July 31, 2014

“God is in the structure.”
— Richard Preston,
author, The Demon in the Freezer

Template your story

Create fill-in-the-blanks story forms

An old friend was kvetching recently about his lousy job. After working for a series of magazines, he’d landed at the metro daily, where he was editing a daily page of tips and tricks for the lifestyle section.

“My passion is for the long-form narrative,” he said, sniffing at the prospect of being reduced to writing nibbles and bits of information.

Oh, b-rother!

Hey, I love writing narratives, too. But narrative isn’t the only form, and it’s not always the right form for the job. In fact, sometimes fill-in-the-blanks templates actually serve your readers better.

Save reading — and writing — time

Consistent, standard templates work because once they’re familiar with the template, readers spend less time learning a story’s structure, write Martin J. Eppler and Jeanne Mengis in “Preparing Messages for Information Overload Environments (PDF),” an IABC Research Foundation report.

That reduces processing time and effort. Which explains why companies like Procter & Gamble use standardized one-page memo templates to improve productivity.

Standard templates also save communicators writing time. That makes templates perfect for hacking out B projects in communication triage.

So you might consider standardizing press releases, web pages, proposals, case studies — even your personality profiles. The secret is to develop standard structures that are flexible enough to cover a variety of subjects and to make sure everyone uses the templates.

Here are 10 templates to consider:

1. Story grids

Are you comparing X number of items by Y number of characteristics? Make your story a table or grid.

Meeting stories, for instance, are tough. Too often, communicators blah-blah on about who said what in chronological order.

“When it’s just a meeting where some things were approved and some action was taken, wouldn’t this information better benefit readers as a grid?” Scanlan asks. I think it would.

2. Case studies, testimonials and mini narratives

For case studiestestimonials — even mini narratives — try this simple structure:

  • Problem
  • Solution
  • Results

3. Web pages

In a recent project, we created templates for for some sections of  Saint Luke’s Health System’s new website. Department pages, for instance, included:

  • Highlights: A bulleted list of our three most compelling differentiators — firsts, mosts, bests, biggests and onlies
  • Nut graph: A one-paragraph summary of the department
  • The team: Notable players
  • Services: A bulleted list
  • Learn more: Contacts and links
  • Testimonial: A callout from a patient

Write by number

Words like “template,” “formula” and “recipe” are sometimes seen as profanities in a creative field like writing. But good writing is at least as much science as art. And you can’t argue with results like “easier to read” and “easier to write.”

No doubt about it: “T-e-m-p-l-a-t-e” is not a four-letter word.

Build a solid structure

Want to master a story structure that increases readership instead of cutting it short?

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Sources: Martin J. Eppler and Jeanne Mengis, “Preparing Messages for Information Overload Environments” (PDF), IABC Research Foundation, 2009

Chip Scanlan, “Nonlinear Narratives,” The Poynter Institute, Oct. 16, 2003

Josh Awtry, “Grid Tips,” The Poynter Institute, Oct. 15, 2003

Josh Awtry, “‘There just isn’t a story here,’” The Poynter Institute, Oct. 15, 2003


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“Loquacity and lying are cousins.”
— German proverb

Don’t practice AKK

‘All known knowledge’ obscures rather than reveals

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich wants prosecutors in his federal corruption trial to play all 500 hours of the FBI’s secretly recorded tapes of his conversations.

“Of course,” I thought when I heard the news. “He’s practicing AKK.”

AKK is The New York Times’ acronym for “all known knowledge.” That’s where — instead of carefully sifting through the information on your topic and building a cogent argument out of it — you dump all that information on your audience members and let them sort it out.

AKK doesn’t inform people; it just numbs them.

And that’s what Blagojevich’s defense team is counting on: burying jurors under so much information that they can’t think. (This is also known as the “That document you requested is somewhere in this semi truck filled with paper” defense.)

Unlike Blagojevich, you actually want to help your audience members understand your topic. So your job isn’t to forward AKK; your job is to find a tight story angle on the topic and communicate it efficiently.

Except when you don’t want them to understand. And then, by all means, drown your audience members in data.

Cut Through the Clutter

Want to master the art of making all your copy clearer and more concise?

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“Make it all about MOI — my own issues.”
— Alan Weiss, consultant, Summit Consulting Group

Better you than me

Want more Twitter followers? Stop talking about yourself

The more you talk about yourself on Twitter, the fewer followers you’re likely to have.

Or so says viral marketing scientist Dan Zarrella.

Using TweetPsyche data on more than 60,000 Twitter users, he looked at self-reference on Twitter. He found that Twitter users who don’t talk about themselves much tend to have more users.

“Want more followers?” Zarrella asks. “Stop talking about yourself.”

In other TweetPsyche research, Zarrella found that Mom was right about social media as well as so many other things. To get more followers on Twitter, Zarrella writes, you should:

  • Be positive. Writing about sadness, aggression, morbid thoughts and negative emotions and feelings correlates with fewer followers. (What a shock!) So if you want more followers, cheer up.
  • Be sociable. Social language correlates with more followers, Zarrella found. So use words like “you” and “we” and write more about relationships and communication.

And remember: “You” is the most retweeted word in the English language.

So on Twitter as in so much else in life, better “you” than “me.”

Get the word out on the Web

Want to master the art of reaching readers online?

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“Callouts are the print equivalent of a sound bite.”
— authors of The Newsletter Editor’s Desk Book

Call me

Reach readers with callouts

Think of your callout as a movie trailer for your story.

