Monday, April 26, 2010

Doing without Visual and Voice Cues

Having discussed “touchy situations” in the last post, I have to admit that such situations—and many others—are often better dealt with face to face than in writing. Researchers estimate that people form 55 percent of overall impressions from visual cues, 38 percent from tones of voice, and a scanty 7 percent from actual words used. So when writing, we have to work more than ten times as hard to get a point across.

Still, there are times when writing is necessary—to address larger segments of the public than can be met with directly, or to communicate on subjects you find so touchy that you doubt your ability to maintain a professional demeanor. One advantage of the written word is that it lets you take things back before they get anyplace where they might do damage. (Also, if you feel like communicating something at 4 a.m. without getting dressed, no one need know.)

To compensate for being deprived of visual and voice cues:

Be certain to include all essential facts—and to get them straight. Outside of instant messaging, writing makes quick clarification on confusing points impossible. Worse yet is the message that clearly communicates wrong information—“off by one digit” can literally mean “off by a mile” when sending important addresses.

Choose strong, descriptive words. “Forty-story building” is easier to visualize than “skyscraper”; “customers seeking refunds” paints a clearer picture than “dissatisfied customers.”

Don’t, however, use “loaded language.” Calling people names always reflects badly on you—even when the message’s recipient isn’t your target.

If what you’re writing is intended or likely to have a significant impact, let the message “cool” for at least one full day before editing and sending it. Not only is the second draft always better than the first, longer gaps between the two equal greater improvement.

Don’t expect anyone to automatically realize you’re “just joking.” The reader won’t see the grin on your face or hear the light tone of your voice. Before sending a message, consider it at face value; the recipient definitely will.

Don’t rely on emoticons or acronyms to clarify your intent, either. It looks overly casual for most business communications; it may cause “translation problems” between plain text and graphics; it can be confusing (not everyone knows that “LOL” means “Laughing Out Loud”); and, like expressing anger with generic profanities, it’s frequently the lazy way out of looking for appropriate words.

Consider your recipient. Slang and clichés are fine with family or close friends, but a bad idea with anyone you want to impress professionally.

Don’t get so formal as to be stuffy. Hardly anyone writes “I will not” for “I won’t” anymore. You do want it to be obvious that your message was written by a human being!

Making a good impression takes work, but it’s worth it. A little careful attention to detail goes a long way, even when you have only words to work with.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dealing with Touchy Situations

However much we hate being misunderstood or embarrassed, business life is full of such opportunities. As long as the world remains imperfect, there will be dissatisfied customers, media scandalmongers, and political-correctness-vs.-tradition. Anyone mature enough to be in business should be mature enough to avoid provoking such situations, and to deal with them when unavoidable.

To minimize the risk of your written communications’ generating bad feelings:
  • Understand the “political correctness” minefield. Nowhere is it so easy to insult someone unintentionally as in “outsider” references to their culture, gender, or religion. Some people are so sure the world hates them that they take anything short of wholehearted endorsement as a hate crime. The best way to minimize trouble is to surround yourself with advisors from a variety of backgrounds; there’s no one like an “insider” for keeping others sensitized to a group’s sore points and preferred descriptive terms.
  • Never, ever insult anyone personally in writing. The difference between unwelcome criticism and a personal insult is that the former is both specific and provable. “JD hasn’t made a sale in ten months” can be backed up with evidence; “JD is the biggest incompetent who ever lived” not only is unprovable but implies a smear on every aspect of the person’s character. And while even a verbal insult can come back to haunt you in court, if you delivered it in writing you lose all benefit of the doubt.
  • Focus on the positive. When you never have anything good to say, even people not directly affected by your comments reflexively look for bad things to say about you.
Of course, too much avoiding of the negative can get you into worse trouble if you owe the public an apology or if there is some other real problem to be dealt with. Everyone knows about corporations and government entities that insist finances are stable up to the moment everything collapses, or that no one did anything wrong long after the evidence is undeniable. To minimize the damage when real trouble strikes, the #1 thing to remember is: Never try to dodge the issue. It will only hurt you in the probably-not-so-long run.

Not dodging the issue means:
  • Not downplaying the seriousness of the problem. It’s bad enough to have the media and the public questioning your competence; don’t give them reason to question your honesty as well.
  • Being open about the nature of the problem, the challenges involved, and the planned solution. Many businesses fail here because of paranoia about “revealing sensitive company information.” It’s one thing if a revelation compromises someone’s personal privacy, or gives so much detail as to show competitors how to duplicate a product or procedure; but every word in the employee handbook shouldn’t be top secret.
  • Being willing to apologize on the company's behalf, without mixing excuses with the apology. People think more, not less, of someone who is willing to unequivocally accept blame.

