How to Help Your Audience Zoom In On What Matters

The pace of business and daily deluge of information can make it hard for any of us to know where we should focus our attention next. When we do zoom in on something, if we’re not clear why it should matter or what we’re supposed to do about it, we’re probably just as quick to tune out and move on.

Since people don’t have the time to read at length, interpret information and draw conclusions, it’s up to communicators to facilitate their thinking — to guide them to what matters and help them appreciate the “so what”. If we’re promoting a solution, we need to get right to the ways it’s going to make people’s lives easier. Instead of presenting research findings, we need to spell out the implications.

Be bold
To get to the point quickly, you need to own your topic and address it with confidence. That means a few things:

  • Know your purpose. Be ultra-clear about why you’re communicating and what you want to achieve. Everything you write should be in service to that goal.
  • Think about the reader. Know with certainty why they should care about your message — and tell them directly. Build the piece around that “so what”.
  • Take a position. It’s easy to share information responsibly, but that puts the burden on the audience to figure out where you stand. Step out in front and write with authority. Tell people what you believe. To be credible, that means you have to know your content inside and out.

Do the reader a service
Consider the act of writing content a way of serving the reader: guiding his or her thinking instead of just passing along information. See the difference:

When you own your subject, take authorship and tell the audience what matters, the only work readers have to do is agree with you.

Closing the Gap Between Brand Strategy and On-Brand Content

A solid brand strategy helps organizations understand who they serve, who they compete with, what stakeholders want, and how to position themselves to achieve their goals.

The challenge for many organizations today — companies, non-profits, government departments, associations — is to apply that strategy to communications across a vast array of channels in high volume and in near real-time.

Since brand strategies tend to be built on brief, focused statements or descriptors, a key question is how to translate those nuggets into full-fledged messaging that resonates with audiences and embodies the character of the organization. Doing so successfully requires effort and focus.

In our experience, there are four keys to converting a top-level brand into meaningful, on-the-ground, in-the-pipe content:

1. EXPRESS YOURSELF.
A great brand strategy pinpoints your unique value proposition, how you stand apart from competitors, etc. The content challenge is to convert those concepts into messaging your audiences can relate to. Expressing the key concepts in “we” statements — as a sort of manifesto — is often a great way to start.

2. CHANNEL YOUR INNER BRAND VOICE.
As you convert brand concepts into messaging, think about your organization’s personality. Are you gutsy, cheeky, conservative, irreverent? Choose words that reflect that. Have some fun. Play around with different ways of saying the same thing to see which fits best. Test options with an internal “focus group” of staff or a few trusted customers.

3. SOCIALIZE IT.
For your brand expression to gain traction, you need the buy-in of everyone inside your organization. Raising your team’s awareness of the brand and what it stands for — and giving them messaging tools to generate content that’s consistent with what you want to project — will help ensure it runs through all of your communications.

4. BE DISCIPLINED.
Set guidelines for ensuring content aligns with your brand tone and personality, and evaluate everything your team develops against those guidelines to maximize the value of your brand strategy and truly realize it.

If you need help translating your brand into on-brand customer/stakeholder messaging, drop us a line.

What Makes a Corporate Blog Great?

A Blog on Blogs

Start Googling marketing trends and it’s hard not to bump into some impressive stats on the power of the blog. B2B marketers who blog get 67% more leads. Sites with blogs have 434% more indexed pages. More than half of all marketers put blogs at the top of their content marketing lists.

But does this necessarily mean all blogs are created equal? What separates the good from the great?

1. Clear focus
Readers look to blogs for insight, whether they want a few quick best practices for something or deeper perspective on an issue, product or solution. The most effective blogs explore a single subject, presenting the key points clearly.

2. Fast-reading structure
Blogs may be casual in style but need to be sharp when it comes to information flow. Few readers have the time or patience for classic “beginning-middle-end” storytelling. The journalistic inverted pyramid, which starts with the most important takeaway and works down to the least, is standard best practice for all web writing, blogs included.

3. Engaging format
The format of a blog should support its purpose. “Top 10s”, “5 Key Things” and other list formats are good for at-a-glance information-sharing (36% of readers prefer such number-based headlines). Q&A-style interviews are excellent for conveying personality if a blog’s subject is a person. To highlight thought leadership, “op-ed”-style blogs provide the opportunity to explore a given topic in depth. In a corporate blog, it’s useful to mix different formats for variety and to keep readers interested.

