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Writing Short

Conversations among writers, editors and publishers about the state of publishing often turn to the short attention span of readers. While I understand the concern and realize that complex topics take more than 140 characters to develop, there are benefits to short, focused content.smartphone

Writing short forces the writer and editor to carefully focus the main idea and judiciously choose words, as extraneous details are cut. This results in clear, direct content.

Writing short gives the reader a clear takeaway. Rather than wading through multiple examples and ideas, the reader can access one memorable nugget.

Writing short allows space for additional graphics to carry a message. While writers and editors might consider themselves “word” people, they are communicators. Words and graphics together communicate. By keeping content short, there is space for graphic elements to reinforce the message.

Looking back at magazines I edited more than 10 years ago, word count on a page was often 800 – 900 words for an 8-1/2″ x 11″ page. Now my target is 500 – 600 words per page with much more space for graphic design. Did people read every word of an 800 word article and remember it all? Does the reader even notice that the content is shorter?

Short, focused content communicates! This blog is 215 words.

The Art of the Apology

Have you done something wrong and need to apologize? Whether an apology is in the professional setting or a personal setting, sincerity and brevity are keys to delivering your apology.

Keep your apology brief – state the infraction and express your deep regret. You can add any policy or personal changes that you are going to implement to keep from repeating the infraction, but never make excuses or blame others. Just apologize. Period.

Sincerity is important in an apology – but the way people receive your apology is based on established trust (or lack thereof). So the believability of your apology is judged over time. If you are apologizing for a repeated behavior in the past, is there any evidence that your pattern has changed? If not, then people won’t believe that you are sincere in your apology. And if future actions repeat the infraction  you apologized for, then people will assume your only regret was in getting caught, not in the actual action.

Keep brevity in mind, especially when giving a verbal apology. Just because someone gives you a microphone and 2 minutes, there is no need to keep going on and on. State your infraction, express your regret, and lay out your plan for moving forward.

Note: An apology for a mistake is different from a disagreement over opinions. See a previous post for responding to feedback.

 

 

What’s Your Angle?

TSA is in the news regularly now, with the summer travel season heating up and lines increasing at many large airports. Media outlets, along with social media, are sharing pictures and videos of long lines waiting to get through security. But how accurate are these reports?

I was at the Denver airport on the Friday before Memorial Day. My daughter and son-in-law had a 2 hour layover, and we were going to meet for lunch if the security lines weren’t too long. I had been watching the security time page on the airport website all morning, seeing times from 15-25 minutes, which didn’t seem excessive. When I arrived at the airport at 10:30 am there was NO line at one of the security checkpoint and a short line at another.

We saw a news reporter and camera person shooting out toward the side with the short line. I wondered out loud, “There’s no line on the other side. Are they going to take a picture of that side too?”

The reporter heard my remark and said, “You’re right.” camera angle

Later, when I headed back to my car, the tripod was empty on the side with the line. I do hope they went to the other side to film as well, to show a more accurate representation.

Angle matters – in visuals and in text. What if the photographer above is doing a photo essay about the treeless prairie? By shooting toward distant fields with his camera and omitting the shot of trees behind him, he can tell one story, but not the whole story.

Many of us still believe the old adage that “cameras don’t lie.” But even before digital manipulation, photographers had the ability to adjust exposure on film. And the photographer chooses how to frame the image, which impacts the “truth” displayed.

Writers and editors have the same power over the text, in choosing what it include and exclude for a story.

I am curious what story was transmitted regarding security lines at the airport. My guess is that short lines were not interesting enough to make the news, but perhaps the reporter and camera person waited around until the lines were longer, in time for the 5 p.m. news!

 

Custom Content

A recent client project involved taking a magazine with national distribution and creating custom content for specific geographical areas. We created 5 issues for major metropolitan areas, plus a “general” issue that mailed to everyone else.

Custom content is an efficient way to hone a message for an audience segment. While this client chose to customize based on geography, you can customize content based on any attribute in your database, such as age or gender segments.

The Process

Customizing content begins with a strategy, not logistics. While there are many logistics involved, the overall strategy has to drive the editorial and design decisions. As we began the planning process, we met to affirm the purpose of the magazine and to consider how the magazine strategy would be strengthened by custom content.

Once the strategy was in place, then logistics were the focus. We generated several potential scenarios, getting bids from the printer and mail house. Eventually we settled on creating custom content for the first two and last two pages in the magazine. This gave each issue a custom cover and inside story, along with custom content on the inside back cover and back cover promotional space.

Another project I worked on had custom content for an insert, with the regular magazine going to the membership audience and the magazine with the insert going to the leadership audience.

Flow

ATL coverWhile the magazine team is aware of all the different custom components, the reader of the magazine only sees one version. So the editorial and design flow between the custom content and the core content has to make sense to the reader. The team dealt with content in chunks by custom issue; but we also had to consider the editorial and design flow between the custom pages and the core pages.

After our first issue with custom content, we decided that we had to draw more attention to the custom content on the inside back cover, so the reader would realize that along with a feature story on page 2, there was additional geographical content at the end of the magazine. In addition, some issues included a custom promotional space on the back cover, and others have featured a consistent back cover between all versions.

Measuring Results

The client can measure engagement by geographical area, based on responses they get from readers. For other custom content projects, reader surveys or online engagement can measure response.

Variety of Applications

There are many ways to make custom content work to accomplish strategic objectives. Custom content can take the form of a single custom page, such as a cover, back cover or advertisement. Another project might feature a custom insert or center section. Custom content has long been a tool of large organizations, but it can easily be applied to accomplish the goals of any communicator.

Jargon

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.

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.

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