Pull the trigger | April 2010

“The philosophy behind much advertising is based
on the old observation that every man is really two men —
the man he is and the man he wants to be.”
—William Feather, author and aphorist

Pull the trigger

Create an environment for your message

My mother serves as Wylie Communications’ bookkeeper. (Yes, Mom still balances my checkbook.)

When she asked me recently to bring a bag full of business documents over, I put the bag on the bench by my front door so I’d see it on my way out. After forgetting the bag twice, I laced my purse straps through the bag handles. The act of untangling my purse finally reminded me to carry the bag to the car.

That’s called an environmental trigger — a visual cue in the right place to remind you to act in a certain way.

You use environmental triggers all the time:

  • That’s why your vitamins are on the shelf in front of your cereal box.
  • It’s why your take-at-bedtime prescription is on your bedside table next to your reading glasses.
  • It’s why the first thing I see when I open my refrigerator is a party-sized tray of crudités from Costco. (Which, sadly, doesn’t keep me from reaching around the tray to grab the sour cream dip.)

Environmental triggers move you to act. You can also use them to move your audience members to act.

Get trigger happy

In a recent study, professors Jonah A. Berger and Grainne Fitzsimons used triggers to get college students to eat more vegetables.

In the study, one group of students saw this slogan:

“Live the healthy way, eat five fruits and veggies a day.”

Another group saw this one:

“Each and every dining-hall tray needs five fruits and veggies a day.”

The group that saw the message with the environmental trigger — the tray — ate 25 percent more fruits and vegetables the next week.

Another trigger-happy campaign is AT&T’s “It Can Wait” pledge on Facebook:

“Take out your phone right now and look at the last text message you got. Read it out loud. Is that text worth causing an accident? Texting and driving, it can wait. Please take the pledge not to text while driving. …’

Why not “Think of the last text message you got?” Because your phone’s the trigger. Next time you pull it out while you’re behind the wheel, AT&T communicators hope, you’ll think “It can wait.”

Do it now

BJ Fogg, experimental psychologist at the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University, catalogs three kinds of triggers:
  • The facilitator, which simplifies an action you already plan to take. One-click shopping, for instance.
  • The spark, which motivates behavior. I get alerts from Mint.com on my iPhone, for instance, every time I buy a Twix bar or otherwise threaten to step outside my budget.
  • The signal, which neither motivates nor simplifies but indicates that now would be a good time to do this. A traffic light, for instance, is a signal.

Now comes the hard part: Choosing the right trigger for your message, given your audience and where they’re likely to be when you want them to act.

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: Chip Heath and Dan Heath, “Time to Get Trigger Happy,” Fast Company, October 2007

BJ Fogg, “Design for behavior change: Why Facebook and Twitter are winning,” IABC 2009 World Conference, June 2009

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“For all I know, writing comes out of
a superior devotion to reading.”
— Eudora Welty,
author of stories from the American South

Kindle your creativity

‘He was a human nail’

After 15 years of schlepping books from sea to shining sea, I can now fit all of my reading materials into my purse, thanks to Kindle.

I thought the thing I’d love most about my e-reader would be the extra mini-fridge-sized space it leaves in my luggage for necessities like thick Marimekko sweaters and airport-sized Fazer chocolate bars that I collect on my trips. It turns out that my favorite feature is “My clippings,” a tool that transforms my highlights and notes into text that I can transfer to my laptop.

After a couple of months of reading on a reader, I decided to review my clippings. What I found will help me — and, I hope, you — model the masters, or steal techniques from some of the year’s best writers to make your own writing more creative and compelling.

1. Use metaphor, not modifiers.

One problem with modifiers — thin, lean, straight — is that they don’t paint pictures in your readers’ heads. Instead of simply describing your subject with adjectives and adverbs, engage your readers’ senses with analogy.

