Thursday, October 18, 2012

Three essentials for persuasion

Kare Anderson, a consultant and former journalist, writes that keeping three things in mind will help you persuade your audience.

These, I believe, are useful whether you're writing a white paper or a web page.
1. Actionable. Motivate people to take some first action, however small, and they are more likely to take another. Reduce the number of actions it takes for them to participate or to buy. To secure connection with your intended audience or market, aspire to offer the equivalent ease of Amazon Prime's one-click buying.
My work with clients often involves identifying the "call to action." What do you want the visitor to a website or reader of an email to do? How easy do you make it for them to do it?
2. Interestingness. Make your message so unexpected, novel, provocative or otherwise odd that they are compelled to pay attention even if they are supposed to be doing something else. For example, instead of admonishing Texas for dumping garbage on the roadside, a public service campaign appealed to their Texas pride with the behavior-changing, actionable slogan, "Don't mess with Texas." 
"Interestingness" is something of a mouthful. Nevertheless, this bit of advice is important. For a writer venturing into the business jungle, just shooting every cliche in sight can help make a company's message stand out in all the clutter.
3. Relevance. When you hear a speaker who appears to be speaking directly to you, or you read about a situation that you are facing, you are much more likely to remember it.  You can increase relevance by getting specific sooner. That may mean you capture fewer people overall — but you will capture more of the right people, the people you need to reach. A specific example proves the general conclusion, not the reverse. Yet most conversations, speeches and even advertising campaigns begin with generalizations. By beginning with background, or qualifiers, as we instinctively do we are creating underbrush to obscure our point. Only the most optimistic will remain listening, thinking. Look for the specific detail that can buttress your general conclusion, your main differentiating benefit, and start with it. Then build your story, point by point, like stepping stones across the pond, keeping us involved with you.
I recently gave this piece of advice to a company that has a very specific identity and yet has the capability to help any and all comers. If, however, it tries to be all things to all people, it will be nothing to no one.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A post which you should read

E.B. White, spinning in his grave.
The title of this post is incorrect, in my opinion. The word which, according to the rule I follow, should only be used with nonrestrictive relative clauses, i.e., clauses that impart a mere extra bit of information.

For restrictive clauses -- those with a crucial bit of definition -- the preferred word is that.

Robert Lane Green, an international correspondent for The Economist, is a descriptivist in matters of the language and so he thinks the title of this post is just swell.
To pick on Strunk and White, they prescribe a rule on “which” and “that” to introduce relative clauses: “which” must introduce a “nonrestrictive” relative clause (a mere extra bit of information). Only “that” can introduce a “restrictive” clause (a crucial bit of definition). You agree with White that “The lawn mower which is broken is in the garage” should have “that,” not “which.” However, even White doesn’t agree with White. As the linguist Geoff Pullum noticed, White used “which” in the “wrong” way in his essay “Death of a Pig”: “the premature expiration of a pig is, I soon discovered, a departure which the community marks solemnly on its calendar.” White would probably say he slipped. I’d console him; no, he didn’t. It’s a fine sentence from a fine American writer.
Green is a frequent contributor to The Economist's excellent blog on writing, Johnson, but, heavens man, are you going to take on Strunk and White and risk a lightning strike?

Furthermore, in the afterlife you'll have to deal with Miss Schindler, who taught me grammar in the eighth grade and who taught my father before me and who would have given me a resounding slap on the shoulder had I confused which and that.

Which I didn't.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Who is going to check your blog posts?

Several of my clients are getting serious about blogging and tweeting, and the question arises: who is going to do it, and who is going to approve it?

If it's tacked on to someone's existing responsibilities, what are the chances of being successful? Why do people in business say, "Let's get some content," and expect it to drop down from heaven?

If someone does have the time, and the skill, to write for a company in a fast-paced or time-sensitive environment like a blog or Twitter, who will approve what is said? Does everything have to go through the top guy?

Mark Nichol, editor of DailyWritingTipsand a former editing instructor for UC Berkeley’s Extension program, explains how he managed it.
What’s the ideal solution? Every business publishes information (and, believe it or not, clients and customers notice poor and careless writing, even if they don’t recognize specific errors). So, treat your business like a publishing company, and institute an editorial process
At my last job before I began the current freelancing phase of my editing and writing career, I was responsible for the presentation of all content on the website of a prestigious educational foundation. Therefore, I considered it of paramount importance that the content be of outstanding quality. 
In addition to editing the journalistic content, I insisted on editing all marketing and advertising copy, I vetted job postings, I even pored through the site’s terms of use. Eventually, this comprehensive quality control became onerous and I delegated some responsibilities, but visitors had to work hard to find errors on that site. 
If you work at a sizeable company and you have responsibility for or are otherwise involved in the generation of business-to-business, business-to-client/customer, or even internal content, I urge you to consider or recommend designating the resident grammar geek, or a hiring a staff or contract editor, to serve as the conduit for at least the most significant communications or correspondence.
It's going to depend on the size of the company, the inclinations of the boss, and the boss' own skill on communicating. When I first go into this business CEOs weren't even reading email: their secretaries printed it out. I think things have change a bit, but whether they're into Twitter is questionable.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Making a presentation to big shots

You have to make a presentation to senior executives, or you have to prepare one for your boss. How do you think about it?

