“A vision without a plan is just a hallucination.”
Atkinson PR’s Adage No. 1
Create written communication guidelines
Ever wish you had a reference tool you could hand off to new team members to answer the question, “How do we write around here?”How about a resource you could use to show serial offenders how to fix label headlines, passive voice or leads that are more likely to get readers to take a nap than to take action?
Wouldn’t you love to present a document that helps you tell your approvers, “While I personally would love to press ‘Send’ on your engineering dissertation, our policy demands that we hit 60 or higher on the Flesch Reading Ease test. We’ll need to make this brochure measurably simpler for our customers”?
Writing guidelines can help.
Think of writing guidelines as your team’s GPS for traveling from good writing to best. These are rules you agree to live by to boost your odds of reaching more readers, getting the word out and moving people to act.
We’re not talking about a style guide here. Consistent style is essential, but it’s not going to move the needle on the bottom line. This is not the place to tackle whether to use the serial comma or add a hyphen to “email.”
Writing guidelines address bigger issues: How do we write to get readers to pay attention to, understand, remember and act on our messages?
Your guidelines should cover headlines, leads, kickers, paragraphs, sentences, phrases, words, readability, passive voice, decks, links, charts and graphs, captions — all of the issues that come up in editing and during the approval process.
Command and control
To create writing guidelines:
1. Research proven-in-the-lab best practices for approaches such as:
- Crafting story angles that readers want to read, rather than those you wish they would read
- Organizing copy to draw readers in, pull them through the piece and leave a lasting impression
- Making every piece you write measurably easier to read and understand
- Reaching even nonreaders with your key messages
- Other issues you need to address
You should end up with dozens of specific best practices.
Tip: Don’t believe everything you think. Don’t base writing guidelines on gut instinct or outdated techniques you learned in college. You want to develop a comprehensive set of writing rules based on solid, contemporary research.
2. Transform research into guidelines. Use the imperative voice. Treat these as to-dos, not “here’s some information you might find useful.”
The American Press Institute found that sentences of 14 words average 90% comprehension.
Keep sentences to an average of 14 words or less.
3. Illustrate best practices. Rewrite one to three of your team members’ examples to illustrate each guideline. You’ll wind up with 50 to 60 before-and-after examples.
Would you prefer an easier way of getting customized writing guidelines into your team’s hands? If so, you might consider Wylie’s Writing Guidelines.
Send us up to 30 of your group’s writing samples in Word, and we’ll deliver dozens of guidelines — all based on proven-in-the-lab best practices and illustrated with before-and-after versions of your own writing samples.
Tip: Roll out your guidelines in an in-house writing workshop. You’ll save a little money and get more out of both services.
But whichever way you go, make sure your team gets written writing guidelines. Quality control demands it.
“Fantastic! Inspiring! I can’t wait to share these ideas with my team.”
Cindie Mills, senior communication specialist, Owens Corning
Edit, write & repeat at Catch Your Readers in Chicago
In the crunch of writing headlines and meeting deadlines, it sometimes seems as if there’s not enough time to pause and reflect on how you’re doing.
But at Catch Your Readers, a two-day Master Class on April 21-22 in Chicago, you’ll get a chance to write, edit and rewrite; get and give feedback; and leave with a totally rewritten piece. In the process, you’ll:
- Master the techniques you learn in the workshop by applying them immediately
- Gain valuable insights on your work from your peers and me
- Learn to analyze and improve others’ writing — the best skill you can develop for improving your own work
Deadline extended! And if you act by March 31, you can save up to $300 on registration.
Fill your toolbox with tricks.
In two days, you’ll have time to cram your writer’s tool bag with tricks — hard-to-find but easy-to-implement techniques that will help you:
- Think Like a Reader: Learn to move people to act
- Go Beyond the Inverted Pyramid: Master a structure that’s been proven in the lab to reach more readers
- Cut Through the Clutter: Make every piece you write measurably easier to read and understand
- Lift Your Ideas Off the Page Or Screen: Reach flippers and skimmers, increase readership
- Edit, write, repeat: Bring your laptop and a story to work on, write and rewrite, get and give feedback, and leave with a totally rewritten piece
Meet me in Chicago.
