Category Archives: Better Communication

Keep It Simple

Simple

In our busy, complex personal and professional lives, filled with information coming from every imaginable source, simple things are appreciated. We all have a finite amount of time and attention to give each day.

Here’s how you can help…

  1. Write shorter paragraphs, using shorter sentences.
  2. Edit your email signature and dump all that legalese at the bottom (which no one ever reads anyway).
  3. If you own a restaurant, eliminate half of your menu items. You’ll make life easier for your diners, your staff and yourself.
  4. Include just one sales message in your marketing emails. (You don’t have to tell me everything about your organization.)
  5. Make sure images in your emails and on your website are as recognizable on a tiny phone screen as they are on your big desktop screen.
  6. Facebook and Instagram allow for long posts. Don’t do it! Most of us will just scroll on past the long ones. (Thanks, Twitter, for maintaining a maximum post length.)
  7. Place a time limit on videos you share. How long? Determine what your audience is comfortable with. (Consider that some of us may hesitate to watch a 7-minute video but will gladly watch 7 one-minute videos.)
  8. Be merciless when editing content. Three good paragraphs beats twelve mediocre paragraphs every time.
  9. Unless it’s your doctoral dissertation, don’t be afraid to use sentence fragments, when appropriate.

For a perfect example of the beauty and effectiveness of a simple approach, compare the layouts of Google.com with Bing.com and Yahoo.com. (Google has a 67.68% market share for searches; Bing, 13.27%; Yahoo, 8.14%.)

An almost infinite number of choices in many aspects of our life is wonderful. Unless we want the regular version, in the standard size, and it’s not in stock. Have you ever gone grocery shopping and found a dozen or more variations on the product you want, but not the particular version you want?

The great singer/songwriter Merle Haggard who died last week was once quoted as saying, “The most important thing in a song is simplicity.” Keep it simple.

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Big Bad Words

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Recently I have had the urge to use a few big words in my writing. Words I do not normally use like pantheon, peripatetic, truculent, paucity, exacerbate, etc. Words I would never use in normal conversation. I am sure this desire is because of what I have been reading lately online and in newspapers and magazines. When you see others using these words, you begin to think it’s okay for you to use them.

I have resisted. Because I have also been sent to the dictionary several times recently to look up words I encountered whose meanings I did not know! (By “dictionary” I mean Google.) I do not want someone who reads my writing to have to do that. (By “my writing” I mean media releases, pitches, marketing emails, social media posts, blog posts, movie reviews, etc.)

How can I know who will read what I have written? How well educated are the people on my clients’ email lists? Will my clients’ followers be impressed or confused by a multisyllabic adjective in a Facebook post (especially when a simpler term would have almost the same meaning)? Will the news producer or editor (or intern) who opens newsroom emails know what peripatetic means?

Do you remember sportscaster Howard Cosell? As a lawyer turned broadcaster, Cosell attempted to impress viewers with his vocabulary. Often, his word choices were spot on. Other times, he came off as a pompous ass. Occasionally, after Cosell had pontificated employing his would-be literary style, a broadcast partner such as Don Meredith would put Cosell’s flowery prose into simple-to-understand language. It was entertaining stuff.

There are appropriate times and places for these big words. But in most cases, the simpler, more common word will do just as well. I am hoping my urge will not be exacerbated.

The Truth, No Kidding!!!

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A new movie called Truth opens Friday in St. Louis. The film tells Mary Mapes’ version of the Truth. She was a CBS producer who was fired for her role in a 2004 Sixty Minutes report that the network later admitted was inaccurate.

The message of the movie is simple: Even if your basic story is correct, your supporting evidence must be legitimate.

Mapes and her crew assembled a story that had holes in it. They thought that they had the “smoking gun” to reveal that incumbent President Bush (43) had skipped out on his Air National Guard duties in the early 1970s. The memos they showed on air were immediately attacked as fake by right wing websites and soon after by other news organizations including ABC News. Eventually, CBS disavowed the report and Dan Rather issued an on-air apology.

