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:
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.
Earlier this year, I set some fitness goals and joined the YMCA to help make them happen. But let’s face it—riding an exercise bike indoors might be a great way to beat the Texas heat, but it doesn’t give the mind a whole lot to chew on. And most of the music I love is country and Americana, which isn’t written with workouts in mind. So these days, I listen to podcasts, and now the time flies by because I’m learning and having fun.
Here are some of my favorites. I’ve included the podcast’s capsule description from Overcast (where I subscribe) and a little bit about recent episodes and why I like the podcast.
A Way With Words. A fun weekly radio show about language seen through culture, history, and family. Recent episodes tell about why we say you bet your boots and up your alley. It’s fun and funny for word nerds and would also make a great listen with your kids.
Tides of History. Everywhere around us are echoes of the past. Those echoes determine the boundaries of states and countries, how we pray, and how we fight. The most recent series was on the Hundred Years War in Europe. I am learning so much about the ancient and medieval world from this down-to-earth but substantive show!
American History Tellers. The Cold War, Prohibition, the Gold Rush, the Space Race. Every part of your life—the words you speak, the ideas you share—can be traced to our history. The most recent series was about the American Revolution as seen through the eyes of six very different people, from an Iroquois chief to a famous mistress. A new series has just started about the national parks. I love this podcast for its great depth and amazing story-telling techniques.
Backstory. A weekly public podcast hosted by U.S. historians explores a variety of topics in a fun way. Recent episodes took a look at Reconstruction, the atomic age, and climate and weather in American history. The topics are often somehow tied in with the news, but the approach is to bring you fresh, surprising, and enlightening stories, not to preach.
Stuff You Should Know. If you’ve ever wanted to know about champagne, satanism, the Stonewall Uprising, chaos theory, LSD, El Niño, true crime, and Rosa Parks … look no further. This show for those of us with curious minds has recently offered episodes on pterosaurs, voodoo, and hotel fires. So much fun variety and always something different and unexpected to chew on!
The Jungle Room. All things Elvis Presley, for Elvis fans or just fans of good music. Everyone knows how much I love the King, and I really enjoy this podcast with musings on Elvis topics such as recent episodes on the 1968 Comeback Special and Elvis’s dad, Vernon Presley. If you like Elvis and want to learn more about him, put this one in your rotation.
Do YOU have any favorite podcasts to recommend? I also love them when I’m stuck with a long commute or bad traffic. Say, I’m starting swimming lessons at the Y soon … maybe I should invest in some waterproof headphones!
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.
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.
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.
I am so pleased and excited to announce that my new book, The Austin Dam Disaster of 1900, is now available! Pre-orders are underway and the book’s release day is January 29–next Monday!
Part of the Images of America series from Arcadia Publishing, this book tells one of the great forgotten stories of Austin history–how a little town of 15,000 people built the largest dam ever constructed in the 19th century, anywhere in the world. It’s a story about dreams, and hubris, and Central Texas weather. Most of the research was conducted at the Austin History Center, and the book contains dozens of historic photos from the Austin History Center, the Lower Colorado River Authority, the Texas State Archives, and the Briscoe Center for American History, among others.
As a lifelong Austinite, I grew up in a city still celebrating the taming of the Colorado by the Highland Lakes dams. Aquafest attracted thousands each summer to celebrate the existence of Town Lake. A few years back, I learned that Red Bud Isle, now a beloved dog park, was formed from the wreckage of the old Austin dam. As I delved into the subject matter, I discovered that the Austin dam disaster of 1900 not only illuminated the journey of Austin from dusty frontier capital to modern-day tech magnet–it embodied the ambition and hubris that even then characterized the city.
I’ve always been fascinated by our unique weather, and the drama of the dam’s failure is the centerpiece of this story. I’ve learned over the years that people really do love to discover their own history. This was something I had never heard of, and it has so many fascinating aspects–politics, engineering, geology, disaster, and the sheer grit it took for our city to come back from a catastrophe that was as much self-inflicted as it was an act of God.
In 2016 I learned that Arcadia Publishing was looking to add some more Texas titles and I approached them with the idea of this book. The City of Austin and the Austin History Center gave permission to use their material, which makes up the majority of the images, and we are grateful for their generosity.
