Monday, July 26, 2010

Be Careful What You Say

When it comes to the written word, flawless spelling and punctuation aren't always enough to make your business look good. Building on last week's theme of humor in the English language, here are a dozen examples of the potential embarrassment in not thinking through what your words actually say:
  1. "Donate to Consignment Retail Shop's quarterly sale and get rid of all those things that just clutter up your home. Bring your family."
  2. "Don't let outmoded medical treatments make your health problems worse. Come to Homeopathic Clinic and let us take care of that."
  3. "Our vacuum cleaners run so quietly, you'll swear they aren't working at all."
  4. "Our West Road franchise will be closing next week. Thanks to all our former loyal customers."
  5. "Come to our rifle range. We provide instructors so you can learn to shoot yourself."
  6. "Can't get Internet access? Visit our Web site for the solution!"
  7. "Our software is completely foolproof and virtually guaranteed never to frustrate you. To further ensure your convenience, we maintain a 24/7 Customer Complaints hotline."
  8. "At next Sunday's church service, the pastor will formally announce his resignation, after which the congregation will sing 'Praise the Lord.'"
  9. "Fly with our airline and let us worry about the hassles of driving."
  10. "Our cars are effectively indestructible and let you hit anything with impunity."
  11. "Tinter's Barber Shop prides itself on cultivating long-term customer relationships. We'll cut your hair until you go bald!"
  12. "Get away from the crowds at Custom Resort. Reservations must be made at least six weeks in advance."
Just because you're clear on what you mean doesn't mean anyone else is; others can only read your words, not your mind. Never let anything significant to your profits or reputation get out to the public without testing it on at least one person who had no hand in writing it!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Words Are Funny

In honor of vacation season, today's post takes a break from talking about business, and makes time to laugh at the idiosyncracies of the English language.
  • Why do we drive on parkways and park on driveways?
  • Why do we send shipments in cars and cargo on ships?
  • If your father's wife is your stepmother, why isn't your uncle's wife your stepaunt?
  • If she corresponds to he, why don't we have shim and shis to correspond to him and his?
  • If the plural of mouse is mice, why isn't hice the plural of house? How does one tell the difference between the singular and the plural of sheep? And what's the singular of trousers?
  • If vulnerable and invulnerable are opposites, why do inflammable and flammable mean the same thing?
  • Why doesn't overlook mean the same as oversee? And why does quite a lot mean the same as quite a few?
  • If "worn-out" clothing is no longer fit to wear, shouldn't brand-new clothing be sold as "worn-in"?
  • Why isn't there any egg in an eggplant, or any apple in a pineapple? Where are the rocks in rock candy? Why aren't lead pencils made with lead, and why are tin cans made mostly of steel?
  • Why do dogs and people take catnaps?

Take a nap yourself this afternoon, and remember that relaxed minds make for "creativer" writing! (Why doesn't every adjective have one-word comparative and superlative forms??)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Your Blog's Mission

A good blog, like a good magazine, needs a reasonably narrow focus. Few people will continue following a blog that talks about cat care one week, Middle East politics the next, and computer software the week after that--unless the writer can tie all three to some common aspect (such as "the realities of the modern world from a radical conservative's perspective") and emphasize that aspect to make it obvious all posts come from the same basic point of view.

It is possible to write a blog that covers a large variety of subtopics. Look at major periodicals that have been around for decades: National Geographic; Good Housekeeping; Time Magazine. All cover a variety of topics that at first glance seem to have little in common, yet no one thinks it odd if National Geographic runs an article on caffeine next to one on the history of polar exploration. The secret is to have a clearly definable mission--whether that mission is to educate readers on people, their cultures, and their world; to show average Americans how to make personal and family life more fulfilling; to explore how a philosophy or religion relates to the real world; or simply to provide entertainment for lovers of literary fiction.

The most obvious advantage of the mission-oriented blog is that it's less likely to die for lack of new post ideas; how many things can the average blogger really say about "the view from my kitchen window"? (For a detailed discussion on how not to run out of ideas, check back to the March 23 post.) But unless the mission itself is obvious, readers may lose interest as quickly as with a "topics chosen at random" post. So "your mission, should you choose to accept it," is to write your mission-oriented blog according to the following hints:

Make your blog's mission match your business's mission--or some aspect of the latter. A veterinarian might write a pet-health blog; a community-development nonprofit could focus on positive aspects of architectural or educational trends. A relevant blog is good publicity for your business, helps establish your expertise in readers' minds, spreads passion for the cause, and also is the best bet for a topic you won't run out of ideas on.

