“No matter what happens,
somebody will find a way to take it too seriously.”
— Dave Barry, Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated humor columnist

Make ’em laugh

Three ways to get more humor into your writing

“I learned quickly that when I made others laugh, they liked me. This lesson I will never forget.”

— Art Buchwald, American humorist and Washington Post columnist

Humor gets attention, makes a message go down easier and helps people understand information faster and remember it longer.

It even makes you sexier.

What are you waiting for? Here are three ways to get more humor into your communications.

1. Extend a list.

In Eat the Rich, P.J. O’Rourke finds humor by extending a quote by Winston Churchill:

“Russia is a ‘riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, tied in a hankie, rolled in a blanket and packed in a box full of little Styrofoam peanuts,’ said Winston Churchill, or something like that.”

Starting with a familiar series? Just keep adding items in escalating order of ridiculousness.

2. Substitute soundalikes.

When Men’s Health covered the news that chocolate might be even healthier than we thought, editors wrote this headline:

Avoid Death, Buy Chocolate

We know. Puns can be … punny. But they can also be funny. Use homophones lightly to make readers smile, not gag.

3. Flip a negative word.

Negative words that have no positives offer humor potential. Think debunk, disdain, disgruntled and inane. Now make them positive.

That’s what writer James Wolcott did in this passage of “Caution: Women Seething” for Vanity Fair:

“There’s something about Susan Estrich — some ineffable quality that, should it ever become effable, would peel paint off battleships — that annoys people of all faiths and political creeds.”

Use this list of Negatives Without Positives from Fun With Words to flip some negative words of your own.

Make fun

Want to make your copy more amusing?

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“Keep it short from the initial conception. You can write a haiku faster than a sonnet, a sonnet faster than an epic.”
— Roy Peter Clark, Poynter Institute senior scholar

Hit your number

Why write a thesis when what you need is a tweet?

As a reality TV superfan, I’ve learned a lot about writing from “Project Runway” episodes.

For one thing, time management counts. The most talented designers sometimes trip over deadlines: If your model walks down the runway in a bra and a button, you’re going home no matter how brilliant your sketch looked.

The same thing’s true in writing. It’s what you deliver — on deadline — that counts.

One way to write better, easier and faster, then, is not to overdesign. A big piece of time management boils down to knowing whether you’re creating a wedding gown or a shift, a dissertation or a direct mail letter.

Hitting your number — aka writing to length — can save you an enormous amount of time. So instead of overwriting, then underwriting, map out a plan for the length of your piece before you write a single word.

1. Budget your word count.

To write to length, start with your assigned word count. Then allocate a word count to each section of your piece.

2. Map out your story.

Now determine how you’re going to use those words — which statistics, success stories and other facts and ideas will make up each paragraph.

At this point, you’ll start to see that some things won’t fit. I call this “editing before you write,” because it allows you to make most of your decisions about what goes in and what stays out before you write the first word.

The alternative: Burning time writing everything, then burning more time cutting elements after you’ve already written them.

3. Track your budget.

Once you start writing, check your word count after you finish each section. That lets you know how well you’re spending your words and whether you have more or fewer words than budgeted for the next sections.

Count me in

I don’t claim that this system allows me to hit the word count perfectly on each piece I write. But I come pretty close — plus or minus 10 percent, maybe.

Over the course of my career, that’s saved me hundreds and hundreds of hours of overwriting, then cutting. That’s certainly more time by far than I’ve invested in mapping out my pieces before I write.

Write better, easier and faster

Want more techniques for writing more efficiently and effectively?

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“A vision without a plan is just a hallucination.”
— Atkinson PR’s Adage No. 1

Portion control

Let audience members target themselves

I once worked with an education advocacy group that blanketed all of its audience members with the same communications.

  • Teachers got the same information as students.
  • Community members got the same messages as administrators.
  • The mother of Billy the third-grader got the same level of detail as Washingtonian policy wonks.

The problem is, the broader your audience, the more trouble you’ll have reaching audience members effectively.  In communications, as in so much else in life, the problem with trying to reach everybody at once is that you too often reach nobody at all.

So you need to segment your audience, offering relevant information — and only relevant information — to each subsection of your targeted groups.

The Web makes it easier than ever to segment your audiences. Here are three ways to segment your content and let audience members target themselves:

1. Offer streams for different segments.

A person who lives on the north side of town doesn’t want to get tweets about south-side bridge closings. But those affected by the closings can’t get enough.

