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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

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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

Effective content starts with a draft

Good content starts as an idea that is drafted onto paper or screen and gets developed through editing and revisions.

I once had a conversation with another business person we’ll call Mel:

Tash: Just get the ideas onto the page. It doesn’t matter about spelling, grammar, proper sentences or even the order. Just get things down to get started – it’s the best cure to writer’s block or procrastination.”

Mel: {laughs} Just don’t tell YOUR clients that’s what you do!

Sometime later, I am still wondering about why Mel said that.

checking draft spellingAdmittedly, not many of my first drafts are that rough (I spell and use grammar instinctively so even drafts read ok) but that’s not the point.

There is nothing wrong with a first (or twentieth if need be!) draft, nor with a first draft being an awful mess. No one else would ever see a rough first draft but it serves a purpose to why not admit to creating rough drafts?

I don’t expect a designer to instantly produce me a perfect web page or eBook layout – I know I’ll see drafts so I can confirm what I do and don’t like to get a finished product that suits my need.

I don’t think any writing client would be upset that I have drafts – it helps them get a better final result. And if they’re paying for the finished wording, they really don’t care how many drafts it takes me!

Do you relate to what Mel said? Would you hide the fact you started with a rough draft in order to produce something professionally?

Feeling content with contempt?

These three words are completely different, and if said clearly, should never be confused by someone who knows their individual meanings. However, said quickly, these words can sound alike and lead to confusion – do you know the difference and take care to pronounce them carefully?

contend: [verb] taking a position or stand in an argument, competition, contest or effort
The politician contends his position again, hoping his past achievements will win back his seat. 

content: [adverb] satisfied, happy; [noun] contained or what is contained
Having finished another 10,000 words, the writer was content with her efforts.
He warily viewed the content of the student’s locker. 

contempt: [noun] feeling of disapproval and superiority to something or someone that is regarded as vile, of little account or mean
He treated all criminals with contempt, and never tried to hide the fact.

Good blogging made simple

A colourful, interesting blogBlogging can be fun, it takes time, it can have great rewards for a business. For some, like me, thinking of topics and writing blog posts is fairly easy; for others, writing blog posts can be hard and nerve-wrecking.

So here are ten quick tips to give you confidence that your blog posts are going to work for you, not against you.

  1. use a spell checker (within the blog software or elsewhere) and a grammar checker (tied in with many spell checkers now anyway)
  2. read your blog post out loud as you proof read it – your tongue will stumble over mistakes you may otherwise miss
  3. whenever possible, leave a day or two between writing and proof reading and editing your posts
  4.  relax and be yourself – a blog should show some personality and make the business human. A professional image does not mean you have to be stuffy and intellectual
  5. write for humans, not search engines. It is important to include keywords but not at the expense of making the content easy to read
  6. if you have little to say on the topic, write a short post – don’t add a lot of fluff and nonsense just to make it look longer
  7. if a post is getting very long, consider dividing it into two or three posts – it’s easier to read, more visually appealing and you get more posts for not much extra effort!
  8. ask questions and invite comments – the interaction can lead many places and adds a new dimension to your blog. Reply to comments, too, but that comes after writing the posts!
  9. make the post easy on the eye – use sub-headings, images, bullet points, short sentences and short paragraphs as appropriate
  10. make sure facts and opinions are clearly shown as such – facts need to be accurate and you don’t want anyone thinking your opinions are presented as facts. For your opinions, make them real – it’s ok t be controversial as long as your stand suits your brand

As you build confidence, there are many more things you can do for your blog but getting started and attracting readers is the first and shot critical step. Good luck, and enjoy blogging!

Collecting annual report content

Writing an annual report for many people is a big chore done over a stressful month or two just before it is due to be released.

I have suggested before that the process is better spread across the year by keeping notes so that the actual preparation is easier.

Another way I work on an annual report throughout the year is to copy chunks of text into an annual report document as well. This is content worked on during the year for a specific topic or use – for example, descriptions of a new service or product launched during the reporting year.

When it comes to writing about those topics in the annual report, I can pull out the existing, correct content  and adjust it to need. It is much quicker than reinventing the wheel with new text or wasting time searching for that text “I know I wrote back then”.

Although a style guide often includes sections of useful text to be reused, it doesn’t always include text about specific events or external factors.

Can you imagine how organised you will feel and look when you pull out a page of pre-prepared text when you start writing your annual report content?

Costs of a newsletter

News headline catches a client's eye

For many businesses, sending out a regular newsletter is an effective marketing strategy. So I sometimes get asked how much it costs to produce a newsletter.