4. Personality and brand
Engage readers. Think of each blog as a one-to-one conversation about a topic. That said, remember that corporate blog posts should also reflect the company brand. Avoid overusing contractions and slang unless they are part of your brand voice. Write in a way that is confident and credible and demonstrates thought leadership.

5. Digestible length
Write to the length that content demands, in line with reader expectations. The highest-ranked content in Google runs between 1,110 and 1,200 words, which is a good target for blogs of depth. But with 43% of readers inclined to skim, the more concise and focused a blog can be, the more it will be absorbed by the audience. A length of 400 to 600 words will often do the trick of delivering good information on a focused topic, especially as many readers will be reading on a mobile device. A good strategy is to plan out a blog program in advance, so larger topics can be broken out across a series of posts. This leaves readers wanting more and likelier to come back.

6. Real substance
Surveys have found that blogs rank in the top five trusted sources of accurate online information. To make sure your blog lives up to that trust, make sure you have something meaningful to say. Blogs that are written purely to tick a box on a to-do list or generate SEO are less likely to contribute to meaningful conversions: they might draw readers but don’t necessarily lead them to a next step. Given that nearly half (47%) of buyers read three to five pieces of content before engaging with sales, that next step matters. Strike a good balance between pontificating and substantiating. Support key points and tips with facts and anecdotes.

7. A planned approach
Good planning is one of the best ways to ensure a corporate blog engages readers, supports marketing objectives and drives prospects along the buyer’s journey. Mapping out the corporate story in advance creates more opportunity to make choices about how to serve up content over time in a way that builds momentum. It also provides the mental space to ensure best practices are applied effectively.

Applying these principles will help ensure you get the strongest possible results from your blog program.

Is Narrative Dead?

Marketers are well aware their audiences wade through massive volumes of information on a daily basis. It’s why so many principles of information design focus on reaching “skimmers” and “scanners” versus in- depth readers.

So is there even a place for narrative prose in marketing copy anymore?

Definitely.

Surveys show long-form content online is shared more often — and gets higher Google results. There are times when people still want to read. The key is to know when those times are, and when other ways of presenting information might be more effective. A blog post is the right place for narrative, for instance, whereas a timeline showing key milestones in your organization’s history probably isn’t.

Here are some other quick guidelines:

Use narrative to…

  • Tell stories and engage people emotionally
  • Show understanding of the reader (i.e., create a sympathetic connection)
  • Reinforce your brand voice
  • Set context
  • Recap history
  • Analyze and explain data

Don’t use narrative to…

  • Describe processes or systems
  • Present or summarize data
  • List facts
  • Convey timelines, milestones, chronologies

Alternatives to narrative
For the items in the “don’t use” column, solid alternatives to narrative are bullet lists, tables, charts, graphs and infographics. People retain 55% more of the information they hear after three days if that information is accompanied by a meaningful visual. Smart, interpretive infographics that are conceived as content pieces in their own right (not just “accompanying images”) go a long way.

Vary it up
Variety holds people’s interest. The choice to use narrative or not may be less “either/or” and more “also/and”. Whether you’re developing content for online, print or a presentation, an ideal approach is often to mix things up: use narrative for intros and explanations and bulleted callouts, and infographics to deliver data at a glance. In most cases, keeping narrative blocks short and modular — five lines or less — is useful even in longer narratives because it helps readers pick out key ideas and navigate through the read.

If you’d like help planning your content to get the right narrative mix, drop us a line at [email protected].

Metaphorical Minefields

Sometimes the best and quickest way to communicate an idea is to paint a picture with words. Metaphors and other evocative language can create ‘aha’ moments for readers with minimal explanation. But as with any tool, there are some important safety rules to follow — because evocative language, when misused, can cause confusion or undermine credibility.

The malevolent ‘malaphor’
A malaphor is a metaphor whose parts don’t add up. It may sound like a familiar phrase, but the meaning is jumbled. Consider:

“Harnessing the future”
Things often get “harnessed” in marketing copy, suggesting something powerful brought under control. But not everything is harnessable — especially not abstract concepts like “the future”. If the point is about accelerating progress, an apt alternative might be, “…leaping forward into the future.” Or maybe no metaphor is needed, e.g., “…realizing the possibilities of the future.”

