Monday, October 25, 2010

Social Networking for the Business Writer: Profiles

Social media is the child prodigy of the online world--only a few years old and accounting for 20-25% of the average person's Web time. And already the "social" part seems an anachronism as more and more businesses give major marketing roles to these networks.

The next few Good Writing Is Good Business posts will focus on social media as a business writing venue. Let's begin at the beginning, with the front-and-center section: the profile.

LinkedIn has anticipated me here in its FAQ article "Ten Tips on Building a Strong Profile." Here's a summary of important points, adaptable to the social network of your choice:

Remember whom you're writing for. The vast majority of social network users focus on very human needs: keeping up with contacts; locating practical information; finding jobs; or exploring the what-kind-of-person-is-this question before choosing whom to interview for an opening. Yet many social networking profiles read like cut-and-pasted resumes or like advertorials. Focus instead on things you might bring up in a face-to-face business networking conversation.

Remember also what venue you're writing for. The key to good Web writing of any type is short paragraphs and pages, preferably with links and visuals. (Side note: never substitute a cartoon image or blank square for your photo. Show your real face!) And do as the journalists do; put the most important information in the first sentence where readers will be sure to see it.

Be economical with your words as well. Instead of adjectives/adverbs paired with nouns/verbs, look for a descriptive noun/verb that carries the meaning of both words. Don't waste space on redundancies such as "future plans," or on near-meaningless adverbs such as "mostly" and "very."

Sound like yourself--and like your business. Don't write like a college professor if you rent party props, nor like a stand-up comedian if you're a funeral director. LinkedIn puts it best: "Picture yourself at a conference or client meeting. How do you introduce yourself? That's your authentic voice, so use it."

Write your tagline with special care; it may determine whether anyone bothers to read the rest of your profile. Incorporate the #1 key point of your business's mission statement.

Think "elevator speech" when drafting the first full paragraph of your profile. What two or three things do you most want every contact to know? Incorporate them into a memorable statement that can be read out loud in 20-30 seconds.

In the larger profile, include plenty of action keywords related to your specialty industries and your personal performance record. And be clear on what you (and/or your business) actually do. (But don't digress into long technical explanations; think about what will interest readers.)

Do include links to your main Web site(s), also to organizations where you hold professional memberships or certifications. Include also links to past employers. And do list professional awards or honors you have received.

Do complete your entire profile.

You'll probably have some say in your profile's official URL address. Make sure it says something short, memorable, and relevant about you.

Don't forget to update your profile when you get a new award, certification, or client.


Once your social media profile is complete, writing will continue to play an important role in your use of the account. I'll talk more about that in upcoming posts.

Other posts in this series:
Social Networking for the Business Writer: Network Updates
Social Networking for the Business Writer: "Cold Call" E-Messages
Social Networking for the Business Writer: The E-Article Connection
Social Networking for the Business Writer: LinkedIn Discussions
Social Networking for the Business Writer: LinkedIn Q & A
Social Networking for the Business Writer: Top-Ten List

Monday, October 18, 2010

Laugh Break

Since last week's post was on the use of humor in writing, this seems a good time for another post on business writing that evokes laughs it wasn't seeking. Even perfect spelling doesn't always save a sentence from unintentionally hilarious implications:
  • "The postponed president's speech has been rescheduled for December 2." (Will he still be a postponed president then?)
  • "Our camp is the perfect place to go next time you feel the call of nature." (Maybe the camp's biggest attraction is its restrooms.)
  • "Living in our apartments, a dozen bus routes are convenient." (Every bus route needs a home to go to at night.)
  • "Our doctors don't misdiagnose medical problems. When they treat you for lung cancer, that's what you die of." (Comforting thought.)
  • "When two trains meet each other at a railroad crossing, each shall come to a full stop, and neither shall proceed until the other has gone." (One from the law-books department. Word has it that the original intent was to kill the bill it was attached to--proving once again the folly of expecting committees to exercise common sense.)
  • "The only way we'll ever see the economy pick up is if we can get the economy moving." (Who would have thought of that?)
  • "Support space colonization research. One ruined planet isn't enough for the human race." (We all know humans can be destructive and greedy, but why encourage it?)
  • "Firings will continue until we see some improvement in attitude around here." (Now that's real motivation.)
  • "No drinking allowed on coffee breaks." (Please eat your coffee in powdered form.)
  • "Thanks to all our friends and customers. Our business is no longer open." (We really appreciate your freeing us from the trouble of continuing to work every day.)
  • "Our initial counseling sessions are free of service." (I think that was supposed to be "free of service charges.")
  • "After using the automatic washing machines, please remove all your clothes when the light goes out." (At least they didn't advise customers to do it in broad daylight.)
  • "Get your ears pierced here and we'll give you an extra pair free." (I've heard many people wish for extra arms and eyes, but never ears.)
Smile and have a great week!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Touch of Laughter

The average child laughs up to 25 times as much as the average adult, who, indeed, is as likely as not to scold giggling youngsters for "being silly." The capacity for hilarity is something most people grow out of once they learn life is full of hard work and disappointment.

