“Make the important interesting.”
James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly
Concrete details bring tedious topics to life
When Ian Jones needed to craft a — yawn! — diversity story for employees at Columbia Gas of Virginia, his first instinct was to go with a fact pack.
You can see Ian’s natural creativity peeking through with the concrete details in the headline and — buried deep but still breathing — in the lead.
But by the end of my Catch Your Readers Master Class in October, in Washington, D.C., Ian had totally rewritten his piece, letting the concrete details rise to the top. Here’s his before and after:
Ian’s first headline led with a bang. But at 17 words, it was trying to do too much. His final headline is just one word shorter, but better tells the story. I’d break his final headline into a head and deck:
From Tina Turner to Taylor Swift
Employees learn to see generational differences as an asset at Inclusion & Diversity kickoff
From Tina Turner to Taylor Swift, Three Generations of CGV Employees attend 2015 Statewide I&D Kick Off
From Tina Turner to Taylor Swift — Seeing generational differences as an asset instead of a barrier
Like (too) many of us, Ian was taught to cram all of the facts into the lead, so readers would get the key details before they stop reading after the first paragraph.
You can see the problem with that: a lead that is so thick that most readers will stop reading before the first paragraph. Plus, Ian’s delightful concrete details get smothered in all of the not-so-interesting facts.
Instead of a fact pack, write a lead that draws readers in with a concrete detail or three. Don’t tell the whole story in the lead — that’s what the whole story is for — but write a lead paragraph that entices people to read the second paragraph.
|Employees of Columbia Gas of Virginia’s (CGVs) regional Inclusion and Diversity councils met on January 28 in Chester for the 2015 Statewide I&D Kick Off. While the meeting didn’t quite look like Woodstock, a Billy Idol concert, or Bonnaroo, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials all came together for a day of learning and planning for the coming year. The day’s activities focused on working with Employees Resource Groups (ERGs) and bridging generational differences in the workplace. Deloras Jones, Manager of Inclusion & Diversity, and Jeffrey Hammonds, Senior I&D Consultant, facilitated the discussions.||While it didn’t quite look like Woodstock, A Billy Idol concert, or Bonnaroo — likeminded Baby boomers, Gen Xers, and Millenials came together to discuss … their differences.|
When you don’t feel compelled to put all of the W’s in the lead, they need someplace to go. Ian moves them into the nut paragraph.
|Members of Columbia Gas of Virginia’s (CGV) Inclusion & Diversity councils along with Employee Resource Group leaders joined one another to learn how to overcome generational differences in the workplace and to turn those differences into valuable assets. Key takeaways from the meeting will help shape upcoming events and professional development opportunities over the course of 2015.|
Here, Ian provides context for the story — the reason the diversity initiative is so important.
|Over the past 5 years CGV has seen an unprecedented influx of new young employees creating a wide generational gap within the organization.|
In his first version, Ian puts the emphasis on the event — what happened during the kickoff. In the second, he focuses on the impact: what the attendees learned that might be helpful to you, too.
|Mike Huwar, VP and general manager and Carl Levander, President, opened the session with a review of 2014 accomplishments and the business case for I&D. Jeffrey facilitated a panel discussion, “Get to Know Your ERGs,” with ERG representatives. The discussion gave attendees a chance to understand ERG objectives and ways I&D councils can support them.|
“ERGs are an excellent way for employees to get involved in shaping the success of our company as well as their own personal success within NiSource,” explained Sasha Furdak-Roy, Business Planning and Strategy Manager and Virginia liaison for GOLD. “I would challenge any employee to read the missions of GOLD, DAWN, LEAD, and NiVETS and say that nothing resonates with them. All ERGs offer professional and personal development opportunities for every employee along with focused events geared towards recruiting and retaining diverse talent at NiSource. That’s why I’m a member of all four ERGs.” Other representatives participating in the panel discussion included Andrew Watson with LEAD, Gina Slaunwhite with DAWN, and Joe Mays with NiVETS.
The day continued with a training session delivered by Deloras called “Mixing It Up: The Changing Landscape Across Generations.” Deloras shared NGD employee demographics which reflect a workforce comprised of four generations. The multi-generational workforce presents both advantages and challenges, Deloras pointed out. NiSource has a talented pool of employees with varying perspectives and skill sets but there is also the possibility of misunderstanding between the generations. The training session highlighted differences between generations and gave attendees an understanding of how to turn these differences into strengths instead of perceiving them as barriers.
