Readers want less | December 2009

“Brevity is the sister of talent.”
— Anton Chekhov, Russian playwright

Readers want less

Establish copy length limits

Size does matter. All things else being equal, your readers would rather read a short piece than a long piece.
In writing — as in eating, imbibing, reality TV viewing and so much else in life — it’s good to set limits. In other words, establish an appropriate length limit for each piece you write. Here are some ideas for inspiration:

  • The recommended length of the average press release has dropped from 400 words B.I. (before Internet) to 250 words A.I. (after Internet), according to B.L. Ochman. What have you done to respond to the obstacles of screen reading in your PR and other communications?
  • What’s the best length for a tweet? While Twitter cuts you off at 140 characters, the better limit is actually 129 characters, according usability expert Jakob Nielsen. That allows for the average 11-character attribution that gets added whenever anyone retweets your status update.
  • Sandra Oliver, a researcher at Thames Valley University in London, found that employees would read about 400 words of their CEO’s message. How long is your CEO’s message? If it’s longer than 400 words, did you put the words you don’t want employees to read after the first 400?

The right length for each piece, of course, depends — on the topic, audience, medium, vehicle, budget and other matters of judgment. But using these ideas and observations, you can establish general copy length limits.

Cut Through the Clutter

Is your copy easy to read and understand? That’s one of the two key questions people ask to determine whether to read a piece — or toss it. If you’d like more techniques for making your copy clearer and more concise, please join me at PRSA’s Jan. 21 teleseminar, “Cut Through the Clutter.”

You’ll learn:

  • How to edit by the numbers: How long should your paragraphs be? Your sentences? Your words?
  • Three effective ways to shorten your copy
  • A “funnel system” you can use to make the editing process more efficient and effective
  • How to avoid a reader backlash that could be causing people to toss your copy without reading it
  • Techniques for solving the “visual duration-sensing apparatus” problem
  • An easy approach for making your copy more conversational
  • How to use the “word count” function to make your copy easier to read

Learn about my other upcoming teleseminars.

Source: Ann Wylie, Cut Through the Clutter, Wylie Communications Inc., 2005

“tl;dr — too long, didn’t read. Favorite response
to unwieldy blog posts.”
Urban Dictionary

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How is investing like the Triple Crown?

Covering a tough topic? Develop an analogy

I’ve attended two horse races in my life, and I paid a lot more attention to the hats than the horses. (As my husband says, “Ann’s sport is dressing for dinner.”)

So when I needed to develop a horse-racing analogy for a behavioral finance article in a mutual fund company’s marketing magazine, I needed a lot of help. Thank goodness for my best friend and research assistant, Google, and her team of online fact-finders. I turned to these three tools for a quick education in horse racing:

  • OneLook Reverse Dictionary to brush up on the vocabulary of the sport. This tool lets you describe a concept to get a list of words and phrases related to that concept.
  • Google to define some of those terms. Just type “Define: term” into the search box to turn Google into a thesaurus. Your results will be all the definitions for your term online.
  • Wikipedia to learn the history, facts and figures of horse racing.

Between these resources, I dug up enough anecdotes and analogies, facts and phrases, and images and ideas to develop extended analogies for several articles. Here’s one section of the final piece:

“Don’t lose by a head.

“In the 1957 Kentucky Derby, jockey Bill Shoemaker misjudged the finish line and stopped riding Gallant Man for just a moment. That move gave Iron Liege and Bill Bartack the victory.

“There are a lot of inches in a 1 3/16-mile race, and Gallant Man lost by just a few of them.

“There are a lot of decisions in a lifetime of investing, and your portfolio can get beaten by a few bad ones. Here are four common emotional investing missteps to avoid …”

Don’t have access to a subject matter expert? That’s no reason not to add an analogy to make your technical topic easier to understand. Instead, use Google and other online tools to identify and develop analogies for your complex concept.

Rev Up Readership Gold members, get nearly 70 tipsheets on writing metaphors to clarify complex concepts, take the numb out of numbers, reinvent clichés and otherwise make your copy more creative.

“The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor.”
— Aristotle in the Poetics

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Share, share, share

Purina Cat Chow offers a case study on bringing home the bottom line

I don’t know about you, but any campaign that includes a Myers-Briggs-type personality test for cats is a winner in my eyes.

