Category Archives: communications

How to write badly (6): Creating a terrible case study

Back in June 2012, I started an informal series of blog posts about the skill of writing badly. Given all the effort so many writers invest in ensuring a dismal outcome, it is unfortunate that there is only very little helpful guidance available to them. Most of the resources available single-mindedly and with a degree of thoughtlessness focus on making writing better. Two comments: They work as well as the bumper stickers that advocate for “Free Tibet” or other good causes. Also, very few people want that. Evidence shows that far more writers have an interest in truly awful results and would benefit from practical support in achieving them, especially in the fields of corporate and technology writing.

Take the time to prepare and don't shy away from using all your bad ideas on one project. There will be more where they came from.

Take the time to prepare and don’t shy away from using all your bad ideas on one project. There will be more where they came from.

It might be helpful to treat some typical output formats more thoroughly. Consider the business case study (as opposed to the medically flavored alternate, which has its own opportunities for badness). Go ahead and skip the rest of this paragraph if you’re familiar with the darn things. Companies spend many millions to produce case studies. Most often they are the result of a writer’s intuitive misapplication, although there is also a burgeoning video channel for them. For the most part, a case study is intended to impress upon readers that real customers use a company’s products or services to their advantage. Project managers and writers work hard to identify and interview willing customers, shepherd them through an interview, obtain approval for the drafts, publish them online, print them on paper if their budgets are too large, and try to keep them alive before they become obsolete. Case study writers often obsess over representing the authentic voice of the customer and truthfully portraying how a service or product helps a company achieve something worthwhile.

As regards infernal writing, the case study industry is generally in fine shape. Many of the stories companies publish—usually expensive and requiring lots of effort—are terrible. They sound alike and canned, are not convincing, show redundant repetitiveness, and insult readers by patronizing them. Many writers, however, are not aware of the many worst practices available to them, which needlessly restricts their effectiveness. Here are some tips and tricks you might want to try.

Misdirection. Many writers send their respondents a list of questions or even a full-fledged questionnaire to prepare for the interview. To make sure the interview does not become overly productive, let them have the questions beforehand. But don’t mention them in the conversation. Ask your respondents about other topics and hope they did not prepare for them.

Stuffing. Boring the reader to tears gets you well on the way to abysmal awfulness. Good for you that case studies offer lots of opportunities to do just that. Many case study writers already know that blatantly bland statements about industries and markets are very effective. “Like many businesses in its industry, XYZ Company found it needed to grow through change in order not to lose customers and market share.” You can get much worse by discussing the people you interview and quote. Nobody cares where they went to school, which degrees they have, what organizations they belong to, how old they are, what they wear, where they worked before, and whether they like Zinfandel better than Zappa. As the born bad storyteller you are, you can make use of all that padding. If you’re really clever, you sneak it under a section heading that promises more relevant content, and readers won’t even know what happened to them as they pass out.

Aggressive foreshadowing. In an early part of the story, you talk about issues and challenges the company faced. Later, you repeat the same content, but now you modify the statements to say that they achieved or resolved these things with your client’s product or service. If you stay as close as you can to the original description, nobody will believe a word, because they know you’re tailoring your facts. Perfect!

Uninteresting and unhelpful quotes. When you quote people, try not to make them sound too real or specific, because that would add credibility and interest to the case study. You can go over the top in at least a couple of ways, by including overly enthusiastic as well as negatively trending statements.

Too positive assertions are annoying to read, make company and customer look silly, and prompt readers to groan. So use them. Some customers have natural talent for this. All you have to do is make their words sound a little more pretentious. If, “The new accounting software helps us avoid errors and stops us from losing money, which means we won’t go bankrupt,” is too mild, tart it up: “At the end of the day, our magnificent new accounting solution enables the company’s strategic viability for the long term by facilitating comprehensive error prevention and eliminating the dramatic losses we experienced in the past. People simply love working with this product.”

If you feel like adding a dash of sobriety to such excessive enthusing, you get bonus points for having quoted parties insinuate that the product or service wasn’t all that. “We believe the product helped us become more effective in our customer outreach, although we were not able to measure any results,” is not bad. Something like, “We gave the service a try and it delivered well for a while, but then our needs changed and we dropped it,” also has its attractions. If you are more of a risk-taker, try to incorporate some outright negativity. “The cost of the software was quite high, and some people never got the hang of it, but it gave us much of what we looked for.” Or: “The asset maintenance service was often prompt, but we still had a few unexpected breakdowns.”

Badmouthing competitors. Few things ruin a company’s and its customer’s standing and credibility faster than a complete misstatement regarding a competing offering. If the customer discusses a leading financial software product and you can get away with a quote to the tune of, “We considered [name of competitor product, but found it couldn’t do many of the complex calculations we need,” that’s golden.