Discrete Facebook and Twitter streams let followers and fans get what they want — and not what they don’t.

2. Invite visitors to subscribe to e-zines of interest.

At Poynteronline, I’ve signed up to get emailed updates on design, writing and editing and online communications. But I don’t ever want to get anything about photography, broadcast news or — heaven forbid — ethics.

3. Organize your website by audience groups.

You might structure your site into sections for:

  • Doctors who prescribe your drug — and patients who take it
  • Financial professionals — and individual investors
  • Mothers of toddlers — and mothers of teens
  • People shopping for insurance after having their first child — and those shopping for insurance after getting their first divorce

Don’t skip segmentation.

However you handle segmentation, it’s essential.

For one thing, it helps you battle information overload. Give readers information that’s relevant to them — and don’t bury them in irrelevant details — and your communications will be a lot more effective.

Reach readers with social media

Would you like to learn more about how to write blog postings, tweets and Facebook status updates that are relevant, valuable and interesting to your readers? If so, please join me at PRSA’s Sept. 9 webinar, “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 liked and retweeted. Proven-in-the-lab techniques for expanding your reach and influence on Facebook and 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.

Learn about my other upcoming webinars.

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“Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle. That’s the intellectual environment of the Internet.”
— Nicholas Carr,
author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

Driven to distraction

The Web makes it hard to … um … concentrate online

Most Americans spend at least 8.5 hours a day looking at a screen, whether a TV set, computer monitor or mobile device, according to a study by Ball State University (PDF). Frequently, we use two or three of these devices at once.

That multitasking costs. According to a study by Stanford University, heavy multitaskers:

  • Are more easily distracted by “irrelevant environmental stimuli”
  • Have much less control over their working memory
  • Are much less able to maintain their concentration on a particular task

Now, where was I going with this? Oh, yes.

“The Net is, by design, an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention,” writes Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

As we “power browse” a dozen Web pages at once, check our email 30 or 40 times an hour and text while driving, we become “distracted from distraction by distraction.”

So don’t count on your Web visitors being all there when they show up on your Web page.

“Psychological research long ago proved what most of us know from experience: frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and anxious,” Carr writes. “The more complex the train of thought we’re involved in, the greater the impairment the distractions cause.”

Now … are you sure the Web is the best medium for your thought piece on the future of the industry, the CEO’s vision for the future or the company’s five-year plan?

Deliver ideas in print, nuggets of data online.


Source: Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, W. W. Norton & Company, 2010

Get the word out on the Web

Want to reach distracted visitors online?

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“Since working with Ann, I’ve been recommending that every communication team have an outside professional come in and critique its work. It’s really an asset in developing your publication.”
— Shaughn Jarvis, Accenture

Make the grade

Get a report card on your writing

Too often, the job of producing communications leaves little time for considering what you’re doing well and what opportunities you have for improvement. Our writing report card can help.

Send us a sample of your work, and we’ll send you a report card on its strengths and weaknesses, plus more than two dozen metrics for improvement. Your report card will help you:

  • Increase readability
  • Lift your ideas off the page with scannable copy
  • Polish your headlines, links and other display copy
  • Otherwise improve your writing

Ask for a report card on Web writing, persuasive writing or other writing.

Wylie Communications president Ann Wylie — whose own communications have earned more than 60 awards, including two Gold Quills — will review your work.

STRAIGHT A's. Get a report card covering more than two dozen metrics on your writing. Learn techniques you can apply today to improve your grade: Bit.ly/WritingReportCard

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“Absolutely fantastic! I’d highly recommend it to anyone writing for business. My undergraduate degree is in journalism, and I learned tons.”
— Kate Dixon, director, Compensation Programs, Nike

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
  • Franklin Lakes, N.J.: Oct. 12
  • Hershey, Pa.: Oct. 7
  • Kansas City, Mo.: March 3
  • Memphis: Nov. 18
  • New York: Nov. 5
  • Pittsburgh: Oct. 28
  • Warren, N.J.: Oct. 13
  • Washington, D.C.: Oct. 17, Nov. 9-10

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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What are we up to?

The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:

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Let’s connect

Keep in touch via:

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Keep up with my calendar

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.

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For more info

… about my seminars, publication consulting or writing and editing services, please contact me or visit my website.

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Please share this issue

… with two of your colleagues by directing them to our current issue. Better yet, invite them to subscribe to Wylie’s Writing Tips. They’ll thank you — and so will I!

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