“Employees who have been here for a while have a lot of valuable knowledge and experience while younger employees are able to offer a new and fresh perspective. We all have something different to contribute” added Kristine Johnson, Lead Regulatory Analyst and new member of the Surf-n-Turf regional I&D council.
By the session’s end, CGV regional I&D councils and ERG representatives gained a better understanding of how they can work together to achieve their objectives in 2015. Employees interested in joining an ERG can visit the MySource Inclusion & Diversity page for more information.
|Deloras Jones, Manager of I&D, led the keynote presentation “Mixing It Up: The Changing Landscape Across Generations.” She shared key tips for interacting with coworkers belonging to different generations.|
Tips for working with other generations
Ian summarizes the story in this penultimate paragraph.
|I&D Teams and ERGs are your tools for growth|
You can expect to see more tips on how to best interact with your fellow coworkers throughout the year. Sasha Furdak-Roy, Virginia liaison for GOLD, says “working with ERGs and your I&D Councils helps shape the success of our company and your own success within it.”
Ian ends with bang and circles back to the top with a concrete details kicker that leaves a lasting impression.
|While we may never agree on which is better — Taylor Swift’s “Love Song” or Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” — we can all see the value in recognizing and understanding those different perspectives.|
How can you use the feature-style story structure
and concrete details to bring your tedious topic to life?
Master the Art of the Storyteller
Fun facts and juicy details might seem like the Cheez Doodles and Cronuts of communication: tempting, for sure, but a little childish and not particularly good for you.
Concrete details are more like salad dressing and aioli — the secret sauces it takes to get the nutritious stuff down. People are more likely to:
- Understand messages laced with vivid images
- Remember important concepts when they’re preceded by colorful details
- Believe arguments that are illustrated with vivid examples
Bottom line: It’s the communicator’s job to “make the important interesting,” in the words of James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic. That’s not an easy job.
At Master the Art of the Storyteller — a two-day creative writing Master Class on Feb. 23-24 in Phoenix — you’ll learn to engage readers with fun facts, juicy details and other concrete elements. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:
- Show and tell: Help readers understand your big ideas by way of your specific details
- Play it SAFE: Six ways to add color to your message
- Write like a rollercoaster: Are you losing them in the middle? Test your message so you can spot and fix the boring parts
- Write to be read: Where to sprinkle “gold coins” throughout your message to keep readers engaged
- Go from blah to brilliant in 15 minutes or less: Quick ways to add concrete detail to tedious topics
If you’d like to flex your creative muscles … if you’d like to learn to sell creative elements to reviewers and approvers … if you’d like to rivet your readers with concrete details, this Master Class is for you.
Please join us to learn why Brent Buchanan, managing partner at Cygnal, writes of this Master Class: “You transformed my writing in a mere 12 hours.”
Save $100 until Jan. 23 only:
Our early bird deadline expires at 5 p.m.
“People spend 19 times the time, effort and expense to solve a pain than to reap a benefit.”
Chris Stiehl, “The Listening Coach”
Why negative messages gain traction
Did Stanley Kubrick fake the moon landings? Was President Obama holding a rocket launcher in a car with an ISIS leader? Does your favorite shampoo cause hair loss?No, no and probably not, according to Snopes’ “25 Hottest Urban Legends.”
Fear appeals work (Rev Up Readership members only; join Rev Up Readership), according to 50 years of research and 100 studies reviewed by researchers Kim Witte and Mike Allen. But what makes bad news — even when it’s not real news — gain such traction?
It’s evolutionary, writes Matthew Hutson in a recent article in The Atlantic. The more likely a message is to help us survive a threat (or find a mate), the more likely we are to believe it, remember it and share it.
