Boost interest by writing like Conan dissing NBC

1. Fear of writing is second only to fear of public speaking, studies confirm.

2. Joe is one of those guys who would give you his sandwich if you forgot your lunch. Too bad sharing his expertise on x protocols doesn’t come so easily.

Sorry about the tricks, but I wanted to make some points about how to be an interesting writer at work.

My first draft head was straightforward but boring until I added the bit about Conan, to demonstrate how to add interest to a title by relating it to a controversial, magnetic celebrity. If you came here for dirt on Conan, you can stop reading, though I must confess I enjoyed his rant the other night.

The Conan-NBC showdown also highlights how conflict makes life–and writing–more interesting. Do not try the celebrity hook too often, unless it’s relevant. Or you’ll anger the Google gods.

As for my leads, I made up the study about the fear of writing. I wanted to point out how dramatic facts can make for an interesting intro.

I also made up Joe, though I know many people like him, who need to learn how to share their knowledge through the written word. The quick anecdote was intended to attract people who can relate to his dilemma.

Of course, there are other ways to lift your writing from dull to dazzling. We hear many of them in scintillating conversations.

Greater talkers:
*use colorful phrases
*provide me with new meaningful or exotic information
*talk about me
*express ideas clearly
*paint vivid pictures
*employ pleasing rhythm and pacing
*challenge my point of view
*tell stories well
*are funny
*compare and contrast
*push controversial opinions
*pick fights
*make dramatic or outrageous assertions
*touch hearts

Any more you can think of?

Unlike writers, talkers can add interest through voice tone and gestures. For writing, think of the equivalent, such as using bolding to emphasize a point or an ellipsis to indicate a pause…

The advantage of writing over talking is that you can write things in your first draft that you would be embarrassed to say out loud. Unlike talking, you get to revise and tone it down if you’re not comfortable.

So next time you’re getting bored with your own writing, try going over the top on the first draft. Have some fun. Have sober second thoughts when you revise.

There is no way around the need to create interest through your writing. Most of us compete for readers’ attention many times a day, whether it’s an email inviting people to your meeting a proposal that must stand out from the crowd.

If you don’t generate interest at the starting line, few people will read you. If you don’t continue with interest, fewer will trudge through to the finish.

You cannot sound like a dentist in the middle of a cleaning and wonder why no one seems to have read, understood or acted on your email, report, post or other written words. Besides, writing for interest is a lot more fun.

What not to write

Any time you’re writing for other people–which excludes teenager diaries, personal journals but not much else–you need to make sure your readers will pay attention. This is quite similar to keeping your listener tuned in when you’re talking.

So let’s consider what turns off listeners in a conversation, for clues about how to avoid losing your readers.

In conversation, I am frustrated by people who
o Don’t get to the point
o Use words I don’t understand, especially when simpler ones are available
o Rely on buzz words, clichés and other terms I’m tired of hearing
o Focus on themselves without considering my interests
o Forget that conversation is two-way
o Tell long stories about people I can’t relate to
o Are boring
o Are difficult to follow
o Say things that dramatically hurt my feelings, violate my ethics or otherwise offend me

You too? Then remember that these conversational itches can be even more irritating in the written word.

Turn these around and you have a list of what people enjoy, whether conversing or reading.

For communication to be a true two-way process, we have to think of writing more as a conversation.

Do you have any additional conversational turn-offs and turns ons? Please share.

Top 10: 2. Talk more, type less, to connect

With so much time typing and texting, it’s easy to forget that talking is still the best way to communicate.

That’s true whether you’re a sales person closing a big deal, a single looking for love or a supervisor preparing your team for a new computer system.

Many organizations are realizing that personal conversations are the most effective way to boost employee engagement, when people identify so strongly with their work that it becomes part of their heart and soul. Read on.

Communication doesn’t get any stickier than that.