I love you, Portland, but I’ve got to say, I think Chicago is the most beautiful city in the United States. You’ve got the history of 20th century architecture reflected in a glittering river. You’ve got buildings by two of my favorite Franks, Mssrs. Lloyd Wright and Gehry. And then there’s that magnificent ‘bean’!
Why not make a long weekend of it?
I, for one, will be winding down from the workshop by taking an architectural riverboat cruise, spending my retirement savings on The Magnificent Mile, catching the latest shows at Steppenwolf and Second City, eating whatever Rick Bayless sets in front of me at Topolobampo and ogling the Impressionists at “the best art museum in the world” (TripIt), the Chicago Art Institute.
Maybe we’ll run into each other!
Deadline extended! Save up to $300 — register by March 31
I have no doubt that this Master Class will be the best money you invest on your professional development this year.
Plus, now you can save up to $100 with early bird registration if you sign up by March 31. And if you’re one of the first 20 people to register, you’ll get a free, three-month subscription to Rev Up Readership.
Save even more and earn more bonuses when you bring a friend, refer a friend or belong to RevUpReadership.com or PRSA.
“Make the important interesting.”
James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly
Interesting copy helps readers learn
In the early 19th century, German philosopher Johann Friedrich Herbart said that interest leads to understanding, learning and memory — and even inspires readers to learn more.For nearly 200 years, researchers, philosophers and communicators have seen the link between interest and learning.
One of those researchers is Suzanne Hidi, associate member at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education’s Centre for Applied Cognitive Science. In “Interest and Its Contribution as a Mental Resource for Learning,” she presents a research review on how interest helps people learn.
Interesting copy, according to Hidi’s review of the literature:
- Encourages reading and improves comprehension (Hidi & Baird, 1986)
- Increases understanding (Bernstein, 1955)
- Aids in learning (Hidi & Baird, 1986; Shirey and Reynolds, 1988)
- Helps people remember the information (Hidi & Baird, 1988)
- Enables readers to come up with fuller, better and more creative responses (Bernstein, 1955)
“Interesting copy,” the researchers found, is:
- Concrete. It shows instead of tells, turns ideas into things and is filled with action and images.
- Emotional. It includes human interest, narrative action and “life themes” readers can identify with.
- Novel. It’s surprising or unexpected.
Here, Hidi says, are some of the interesting sentences that have been used in studies:
- “The huge gorilla smashed the bus with its fist.” (Anderson, 1982)
- “When a Click Beetle is on its back, it flips itself into the air and lands right side up while it makes a clicking noise.” (Garner et al., 1989)
- “When a fly moves its wings about 200 times in a second, you hear a buzzing sound.” (Garner et al., 1989)
- “No advertising is allowed on Swedish television, and there are no commercial stations.” (Hidi & Baird, 1983)
- “Adult wolves carry food home in their stomachs and bring it up again or regurgitate it for the young cubs to eat — the wolf version of canned baby food.” (Hidi & Baird, 1983)
- “Thomas Edison became the most famous inventor of all time even though he left school when he was only 6 years old.” (Hidi & Baird, 1988)
- “A canary can also bluff by playing dead. A frightened canary may go limp in someone’s hand.” (Hidi & Baird, 1983)
- “The Battle of Trafalgar was the greatest naval victory in British history, and it was the war for Great Britain.” (Wade & Adams, 1990)
- “[Lady Emma Hamilton] fell in love with the battered, one-eyed, one-armed naval hero and became his mistress.” (Wade & Adams, 1990)
Just make sure your creative material helps you make your key point. Otherwise it could distract readers from your message.
Master the Art of Storyelling
“Nobody ever sold anybody anything by boring them to death.” — David Ogilvy
Ogilvy was right. If you want someone to buy what you’re selling — whether you’re pitching products and services or programs and ideas — you must first engage them. And nothing draws readers in quite as well as creative material.