- Fear appeals are more believable. In one study, subjects ranked the sources of negative messages (leeches clinging to your feet, software frying your hard drive, meat turning bitter on the stove) as much as 287% more knowledgeable than messages about the same subjects but with neutral themes. (Pascal Boyer & Nora Parren, “Threat-Related Information Suggests Competence,” PLOS One, June 2015)
- Fear appeals are more memorable. In another study, subjects read an urban legend, rewrote it from memory, and passed it on to the next person in a sequence like the game of telephone. At the end of the chain, subjects remembered the legends that would help them survive (serial killers and spiders) or rise socially (cybersex) much better than the control information. (Joseph M. Stubbersfield, Jamshid J. Tehrani & Emma G. Flynn, “Serial Killers, Spiders and Cybersex,” British Journal of Psychology, May 2015)
- Fear appeals get shared. When researchers analyzed 220 urban legends, they found that the stories were much more likely to mention threats than benefits. That makes sense: Evolutionarily, believing in a fake hazard is less harmful than disregarding a real one. And subjects found statements about topics ranging from German shepherds to Lasik surgery more believable when they mentioned risks, like mauling or double vision. (Daniel M. T. Fessler, Anne C. Pisor & Carlos David Navarrete, “Negatively-Biased Credulity and the Cultural Evolution of Beliefs,” PLOS One, April 2014)
For decades, fear appeals have been more effective (Rev Up Readership members only; join Rev Up Readership) at getting people to do everything from duck and cover to avoid texting while driving.
Why not accentuate the negative in your next campaign?
Don’t be afraid of fear appeals.
Using fear appeals may at first seem counterintuitive. But if you want to Catch Your Readers, you need to think like a reader. Then you need to use the bait your reader likes, not the bait you like.
At Catch Your Readers — a two-day Master Class on April 20-21 in Atlanta — we’ll debunk destructive writing myths. (You’re not still married to the inverted pyramid, are you?!) You’ll leave with scientific, proven-in-the-lab approaches for getting people to pay attention to, understand, remember and act on your messages.
Specifically, you’ll learn to how to:
- Think Like a Reader: Move people to act
- Go Beyond the Inverted Pyramid: Master a more effective structure
- 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
- Transform Your Story From “Meh” to Masterpiece: Bring your laptop and a story to work on, write and rewrite, get and give feedback, and leave with a totally rewritten piece.
If you’d like to move beyond the way we’ve always done it to learn what really works now … if you want to write messages that actually change behavior instead of simply publishing, posting and pushing send … if you’d like to become the go-to guy or gal for writing in your organization, this is the class for you.
Please join us to learn why Jennifer Uschold, senior manager of internal communications at Direct Energy, writes of this Master Class, “Fantastic! Within 90 minutes I was applying the ideas Ann presented.”
Save $100: Just 18 early bird tickets remain for this class. When they’re gone, they’re gone. If you’d like to secure the best price on this workshop, please register today.
“If your paragraph is too long, you might as well stamp it with red ink: ‘Don’t bother reading this paragraph.’”
Ann Wylie, writing coach and author of RevUpReadership.com
People skip long paragraphs
Readers take measure of — and make decisions about — your copy based on how it looks. One of the most important visual cues is paragraph length.
If your message looks too hard to read, people won’t read it. So hit Return more often: It’s one of the easiest ways to make your message more readable.
How often should you hit Return?
We turned to The New York Times to find out how long their paragraphs are. We analyzed 99 stories in the Dec. 15, 2014, edition of The New York Times. (We skipped the sports pages.)
On this day, Times paragraphs:
- Ranged from 1.3 sentences per paragraph (“Factory Output Higher Than Expected, Adding to Optimism“) to 9 sentences per paragraph for a one-paragraph brief (“Iowa: Halal Beef Supplier Is Charged With Fraud“).
- Averaged 2.4 sentences per paragraph.
- Weighed in at a median of two sentences per paragraph.
The Times is no fluffball news outlet. Can’t you make your paragraphs as inviting as the Times?
Pare down paragraphs
Here’s the problem with long paragraphs: Readers make decisions about your message based not on what you’ve said or on how well you said it but on what it looks like after you’ve said it. And paragraph length is one of your message’s most important visual cues.
But how long is too long?
At Cut Through the Clutter — our tight-writing Master Class on May 11-12 in Chicago — you’ll get proven-in-the-lab targets for paragraph length, tools for measuring your paragraphs and tips for keeping paragraphs tight and readable. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:
- Measure, monitor and manage paragraph length. What’s the average length of a print paragraph that readers are willing to read? An online paragraph? A lead?
- Punctuate with paragraphs. How to use — but not abuse — super-short paragraphs.
- Begin — and end — with a bang. How to make the most of your paragraph’s power points.
- Avoid the suitcase lead. If you stop stuffing all the W’s and H’s into the first paragraph, what goes there instead?
