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The Next Next Thing

What is the topic you are going to write about after your current project is completed? Not worried about that yet? Thinking about tomorrow’s topic can make you a better communicator today.

Communication is a process rather than a one-time interaction. So as a communications professional, you should always be thinking about the next next thing. Whether you are communicating via blogs, social media, websites, videos, magazines, newspapers or books, consider where your communications topics are headed. Today’s topic is the burning fire you need to address and get out the door. But the intentional progression of topics from today to tomorrow to the next day (month, year) builds a brand, and a body of work.

Recently, as I was working on a quarterly newsletter for a client, I penciled in the topics for their next two newsletters. I didn’t spend much time thinking about the details of the future topics, since I was focused on the newsletter that needed to get to print. I might not even be responsible for future newsletters; however, the overall communications plan is important for my client. The ability to think ahead to the next topic in a sequence means that the quarterly newsletter topics will build on each other throughout the year. Recipients of the newsletters will have a more complete understanding of the overall organization, rather than receiving random bites of information spread across time.

Educators have a term for this kind of planning: scope and sequence. When planning curriculum, they consider the objectives for the course (scope) and the components of content that students need to reach those objectives (sequence). I admit that I may have oversimplified this educational concept for my purposes; but considering scope and sequence can lead to great communications planning.

So as you are working on today’s project, keep a sticky note (or evernote) handy to jot down topics for the next project, and the next next project. This kind of planning will keep you moving forward in communications, rather than just reacting to the needs of today.


Every industry has its own language. Using expressions that are familiar to your audience is an important part of effective communication. However, sometimes such language also excludes. Content that is meant to connect creates distance when the jargon isn’t readily understood.

How much jargon to include?

The primary consideration for any communication is to consider your audience. If your audience focus is seasoned professionals and your language is common in all professional communication in your industry, then industry-specific language is appropriate. If your audience includes newcomers to your industry, carefully consider whether jargon is inclusive or distancing.

In addition, consider the purpose of the communication. If your content is designed to reach broadly and draw people on the fringes of your field, then opt for plain language that is widely understood.  Industry regulars will still understand your content, and newcomers will also connect.

Abbreviations are definitely industry-specific, but an editorial rule of thumb is to spell out abbreviations on their first usage and include the abbreviation in parentheses. This will clarify meaning and avoid any misunderstandings.  And it is possible that some abbreviations that you consider widely understood might have different meanings in other settings. Spelling out abbreviations provides clarity.

When I am editing content with industry-specific language, I highlight anything that isn’t clear to me. It’s up to the client to decide whether to eliminate jargon to make the meaning widely apparent, but my preference is always clear language that is broadly understood.

The Censor in Your Mind

I was struck by a line in the obituary for Simin Behbahani, an Iranian poet. “The danger, she knew, was in doing the censors’ work for them, by heeding the voice in her mind that had begun to warn her: ‘Don’t write this, they won’t allow it to be published.'” (The Economist, August 30, 2014, p. 78)

To be honest, I was unaware of Simin Behbahani prior to the news of her death. But I am thankful for her voice, and the voices of so many writers who have been compelled to share their thoughts from countries and cultures that attempt to squelch honest human voices. One of my favorite movies of the past few years is Wadjda (2012), written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first female director in Saudi Arabia. Her work is both praised and condemned for addressing taboo topics. Wadjda is the story of a young girl coming of age in Saudi Arabia who pushes against the restrictions of being female; she wants the freedom to ride a bicycle, like the neighbor boy.

Those of us who write from cultures that value freedom of expression have no idea of the actual risks that creative voices encounter in being true to their calling in the midst of real restrictions. However, I wonder if everyone who engages in creative work is in danger of listening to the censor in her mind. Whether it is the novelist who wonders if his characters are too religious or too secular or too assertive or too much of any one quality that might offend some segment of society, or the artist who puts paint to canvas and reveals a juxtaposition of symbols that pushes the boundaries of acceptable society, each is in danger of self-censorship.

The dangers to creatives in some cultures are physical and potentially deadly, and I don’t want to trivialize the risks they take in sharing their voices. But even for those in freer societies, the danger of listening to the censor in the mind is benign sameness and safety. We are in danger of creating books, plays, movies and art that won’t get banned by any committee, but these works  won’t make people wonder and think and question and grow.

Language that Connects

“Thanks for keeping our park clean.”

This affirmation is posted on new signs at the entrances and exits to a local park. The park has suffered in recent years from overuse, including excess drinking and trash left after weekend parties. The parks department has increased enforcement of existing rules and also invested in new signage to communicate with park users.