In Master the Art of Storytelling, a two-day creative writing master class on July 29-30 in San Francisco, you’ll learn how to bring your messages to life with storytelling, wordplay and metaphor. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:
- Grab Attention With Feature Stories: Craft creative leads and kickers
- Make Your Copy More Colorful: Engage readers with fun facts, juicy details
- Play With Your Words: Spice up your headlines, leads and sound bites with wordplay
- Master the Art of the Storyteller: Tap ‘the most powerful form of human communication’
- Add Meaning With Metaphor: Clarify complex concepts with analogy
- Edit, write, repeat: Bring your laptop and a story to work on, write and rewrite, get and give feedback, and leave with a totally rewritten piece
“Every good title is a short story.”
Russell Banks, American writer of fiction and poetry
Present participle heads may be worse than labels
Barney Kilgore, the legendary editor of The Wall Street Journal, once wrote: “If I see ‘upcoming’ slip in[to] the paper again, I’ll be downcoming and someone will be outgoing.”
I’m with Barney: Stop ing-ing. Especially in headlines.
Now, to be fair, Kilgore’s comment refers to gerunds: verbs that get turned into nouns with the addition of an “-ing,” as in “Writing is fun.”
What I’m talking about are present participles, aka progressive verbs, as in “I am writing.”
Avoid present participling-noun headlines.
So who ever decided that “Present Participling Noun” was a clever headline? You’ve seen (maybe even written!) ing-ing headlines like these:
Hiring to Win
Taking Farming Further
Scaling the China Opportunity
Introducing A New App for Android
Committing to Our Ag & Turf Ambition
Introducing the Strategic Growth Incentive
Creating Meaningful Relationships at Work
Making dams safer for fish around the world
Announcing Our 2014 Scholarship Program Recipients
Transforming and Deepening Our Strategic Partnerships
Understanding Biofilm Roles in Reactions and Processes
Enabling better outcomes and lower costs through integration
Ending Child Trafficking through Collaboration, Awareness, and Support
So what’s wrong with “Introducing the Strategic Growth Incentive”?
Why avoid present participle headlines?
Ing-ing headlines like these:
- Focus on your actions instead of the reader’s needs. Instead of “Introducing A New App for Android,” how about “Get your job done in 12 minutes a week with new Android app”?
- Suck the subject out of the headline. We’re supposed to be writing about people doing things. Where are the actors in these headlines?
- Ing the action. The verb is the story. Ing-ing verbs are weaker.
- Just point to the noun. Instead of “Announcing Our 2014 Scholarship Program Recipients,” how about “2014 scholarship recipients headed to Harvard”?
- Take the benefits out of the headline. Which would you rather read: “Transforming and Deepening Our Strategic Partnerships”? Or “6 ways to jumpstart strategic partnerships”?
- Rarely get used by serious journalists. The New York Times, for instance, mostly avoids them.
Write like the Times.
We analyzed 99 headlines in the Dec. 15, 2014, edition of the Times. (We skipped the sports pages.) Of those, just four — about 4% — were ing-ing heads:
Stoking a Creative Spark
Stuart Shugg and Anna Azrieli in the DoublePlus Series
Stepping Back Into a Role’s Shoes
James Morris’s Unexpected Return to ‘Meistersinger’
Shaping a Shepherd of Catholics,
From Argentine Slums to the Vatican
‘The Great Reformer': Austen Ivereigh on Pope Francis
Turning #IllRideWithYou Into Real-World Action in Australia
When you find these headlines in your own copy, rewrite. Make it subject, verb, object. Then you’ll wind up with verbs like:
Take a tip from the Times: Limit ing-ing drastically. Even better, stop ing-ing at all.
Lift Your Ideas Off the Page
Sixty percent of your audience members aren’t reading your copy, according to estimates by professors at the University of Missouri. So how can you craft messages that reach nonreaders?
Find out at my two-day, hands-on writing workshop, Catch Your Readers in Chicago on April 21-22. There, you’ll learn how to use your display copy — headlines, decks and subheads, for instance — to pull readers into your copy, make your piece more inviting and even communicate to flippers and skimmers.
