Welcome!

I hope you find my writing and business tips and observations useful. My business and blog are dedicated to helping businesses communicate clearly and reach their potential. Read, subscribe to my newsletter, enjoy! Tash

Email updates

Refer to older posts…

Blogging services

Australian Women Bloggers Directory by Blog Chicks

writing

Communicating to potential voters

It's hard to choose who to vote for if the candidates communicate poorly.

It’s hard to choose who to vote for if the candidates communicate poorly.

Throughout Victoria, we are about to vote for our local councils.

Unbelievably, in my ward, there are 21 candidates for us to choose from to select 3 councillors!

This is a lot of people to consider while trying to choose my vote and is a bit overwhelming but it is useful from a communications perspective as I can see big differences in their statements.

Candidates’ statements

So, putting aside politics and any particular platforms these people are standing for, here is a summary of the candidates I can choose this week. I am basing this on the official statements prepared by each candidate that were sent to us by the Electoral commission, and I am not using anyone’s real name!

group 1 – sole platform

George – has a personal dislike to something other residents are doing so wants us to vote for him to stop that behaviour.

Fred – is retired and is standing to get better deals for older residents.

Sally – is mum to young children and will fight for better services for new mums and for families.

Communications – all three of these people have written a reasonable statement that is easy enough to understand and sound like reasonable people. I just find it difficult to trust someone who is obviously going into council for their own best interests.

group 2 – political

Jenny – states she is affiliated with a major political party but lists various local issues and experience to show relevance. The second half of her statement is more formal and is about policies, sounding much more like a politician than a local councillor.

Ed – does not state any political affiliation but the statement sounds formal and like a federal election campaign piece. It is not law that candidates state they belong to a party (and follow part lines) but this is a contentious issue of late. All sounds pretty perfect really…

group 3 – mixed platforms

Rachel – the current councillor and someone who is involved in our community – and the only one most people I know have met or seen around. Her statement shows her passion, is easy to understand (both through competent writing and using approachable language and style) and ends with “I ask you to vote for me” (rather than demanding it). She covers a number of issues.

Angus – a young person who grew up in the area and covers a number of issues in his statement. Again, it is well written and readable.

Communications – there are others in this group but all of them discuss a number of issues in clear English and declare no connection with a political party.

group 4 – questionable

David – started his statement with “7 years house designing in Shanghai; Melbourne.” No, I don’t know what that means either – and as he works in the IT industry and is standing for a council role (not a council planning job!), it makes little sense.

David’s statement has many examples I could use in my bad writing posts – “Experience in retails…Involving security issue with PM…I pointed city apartment…Successfully suggested VCAT improve hearing procedure with writing hearing” {the lack of final full stop is copied by the way!}

Due to his poor written communication, I don’t understand what he is standing for – even when I can guess the meaning of a sentence, I can not be sure if he is for or against that issue!

group 5 – pushy

Simon sent a SMS to some people, outwardly to remind people of the need ot vote, but everyone I know of (and others according to local media) were irritated by this message. Simon came across as pushy and people felt their privacy had been invaded by these messages sent to private mobile phones.

Other than the SMS, Simon fitted into group 2 but I know at least two people who voted him as number 21 purely due to the SMS. As I have said at various times, being aggressive and overly confident in communications often backfires (with Australian audiences anyway).

Communicating with potential votes

Obviously, there are other ways these candidates can promote themselves to the voters but let’s limit ourselves to these statements. Because that is the only way most people in our area get information to make a choice in the elections.

There is a wide selection of writing styles – from someone who does not know how to write in English, through those who write good conversational English, to those who write formal, professional pieces. Just this choice of style will have a big impact on how voters will perceive each candidate.

Given there are 21 candidates (and apparently some areas have many more than that!), many voters will not read the statements in depth nor do other research. So the style and approachability of these statements is critical for their success.

Who to vote for?

Based purely on their communication skills as described above, who would you vote for if you lived in this area?

Who would you not vote for? This is possibly an even more important question for anyone trying to learn how to communicate effectively to get positive results.

 

 

 

Back to basics on editing

smiling girl writing in a book“It’s not fun to reread everything but you have to edit your work. I’ve written long essays at Uni, thinking they were good, but when I edited them, I found some bits just didn’t make sense. Sometimes your brain takes a little rest and you don’t write as well.”

That’s what my son’s grade two teacher said this morning as she led a class on editing.

learning to edit

The ability to edit what we write is an important communication skill. For instance, if I wrote an invitation for Thursday 10pm, I may be a bit lonely at 10am when no one turn up because I hadn’t checked what I wrote in the invitation.