Meg Gardiner used this technique to describe a charismatic religious leader in her Edgar Award-winning mystery, China Lake:

“Peter Wyoming didn’t shake hands with people; he hit them with his presence like a rock fired from a sling-shotHe was a human nail, lean and straight with brush-cut hair, and when I first saw him he was carrying a picket sign and enough rage to scorch the ground.”

Find yourself writing an adjective or adverb? Could you develop an analogy instead?

2. Coin a word.

Rebecca Goldstein is quite the neologist. In 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, she creates half-and-half words in this passage:

“Auerbach harbors such impatience for the glib literati—the ‘gliberati,’ as one of his own digerati had christened them—that Cass has wondered whether there might not be some personal history.”

Can’t find just the right word? Why not make one up?

3. Twist a phrase.

To call attention to an idea, change a word or two in a colloquialism to give it new meaning.

After seeing David Mamet’s Boston Marriage hilariously performed by the Kansas City Actors Theatre, I read the play to make sure I didn’t miss any lines like this phrase twister:

“ANNA: Have you taken a vow of arrogance?”

Want to call readers’ attention to your point? Surprise and delight your readers with twist of phrase.

Model the masters

Regardless of your reading technology, modeling the masters is one of the best ways to improve your writing every day. When you find a passage or phrase or word you wish you’d written, clip it, study and master the technique yourself.

The better your reading, the better your writing.

What’s in your clippings?

Increase readership with feature-style writing

Would you like to learn more ways to use creative story elements to engage your readers?

If so, please join me at PRSA’s April 22 teleseminar, “Go Beyond the Inverted Pyramid: Increase Readership With Feature-style Writing.”

Traditional, inverted pyramid-style stories “do not work well with readers” and “do not justify their predominance in today’s newspapers,” according to a study by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Feature-style stories, on the other hand, increase reader satisfaction and improves the chance that it will be read thoroughly, among a host of other benefits, according to a new study by The Readership Institute.

In this program, you’ll learn how to:

  • Avoid bewildering your readers by leaving out an essential paragraph (Alas, many public relations pros are guilty of this.)
  • Organize the “muddle in the middle”
  • Watch out for five lead devices that could make readers skip your story
  • Leave a lasting impression with a three-step technique for ending with a bang
  • Use three steps for writing more engaging leads

Learn about my other upcoming teleseminars.

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“coma factor: The degree of dullness of a meeting, presentation or reading material. ‘So let’s try to describe this issue in language with a low coma factor.'”
— BuzzWhack

Notes from New York

Write with your eraser

As my plane lands at LaGuardia, I look down at the 23-square-mile strip of land that is Manhattan and think, “I can do that.” (When I land at LAX, on the other hand, I look down on Los Angeles and think, “I need a nap.”)

Right now, I’m in New York on one of my twice-yearly adventures. Using the excuse of judging the PRSA Silver Anvils, I’ve stayed for a week, running from Battery Park to Barney Greengrass Sturgeon King, taking in as many museums, restaurants, plays and shops as my wallet and feet can handle. And, it goes without saying, thinking great thoughts about writing along the way.

Here are some notes from my trip …

Write with your eraser.

If Leslie Vance were a writer, her most important tools would be an eraser and a delete key.

Vance, one of the most compelling artists in the new Whitney Biennial, is inspired by the seventeenth-century Spanish still-lifes. She arranges and lights fruit, shells and other objects, then “paints” the arrangement using a palette knife, scraping away layers of paint to create the final piece.

In writing, sometimes it’s what you scrape away that reveals the most gripping argument. Look at the copy you’re working on today. Don’t ask “What could I add?” Instead, ask: “What could I take away to make this piece stronger and more vivid?”

Don’t express yourself abstractly.

Mark Rothko might have been a master of Abstract Expressionism, but “Red,” John Logan’s new play about Rothko’s Great Thoughts On Art, masters the art of expressing ideas abstractly.

What does black mean? How does red make you feel?

