“Brevity is the sister of talent.”
Anton Chekhov, Russian playwright
Can you finish your piece before you reach the period?
My favorite city magazine, Portland Monthly, runs five one-sentence stories per issue. Editors manage to cover the most Portlandish news of the month in an average of 26 words each.
“News that Powell’s Books and Rogue Ales are collaborating on a beer infused with actual pages of Moby Dick raises the troubling prospect of 50 Shades of Grey-flavored absinthe.”
“Portland State professor Cameron Smith’s homemade space suit, built with hardware store parts and a 1970s Soviet fighter-pilot helmet, takes Portland’s DIY fascination to soaring new heights.”
“It happened in the early hours of New Year’s morning, but the outer Northeast beer pong stabbing will be hard to top as 2013’s dumbest crime story.”
“Yamhill’s new high school viticulture program easily trumps the self-taught alcohol curriculum offered at most high schools.”
“History’s most depressing souvenir knickknack arrives: the newly released Portland skyline rain globe.”
“Andrew Basiago, a Vancouver, Washington, lawyer who claims he frequently traveled through time as part of a secret government program, read all these stories long before you did.”
Taglines: “Because there’s simply no time for details.” And: “If brevity is the soul of wit, our one-sentence news nuggets belong in the Hilarity Hall of Fame.”
More one-sentence stories
PoMo’s not the only one-sentence-story game in town. Among others:
- One Sentence: True stories, told in one sentence
- One Sentence Stories: Sample: “A shiver went up my spine as I watched what I feared would happen again — my $100 black stilettos in my dog’s teeth.”
- Monkeybicycle One-Sentence Stories: Sample: “His skin tastes like pan-fried chicken soaked in buttermilk, mustard, shortening, but I’m a raw vegan.”
Try it yourself.
Short stories increase readership and understanding. Can you tell one of your organization’s stories in a single sentence?
Send your one-sentence story to me by May 15.
If yours is the best I receive, I’ll send you a nice little surprise.
Cut Through the Clutter
Is your copy easy to read? According to communication experts, that’s one of the two key questions people ask to determine whether to read a piece — or toss it.
Fortunately, academics have tested and quantified what makes copy easy to read. Unfortunately, that research virtually never makes it out of the ivory tower and into the hands of writers who could actually apply it.
But in Ann’s Cut Through the Clutter writing workshop, you’ll learn “the numbers” you need to measurably improve your copy’s readability. Specifically, you’ll learn:
- How long is too long: For your paragraphs? Your sentences? Your words?
- Three ways to shorten your copy — and which is the most effective way
- How to cut your copy before you’ve even written the first word
- How to avoid causing your reader to skip your paragraphs
- A tool you can use (you probably already have it, but you might not know it) to quantifiably improve your copy’s readability
- A seven-step system for making your copy clearer and more concise
Want to bring Ann’s Cut Through the Clutter writing workshop to your team? Contact Ann.
“Numbers without context, especially large ones with many zeros trailing behind, are about as intelligible as vowels without consonants.”
Daniel Okrent, The New York Times ombudsman
Highlight the meaning of data to improve decision-making
People in one study rated a disease that kills 1,286 people out of every 10,000 as more dangerous than one that kills 24.14% of the population (Yamagishi, 1997). But in fact, it’s about half as dangerous.
Why? The way you present, or frame, the information changes the way people — even experts — perceive it.
“If you tell someone that something will happen to one out of 10 people, they think, ‘Well, who’s the one?’” Paul Slovic, a University of Oregon psychologist, told Money.
Trying to help readers make a complex decision? Reframe the data so people can more easily see its meaning. Here’s how:
1. Choose frequencies, not probabilities.
People process frequencies (2 out of 100) better than percentages (2%) (Kaplan, 1986). Frequencies are effective because they:
- Demonstrate the importance of data. People weigh frequencies as more important than percentages when making decisions (Lipkus, Samsa and Rimer, 2001).
- Help people make better choices. In one study, faculty members and students at the Harvard Medical School made much better decisions when they received information about diseases and symptoms in the form of frequencies instead of probabilities (Huffrage, Lindsey, Hertwig and Gigerenzer, 2000).
- Help even experts see the situation more clearly. Forensic psychiatrists and psychologists judged a patient’s risk of being violent as much greater when it was communicated as a frequency instead of a probability (Slivic, Monahan and MacGregor, 2000).
2. Frame as a loss (or gain).
Give readers new ways to think about information by highlighting the potential gain or loss. You can frame your data as:
- Mortality vs. survival rates. The effect of dying seems to be greater when it is framed as a mortality rate of 10% than when it is framed as a survival rate of 90%. And both patients and doctors found surgery less attractive than radiation therapy when risk information was presented in terms of mortality rather than survival, despite surgery having better long-term prospects (McNeil, Pauker and Sox, 1986).
- Risk vs. reward. Consumers understood information much better, valued it more and gave it more weight in decision-making when it was framed as a loss or risk than as a reward. So “protect yourself from problems in health plans” is more effective than “get the best quality” (Hibbard, Harris-Kojetin, Mullen, Lubalin and Garfinkel, 2000).
