Saturday, August 28, 2010

Changing Times

Having more than once emphasized the need for careful proofreading, I have to concede that in many cases, "correct" spelling or usage is simply a matter of majority opinion. Web site or website? Lois' report or Lois's report? Peas, beans, and bacon or peas, beans and bacon? Even the style guides don't always agree.

The worst headaches come at those points where officially accepted usage is in transition. Most over-forty keyboarders remember the old typing rule about leaving two spaces between sentences and around quotation marks--and having to adjust to one space with the rise of word processing. Now, the shift from Web site to website has writers once again fuming over the need to develop new habits. Many a writer-vs.-editor, author-vs.-coauthor, and blogger-vs.-commenter argument starts because both parties are technically "right" (each according to a different style manual or dictionary) and each is positive he or she has the only right way. It's not only in matters of ethics and theology that enemies are made because one person's obvious fact is another person's inexcusable lack of tolerance.

It won't help to wish for permanent, fixed agreement on every point of the English language; even if such were possible momentarily, a living language can no more be stopped from changing than can a living organism. Comparing "proper" English from country to country, dictionary edition to dictionary edition, or century to century should convince any thinking person of the futility of demanding lasting consensus. (Believe it or not, double negatives--"I don't have no apples"--were once grammatically correct; and once upon a time girl simply meant "youngster" and could include males.) If nothing else, the need of new words for new inventions would ensure that English in 300 years will follow different rules from English today.

In the meantime, we still have decisions to make. So here are a few rules that aren't likely to go out of date:

Be consistent. Write Web site once, and consider yourself committed to it for the rest of the document. Better that readers should think you're out of date than that you're too scatterbrained to have an opinion. And if you use a style manual, consult the same one--and the same edition--every time.

Look it up. If there's the slightest doubt in your mind, defer to a recognized reference source. "It's in the Chicago Manual of Style" carries more weight in a disagreement than "I've always done it this way."

Give a little. Complaining about your supervisor's dictionary preference or stubbornly insisting on the last word is unprofessional behavior even if your writing is technically correct. If anyone is firmly committed to a spelling or form that does have some official recognition, better to go along with it than to demand majority rights.

Don't make a big deal out of every criticism. Not only is it impossible to be universally correct on every point, but anyone who writes for wide distribution (especially in social networking) will eventually meet one of those stubborn souls who are positive they're right even when every reference source disagrees. Don't waste energy defending yourself to the last breath; know when to ignore an accusation, or say politely "I'll think about it" and move on.

Even the best writers can't always be right in everyone's eyes; but we can always be accepting of everyone's right to an opinion!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Rush" Is a Four-Letter Word

As a professional writer, I have a quick eye for typos, which can make ordinary reading an often annoying and sometimes hilarious experience. Did our grandparents really "have their milk delivered directly form the dairy"? Would you like to "take a peak at all the software options available today"? And how many people actually know the difference between its and it's?

I own books from every decade back to the 1960s, and as far as I can tell, accurate proofreading at major publishers has been in decline since the spell checker was invented. Those spell checkers, created to eliminate typos, seem instead to be giving writers one more excuse for laziness....

Or is it laziness that dismisses the need to proofread personally? Are business owners, working hard to all appearances, turning out sloppy social media writing because they "don't have time" to proofread--and sending brochures to the printer with unnoticed typos because they "don't have a week" to let the text sit so they can come back to it with fresh eyes? Is the underlying reason the same one that causes sleep deprivation and 70-hour work weeks: society has been conditioned to value quantity over quality? Until, of course, one becomes the customer whose order was lost in the crush, or the driver whose car was dented by someone hurrying to meet a delivery schedule. Or the shopper who goes to the wrong address because a harried copywriter mistyped the number. Rush is ultimately the worst enemy of success.

The best defensive weapon is a little planning. I try to allow at least one full hour for preparing a blog or social media post of my own, and a minimum of one week per 500 words when doing a project for someone else. I may never win a prize for greatest number of projects per month, but my work is rarely featured in "The Funniest Writing I've Seen" forums either.

A bestselling book of the early 1990s asked, If You Haven't Got the Time to Do It Right, When Will You Find the Time to Do It Over? Twenty years later, most businesspeople still forget to ask themselves that question. If you apply it to your writing, you'll gain a marked advantage in making a professional impression.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Time to Say a Few Words

Businesspeople like to tell of the condemned prisoner in the Roman arena. He stood calmly as the gates opened and a starving lion bounded toward him. Just as the lion was about to pounce, the prisoner whispered something the audience couldn't hear--and the lion whirled and bolted back through the gate.

Another lion was set loose on the prisoner, then another. Each time, he whispered something and the beast fled as if in panic.

