Talk to your ideal reader

Pretend you’re talking to your ideal reader. That’s what I advise people who want to better connect with customers, colleagues or other people through emails, reports, tweets or other written communication.

Although we learned language by talking, many of us began separating the functions of talking and writing at school and then work. By reuniting them, you can put some bounce and intimacy back into your writing. Besides, it’s much easier and faster to write like you talk.

But how, my ideal reader would ask, do you do that when you’re writing for a group of people?

Like presenting to a group, you focus on a few friendly faces in the crowd, but give the impression you’re talking to everyone.

So if you know the group you’re writing for, pretend you’re talking to one person you’re comfortable with. If your group includes people of varying interests, pretend you’re conversing with a few differing types.

If you’re writing for a large group, potentially the world when you write for the web, pretend you’re chatting with the kind of people you expect would most enjoy or otherwise benefit from your writing. Visualize one, with good looks, deep pockets or whatever else motivates you.

Start with the ideal reader’s age, gender, income, education or other demographic information. But don’t stop there.

Go deep, imagining pains and problems, pass-times and passions. What keeps your ideal reader up at night? What makes your ideal reader jump for joy?

By writing for this ideal reader, you can establish a more intimate connection with other like-minded readers. You can choose your most appropriate structure, for example emotional stories or logical argument. What’s more, you can employ the terminology, examples, humor, questions and other elements that your ideal reader would relate to and enjoy.

Draw a picture or grab a photo and tape it to your monitor. Give your ideal reader a name. Draft a Facebook-like profile. Whatever works for you.

Who is my ideal reader? For this blog, my ideal reader wants to learn how to communicate more easily and effectively through the written word, without having to relearn all those boring rules from school.

My ideal reader is well-educated, probably not in the arts, with a white collar job. He wants to move up. My ideal reader is frustrated with all the emails, reports and other written work he is expected to do and the fact that his colleagues and clients don’t give him the attention and respect he feels he deserves.

For this post, my ideal reader becomes more specific. In addition to overcoming these frustrations, she wants to build a relationship with her readers, to encourage them to pay attention, remember and maybe even respond a specific way.

Am I on target? Does my ideal reader sound like you?

3 reasons to test drive a newsletter before the new year

Maybe you’ve thought about publishing a newsletter, but haven’t followed through because of time, money or other reasons. Maybe it’s even on your new year’s resolution list, much like losing 10 pounds is usually on mine.

Although the content may be similar, three big differences may lead you to use an email newsletter instead of, or in addition to, a blog:
1. your desire to push content to and build relationships with a targeted, interested group of people
2. your need to publish less frequently, often monthly instead of every day or so, as many bloggers feel pressured to do
3. reports on who opened the newsletter and who clicked the links, valuable intelligence for your sales and marketing efforts.

What’s more, subscribers are more likely to become emotionally attached to a newsletter, as research has confirmed.

If you’re already blogging, you can recycle content and send it to people who would prefer to receive more meaningful information less often, or who are more comfortable with email than RSS feeds, social media and other ways you promote your posts.

Like a blog, a newsletter can help you build your business by regularly showing your colleagues and prospects what an expert you are.

But don’t take my word for it. If you have the time and are comfortable with writing and simple technology, try a free do-it-yourself trial with constantcontact, mailchimp, myemma, icontact, aweber, bettermail or one of the many other email newsletter services that use simple, inexpensive templates.

If you need planning, writing, design or tech services or support, you can take a free, no-obligation test drive with me.

All you need to invest is a few hours thinking about your objectives and what you’d like to say in your first issue, talking to me on the telephone, reviewing what I’ve written and enjoying the praise from the people on your list.

After your first issue, I can put together a plan and a price that suits your time, budget and comfort levels.

What’s more, I can help you leverage your newsletter content through blogs, article directories, public speaking and many other ways.

Although I’ll help with the writing or editing, the newsletter will be in your voice and reflect your expertise.

If you and your audience are so complex or specialized that you need a writer or editor with experience in your area, I can match you up through my talent pool.

We’ll base your copy on what you’ve said in a telephone interview, shortening it, sometimes livening it up and avoiding the grammar mistakes that can make you look unprofessional.

I also know how to write subject lines, heads and preview panes that will lead people to open your email as soon as they see it in their inbox.

With the new year approaching, it’s a great time to start planning.

With a free trial or a test drive, this could well be the easiest resolution on your list. Start now and you can be ready to roll before you pop the cork on the champagne.

If you want to think about how you could become a better known expert through newsletters, download my free book on planning.

If you’re ready to talk, give me a call at (416) 690-0968. Or send me an email with a good time to call you at barb@stickycommunication.ca.

The test drive will be fun, like trying out a fast, luxury car.

He/she/it/they drives/drive me crazy: my last grammar target

I’ve left he/she/it/they to the last of my three-pronged attack on bad grammar because it’s more difficult.

Even so, I have come up with an easy tip: Use “they” when you’re referring to a singular subject if you are referring to a general subject, such as the team, the client or the user, but only if it’s easier for the reader to understand and doesn’t offend any grammar-stickler target readers and especially if it lets you avoid being sexist.

