Pop Culture References: Hot or Not?

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Let’s face it—a lot of business and technical writing can be pretty dry. To keep the audience engaged, there are all kinds of tricks a writer can deploy, from storytelling to active language to the now-overused listicle format. Fun pop-culture references have long been another way to make technical concepts more relatable. Recently, I was working on a white paper that described security as a castle or citadel. To jazz it up a little, I wove in a couple of light-hearted Games of Thrones references.

The client liked the references but ultimately didn’t keep them. They were worried that instead of making the piece more relatable, the pop-culture analogy sounded like an attempt to seem cool—which was hardly the point of the white paper. It was a minor point for this project, but my curiosity was aroused. What makes for a good pop-culture reference these days? And in today’s fragmented cultural landscape, is it a device that ought to be retired?

Perhaps tellingly, I’ve never actually seen an episode of Game of Thrones myself. But for years the memes, references, and buzz pieces about it have saturated the internet to an unavoidable degree. In my research, I learned that although 16 million viewers watched the finale of GoT, the majority of viewers were males under 30. My client’s instincts were right. The target audience for our think piece was senior professionals, age 40+. Within their industry, only about 15% of the end users are under 30. Our target audience would be far more likely to connect with a snappy reference to The Voice or This is Us. 

But the issue is more complex than age demographics. While 16 million may sound like a lot, it actually reflects the slicing and dicing of our popular culture into specific interest groups. Back in the 1980s, 120 million people watched the finale of M*A*S*H. Today, even the top rated shows reach vastly fewer viewers than they once did. Gone are the days when everyone got an immediate chuckle of recognition from “Beam me up, Scotty,” “Party on,” or “Festivus.”

My Toastmasters club has a theme for each meeting, and a while back a member used the theme of “The Sound of Music.” In its day, the classic musical was one of the biggest box office hits of all time, and was broadcast annually on television at holiday time. Everyone knows “The Sound of Music,” right?

Not so fast. It turned out the film, the songs, and the characters were unfamiliar to our group’s younger members and even more of a mystery to our many members who hail from outside the U.S. Since 1990, the percentage of the population that is foreign-born has doubled. Today, over 44 million people living in the U.S. are immigrants to this country. Our pop culture is not only fragmented. It’s increasingly self-referential, an in-joke that is unrepresentative and irrelevant to the actual day-to-day culture being lived by millions of Americans.

I’m glad this issue came up. I’m starting to think that the use of pop culture references in business communications is dated. Spending time and energy on more creative and inclusive approaches to lively pieces would be well worth the effort.

Honesty: Such a Lonely Word

Once upon a time, it was a big deal to publish a white paper. Not only did it have to be researched and written by someone like me, but it had to be designed, typeset, printed, and then mailed to the recipients. A white paper wasn’t mere “content,” a word that wasn’t in use then. It was an event. After all, there was no point in going to all the trouble of publishing this paper unless you had something important to say.

These days, I’ve noticed that my white paper clients are aware that their words are getting lost. The Internet is sloshing with throwaway content. Who has time to read any of it? My clients are turning their backs on puff pieces and looking to bring real talk back to the white paper. But as a society and business culture, we still don’t seem to be there.

Recently, one of my clients wanted to produce a paper on an extremely controversial issue facing their industry. All of their customers know that this issue exists. It is one of their primary concerns right now. It has even migrated from talk among insiders to the general public. Fear and misinformation have undermined confidence in the industry. Yet with every pass through the editorial process, the white paper was watered down. The original language surrounding the issue, gleaned from interviews and input from the company’s own subject matter experts, was “too hot to handle.” The language was massaged, softened, and made vague.

Finally the central point was removed altogether. The white paper spotlighted a non-controversial solution to the issue, which by the end was only obliquely acknowledged. Instead of a meaty discussion, customers were served yet another word salad, initially attractive but with no protein, no takeaway, and no action items.

As a pro I’m happy to create what my clients want. But I sometimes wonder where our business culture is going to find the courage to be authentic. Companies want to provide valuable information to their customers, but then let fear and distrust prevent meaningful engagement on even the most well-known challenges and difficulties. Too often we choose to write on high levels about the big picture, rather than grapple with the nitty-gritty reality that is right under our noses.

Why publish a paper if you have nothing to say?

Make it Memorable – “Blowin’ in the Wind”

When was the last time you truly connected with something that you read or heard? In my last blog, I wrote about the spadework it takes to craft a piece that conveys your point. This time,  I want to take it a step further and talk about how you can write a piece your readers will actually remember and maybe even treasure.