I was reminded of the 1995 O.J. Simpson criminal trial. An L.A. police detective named Mark Fuhrman was one of the key prosecution witnesses. But defense attorneys were aware of his background and used that information to prove that he lied about his use of racial slurs. Johnny Cochran and his team convinced the jury that if Fuhrman lied about using slurs, everything else he said was subject to doubt. Despite other strong evidence that Simpson committed murder, he was acquitted.

When we as communicators tell a story, whether in a blog or social post, a media release, website copy, marketing email or other content venue, we need to make sure that we don’t sabotage our efforts by including questionable information.

If you are promoting a service or product that has, say, three strong verifiable selling points, be careful about adding other claims that may cause prospects to wonder about the validity of those three rock solid points.

The 2006 Al Gore movie An Inconvenient Truth—there’s that word Truth again—shared meaningful insight about climate change. But the film faltered when it implied that Hurricane Katrina was a result of manmade global warning. Knowledge that monster hurricanes have wrought havoc for centuries blunts the Katrina claim and calls the entire content of the movie into question.

I wrote about The Truth earlier this year. Click HERE to read that post.

By the way, I recommend the movie Truth. It is a well-told, well-acted story that provides lessons for all journalists and all communicators. Whether what you see onscreen is completely true is for you to decide. Interestingly, the production company for Truth is… Mythology Entertainment. (True.)

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Can You Teach A New Dog Old Tricks?

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Newspapers are dead, according to common belief in 2015. (Just don’t tell that to the people who drop off the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Wall Street Journal and New York Times at my house each morning.)

Certainly the transition to online communication from ink on paper is continuing full steam ahead (full lithium battery ahead?) and is revealing that some purveyors of online content don’t know when to stop.

A key component of a successful newspaper, for at least the last century, has been the columnist who shares opinion and information with a personal writing style. Newspapers have traditionally limited the amount of space on the page a column may occupy. Tight editing allows more space for ads and other content.

In an online context, however, a writer has an almost infinite amount of space to spew his or her thoughts. If you consume a large amount on online content, you have certainly encountered articles that run too long. You may have slogged on to the end and breathed a sigh of relief when you got there.

You have also read articles that kept your undivided attention from start to finish and, occasionally, left you wanting more.

Though the initial reason for limiting newspaper columnists may have been conservation of valuable space on the page, writers and editors have learned over the years that there are optimum lengths for columns that ensure reader engagement. These may vary from paper to paper and section to section, but a good columnist will develop the ability to compose her or his content within established parameters.

How can these old newspaper methods apply to today’s new communicators? These “new dogs” can read columnists from today’s major papers and take note of their “old tricks.” Practice self-editing. Check for redundancies. Read your prior posts and consider how you might have made them tighter. Ask your readers and associates for candid feedback.

If it takes too long to read through the piece you have written and posted, your reader may check out halfway through and move on the next article on his/her agenda. Know when to say when.

(photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/81881849@N00/2089122314 via http://photopin.com, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)

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I Confess: I Need To Listen Better

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I hereby confess that I am not a great listener. This has nothing to do with my slight hearing loss resulting from years on radio with headphones up all the way, nor my tenure back in the day as DJ at the Bananas disco at the Erie, PA Ramada Inn in a booth next to massive speakers.

No, my problem is a failure to listen closely to everything being said to me. I am working on it, but have yet to achieve complete satisfaction.

This week I attended a baseball game with my cousin. We chatted about numerous topics. There was one particular thing he mentioned about which I never got the whole story—because I had to get in my opinion about what he had mentioned.

At a networking event this week, there was useful input coming to me from a number of people I was visiting with. But, in at least two cases, I derailed their train of thought by offering my own take on the issue being discussed.

I remember talk show host Tom Snyder who was a talented interviewer. But he had a tendency to butt in on interesting responses to his questions. He would then share his own experiences or beliefs about the topic. The guest often did not get a chance to finish his thought.