Frivolous descriptions. If you want to beef up the word count and make the story a little less interesting, you can always describe random details of the product or service the customer used. It helps make things worse if they are not in any obvious relationship to the customer’s issues or achievements. If a software or hardware product was deployed, you can create some additional confusion around the process, how long it took, and how well users took to the new tools.

Horrendous results. Some good customers spend their budget on an expensive product or service and cannot point out that anything meaningful has changed. These case studies practically write themselves. However, most companies accomplish something or other. You may need to get creative here, because this might be the most interesting and convincing part of your story. What works well to achieve a bad outcome is if you can highlight minor achievements, such as small savings of time or money. “We save a couple of hours every quarter using this product,” will do nicely, for example. Also, try to direct attention toward irritating, irrelevant aspects of the story. “The outsource IT service employees wear elegant, branded shirts, which helps identify them to employees, and they have created mostly positive relationships with our people,” is reasonably bad. If you cannot get around pointing out significant improvements, you should try to temper them. “We achieved 100% return on investment in six months, although not everybody agrees with that—some people always resist change,” shows the right touch. “We found many new efficiencies in our processes, although many of those were well underway before we got [product]”: nice job. If the customer did not need certain employees anymore because of the fabulous new efficiencies, don’t worry about “reassigning resources” or the like. The case study will be much worse if you simply say people were fired.

If you follow all or most of these simple worst practices, your customer success stories will always be bad enough to infuriate readers. Promise!

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Filed under bad writing, business, communications, content marketing, customer evidence, marketing, story telling, writing

The executive profile: Get past the clean shirt to what’s really interesting

A while ago, I posted a few entries to help you write badly—many people try very hard to accomplish this, but good instruction is not easy to come by. At the time, I completely forgot about an area where bad-writing skills come in very handy: The leadership profiles on many companies’ about-us pages. Many businesses miss a fine story-telling opportunity here.

What do we usually learn in visiting these pages? Executives always wear clean clothes and many of them know how to knot a tie. In some companies, the same shirt and jacket actually seem to follow everybody around to their photo sessions. shirt and tieExecutives understand how to let a smile appear but not let it go too far. They generally have some sort of education. With rare exceptions, they worked in a variety of jobs and accomplished things—founded, led, bought, and sold companies; developed new ideas, products, and services; served customers and headed teams. For the most part, these people sound very much alike, and maybe that’s what writers and website managers hope: They try to follow a covert standard for respectability and cautious neutrality, as if most of the execs were planning to run for pope soon. Much of the language in executive profiles is dry and pale, and makes executives sound unapproachable and not very interesting. They add value, make a difference, pursue innovation, listen to customers, thrive on teamwork, articulate and pursue strategies, sit on boards—that sort of thing. Companies want to give the impression their leadership is competent and effective, and avoid ruffling anybody’s feathers or making any negative impression.

Unfortunately, interest and credibility fall by the wayside. Too often, we have no idea what these business leaders really care about, what motivates them, and what their goals are. We don’t know which experiences they learned from the most, what inspires them, or what they enjoy about their jobs.

I don’t want to disparage what companies are doing with their leadership portraits. I understand where they are coming from. But what we are left with is an anesthetizing uniformity. If business leaders don’t write and publish books and blogs, give speeches, or are otherwise public figures, they generally remain anonymous.

When I had the opportunity to meet business executives, I found that they are usually much more interesting and engaging than what the company says about them in the online profile. They have convictions, ideas, values, insights. Some of them are funny, others downright charismatic and fascinating. Even from a simple marketing perspective, companies should want their execs to be interesting and at the very least have a profile that syncs with the company value story, if nothing else.

Much of the responsibility lies with the writer or website manager who needs to create and publish the executive portraits. Often, the execs provide you with their own content. I know you may not be in a position to argue with them. But maybe you can tell them that you want to make their profiles as interesting and compelling to read as possible, and for that it would be best if you could interview them for a few minutes. If you get that interview, you need to be really on and establish a good rapport in the first few seconds.

Here are a few recommendations that can help develop lively, interesting executive profiles:

  • Have the brief interview face-to-face if at all possible. If you can’t do that, try for Skype or some other visual communication.
  • In the interview, ask questions that likely stimulate interesting comments. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. Some sample questions: What recent insight from a customer surprised you and helped you rethink the way you see the business? Where do you see your industry headed, and where do you wish it would go? When you mentor people in the company, what is the one thing you always try to contribute? When you come to the end of a weekend or vacation, what do you most look forward to about returning to work? Can you talk about your strategies in working through challenging moments in business relationships with colleagues, trading partners, or customers?
  • As you follow up, get at least one nugget of insight or innovative, creative thinking that is unique to this person. You can’t usually get at this directly, and you probably should not try to glean it at the beginning of the conversation. Some ways you can try asking: If there is a piece of advice you wish you would have had at the beginning of your career, what would it be? What do you think most observers and analysts of your industry are missing? Are there any valuable technologies, business strategies, or organizational practices you consider completely and unreasonably underrated? When you talk or work with customers, what is the one thing you hope they take away from a conversation with you?
  • If you can feature your executive in a short video where she shares her vision, by all means do so. If you can’t, an audio segment of the interview may be good to use. If you have no other way to introduce the execs than through written words, be sure to include at least one interesting, well-shaped quote.
  • Executive profiles should align with what one finds elsewhere on the company website about products, services, and the organization. But they should not replicate that content in the same words. It will make them sound shallow and irrelevant.
  • Education and past accomplishments may not have much to do with who the person is today. If you can connect prior achievements to somebody’s current role, that’s great. If not, mention it very briefly or leave it aside.
  • Include some content about the person’s personal life and interests, but be careful not to be overly cute, repetitive, or message-driven. In some companies, everybody apparently loves to cook, travel, and volunteer. Elsewhere, they all spend their free time thinking about customers. Keep it believable, individual, and very brief.
  • Portrait photos should reflect the personality of the people depicted and the culture of the company. Don’t use formal portrait shots unless your industry absolutely appears to demand it. Much better are professional images taken in less disconnected situations such as customer and industry events. But also avoid having the pictures look like they were taken at a party, unless that’s what the company is about.

Get the best source material you can, write the strongest content you can draft, and good luck in getting it reviewed and approved. Your website visitors will appreciate it!

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Where are you from?

Technically, I'm from here. But how true is that?

Technically, I’m from here. But how true is that?

After a lifetime ‘abroad’ and unable to speak any language with a proper native accent, I’m still learning how to be a foreigner gracefully. Maybe I’m simply more immature and rootless than many other people. It still bothers me when I’m in a certain country where English is not the main currency, and people assume I’m no good at speaking their language and insist on talking to me in English no matter how many times I respond in their own.

It also still bugs me when people ask me, “Where are you from?” This is often expressed as, “I hear some kind of an accent, but can’t quite place it… where are you from?” Usually, when I’m at home in Seattle and dealing with clients or professional associates, I respond as politely as I can, but don’t really know what to say.

I’ve noticed similar reactions in other long-term foreigners. It seems natural that everybody is from somewhere. But, really, where are you from? Why is it so hard to just answer the question? To start with, the assumption is that you are not from here, and an unwelcome exclusion may be implied. People put you in a box, take you out of another one, and so forth. It can be confrontational and create distance where no distance is wanted.

Also, the facts are not all that easy. I was born in Germany, never felt at home there, and left as soon as I was able to. I resided in a certain country, then lived and traveled in a couple of other ones, and eventually found my way to Seattle, where I mostly liked it and also realized I was tired of roaming. I’m still here. There really isn’t an easy answer for me to “Where are you from?” Yes, at some point I came from somewhere, Cologne, which I recall as a lovely city that didn’t really belong in that strange and cruel country, but the Cologne I remember doesn’t really exist anymore. I yearn for it sometimes, but that doesn’t bring it back. To respond with “Seattle” doesn’t seem quite truthful, especially when I’m having one of those days where I’d rather be anywhere than here. It gets complicated very quickly. I must have responded hundreds of times to the follow-up question, “But your name doesn’t sound German…?” Even though listeners’ eyes usually glaze over when I do.

Other foreigners tell similar stories. You live and travel a bit, and a few decades later you realize you’re not coming from or going to anyplace in particular, you don’t feel a lot of loyalty to any place or country, you’re from Earth and hope to be a decent person. Try giving that as an answer to “Where are you from?” and prepare for some severe irritation.

But there’s another way to listen and reply to the question “Where are you from?” My advice is to minimize any chat about the facts, because, shockingly, nobody actually cares. The questioner has noticed a difference, or something you nonetheless seem to share with her. What she is likely asking is, “What do you and I really have in common?” Now, that is something you can explore with her in a much more interesting conversation than anything to do with distant, mythical places. You can get the trivial details out of the way and move on to a more meaningful exchange. Once or twice I succeeded with something like, “I’m originally from Germany… and I really love baking bread and making pasta at home.” This approach tends to be more satisfying and truthful—bread and pasta are much closer to me than Germany ever was or will be. Most people like eating one or the other, so the risk of starting a completely inappropriate conversation is low. But you should adjust for context. In a professional environment you might want to direct the talk more towards the skills or issues you want to focus on. “I grew up in France, where people celebrate the twentieth year of SMS communications this month.”

So, fellow foreigners: Please experiment, and be patient with your conversation partners and yourselves.

And you, dear natives: I’m curious—where are you from, really?

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Nutella defends itself in France

A while ago, I took a look at the different flavors of Nutella marketing in different countries. (Disclosure: I eat the stuff. I know it’s not good for me.) Currently, I’m spending a few weeks in Aix-en-Provence in France. Nutella is in the news and finds itself under attack from food and health writers because of its use of palm oil and its somewhat sketchy record as an actual food item. The Ferrero company, which owns the brand, took out a very expensive, two-page ad in Le Monde today (see illustration).