Nancy Duarte teaches this and has written several books about it. Here's what she suggests.
Senior executives are one of the toughest crowds you'll face as a presenter. They're incredibly impatient because their schedules are jam-packed. So they won't sit still for a long presentation with a big reveal at the end. They'll just interrupt you before you finish your shtick. So quickly and clearly present information that's important to them, ask for questions, and then be done. If your spiel is short and insightful, you'll get their ear again.
Summarize up front: Say you're given 30 minutes to present. When creating your intro, pretend your whole slot got cut to 5 minutes. This will force you to lead with all the information your audience really cares about — high-level findings, conclusions, recommendations, a call to action. State those points clearly and succinctly right at the start, and then move on to supporting data, subtleties, and material that's peripherally relevant.
Set expectations: Let the audience know you'll spend the first few minutes presenting your summary and the rest of the time on discussion. Even the most impatient executives will be more likely to let you get through your main points uninterrupted if they know they'll soon get to ask questions.
Create summary slides: When making your slide deck, place a short overview of key points at the front; the rest of your slides should serve as an appendix. Follow the 10% rule: If your appendix is 50 slides, create 5 summary slides, and so on. After you present the summary, let the group drive the conversation, and refer to appendix slides as relevant questions and comments come up. Often, executives will want to go deeper into certain points that will aid in their decision making. If they do, quickly pull up the slides that speak to those points.
Give them what they asked for: If you were invited to give an update about the flooding of your company's manufacturing plant in Indonesia, do so before covering anything else. This time-pressed group of senior managers invited you to speak because they felt you could supply a missing piece of information. So answer that specific request directly and quickly.
Rehearse: Before presenting, run your talk and your slides by a colleague who will serve as an honest coach. Try to find someone who's had success getting ideas adopted at the executive level. Ask for pointed feedback: Is your message coming through clearly and quickly? Do your summary slides boil everything down into skimmable key insights? Are you missing anything your audience is likely to expect?
My experience in presenting to boards and senior execs confirms Duarte's opinion. Think of these people as the Supreme Court. They're going to control your time. The best-laid plans ...

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Why people resist change

Most writing is an attempt to get the reader to do something, even if it is only to change his mind. This is hard work, as Rosabeth Moss Kanter explains, because change is scary.

Here are her chief reasons for resistance:

Loss of control. Change interferes with autonomy and can make people feel that they've lost control over their territory. It's not just political, as in who has the power. Our sense of self-determination is often the first things to go when faced with a potential change coming from someone else. Smart leaders leave room for those affected by change to make choices. They invite others into the planning, giving them ownership.

Excess uncertainty. If change feels like walking off a cliff blindfolded, then people will reject it. People will often prefer to remain mired in misery than to head toward an unknown. As the saying goes, "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't know." To overcome inertia requires a sense of safety as well as an inspiring vision. Leaders should create certainty of process, with clear, simple steps and timetables.

Surprise, surprise! Decisions imposed on people suddenly, with no time to get used to the idea or prepare for the consequences, are generally resisted. It's always easier to say No than to say Yes. Leaders should avoid the temptation to craft changes in secret and then announce them all at once. It's better to plant seeds — that is, to sprinkle hints of what might be coming and seek input.

Everything seems different. Change is meant to bring something different, but how different? We are creatures of habit. Routines become automatic, but change jolts us into consciousness, sometimes in uncomfortable ways. Too many differences can be distracting or confusing. Leaders should try to minimize the number of unrelated differences introduced by a central change. Wherever possible keep things familiar. Remain focused on the important things; avoid change for the sake of change.

Loss of face. By definition, change is a departure from the past. Those people associated with the last version — the one that didn't work, or the one that's being superseded — are likely to be defensive about it. When change involves a big shift of strategic direction, the people responsible for the previous direction dread the perception that they must have been wrong. Leaders can help people maintain dignity by celebrating those elements of the past that are worth honoring, and making it clear that the world has changed. That makes it easier to let go and move on.

Concerns about competence. Can I do it? Change is resisted when it makes people feel stupid. They might express skepticism about whether the new software version will work or whether digital journalism is really an improvement, but down deep they are worried that their skills will be obsolete. Leaders should over-invest in structural reassurance, providing abundant information, education, training, mentors, and support systems. A period of overlap, running two systems simultaneously, helps ease transitions.

More work. Here is a universal challenge. Change is indeed more work. Those closest to the change in terms of designing and testing it are often overloaded, in part because of the inevitable unanticipated glitches in the middle of change, per "Kanter's Law" that "everything can look like a failure in the middle." Leaders should acknowledge the hard work of change by allowing some people to focus exclusively on it, or adding extra perqs for participants (meals? valet parking? massages?). They should reward and recognize participants — and their families, too, who often make unseen sacrifices.

Ripple effects. Like tossing a pebble into a pond, change creates ripples, reaching distant spots in ever-widening circles. The ripples disrupt other departments, important customers, people well outside the venture or neighborhood, and they start to push back, rebelling against changes they had nothing to do with that interfere with their own activities. Leaders should enlarge the circle of stakeholders. They must consider all affected parties, however distant, and work with them to minimize disruption.

Past resentments. The ghosts of the past are always lying in wait to haunt us. As long as everything is steady state, they remain out of sight. But the minute you need cooperation for something new or different, the ghosts spring into action. Old wounds reopen, historic resentments are remembered — sometimes going back many generations. Leaders should consider gestures to heal the past before sailing into the future.

Sometimes the threat is real. Now we get to true pain and politics. Change is resisted because it can hurt. When new technologies displace old ones, jobs can be lost; prices can be cut; investments can be wiped out. The best thing leaders can do when the changes they seek pose significant threat is to be honest, transparent, fast, and fair. For example, one big layoff with strong transition assistance is better than successive waves of cuts.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Neil Gaiman's eight rules for writing

Author Neil Gaiman offers these rules for writing.
  1. Write 
  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down. 
  3. Finish what you're writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it. 
  4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you've never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is. 
  5. Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. 
  6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving. 
  7. Laugh at your own jokes. 
  8. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it's definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.