While it can be much easier to edit someone else’s work as it is fresh to us and we don’t have an expectation or memory of what was to be written, there are many times when doing your own editing is necessary.

Technically, learning to read and write gives us the skills to edit our work (for example, you could recognise ‘siad’ was incorrectly spelt).

However, as I saw in the classroom today, being given direct tasks for editing is an effective way to understand and undertake editing.

basic steps of editing

Each student was given a checklist of tasks to edit a piece of work they wrote last week.

The group I worked with, went through the list item by item to improve their writing. When I edit, I probably do multiple steps at once but doing one at a time is simpler for children. I also think that doing it step by step actually makes errors easier to spot.

So the checklist today was:

  1. title
  2. sizzling start
  3. backfill
  4. events in order
  5. does it make sense?
  6. check capital letters and full stops
  7. check spelling

Why not follow this list next time you have to edit something?

understanding the checklist

Just because this list uses very specific terms taught at our school (and others!), here are a few tips…

  • not everything needs a title, but most writing that you would edit does (including an email subject as a title)
  • make the beginning interesting! Primary students are taught to make a sizzling start on a simple level, but your writing should also start with something interesting
  • backfill just means an introduction or explanation of the writing. Consider this the all important sentence that answers who, what, where, why and when.
  • different styles of writing require differences in content, so you may not always need events to be listed in chronological order – but the order of what you do include needs to make sense in the relevant context.
  • at school today, I had the students check each sentence made sense. Some had written ‘first tunnel ball. then octopus.’ which obviously needed to be more like ‘first we played tunnel ball, then played octopus.’
    As more literate adults, we can read through the work faster to check for meaning. However, a slow read of each paragraph can really help spot errors.

getting help

I liked that the teacher today actually told the students to get help with editing.

First, she suggested that if they suspected (or knew!) a word was misspelt they could check the spelling by using their dictionary or asking a classmate.

Then, she also suggested that for any sentence they were unsure of, it was ok to say “Hey, Tom, does this make sense to you?” and get someone else’s opinion.

So even if you don’t get someone to edit your writing for you, you can look up or ask for help on specific sections of your work. If the writing is of importance, the editing help is really worth the effort.

 

 

Expand on measuring options

So you have a product and customers have to mix it in some way, and you want to make it easy for them to get good results. What are your options for doing this?

This is to follow on from my post on tile adhesive instructions being less than ideal, and I thought I’d explain some ways to make mixing instructions easier for your customers.

Why expand on instructions?

Pipette dripping into a test tube

You may not need scientific precision measurements, but clarity is critical in making the right mixture.

Yes, you could copy the tile adhesive company and give very basic instructions. And that would be fine for some of your customers.

Or you could aim to help the majority of your customers with more detailed, clear instructions as they will be happier and get better overall results. And happier customers will come back and/or recommend you to others.

Better instructions could also mean fewer calls to you asking for help, too.

How to give useful information

Depending on your product and audience, you may be able to use one or more of the following options.

  1. give specific measurements
  2. give a simple ratio for mixing
  3. give a range of measurements
  4. give instructions that allow for varied quantities

Give specific measurements

Obviously, the simplest approach is giving exact measurements like a cake mix packet – ‘add one egg and 1 cup of milk to the cake mix’.

Of course, it is best to avoid ambiguity and use clear measurements. For example, 250ml is safer than 1 cup as non-Australian cups are not 250ml.

Give a simple ratio for mixing

When you have a packet and people are likely to use part of it each time, a ratio can be a handy measurement tool.

For instance, ‘add two teaspoons of fertiliser per 3 litres of water’ can be used by someone wanting 3 or 30 litres of fertiliser. And ‘mix a 1:1 volume of powder and water’ is easy to convert to any quantity of the mixture.

Give a range of measurements

When you provide a large quantity of the product and people are probably going to use it in batches, it is important to give them realistic numbers to work with. For example, no one is going to use a whole box of washing powder in one go so why bother saying ‘tip the box into a 7,000 litre washing machine’?

Even if you do provide a ratio of components, some examples or a range can be very useful for a consumer.

A range could be in a table form:

powder water area covered
1 cup 2 litres 1 m2
2 cups 4 litres 2 m2
5 cups 10 litres 5 m2

Or as text ‘To cover a large area, mix the entire bag with 6 litres of water; to cover 1m2 area, mix 1 cup with 2 litres of water.’