As I took my regular walk around the park, I pondered the plea on the sign and wondered if changing the word “our” to “your” would make a more compelling connection with the park visitors. Subtle difference, but perhaps enough to change the emotional connection based on language. “Our park” can refer to the space that belongs to all of us, every visitor to the park. Or “our park” can sound like the park belonging to the city officials, distancing language, especially on a sign that includes a very long list of rules. What if the sign said, “Thanks for keeping your park clean”?

Perhaps an even more compelling sign would be to appeal to the positive emotions of the park users: “We all love this park. Let’s show the love and keep it clean!”

Most reasonable people don’t throw trash in their own yards. So if the parks department can convince the park visitors that this park belongs to them, then perhaps park visitors will be more invested in the upkeep of the park. It would be nice if people didn’t leave trash in public spaces, but the sense of ownership seems to increase the likelihood of good behavior. I don’t throw trash in my own yard because I don’t like looking at trash. The task for the parks department is to convince people that the park is their own personal yard, and they have a vested interest in keeping it clean.

Emphasizing “you” in communication makes the language more connective. Because even though people should care about the public good, they tend to be focused on their own personal interests above the good of the community.

What kind of sign do you think would be most connective?


Misleading Titles

I clicked on the headline for the online news source: “110 Arrested at (company name) HQ.”

The headline definitely got my attention. It sounded like a story about a massive legal or financial breakdown in a large corporation. I couldn’t imagine what had transpired to cause so many employees to be arrested at one time.

The page I landed on had a different headline. One key word was different. “110 Arrested Outside (company name) HQ.” Now I was reading an article about protesters outside a corporate headquarters prior to an annual meeting. The word “outside” implied a very different story than the word “at.”

The original headline was effective in that I did click on the link. However, once I landed on the article, I felt misled as a reader. The article wasn’t what I expected.

Titles matter – for books, magazines, articles, web content. Titles should draw the attention of the reader, make the reader pause long enough to want to know more, and inspire the reader to action. However, a title also has to deliver on its promise. Once the reader picks up the book, opens the magazine, reads the article or web content, they want the title to deliver the story that they were promised.

Great titles are intriguing and compelling; and great titles truly reflect the story behind the title.

Still Learning

I am attending a professional conference next week, and I am excited to learn from experts and peers in the areas of editing, writing and design. I still remember my first professional conference many years ago—I was super-nervous because even though I had the title of “editor” and produced a magazine that the target audience appreciated, I had come to editorial work through a different career path and I was afraid that I would be found out. Everyone else seemed to have degrees in English or Journalism, while my degree was in Economics. Even though I had work experience and on-the-job training in communications, I felt “other” and “less than.”

At that first conference, I swallowed my ego, bravely asked questions and connected with peers. I learned from the keynote speakers and workshop leaders; however, the most important realization was that being willing to learn and surrounding myself with people who have a learning posture is an essential life skill. The best learning over the years has come informally, as I am willing to ask questions of my peers and to listen closely to their answers – “How do you do this?” or “Why did you decide on that strategy?” The answers may be different for me and my situations, but understanding process, thinking and possible outcomes is essential.

Great editors who have been on the job for years are still learning, because what makes them great is their openness to new ideas, new ways of work, new technologies and new media. Every new project I take on, every new client I meet with, every new media platform I test provides opportunity for learning and growth, if I am willing to ask questions and think broadly.

When Michelangelo was 87 years old, he is reported to have said, “Ancora imparo” which means “I’m still learning.” I would love to be able to say that each year, for as many years as I have life and breath.

Why Does Anyone Need an Editor Anymore?

Why use a professional editor when there are electronic editing tools that highlight spelling and grammar errors? Besides the obvious answer that electronic editing tools do not catch all the errors in any document, an editor brings precision to content.

For example, on a recent editorial project, the writer was talking about children, and he kept using the adjective “small” children. After reading through all the content, I discerned that he was actually talking about the age not the stature of the children, so I changed the modifier to “young” rather than “small.” This minor changed added precision to the word choice. To which some of you might ask, “Who cares?”

The changes that an editor makes to good content might seem insignificant; however, the difference between good content and great content is in the details. Spell check or grammar check will never tell you that there is a better word to use to express meaning. Nor will these tools help you use a colon or semi-colon correctly. Why care about such precision?