Put a header on your blog that states its mission in one short paragraph. The "mission statement" for Good Writing is Good Business begins "Despite what many would-be novelists think, good writing is not easy. It is, however, vital . . ." (see above). When Web surfers discover an interesting post on driving for maximum fuel efficiency, and come back the next week to find a post on locating thrift stores, they won't be jarred by the apparent incongruity if the header has made clear that this is a blog on "everyday economical living."

Choose a blog title equally evocative of the mission. Even if you prefer a clever or intriguing title that doesn't make the mission obvious (in which case a descriptive header is doubly important), match it to the blog's overall tone. Beware of risque implications if your mission is conservative, and remember that "groaner" puns lead readers to expect plenty of humor.

Keep the tone consistent from post to post; it'll help maintain a cohesive feeling when topics vary. Define the typical response you want to evoke: belly laughs? Moral indignation? Sentimental musings? If you write your own posts, beware of trying to speak in a "voice" that isn't yours. Attempting humor without a gift for it is bad enough in a single article; in a series of posts, it'll drive both you and your readers crazy.

Every successful business has a mission. The wise business owner designs blogs--and all other PR and marketing materials--to provide maximum support for that mission.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Want to Write a Magazine Article?

Every academic and scientist has heard the phrase "publish or perish." When part of your job is to be brilliant, people expect to see your byline in major journals; lack of a bibliography quickly begins to reflect on your professional reputation.

While the pressure is less in other fields, the concept holds universally true: the businessperson who gets noticed by a major periodical is the businessperson whose presumed expertise gets respect. The press release, covered in an earlier post, is one way of getting an article into a newspaper or trade journal. To go beyond "the latest scoop on my business," try an article in one of the following categories:

The op-ed (as in "opposite the editorial page" or "opinion-editorial") is a good beginning choice; these social-commentary articles are short (rarely more than 750 words) and can be written directly from personal knowledge. Don't, however, slip into the "everyone with any sense knows this" approach; the opinion advanced still has to be supported with clear facts and logical conclusions. Pick a topic you feel strongly about and have considerable experience with; give "see-their-point" consideration to those who disagree; and cite at least one respected source that isn't on your payroll.

The filler--the brief piece of advice, anecdote, or trivia item--can also be a good first-article choice, especially if you work in a human-interest-related field. There's rarely room for lengthy author bios; just note your business name and/or Web address, plus your field if it's not obvious from the name.

The profile, interview, or news feature is an expanded version of the press release: instead of one specific milestone or accomplishment, this article focuses on multiple aspects of a person or business and (in the case of the news feature) how they relate to some major event or trend. It's ideal if a periodical interviews you; but, unfortunately, this isn't something you have much control over (though it helps to get involved in prominent causes and build good person-to-person relationships with the community and media). If you do want to write one of these articles yourself, be careful; it's hard to keep self-profiles from sounding like blatant self-promotion. You might hire an outside freelance service to edit your article for general interest, or to ghostwrite a news feature; or you might offer yourself to a freelance writer as a profile or interview subject, contributing a sidebar under your own name. (Don't, however, pay a writer for doing an interview article with you as the subject; it could invite uncomfortable ethical questions.)

The full-length feature article, whether news, social trends, or how-to, should be attempted only by the most experienced writers. However, there's nothing wrong with hiring a ghostwriter or "as told to" writer in this case. Do write the author bio yourself; it should be one short paragraph noting your business name/specialty, the best means of contacting you, and an interesting fact about you or your business that relates to the article's focus.

The full-page advertorial deserves a quick mention, though technically it's a paid advertisement rather than an article. The most effective ones read like press releases and include the human element, especially case histories and photographs.

A couple of final points:

1. For prestige, reader interest, and chances of being published, the trade journals for your industry are the best places to submit articles.

2. If you can't yet claim a published article, there's nothing unethical about posting your best work online with the note "as submitted to x magazine" (provided it's the truth, of course, and provided there's no risk of the magazine's later requesting first publishing rights). At least you'll get credit for trying!