Ferrero, the owner of the Nutella brand, took out a two-page ad in the print issues of Le Monde from Saturday, November 17.

The sign being held on the left says, “Nutella is delicious, but why does it contain palm oil?” The ad copy talks about responsibility and choices, and states that the attacks on Nutella because of its use of palm oil are unfair. It explains why Ferrero uses palm oil—supposedly, because it allows the manufacturer to avoid hydrogenating fats and the possibly resulting trans fats. Palm oil used in Nutella, the copy says, comes from sites in Malaysia and New Guinea, and is meant to be entirely sourced from sustainable production by 2015, after which year no forest will be lost because of it.

Then the ad tells us that, “contrary to received ideas and certain opportunistic communications,” palm oil is not dangerous if eaten as part of a balanced diet. It’s better than butter, the writers mention, which isn’t saying much—many things are better for your health than butter, including (probably) most dirt. And, we can review a little table that compares the nutritional demerits of a Nutella tartlet with comparable products. Nutella comes out a little better.

The problem is that nobody eats just one little bit of Nutella and then does it again in a couple of months. Consumers, and especially their children, really like this product a whole lot. Forget it about a balanced diet. They suck it right up. While they may be factually correct, Ferrero’s statements are disingenuous—I’m sure they understand how consumers consume, just like the tobacco companies probably have a good sense of how and when smokers smoke.

Not to be all down on Nutella and Ferrero, the website they refer you to, mangerbouger.fr, educates people on some of the basics of nutrition and health with sections such as “Why move?” or “What does eating healthily mean?” Some of the recipes are very nice and sound healthy, too. The site is not affiliated with Ferrero or Nutella, but with the French Programme National Nutrition Santé, a government initiative to bring healthful thinking and practices to food and everyday life that’s been around since 2001. But, if you want more from the Nutella folks, there’s nutellaparlonsen.fr, “Let’s talk about Nutella,” which expands on the content of the ad.

Le Monde itself complements or maybe even balances the ad with a short article on page 28 of its weekend magazine (see illustration).

On the same day, Le Monde published this little Nutella-themed article in its weekend magazine. You need to know one key fact from the article to understand the costly two-page ad.

We learn that 105 millions of jars of Nutella are sold in France every year—imagine—and that “France’s youngsters have fallen into Nutella.” France is the world’s biggest market of Nutella consumers, and 75 percent of French households buy the product. The government is thinking to quadruple the tax on the use of, you guessed it, palm oil, which is not considered sustainable or healthy. Writer Jean-Michel Normand jokingly talks about a “Chocolate Party” similar to the American “Tea Party,” and notes the planned tax might be a tad high. But he also mentions that Nutella is a “caloric bomb” and that the label on the jars, somewhat mendaciously, doesn’t list “palm oil,” only “vegetable oil.” And, as he mentions, Ferrero has stated in any case that it will never change the composition of the product.

There you have it—your Nutella news from your French correspondent. If you eat it, do so responsibly, just a little bit today and nothing for the rest of the week. Of course. I knew you didn’t need reminding.

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Aha! From traditional thought leadership to insight delivery

When you hear a subject-matter expert or a company claim thought leadership, what is your reaction? Are you intrigued and curious? Or does this set the expectation that the ideas involved may be interesting, but maybe not at all practical? And that a certain sense of gravity and authority may possibly put you off?

Judging from my own recent experience, talking with business and technical people in a variety of companies, it looks like thought leadership fatigue is setting in. People still get excited about their own thought leadership efforts, but somebody else’s? Hardly ever.

If this is the sort of thing that comes to mind when you think of thought leadership…

However, as a content category, thought leadership is blooming and fertile. People in all kinds of companies offer materials that are meant to reflect their thought leadership. Some company websites include eponymous tabs, where you can read such content. Content makers like me happily produce white papers, presentations, and other pieces that express our clients’ thought leadership. They are often enjoyable to work on, because they go beyond the more mundane and familiar notions and materials one deals with.

Are all these efforts really worth the cost and time? I don’t doubt that issue experts and smart people can share interesting insights that may open the eyes and minds of their readers and listeners. But, unless you’re in a retreat, sheltered from your daily tasks, enjoying some downtime, or procrastinating on what clamors for your attention—who has time to do more with thought leadership content than to give it a quick glance and nod it away?

