“In God we trust, all others bring data.”
— W. Edwards Deming, U.S. quality guru

Measure what matters

Hint — It’s not page views

I got into a little Twitter tiff — is that a Twiff? — with an SEO expert recently after I suggested in a conference workshop that writers optimize for humans first and Google second.

Measure what matters

The eyes have it. Or do they? Does a higher page view time mean visitors were more engaged? Or that you hid what they were looking for? Or that they left their browsers open to your page when they stepped out for a sandwich? We don’t know. Image by Stuart Williams: http://bit.ly/QtRAjA

“You don’t want humans to be turned off by overly ‘optimized’ copy after they find your Web page on Google,” I counseled.

I’ll spare you the back and forth. But the SEO expert finally concluded: “Page views don’t care how well your Web page is written!”

Page views also, I pointed out, never bought a product, voted in an election or changed their behavior to help an organization achieve its business goals.

‘Because it’s there.’

The truth is, we measure click-through rates, page views and page view time for the same reason George Mallory took on Mount Everest: because they’re there.

But without more information, we don’t really know what these measures mean.

Take page view time. If someone spends more time on a Web page, is that because they were engaged? Or because they couldn’t find what they were looking for quickly? Or because your copy was so long and complex that it took more time to read it?

Page view time doesn’t answer that question.

It’s worth noting that in the prehistoric days before Google Analytics — I know: dinosaurs — readability researchers gave more points to prose that took less time to read. That’s because they believed that the faster someone could read a piece, the more clearly it was written.

When it comes to measuring the effectiveness of their communication vehicles, far too many communicators spend tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours year after year to measure:

  • Whether readers clicked through, visited a page or stayed awhile
  • Whether they preferred headlines in blue or in red
  • Whether they liked the picture of the CEO in his suit coat or would prefer to see him in shirtsleeves
  • Whether they read to the end of the 800-word story on the future of the industry or stopped after skimming the display copy

That’s not to say that these measures have no value. They do. They can help you learn how to better appeal to your audience. They can even help you establish a link between your communication vehicle and the organization’s success.

The bottom line is the bottom line.

But so many communicators stop the evaluation process at measuring readership, clickership and viewership that it’s worth saying again: The bottom line is never, in any organization, good communication. The bottom line, as people much wiser than I have said, is the bottom line.

After all, the best way to increase intranet page views might be to share up-to-the-minute sports scores, weekend weather reports and employee cafeteria lunch menus. Who wouldn’t rather ponder the merits of green-chile enchiladas than read the CEO’s message?

The key is to measure what’s important. This goes back to the purpose of your communication vehicle. The purpose isn’t to get read or even to be liked. The purpose is to help the organization achieve its business objectives.

That means communication measurement seeks to answer one question and one question only: Did your communication vehicle help your organization achieve its goals?

To find the answer:

  • Revisit your business goals
  • Determine whether the company achieved those goals
  • Find a link between your communication vehicle and business success

Another day, another conference …

Months after my Twiff, I repeated my SEO advice to a group of communicators at IABC Lincoln.

This time, a participant shared that the university he works for can draw a straight line between the amount of time people report spending with the alumni magazine and the amount of money they contribute to the school. Does that not argue for “page view time,” he asked.

Maybe, I said. I don’t know.

  • Are big-check-writing alums reading the magazine, finding in it a great reason to support the school, then writing a big check? Could be.
  • Are big-check-writing alums ardent fans of the university? And does that make them more likely to read the magazine carefully? Possibly.
  • Are big-check-writing alums older? Retired? Do they have more time to read the magazine? Are they, demographically, more likely to engage in print? Maybe.
  • Are big-check-writing alums ardent fans of the university, and so more likely to be embarrassed to reveal in a readership survey that they’ve actually never opened the magazine? Perhaps.

But, I said, you have two promising data points there. Let’s do the research we need to connect these dots. By doing so, we might learn more about how to use the magazine and other school communications to move the needle on the bottom line.

Move the needle on the bottom line.