I hope you will enjoy this book as much as I did putting it together. The Austin Dam Disaster of 1900 is available on Amazon, directly from Arcadia Publishing, and will be available at your favorite Austin bookstores including BookPeople, Book Woman, and Barnes & Noble.
Please check out the events calendar! I would love to see all my friends at the book launch party on February 18 at BookPeople or any other of my upcoming “book tour” events! There are several more in the works, and I am actively seeking more local speaking engagements–feel free to reach out.
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.
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.
This summer and fall brought my share of curveballs. My dad entered the last stage of his life, and helping him through took precedence over just about everything else. He passed away in October, and I miss him very much.
There is a lot of exciting change and some big, fun announcements coming up in 2018. To focus on the positive, I thought I’d reactivate the blog with something fun and light. The end of year “Best of” lists have started to appear. I never see any of my favorites on there. How about you? I would love to hear about your favorites, too – books, movies, music, etc. that you discovered in 2017. (They don’t have to have been new this year, just new to you).
These are the things that helped me make it through a very challenging year.
Favorite book: I used to love to read mysteries but in recent years I can never find any that I like – most are either gory and depressing, or too dumbed down. My best innovation this year was to go “back in time” and start picking up classic series that I had never read. Years of reading pleasure ahead!
Favorite new author/series: Robert B. Parker and the Spenser series, about a hard-boiled Boston PI with a heart of gold
Runner up: Dick Francis and his horse racing series
Favorite movie: Murder on the Orient Express – Hercule Poirot, the world’s greatest detective (Kenneth Branagh), must solve a murder that took place on a moving train in the middle of nowhere. I haven’t loved the reinvention of a classic so much since Daniel Craig took on James Bond.
Runners up: Wonder Woman, Hacksaw Ridge
Favorite TV show: The Son – harrowing, engrossing Texas historical drama about Eli McCulloch (Pierce Brosnan), a family patriarch with many secrets, and his troubled family.
Runners up: Genius: Einstein, Manhunt: Unabomber, Victoria
Favorite album: God’s Problem Child, by Willie Nelson – beautiful and wise new music from the 84-year-old master of his craft.
Runner up: Tell the Devil I’m Getting There As Fast As I Can, by Ray Wylie Hubbard
Favorite song: According to Spotify, the one I listened to the most was Shame by my secret boyfriend, Adam Lambert. Runner up: Sure Fire Winners by Adam Lambert. (I guess it isn’t really that much of a secret.)
Favorite concert was Queen + Adam Lambert in Dallas. Brilliant and captivating rock show in the real old style.
Runner up: Ray Wylie Hubbard at the Paramount
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!
How many of you remember the great movie A League of Their Own, starring Tom Hanks and Geena Davis? The movie concerned a group of women who became baseball players during World War II, a time when the male players were serving in the military. Tom Hanks plays Jimmy Dugan, the washed-up manager who finds his love of the game again through these unlikely champions.
I was thinking the other day about what I’ve learned since I started working with my freelance clients and how I could expand my offerings. Right now, my best clients already have pretty great baseball teams with experienced players. In my case, this means they have writing projects with specific goals, and resources lined up with the information they want to communicate. In that case, I’m the Geena Davis character—the pro who knows how to execute.
But what about clients at the level of the rest of the Rockford Peaches? These farm girls are pretty great players, too. But they’ve never done anything like this before, and they’re not quite ready to put it all together. There’s some behind-the-scenes spadework that needs to be done. This summer, I’ll be putting on my coach hat and working on some more effective ways to do that (i.e., packages) that make sense for me and for potential clients looking to take it to the next level.
What I love about A League of Their Own is that Jimmy Dugan doesn’t start out as a great coach. He isn’t really much of a leader at all. As the story unfolds, he grows into the role. He accepts his situation and begins to believe in the abilities of his players. He begins to offer them the positive feedback and constructive criticism they actually need, instead of just screaming at them. He tunes into their values instead of his own. Working together, he and the players find a way to work together and make their dreams come true.
In the end, it all comes down to the improved results on the baseball diamond. But the scoreboard is only a crude measure of success. The real story is the humility, compassion, and communication that develops between the coach and the players.