I suggest we refresh thought leadership with a complementary approach. Let’s call it AhA marketing, because, at its best, it delivers aha moments of insight. How is this different from thought leadership? From the audience’s perspective, AhA marketing is…

  • Practical: You get something you can use in your work, right now. Or something you can tell a colleague, who can apply it. All you need to do is spend a few minutes with the content. Thought leadership, on the other hand, may take a long view into future developments—interesting, but not always relevant, and often hard to substantiate.
  • Surprising: AhA marketing doesn’t waste your time by warming over statements you have already heard. At the time it’s published, it shares new, original ideas of people who know what they’re talking about.
  • Brief: If you have time to read one or two pages or view a couple of minutes of video, you’ll get something out of this. The content goes straight to the point. You don’t need to sift through white papers or presentations that are stuffed with irrelevant or light material, with the most worthwhile nuggets carefully stashed.
  • Collegial: AhA communicators and marketers wear their expertise lightly. The idea or story they share is its own evidence. They don’t attempt to impress you with their credentials or the fact that they did valuable work sometime in the past. At the same time, they don’t patronize you.
  • Considered: It’s revealing today and still meaningful tomorrow. AhA marketing’s approach to issues is so well thought out that you can still get something from it tomorrow and the day after.
  • Fun:The best insights can come from a joke, a fine graphic, or an interaction you observe. AhA marketers have a passion for creating memorable, intriguing vehicles for their ideas.

    …maybe try a different approach and achieve a completely different result.

From the point of view of the content creators, AhA marketing is also quite different from thought leadership. You accomplish more by doing less. With your understanding of the audiences and communications skills, you can let your creativity play. Your focus is on the result—the experience you enable. You can happily leave aside needless expectations and conventions that apply to standard thought leadership marketing. Does that sound like a good time?

Some companies are already making headway with successful AhA communications. Much of it is in various social-media channels and other, more flexible and less conventional vehicles. Some people have a good idea of what they want to accomplish and how to go about it, while others are mostly uncomfortable with the done thing and are looking for a fresh flavor in how they communicate. For the most part, communicators are being cautious—they provide aha moments along with the more tried-and-true white papers and traditional thought leadership pieces. Some practice segmented approaches—AhA marketing in social media, conventional thought leadership on the website and in print.

I’m certain that there are marketing vendors who will offer you the templates, metrics, and consulting hours that will never make up for a lack of good ideas and innovative spirit. Unfortunately, some people won’t stop trying!

In the meantime, if you know of any good examples for insight moment marketing, please share.

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How to hire a good writer

When content is important to you in making the world aware of your products, services, and company, you need to figure out where it comes from. You can syndicate, crib, copy, and cross-link only so much. Sooner or later you will need your own content. That means you have to find a writer. I’m sorry to hear that.

Writers are easy to find, but it can be so hard to gain any certainty that they are a good fit for what you need. Throw a metaphorical blank page in the air and dozens of them will rush to fill it with verbiage. Independent, hungry contract writers beat the pavement, looking for clients like you, claiming to deliver great quality for minimal cost. Talent agencies promise to hook you up with the best in the industry, carefully vetted and background-checked.

And yet. With all this abundance of talent, much published writing is an embarrassment. It’s far too easy to find poorly written web pages, white papers, case studies, blog posts, and more. Most anybody I talk to can share bad experiences with writers who didn’t understand what the client wanted, became upset at feedback, lacked any flexibility in voice, tone, and style, and had the social graces of a hung-over porcupine.

This is probably not what you want in a writer.

I once worked in an agency where writing was the mainstay of everybody’s paycheck. We hired writers from time to time and tried very hard to figure out who the best candidates were. To that end, we developed a writing test. Most candidates went through this step onsite in the office. Some of the tests were simply bad. If that was the case, one thanked the people, wished them well, and hoped they wouldn’t be upset. Other tests were great. With minimal source material and in a short time, some hopeful writers produced a nice page of technical marketing content. Unfortunately, even the best tests were no reliable predictors for performance on the job. Some writers who tested well went to become fabled contributors. In other cases, the test was the last good piece of work one ever saw. At least once, a writer delivered a very fine test piece, got the job, and quickly realized that writing was no longer of interest to him. Another time, a well-testing writer showed up for the first day, and we never saw him again after that. We spent many hours evaluating candidates and their tests, but we were never able to rely on a meaningful outcome.

At another company, portfolios were important. Writers dutifully brought them in or provided the links to them. When these people applied themselves to what we did, the results could be all over the map. Eventually, I understood that a portfolio simply shows a person has done certain work in the past (unless they faked their show pieces, which is pathetic and happens more often than you think). A portfolio, however stuffed with neat samples, has nothing to do with what a writer will do next. In fact, there are lots of people looking for work who simply don’t yet see that it’s time to move on and that for one reason or another, writing is no longer what they can or should do. It’s too bad, but don’t feel obliged to hire them because you feel sorry.

A good writer personality is more like this – engaging, resourceful, committed, and with a sense of humor.

You gather I don’t recommend testing or judging from portfolios. But how can you be reasonably assured that somebody you interview can come through in a writer role? Here are some suggestions.