Give instructions that allow for varied quantities

Sometimes an exact measurement isn’t feasible, but this can be hard for a user to understand.

Instead of saying something like ‘use one to two cups of water’, it is clearer to write:

– add one cup of water and mix
– slowing add more water (up to 1 cup) until the mixture runs as slowly as honey

or maybe you can add notes like ‘Add 1 cup of water and mix. Note that in high humidity or days over 35°C, an additional 1/2 cup of water may be needed.’

Sticking to instructions

Trying something new is always challenging and a bit nerve wrecking.

So it’s easy to rely on sources of information to help the process.

Making tile adhesive

We are doing up our bathroom so needed adhesive to attach the tiles to the bathroom walls. After research, we decided to use adhesive powder rather than a pre-mixed adhesive.

To make the adhesive, it is a simple matter of mixing some of the powder with water. Of course, how much of each is somewhat important!

The packet included instructions for making the adhesive to the correct consistency. However, the instructions were to mix 20 kg with 6 litres of water.

label of tile adhesive packet

Instructions on the tile adhesive powder bag.

Trying to convert those instructions into mixing usable quantities was difficult – giving a weight rather than volume of the powder was particularly difficult. Meaning our first attempt was too wet and wasn’t going to hold the tiles well enough.

Clarity in instructions

We figured out a good consistency for the adhesive, eventually, and now have some lovely tiles stuck to our walls!

But learning from others’ mistakes, here are my tips for making instructions for useful:

  1. Remember who the instructions are for and make them suit. That is, don’t assume the person reading the instructions knows as much about your product as you do. If you are only writing for experienced people (in our case, professional tilers), you may be able to give less information than if writing for inexperienced users (such as DIY tilers).
    If you have more than one audience, ensure the instructions are simple enough for the less experienced group.
  2. Aim for clarity so people understand how to use your instructions. You can do this through
    1. avoid jargon
    2. do multiple small steps instead of a few large steps
    3. use short sentences
    4. use simple language and sentence structure
  3. if the product has different uses, explain how instructions vary between those uses. For example, if floor and wall tiles need adhesive with different consistencies, say something like “Add 6 litres of water for floor tiling and 5 litres for wall tiling” rather than “depending on the consistency of the mix required”.
  4. Where measurements may vary, give a ratio or multiple examples. I’ll expand on that in my next post 🙂
  5. Put instructions where they are easily seen – not just so they can be found but so that they are easy to refer to whilst using them. Again, with the tile adhesive packet, the mixing instructions were in amongst paragraphs of text.

What interesting experiences have you had with hard to understand instructions?

 

 

 

Developing your eBook writing skills

hands holding an electronic reader to view an eBook

Creating an eBook may be easier than printing a hard-copy book, but it still takes effort and skill to make it a good eBook.

Writing an eBook appeals to many people, but not so many have done it. Is it something you have been thinking of doing?

The following eBook tips come from a ProBlogger webinar I participated in at the end of July. They look short and simple but there is a wealth of information there if you take the time to think about them.

 

  1. Always add value to your readers, whether it is information, instruction or entertainment. Without value, it will not good and is not likely to get much word of mouth promotion nor good reviews. This has to be the basis of any eBook you write – just like it is the basis of good blogs posts and articles.
  2. A blog can be a great testing ground for your eBook ideas.
  3. Choose an eBook topic on what could sell AND what you can actually write about! In other words, balance your skills against your readers’ needs
  4. An outline for an eBook can help designers start before content is complete – a time efficient option!
  5. In writing the solution to a problem, make sure it is a problem people recognise as a problem. For example, people buy a book on travel photography by perhaps not one in taking colour photos even though it is a basic skill and component of travel photography.
    ‘When writing an e-book, try to write about something with tangible results i.e. Take Better Travel Photos’ by Bright Fox Media
  6. make sure your topic has enough content to last – an eBook is longer than a blog post or magazine article remember!
  7. republishing existing  blog content is fine, especially if it is reorganised and updated.
  8. do a plan or outline of your eBook
    1. it is a good starting point for writing your eBook
    2. it provides a structure that stands no matter what order you write the content in
    3. enables planning your launch and content that can be used to generate interest (eg guest blog posts, social media updates)

What challenges have you faced when thinking about, planning or writing an eBook?

 

Blog post writing isn’t always easy, but it’s possible

Does every blog post come naturally and easily? scrabble letters 'writing blog posts'

Speaking for myself, the answer is a definite no!

