we should evaluate why, learn from it, and use that knowledge in the future.

Our best intentions—whether by a cat or a writer—sometimes don’t get the reactions we expect. For cats, the world always operates in feline fashion. Writers can’t afford that attitude. We have audiences to satisfy.

Let’s Put It in Context

Beatles Revolver AlbumDuring a discussion about music with some students the other day, I admitted I have trouble picking out the words in songs. Voices tend to become instruments. Even after 50 years, I still don’t know the lyrics to most Beatles songs.

“I don’t like the Beatles,” a metal lover said. “They’re too happy.”

Immediately “Eleanor Rigby” popped into my head.

I got to thinking about it later. For someone who has grown up in an environment of heavy metal, electronic technology, and a wide range of musical styles, the Beatles might seem very tame indeed.

Of course, he was viewing them out of context.

If I magically transported him back to 1966 and showed him what life was like 50 years ago, he would understand how really radical the Revolver album was. No one was doing what the Beatles were doing on the scale they were doing it.

How do we put our writing into context for our readers? How do we surround our ideas with the environmental nuances they need for full understanding? How do we pick the words that will give our readers the proper “flavor”?

We all know how context keeps us out of trouble. Here are my suggestions for providing it:

  • It’s all about the audience. Know what your audience doesn’t know and provide the information they need.
  • The audience doesn’t need to know everything. Just provide what is needed for understanding. If you try to cram all the information down your readers’ throats, they’ll gag on it.
  • Try to put yourself in your readers’ shoes. I was a little shocked at the term “too happy” for the Beatles, but once I looked at it from my student’s perspective, it made sense. Changing your perspective helps you understand your audience.
  • Use relevant vocabulary. You wouldn’t use Elizabethan English for dialog among inner city youths or Ebonics for a business presentation. Sometimes it is hard to know what words are best. The slightest shade of meaning can affect how the reader views things. That’s part of revision and the struggle to be a good writer.
  • Use words to paint a mental picture. We’re visual animals, even more so now that we can’t escape visual technologies. It is important to use description and examples to help illustrate ideas, to connect with the reader.

Sometimes, especially in everyday business writing, we forget how important context is to good communication.  We can avoid misunderstanding by providing a mental setting for our ideas.

The Tale of a Storytelling Coed

I didn’t have a television my first year at college. What I did have was Stephanie.

When we were really bored and didn’t have any money to go to The Pub, we’d sit around and listen toThe-Magic-Circle_0 Stephanie talk. It wasn’t that she was a genius or she had a funny accent. She just had a way of making things flow together that kept us enthralled for hours.

I guess you could call her a storyteller except there was never a set beginning, middle, or end. (In fact, if we let her, I’m sure she’d still be in that dorm room talking away.) She would just start speaking and stringing things together, weaving a spell of words.

She would use humor. She would use description. She would use transitions. She would make connections with the listeners. She would show relevance. She would throw twists into the storyline – lots of twists.

She could make the most ordinary thing interesting.

Those are the techniques writers need to use no matter what we write. It’s a real skill to make the ordinary fascinating. I strive to use Stephanie’s approach to make my own ideas appealing. I’m not always successful, but that goal is always in front of me.

Many folks may think that storytelling has no place in the business world. That’s not true.

When we tell the story of our business, we connect with clients and customers on a very basic, very human level.  When we use the stories of others, we can transform an obscure concept into something understandable and relatable.

I have this vision of Stephanie living in the Dark Ages. She’d have a group of villagers rapt as they sat around a fire listening to her. She may have been considered a wise woman. Either that, or she would have been burned at the stake as a witch.

Maybe I’ll call her and see what she thinks. I’ll just need several hours of spare time and an extra, charged phone.

Who Cares About What We Write?

Writing AudienceWho cares?

Who cares about what we’re writing?

Answering this is essential when we write almost anything. It is the “who” – the audience – that will determine what and how we write.

“I write what I want people to know,” is the attitude many writers take.  How do we determine that’s what people want?

Very few readers, especially in the age of electronic media, have the time or patience to read anything that doesn’t immediately interest them or that includes information they don’t really need. As a result, we must look at who will care about what we write.