Red’ is filled with the sort of psychodramatic goop that normally makes me want to drink paint thinner,” writes Ben Brantley, drama critic for The New York Times.

You know what normally makes me want to drink paint thinner? Reading articles about the corporate mission, vision and values statement. Like “Red,” these pieces usually express important ideas abstractly.

Instead, bring your mission statement to life. Show your values, don’t just tell about them. Illustrate your organization’s vision with drama, action and human interest — three qualities that are mostly missing from “Red.”

Turn ideas into things.

Study great dialogue.

Talk about natural dialogue. Some of the racially charged verbal battles in Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park” are so sharp and painful, I didn’t know where to look.

Crafting dialog that moves audience members is high art in playwriting. Crafting quotes that move readers is high art in business communications.

So why aren’t we better at it?

I can think of one reason: It’s because we study each other’s work. We get infected by that “We are pleased to announce …” virus that gets transmitted via press releases and news stories, and we can’t get well.

Here’s an idea: Let’s study great dialogue instead. Read Bruce Norris’ work — or any playwright whose dialogue moves you. Model the masters of compelling dialogue to make your own quotes more creative and engaging.

Mad about Manhattan

That’s it for this trip. But I’ll be back. In fact, I plan to return with a friend in November to walk Manhattan’s 13 miles, from tip to stern, in one day.

Make Your Copy More Creative

Want to master the art of making your copy more creative and compelling?

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“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

Reach Readers Online

Get the word out on the Web

There must be something in the water! Suddenly we’re getting several calls a week to write Web copy and otherwise help clients create or improve their websites.

My writing team couldn’t be happier, because we love the challenge of overcoming the obstacles of screen reading to get the word out on the Web. We’d love to help your group, too, with your online communications.

Right now, we’re writing Web copy for a new mini-site for EADS. We’re also working with Saint Luke’s Health System on its new site. We’re helping the Saint Luke’s team develop its new site, making it easier for visitors to navigate the site — and easier for communicators to write new Web pages.

In the past, we’ve written Web copy for such companies as:

  • American Century
  • GE ERC
  • H&R Block
  • Northern Trust
  • State Street/Kansas City

And I’ve provided Web writing training for such companies as:

  • BlueCross/Blue Shield
  • Drake University
  • FedEx
  • Life Technologies
  • Northwestern Memorial Hospital
  • Progressive Insurance
  • Tellabs
  • Verizon Wireless

These training programs have given me the chance to develop best practices in Web writing, which we’d love to bring to your Web project. So your website will Cut Through the ClutterLift Your Ideas Off the Page or Screen and Sell Products, Services and Ideas.

Learn more about our writing services.

How may we help you?

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“Numerals often stop the wandering eye and attract fixations, even when they’re embedded within a mass of words that users otherwise ignore. Digits enhance the scannability of Web content. It’s that simple.”
— Jakob Nielsen, usability expert

Do a number on your followers

Want your message to go viral? Use digits

Articles with numerals in their titles tend to be shared more on Facebook than stories without digits, according to research by viral marketing scientist Dan Zarrella. That’s one more reason to use numerals, not words, online.

Among others, according to usability expert Jakob Nielsen:

Yes, AP Style calls for spelling out one through nine. But the benefits of using numerals — at least online — may outweigh traditional usage standards.

Reach readers online

Want to master the art of writing for the Web?

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“I’ve been to a lot of writing seminars and this is, by far, the most effective. During the course of the day, I’ve applied Ann’s concepts to current writing projects — projects that will be much better because of today’s workshop.”

— Julie Hans, spokesperson, Progress Energy

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 9
  • Cleveland: May 20
  • Detroit: May 6
  • Lake of the Ozarks, Mo.: June 16
  • London: April 10-18
  • Portland, Ore.: Aug. 5-Sept. 13
  • Salt Lake City: May 8-10
  • San Francisco: June 17-22
  • Tacoma, Wash.: Aug. 11
  • Toronto: June 9
  • Washington, D.C.: June 30

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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