One or 1,001? | March 2010

“[Good writers] tell not of a battle, but of a soldier, they talk not about governance, but about a deal, they discuss not a socioeconomic group, but a person and a life.”
— Donald M. Murray,
Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist,
in Writing to Deadline: The Journalist at Work

One or 1,001?

Why ‘one individual trumps the masses’

“If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

— Mother Teresa


You’re in charge of a humanitarian effort to rescue refugees of Rwandan genocide. You’ve got enough money to save 4,500 lives. Would you rather save 4,500 refugees from a camp holding 11,000 people or 4,500 from a camp holding 250,000?

That’s the decision psychologist Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon asked two groups of research participants to make, author Shankar Vedantam reports in his new book, The Hidden Brain. Slovic found that people were way more reluctant to spend the money on the large camp than they were to spend it on the small one.

Save 10,000 lives instead of 20,000

Hmmmmm, Slovic said. OK, how about this: You’re running a philanthropic foundation. Would you rather spend $10 million to save 10,000 lives from a disease that caused 15,000 deaths a year, or save 20,000 lives from a disease that killed 290,000 people a year?

Overwhelmingly, the research participants said they’d rather spend money saving the 10,000 lives rather than the 20,000 lives. What?! Rather than invest in saving the most lives, these folks sought to save the largest proportion of lives within a group of victims.

Are they crazy?! Nope. That’s just how our brains work, Vedantam writes:

“I want to offer a disturbing idea. The reason human beings seem to care so little about mass suffering and death is precisely because the suffering is happening on a mass scale. The brain is simply not very good at grasping the implications of mass suffering. Americans would be far more likely to step forward if only a few people were suffering or a single person were in pain.… Our hidden brain — my term for a host of unconscious mental processes that subtly bias our judgment — shapes our compassion into a telescope. We are best able to respond when we are focused on a single victim.”

We care less about more

So we don’t feel 20 times sadder when we learn that 20 people have died in a disaster than we do when we learn that one person has died. We don’t even feel twice as sad. In fact, we may actually care less.

Consider another study, this one reported by Chip Heath and Dan Heath in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. In this study, people read one of two letters. The first featured statistics about the magnitude of the problems facing children in Africa. The second shared the story of a single African girl named Rokia.

On average, the people who read the statistics contributed $1.14. The people who read about Rokia contributed $2.38 — more than twice as much.

“It seems that most people have something in common with Mother Teresa,” the Heath brothers write. “When it comes to our hearts, one individual trumps the masses.”

So how can you appeal to the heart? Show me one.

Show me one

Want to master the art of letting individuals stand for your point?


Sources: Shankar Vedantam, “The little dog lost at sea,” The Week, Feb. 16, 2010; Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Random House, 2007

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“If you would persuade, you must appeal to interest rather than intellect.”
— Ben Franklin, signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution

Seek higher authority

Move readers to act

I’ve been nagging my husband, Phil, to get regular massages — at least every other week — for 23 years. You’ll feel better, I say. Reduce stress. Get some blood flowing into your creaky knees. Be more flexible at the gym.

VOICE OF AUTHORITY: Academics, experts and analysts top the chart of the most trustworthy people, according to the 2010 Edelman Trust Barometer

Nah, he’s said for 23 years. Don’t need ’em.

Last week, Phil had his once-every-five-years rubdown at Ten Thousand Waves in Santa Fe.

“You should get regular massages,” his massage therapist, Karma, said. “At least every other week.”

“I should get regular massages,” Phil reported to me later. “At least every other week.”

While I’m grateful for Phil’s good Karma for setting him on the path to enlightenment, I also found it a little irritating that my husband bought the massage therapist’s advice, but not mine.

But then, social science explains that. Turns out Phil was just responding to the persuasive principle of authority: We look to experts to show us the way.

Authority recently got a boost, according to the 2010 Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual study of global opinion leaders. While people are less likely to trust their peers (a consequence of having 762 “friends” on Facebook?), they place the most trust in expert spokespeople and information sources.

Academics, experts and analysts are now the top three voices of credible information — outweighing peers, CEOs and company employees, according to the barometer. And analysts’ reports and articles in business magazines and newspapers now out-influence conversations with company employees and advice on social networking sites, according to the study.

So how can you tap the persuasive power of authority?