Ask the Questions

How do we go about doing that? The first thing is to consider some essential questions:

  • What does our audience already know?
  • What are the audience characteristics?
  • What does the audience need or want to get out of the information we’re giving them?
  • How might our audience use the information?
  • How can we package our content to meet the readers’ needs?

Paint a Picture

Answering these questions is important, but we need to start somewhere.  One thing that is helpful is to come up with a reader persona. Sit down and create a character to write for. For instance, it may be Sylvia who is a middle-aged, married, professional woman with teenaged children. Or it could be Jamal, a thirty-something owner of a small accounting firm in a medium-sized Midwestern city.

These two different characters will have different needs as well as background that we, as writers, need to keep in mind.

Mine the Internet

Getting background information on our potential readers is getting easier and easier because of the Internet. I have a business friend who has encouraged me to delve into GoggleAnalytics. It is positively fascinating some of the information I can mine from that!

There are other ways to get information. Go up on Twitter or Tumblr to find out what is trending. If you’re writing marketing copy, check out the business’s customer demographics. Business writers should determine if the readers are executives, employees, regulators, or customers. Fiction authors can cruise fan pages – theirs and other writers’.

Once we know who we’re writing for, it makes it much easier to come up with the what and how of our content. We’ll know how to package it to make it more attractive to our readers. That, in turn, will make our writing that much more successful.

Next week: Headlines Matter.

7 Critical Content Concerns

me-me nametagNobody likes a braggart. On the other hand, if you’re in business, silence is deadly.

How do we market our businesses without being either of these?

There’s a fine line we have to walk when it comes to content.  If we keep the idea of quiet confidence in mind, it can help us avoid falling one way or the other. So let’s look at some techniques that can work as guide ropes for us.

  • It’s the customer, dummy! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (until I’m blue in the face if I have to), it’s what the customer needs or wants that’s important. We can have the niftiest product or service the world has ever seen, but if the customer doesn’t need or want it, it is all for naught.
    So, go from, “This is the greatest thingamajig you’ve ever seen!” to “This is how our thingamajig can make your life better.”
  • Headlines matter. Those bold snippets of information grab readers and draw them into the actual content. Great headlines are hard to write. Don’t get too cutesy or clever, and never leave a grammatical error. Headlines should cause folks to keep seeking more.
  • What we say is important. Flashy animation and pretty designs are great, but it all comes down to the information and how we offer it to our readers. If what we say isn’t clear or doesn’t meet the readers’ requirements, we get nowhere.
  • So are looks. Although what we say is vital, the way things look is also important. A pleasing or interesting layout that highlights our content is what we should strive for as well as ease of use for the reader.
  • Get the right attitude. Remember, we want to be quietly confident in how we approach potential and current customers. We all know people who are constantly telling us about all the people they know and all the great things they do. They’re rather annoying and actually come across as a bit desperate. On the other hand, the people who state things with confidence without feeling compelled to be the brightest star in the sky are the ones we tend to gravitate toward and trust.
  • Change is constant. If we try something and it isn’t working, we must analyze the problem and adjust what we’re doing. Nothing is written in stone; everything is open to revision.
  • Content needs nurturing. One of the biggest mistakes people make is to set up content then leave it alone. Our content is our relationship with our readers, customers, and prospects; it needs maintenance to retain the connection.

These are a few things we need to keep in mind when we’re marketing ourselves, our services, and our products. I’ll investigate each of these in more detail in my Monday posts over the next several weeks, so stay tuned.

What do you think of these points, and how do you deal with them?

A Frustrating Phrase to Focus On

It dependsWe all knew what was coming. Most of the students groaned internally, some even audibly.

With a twinkle in his eye, Professor Phil Doughty answered the question with his favorite phrase: “It depends.”

That response is as frustrating now as it was when I was a graduate student at Syracuse University more than a decade ago. It’s frustrating, but it is also wise.

A lot of people approach problems in a binary sort of way — is it this, or is it that? Unfortunately, life isn’t that tidy, which is where “it depends” comes in. We have to consider lots of factors when we approach a problem and consider solutions.

Writers need to consider many variables when we face our screens (or pages).

“Wait! I’m not solving a problem when I write.”