- Loss vs. gain. In six out of seven studies, framing information as a loss was more effective than as a gain in communicating prevention, detection and treatment (Edwards, Elwyn, Covey, Matthews and Pill, 2001).
- Consider the message within the frame. Framing your message as a loss is more effective when promoting screening. Framing it as a gain is more effective when promoting prevention (Rothman, Martino, Bedell, Detweiler and Salovey, 1999).
3. Generalize a little.
In order to be as “correct” as possible, communicators often include too much information — six decimal points of precision, for instance, or data about confidence intervals.
But that actually makes important details harder to suss out. As a result, people weigh this information lower when making a decision (Hsee, 1996). So, for instance, offer an average point estimate (a score of 8) instead of a more correct one (7 to 9).
But don’t pile on the data.
To help people make better decisions, reframe the data — don’t just offer more data.
Take the ‘Numb’ Out Of Numbers.
Want to master the art of making statistics more interesting and understandable?
- Get it off your desk: Invite Ann’s team in to handle a special writing or editing project.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a Take the ‘Numb’ Out of Numbers workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Wylie Communications Inc.’s senior writing coach to improve your own copy in one-on-one writing coaching.
- Learn more: Download Ann’s “Take the Numb Out of Numbers” e-book (free to RevUpReadership.com Gold members). And get free writing tips every month when you subscribe to our e-zine.
- Join the club: Get the whole story in the latest issue of Rev Up Readership. And find dozens of Take the Numb Out of Numbers tipsheets on RevUpReadership.com.
Source: Judith H. Hibbard and Ellen Peters, “Supporting Informed Consumer Health Care Decisions: Data Presentation Approaches that Facilitate the Use of Information in Choice,” Annual Review of Public Health, 2003, Vol. 24, pp. 413-33
“If you would persuade, you must appeal to interest rather than intellect.”
Benjamin Franklin, founding father of the United States
How to sway people, from Justice Sotomayor
“I was fifteen years old when I understood how it is that things break down: people can’t imagine someone else’s point of view.”
So writes Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her memoir, My Beloved World.
Sotomayor’s book is packed with insights about persuasion, including:
Logic = power.
“[F]ormal logic took me by surprise. I loved it. I perceived beauty in it, the idea of an order that held under any circumstances. What excited me most was how I could immediately apply it down the hall in debate practice. I was amazed that something so mathematically pure and abstract could transform into human persuasion, into words with the power.”
Emotion trumps fact.
“Constructing a chain of logic was one thing; building a chain of emotions required a different understanding.”
“[T]he difference between winning and losing came down to the appeal by emotion rather than fact alone.”
“Granting myself permission to use my innate skills of the heart, accepting that emotion was perfectly valid in the art of persuasion, amounted to nothing less than a breakthrough. Warren would teach me much else in the way of trial skills, as had John Fried, Katie Law, and others at the DA’s Office. But that was the single most powerful lesson I would learn. It changed my entire approach to jurors, from the voir dire to the structure of my summations, and the results spoke for themselves: I never lost a case again.”
Whisper, don’t shout.
“I could see that troubling the waters was occasionally necessary to bring attention to the urgency of some problem. But this style of political expression sometimes becomes an end in itself and can lose potency if used routinely.”
“If you shout too loudly and too often, people tend to cover their ears. Take it too far and you risk that nothing will be heard over the report of rifles and hoofbeats.”
“Always, my first question was, what’s the goal? And then, who must be persuaded if it is to be accomplished? A respectful dialogue with one’s opponent almost invariably goes further than a harangue outside his or her window.”
Listen to persuade.
“If you want to change someone’s mind, you must understand what need shapes his or her opinion. To prevail, you must first listen — that eternal lesson of Forensics Club!
“We rehearsed the argument in great detail, but in the moment when I stood before the jury, people recruited from the community through an ad in the local paper, the analytic preparation receded into the background, and some other instinct came forward. I found my eyes automatically scanning their faces, trying to read them: Are they following me? Do I need to push harder or to pull back? There was a sweet spot where I was able to meet them halfway. Most of them, anyway.”
“Leveraging emotional intelligence in the courtroom, as in life, depends on being attentive; the key is always to watch and listen. You don’t need to take notes with the court reporter getting down every word. Lower your eyes to your pad, and you’re bound to miss that hint of a doubt that flits across the witness’s face. Scribble instead of listening, and you won’t notice the split second of hesitation in which a witness hedges a choice of words, avoiding the ones that would flow naturally in favor of the ones whose truth he or she is more certain of.”
Don’t be boring.
“Such attentiveness also figures in upholding one of a litigator’s paramount responsibilities: not to bore the jury.”
Narrative sells ideas.