  • Creativity and innovation. Take a look at what your potential writer does on her blog and website, and on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and in other social media. Does she come up with interesting ideas to make white papers, presentations, case studies, and other workhorses more interesting and valuable? Does she sound like somebody you would like to hear more from? Somebody you might like to collaborate with?
  • Ability to connect audiences and writing technique. Everybody will tell you that they keep audiences in mind when they write. They know it’s expected. But many writers will draft in the same style, using the same voice and tone, almost all the time. Ask your writer candidate to discuss a couple of portfolio pieces and show you how exactly she reflected the interests of different audiences.
  • Engagement. What happens when you disagree with your writer candidate? Does she engage in a civil, professional manner, or does she get upset or withdrawn? You need your writer to be an articulate, pleasant conversationalist even when challenged (or edited), or she will not be able to work with people and accommodate different perspectives. How much does she share in the conversation, and to what extent does she react to your statements and questions?
  • Fun and caring. What does it feel like when your writer candidate talks about her work? What does she like about it? Do you find that believable? Do you get a sense that she enjoys her work, or is it just a passion-free way to pay the bills? Do you get the impression she has the enthusiasm to work with you and your people and write, day in and day out? Does she do any writing of her own, just because she loves it?
  • Subject-matter expertise. This should be easy to ascertain. Presumably, the writer has some level of experience with your industry or the type of products and services you offer. Get her to talk about that. How does she see the industry changing? What are the most challenging problems, the most interesting new developments? Does she pay attention to how other writers and their companies in your industry communicate? Does she volunteer any of this, or do you have to elicit it?
  • Questions. Never, ever pursue work (or anything else) with somebody who does not have questions. Such people are just not there for you. You should avoid them, no matter what else they say or how smart they seem to be.

If you get a good response on all or most of these points, good luck to you and your new writer! I’m sure you can accomplish some valuable, enjoyable work together.

(By the way, if you need a writer, might you require editorial assistance as well? We discussed that a while ago.)

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How to write badly (5): “Let’s make up some bland quotes!”

We carry on with our master class on writing badly, which commenced not too long ago and has intermittently continued since then.

As a bad writer, you may find yourself in a bit of a quandary when you have to quote people. You’re supposed to include the voice of the customer in marketing case studies and press releases. You might need to quote the CEO or other executives and won’t get a chance to talk to them. In the company blog, you have to quote business partners that comment on your products and services. If it’s news you need to perpetrate, readers will expect that you give them an impression of what victims, bystanders, offenders, fans, crooks, and thought leaders are saying. The problem is that people usually don’t speak nearly as horribly as you write. They can be lively and interesting, whereas your inclination is toward the bland and predictable. That means you have to make up properly bad quotes, or you will have to explain the odd quality gap between quotes and other copy. I understand this is work and therefore unwelcome. To make your life a little easier, here are a few standard quotes you can use with minimal adjustments.

People talk. For you as a bad writer, this presents so many opportunities to ascribe lame, warmed-over quotes to them.

When you use these quotes, be careful not to insert too many specific references. Their charm largely depends on vagueness and intimation. Busy readers will appreciate that they can scan over a couple of lines without missing anything. You save time that way, too. But you still need to apply your restrained, unmistakable touch. Have you heard that silly story about the joke club, where people have simplified joke telling by calling out the numbers of known jokes instead? A visitor wonders why anybody still laughs if the jokes are so familiar. “It’s in the way it’s told,” somebody explains. It’s like that with these quotes. With practice, you will be able to slip them into your copy as if they came naturally.

About a technical product or service

  • “[product or service name] is an end-to-end solution for the issues we were facing. I would recommend this to anyone.”
  • “[product or service name] stands out because of the innovation incorporated in it. Its rich feature set makes it extremely valuable.”
  • “I don’t know what I would do without [product or service name].”
  • “[product or service name] is a best-in-class offering that will add value for years to come.”

About a company

  • “[company name] demonstrates true leadership by innovating in its industry.”
  • “[company name] leads the pack of comparable vendors because of its track record.”
  • “We are proud to partner with [company name] in advancing innovation in our industry.”
  • “Risk-taking innovation and thought leadership are in [company name]’s DNA.”
  • “[company name] has practically re-invented [category].”

About a person in a new role

  • “[name] expects to hit the ground running and deliver results rapidly.”
  • “Her leadership experience makes [name] a great fit for this challenging role.”
  • “As a natural communicator, [name] will not have any problems in meeting the expectations of [people in whatever roles].”
  • “Numbers don’t lie. [name] has delivered strong results in her last position and we expect her to do so again.”

About a problem

  • “We welcome the opportunity to address this challenge with confidence.”
  • “Circumstances are never quite fair. But we will address the concerns promptly and get to a satisfactory resolution.”
  • “[problem] has been blown out of proportion. While we don’t expect that [problem] will cause any issues for our customers, we are closely monitoring the situation.”
  • “[problem] came at us out of the blue, but we’re ready to take action. We will face this issue with resolve and resourcefulness.”

About something horrible somebody did or said

  • “A diligent review of all the facts will present a very different course of events. In the meantime, I should refrain from commenting further.”
  • “I always strive to maintain the highest standards of integrity. I apologize if some people have the impression that I may have fallen short in this situation.”
  • “I regret if I offended anybody. That was certainly not what I intended.”
  • “I’m reviewing the situation and will have more detailed comments presently.”