It's a shame in more ways than one. Medical research tells us that hearty laughter strengthens the immune system, improves cardiovascular circulation, relaxes tense muscles, and provides many other physical benefits. So if you mix a little humor into your business writing, not only will your contacts like you better for it, but you'll be doing their health a favor.

Beware, however. Being funny is a hard thing to do on command, and not everyone finds the same things laughable. Obscure or offensive humor can be worse than none at all. So when considering how to add chuckles to your writing:

Remember that off-color stories have no place in the business world.

Never make fun of any individual or group. Everyone knows that racial and cultural bigotry are verboten, but prudent writers also avoid jokes that emphasize the presumed failings of mothers-in-law, wives, lawyers, politicians, preachers, and majority groups--or that ostensibly advocate any sort of animal abuse. The idea that choosing a certain vocation or having a married relative automatically makes one impossible or evil is an idea long overdue for a quiet death; and while you have a right to avoid cats if you personally find them repugnant, the ailurophiles among us have a right to be spared the equally repugnant images evoked by "other white meat" remarks.

Never overdo or force humor. Two light remarks per page, or one side-splitter or "groaner" per article, is about right. Since business materials are rarely written purely to entertain, a pun in every paragraph can make readers wonder if you take your main goal seriously. Remember also that a good joke sounds like a natural part of the conversation, not like something plucked at random from the Internet or from a homonym brainstorming exercise.

By now, you may be wondering, "With all these 'don'ts,' what's left?" Probably more than you think. Everyone has some gift for some form of humor, be it puns, exaggeration, deadpan, relevant anecdotes, or simple subtlety. To find where your talent for humor lies, start by noticing when what you say makes your friends or family chuckle.

And remember this almost foolproof principle: A guaranteed laugh-getter is making fun of oneself. While criticizing others makes a person look snide and petty, everybody laughs along with--and respects--someone who admits his own weaknesses. Likewise, the exception to the "don't make fun of groups" rule is the universal foibles of humanity in general ("No one is sure how long the human race has been around, but everyone agrees it is old enough to know better"). 

May the new business your humor attracts leave you laughing all the way to the bank!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Say a Lot with a Little

A journalism school ran a contest for the most sensational headline: "need not feature actual events, but must be no more than three words long." The winner--two words and three syllables--was "Pope Elopes."

You can say a lot in amazingly few words, if they're the right words. Journalists and other periodical writers know this best. The typical feature article contains a few thousand words at most; a back-page article or op-ed may be no more than 500 words; anecdotal or "filler" articles may stop at 250. How does one tell a whole story, or explain the essential points of a subject, in five or ten short paragraphs? Often, by going through the manuscript six or seven times to prune it of every nonessential word.

Your Web site or sales letter may not be facing an "under 1,000 words or you don't get paid" dictate from an editor, but it will be facing hundreds of potential clients who are short on time and on attention spans. Many people run from the mere sight of a page of unbroken text. Here are a few professional-writing tricks for achieving readable-looking lengths:

Build up your vocabulary. Some writers pride themselves on learning a new word from the dictionary every day, or studying the thesaurus for fifteen minutes of each lunch hour. The more words you have stored in your brain, the less likely you are to waste fifteen words describing something because you don't know its name. Don't, however, show off and use words most of the public has never heard, or you'll be back to writing out the whole definition.

Consider syllable count as well as word count: 500 ten-letter words take up more space than 500 six-letter words. Most successful writers live by the rule "never use a five-syllable word where a two-syllable one will do."

Divide long paragraphs into short ones: white space makes the text look less daunting, and may be the deciding factor in whether people actually start reading a page.

Consider the sound of the words--and of the piece as a whole. To some extent, length is in the perception of the reader; J. K. Rowling got away with making the later Harry Potter books extra-long by sheer virtue of her storytelling ability. If your writing sounds monotonous or singsong, bored readers will find your 250-word piece twice as long as a more interesting 400-word piece. Use sentences of different lengths, cut the cliches, and save rhyme and alliteration for taglines!

Don't rush! One writer is said to have ended a ten-page letter with the apology, "Sorry this is so long, but I didn't have time to make it shorter." Experienced authors know that you never become practiced enough to get first drafts perfect; and the less time you leave between drafts, the more unneeded words and other imperfections you leave in the manuscript. Go ahead and write down everything you have to say about your product or news item; then, rather than sending the results immediately to the printer, go back and remove everything not vital to your central point. For really important materials, give yourself a minimum of two weeks to do three drafts.

And don't say you don't have time. The time you save your prospects will come back to you soon enough.