Speaking on behalf of clients and many business people I have spoken to, I would also give a resounding no!

Speaking for yourself, do you think it’s easy to write blog posts? How about if you try writing them to fit a marketing schedule?

So sometimes we have to make ourselves write a post, even if it is hard finding an idea or topic.

Don’t force your writing

A post on SEO outreach by Emma Fox stated “don’t force yourself into making something for a website.” (Yes, the same post that inspired my post about taking time to develop ideas last week has inspired this post, too!)

It’s an interesting statement.

You can take it to mean its best to write naturally and don’t go too far in making your posts relevant to a very different topic. Which are good points.

Or you can read it as advice to  only write for other blogs when you feel like it. Which sounds very nice, but is not so practical for a business owner trying to market their business!

Choosing a guest blog host

 When it comes to choosing where to put a guest blog post, I try to get that balance through the following ideas:

  1. if the blog’s topic is too far from my areas of knowledge, I don’t write posts for them
  2. I only approach someone with a potential guest post when I know I have the time to provide the post, meaning I have a bit of time to be able to write without it being a huge chore or stress
  3. I don’t try being someone else or write in another’s voice so the post feels natural. I will angle the content and tone to suit an audience but keep to what feels right for me
  4. I am experienced in writing on demand – I think you can choose to write at any time, not just want for the right mood, without feeling forced into it. Habit and attitude can get you writing – like Chris Guillebeau, I like the quote  from Somerset Maugham: I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.

Give ideas time to develop

plant_time_light_bulbLR

Ideas & plants take time to grow

Last night I read a blog post on guest blogging (or SEO outreach) as it is something I am interested in and enjoy doing. There were some great tips in this blog post, but there were also a couple of points that I reacted to.

Post ideas can take time

Researching blogs to offer posts to is obviously an important step in guest blogging, but I disagree with the following statement:

If you don’t have any ideas for articles the first couple of minutes of scanning the website, better spend the next minutes looking for another website to scope out.

Many people will never find a host blog if they used that criteria!

A couple of minutes may show the blog is not suitable for you (eg the wrong topic or demographic) but it often isn’t enough to get ideas. Sometimes I get ideas from the first sentence I read in another blog, but other times I have to read a few posts to get a feel for that blog and allow inspiration to strike.

Creativity is in all of us, and I believe it can be developed, but even so that’s a lot of pressure to state you need to find ideas so quickly while also assessing the blog overall.

Fast fix or quality results?

There’s a business concept about giving clients a choice of two elements – well done, fast or cheap. They can’t have all three options in the same project.

I think that’s true for guest blogging, too. You can do it well – quality writing on well researched blogs to build relationships with bloggers and their audiences – or you can work at getting a lot of posts online in a short time frame.

It’s that old quality vs quantity argument, I guess.

And to be frank, if you give me the impression of trying for maximum posts rather than quality the chances are I won’t accept your guest post. So I would never tell people to only spend a few minutes researching  a potential host blog – it looks fast rather than in-depth to me.

Developing ideas

How do you develop ideas, whether for a blog post or anything else?

Do you give up if no idea hits within a couple of minutes?

* Images courtesy of 123RF

Poor surveys are time wasters…

I’m busy, you’re busy and I suspect even people (including Government employees) writing surveys are busy.

So why do people put up silly surveys and waste everyone’s time?

clock in waste paper bin

Throwing time away…

Late last week I was asked to fill in a survey Government-run gathering information to help small businesses – a worthy cause so I completed the survey.

But some of the questions were a waste of time – not only were they hard to answer, I doubt they will give meaningful results so it has wasted everyone’s time.

Poor survey question samples

Here are some of the worst questions I answered, with my comments to explain why I didn’t like these particular questions.

Q1 – is your website interactive? Can you edit it yourself (eg online forms, content)?
A1 – yes or no

What is the correct answer if my site is interactive but I can’t edit it, or if I can edit it but it isn’t interactive?

Q2 do you use a still or video camera for work purposes?
A2 – Yes – what do you use it for?

Um, for taking photos or videos? I wonder how many people gave that answer! I decided to be nice to them and answered ‘take photos for use in my blog’

 Q3. who is your local IT service company in a, b and c?

Personally I had no idea! And what did they mean by local anyway – same suburb, same city, same state?
The question perhaps makes more sense if you assume they want to know who I used for those services or maybe they were trying to ask ‘do you use a local IT service company for a, b or c’.