By now, the official in charge was bursting with curiosity. He called the prisoner over and offered a full pardon "if you'll just tell me what you're saying to those lions!"

"It's simple," the prisoner replied. "I tell them, 'After dinner come the speeches!'"

The idea of a speech--especially when you're the one who has to make it--can also tempt human beings to bolt for the door. The emotional value we place on speeches is one reason they're prepared in advance, and that's where writing comes in.

It's a different category of writing than is done for books or Web sites, because speeches are designed to be heard rather than seen. Before jumping to the "hows" of speechwriting, memorize three essential points on what to do with it once it's written:

1. Rehearse the speech--out loud and preferably with a trusted small audience--before going public. This rule is vital not only for the practice and for raising your comfort level, but to ensure the speech actually fits the alloted time parameters.

2. Make the speech--don't read it. Keeping your eyes on the text will interfere with your making eye contact with the audience, and thus will reduce their interest in you.

3. Don't get obsessed with memorizing the written speech word for word. Concentrating too hard on your memory can result in your voice slipping into a monotone; moreover, the "word for word" approach can lead to getting completely lost if a single "next word" is forgotten.

As for the actual writing:

Arrange your speech in a meaningful order: chronological if one story is the focus; or from most important point to least; or on the alliteration or acronym approach (key words all beginning with the same letter or with letters that spell another word).

Use lots of anecdotes and examples. Good in any writing, this is particularly important where your audience may not have a copy of the text to save--facts and principles attached to real "happenings" will stick best in their minds. Don't be afraid to tell stories on yourself; audiences love it!

Don't force square pegs into round holes. Relate every sentence to the main theme. Don't include irrelevant jokes or anecdotes just for their entertainment value.

Avoid highly technical terms and words of over three syllables; they're hard to process when delivered verbally.

You can be more casual than with materials written for others to read; don't exchange everyday conversation for technically perfect grammar. (Of course, don't get so casual that people wonder if you finished high school!)

Remember the principle of "Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em; tell 'em; tell 'em what you told 'em." Summarize your key point(s) at the beginning and again at the end.

Choose your first and last sentences especially carefully; grab your audience's attention at the beginning, and end with a strong takeaway point.

The takeaway point for this article is: No one's really waiting eagerly for some stupid remark they can use against you for the rest of your life. Don't let perfectionism ruin your dinner!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Define Your Business in Three Steps

The successful business owner owes many a good idea to networking events and seminars. At a recent breakfast sponsored by my Chamber of Commerce, the speaker suggested the following useful hint for summarizing your business to interested parties: Develop your elevator speech around three key questions. The idea can easily be adapted to written materials, from your Web site's home page to your new sales letter.

Key Question #1: What is your Unique Selling Point, the distinct characteristic that makes your business stand out among the competition? Characteristics that every business in your field epitomizes (or should!) don't count; always delivering orders on schedule is commendable, but it'll hardly earn you special recognition from the news media. On the other hand, both Domino's Pizza and FedEx built successful USPs around unconditional guarantees of delivery within specific time limits. Be as specific as possible in choosing what point you should emphasize. What do your customers compliment you for? (Take special note of any comparisons to your competitors.) If you've won any awards or been featured in any news stories, what qualities of your business did they focus on?

Example: Want blogs and brochures with genuine interest value to potential clients? Spread the Word Commercial Writing knows what the general public likes to read; we bring combined experience of over 10 years writing articles for business and popular periodicals.

Key Question #2: Who is your ideal client? Saying "anybody" will get you fewer, not more, referrals; people need specific images to focus on. Think demographics: what do your current customers have in common in terms of age or income bracket? Gender or ethnicity? Family situation? If you offer business-to-business products or services, what are your top three preferred industries? What is the typical size/revenues range of companies likely to hire you? What is your ideal client's typical business mission?

Example: Spread the Word offers its services to businesses and organizations that are dedicated to helping people out of depression and discouragement.

Key Question #3: What specific needs do your products/services fill? Never forget the "find a need and fill it" principle! Customers don't come to your boutique because you won a designer award; they come because the clothes you sell suit their perceived needs. If you have trouble being specific here, consider taking a customer survey; you might even find an opportunity to subsequently emphasize a need you're now filling for the first time. (And to start filling it before some competitor uses it to lure your customers away!)

Example: When you use Spread the Word's writing services, your brochures will no longer be tossed as “junk mail” [filling the need to offer something people will save--thus keeping your name before them--and also the need to send the subconscious message, "My company is valuable"].

Answering these three key questions to the public's satisfaction can bring you more and better clients; garner more and better referrals; and help you clarify your business's focus. Please share your answers in the Comments section!