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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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Communications can win or lose votes

I don’t watch politics for fun. In fact, I don’t like politics very much at all and I often find their behaviour childish. Childish in a way I wouldn’t tolerate from any actual children…

Yet I am going to write a blog post inspired by a politician and Saturday’s election. It is mainly about their communications so no need to hide from another political statement!

Checking my options

Boat allowed to enter Australia

I am proud of Australia and am willing to welcome refugees.

Earlier this week, I went to a number of websites to find out more about the smaller parties. Namely because I can’t bring myself to vote for either major party this year – blocking refugees asking for help is simply wrong.

On each site, I looked at their policy ideas and details on their candidate in my area.

Learning from their websites

Based on reviewing a few sites covering the same basic idea (ie what the political party stands for and why we should vote for them), here are some useful website tips for us all:

  1. Summaries and simplicity are good.
    A short summary of each policy area with a link to greater details made one site much easier to read and quickly gave me an overview of the party. The lists of actual policies were also brief and to the point. It was therefore easy to decide whether or not I liked them.
    Other sites waffled on or gave me a long list of policies to choose from which was more intimidating than  a single-page summary.
  2. Dead links are frustrating and reduce your credibility.
    One site had my local candidate listed but every link on his name took me to an error page. Given I found the rest of the site a bit vague, I really wanted an impression of him to make a decision. Instead, I was frustrated and didn’t feel the party was very professional or reliable.
  3. Explain who you are fast.
    One site (and I spent very little time on their site once I started reading their offensive nonsense, so maybe there’s a reason for their web design!) had a huge banner and blog posts on the home page. It gave me no idea of who they were (not even that they are in fact a political party) which is what I wanted to know – their latest news is in the realm of politics I don’t care about!
    A clear tagline, an introduction or useful imagery can give information to site visitors quickly and makes life easier for people.
  4. Show information, or don’t – changing is annoying.
    I clicked through to an inner page which was basically a list of questions. Initially, I saw questions and answers but as I was part way through reading the start of one answer, it disappeared to show me a list of questions. Obviously, their software is set to narrow the content to just the questions but the loading time was so slow it showed answers first. Very frustrating to deal with as a site visitor.
    Have you checked how your clever settings actually work for site visitors? Often a simple solution works consistently so is better than a fancier option.
Choices about who to vote for - clarity, trust, briefness and more

What characteristics are important in choosing where to vote or spend your money?

Learning from the candidates

Remember how I couldn’t find information about my local candidate above? I found a media release about him and some others in his party which my local candidate had replied to in the comments.

There is both good and bad to be learned from those comments…

His first comment was long. Maybe a third of a page without paragraph breaks long (lack of structure may be due to the software, which is on the party not him, so I’ll give him a pass there!) It started with a lot of impressive words strung into a sentence or two that made absolutely no sense. Instantly I had no faith in him and no desire to vote for him.

The lesson – make sure anyone representing your business online can write reasonably well or do it for them. A genuine message is better than trying to impress readers.

However, I will give him credit for answering multiple people’s questions to the media release. Responding to comments and questions showed enthusiasm and passion, and listening to people is a precious commodity when it comes to politicians.

Yes, some of those answers were long winded and were nice ways of fobbing off hard questions but he was trying.

The lesson – respond to people online to build rapport, show your personality and gain another opportunity to explain your purpose or skills. Remember, people may see this rather than your carefully crafted profile – especially if a link is faulty!

What have you learned from this election?

Have you come across examples where a politician or political party has communicated well or poorly?

Maybe some of the above examples have inspired you to check your own website with a different perspective. If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below…

While I am not going to vote for a party just because they did the best job with their website, being able to easily understand the party does influence my choices.

Just like as a business owner or consumer I am not going to buy something just because you have the prettiest website, but I am more likely to trust you (and thus give you my money!) if your site is professional, simple to use and inoffensive.

But based purely on my descriptions of their websites, who would you vote for from the above examples?

Personally the first site I mentioned would get my vote – their summaries and easy-to-navigate site made it easy.

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?

 

Making templates earn their keep – not as hard as you may think

Using a template can be a great tool – it saves time, ensures important details are included and builds consistency.

Maximising your templates

But for best results, each use of a template needs to be tailored to the purpose. Just copying it as is looks lazy and can lead to embarrassing mistakes.

