“An authentic haiku quietly shatters our discursive mind.”
— Robert Spiess, American haiku poet, in New and Selected Speculations on Haiku

Poetry in motion

New York City launches haiku street safety signs

Call it Curbside Haiku.

The New York City Department of Transportation has posted 144 new street safety signs with haiku and artwork by artist John Morse. There are 12 designs in all.


“Cyclist writes screenplay
Plot features bike lane drama
How pedestrian”

Why haiku?

Why use the traditional Japanese poetry form of five syllables/seven syllables/five syllables for safety messages?

“Poetry has a lot of power,” Morse tells NPR’s Scott Simon. “If you say to people: ‘Walk.’ ‘Don’t walk.’ Or, ‘Look both ways.’ If you can tweak it just a bit — and poetry does that — the device gives these simple words power.”

Haiku also cuts through the clutter of competing messages.

“There’s a lot of visual clutter … all around us,” Morse says. “So the idea is to bring something to the streetscape that might catch someone’s eye.”

Haiku generates response.

Plus, haiku engages audiences.

“One of the joys of doing this sort of thing is how many people have responded to it with their own haiku,” Morse says. “There’s just a plethora of haiku coming out. It’s so exciting.”

IN GOOD FORM New York City uses haiku to communicate safety messages.

Indeed. Gothamist writes:

“DOT uses
Money from drunk driver fines
To buy new haikus!”

The Week’s readers respond:

“While reading the sign,
I walked into the post. Ow.
Irony flattens.”

NPR listeners write back:

“Only in New York —
Poetic signs in motion.
Slow down; look both ways.”

Then there’s this one:

“Somebody stop me
From compulsively penning
These third-rate haiku.”

The New York DOT is selling the posters, and they’re fabulous. (FYI: My birthday is Feb. 13, and I need word-based art for my new office …)

Six ways to get the word out in 17 syllables

How can you communicate with haiku? Use the traditional Japanese poetic form to:

1. Announce news. Jonathan Schwartz, chief executive of Sun Microsystems, announced his resignation on Twitter with a haiku:

“Financial crisis
Stalled too many customers
CEO no more.”

Get more inspiration for your announcements at Daily News Haiku and Nuvo.

2. Present tips. Heather Lloyd Martin of SuccessWorks offers these SEO copywriting tips in haiku:

“Don’t ‘write for engines’
Google doesn’t buy from you
But your prospects do.”

And Entergy’s Chris Smith offers haiku editing advice.

3. Write blog posts. Find inspiration at Office HaikuThe Day-to-Day Haiku Project,The Red Wine Haiku Review and others.

4. Let Web visitors down lightly. David Dixon won Salon’s Haiku Error Messages challenge with this verse:

“Three things are certain:
Death, taxes, and lost data.
Guess which has occurred.”

5. Write executive quotes. New York writer and blogger Grace arranged Charlie Sheen’s quotes into haiku:

“I got tiger blood,
man. Dying’s for fools, dying
is for amateurs.”

Why not do the same for your subjects?

6. Develop PR pitches. Jennifer Boulden, PR pro at Fort Smith, Ark., Convention & Visitors Bureau, offers this pitch:

“Fort Smith, Arkansas:
Outlaws, hangings, prostitutes.
Bad guys, great stories.”

Write in and win.

What can you accomplish in 17 syllables? Send us your best writing tips in haiku by Feb. 17. Winner gets an amazing prize.

Play with your words

Want to master the art of making your copy more creative and engaging through wordplay?

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“The universal principle of etymology in all languages: words are carried over from bodies and from the properties of bodies to express the things of the mind and spirit. The order of ideas must follow the order of things.”
— Giambattista Vico, Italian political philosopher & rhetorician

‘His severed head would suffice’

Extend ideas with etymology

One of the most creative twists of phrase I’ve ever seen came straight from some good dictionary research. The story: “The Big No,” Steven Wright’s Esquire piece about the suicide of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain.

WORDS OF WISDOM Research the history of words to add depth and context to your copy.

Here’s the kicker:

“In Buddhist thought, to be alive is to be immersed in flame — the burning of the senses, the burning of the mind, the burning of desire. There is only one treatment for this painful condition we find ourselves in, this suffering life, and that is to extinguish the fire, to blow it out. From the Sanskrit ‘nir,’ or ‘out,’ plus ‘vati,’ or ‘it blows’: nirvana.”