There is no clear answer to that, but here are some of the factors that will impact on the expenses for a newsletter.

  1. how long is it? A longer newsletter takes more time and effort to layout plus requires more content so will cost more than a shorter newsletter. However, the cost of 4 pages vs 2 (for example) may be worth it if it means giving good information and/or being able to produce the newsletter less often
  2. are you doing a print version? If so, you need to allow for paper/ink/power costs to do it yourself or a printer’s bill to have it professionally done
  3. how are you distributing it? Allow $1 for stamps and envelopes if mailing it, plus time to put into envelopes; emailing it will generally be much less than that but outsourcing the sending or using specialised software will still cost money. Having a pile available in store or on your website is cheaper but doesn’t have the same impact and results as getting it to people
  4. do you have a template? Your newsletter will work much better if it looks professional so get a designer to make a nice template that works with your brand. I would suggest getting both print and html versions designed, even if you only expect to use one, so you have both options available with a matching look – it’s cheaper to get two designs at once than as two separate projects
  5. what sort of content will you use? Full articles, article excerpts with the full article online or just snippets of news? Making articles to suit can be time consuming, and specific word counts can make even shorter pieces take longer to write and edit.
  6. who will write your newsletter? Will it all be done in-house to suit, collected from outside sources (e.g. members or clients’ submissions, free or paid articles), outsourced to a professional writer, or some combination? Although paid content and editing may have a higher up front cost it will require less of your time.
    TIP: If outsourcing the content (in part or all of it) you can reduce costs by providing the topics and key points to be covered so the writer can concentrate on writing rather than thinking and research time.
  7.  who will layout the newsletter each time? An expert will place content into your template much quicker than most people – again, there is a cost in time or money. However, the best results often require additional content editing during layout (such as adjusting words to avoid orphans and strange page breaks) so it’s good if your writer and designer (whether in-house or outsource) can work together on the newsletter
  8. although a relatively small cost, uploading your newsletter to your website, and adjusting any supporting text to suit, also needs to be included – especially if someone else manages your site updates

No matter how the newsletter is produced and distributed, you also need to allow time to read the final version before it gets produced. Not only is this a safety measure against typos and layout errors, you can also check that everything is consistent with your brand and objectives. If you produce the newsletter yourself, ideally someone else should do a final review of it for you.

Have you priced your business newsletter? A full costing is important for an accurate analysis of costs versus returns, and many people forget about including their time as a cost.

Content and message must match

Whatever your message is, your content must be consistent as well.

One of my favourite writing tasks is helping Santa write letters each Christmas at Love Santa. They are fun, positive letters and I know that each one will bring smiles and extend the Christmas joy.

Of course, sometimes people feel that they get too old for Santa and question their belief in him and the magic of Christmas.

Writing letters to Santa

Like many others, Love Santa has some information available to help people (parents in particular) to encourage people to keep their belief in Santa. The information is written with care to give tips on encouraging belief but also be read by those in doubt without any additional cause to doubt (and yes, this blog post is also being carefully written!)

Others are not so careful. I just read an article with ‘easy ways to keep your child believing in Santa’ that spends the first few paragraphs destroying any beliefs before giving the five tips. Any doubting child reading it would no longer be influenced by those useful tips so the purpose would be lost – and don’t assume kids don’t read articles aimed for parents!

This makes a clear example of how the presentation of information through choice of words, headings and images can support or contradict the intent and content of the writing. Sure it is harder to write so that the entire message is consistent and acceptable for all potential readers, but it will serve the purpose much better and will be appreciated by those looking for the information.

What examples have you seen of a message not supporting itself? Or maybe you have a Santa story to share (although personal stories are best shared at Love Santa’s blog!)?

Christmas leads in your content

Chrustmas trees, stockings and giftsUsing topical links and keywords is good for marketing, but perhaps you can’t see how your business can be related to Christmas or other major events.

I wrote about building trust like Santa earlier in the week as a Christmas-related article. Another example of tying in Christmas is to make a list like Santa to prepare for next year’s tax return (note this example has some good ideas but a lot of the detail are US specific and Christmas is closer to their end of financial year, too).