About a murderer

  • “He usually kept to himself, but seemed like a nice guy. We didn’t know him well.”
  • “He seemed like an angry guy and always had arguments with people. We didn’t know him well.”
  • “This clearly shows the need for strengthening gun control.”
  • “This clearly shows the need for empowering more law-abiding citizens to carry guns.”
  • “He gave my wife a strange look the other day.”

About a weather-related or natural-disaster situation

  • “I knew we were in for something terrible.”
  • “This is really too bad. We all feel the same way.”
  • “When we were young, we never had events like this happen.”
  • “We will pull together and get through this just like we did through other situations like it.”
  • “We are getting desperate and very concerned this might get worse. We’ve never seen anything like this.”

You’re welcome! More soon.

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Filed under bad writing, communications, content, customer evidence, marketing, writing

Grinning Idiot at the edge of disaster

Have you seen him? He stands by and watches, often with an eyebrow raised and the hint of a smile, when horrible things happen to other people. I’ve come across him way too many times.

When I went to school in Germany, violence and bullying were pervasive. Until I grew out of it, I was an obese child and mercilessly bullied for it. Grinning Idiot always stood around when people were beaten or otherwise abused. He never said anything, never participated, and never lifted a finger to stop what was going on.

When we students demonstrated against the Vietnam War or marched for other political causes, Grinning Idiot could be right there with us, as if we had dragged him along. Or, he stood on the sidewalk, watching. He didn’t start smiling until the police started arresting people. But then he hung around until it was all over and the vans hauled folks off to the precinct.

Later in life, I was sometimes in workplaces where groups of people were laid off at the same time. Grinning Idiot sat around doing work or screwing off, trying to figure out who would remain. He never showed any empathy for people who were let go and didn’t have any critical or other comments to share. When it was time for lunch, he ate.

Grinning Idiot can hide in a large crowd, finding comfortable anonymity…

I’ve seen Grinning Idiot many times in pictures and news footage. He stands around when the Nazis beat up on Jews, communists, gays, and other trouble-makers, for example. Never takes part unless forced, never helps anybody. Just watches and smiles a little. He seems to love watching people being loaded into railway cars—that’s when he shows up in a crowd, feeling safe because it wasn’t his turn. Of course, for him a crowd to disappear in can be as small as three or four people.

Which reminds me, have you seen photographs of lynchings in the United States? There are the perpetrators, who often stand and laugh proudly next to a dead black man, hanged or beaten to death on the ground. Grinning Idiot is right there, just a little off-center, often looking slightly away from the camera’s eye, with his little smirk.

In groups of friends at dinner, a party, or some other event, Grinning Idiot never provokes a conflict or disagreement, but doesn’t mind when somebody else does. He keeps quiet and watches what other people do. As soon as he has figured out who is on the winning side in an argument, he nudges over there to share that person’s shadow.

Do you know who I’m talking about?

…or in a smaller gathering, like at a lynching. Take a look at people’s faces, if you would.

If you know Grinning Idiot, how do you relate to him? Are you his friend, neighbor, trusted interlocutor? Have you ever been this person?

Sometimes it seems as if much of the world’s trouble would be impossible without Grinning Idiot standing by and letting it happen. He provides the silent chorus of approval for misery. He’s done this for many centuries. Isn’t it time we got rid of him, one by one? Even if he is you or me?

Grinning Idiot is not brave or smart, and often he knows that. He never leads and never starts a song. Sometimes you can shame him, send him packing, or provoke him into taking a stand. Whatever you do, you need to account for him, because in his idiotic way, through sheer inertia and ineptness, he is extremely powerful. Don’t ignore him, or he’ll stand and smirk when calamity comes for you, not the least bit inclined to help. You don’t want to wait that long.

Do you know of any good ways to deal with Grinning Idiot?

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Filed under business, communications, history, mind, personal, story telling

How to write badly (4): Rocking the flow

We continue our summer class on writing badly, which started to minor acclaim quite recently.

Good writers always make a big deal of sequencing their thoughts just so a reader can follow along easily and a paragraph is a sort of organic entity that becomes part of a larger, beautiful whole, like a leaf on a tree. Well, if you’re aspiring to bad writing, it’s always fall for these leaves, and they’re dropping off the trees in an unpredictable manner.

Have you noticed how the truly righteous, when they go on and on about something, leave out the vital connections between their thoughts? That’s part of the quality we’re looking for when we disrupt the logical flow of your writing. You can find many good examples in letters to the editor. It doesn’t matter whether the topic is political, religious, cultural, or food-related—most highly opinionated writers are having a hard time keeping up with the syntax and logic, because they have so much to say, so quickly. They usually feel that smart folks like themselves will understand well enough, because they have a strong message to share.