This time, I thought I’d try something a little different and illustrate the point through something we can all relate to — the classic Bob Dylan tune “Blowin’ in the Wind.” A song has many of the same components as any piece of writing. For example, a few years back, I wrote an online exhibit about the Texas Railroad Commission, a state agency that for most of the 20th century, regulated the oil and gas industry in the Lone Star State. Sounds really exciting, right? Actually it was!

As it turns out, the story of oil and gas in Texas embodies some of the biggest and most complex ideas around, such as economic freedom and personal liberty, but through a story with all the high drama of novels like Giant. Don’t believe me? I can tell you that one of the greatest compliments I ever received came from a man who told me he read the exhibit whenever he felt lonely and depressed. He said it connected him with the power and majesty of something larger than himself.

And while not every piece of business writing tells this kind of story, it is possible to be much more memorable than most of the content being pumped out on a daily basis. What makes “Blowin’ in the Wind” so creative and relevant 55 years later, while its contemporaries like “Surf City” and “Da Doo Ron Ron” are gathering dust in the oldies bin?  It starts with putting the pieces in place before you ever start putting words on the page.

  1. Find the one big idea.

“Blowin’ in the Wind” asks the listener a series of hard questions, and challenges the idea that the constant babble of opinions holds any answers. In fact, the song tells us that we will not find any solutions if we keep hiding behind our fixed positions. Most people first heard the song as it was performed by Peter, Paul, & Mary at the 1963 March on Washington. It invited people to face reality, put aside their differences, and work together for a better country. Pretty powerful stuff.

To be memorable, you need to find an idea that actually matters—not just to you, but to your audience. To find that idea, think about what your audience is talking about out there in the real world. What questions are they asking and what emotions are they feeling? Is there an issue they are scared, mad, or confused about? How can you shed light on that issue with real stories and examples? Here is where you will find your idea.

2. Believe in it.

These days, people are used to hype and wise to the ways of being sold. This is why companies like Nike are succeeding by standing for something. Regardless of whether you think it is the right thing, it has resonated with people looking for authenticity. It is interesting to learn that Bob Dylan himself became cynical about  “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but Mary Travers never did. Her vulnerability and sincerity demonstrated passion, love, and commitment and was critical to the success of the song. The same is true for your piece. Once you have found your message, think about how you can convey your commitment to it in a way that is accessible to the audience and includes them and their concerns.

3. Find the emotional heart of the story.

Once you have found a good idea that you can commit to, it is time to put on your writer’s hat. How can you convey the message in a way that taps into the emotions of the audience? Funny or touching stories are great, but to be truly memorable they need to fit into an overall narrative that leads the audience where you want them to go.

In the Railroad Commission piece, I structured the narrative around dramatic turning points and played up the stakes with historic quotes like this one from the French oil minister at the close of World War I: “As oil had been the blood of war, so it would be the blood of the peace.” In “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the entire song hinges around the simple metaphor that an abstract concept (answers) can blow in the wind like leaves—something everyone can relate to.

But there is more to the song’s structure than that. Instead of hitting us with everything all at once, the song asks us to think about some simple matters:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?

Before leading us on a journey where the questions become increasingly uncomfortable, ultimately asking us:

How many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?

As with getting your point across, creating a piece that is truly memorable starts with a thoughtful approach. Solid writing techniques such as storytelling, analogies, quotes, and imagery will give you punch, but if you don’t have a solid idea as the foundation of your piece, ultimately your words, my friends, will be blowin’ in the wind.

How to Make Your Point

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Have you ever been excited to pick up an article or report that seemed like it was going to be full of great nuggets, only to find it was mostly fluff? Or so disorganized or dense with jargon that it was a chore to wade through? Have you ever reached the end without coming away with a single action item or one good takeaway?

What’s worse is knowing you’ve written one of those pieces. Writing is a time-intensive endeavor. No writer sets out to write something that is going to be ignored. So why is it so hard to develop an idea into a point? What’s the difference between a powerful, vigorous piece of writing and one that fails to convince? The secret lies in doing the groundwork up front.

Look at it this way. You wouldn’t host a backyard cookout without deciding first who to invite, would you? How many people are coming? Will you need iced tea, soda, lemonade, beer? Is it a potluck or are you making everything? How will people know when to arrive? Have you been to the grocery store yet? How much meat will you need? Are any of the guests vegan? Where is the ring toss set? Where is everyone going to sit? What if it rains?