Exploring etymology — looking into the meanings behind and origins of your key words — can give your copy depth and context.

Andrew Graham-Dixon used etymology to add additional layers of meaning and context to these three passages from Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane. His research brings new understanding to the word humility:

“In Caravaggio’s time wealthy members of certain religious confraternities emulated such venerable examples — clothing, feeding and washing the feet of poor pilgrims coming to Rome. To do so was quite literally to embrace humility, to lower the proud self to the ground in emulation of Christ. The Latin root of humilitas is the word humus, meaning ‘ground.’ The word ‘humble’ is part of the same linguistic family. To honour the foot is to honour the lowest part of the human body, and implicitly to humble the self in the sight of God.”

And to vulgar:

“Long after he had sold his own paintings, Borromeo continued to sponsor and support particular forms of popular Christian visual spectacle — events and phenomena that were literally ‘vulgar,’ in the sense of being aimed directly at thevulgus, the crowd, the general mass of people.”

And to capital punishment:

“The most serious penalty was reserved for Caravaggio. As well as being sentenced to indefinite exile from Rome, he was condemned as a murderer and made subject to a bando capitale, a ‘capital sentence.’ This meant that anyone in the papal states had the right to kill him with impunity; indeed there was a bounty for anyone who did so. The phrase meant exactly what was indicated by the etymology of its second word, derived from the Latin caput. To claim the reward, it would not be necessary to produce the painter’s body. His severed head would suffice.”

Conduct etymological research

Etymology comes from the Greek word etymon, meaning “a sense,” and logos, meaning “word.” To perform an etymological study:

1. Research etymological dictionaries. Here are some to try:

Or just Google “etymology of [your key word].”

2. Look up the root words of your topic. Explore the history and evolution of your key words.

3. Work with those words. Use what you’ve learned to develop more sophisticated copy.

As long as you promise to avoid the overused “Webster’s defines quality as yadda, yadda, yadda … ,” you can find some terrific material through etymological research.

Play with your words

Want to master the art of making your copy more creative and engaging through wordplay? Get the whole story in the latest issue of Rev Up Readership.

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“The rule for Web content is to keep it short. The rule for email content is to keep it ultra-short.”
— Jakob Nielsen, usability expert

Letter perfect

Three tips for writing engaging e-zine copy

The battle in the inbox is getting more antagonistic: The number of new or unread messages brawling for readers’ time has grown 300% since 2006, according to a study by usability expert Jakob Nielsen.

How can you compete in the clash to get your e-zine read?

1. Make it relevant.

The No. 1 reason people unsubscribe to e-zines: irrelevant content, according to Lyris. Some 67% of those surveyed said they quit an emailed newsletter because there was nothing in it for them, according to the #LyrisROI chat.

So find the WIIFM in your story. And don’t expect subscribers to stick around for a series of ads and updates about how great your organization is.

2. Don’t send it too often.

The No. 2 reason people unsubscribe? Because they receive emails too frequently. Some 64% of those surveyed said frequency was the problem with email subscriptions, according to Lyris.

3. Make it easy to scan.

Subscribers spend an average of 51 seconds on an e-zine, according to a study by usability expert Jakob Nielsen.

For email updates, the numbers are even more brutal: According to Lyris, people spend just 8 seconds on those.

To get the word out to these skimmers and scanners, lift your ideas off the page with scannable display copy.

Reach readers online

Want to get the word out on the Web?

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“I have no idea what readership is of written editorials, but it doesn’t come anywhere close to the readership of editorial cartoons.”
— Paul Conrad, political cartoonist

See what I mean

Cartoons increase understanding by 633%

Comics, cartoons and other techniques that combine words and pictures get more attention than text alone.

NOW YOU SEE IT Comics help people read, understand, remember and act on your messages — far more than text alone. COMIC BY BILL WYLIE

That was the finding of two University of Michigan professors in a 1996 study.

For the study, researchers C. Delp and J. Jones gave 234 patients who visited an emergency room with lacerations printed instructions for caring for their wounds at home.

  • Half of the patients received text only.
  • Half received the same text plus cartoons illustrating the information in the text.

Three days later, researchers called the patients and asked a series of questions to discover whether the patients read, understood and acted on the instructions.