“Spurring the landscape”
Spurs create drive. Landscapes indicate environments: commercial, technological, political. While you might drive change that alters a landscape, the landscape itself isn’t going anywhere (one would hope!). One thing these examples highlight is that when metaphors become commonplace it’s easy to forget their metaphorical nature. So a first step to using them correctly is recognizing them for what they are. Verbs like leverage, channel, carve, drive, propel, conquer and capture (the list goes on) are all metaphors.

Mixed metaphor mashups
Effective metaphors are logically consistent. When two or more get used together, that logic can get tangled:

“As we navigate the coming months, we will forge partnerships and topple barriers.”
This certainly conjures up an image: someone clutching a map, stoking a fire and knocking things over all at the same time. With metaphors, less is usually more.

“We push the envelope by leveraging out-of-the-box thinking.”
This combination of aspirational engineering phrase, Grade 9 physics term and creativity cliché conjures up an image like a Picasso still life: it might be fun to look at but there’s no clear meaning.

When logic breaks down
Sometimes when reaching for inspiration, writers inadvertently break the logic of an idea (we have plenty of our own discarded first drafts to prove it). Phrases like “excellence at its best” or “a masterpiece of brilliance” might sound lofty, but since excellence typically is “the best” and masterpieces are by nature brilliant, these say little.

To make sure evocative language achieves the impact you intend, take a step back and interrogate the logic of it. Use it carefully. And if you’re ‘wrestling’ with an idea you’re unsure of, contact us.

How to Send and Receive Better Emails

Most of us have received an email at some point that made us pause with puzzlement or hurl cursewords at our screens because the tone struck us as brusque, insensitive or condescending. And it’s a safe bet other people have felt the same way about emails we’ve sent.

Email is like any other form of writing: certain principles apply to make it effective. Here are a few email tips — for sending and receiving:

Getting

  • Don’t read into things. The tone you perceive may not be what the sender intended, especially if they’re not a trained writer, are communicating quickly or English isn’t their first language.
  • Know your sender. Some people are detail junkies who just have to transmit all the facts. Others can’t help but share their streams of consciousness. Accept that’s who they are and try not to react if their mode of communication doesn’t quite fit your own.

Giving

  • Be professional and friendly. Remember, there’s a real person on the other end. With every send, you’re not just offloading information, you’re building relationships.
  • Remember your recipients are busy, too. Odds are their heads are wrapped up in other things, so giving context can be useful. At the same time, don’t overload with extraneous detail or leave in reams of message-chain quote levels that would put a Russian nesting doll to shame.

The Royal Order of Adjectives

Most of the time we instinctively know the order of words to describe something — for example, “sweet little baby” versus “little sweet baby.” But when thoughts get more complex, the right order of adjectives isn’t always so clear.

Putting your words in the correct sequence doesn’t just make your sentences sound better — it also helps make your meaning clear. Here are the established rules for building a descriptive sentence:

  1. Determiner (e.g., a, an, her, our, five)
  2. Opinion/observation (e.g., adorable, repulsive)
  3. Size (e.g., huge, tiny)
  4. Shape (e.g., square, round)
  5. Age (e.g., young, old)
  6. Colour (e.g., green, pink)
  7. Origin (e.g., Canadian, French)
  8. Material (e.g., wooden, plastic)
  9. Qualifier/purpose (e.g., sports, as in a sports car)

To string all of these together: “Her adorable, tiny, round, young, pink, French plastic sportscar really turned heads.”

Clearly, a list that long at a certain point loses reader interest. As a rule, using more than three adjectives at a time can make for a clunky read. Separate from putting them in the right sequence, it’s also a good idea to focus on the most important adjectives to get your point across.

Resolutions for Better Marketing Copy

The new year often brings resolutions to lose weight, trim down and tone up. In 2016, why not make that commitment to your marketing copy? Get your content lean and mean by saying no to do-nothing words and phrases. You know the ones we mean. Those bloated word-clumps that give writing the slow and heavy feeling Uncle Al complains of after scarfing down a third helping of turkey dinner: in order to, in terms of, in keeping with…

Because these phrases are so familiar and time-worn, they have a way of sneaking in unnoticed. Here are some ways to keep them at bay:

Watch the beginnings of sentences.
That’s where a lot of do-nothing phrases lurk. Why say, “It is important to note that resource optimization matters,” when you could just get to it with, “Resource optimization matters”? Trust your reader to know it’s important to note because you’re noting it.