Even something as simple as a small barbecue needs quite a bit of planning before you actually start to “cue.” The same is true of writing. A lot of the process takes place before you actually start slinging nouns and adjectives onto the grill. Try these four steps to sharpen your idea into a point with real impact:

  • Believe. Zig Ziglar says, “If you believe your product or service can fulfill a true need, it’s your moral obligation to sell it.” Conversely, there’s nothing more painful than listening to a salesman with a bad product. To develop a powerful point, start with a belief statement you can stand behind. I’ll use an example from one of my customers, a company that offers voting equipment. A belief statement might be, “We believe that election jurisdictions must find and fix security vulnerabilities.”
  • Build your case. So far so good—but few people would disagree with your basis premise. The next step is to ask a simple question: “Why?” What’s going on that makes security such a priority? Is the problem technological? Human? Who are the various players? Where does your solution come in? What is the competition offering? The ideas you generate in this step will end up as the meat of your “barbecue.”
  • Narrow it down. Chances are that if you started with an important belief statement, you have surrounded it with a lot of different “side dishes.” It might seem like it would add value to your piece to throw them all in. In fact, that approach dilutes the impact and relevancy of what you are trying to say. Choose one singular focus for your piece. To continue with our example, choose one specific strategy or tactic that is the strongest, and set the other ideas aside.
  • Make it substantial. Finally, spend some time building out your idea. Most business writing avoids controversy, but that doesn’t mean you should pull your punches. Dig for precise, substantive information that will have a powerful impact on your chosen audience. What specific advice do you have for your customers? What anecdotes, testimonials, or case studies bolster your claims? See how you can champion your original belief statement and become a genuine resource for your target audience.

A final thought—these days, most of us are drowning in content. To set yourself apart, invest the time and effort up front to craft a powerful and worthwhile message, and see what a difference it makes in your writing.

How to Incorporate Feedback

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In my last post, I gave some tips on how to gather great feedback. Today I’d like to share a technique for evaluating and incorporating the feedback once it’s in. It isn’t always easy to distinguish feedback that is tough but fair from the inevitable potshots from the peanut gallery. How do you work in the comments and questions raised by your reviewers so that your content actually becomes stronger and more valuable?

Author Mark Murphy of Leadership IQ offers up a valuable framework with what he calls the FIRE Technique. It’s a great way to evaluate feedback with a growth mindset. To learn more, check out Murphy’s book Truth at Work: The Science of Delivering Tough Messages.

FIRE stands for Facts, Interpretations, Reactions, and Ends. The process works like this. A fact is something that is objective and verifiable. Obviously, you want to incorporate corrections by your subject matter experts. It’s also your job to discard any errors introduced by reviewers. I once had a reviewer who tried to overrule Strunk & White on the matter of further and farther!

Frequently, you’ll receive feedback that reads initially as opinion, such as “too many big words!” or “put a positive spin on it!” Take the time to dig in and look for the factual component behind these comments.

What is the right reading comprehension level for your company’s pieces, anyway? Has it ever been discussed? Are your customers experts or laypeople? Is the piece technical or does it provide more general information? Run it through a readability calculator and see what you find out. Maybe your material really is coming in an expert level when it needs to be more basic. This gives you the facts you need to simplify your sentence structure and replace some of your favorite three-dollar words (every writer has ’em!) with some two-cent words.

And what about the “spin” comment? Is your piece about an industry danger and the consequences? Even if your company is providing the answers, maybe a rewrite could present the same information while focusing on solutions and ways customers could be proactive. This feedback can be objectively analyzed and then addressed through skilled rearrangement of story structure and word choice. Taking the time to understand it and correct it is well worth the effort.

Let’s face it, though—not every comment warrants the same level of consideration. For example, sometimes you’ll get feedback such as “It didn’t grab me.” This is non-factual and subjective. If this is an isolated comment, it isn’t particularly valuable unless it’s coming from a decision-maker, in which case follow-up is essential. Vague or emotional reactions (either your own or those of a reviewer) should be stripped out or pursued to their factual basis, if any.

Finally, as Stephen Covey so wisely taught in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, keep the end in mind. In this case, the end is a readable piece that will be valuable to customers and represent you and your company well. By conducting a review cycle and then analyzing the feedback for factual, actionable improvements, you can incorporate valuable changes and produce a final piece that the whole team can stand behind.

How to Gather Great Feedback

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It is impossible to sharpen a pencil with a blunt axe. It is equally vain to try to do it with ten blunt axes instead. – Edsger Dijkstra

In my experience, one of the most dreaded phases of any communications project is the feedback stage. Sometimes it seems like no matter how carefully you get buy-in at the inception of the project, and no matter how thoroughly you edit and proofread at the end, there is always some fly in the ointment during the final stage of technical review.

