Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Shorter Is Better

Most people think of "rushing about" as a modern dilemma. But though faster technology and unlimited options have exacerbated "hurry sickness," dislike of "wasted time" has been around for quite a while. The classic composition booklet Elements of Style, first published in 1918, urges writers to avoid wasting readers' time with "needless words": "A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts."

A sure way to offend magazine editors is to submit a manuscript with the comment "I know you don't normally publish stories of over 1,000 words, but I'm sure you'll find this 3,000-word piece is worth making an exception for." Such approaches frequently come from writers who haven't even bothered trying to shorten their first drafts. And the temptation is even worse in business writing, where there are no official word counts, no obvious immediate rejections, usually more of a sense of "rush," and (in e-writing) no extra expense involved for additional length. No extra expense in terms of print costs, that is. One can only guess how many potential customers lose interest after one glance at the infinitesimal size of a screen-height bar, or give up in disgust after two rambling paragraphs.

The #1 hint for concise business writing is Take time to edit. First drafts always ramble; it's unavoidable.

Some other (short and sweet!) hints:
  • The word that, and phrases containing it ("the fact that," "it occurs to me that"), are among the most dispensable items. Ditto for qualifier adverbs such as usually, frequently, and very.
  • Active voice ("Tom brought the salad") is more concise and stronger than passive ("The salad was brought by Tom").
  • Replace adjectival phrases with nouns, and adverbial phrases with verbs. ("Prodigy" instead of "brilliant young man," "sprinted" instead of "ran quickly.")
  • Keep a thesaurus handy; it cuts words wasted trying to achieve precise descriptions.
  • Keep your topic or thesis narrow, and remove any sentences (or paragraphs!) that don't relate to it.

Hope this post was short enough!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Not All Articles Come in Series

Stand-alone articles (as opposed to those published in magazines or newsletters) have been around for a long time in the form of white papers, tracts, and pamphlets, but in the online age such publications have really come into their own. Now, everyone with a Web site or social networking account can freely post company anecdotes, helpful hints, and top-ten lists. And these articles can be written as long or as short, as frequently or as sporadically, as the needs of the situation call for.

Of course, sometimes it's useful to have a hard copy in hand, and a simple printout isn't always enough. Particularly if you need handouts for a trade show or want to give clients something easier to handle than an 8 x 11" sheet, the professionally printed booklet or brochure can do wonders for your "businesslike" image. Even if you have to hire a professional graphic designer and make sure the number of pages is divisible by 8, it may be worth it.

In either case, as with any business writing, you need a specific purpose for your project. And whether you're introducing your business--or your latest product or service--to the public, providing news on your industry as a whole, or giving out helpful hints related to your field of expertise, there are principles that apply to every stand-alone article.

Shorter is usually better--and the longer the article is, the less it should state outright what the sponsoring company wants. Not only do people have short attention spans, but the more focused an article is on "selling them," the faster they get bored. That's why advertorials run only one page and feature articles don't include "buy now" appeals.

Use lots of subheads. Article readers like to skim for key points, and anything that makes that easier is welcome.

Bulleted and numbered lists nearly always get favorable attention. Their "sound bite" approach and the white space they leave on the page gives an impression of "efficient and uncluttered."

Visuals may be more expensive than all-text, but often the greater appeal is worth it. Try to use visuals with Web articles, at least, where cost is far less an issue.

Lifelike visuals score highest. Photographs usually trump drawings, especially when the subjects are shown smiling and acting natural. People always trump objects. If your article topic is something like "keeping the wilderness wild" and you don't want to show people stepping on nature, include shots of active living creatures--not just plants and rocks.

If you aren't talking about your company directly in the text, don't forget to include your logo, mission statement, and contact information. Keep it inconspicuously at the bottom of the back page, though. In the interest of good public relations, every business should occasionally give away some free information related to its field of expertise, but making the source too obvious (e. g., explaining every two paragraphs that you specialize in solving such problems professionally) gives a "back door sales" impression that irritates readers.

Also to avoid annoying readers, don't serve up mixed purposes in the same article. Sales on one page, news on the next, and everyday advice on the third works fine in magazines, but a single article--even a booklet-length one--needs a single purpose. Like the short story that shifts point of view every third paragraph, a multi-purpose article will soon have readers wanting to throw the thing across the room to relieve the frustration of trying to figure out where their primary mental focus belongs.

Articles can be extremely useful as public relations or sales tools. Like all tools, they are most useful (and safest) when handled in certain ways.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What Good Is It, Without Immediate Return?

"Everyone says it's a great idea, but no one uses it" sums up much of the business world when it comes to blogs. For every entrepreneur who is successfully producing such electronic articles on a regular basis, there are likely ten whose efforts remain forever in the planning stage, stay perpetually sporadic, or die within three months.

Probably the top reason given is "not enough time." And cranking out a thousand or more words per week does take time (no matter how many non-writers think in terms of "dashing something off"). Still, I know several business owners who run highly profitable solo enterprises and still find time to turn out three or four blog posts a week, while many businesses with decent-sized staff pools are still planning to "get around to it someday." And anyone who really considers something a high priority will make time for it--or hire someone to do it.