But will identifying five feline personality types put you on the fast track for promotions, raises and bonuses? When layoffs loom, will the boss say, “Yes, I know we have to let 80 percent of our people go. But she’s the one who helped us figure out that Gigi was a Bossy Cat and Mimi was a Scaredy Cat”?


It takes more than creativity — let’s face it: It takes more than communication — to help you become a player in your organization.

It takes bottom-line business results. And that’s what communicators at Purina Cat Chow delivered in their Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) Silver Anvil Award-winning campaign, “Way of Life Experience.”

In 2004, the 25-year-old brand was losing market share to its competitors, specifically Iams, whose scientific positioning had helped it gain ground. The folks at Purina decided to go beyond diet to position the brand with a whole-cat approach that included exercise, dental hygiene, emotional well-being and companionship.

Enter the Purrsonality test, tour and attendant publicity efforts.

Communicators could — and did — report PR results, like placements, impressions and event attendance. But the real results measured the bottom line:

The campaign helped Purina Cat Chow post a 2.7 percent increase in market share to lead the dry cat food category.

Want to be a winner? Instead of measuring whether communication occurred (placements, impressions, attendance), measure what happened because communication occurred.

Want more inspiration from organizations that measure and move bottom-line performance through communication? Check out PRSA’s The Business Case for Public Relations case studies. You’ll find profiles of best-in-class PR programs that have achieved bottom-line business successes.

Rev Up Readership Gold members: Learn more techniques for creating communications that get bottom-line results.

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Book Ann now and save

Lock in this year’s fees for next year’s programs

Because of increasing demand for my programs, I’ll be increasing the fees for my writing workshops on Jan. 2. Now, for a limited time, you can lock in 2009 fees for 2010 programs.

To get this year’s fees for next year’s programs, you must complete booking (that is, get a signed contract and deposit to me) by Dec. 31. To book a program, contact me directly.

“[Ann’s workshop delivered] lots of good information. After 20 years in the business, I still have new things to learn.”
— Bryan Berry, Communications Consultant, ConnectiCare

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Top trends 2010

What to look for next, from

My husband, Phil, and I were hunched over our second double hamachi roll when a group of 20-somethings flounced into Sushi Ota, the fabulous San Diego sushi restaurant located next door to a 7-11.

It was early Sunday evening, but the tiny restaurant was packed with patrons who’d booked early to make sure they didn’t miss out on spicy tuna with green ball, Baja lobster sashimi or other fresh, silky seafood treats.

Sorry, the hostess told the group, no seats.

The leader of the pack, a tall blond tottering on murderous heels, was not pleased. She hustled her friends out the door, then turned back to menace:

“We will Yelp this!”

“We will Yelp this!” I said to Phil. “That’s a real-time review! It’s trend No. 3 on’s top trends of 2010!”

“Slurp,” said Phil, swatting my hand away from the last piece of California roll stuffed with fresh Dungeness crab.

Hoping that you’re more interested than Phil, I give you three of’s top 10 list for 2010:

  • Urbany. says: “Urban culture is the culture. Extreme urbanization, in 2010, 2011, 2012 and far beyond will lead to more sophisticated and demanding consumers around the world.” Subtrend: Urban pride. You’ll know it when: You mix your signature cocktail using New Orleans, Absolut vodka’s mango-black pepper blend inspired by the city.
  • Mass mingling. says: “Online lifestyles are fueling and encouraging ‘real world’ meet-ups like there’s no tomorrow, shattering all clichés and predictions about a desk-bound, virtual, isolated future.” You’ll know it when: You use Loopt to stalk your favorite professional dancer from “Dancing With the Stars.”
  • Tracking and alerting. says: “Tracking and alerting are the new search, and 2010 will see countless new INFOLUST services that will help consumers expand their web of control.” You’ll know it when: You open a Specialty Café and Bakery “Warm Cookie Radar” email message, alerting you that a batch of fresh cookies has just come out of the oven.

Use these trends to develop new story angles, update your communication strategy and fascinate friends and strangers.

Download full descriptions of’s top 10 trends for 2010.

Rev Up Readership Gold members: Get dozens of more ideas for developing creative story approaches.

“Creativity is an import-export game. It is not a creation game.”
— Ronald S. Burt, sociologist, University of Chicago

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Cut your training costs

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: March 5
  • Cleveland: Nov. 30 – Dec. 3
  • New York: Dec. 11
  • San Francisco: June 18
  • Tacoma, Wash.: Aug. 11

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

Contact me to discuss piggybacking.

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Polish your skills

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:

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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