Here are some reasons why I need to work on being a better listener:

  1. I can learn more by listening to others than by listening to myself.
  2. Sometimes my responses may be construed as my saying, “Hey, I can top that!” (Even when that’s certainly not my intention.)
  3. Sometimes when I talk too much, I say things that are better left unsaid.
  4. I may miss out on hidden cues within the other person’s comments.
  5. People appreciate someone who actually pays attention to what they are saying.
  6. If I listen more carefully, I won’t have to ask people to repeat things.
  7. When I am listening, I learn more about the needs and wants of others (including prospects).

How about you? Can you be a better listener?

 

(This article was first posted in May 2012.)

 

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On Sharing Discouraging Words

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Last week I watched the PBS Frontline program “Being Mortal,” featuring Dr. Atul Gawande. A main focus of the show was the difficulty doctors have sharing bad news with terminal patients. Dr. Gawande spoke to doctors, patients and family members about the reluctance to utter discouraging words.

Because one of my clients is a St. Louis area hospice and because I am a fan of clear, concise communication, I found the program informative and instructive. There are lessons to be learned here that apply beyond the medical world.

Regarding situations that do not involve life or death, most of us can recall work/business occurrences when we were given unwelcome news: “we’re hiring someone else,” “we’re going with another agency” or “we are not at all interested.”

Our feelings may be hurt and we may be upset or angry. But, at least, the person delivering the news had the guts and integrity to communicate directly and clearly. It certainly beats being strung along and/or getting the scoop from a back channel source. I once learned, in the midst of what I thought to be productive contract negotiations, that my employer would not be renewing me. I found out from a media gossip website.

(I choose not to venture into the area of personal romantic relationships here, although some of these thoughts may apply in those circumstances as well.)

Yes, it can be difficult to tell a person something that he or she does not want to hear. But it is generally better to share that news than to say nothing.

Former Sony Pictures head Amy Pascal is quoted in last Friday’s New York Times as saying: “You should always say exactly what you think directly to people all the time. In the moment, the first time.” (She was referring to having been “fired,” rather than resigning, as had been reported.)

I would add that being tactful and respectful is to be desired when you share discouraging words. I’ve been told “no” politely and I’ve been told “no” rudely. I prefer the former.

(If interested, you can click HERE for a link to Frontline: Being Mortal. The program runs 54:11.)

(photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/16210667@N02/8131195146, http://photopin.com, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/)

 

 

 

 

 

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Don’t Bury Your Message

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During my media career, I have observed the full spectrum of messaging styles. I am convinced that, in almost all cases, the best way to generate a desired response is to make your call to action direct, clear and unambiguous.

Hard sell commercials on radio and TV may be annoying but they exist to sell a product or service or to motivate you to do something that is likely to lead to a purchase—such as visit a store or website, call for more info or ask a doctor to prescribe a medication.

In our new media world, much of the promotional messaging we receive is more subtle and low-key. Often, the call to action may be hidden deep within useful or entertaining content. The call to action may only be implied or vaguely suggested.

A Facebook post that shows a cute puppy may not contain verbiage that urges you to visit a certain pet supply store. But if it’s on the Petco page, you are likely to make a connection and may be more prone to shop there. When Petco mentions a 20% discount in its posts and encourages you to shop by a deadline date, you may be likely to respond (than to the simple puppy pic).

My earliest guidance on email marketing made a strong case for including useful or entertaining content (to assure a significant open rate) in each email and including a sales message almost as an afterthought. While this may work for some, I prefer to describe what is being offered, issue a call to action, then provide means for response: website, email address, phone number, etc.

In today’s environment where we are being inundated with more messages than
before from a larger number of sources, it is important to state what you’re selling, share a key selling point or two and tell how to buy your product or service. Burying your pitch deep inside your content may not produce your desired outcome.

With that thought in mind, a quick (direct, clear and unambiguous) message about my work: I help businesses tell their stories and promote their products and services via media placements, social media and email marketing (among other channels). If you or someone you know needs help with getting key messages to target customers, please call me in St. Louis at 636-346-3434.

 

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