Here are some more ideas for businesses not obviously connected to Christmas to be able to make use of the season in marketing (other than just putting a picture of Santa or a Christmas tree on a webpage anyway):

  1. Santa checking his naughty and nice list make a naughty or nice list relevant to your field. For instance, a list of reasons to proof read or safety equipment for horse riding are nice lists whilst explaining how to damage your hair or get sun burnt are like Santa’s naughty list
  2. get into the giving spirit of Christmas – give an amount from each sale to a specified charity throughout December or match client’s donations to a charity
  3. Santa, his reindeer and boomers all work hard on Christmas Eve so fitness and nutrition people can easily write about how to prepare and maintain their energy
  4. the reindeer and boomers tie in nicely with animal health and care stories
  5. anybody selling plants or related services can give alternatives to pine trees for decorating or give tips on caring for a pine tree
  6. any service provider can of course promote their services as a means of reducing clients’ work load in the busy November/December period
  7. accountants and bookkeepers can write about the costs of Christmas – tips on avoiding debt, setting budgets, comparing savings systems for next year and so on
  8. psychologists, counsellors and others can talk about relationships, coping with grief or loneliness at Christmas, dealing with stress, setting appropriate expectations and how to fit everyone’s needs into one day
  9. anyone dealing with lights (electricians, bike retailers, lighting shops) could probably come up with a message about Rudolph lighting the way for safety
  10. do some work or sponsoring of a local community group (a neighbourhood house, meals on wheel, elderly club, RSL, etc) to get known locally. You may also be able to use it in a media release, your blog and social media, and possibly in your marketing (e.g. ‘as used by Santa at xyz Christmas party’ or ‘proud sponsor of xyz at Christmas’)
  11. like some houses have an incredible array of lights and paraphernalia, make your business stand out with a Christmas look – maybe cover your company car with tinsel and reindeer ears and use fake snow on the windows, or make your shop window stand out at night with a beautiful display of lights. Either way will catch direct attention and word of mouth, but again you can add it to a blog, media release, newsletter and a picture on your contact page is a nice touch!
  12. arrange for Santa to visit and be in your shop or waiting room for set times

That’s just a few I thought of quickly – what other ideas can you suggest or have done?

Coming up, I will write about general topical connections – it’s too much to do Christmas and general topics on one post!

* Images courtesy of Love Santa

Aim your content at your target

Whether it’s content for a blog, a newsletter, a website or anything else, it is going to produce the best results if the content and writing suit your potential buyers (your target audience).

Sounds simple, yet it isn’t always done…

Earlier this week I read a post by Paul Hassing which reminded me of when I was selling my house a few years ago. Aiming to sell the house, we tried an agent with an apparently different philosophy to most real estate companies. However, he didn’t like my cute little house (for one thing it didn’t have picture rails like our neighbour’s house did!) and couldn’t sell it. We swapped to a woman at another company who was great and sold it for an extra $20K to the same person the first agent had spoken to.

I think one factor that helped her do a much better job was her enthusiasm for the house – at her first visit she was imagining what people could do in the home and the type of furniture they’d like, and so on. She looked for what was good about the house, thought about the type of people it would appeal to and came up with ideas to feel them on the lifestyle it would give them.

The first agent didn’t like the house himself so couldn’t imagine any extras to sell to potential buyers. Agent two used passion to understand and sell to her audience; agent one saw it as a commodity and tried selling it without emotion, imagination or real interest.

So when writing content remember to pitch the message at the right people and help them picture how the product or service will fit into their lives. Targetting the right people may reach fewer people but it will get more action from those people.

Have you seen real estate agents pitch the wrong house to people, or excite people by pitching the right house to them?

Don’t over generalise

When writing content, generalising can make it simpler to present your message but it can also create issues.

Approximations work most of the time (‘about one thousand’ or ‘approximately half the people’) whereas a generalisation is making a statement about an entire group (such as “all self-employed writers write good web content”). The problem arises if the generalisation is too general to be completely accurate or useful.

generalisation- 8 point fonts are always harder to read than 12 point fonts

Be careful of generalisations – you can look silly if they’re wrong

Some people will read a generalisation without thought, others will focus on the fact there are exceptions to your statement and others will take offence at being included (or excluded). Maybe you don’t care about annoying the pedants of this world, but there may be more of them than you expect in your target audience, and offending people is not often a good plan.

Todays I read a blog post which included the following generalisation:

Whatever size company you are with, you need to establish the roles of Chief Content Officer, Managing Editor, Content Producers, Chief Listening Officer and your Content Creators.

While the blog post as a whole was great, this statement stood out to me because it excludes sole traders. “Whatever size company you are with” pretty clearly indicates that the following information applies to all businesses – but if you’re in a small business, you are not going to have more than five roles within the communications area and may not even have five roles in total! I found this statement frustrating as I can’t assign such roles to different people and this post gave no indication of how to blend the roles if required.

What generalisations have you come across that have stood out for you? Do those experiences come to mind when writing content so you don’t generalise inappropriately?