Movie trailers give the best stuff away for free to entice moviegoers to buy a ticket. Callouts — aka pull quotes — give the best stuff away for free to entice readers to read your story.

So go ahead: Find the most provocative point in the story — the more specific, the better — and give it away in your callout.

Here are three types of callouts to consider:

1. A dramatic moment

Choose the most dramatic moment in the story — the time when everything started going awry. If the callout is powerful enough, readers will read the story to find out what happened. That’s the technique we use for callouts like these for Saint Luke’s Health:

“Where my right elbow had been, I felt this hole.”

— Linda Thomssen, symphony violinist who smashed her upper arm

2. A provocative detail

Present a provocative detail that makes readers ask, Am I ready for that? This callout, from a conference brochure we wrote for the Public Relations Society of America, uses the same approach:

Nine out of 10 journalists use search engines to do their jobs. Do you know how to help Google find your release?

3. A fascinating specific

Entertainment is the No. 2 reward of reading. Call out details that demonstrate that your piece is interesting read. The New York Times Book Review does that in these callouts, which promote not only the review, but the book as well:

Instead of chanting “air ball,” basketball fans in the Chinese interior employ the Sichuan word for “impotent.”

— from a review of The Only Game in Town

Call to action

Take time to choose and craft compelling callouts. Research shows that callouts attract attention, draw readers into your copy, make your messages more memorable and more. Get more tips for writing callouts.

Plus, a short, carefully crafted callout might also make the perfect tweet.

Rev Up Readership

Want to reach more readers by revitalizing your publication, website or blog?

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“We read so that we can be moved by a new way of looking at things. A cliché is like a coin that has been handled too much. Once language has been overly handled, it no longer leaves a clear imprint.”
— Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander

Resurrect a cliché

Rewrite your least favorite buzz phrase

A few years ago, my nephew Evan — aka one of the five most adorable boys in the world — was attending Catholic preschool.

Need to write wordplay? Twist a cliché.

BLAH BLAH BLAH: "Clichés are a sign of a mind at rest," says author Sol Stein. Wake up your writing — and your reader — by reinventing clichés.

It was his introduction to Jesus and heaven, and he’d been busy processing how all of this applied to his own life. When his uncle died, he wondered aloud when Jesus was going to finish fixing Uncle Carl and send him home.

When he and I sat down for a visit a few months after school started, he asked, “Aunt Ann, why is your hair white?”

I answered the way I answer all the 4-year-olds who ask that question: “I don’t know, Evan. Why do you think my hair is white?”

“Because you’re going to visit Jesus?”
he ventured.

Thankfully, Evan’s guestimate has been wrong to date. But it’s not the first interesting response I’ve received about my loopy hair since it started turning white when I was 16. And since I belatedly made rock star stylist Mary Jane Van de Castle CEO of my head, may hair has been getting longer and kookier.

My sister, Lynn — the one who inherited all the good judgment in my family — has started urgently counseling headbands. Then last month, at a spa, a woman asked a question similar to my nephew’s, though less gracious:

“What’s that on your head?” she asked.
“A Chia Pet?”

Though I couldn’t take that as a compliment, I did appreciate her excellent use of analogy.

It goes without saying that my next stop was the headband store. When I showed my husband my new purchases, he said: “How nice. A Chia-management solution.”

“Darling,” I said, lovingly, “I believe you’ve just resurrected a cliché.”

What’s your least favorite cliché or buzz phrase? How can you revive that cliché to turn it into wordplay? Try:

Play with your words

Want to master the art of making your copy more creative and engaging through wordplay?

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“It makes me feel more comfortable with writing because I have a proven approach to guide me and justify why I am writing what I am writing.”
— Jade Gulash,
marketing and communication consultant,
Health Quality Council

Where in the world is Ann?

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:

  • Anchorage: Sept. 22
  • Boston: July 13
  • Chicago: July 7-9
  • Columbus, Ohio: July 20-21
  • Hershey, Pa.: Oct. 7
  • New York: Nov. 5
  • Pittsburgh: Oct. 28
  • Portland, Ore.: Aug. 5-Sept. 13
  • Tacoma, Wash.: Aug. 11
  • Washington, D.C.: Oct. 17, Nov. 9-10

Save even more: Ask about my communication association discounts and second-day fee reductions.

Contact me to discuss piggybacking.

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Ann’s touring schedule

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:

  • Anchorage on Sept. 22. ”Write for the Web,” a half-day workshop and luncheon session for AEMAA/PRSA Alaska
  • Hershey, Penn., on Oct. 7. “Think Like a Reader,” a half-day workshop for PRSA Central Pennsylvania
  • New York on Nov. 5. ”Web Writing Boot Camp: How to write Web pages, blog postings, tweets and other status updates that get the word out online,” a one-day workshop for PRSA
  • Portland, Ore., on Aug. 12. ”Get the Word Out With Social Media,” a half-day workshop for PRSA Portland
  • Tacoma, Wash., on Aug. 11. ”Writing for the Web,” a half-day workshop for PRSA Puget Sound

Would you like to attend? Please contact meeting planners directly for details.

Can’t make these events? If you’d like to bring me in for a workshop at your organization, contact me.

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What are we up to?

The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:

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Keep up with my calendar

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.

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For more info

… about my seminars, publication consulting or writing and editing services, please contact me or visit my website.

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… with two of your colleagues by directing them to our current issue. Better yet, invite them to subscribe to Wylie’s Writing Tips. They’ll thank you — and so will I!

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