  • Quote experts and authority figures in your persuasive copy.
  • Don’t drop traditional PR efforts. Journalists remain important authority figures, according to the Edelman study. Let them help you tell your story.
  • Cite your credentials. When an executive published the credentials of people brought in to turn around a London bureau, the government monitoring and advisory panel was more accepting of the rate and type of change the team made, reports Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive.
  • Arrange for someone else to cite your credentials. In a study, researcher Jeffrey Pfeffer and his team asked one group to read passages about an author’s credentials from the author’s agent and a second group to read the same comments made by the author himself, according to Yes! Participants rated the author more highly on nearly every measure when the author’s agent sang his praises than when the author tooted his own horn. Testimonials, third-party introductions and displays of your diplomas and trophies shine a light for you without making you look arrogant.
  • Look the part. Use design to increase your authority in social media, suggests viral marketing scientist Dan Zarella. Off-the-shelf themes and default templates are for rookies. Invest in a custom design that’s unique to your site, blog or page and that presents you as an expert. While you’re at it, make sure your design is sophisticated and professional. Avoid a MySpace-y look.

And if all else fails? Maybe you can get Karma to intervene.

Move readers to act

Want to master the art of writing copy that sells, not just products and services, but programs, plans and positions, as well?


Sources: Noah J. Goldstein, Steve J. Martin and Robert B. Cialdini, Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, Free Press, 2008; 2010 Edelman Trust Barometer, Edelman, 2010

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

Mark time

Try a chronological structure

Work on a client’s new website has me thinking about navigational structure.

Move with the times: offers a week-by-week pregnancy planner

Whether you’re organizing a website or a magazine article, a museum exhibit or your family’s letters and memorabilia, there are only five ways to structure information. Richard Saul Wurman, author of Information Architects, uses the acronym LATCH to define them:

For your website’s structure to work, each navigational component should fit one of these approaches.

Take time.

Years ago, one of my colleagues came up with a great idea for a newsletter for pregnant women based on chronological structure: Distribution would be based on subscribers’ due dates.

Each month, subscribers would get an issue telling them what to expect and do during that month of their own pregnancy. Best of all, as publisher, you’d produce just nine issues of the newsletter, cycling subscribers through the issues instead of issues through subscribers.

Now is going my colleague one better with its week-by-week Pregnancy Planner and daily Babygram e-zine, both tied to exactly what’s going on with your body or fetus based on your due date.

Of course,’s entire website is organized chronologically: fertility, pregnancy, baby, toddler, child, mom. (If I were organizing this site, I’d put recipes, activities, gear and community — four categorical buttons — into a separate nav bar, perhaps on the right side of the page. Because some of these things just don’t belong.)

Does your organization’s business suggest a chronological structure? If so, consider basing your navigation on time.

And if you’re organizing chronologically, why not make your piece a timeline?

Caveat: Make sure you’re not organizing by time when your readers are thinking in categories. Most blog archives are organized chronologically. Are your visitors more interested in your content on, say, organizing information, or do they really want to know what you were thinking on Feb. 23, 2010? If the former, you might want to consider a separate categorical index for your postings.

Ditto newsrooms.

Learn more about “when” stories.

Reach Readers Online

Want more tips for getting the word out on the Web? If so, please join me at PRSA’s March 25 teleseminar, “Writing for Social Media.” You’ll learn how to:

  • Use the 70-20-10 rule for engaging your followers, plus other tips for making sure your status updates are welcome guests, not intrusive pests
  • Pass the “who cares?” test and four other techniques for becoming a resource, not a bore, on social media.
  • Get retweeted. Five steps for expanding your influence and reach on Twitter
  • Tweet like the FBI. Write dramatic, compelling status updates that draw followers and get clicks
  • Make your posts personable. There’s a reason they call it “social” media
  • Tweak your tweets. Get your message across in 140 characters or less. Plus, learn how to make140 characters go further — and when you must come in under the character limit

Learn about my other upcoming teleseminars.