“Often the difference is a matter of remembering what makes sense to a human being as opposed to another lawyer. For example, a prosecutor usually has no need to prove motive under the law, and yet the human mind naturally constructs its reality in terms of causes and effects, weighing any theory against the plausibility of these links and how they might operate in someone else’s mind. ‘Why would she have done that?’ is something we instinctively ask before we allow ourselves to conclude ‘she did it.’ The state’s case is a narrative: the story of a crime. The defense has only to cast doubts on the coherence of that story. The ‘why’ elements of the story must make sense —what would have motivated this person to hurt that person — before you can engage the jurors’ empathy, put them in the shoes of the accused or the victim, as needed: make them feel the cold blade held against their necks, or the pang of unappreciated devotion that might drive someone to steal from a former employer. It is the particulars that make a story real.”
Details build narratives.
“In examining witnesses, I learned to ask general questions so as to elicit details with powerful sensory associations: the colors, the sounds, the smells, that lodge an image in the mind and put the listener in the burning house.”
How can you use Sotomayor’s insights
to craft a more effective argument for your campaign?
Move your audience to act
Want to deliver copy that gets read?
- Get it off your desk: Invite Ann’s team to handle a persuasive writing or editing project.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a Think Like a Reader workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann to think like a reader in one-on-one writing coaching. Or find out about Ann’s next Think Like a Reader webinar.
- Learn more: Read Ann’s Think Like a Reader toolkit.
- Join the club: Find dozens of persuasive writing tipsheets at RevUpReadership.com.
“Calling social media social is like calling reality TV reality.”
Alan Weiss, principle of Summit Consulting Group
Social behavior nets more followers
Want to expand your reach and influence on Twitter?
Be sociable, counsels HubSpot’s viral marketing scientist, Dan Zarrella.
Zarrella used TweetPsych to analyze more than 30,000 accounts. He found that social behavior — using inclusive language like we and you, as well as language that describes relationships and communication — correlate with more followers.
“Accounts with more followers tended to be using more social language,” Zarrella says.
Reach readers online.
Want to get the word out on the Web?
- Get it off your desk: Bring Ann’s team in to write Web copy for your organization.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a Web writing workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann to polish your Web writing skills with one-on-one writing coaching sessions. And find out about Ann’s upcoming webinars on writing for the Web and social media.
- Learn more: Read Ann’s Web writing learning tools. And get free writing tips every month when you subscribe to our e-zine.
- Join the club: Find dozens of tipsheets on reaching readers online at RevUpReadership.com.
“For me, your webinars are like speeding tickets (stay with me…): Even though I think of myself as a pretty good ‘driver,’ your ideas always make me slow down and think more carefully about who I’m writing for, what I’m saying and how I’m saying it. Inevitably, my writing finds a much shorter, safer route to its destination. And your list of shortcuts to clarity are almost always the reason why.”
Brooks McKinney, APR, senior manager, Public Relations, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems
Book Ann today for July, fall
Four times this month, I’ve had to turn down opportunities to train great teams at exciting companies. The reason: They needed training fast, and my calendar was booked.
If you’re even thinking about bringing me in to train your team this year, please contact me today. That will give you your best chance at getting the date — even the quarter — you’re looking for.
My calendar keeps booking up earlier and earlier each year. At this point, I have a few dates open in July, then several each month starting in October.
It’s the good problem to have, for sure, and thank you to my clients who are keeping me so busy. But I hate saying, “no,” and I know you hate hearing it. The sooner you call, the more likely we both are to get to “yes.”
“Ann is very knowledgeable of the subject matter and provided a nice balance of the basics and more advanced materials. Amazing for a day’s workshop.”
Raj Aggarwal, president, Porvoc
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:
- New York City on June 26. Now They SEE It, a one-hour breakout session for the 2013 IABC World Conference
- New York City on Dec. 2. Write for the Web, a full-day workshop for PRSA
- Phoenix on May 15: Catch Your Readers, a half-day workshop for IABC Phoenix
- Portland, Ore., on May 9. Make Your Copy More Creative, a workshop for the TOCA annual conference
- San Francisco on June 6. Catch Your Readers, a one-day workshop for PRSA
- Tacoma, Wash., on Aug. 14. Catch Your Readers, a half-day workshop for PRSA Puget Sound
- Your own home or office, on June 18. Make Your Copy More Creative, a one-hour webinar for PRSA
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.
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:
- Austin, Texas: Nov. 7
- Cleveland: May 7
- Kansas City, Mo.: May 22-25
- Minneapolis: Oct. 9
- New York City: June 26, Dec. 2
- Phoenix: May 14-15
- Portland, Ore.: May 9
- St. Louis: May 21
- San Francisco: June 6
- Tacoma, Wash.: Aug. 14
- Washington, D.C.: June 27
Save even more: Ask about my communication association discounts and second-day fee reductions.
Contact me to discuss piggybacking.
The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:
- Presenting writing workshops for FedEx, the Health Alliance Plan, the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan/Ann Arbor, Direct Energy and PRSA/IABC Minnesota
- Editing PetSmart Charities Web pages
- Consulting with Exxon/Mobil to refresh its intranet
- Providing one-on-one writing coaching for AMC Networks
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:
- ComPRehension, PRSA’s blog of public relations strategies and tactics
- Wylie Communications feed, click RSS
- Wylie’s Writing Tips