- Build a bridge — don’t erect a wall — at the top of your story. How to write lead paragraphs that draw readers in instead of making them flee.
If you’d like to drill down into the nitty-gritty of readability … if you’d like to learn not just what to do but how and why … if you’d like to finally convince your reviewers to stop muddying up your messages with 200-word paragraphs, this is the course for you.
Join us to learn why Kevin Trenga, manager of marketing communications for The Raymond Corp called this workshops, “The most concise, outstanding ‘short course’ on cleaning up copy.”
Save $100: Just 15 early bird tickets remain for this class. When they’re gone, they’re gone. If you’d like to secure the best price on this workshop, please register today.
“What I really like about a (press release) is when it scratches my reader’s itch and not your client’s itch.”
A trade journal editor quoted in Public Relations Tactics
Silver Anvil winners show it’s not ‘us and our stuff’
Front-loading your headlines with your topic word just makes sense if your readers are going to encounter those headlines in online lists — a search engine results page, for instance, or your online newsroom.
That’s because readers look at only the first two or three words of the headline when scanning lists (Rev Up Readership members only; join Rev Up Readership). This technique is so important that usability expert Jakob Nielsen ranks it the No. 1 thing you can do to improve the ROI of your website.
But what’s the topic?
Too many communicators (and, let’s be honest, their reviewers) believe that the company or its product or service is the topic. But the real topic is the reader or what they reader can do, as these Silver Anvil Award-winning headlines demonstrate:
Blood Cancer Patients and Advocates Visit Capitol Hill to Inspire Continued Support for Be the Match
July 18 Legislative Day event
aimed at delivering more cures to patients in need
— Be the Match
Silver Anvil Award-winning campaign
Parents and teen drivers dangerously disconnected
New State Farm survey reveals an alarming gap between parents’ and teens’ views on driver safety licensing laws
— State Farm
Silver Anvil Award-winning campaign
Color Your Easter with Eggs
HGTV Interior Designer Sabrina Soto
Offers Easter Decorating Tips to “Dye” for
— Edelman and The Egg Board
Silver Anvil Award-winning campaign
Before spring planting, expert says,
“Dig a little. Learn a lot.”
— Natural Resources Conservation Service
Silver Anvil Award-winning campaign
Survey: Cover crops deliver strong harvest amid drought
Agency focuses on helping
farmers build resilient farms through soil health
— Natural Resources Conservation Service
Silver Anvil Award-winning campaign
Don’t write about us and our stuff. To catch your reader, write about the reader and the reader’s needs.
Heads up on headlines
“When you finish writing your headline,” David Ogilvy liked to say, “you’ve spent 80 cents of your advertising dollar.”
That’s why I’m often amazed that the same folks who spend hours polishing the quote in the fourth paragraph toss off a headline in the 17 seconds before happy hour on a Friday afternoon. Most of your readers will never see the fourth paragraph of your brilliant copy. But many more will read your headlines and other display copy.
At NOT Your Father’s News Release — our two-day PR-writing workshop on July 27-28 in Portland, Oregon — you’ll learn current best practices, proven in the lab, for polishing your PR piece’s headline, deck, lead, body, quotes and more. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:
- Write stories that reporters want to cover and that readers want to read: Find out which story angles draw journalists and their readers in — and which make them flee.
- Avoid PR headline words: Shun these lame, overused terms and make your release stand out from the crowd.
- Write headlines for news portals: If your headline is too long, portals will cut it off. (Google News rejects one in five releases for this reason.)
- Stop dropping the one element most people read on a Web page: Most PR writers skip it regularly.
- Set up the story: See how your story will appear on search engine results pages — and learn how to craft key elements to get readers to click.
If you’d like to make over your release … if you’d like to gain more and better news coverage … if you’d like to stop writing fill-in-the-blanks quotes … this Master Class is for you.
Join us to learn why Daphne Siefert Herron, senior communications officer at Indiana University, said of this Master Class, “This is the best and most practical training I’ve ever had. I’ll use all of her tips on a daily basis.”
Save $100: Just 20 early bird tickets remain for this class. When they’re gone, they’re gone. If you’d like to secure the best price on this workshop, please register today.
“Writing for the Web isn’t taking what you wrote in Word, hitting control-C and pasting it into a Web page.”