Of course, no one person, communication vehicle or department can ever honestly claim credit for an organization’s successes. But what you can do is show a link between your efforts and your organization’s accomplishments.

Making that link — and not increasing page views — is the most important thing you can do to move up your organization’s food chain.

Plan powerful communications

Want to master the art of effective communication planning?

Back to top

“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

Polish your online road signs

Write links that tell visitors where they’re going

If you saw a road sign that said, “go here,” “drive more” or “road sign,” would you follow it? Probably not.

Online link writing

Say what? Don’t confuse your audience members. Write complete, descriptive links that stand on their own. Image by Helena Perez Garcia: http://bit.ly/1gHACse

And if you saw a link that said, “click here,” “read more” or “link,” would you click it? Probably not.

Think of your link as a road sign. Like a road sign, the best links are clear, complete and self-contained.

“Links should have good information scent,” writes Marieke McCloskey, a user experience specialist with Nielsen Norman Group. “That is, they must clearly explain where they will take users.”

1. Make them stand on their own.

When your links are too short or incomplete, readers have to go back and read the surrounding words to understand the link. But readers should be able to understand your link without reading the rest of the text.

So write links that stand on their own. What would you say in the link if you knew it was all the customer would see?

After all, you wouldn’t click links these links without knowing more about them, would you?

  • Video
  • Piece
  • Says
  • Covered
  • Too Much
  • Karl Deisseroth
  • Weed
Weakest links

The weakest links Write links that stand on their own. These links are so short, the reader needs to read more to understand them.

2. Use the words in your readers’ heads.

Not the words in your head.

Web visitors found the information they were looking for 72% of the time when the words in their head — aka “trigger words” — appeared on the Web page, according to a study by User Interface Engineering.

But when those trigger words didn’t appear on the Web page, visitors found what they were looking for only 6% of the time. That means the ROI on familiar words, at least in this study, was 1,200%.

This isn’t the first time short, familiar words have trumped their opposites in research. High-frequency words (those that are used often and so are familiar) and short words are easier for readers to recognize and understand than unfamiliar or long words, according to classic research by linguist George Kingsley Zipf.

To use the words in your readers’ heads:

  • Don’t use product names or other internal terms as links. Instead of “Rosetta Stone,” writes Stacey Wilson, president of Eloquor Consulting, call it “language learning modules.”
  • Choose short words. They’re easier to process and understand.
  • Spell out acronyms, abbreviations and initialisms, suggests Jakob Nielsen, principal of the Nielsen Norman Group. This is helpful for all users, especially for those using screen readers. Exceptions: Abbreviations like DVD that have become widely used words.

3. Front-load the topic word.

Web visitors usually read just the first two words of a link, according to research by the Nielsen Norman Group.

That means the best links start with the most important words, writes Marieke McCloskey, a user experience specialist with Nielsen Norman Group.

So front-load your links with the topic word.

Instead of Read the new issue of Rev Up Readership, for instance, McCloskey would have you write, Read the new issue of Rev Up Readership.

So drop from your link, McCloskey suggests, words like:

  • Read more about who we are
  • Read the latest issue
  • View more videos
  • Visit the answers website

And if product or division named include the company name, drop it, Nielsen suggests. Instead of FedEx Express, FedEx Ground, FedEx Home Delivery, for instance, write Express, Ground and Home Delivery.

4. Place links at the ends of sentences.

That’s less disruptive to reading, writes Jan H. Spyridakis, professor at the University of Washington College of Engineering.

5. Don’t repeat link text.

When users see the same link text twice on the same page, McCloskey reports, they assume that both go to the same place. So if the second link refers to a different page, write a unique link.

Sources: Marieke McCloskey, “Writing Hyperlinks: Salient, Descriptive, Start with Keyword,” Nielsen Norman Group, March 9, 2014

Jared M. Spool, “The Right Trigger Words,” User Interface Engineering, Nov. 15, 2004

Jan H. Spyridakis, “Guidelines for Authoring Comprehensible Web Pages and Evaluating Their Success” (PDF), Technical Communications, August 2000

G.K. Zipf, Human behavior and the principle of least effort; Addison-Wesley (Reading, Mass.), 1949

Gerry McGovern, “Tips for writing great links,” New Thinking, Jan. 22, 2012

Get the Word Out On the Web

When reading on the screen, your audience members suffer physical ailments ranging from double vision to nausea to difficulty thinking. No wonder people avoid reading online!