That means, if you use a template…

  1. change all the variable fields (business name, dates, prize value and so on)
  2. check the text surrounding the variable fields to ensure things make sense (for instance, a template may use singular verbs but you need plural verbs)
  3. read the entire document from start to finish looking for
    1. irrelevant points
    2. contradictions and inconsistencies
    3. deviations from your style guide

Template tips

My advice for templates is to always start with the base document.

Samples of templates to show variabel text can be presented in different ways

There are various ways to indicate variable text in a template – colour, xxx, brackets, choices…

So if you have a template for competition terms, always use the original template rather than taking last month’s terms and updating them.

It is so easy to miss one field if you update an existing document, leaving a mistake that at best makes you look silly and at worst could have legal or customer service issues for you.

If you find that you are adjusting a lot of the common text, create a new version of the base template to use.

If you find you are often changing text around certain fields, make some of that text variable, too. It doesn’t have to be a blank space, you can provide two alternative sets of words (eg ‘All winners are’ or ‘the winner is’) as part of the template.

A template should be a ‘living document’ in that it is regularly reviewed and adjusted for each use. The first version can be useful but by using it, improvements often become apparent as it is used in different situations.

For documents with very sensitive content (such as legal implications) or to be used by many people of varying skills, consider setting up the document so non-variable text can’t be edited.

Do you have any other suggestions for maximising the use of templates in business?

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!

 

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!

Improving your writing

Whether you write a lot and just like learning more or you feel your writing needs a lot of work, you can do many things to improve it. I was reminded of this recently by reading a blog post about the impact of Twitter on a writer.

Here are some quick ideas you may be able to use:

  1. if your writing is too long winded, use Mallory’s trick of thinking of each sentence as a tweet – with 140 characters it is hard to waffle on!
  2. read as broadly as possible – you are learning about writing every time you read something so reading different styles will teach you more
  3. think about what you read – not all the time, but occasionally put some conscious thought into the words used to send a message
  4. practice – there is nothing better at making you a better writer than to write, so write!
  5. study writing – maybe learn to spell a new word each week, read some tips on good writing, follow some blogs about writing (well done – reading this means you’ve already started!) or grab a grammar text book
  6. offer to edit and read over someone else’s work, too – teaching is always a great way to cement things in your own brain, and you may be amazed at what you can learn from others’ mistakes. What’s more, being able to see how others can improve their writing will probably build your confidence
  7. find someone to give you some honest feedback (on specific pieces or overall) and maybe some tips on areas you need to improve – I’ve done this with a few people and it does help them hone their skills

Writing’s main importance is in being able to communicate, to express yourself (or your business) to others effectively. You don’t have to be the world’s best writer but you can choose to improve and not be the world’s worst writer!

Writing an annual report

What does an annual report mean to you?

For many people an annual report is boring and they don’t read those they are given (such as from a superannuation fund or employer). For others, an annual report is an important part of reviewing investments and companies.

Then there is the group of people who are involved in preparing annual reports…

If you are in this group, annual reports suddenly take on a new importance and can be very intimidating to start. There is the size of the report plus the fact that an annual report is a significant, formal summary of the business.

There is nothing stopping a small or micro business presenting an annual report, but many bigger companies must produce an annual report within a certain timeframe. And that generally means there are specific things to be included in those annual reports alongside the standard financial summaries.

I have written and project managed a number of annual reports now, and I can honestly say it is a lot less intimidating now than when I did my first couple! So here are some of my tips to make writing annual reports a bit easier:

  • prepare a list of mandatory inclusions so you can check off each thing as you add it
  • in your drafts, set up tables and use dummy text for sections you don’t know details of yet – it reminds you to include it but also helps plan spacing in the report
  • read previous years’ reports to get a good idea of what the company prefers to include (for example, does each Board member get a bio or just a name?)
  • be prepared to make many edits as different people (eg technical and legal experts) read the drafts
  • set aside solid blocks of time to work on the report as it takes time. For instance, yesterday I spent two hours reviewing and refining a first designer draft of an annual report – doing it in smaller chunks of time would take a lot longer overall
  • utilise existing content where possible. For example, if you have a clear definition of a concept on your website copy that definition into your annual report instead of rewriting it. Not only does it save time, it means you have previously accepted text which saves edits and discussions

Refining your Google searches

If you’re like me, you use Google and similar search engines frequently and know a few tricks to make your searches as useful as possible.