Chris Williams, FedEx content manager
Online reading causes dry eyes, blurred vision
People who spend hours staring at screens — and that’s your online audience, right? — suffer chemical changes in their tears similar to folks with dry eye, according to a study in JAMA Ophthalmology. Symptoms include irritation, burning and blurred vision.
Screen reading problems
Reading on the screen is hard for a simple reason: Our eyes weren’t made to stare at little beige boxes all day. When reading online, your readers face these special problems:
- Light. Reading online is like reading with a flashlight shining in your eyes.
- Blinking. People blink less often when reading online than when reading print. That’s a problem, because blinking is what keeps our eyes moist and relaxed. They also open their eyes wider when reading on the screen. That makes their tears evaporate faster and leads to dry eye.
- Scrolling. The human eye has a normal reflex called optokinetic nystagmus. That’s scientist talk for the way our eyes flit across the screen to follow scrolling type. That constant jumping up and down can wear your readers out and cause eyestrain.
Some 12 million Americans visit eye doctors each year because of computer-related problems, according to the American Optometric Association. That’s one out of every five people who come in for an eye exam.
“I’ve had people come to our clinic saying they were going to quit their jobs because they couldn’t take it,” David Grisham, optometry professor at the University of California, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Not exactly the purpose of your intranet, is it?
Don’t make your reader turn a blind eye to your message.
Overcome the obstacles of reading online
One of my goals in life is to never write anything that makes my readers throw up, resign or forget where they parked their car. But that’s actually possible when writing for the Web.
- Tired, achy, stinging eyes
- Dry or watery eyes
- Blurred or double vision
- Neck, back and shoulder pain
- Difficulty thinking
Reading online hurts. No wonder people avoid it!
At Get Clicked, Read, Liked and Shared — our online-writing Master Class on Sept. 28-29 in New York — you’ll learn techniques for overcoming the obstacles of reading on the screen to get the word out on the Web, in social media and via content marketing.
Specifically, you’ll learn to how to:
- Tighten your page or post. Reading online takes 25% longer, according to usability expert Jakob Nielsen. How much shorter, then, should it be?
- Double the amount of time people spend on your page. People spend twice as much time looking at Web pages with short paragraphs, according to The Poynter Institute. How short should yours be?
- Boost usability by 124%. It just takes three simple copywriting steps.
- Choose the right reading grade level for Twitter and Facebook. (Hint: Yours is probably too high.)
- Avoid irritating your visitor by chopping instead of chunking.
If you’d like to watch your social media reach and influence grow … if you’d like to reach nonreaders online … if you’d like to avoid giving your readers a headache … this Master Class is for you.
Join us to learn why Jill Stueck, corporate affairs director at AT&T, wrote of Ann’s Web writing workshop, “A great course for virtually every level of Web writer, from beginner to expert.”
Save $100: Just 19 early bird tickets remain for this class. When they’re gone, they’re gone. If you’d like to secure the best price on this workshop, please register today.
Would you like to hold an in-house Get Clicked, Read, Shared & Liked workshop? Contact Ann directly.
“The best there is. You make us think. Not a lecture, more an intellectual challenge.”
Curt McCormick, marketing communications executive, Inova Mount Vernon Hospital
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:
- Atlanta on April 20-21: Catch Your Readers, a two-day Master Class
- Chicago on May 11-12: Cut Through the Clutter, a two-day tight-writing Master Class
- New York on Sept. 28-29: Get Clicked, Read, Shared & Liked, a two-day Web- and social media-writing Master Class
- Phoenix on Feb. 23-24: Make Your Copy More Creative, a two-day creative writing Master Class
- Portland on July 27-28: NOT Your Father’s News Release, a two-day PR-writing Master Class
- Your own home or office on on Feb. 17: Cut Through the Clutter, a one-hour webinar for PRSA
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:
- Atlanta: April 20-21
- Bloomington, Indiana: April 5
- Chicago: May 11-12
- Englewood, Colorado: March 16-17
- Houston: Nov. 2-3
- New York: Sept. 28-29
- Phoenix: Feb. 23-24
- Portland: July 27-28
- San Antonio: Jan. 14
- San Diego: June 28-29
- Vacaville, California: March 1-2
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 a workshop for Inova Health System
- Presenting a Master Class in New York
- Presenting a webinar for PRSA
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