It doesn’t have to be this way. With thoughtful management and prioritization, you can get great feedback from your expert reviewers that actually improves your case study, white paper, or article, instead of bogging it down in pointless scope creep and rework. Here’s how.

In my experience, a successful feedback stage starts with establishing clear ownership for the project. Usually, this includes two people: the writer or marketing specialist who is responsible for the words, and that person’s manager or director with final say over the project. The reviewers are then selected to give input in their area of expertise; for example, you may want feedback from the technical staff, executives, the design team, and the sales team about how the piece works for them.

You will want to allow enough time for reviewers to read the piece and send you helpful, useful comments. A week should be enough for a short piece, while up to three weeks might be necessary for an ebook, website, long white paper, or the rollout of a new initiative. A word to the wise—longer is not always better. Most reviewers are diligent, knowledgable, and want to help, but they’re still busy and human. That means that more often than not, they’ll wait until the last minute before even taking a look! A shorter deadline (while your project is still “hot”) can sometimes result in better feedback than a long one.

Most reviewers stay in their lane and offer comments on their specific area, though it’s not unusual for concerns to overlap or for a new concern to surface during the review process. That’s OK—that’s what the review process is for! Approach the comments with a growth mindset and see how they can be incorporated to improve the piece.

There’s no doubt that it can be tough to receive negative feedback. But setting aside emotion and being open to a critical response can often result in a better piece in the long run. However—there will be times when you find a suggestion conflicts with your professional judgement. Usually, communicating with the reviewer that there are factors they might not have considered is enough to resolve the issue. If not? It’s time to seek a ruling from that manager or director designated with the final authority over what the piece should say.

Did you notice? I glossed right over the “how” of incorporating reviewer feedback. That’s a major task in itself that requires care, thought, and professional judgement. And it will be the topic of my next blog post.

 

How to Avoid Plagiarism

It’s easy to be self-righteous about plagiarism. After all, how hard can it be to acknowledge your sources and put forth original ideas? In reality, it’s not as simple as it sounds. After all, we all study our fields to see what ideas are current. Where do you draw the line between responding to trends and playing follow-the-leader? Where does the line fall between research and wholesale lifting of other people’s thoughts?

Let’s break it down. According to Merriam-Webster, plagiarism is the act of passing off someone else’s words or ideas as your own, without crediting the original source. So first things first: giving credit to your sources is not only the right thing to do, but it boosts the credibility of your own content. Your customers know which industry sources are high-quality and credible. You can work your research into your pieces gracefully by using  quotation marks, footnotes, or phrases such as “A 2016 study by the Institute of Peanut Butter Science uncovered a startling fact.”

Citing your sources is essential, but it is not enough. A good rule of thumb is that your paper or case study should be at least 85% original material.  In my experience, the most common cause of unoriginal ideas occurs when organizations decide to create content, but won’t do the heavy lifting upfront to generate some original and thought-provoking ideas.

My take: The kind of long-form materials I specialize in, such as white papers and case studies, work best when they spring from your own experiences. It helps to approach each project as part of a focused dialogue you are having with your customers. Invest some time in thinking deeply about them, what they want to learn about, and what you have to offer that is unique. Your customers want to read a good story about how you solved their thorniest everyday problems. And there’s nothing unoriginal about that.

How to Sound Like An Expert

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The wisest have the most authority. – Plato

These days, we’re all swimming in more content than we can possibly consume. Like the rest of us, your customers have become adept at filtering out the noise and junk. So how do you ensure the content you’ve worked so hard to create doesn’t just get thrown out with the trash?

One way is to write with authority. Naturally, you know what you’re talking about. But do your words support your message, or get in the way? In this article, I’ll share five tricks writers use to signal readers that what they are about to read is believable, genuine, and worth their time.

  1. Create action. Even if your subject matter seems dry—say, regulatory compliance—you can put the action at the center by using active voice. After the incident, the drugs were placed behind enhanced physical security is passive. The compliance team did all that work and doesn’t even get any credit! To make the sentence active, try After the incident, the compliance team worked overtime to beef up security, putting drugs with street value “behind bars.” Notice how the second sentence describes the people and scene precisely, and even hints at the organization’s values and vision. The information seems real—and therefore, reliable.
  2. Involve the reader personally. Back in the day, the voice of authority spoke without the personal pronouns (I , me, we, and you). The information revolution and the need to be user-friendly broke down that barrier in all but the most formal business reporting. Try picturing the one person most likely to read your article or white paper—then address them as “you.” Example: Our latest tomato-sorting technology lets you sort and rank each tomato by color and freshness. Your customers will be happy and you’ll avoid costly spoilage.
  3. Show your work. To create the sense of authority, it’s essential to include some solid research and quotes from subject matter experts. Depending on the scope of your effort, you can use the Internet and online databases to credibly weave in facts about the problem you’re addressing and how other organizations have tried to solve it. For longer pieces (such as lengthy white papers), consider expanding your research to books and journals in your field.