Cartoons increase readership by 24%. The patients who’d received the cartoon instructions were more likely to have:

  • Read the instructions. Some 98% of those who’d received the cartoon instructions said they read them, compared with only 79% of those who’d received the text-only instructions. That’s a difference of 24%.
  • Understood the instructions. More than 45% of those who’d received the cartoon instructions answered all the questions correctly, compared to just 6% who’d received the text-only instructions. That’s a difference of 633%.
  • Acted on the instructions. More than three-quarters of those who’d received the cartoon instructions were compliant with daily wound care vs. about half of the text-only patients. That’s a difference of 43%.

Patients who had less than a high school education were even more likely to read, understand and act on the cartoons than their peers who’d received the text-only instructions.

Words + pictures can also help you:

Overcome information overload. Visualizations — from comics to cocktail napkin graphics to learning maps — are among a handful of ways to overcome information overload, according to “Preparing Messages for Information Overload Environments(PDF),” a report by the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) Research Foundation.

Get read — and re-read. The average comic book is read seven times by three people, according to Custom Comic Services.

“Comics are for re-reading, not reading,” says Art Spiegelman, an American comics artist best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning comic book memoir, Maus. “They’re harder not to read.”

Close the gap.

Despite this evidence, communicators rarely turn to comics, cartoons and other visualizations.

As Martin J. Eppler and Jeanne Mengis, researchers for IABC’s “Preparing Messages for Information Overload Environments” study, write: “We emphasize visual solutions because the IABC member survey showed a huge implementation gap in this area.”

How can you take advantage of this highly effective,
but often overlooked, power tool for communication?

Communicate With Comics.

Ready to try graphic storytelling for your communications?

I’ve recently teamed up with Bill Wylie, former Marvel Comics illustrator, to help organizations tell their stories and sell their messages through graphic storytelling. Let me know if we can help you get your message across with a:

  • Comic strip
  • Comic story
  • Comic book
  • Graphic novel
  • Cartoon
  • Caricature
  • Storyboard

Bill and I look forward to working with you to bring the power of words + pictures to your next campaign or communication.


Sources: Peter S. Houts, Cecilia C. Doak, Leonard G. Doak, Matthew J. Loscalzo, “The Role of Pictures in Improving Health Communication: A Review of Research on Attention, Comprehension, Recall, and Adherence” (PDF), Patient Education and Counseling, Vol. 61, 2006, pp.173-190.

C. Delp and J. Jones, “Communicating information to patients: the use of cartoon illustrations to improve comprehension of instructions,” Academy of Emergency Medicine, Vol. 3, 1996, pp. 264–70.

Dr. Pegie Stark Adam, Sara Quinn and Rick Edmonds, Eyetracking the News, The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, 2007

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“We want you to visit our State of Excitement often. Come again and again. But for heaven’s sake, don’t move here.”
— Tom McCall, then Oregon governor, in a 1971 interview

Headin’ West

Wylie Communications has moved

Wylie Communications has relocated to Portland, Ore., to pursue our love of pinot noir, the Pearl district and the Pacific Northwest landscape.

WHO MOVED MY OFFICE? Wylie Communications has moved to Portland, Ore.

You can now reach us at Wylie Communications Inc., 949 NW Overton, Ste. 1102, Portland, OR 97209.

After Feb. 10, our new phone number will be 503/954-2289.

In the Portland area? Ask us about our hometown discounts on training fees.

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“Ann Wylie is the Michelangelo of effective writing. [The workshop] was a blockbuster – I’d go back again and again.”
— David DeWitt, public information officer, State Fund

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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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:

  • Austin, Texas: April 19-20, Nov. 8
  • Bismark, N.D.: April 27
  • Boston: June 22, Aug. 7
  • Chicago: March 23, April 17, June 27
  • Columbus, Ohio: March 27
  • Green Bay, Wis.: Oct. 23
  • Kansas City, Mo.: April 11, July 31, Christmas week
  • Memphis, Tenn.: Feb. 21-23
  • Nashville, Tenn.: May 3
  • Raleigh-Durham, N.C.: March 13
  • San Diego: May 4
  • Sonoma County, Calif.: Nov. 2-5

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

Contact me to discuss piggybacking.

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The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:

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