In Catch Your Readers, my two-day Master Class in Portland, Ore., on July 23-24, you’ll discover how to make your Web pages, intranet articles, blog postings, tweets and status updates more relevant, valuable and interesting to your readers. And you’ll learn a six-step process for writing copy that overcomes the obstacles of online reading.

Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

  • Increase usability by 124% with three simple copywriting steps
  • Determine how long your Web page should be. (Beware: Many page-length recommendations are based on outdated research)
  • Apply the 30-3-30-3 rule to give online readers what they’re looking for
  • Use the 70-20-10 rule to make sure your status updates are welcome guests, not intrusive pests
  • Steal from the FBI. Write dramatic, compelling status updates that draw followers and get clicks

Register Now

Back to top

“Write for the expert, but write so the non-expert can understand.”
— Bernard Kilgore, celebrated Wall Street Journal editor

What would Hemingway do?

Find out with this new app

Ever wonder how Ernest Hemingway, the master of tight prose, would have handled your annual report?

Papa Hemingway

Papa knows best The Hemingway app shows you how to make your copy clearer. Photo by William James; image courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives: http://bit.ly/1nuU7FE

Now you can find out.

Paste your copy into The Hemingway App, a creation of Adam Long and Ben Long, to find out:

Hemingway also suggests how you can fix these problems.

How did Ann do?

I pasted my Measure the Fog post into The Hemingway App and learned that one of my sentences was hard to read. Hemingway recommended using fewer words or cutting this sentence in two:

“In a story, clutter – too many words – can mask the great quotes, the stunning twists of phrase and the dynamic anecdotes — just as the dull rock can mask the opal.”

Hell, yeah, Hemingway! I’m a passionate dasher from way back, but even I have to admit that three dashes in one sentence is not dashing.

Hemingway also flagged this instance of the passive voice:

“Think about how opals are made.”

Good point! But Hemingway suggested fixing it by writing, “Think about how [Someone] made opals.”

Hell, no, Hemingway! But now that you mention it, I am willing to activate the passive with: “Think about how opals form.”

What would Hemingway do

WWHD? The Hemingway App highlights passages that are hard to read and makes suggestions for improving them.

Bottom line: My post weighed in at the fifth-grade level. Hemingway says that’s “Good.”

Thank you, Papa.

How did you do?

Give the Hemingway app a whirl. I’d love to hear how it worked for you … and what changes you made based on Hemingway’s advice.

Write For Readability workshop

More than 60 years of research shows that making your copy easier to read improves:

  • Readership: More people read the piece.
  • Perseverance: People read more of it.
  • Comprehension: They understand it better.
  • Speed: They read faster.
  • Retention: They remember it longer.

In our Write For Readability workshop, you’ll learn:

  • The top 2 ways to increase readability
  • 4 components of more readable messages
  • 7 steps for making your copy easier to read
  • 6 tips for increasing comprehension
  • 9 tools for measuring, managing and reporting reading ease
  • 3 bonus tips for boosting readability

Want to bring a Write for Readability workshop to your team? Contact Ann to schedule your program.

Back to top

“In all perfectly beautiful objects there is found the opposition of one part to another and a reciprocal balance.”
— John Ruskin, English author, poet, artist and critic

Balance and power

Friction gives parallelism its punch

During my career as a freelance magazine writer, I interviewed some fascinating people: Robert Redford, Brad Pitt and George Clooney among them. But my favorite subject was Bill Shapiro, NPR’s first and possibly only rock ‘n’ roll lawyer.