Here are a few tips you may or may not use – and if you have some others, please add them to the comments so I can learn them, too!

  • restrict a search to one site by using site:wordconstructions.com.au
  • search for something specific on only one site by using the word and the site only command report writing site:wordconstructions.com.au
  • find the definition of a word with define:gerund
  • exclude a term from your search using a minus sign, so writer -fiction will bring results for writers without mention of fiction writing
  • include all similar uses of a word or term by adding the tilde sign; for example, ~ article
  • maintain certain spelling of a word or term with a plus sign so + Sidney will not bring up all the Sydney sites in a Sidney search
  • use * to replace any word, such as in professional * writer
  • find related sites usingrelated:wordconstructions.com.au
  • find a specific file type in a search – if you want to find only word docs about spelling, for example, you enter spelling filetype:doc
  • find all sits linking to a site or page usinglink:www.wordconstructions.com.au
  • do a general search without risk of finding inappropriate (ie adult) content using safesearch:breast   cancer
  • find out about a specific page usinginfo:www.wordconstructions.com.au/ebook.php
  •  use quotation marks to refine the search to your exact term; that is, “business writer” will give results about business writers only rather than results for all references to writer and/or business

Hope they help!

Making school essay writing easy!

While a school essay is not the same as writing for a business or website, I wanted to recommend this great blog post I just read about writing school essays.

The post is aimed at parents trying to help students learn about writing a good essay – and it gives good tips (like SEXI paragraphs!)

Many of the concepts can also be carried into other forms of non-fiction writing. For instance, planning what you will put in a promotional article, blog post, report, flyer or similar still saves a lot of time and worry.

Have a read of their post and let me know what you think…


SEXI paragraphs contain:

Statement
Explanation
eXample
Importance

Top 10 business saving tips

Lately I’ve heard a few business owners talk about ways to save money in their business so here are my top 10 tips for saving money without scrimping on product/service quality.

  1. review your recurring costs (such as website hosting, bank fees, phone rental and internet service) – it amazes me the difference in prices for the same service so it can be extremely worthwhile to compare what’s available
  2. look for energy efficient options – even if you don’t think the environment is an issue, low energy light bulbs, efficient heaters and the like can save you money especially if you have big premises and/or a lot of staff. This includes things like adding curtains or blinds rather than have temperature gains/losses through windows
  3. compare suppliers periodically – they don’t all adjust prices the same way at the same time and some will offer you great ‘honeymoon’ rates but not be as competitive later. Even if you don’t change suppliers, it will keep you in touch with reasonable industry rates as a reference and negotiating tool
  4. consider who you outsource to – the cheapest price is not always the most cost effective option (putting aside cheapest isn’t always best!) If Sally charges $100 an hour and Mary charges $80 but Sally is twice as fast, paying Sally will probably be the cheaper option. If Sally can also do another task it may be cheaper to use her for both as she knows your business and is already working for you.
  5. send statements and reminder invoices soon after an invoice is due – you will generally get better results for less effort if you ask for money when the project is fresh. Debt chasing is a waste of your resources
  6. buy cheaper when it doesn’t impact on quality. For example, if store A and B sell the same product at different prices with the same level of service, buy from the cheaper store. Likewise, buying 100 pens is often cheaper per pen than buying 10 of them.
  7. recycle and reuse as much as possible. In bigger companies, a fortune can be saved if you use old letterhead or with compliment slips as staff note pads; use the back of envelopes for calculations and scribbles instead of paying for notepads; print drafts on the back of old papers; use incoming packaging to package your products.
  8. turn everything off! Make sure the last person out turns off the lights, get everyone to turn off their computer and monitor at the end of the day, turn off monitors when away from your desk for more than 10 minutes, turn off printers and scanners overnight, and so on – you may be amazed at how much this can save over a year
  9. be prepared and communicate clearly with suppliers and service providers – wasting their time will cost you money
  10. monitor your marketing – if an ad isn’t helping your business then it is a waste of money (and that could include free ads!) Even ads that are working may be made less expensive (smaller size, less frequent use, etc) so try and compare the results

What other ways have you used to save money in your business? How much did it save you?