If you place the equivalent of verbal rocks into your flow of copy, readers will stay with you and only eventually realize how confused they are. You need to exercise restraint in this practice.

The problem with such disrupted writing is that it often goes overboard. You lose the reader altogether instead of seeding gradual confusion. Don’t be heavy-handed—the right touches will knock the flow of the copy sideways and your audience will follow along for paragraph after paragraph. For example, if you change just the right word in the right place, you will ensure reader fascination along with befuddlement. Try a “what’s more” when you are really not continuing a line of thought. If you feel sure of your steps, use a “however” when you are not actually expressing an opposing concept. To soften the impact, you might experiment with “as well, however…” Even the occasional “also” inserted in completely inappropriate locations will advance the obscurity of the copy.

Reader still with you? You can pile it on. Try frivolously switching tenses in the middle of a paragraph. If you use a compound tense, such as the relatively rare past perfect, the flow will slow—I guarantee it! A fine trick is using the future tense for something that is going on right now. A lot of presenters and public speakers love doing this. Most listeners eventually catch on, but initially, yes, this is very confusing and will distract from what you’re actually talking about. It works perfectly well to make written copy more nebulous.

Assuming your readers are tenacious, you can mine your content in a more texturized manner. For example, consider demonstrative pronouns without clear antecedents—such an innocent, every-day practice. But this can work wonders in your bad writing. You can try obfuscating with personal pronouns if you dare, especially if you could refer to more than one person of the same gender. Who knows what she was trying to tell me, or who this was.

Finally, and I see this done gracelessly and very often in user manuals and other technical documentation, even in cookbooks, and in the recipes the newspapers crib from them. It works like this: Write perfectly fine paragraphs without using any of the simple tricks we just mentioned. Then, when you’re almost done, cut a sentence here and there. Don’t overdo it, or you’ll give yourself away. A missing statement every four or five paragraphs or so will do the job. People will read and follow along, maybe even try the steps you describe, and then—kapow! The conceptual trap door opens and it’s a steep drop down.

Just a few simple hints that help you rock the flow. If you like, you can work them in just like the last bad practice—write beautifully, then edit down. That way, you will avoid making the copy too obviously poor.

More soon—I promise.

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Filed under bad writing, communications, content, content marketing, marketing, writing

Tell good stories that don’t end too soon, and manage non-narrative content separately

Since “content marketing” became popular during the last two years or so, it may seem as if content makers—copywriters, videographers, photographers, and, to a degree, designers—are simply conspiring to influence marketers to allocate their entire budgets to their services. Companies have hopped on the content train, hiring content strategists and giving high visibility to content-marketing efforts. Thousands of consultants offer their insight regarding what content marketing is, how it relates to social media, and what one can accomplish with it. Some organizations have an actual content strategy or at least carefully plan what kinds of content they want to produce in different channels and media. Others don’t.

As a writer who stands to benefit from my clients’ and employers’ content marketing, I should be all over it. I do appreciate the work! I like that marketers seem to appreciate content more than ever.

But I also think companies are producing far too much content and too often appear to react to a perceived urgency to publish more and keep it updated and lively in social media. Slow down and hang on to your budgets for a moment.

Take an inventory of the types of content materials you have recently published and the ones you are planning for the next few months. More than likely, some of your content includes a story about a customer experience, a business partnership, an innovation discovery, or an initiative of your organization. Other content doesn’t feature a narrative—documentation, fact sheets, some white papers, even some online content may just be noting facts that you want your customers and collaborators to know.

To a degree, you should decouple story content from everything else and manage the two areas on almost-separate tracks. Link all non-story content planning to product releases and other events when facts change. Support the publication of this type of content through the social media where the people you want to reach spend time.

Story-telling guides usually recommend that you need to have a hero, a problem that gets resolved, an emotional connection, and a happy conclusion. This is not always good advice—if you follow it, you may end up telling similar stories over and over again. Maybe that is the case, given your industry or business model, and you need to broadcast the best of these stories as effectively as possible.

How to captivate your audience? Tell a great story that doesn’t end too soon.

As much as you can, focus your narrative content development on those stories that carry on, as opposed to the ones that end soon, even happily. Tell stories that don’t have an ending, or at least not soon. Maybe you have customers who use your products or services to achieve efficiencies or other results over several years. Check in with them from time to time and publish updates on their successes. To support an innovative product or service offering, or an important company initiative, develop an ongoing story that keeps getting more interesting. You build social-media continuity for that story in the channels that best align with your brand and where you have the strongest presence with potential customers and markets you want to get close to.

Your story and non-story content management tracks need to align, of course. You will want to keep the branding consistent, for one thing. Especially when you plan new product releases or major events, stories and facts should reflect the same good news. But if you remove non-story content from the breeziness of rapid publishing cycles driven by social media and focus on never-ending stories in your story content marketing, you can achieve more satisfying results from your spending and reduce the wear and tear on your marketers.

What do you think?

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Filed under communications, content, content marketing, marketing, story telling