Balance and power

On balance Parallelism gets its power from the friction between similarity and difference. Image by Viewminder: http://bit.ly/1i9etyO

When he was in school, Shapiro’s father convinced him to become an attorney by day. But young Bill’s first Elvis sighting compelled him to host a radio show, NPR’s Cyprus Avenue, by night. Here’s the kicker:

“Shapiro plans to stick with his law practice, radio show and books and hope that they all continue to grow. He’ll remain a rock ‘n’ roll lawyer — a D.J. with a J.D., a tax attorney who cares more for compact discs than certificates of deposit — the son of his father, but the godchild of the King.

Seek balance.

The sound you’re hearing in that passage is called balance. Also known as parallelism, balance works because of the rub between similarity and difference.

“The power of the language, the punch, comes from the friction between parallel elements,” writes Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at The Poynter Institute.

At first glance, these two balanced phrases seem similar. By definition, for instance, parallelism means their structures are virtually the same:

the blank of his blank
the blank of the blank.

Dig deeper, though, and you start to find differences.

Word length, for instance, flips, then flops. Son has one syllable; godchild has two. Father has two syllables; King has one. Now that you mention it, Roy, flipping the longer and shorter words does help give this passage its rhythm.

Where’s the rub?

Clark suggests finding friction in balance from:

  • Length of words, phrases and sentences
  • Poetics, which he describes as “flow vs. stop”
  • Semantics, or the meanings of the words
  • Connotation, or the idea or feeling the word invokes aside from its literal or primary meaning

What friction can you spot in these parallel passages?

Poetics. In The Goldfinch, novelist Donna Tartt writes:

“And the flavor of Pippa’s kiss — bittersweet and strange — stayed with me all the way back uptown, swaying and sleepy as I sailed home on the bus, melting with sorrow and loveliness, a starry ache that lifted me up above the windswept city like a kite: my head in the rainclouds, my heart in the sky.”

Here, we can hear the rhythm of the two-syllable rainclouds followed by the one-syllable sky.
Semantics. Oscar Wilde, Irish writer, poet and playwright, said:

“Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.”

Substituting the “n” for the “r” in wherever totally changes the meaning in this passage. The first is a person you can’t wait to see; the second is someone you can’t wait to get rid of.

In Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff writes:

“As no stone portrait of her has yet proved authentic, André Malraux’s quip remains partly true: ‘Nefertiti is a face without a queen; Cleopatra is a queen without a face.'”

Flipping the nouns in the object phrase transform this simple observation into an elegant idea.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning “biography of cancer,” The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee writes:

Every drug, the sixteenth-century physician Paracelsus once opined, is a poison in disguise. Cancer chemotherapy, consumed by its fiery obsession to obliterate the cancer cell, found its roots in the obverse logic: every poison might be a drug in disguise.”

Flipping the subject and object gives the final phrase in this passage a whole new meaning.

Finally, I’ll end with a note from my brilliant proofreader, Chris Smith. His late father used to quote Bill Earle’s twice-balanced quip about budgeting:

“If your outgo exceeds your income,
then your upkeep will be your downfall.”

May writing contest: Now you try it. Send me your most effective balanced phrase by May 30. If your entry is the best, I’ll send you my favorite wordplay-themed gift.

Play With Your Words workshop

Wordplay can help you captivate your readers, get the media to steal your sound bites and make your messages more memorable. The good news is that wordplay doesn’t take talent. It doesn’t take creativity. Instead, it takes techniques, tricks and time.

In Catch Your Readers, my two-day Master Class in Portland, Ore., on July 23-24, you’ll learn techniques you can use to come up with the best headlines, leads and sound bites you’ve ever written. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

  • Go beyond twist of phrase to diversify your wordplay. Soon, you’ll be flipping phrases; compressing details; subbing soundalikes; listing, rhyming and twisting — even coining new words. The more techniques you master, the more sophisticated and satisfying your copy will be.
  • Work your word tools. There are so many great online resources for wordplay, busy writers need hardly trouble their pretty heads to write dazzlers. In this session, you’ll get links to some of the best sources — as well as ideas for how to use them.
  • Get inspired by some of the world’s most creative headlines.
  • Lead better brainstorming sessions. You’ll learn a simple step to add to the process that will help your group dream up more bright ideas.
  • Stop writing groaners. Are you still cranking out clichés and -ing headlines? Learn techniques that let you come up with surprising lines — and leave the boring approaches to the hacks