We actually do solve problems – we provide information to meet the needs of others. Every writer does, even fiction writers. (The problem: how do I escape from my hum drum life for a while?)

So, how do we take “it depends” and convert it into something useful? Here are the things we need to look at when we write:

  • Desired outcome(s) – We always have to keep in mind what we’d like to see come from what we’re doing. Keep a picture in your head of what the outcome will be like. Will the reader buy the product, become a loyal follower, successfully complete a training module, or buy our novel?
  • Reader needs – What does the reader need to reach the outcome? Where does the reader stand and what do we need to provide to successfully get her to the desired outcome?
  • Other stakeholder needs – Let’s face it; most of us are writing for someone else: a client, a boss, a publisher. When we look at outcomes, we also have to look at what these stakeholders require. Do they need to increase sales by five percent over a year? Do they need 100 percent of their employees to successfully complete training? Do they need a blockbuster fantasy novel to boost their sales? Do they need 100,000 blog followers to promote their products or services?
  • Tools and methods – Once we know what we must achieve and what our readers and stakeholders need to get there, we have to match up the correct tools and methods. Web writing or long writing? Bullet lists or paragraphs? Chapters or hyperlinks?

Yeah, yeah. I know this sounds like a lot of work. Why can’t we just sit down and write? Well, we could do that, but our writing probably won’t be as effective; it won’t get us to where we need to be as successfully.

Will doing all this front end work make us better writers? It depends…

How to Spark the Romance When You Write

There she was, sitting in her ratty, old bathrobe. She brought the coffee cup to her lips, her face unwashed, her teeth unbrushed, her hair a wild mess.

She grunted as her hands reached out to caress its keyboard. If it could, her computer would have shaken its monitor.

“Where has all the romance gone?” it thought.

On the cusp of Valentine’s Day, we’re reminded that, as writers, we often have performance issues.

“What am I supposed to blog about today?” we think, casting around for something new but falling back on the same old routine.

Just as in a romantic relationship, once we have a long-term commitment, we tend to take it for granted.

“He (she, it) will always be there,” we think, so we just stop making the extra effort.

How do we put the romance — the spark — back into our writing process? Here are some of my ideas.

Procrastination is bad!

We all know those people (some of us are those people) who wait until the last minute to buy that Valentine’s Day card or present. What are they left with? Sappy, ugly cards and half-dead flowers.

When we write, we need to allow ourselves time to give our full attention to our writing. If we don’t, well, it ends up being, “Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am.” It gets done, but it’s not pretty.

Don’t limit it to one “day.”

How many people do you know buy their loves all kinds of wonderful, expensive presents on Valentine’s Day but bring nothing home the rest of the year? News flash: doing little things throughout the year means a heck of a lot more.

The same goes for our writing. Don’t save your best for that one, “big” work. When we think about our audience all the time, we’ll pick up things here and there that we want to share. We’ll say, “Oh! That’s good! I’ll have to blog about that.”

It’s never about me.

Writers fall into this trap all the time, and it’s tough getting out. We write what we want to say and forget about what our reader needs or wants. It’s, “Me! Me! Me!”

If I had a lover like that, I’d slap him silly. Since our readers can’t slap us, they’ll just ignore us. That’s worse.

It takes a continuous effort.

Relationships and writing require a constant effort to keep them vibrant. When we set things aside to do them later, we end up with a mess. I call this “The Dishwashing Principle.”

Listen, I hate washing dishes, but the more I put it off, the bigger the pile gets. The bigger the pile gets, the less I want to wash them.

The same goes for writing. If you are faced with having a pile of things to write, you get overwhelmed. That’s why writing every day (something, anything) is important. It may not be the final product, but you’ll be amazed how many ideas for a final product you can get that way.

Spontaneity is good!

Sometimes we just have to do something completely off the wall to push our lovers or readers out of the humdrum. We remember the things that are special, not the everyday things.

The good news is that we don’t have to be spontaneous all the time. (Then it wouldn’t be spontaneity, would it?) But we do have to remember to throw that curve ball once in a while to keep things interesting.

Like any good relationship, we need to take the time and make the effort to “romance” our readers. The result can be amazing.

Hmmm. Maybe tomorrow I ought to get dressed before I sit down to write.