So why do blogs and other e-articles, popular as they are in theory and given the number of successful businesses that swear by them, sink to the bottom of so many priority lists?

Probably because of a widespread tendency to judge everything by immediate and obvious results. It can be hard not to think in terms of "Getting people interested in what we do and what we know is all well and good, but shouldn't we devote the bulk of our resources to encouraging them to buy immediately? Where's the return on investment in giving out free health hints or telling funny stories about what it took to develop our new product?"

Some businesses decide that the best solution is to make one item serve both purposes, and create "blogs" that are really loosely disguised advertising campaigns. It seldom works; readers get bored with sales pitches far faster than with articles. In nearly every case, the two should be kept distinct.

What can a business reasonably expect from a well-written, consistently produced blog?

The building of long-term relationships. As people have always had their favorite magazines, they now have their favorite blogs. And as people rarely buy a magazine for the purpose of reading the advertisements, few will follow a blog primarily for the purpose of learning what the host can sell them.

Higher attraction value--and higher frequency tolerance--than advertising. Many people find their favorite blogs through Web browsing for information on a specific topic. Links to interesting e-articles are frequently forwarded on a casual "thought you might be interested" basis, whereas few people forward information on purchasable items unless (1) they have direct experience with the item or particularly long-term experience with the company, and (2) they immediately think of someone who is specifically looking for an item of that nature. Moreover, readers are generally glad to see a new blog installment, whereas advertisements frequently evoke a "quit bothering me" reaction.

A building of your reputation as dependable, consistent, and caring about more than the public's money. When a blog keeps to a steady posting/delivery schedule, every new installment sends the message "We can be counted on to deliver what we promise, when we promise." And if you regularly offer helpful or interesting information from your field of expertise, rather than simply talking about yourself, you also send the message "We care about your needs even when we don't immediately profit from them."

What you can't expect from most blogs is instant profit or instant new customers. Well-run businesses have both short-term and long-term goals; both are equally important, and the "article" approach serves the latter. It's worth the effort. Thinking entirely in the short term--the "putting out fires" approach--often means that the business itself will be short-lived.

If the long term is important enough to you to rate a large investment in a professional writer, you might even aim higher and create a full-length newsletter or e-zine. Visit this link (3/30/10 post, "Quick Quiz: What's Your Strongest Tool for Turning Prospects Into Clients?") and this one to learn from those who found it worth the time and trouble.

Conversely, you may appreciate the value of the business blog or newsletter but not be quite ready for a firm regular schedule. Or you may want to produce a piece that's too long for a blog but wouldn't really fit into a newsletter. The solution there is the informational brochure or booklet (electronic or print), which will be discussed in my next post.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Blog, Newsletter, Brochure, or Social Network Article?

Today's post will begin a series on how to use blogs and other articles to your professional advantage.

Every business should regularly provide some written item that falls outside the category of "sales material": it keeps stakeholders informed, reminds past and potential customers you exist without seeming pushy, and--especially if you talk about things besides yourself--provides information worth passing to others who wouldn't heard of you otherwise. But many such projects die in utero or prove more bother than help, because of poor planning.

The first thing to plan is what form your "helpful written information for the public" will take. Blogs offer the advantage of being both concise and frequent. Traditional newsletters project the image of a conscientious business that takes itself seriously. White papers or e-brochures, posted on a social networking site and/or a business's Web site, work well for businesses that prefer not to keep a strict schedule. Many companies use the integrated approach, including all of the above.

If, however, you're picking just one to add to your marketing mix, consider the following before jumping in.

With blogs and newsletters, the length of each installment should be inversely proportional to the frequency with which installments appear. Blog posts run 1-5 times per week and less than 1,000 words. Newsletters equalling 8 or fewer printed pages are best produced monthly. Magazine-length newsletters should come out on a quarterly schedule. You want to give subscribers time to read one installment before the next appears!

Start small. Many newsletters don't get past the planning stage because a business tried to make them too long and ran out of information to fill them--or of time to assemble the information into a coherent, well-written product. For the same reason, if you want to make your blog/newsletter/articles an effective public relations tool:

Seriously consider outsourcing the work--or hiring a full-time writer. Don't fall into the "anyone can do a decent job of writing" trap and assign the project to whoever can scrape enough time from other duties to throw it together. No less than computer maintenance or building inspection, this is a serious part of your business and deserves professional treatment.

Don't post one of those "hiring blog writers for 10 posts a week at $20 each" ads, either. Top-quality writers who work under such terms are rarer than dollar menus in five-star restaurants, and even capable amateur writers won't do their best work at such high speed--not if they need to leave time in their schedules to earn a real living. You might as well assign the job in-house and at least save the $200--though you'd be better off using it to hire a real professional for one post a week. Quality definitely trumps quantity here.

Consider your audience. Who, exactly, do you hope will read this? What age, gender, religious, and ethnic categories do they fall into? What are they already reading regularly--print newspapers, social networking sites, trade journals? How much time do they spend online? To ensure an interested audience, keep your new product close in form to what they already use or enjoy.

The next post will talk about what to expect--and not to expect--from a written-information project.