Okay, so it’s not as brief as my earlier tips on contractions and sound-alikes and me, myself and I and that, who, which. But this is trickier. Let me explain.

Most people are fine with this example: “The team won the award because they are so good at customer service.” Although “team” is singular, they know that the term refers to more than one person.

However, this may not be the best solution if you are writing for people who care about grammar. For them, you’re wise to turn “team” into a plural, as in “The team members won because they… ” You could refer to the team as “it” but that would be dehumanizing.

Turning a singular into a plural also lets you side step the awkward “he or she.”

Sadly, sometimes you can’t simply tack on a word like “members” to make the subject plural. For example, “The client sent their best regards.” Let’s assume the client refers to a company, not an individual. “Their” works. Besides, unless I was referring to a specific individual, “sent his (or her) best regards,” would be sexist.

A year ago, I would have balked at writing “the client sends their best regards.” After years of resistance and too many awkward “he or she”s, I’ve slacked off. I was relieved to see in the comments on the recent Copyblogger grammar post that many people agree it’s time to move on.

Like society, language evolves. As long the changes don’t impair our ability to understand each other, it’s all good. Don’t you agree?

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.

Great writing comes from rewriting: 10 tips

How often have you hit Send or Publish, only to realize you’ve missed an embarrassing typo, left yourself open to misunderstanding or gone on for way too long?

The masters understand the importance of reviewing and revising. In fact, Ernest Hemingway is said to have rewritten A Farewell to Arms 39 times.

Although rewriting may seem to add time spent writing a blog, email or other communication, it actually saves time by eliminating the hours you may to have to spend clarifying, apologizing or regretting lost opportunities.

What’s more, rewriting makes the difference between good and great, snooze and use or delete and click.

To make revising easier, here are the 10 questions you need to answer.

1. Will your readers, and the search bots, understand the most important point you are trying to make, even those who will read only the first couple of lines?

2. Will someone be insulted? What sounds good in your head can often be received badly, so review your content from a hypothetical sensitive reader’s point of view.

3. Will your writing makes sense to people not as close to the issue as you? Again, try to respond to your writing from a reader’s point of view.

4. Does your writing use bolding, subheads, charts or other devices that help readers understand and remember?

5. Have you made grammatical errors? Don’t worry about irrelevant rules, such as dangling prepositions, if they sound right. Do avoid the errors that make you look stupid or more difficult to understand. If you’re not sure, ask someone knowledgeable or check with grammar sites such as http://www.askoxford.com or http://www.grammar.quickanddirtytips.com.

6. Have you chosen words that your readers will understand or have you clouded your meaning with professional or corporate terms? Translating your specialized words into plain language requires thinking. The well-worn acronym KISS should mean Keep it Simple, Smarty, not Stupid.

7. Do you have typos? Remember spell check can’t tell the difference between from and form. Read your content out loud or in print. Better still, ask a literate friend to proof it.

8. Have you mixed up sound-alike words? This is a big risk if you proof only by reading out loud. Check the dictionary if you are not absolutely certain. Be especially wary of confusing possessives and contractions, e.g. its (possessive) and it’s (contract of it is), the number one mistake people make.

9. Did you check all your facts, name spellings and other information? Often people don’t check as they write because it disrupts their flow. That’s fine, as long as you fill in the blanks or verify when you rewrite.

10. Can you cut the length? You can probably shorten your writing by at least a third, resulting in a focused message that is actually read right through. Start by eliminating redundant thoughts and words, then take aim at adjectives, adverbs and other frills that don’t have to be there.

Although you may not reach the literary heights of Hemingway, I guarantee that rewriting will improve your writing and results.

Trust me, not Kathy

When I was in journalism school, I was shocked to learn that the advice columnist at the local newspaper was actually a chain-smoking, rumpled man, not the well-groomed woman in the photo.

Sure, I knew the people in the television commercials were actors, but somehow I thought that sort of thing wouldn’t sully a trusted newspaper, unless it was preceded by the word Advertising.

Today I suspect many rumpled people are writing blogs. Especially Kathy from Toronto, who is selling a teeth whitener that I mentioned in yesterday’s post. She’s a mom who just happened to come up with a magical combination that will make me like younger. As if.

Sounds like the same home-spun wisdom of Sarah Palin’s Joe the plumber, though the rumpled chain smokers behind Kathy should have realized that in Toronto we’re wise to unlicensed, tax-evading plumbers like Joe, unless our toilet is overflowing and he will fix it right away, cheap, for cash. Even so, we would never look to Joe for advice on anything beyond basic plumbing.

Neither would we buy Kathy’s secrets for looking young. Okay, maybe a few people would. But on the whole we’re pretty media savvy. Our kids even take media literacy in school. They would have not been shocked by the rumpled chain smoker in the newsroom.

In addition to being annoyed with how Kathy keeps showing up with those ugly teeth photos on Facebook, Bloglines and other sites, I am upset with how Kathy, if that’s really her name, is posing as a blogger.