Top 10: 7. and 6. Write like you talk–only better

I love the conversational style of bloggers. But many could improve their writing dramatically if they’d think more about what they’re saying and the best way to say it before they hit the keyboard. After they’ve written, they should shorten, fix and improve.

To you bloggers, I stress the only better part of my advice.

The companion post Write Like You Talk–easier, faster, friendlier was intended more for the corporate, healthcare and academic people I’ve written for.

Their writing would become so much more engaging if they’d learn some lessons from the social media chatter. They’d also find it much faster and easier.

I’m so enthusiastic about this approach that I’m expanding it into a book that will be published in 2010. Much of the content has been drafted in many places on this blog, so explore more posts if you don’t want to wait.

Finally, happy solstice and first day of winter.

Write like you talk–only better

Last week I advised people who are struggling with all the writing they’re expected to do to write like they talk. To do this effectively, however, you need to spend a little time in advance thinking about what you’re going to say and more time later on revising. That’s the –only better– part of my advice.

By combining left-brained thinking with right-brained creativity, you can make the best use of your writing mind.

The advance thinking ensures that your critical first 25 words, which includes the title, succinctly summarize what you’re going to say, what’s in it for the reader and how you’re going to say it.

Ignore this and you run a high risk of readers hitting delete or close, as I explained in an earlier post, Three things to think about before you start writing.

As you write the first 25 words, you can make the transition between thinking and the more creative place I call the writing zone, where I lose track of time and distractions fade. No checking emails or tweeting or answering the phone, one of the huge advantages of working in a home office.

My office-bound colleagues tell me they sometimes hang “Do not disturb” signs on their doors or work from home when they need to focus like this. Mostly they’re envious.

In that happy space, I write mainly from memory, which reveals what’s most important. I’m not disrupted by checking spellings, quotes or other details, which I followup on during revisions. I simply let the writing flow like a conversation with my ideal reader.

My plan remains in the back of my mind as I write. The article evolves, but usually stays fairly close to the original track.

At the end, I return to the all-important title and first paragraph. Because I’m in the writing zone, I often jazz them up. And I check that I’ve accomplished my goals or gone full circle on a theme.

Then I do something different–pay bills, cook dinner, return phone calls and emails, whatever. Unless I’m on deadline, I don’t return to the piece for at least an hour, better still the next day.

Then I rewrite, once again engaging the left side of my brain. I’ve outlined what to do when you’re revising.

By taking the time before and after to think, my writing is so much better. And I’m free to have fun in the writing zone.

I realize that each person is unique and must find the magical left-right brain balance that works for them. The point is to remember is that it’s all about balancing both sides of your brain.

Write like you talk: faster, easier, friendlier

Many people struggle with all the writing they’re expected to do. If they want their writing to flow like conversation, they should try to write like they talk, pretending to have a conversation with their ideal reader as they write.

They’ll receive at least three benefits. They will:
1. Write much faster.
2. Avoid much of the jargon and become easier to understand.
3. Connect with their readers.

But that’s not all.

People who write like they talk avoid long sentences by inserting a period when they need to take a breath. When they briefly pause, they know it’s time for a comma.

They naturally use connecting words to link their thoughts. They ask questions, make declarations and express emotions. They interact with other people, not keyboards, screens and their own thoughts.

I accidentally fell into my write-like-you-speak approach when I was a speech writer for politicians. I would have research notes and a general outline before I’d begin. Then I would pretend to channel the spirit of the politician. I would imagine I could hear him speak as I typed.

More than that, I would visualize the audience. I would build in pauses for these people to respond to jokes, touching stories, alarming statistics and rhetorical questions. My goal was to hear them clapping enthusiastically, better still cheering, when he said “thank you.”

This approach worked well, I discovered, not only for presentations, scripts and other spoken communication, but also for newsletters, announcements, memos, reports and other formal communication that too often sound like they’re on life support.

The irony is that many people who are uncomfortable writing are great talkers. Even shy people are generally fine chatting one-to-one with people they trust.