Precise language communicates meaning. An editor can take your thoughts and good content and make them great so that the meaning you want to convey comes through to the reader. An editor will take your very, very, very long sentence that is technically correct but confusing to the reader and massage it into a form that allows the reader to understand your meaning. An editor will challenge your word choice to strengthen the meaning you want to convey. An editor will clean up your punctuation so your ideas and thoughts flow smoothly.

I could go on and on, but I am an editor, so my goal is to convey this idea in less than 300 words.

Communicating Data

Data is just a Google-search away – from sources around the world. Content is available in all formats and platforms. In the midst of so much content and data, it takes insight and discernment to provide accurate, clear and relevant information that informs and equips.

Here are a few principles for communicating data:

  • Does the data make sense? All those estimation problems that math teachers force on their students are actually useful, because they help in discerning if a number makes sense. When a number is stated precisely, such as “886,400 people live in the city,” then one might assume that accuracy is guaranteed. However, if the city in question is Mexico City, then it is possible that a digit was lost and the actual number is closer to 8,864,000. As an editor, I may not know the actual population of Mexico City, but I know it is one of world’s largest cities, so the figure of less than a million people doesn’t make sense. If a number doesn’t make sense, I can search different sources to verify the number.
  • Is the data accurately labeled? Population information is available for cities and for metropolitan areas. There is a difference. The population within the city limits may be vastly different from the population in an area that includes suburbs which surround the city. For example, an estimated 21.2 million people live in the metropolitan area which includes Mexico City.
  • Is the data comparable? If I am comparing cities in the Americas, I may want to discuss New York City and Mexico City. If I am sloppy with the data, I could say that New York has 19.6 million people while Mexico City has 8.9 million, leading the reader to believe that New York City is larger than Mexico City. The data cited are not comparable – the New York metropolitan area has 19.6 million people, but New York City has 8.3 million people. On both scales, New York City is smaller than Mexico City.

These are just a few checks to use when presenting data. Accuracy matters!

Breaking the Rules

This week I received a “flyer” for a new grocery store that is coming to town. In contrast to most grocery store marketing materials that emphasize graphics and include product pictures and white space, this flyer was full of dense text and few pictures, printed on cheap paper. Reading through their flyer made me wonder when it is a good idea to break communications rules, and how content and design principles evolve.trader joes flyer

Why Open Design over Dense Text?

Contemporary design offers a way to catch the attention of an audience. Since you are competing for attention, and you only have a few seconds to connect with an audience, an image that grabs attention is used to draw the reader to your message. This design emphasis has evolved in recent years, to the extent that design is often more important than content in connecting with an audience.

Having the Confidence to Break the Rules

So why are the marketing professionals for this grocery store chain breaking the rules of marketing communications? They have established their brand identity as different from the average grocery store experience. So from that basis, it makes sense that their communications vehicles set them apart from other stores. This is a confident move that can produce great results if it works, but if you try to be quirky and fun but aren’t quite, then your marketing materials might look more pathetic than proudly unusual.

Deciding how to communicate your brand identity and the tone that works for your organization is based on knowing your audience and evaluating your results. Even if you don’t have a huge research budget, you can show samples of marketing materials to people in your core customer audience and evaluate their reactions to your materials, adjusting messages as necessary.

Finally, the ultimate measure of any marketing communication is the result that it produces. Are your messages creating loyal customers? If your customer base is growing, then your messaging is working, whether it follows the rules or not. In the case of this grocery store chain, people in my state have been waiting for years for them to arrive on the scene and the social media buzz related to their store openings is huge, so even though they break the rules, it is working for them.

Love Your Audience

Do you love your audience?

When you read that statement, does it seem too strong? That “love” isn’t a term that you use so freely?

How about value and respect? Do you value and respect your audience?

Creating high quality content takes time, energy and focus. And the more you value and respect your audience, perhaps even love them, the better your content will be. Because you will care about the content you create.

As writers and editors, sometimes our eyes slip off our audience. If you don’t like your audience it is easy to move into a subtle “us/them” mentality and your communications suffer. A thin veneer of dislike separates you from your audience. You may move into a patronizing tone because you know better than “them.” The result is disengagement. Your audience can sense when you make this subtle shift, and you are no longer communicating because your audience will stop listening.

You can still challenge your audience to stretch and grow through your content, while respecting where they are right now. You value them enough to want to challenge them to be a better version of themselves. But your challenge has to start with respect.

Your best communications work will occur when you care, like, value, respect and yes, even love your audience. Honestly evaluate where you are with your audience as you step into 2014. They are worth your best effort – and your highest regard.

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