Specifically, you’ll learn how to:
- Reach “readers” who spend only two minutes — or even just 10 seconds — with your piece
- Craft the piece of display copy that 95 percent of people read — but that many communicators drop
- Run a simple test on your copy to ensure that you lift your ideas off the page for flippers and skimmers
- Make your copy 47% more usable by adding a few simple elements
- Pass the Palm Test to make your copy more reader friendly
Plus, now you can save up to $300 with our early bird discount. But please act now. Discount expires on
Feb. 28 extended to March 31.
“Sometimes, users do read down an entire page. It does happen. Rarely.”
Jakob Nielsen, usability expert
Fewer long pages are less effective
Think index cards, not toilet paper: Websites with many short pages — as opposed to those with fewer longer pages — work better.
Usability experts John Morkes and Jakob Nielsen studied Web visitors’ performance with two versions of a website:
- One site contained three pages with 4,500 words.
- The other contained eight pages with 2,500 words.
The eight-page, more concise site was:
- Easier to understand
- More memorable
- Faster to read
- More satisfying
Bottom line: Break your copy into meaningful chunks, and create a page for each chunk.
Next steps: Catch Your Readers Online
Want to get the word out on the Web?
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a Catch Your Readers Online workshop. (Browse our in-house writing workshops.) Or send your team to one of our two-day Master Classes.
- Get it off your desk: Invite Ann’s team to handle a writing or editing project.
- Stop reinventing the wheel: Get writing guidelines and templates, based on best practices and illustrated with your own writing samples, that show your writers not just what to write, but how. And find out about Ann’s other consulting services.
- Build your own skills: Make Wylie Communications your personal writing trainer with one-on-one writing coaching.
- Join the club: Get dozens of tipsheets on effective Web design at RevUpReadership.com.
- Get more writing tips: Subscribe to our e-zine for free writing tips every month. And read more ideas on designing websites.
“Exceptionally helpful and altogether motivating — can’t wait to implement these ideas, starting today.”
Veronica Gracia-Wing, associate strategist, Piper & Gold Public Relations
Polish your skills at one of these events
Alas, I can’t invite you to the in-house seminars I present for private organizations.
But everyone’s invited to these upcoming public seminars in:
- Chicago on April 21 and 22: Catch Your Readers, a two-day Master Class. Learn to move people to act. Bring your laptop, and leave with a totally rewritten story
- Minneapolis on April 27: Master the Art of Storytelling: Make Your Copy More Creative, a one-day workshop for IABC Pacific Plains
- San Francisco on June 15: Lift Your Ideas Off the Screen or Page, a one-hour breakout session at the IABC 2015 World Conference
- San Francisco on July 29 and 30: Master the Art of Storytelling, a two-day Master Class. Learn to engage readers with metaphor, wordplay, storytelling and more. Bring your laptop, and leave with a totally rewritten story
- Tacoma on Aug. 19: Create Content Marketing Pieces That Almost Write Themselves, a half-day workshop for PRSA Puget Sound
- Washington, D.C. on Oct. 27 and 28: Catch Your Readers, a two-day Master Class
Would you like to attend? Please contact meeting planners directly for details.
Want to polish your skills? Keep up with Ann’s latest two-day Master Classes.
Cut your training costs when you piggyback your program
Save money when you piggyback your workshop by scheduling it when I’m already “in the neighborhood.” Book your program the day before or after another organization’s and split my airfare and ground transportation with the other group.
Ask about piggybacking on my upcoming engagements in:
- Chicago: April 21-22
- Cleveland: May 5
- Minneapolis: April 27-28
- New York: March 20
- Raleigh, North Carolina: March 4
- Santa Fe: Feb. 11-12
- San Francisco: June 15 & July 29-30
- Tacoma: Aug. 19
- Washington, D.C.: Oct. 27-28
Save even more: Ask about my communication-association discounts and second-day fee reductions.
Contact me to discuss piggybacking.
Want to polish your skills? Bring me in for a workshop at your organization.
The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:
- Presenting an in-house workshop for WalMart
- Presenting a Web writing Master Class
- Writing Web copy for Walker Tape Co.
Find out when I’m coming to your neighborhood, learn when you can sign up for one of my programs and otherwise keep up with my calendar.
Keep in touch via:
- LinkedIn group
- LinkedIn page
- Wylie Communications feed
- Wylie’s Writing Tips