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“Very valuable for the whole group — worth every penny (and a lot more).”
— Arthur E.F. Wiese Jr., vice president, Corporate Communications, Entergy
Find out what others say about Ann’s writing workshops

Bring Ann to your team via teleseminar

Save on training fees and travel expenses with Ann’s virtual workshops

When you bring one of Ann’s workshops to your team via teleseminar, you can:

  • Save money. Save on travel costs — not just for Ann, but also for far-flung members of your team.
  • Involve more people. Anyone with a phone can participate, even team members located in other offices, cities, states or countries. HSBC, Novartis and Saint Gobain are among the companies that have brought their worldwide staffs together for a series of training sessions via a teleseminar with Ann.
  • Develop a series of training programs. Bringing Ann in for on-site sessions once a month or every Tuesday for six weeks just isn’t practical for most organizations. But it is affordable to host an ongoing series of teleseminars. That makes it easier for people to fit training into their schedules — and to process and apply what they’ve learned between sessions.
  • Schedule programs at your convenience. Ann can often fit in a teleseminar even when she’s not available for on-site programs. As Ann’s training schedule sells out earlier and earlier each year, teleseminars can give you much more flexibility in selecting training dates.

Most of Ann’s programs are available via teleseminar.

To talk about bringing one of Ann’s programs to your team, contact me.

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“Five times as many people read the headline as the body copy. When you’ve written your headline, you’ve spent 80 cents of your dollar.”
— David Ogilvy, “the father of advertising,” in Ogilvy on Advertising

Billboard your story

What editors can learn from podcasters

“On the show today: giant carnivorous birds, flying snakes, and what all of that has to do with how you season your French fries.”

That’s how Caitlin Kenney, associate producer of NPR’s “Planet Money,” introduced a recent podcast about the history of spices. These summaries at the top of radio shows and podcasts are called billboards.

And that’s what publication editors can learn from podcasters: Billboard your stories. Tell readers what they’re going to get and sell them on the story to promote your content.

Nobody billboards better than “Planet Money.” In fact, sometimes one host will congratulate another on a billboard.

“That was very well billboarded,” contributing editor Alex Blumberg said after Kenney’s spice story promotion.

So how can you create praiseworthy billboards for your publication?

1. Choose the right billboard.

Billboards are known “refers” in the publication world. (Not that, silly! Refers because they refer readers to specific stories.)

They come in many forms. Consider billboarding your story in coverlinestables of contentsskyboxesrailsrefers and indexes.

2. Draw readers in.

There are two main ways to drive readers to your story, whether in print or in podcast: 1) promise a benefit or 2) entertain. So focus on news readers can use or choose or on creative techniques like humor, drama or human interest for your billboard.

“Planet Money” entertains with billboards that tease the listener into sticking around for the story. (Yes, these people manage to make complicated economics stories hilarious or heart-warming — a skill any communicator could emulate.)

Here are some recent “Planet Money” billboards:

“On the show today, homeowners who want to be foreclosed on, and banks saying, ‘Eeeh … let’s wait a minute.’ The foreclosure mess enters a topsy-turvy, upside-down new phase, and we’ll hear all about the fascinating details from a foreclosure attorney in Phoenix.”

Alex Blumberg: “Our topic today, David, is tied to our economic indicator. The indicator is $14 billion. And that is one estimate for the size of California’s largest cash crop.” David Kestenbaum: “Oranges?” Alex: “Nope.” David: “Organic milk?” Alex: “No. … Marijuana.” David: “I thought that number seemed high.”

“On our show today, a story about a cable TV producer from New Jersey, a podcasting Libertarian economist, an international pop superstar and the two dead economists who brought them all together.”

“On the podcast today, we have something almost every economist loves and almost everyone else hates. Well, not everyone, but a lot of people.”

Adam Davidson: “Today, we have the second half of our look at Denmark.” David Kestenbaum: “Denmark: the awesome-est economy on earth, the country that figured everything out and figured out the best way to …” Adam: “(interrupting) Alright, David. Easy, easy …”

Get more tips for writing refers.

3. Don’t drop the billboard.

Content promotion — advertising stories within your publication — helps drive readership. Don’t forget to promote your stories within the publication itself.

Rev Up Readership

Want to master the art of lifting your ideas off the page with display copy?

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“My purpose,” wrote one writer, “is to make what I write entertaining enough to compete with beer.”
— Kenneth Atchity, author of A Writer’s Time

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: March 5 and 10; July 9
  • Cleveland: May 20
  • Detroit: May 6-7
  • Lake of the Ozarks, Mo.: June 16
  • New York: March 19
  • Portland, Ore.: Aug. 5-Sept. 13
  • San Francisco: June 18
  • Scottsdale, Ariz.: April 27
  • Tacoma, Wash.: Aug. 11
  • Toronto: June 9

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:

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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