Register Now

Back to top

“I once watched my future wife (then colleague) disembowel a news release, striking through all the adverbs, adjectives and nonsense. When she was done, it was five sentences and a boilerplate. It was love at first write.”
— Nancy L. Banks, senior manager of Strategic Planning for Toyota Motor North America, Inc.

Change meaning with modifiers

Readers ‘kill me softly’

Use modifiers to change meaning, counsels The Poynter Institute’s Roy Peter Clark, not to intensify it.

Uneasy listening

Uneasy listening Modifiers make readers’ eyes glaze over. Use modifiers to change meaning, not to reinforce it.

“‘Killing Me Softly’?” he writes. “Good adverb. ‘Killing Me Fiercely’? Bad adverb.”

So, in a recent writing contest, I asked you to show us how it’s done. Two of you took me up on the challenge.

‘Gently ransacked’

Barbara Scanlan, principal of Scanlan Creative, described Iditarod sled dog teams facing snowless conditions on the Alaska Range:

“The dogs ran along at record speeds, while the sleds, often with brakes and runners worn out, bounced helplessly behind them.”

And Amy Bridges, manager of sales proposals and RFP support for Sabre Travel Network, submitted this entry:

“The conscientious copy editor gently ransacked her confidence with every ‘Track Changes’ slash and smash.”

Barbara, your submission is beautiful. But I can’t resist your topic, Amy. Congratulations, and watch your mailbox for Words on Words, a favorite tome by my late, great copyediting teacher, John Bremner.

And thank you both for playing.

Back to top

“I’ve been doing this ‘PR thing’ for almost 30 years now and always learn from your e-zine. You see, you can teach a 52-year-old dog new tricks!”
— Michael John, director, Corporate Communications, USIS

Meet me at Google+

Would you like to explore new ways to get tips, enter writing contests, network with other members and reach Ann?

If so, join us on Wylie Communications Inc.’s new social media channels:

We look forward to hearing what you think about these channels. In the meantime, we look forward to “seeing” you on LinkedIn, Google+, Facebook and Twitter!

Back to top

“Wonderful! I’d sit in this session 10 more times.”
— Jazmine Maddox, communication specialist, The Weather Company

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.

Come along for the ride Catch Ann at one of her upcoming workshops.

But everyone’s invited to these upcoming public seminars in:

  • Anchorage on Aug. 6: Catch Your Readers, a half-day workshop for PRSA Alaska
  • New York City on Dec. 8: Catch Your Readers, a one-day workshop for PRSA
  • Portland, Ore., on July 23-24: Catch Your Readers, a two-day master class, open to the public
  • Salt Lake City on May 15: Think Like a Reader, a 90-minute preconference session, and Cut Through the Clutter, a 90-minute keynote, for the Salt Lake City PRSA chapter’s Spring Conference
  • Tacoma on Aug. 20: Catch Your Readers, a half-day workshop for PRSA Puget Sound
  • Toronto on June 8-11: Go Beyond the Inverted Pyramid, a breakout session for the IABC World Conference
  • Your own home or office on June 3: Content Marketing Writing, a one-hour webinar for PRSA

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.

Back to top

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: Aug. 6
  • New York City: June 23-24, June 26, & Dec. 8
  • Portland, Ore.: May 8, & July 23-24
  • Philadelphia, Penn.: July 15
  • Richland, Wash.: May 22
  • Seattle: June 17-18
  • Salt Lake City: May 15
  • Tacoma: Aug. 20
  • Toronto: June 8-11

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

Contact me to discuss piggybacking.

Back to top

What are we up to?

The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:

Back to top

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.

Back to top

Let’s connect

Keep in touch via:

Back to top

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!

Back to top

For more info …

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

Back to top