We learned language by talking. We gain fluency in new languages by talking. When we are in doubt when writing, we usually go back to what sounds right. Writing like you talk is easier because it comes naturally.

Why do so many people treat writing and conversing like separate functions? Here’s my theory: As words travel from the brain to the computer screen, they become over-processed and artificial, like the wheat and other farm-fresh ingredients that are turned into bland white bread.

Many people deplete the linguistic flavor and nutrition by trying too hard. Because they want to impress, they blast out the big words and jargon that they’d be embarrassed to use in personal conversation.

Anxious to avoid mistakes and sound proper, they rely on flimsy memory scraps about grammar rules. They write “with Jean and I” rather than “with me and Jean,” “an historic moment” instead of “a historic moment” or Barb Sawyers’s blog not Barb Sawyers’ blog.

Worse still, they focus on themselves instead of the reader. Or keep the reader at a formal arm’s length.

That’s why I recommend anyone who spends time at the keyboard pretend they are talking to their ideal reader as they write.

Sure, you may not be able to talk out loud from your cubicle. But you can pretend or mutter under your breath. Before you know it, your brain will be retrained to process writing more like it processes speech. Your writing will flow.

You’ll probably need to spend more time planning and later checking your draft for mistakes that make you look bad or undermine their clarity. And you’ll need to chop out the fluff words and sentences.

But fortunately, you’ll make up the time through faster writing and better results. By combining the measured reason of thinking-writing with the spontaneity of talking-writing, you can have the best of both worlds.

Of course, writing like you talk may not work for everyone. Writers still need a certain literacy level. People whose parents spoke badly need to find eloquent role models and upgrade their talking first. And some people may be too uptight to have imaginary conversations.

But from the many chatty writers I read on blogs, Facebook and other social media, I know that more people are using a conversational tone to bake artisan word bread. So give it a try.

Don’t forget to call

Most people are better at talking than writing. Whether they’re working on an email, slides or Facebook updates, they spew jargon or silliness, go on for way too long or are paralysed by writer’s block.

When they talk to other people, they shine. They are animated, spontaneous, interesting, interactive, friendly, funny and so much more.

I spend much of my day talking to people like this on the telephone. It’s my medium of choice. Yes, email is better for setting up appointments and other routine activities. Social media is better for reaching out to a wide range of people. Face-to-face also works, though it usually involves travel, time and the need to dress up.

But nothing beats the intimacy, comfort and convenience of talking on the phone. When I interview or meet by phone, I often warm up people with some quick questions about their kids, pets or that old standby the weather, which works very well on long-distance calls.

Then they talk. I furiously type. I ask questions, followup on interesting bits or seek clarification. They answer. All faster than a speeding instant-messaging bullet. And far more free-flowing.

Telephone calls enable me to work from my home office in pajamas in the morning and sweaty gym gear in the early afternoon. They ignore race, thinning hair, tattoos, bulging bellies and other visuals that feed prejudice.

This week, blogger Patsy Krakoff was surprised when content marketing expert Jonathan Krantz telephoned her. “It’s getting so a phone call’s a real treat,” she wrote. “I can only take so much email and Tweets! He’s not afraid to pick up the phone and call to connect, just like real human beings used to do, back in the day…”

“Just like human being used to do?” Oh my.

Although I commented on her post, I should have been smart and given her a call. I would have reminded her of the importance of hanging on to what continues to work, like telephones and radios, while embracing the new. As my mother used to say: “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, the older gold.”

It’s not just bloggers who should spend more time on the telephone. This week I’ve been participating in a discussion on one of my Linkedin groups about face-to-face versus social media. It doesn’t need to be a debate. All we need to do is pick the most appropriate media for what we’re doing, which is growing more difficult as the choices explode.

But here’s my point: don’t forget that the telephone is often the best choice, especially with people who love to talk. Like me and most of the human race.