Q4. how do you get business advice and information?
A4 – rate each option in the following list {which includes trade magazines, state gov department website, dept of broadband, communication & digital economy}

The list did not include professional advice (accountant, coach, etc), online articles/blogs or government business info sites which were the first three things I thought of! Yet it included such specific things as a government department site and the dept of broadband, etc which I have never heard of!
When giving answers, it is important to review the list to ensure it covers enough breadth – or change the question to indicate it is a narrow aspect being researched.

Q5. do you or any of your staff telework? (work from home connecting to the business network and database)

How do I answer that – I work from a home office so I am nearly always connecting to the business from home but I don’t think it is really telework when the network is also at home!
Do they want me to include sub-contractors/suppliers as staff or keep ‘staff’ to mean employees?

Maybe this post will compensate for the wasted time as at least we can all learn what not to do in our next survey or feedback form!

My strong recommendation is to always get an outside person to read a survey when you think it is finished because they will spot errors in logic, assumptions and inconsistencies better than you can.

What are your survey stories? Have you found they are harder to write than they appear? Or maybe you’ve come across some time-wasting questions like these ones. I’d love to hear them – although it would be nice to think most surveys are well done!

 

Simplify your content

sucrose is sugar, words, formula and structure

Four ways to write the same thing – look for simplicity

I often come across things that are too complicated – usually it’s because people are trying hard to give all information, but that doesn’t change the impact on your audience.

If it is too hard to understand the message people get bored or impatient and go elsewhere; at best, they will contact you with unnecessary questions because that’s easier than searching the website or document for answers.

Examples of complicated communications

‘there are limits to how much super you can contribute each year’ (my version)

is easier to read than ‘legislation states people making superannuation contributions above certain prescribed maximums that vary between the types of contributions will be penalised’ (a complex version I read).

‘In Australia, you can see an optometrist without a referral. However, you will need a referral to see an ophthalmologist.‘ (my version)

is simpler than ‘No referral is necessary in Australia to see an optometrist or if needed with an ophthalmologist (you’ll need a referral from an optometrist or from your doctor for this)’. (from a complex article written for lay people)

‘ABC provides telephone support to customers at our discretion’ (my version)

is simpler than ‘ABC will provide Telephone Support at its sole option and for as long and for such hours as it may decide Telephone Support for the Customer.’ (from a contact us page, and let’s ignore that it doesn’t even make sense and doesn’t need all those capital letters!)

How to simplify your writing and web content

  1. write the absolute minimum message first, then add a few words as required
    For example, start with ‘we fix cars’ then add just enough to add value so maybe it becomes ‘we fix vintage cars’ or ‘we fix car engines’ or ‘we specialise in fixing red cars’.
  2. if you need to add more information, do it with additional sentences or in as few words as possible – don’t turn it into a very long sentence.
    So ‘We prepare tax returns for individuals. Our services include sorting your  receipts and documents and lodging your return.’ is better than ‘We prepare tax returns, including sorting your receipts and documents and lodging returns, for individuals.’
  3. know the purpose of your writing – is this a fact sheet that needs minute details or a marketing message that only needs an overview? Choose the level of detail to match your purpose and audience.

 

* Chemical structure courtesy of BigStockPhotos

Avoiding fluff keeps the message clear

Whatever message you are trying to convey, the clearer you can make it the easier it will be to understand and remember.

Generally, a shorter, simpler sentence will explain a message better than a long, complex sentence. Or paragraph.

Giving unnecessary options

I recently came across this sentence on a website form:  ‘credit card details only needed if posting this form’.Filling in f a form to mail in envelope

It seems simple enough – we don’t need your credit card details if you send us the form electronically or by courier pigeon. So if you’re not posting the form, save yourself the trouble of filling in half our form is the subtext.

One slight problem though – there was absolutely no way to submit their form except posting it. The form was just a pdf to print off – there was no online submission nor was there an email address or fax number to be seen on the site.

So what they’re really saying is ‘fill in the credit card details’.

Check if it is needed

I think it’s pretty simple – if the information is meaningless (like credit card details for unavailable options) or useless, delete it.

Sometimes it’s a matter of reading through your words point by point and testing them out.

Sometimes it works better to list what is necessary then go to the text and assess everything not on the list – it may add value so you keep it but otherwise, delete it.

This is just as important when you change something as when you first write it.

In our example above, they may have had email details on the site but removed it to reduce spam and forgot to update the form reference.

When’s the last time you filled in a form on your site or followed your sales process to check it all makes sense and works? Did you read every word to be sure nothing pointless is in there?