When it comes to good public relations, a little healthy humility goes a long way.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Press Release Pointers

To keep the public aware of and well disposed toward your work, you need positive media coverage. Customers are more likely to trust businesses that have other ways of getting attention besides buying it through advertising.

However, you can’t always rely on the media to notice you on their own; it pays to take an active role in keeping them up to date. The traditional press release, also called the news release or media release, is still an effective tool for getting your name in the papers or on the major Web sites. It’s normally written in a format similar to the following:


One- to four-sentence summary

City, State, Preferred Date of Release [if none, “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE”]

Main news story.

About [sponsoring company and/or release writer]: [one short paragraph]


Full contact information for the best person to answer any questions.

### [or “-30-” or “END”] [centered]


Correct format won’t get you far, though, without good writing and newsworthy content. To earn your release the best chance of being published:

Address your release directly to the editor of Business News (or whatever department publishes articles on your topic). And write to the person’s full name or “Mr./Ms. Smith,” not just a position title and definitely not a first name alone.

Gear your submission to the recipient’s convenience, not your own. Follow any specific instructions from the paper/Web site/media service on how, when, and where to send releases.

Choose “news” that’s interesting to potential readers, not simply to your own office. (See last two posts for hints on judging this.) Strangers are not interested in what your business does unless it affects them directly, offers something they want or need, or is intriguing or funny enough to entertain them.

Make the title short (no more than 80 characters) and descriptive. Study published news headlines to get the right feel.

Keep the whole thing to a maximum of 800 words. One of the best ways to reduce word count is to change adverbial phrases (“walks proudly”) to verbs (“struts”) and adjectival phrases (“luxurious car”) to nouns (“limousine”).

Put the most important information first; the further into a release a paragraph is located, the more likely it is to be cut before publication (or go unread after).

Include at least one direct quote (“‘This will give our customers an extra hour of daily free time,’ said CEO Craig Johnson”); rewrite your own best thought in quote form if necessary. Readers like to hear real people speaking.

Never use a five-syllable word when a two-syllable synonym is available.

Don’t overload the text with technical details, but do include your contact information for the benefit of interested potential clients.

Be extra careful to get all facts—especially contact information—accurate. And remember that typos hurt your professional image. Once you think the release is finished, let it sit for a full day and then proofread it.

Be certain, as with an ad, that you can keep any promises you make!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Features vs. Benefits

If your ads suffer from a discouraging lack of response, it may be that they don’t answer every reader’s key questions: “Why should I care?” and “What’s in it for me?” Sales materials don’t deserve the name if they talk exclusively about features rather than benefits.

Features are the specifics on what a business does or is. Benefits are the specifics on what a business does, or can do, for its customers. Features, at best, capture attention for a few moments before readers direct their attention elsewhere. Benefits are what assure potential customers you offer something they will find useful, helpful, or pleasurable.

Does your copy talk directly to the customer? Good persuasive copy is full of “you’s” and short on “we’s.” Every ad should ask rhetorically, “Do you have this problem?” or “Do you enjoy experiencing this activity/feeling?” before explaining how the product or service solves the problem, or provides the activity/feeling, better than any other option.

Does the copy appeal to emotion? However much we like to think of ourselves as rational, reasonable people, we all let personal desires and wishes guide most of our actions. If your copy is sufficiently vivid and “you-oriented” that potential customers begin picturing themselves enjoying whatever you’re offering, you’re well on the way to a sale.

Does the copy tie all straight facts to potential gain for the customer? “Our new auto runs 10% more efficiently than last year’s model” may evoke a yawn and a “whose doesn’t?” “Our new model's increased efficiency can make your gasoline budget go 10% further” will get people thinking “this might be a worthwhile investment.”

Does the copy leave no doubt as to what it’s selling—and does it state this at the beginning rather than the end? Only the most prominent brands can get away with wildly imaginative commercials that hardly mention the product/service at all. But many feature-heavy ads are only a tiny improvement when it comes to being comprehensible. Some “ads” spend so much time explaining how the machinery works or how the service was tested that they never get around to stating clearly what is being advertised—or of asking people directly to buy it. Other ads tuck this information into one small paragraph at the end of a crowded page, forgetting that few readers bother to go on to the end once they get bored.

Does the copy tell readers how to buy? Ease in ordering is a benefit too often neglected; even readers interested in buying will give up quickly if there’s no Web site address, no order form, and no mention of which stores might be selling a product. The vast majority of consumers, given no way of immediately locating a product or service, will consider it not worth their while to spend time searching.

Thinking in terms of “benefits” has obvious advantages in persuading people to buy immediately. But it can be equally helpful when your purpose is simply to make a good impression on your public. The next post will discuss this and other things worth knowing about press releases.