And regardless of scope, take the time to interview at least one expert. These chats take preparation. For example, just to create a simple case study, you must determine the right person to interview, prepare yourself and your expert on the subject matter and scope, conduct the interview, transcribe your notes, and then select quotes that support the point of your case study. But the payoff in authority is well worth the effort.

4. Choose specific words. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before—Mistakes were made. Doesn’t sound very authoritative, does it? Now consider this one: The outage began on Monday at approximately 3PM PST and affected three of our installations. The problem was patched at 8:15 PM PST. About 20% of users will need to download an additional patch; if you are one of the affected users, you will receive an email with detailed instructions.

The revised text uses words that are precise, clear, and specific. When in doubt, refer back to the old journalistic maxim, and be sure you tell the reader who, what, where, when, why, and how. The more specifics you can include, the more the reader will perceive your piece as authentic and genuine.

5. This one is a real writer’s secret! Most people like to be consistent in their ideas. If you want to persuade your reader to take action or change their minds, create a piece that starts with ideas that are widely accepted in your field. Once your reader has bought in to agreeing with you, you can introduce your points that are more controversial or that involve taking action or spending money.

In the end, writing with authority is all about respect for the reader and for your own message. With time and energy, your content will build loyalty, extend your influence, and ensure a long-lasting relationship with customers who embrace you as a trusted resource.

How to Win Influencers

This week it was my privilege to moderate a panel discussion with three master Toastmasters on the subject of crafting relevant and compelling presentations, and I got some great ideas for applying the same techniques to business communications as well.

Sometimes as marketers we’re so busy sharing tips and tricks that we forget that it’s the fundamentals of great writing that win the eyeballs and hearts of busy influencers. First and foremost is understanding your audience. What do they care about? It may not line up exactly with what you want to “sell” them, so consider carefully what your goal is with the piece you’re developing. Is it an article that will build your credibility? Is it a white paper that gives them ideas on how to solve a thorny business problem? Is it a case study that shows them specifically how one of your solutions works? In every case, be outward-looking and customer-focused as you hone your message.

Secondly, you can spend a lifetime just mastering the basics. Does your piece have a title that grabs the interest of your target audience? Do you lead with a strong opening that speaks to their concerns? Do you distinguish each point and develop it carefully and with respect for the readers’ time? Do you wrap it up with a strong conclusion and call to action?

Whether your presentation is spoken or a written piece such as a case study, white paper, or ebook, you’re communicating, and you want your message to stick. Spending most of your time thinking and wordsmithing may not look that glamorous, but it’s the way to go to craft a message that sticks with your audience. And some of us actually enjoy it!

Today’s laugh:

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Case Studies: How to Get in the Right Mindset

Have you ever gone to a conference and had to sit through endless presentations that were badly disguised sales pitches? Then, instead of relaxing and networking with your peers at the mixer, you were button-holed by salespeople from other companies, all hoping you were their next hot prospect. Let’s face it—it doesn’t take long before you just grab a few more cheese cubes and head for the elevators.

Many companies have turned to case studies to better demonstrate their value to prospects and customers. A case study puts the spotlight on a customer and how you solved their problem. But how can you make sure that you don’t fall into the sales pitch trap and end up boring or alienating your audience? For the right mindset, keep these three points front and center:

  • You’re the expert—not the hero. With a case study, you can demonstrate what made you uniquely qualified to solve a problem without coming on too strong. The spotlight’s on the customer, and you play the role of the mentor in their journey—a trusted authority that comes along at the right time to help advance the action.
  • Emphasize one value proposition. Was the client facing budget cuts? Geographic challenges? Inadequate data to make decisions? Whatever the challenge, center your case study around the process your customer undertook to find you, but don’t overcomplicate it. Outline in concrete terms how their partnership with you solved one key issue.
  • Be professional. A great case study isn’t a task you can knock out in your spare time or delegate to an intern. A professional writer knows how to zero in on the problem and the solution using the customer’s own language. The result is copy that is direct but never desperate, and not reliant on industry jargon or spin. A great copywriter knows how to distill the features and benefits of your interaction with the customer into a story that resonates with prospects facing a similar challenge.

A final tip: most people are tired of being sold, and wise to the tricks of the trade. Don’t sugarcoat your case study in sales language. This is the time to be real.

Today’s laugh:

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