Stay on the lookout for unnecessary words.
Phrases like “end results” or “the month of January” or “in the province of Ontario” can all be much leaner. Results come at the end, so “end” isn’t needed. January is a month, so just say “January.” Ditto Ontario: it’s a province, and unless you’re writing for an audience outside of Canada who may not know that, you can probably get away with just saying “in Ontario.”

Use active voice — subject/verb/object.
Avoid passive constructions, leading clauses and convoluted wording. Something like, “Business income reporting schedules determine fiscal year assessment mailing,” is confusing partly for its string of nouns and partly because the subject — the mailing — comes at the end. “When we mail your fiscal year assessment depends on when you report your business income,” is clearer and to the point.

Following these practices will make your content tighter, lighter and more readable — and could very well be one of the easiest New Year’s resolutions to keep!

P.S. Here are some other empty phrases to guard against:

  • it can be seen that
  • from the viewpoint of
  • in the event that
  • few in number
  • in addition to

Keeping It Simple

Most people would agree good writing delivers messages in a clear, readable way. But when your content is technically or conceptually complex, how do you strike the right balance between simplicity and accuracy? In our experience, there are a few helpful guidelines to keep in mind:

Think before you write.
Knowing exactly the points you need to make to convince readers of your argument helps you write economically and directly, with less clutter and jargon. Whether you prepare a detailed outline or scribble down a bullet-point skeleton, knowing where you want to go will keep your story focused.

Clarity doesn’t mean “dumbing down”.
The point of plain language is to bring out your meaning, not strip away substance. Whoever your readers are, put ideas in context and spell out implications so they understand what you want them to think and why. It’s about explaining your argument, not compromising your subject matter. A great example is Stephen Hawkings’ book, A Brief History of Time, which presented hugely complex concepts in 224 succinct pages and resonated both with casual readers and physicists alike.

Focus every paragraph on one key point.
Putting each idea on its own tells readers what you want them to take away and gives you the space to explain it as fully as it needs.

Write with energy.
Using active voice — subject-verb-object construction — is one of the best ways to keep your writing plain and clear. Remember the old example from school: “She threw the ball” not “The ball was thrown”. If you have a plain language writing tip — or a monstrous example of “un-plain” writing — we’d love to hear.

The Math of Writing: Why Logic Matters

Sound logic has always been fundamental to good writing: it’s what carries readers to the point of an argument. With the volume of information people consume today, getting to that point quickly and clearly is crucial. In marketing communications, there’s no time for drifting along a river of thought toward some eventual conclusion. Logic in the content age needs to be as direct and explicit as the copy itself.

Keys to strong logic in writing:

Think first.
Logic gives structure to the flow of ideas in writing. The smoother the flow, the greater the impact. Good flow requires deliberate engineering* — mapping out the ideas and how they connect before committing words to paper. Remember Grade 10, when the teacher made everyone underline their thesis statements before writing essays on Animal Farm and Brave New World? It’s basically the same principle at work.

Stick to the point.
In well-engineered writing, every point reinforces the previous and sets up the next. Those connections forge the logic of the piece. A good way to keep the connections clear is to make sure the article, web page, case study, etc., isn’t overloaded with points: when there are too many, it’s harder for any one or two to stand out, and readers could come away unsure of what they’re supposed to think.

Substantiate your case.
The best way to reinforce the logic of an argument is by substantiating it with facts. These days, readers tend to ignore hyperbolic declarations like “It’s the greatest solution ever!” Being clear about the thesis and structure of the argument makes it easy to choose the best, most relevant facts to make the case.

Express it artfully.
Even the best constructed argument isn’t going to persuade readers on its own: the writing needs to engage them and hold their attention from start to finish. Once you’ve ‘done the math’ — mapping out a clear, logical structure — the task of writing begins, giving the thoughts tone and style.

*Apologies to all our engineer friends for taking artistic licence with their terminology.