Aren’t blogs supposed to be built on authenticity and trust?

In my last two posts, I discussed how writers have to appeal to hearts and brains if they want to persuade readers. But these tips will work only if people trust them.

At least I knew from all the TV coverage that Joe the plumber is real. Kathy, I suspect, is not. And I’m betting that her ads are appearing in other places too. But of course in Pittsburgh, she’s a mom from Pittsburgh. I wonder if they change her name for Shanghai.

Trust is not built by rumpled chain smokers masquerading as mommy bloggers. In fact, it’s an insult to us mothers to think we can be fooled so easily. We have years of experience in determining when our children are lying. It comes in handy.

Let me disclose that I am sometimes a ghost writer. But it’s not a fraud. I talk to people, usually on the telephone, and key what they say, shortening and tidying so it’s easier to understand or more compelling. But the writing is their thoughts and mostly their words. I don’t make them up. Which is why I can’t understand why so many people are against ghost-written blogs. Affiliate marketers, on the other hand, are walking a fine line between the authentic and the commercial…

But back to Kathy and the point I’m trying to make.

Unlike Kathy from Toronto, Ann Landers and Dear Abby were popular newspaper advice columnists for so many years because they not only offered honest, sensible advice, but also from the fact they were real. Twin sisters, actually. They weren’t persuading us to buy beauty secrets, but they were persuading us to read and trust their advice.

So, in addition to following the advice in my last two posts on touching hearts and brains, people writing to persuade need to understand the importance of building trust. That requires being a real person. And telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth all the time, as I tell my kids.

Persuade from the heart

If writing to persuade people were all that easy, I would have millions of subscribers and way more clients. And I would write notes to remind my teens to clean up after themselves.

But persuasion takes time and motivation.

Like you, I need to build awareness and credibility and convince readers that I can solve their problem or fill another need or desire. I have to answer the readers’ question: what’s in it for me?

Personal benefits
With people reading my blog, the benefit means providing advice that will make their writing easier and more effective. With my teens, it usually involves money or favors.

Whether you’re selling a product, pestering teens or pursuing a more subtle goal like building respect for your expertise, you need to focus on benefits. That means whatever you’re writing, from post to presentation, has to be more about the reader or audience and less about you and your product, service or expertise.

Emotions
You have to back up the benefits through emotions and logic. The balance will depend on the people you’re appealing to and the specifics of your objective.

For example, if you’re trying to sell safety devices to parents, you will stress emotion; if you want to impress geeks with your knowledge, you will emphasize logic. However, even if you are taking a mostly logical approach, you need to touch some of the emotions that propel everyone.

Today, I’m going to focus on emotional side of persuasion. I’ll follow up with the logical side next week.

Fear, frustration, pain
In order to understand what motivates people, you need to drill down to the emotions that drive them. Fear, frustration and pain are the big ones. The desire to escape the clutches of negative emotions like these is what compels people to think or act in a certain way. Maybe your readers are worried about losing their jobs, exasperated with an ill-informed call center rep or just want that damn headache to stop.

Unless you’re writing for a very targeted audience, you may need to tap into more than one emotion. So think carefully about your readers, then pick the most important ones. With business communication, the emotions may be more subtle, such as looking well-informed to their colleagues after reading your white paper.

To be credible, you need to demonstrate that you understand how your readers feel. So select feelings you share. Use an anecdote to explain. For example, a CEO can talk about learning the basics of customer service when he was a teenager working in fast food.

Stories
Anecdotes are one of the best ways to appeal to emotions. In addition to revealing feelings you share with others, you can tell true stories that reinforce your benefits. For example, you can talk about the customer who stopped biting her nails from stress because of how your software simplified her work. Or you can go on about the children you met who will eat because of their donation.

Unless you are a very gifted storyteller, you need to keep the anecdote short and to the point, including only enough physical detail to paint a picture and add credibility. No one likes people who tell stories that are too long, in conversation and especially in writing.

To keep it short, focus on the conflict and resolution parts of the story structure. Don’t spend any more time than is absolutely required to provide setting or develop character. You’re not writing the great American novel. Just a quick anecdote that supports your credibility or benefits.

If it’s a really good story, use it both in your opening and closing. In addition to doubling the emotional wallop, this technique can help link problem-solution-you in the reader’s mind.

As you revise, try to imagine you’re the reader. Does the anecdote move you? If not, rewrite until it does.

As you can see from this blog, I don’t believe in including graphics simply to make things prettier. But if you are writing for emotion, the right graphic works well.

A good example is the post from Darren Rowse that started with an anecdote about his youngest son learning to walk. This tied into his point about bloggers needing to start slowly. The photo of his two sons melted my heart.

One last piece of advice: Remember that a little emotion can go a long way. There’s a fine line between schlock and warm and fuzzy. Choose your stories and details carefully.

One last benefit: Keep coming back and tell your friends so I can afford to write notes promising to pay my teens for picking up. (I’d include a cute photo, but they’d be embarrassed.) Also, so writing can become easier and more effective for you.